Tag Archives: Levi-Strauss

Culture is for the birds…and the bees…and the dolphins, etc.

I guess I’m not surprised the idea of nonhuman cultures still generates disquiet for some cultural anthropologists. But I was a bit taken aback that this long-running argument seemed to be news. After all, there are recent ethnographic examples of what this looks like: Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut characterize their book, Buzz, as “an api-ethnography that considers bees as cultured beings that traffic between worlds of the hive and of the urban landscape” (2013:36), taking “the subjective experience of bees” as one of their foci as they work to interpret bees’ behavior. Somewhat less boldly, Colin Jerolmack’s The Global Pigeon (2013) depicts these birds as part of the social interactional order of public space; though he maintains them at the center of his ethnographic analysis, arguing, by the way, that “pigeons partly domesticated themselves” (9) in colonizing urban space. And of course there’s Eduardo Kohn’s, How Forests Think, winner of the 2014 Gregory Bateson Prize.

But in response to the question about the theoretical foundations for all of this, I’m quite ready to go beyond anthropologist and primatologists like Raymond Corbey and Frans de Waal who’ve been making this case for years. I’m more interested in how nonhuman cultures are being documented and analyzed by natural scientists, because their work opens up new spaces for theorizing culture “beyond the human.” Continue reading

Vale Stanley Tambiah

It was with a genuine sense of loss that I read over the weekend that Stanley Tambiah had passed away. Tambiah was a model anthropologist, a person whose personal life and work exemplified everything that our discipline can and should be. He was an area studies specialist whose monographs on life in rural Thailand expanded our ethnography of this area. He was a theorist who knit together British and American theories of symbolism and ritual at a key point in anthropological theory. And he also became a public intellectual who published substantive work on pressing issues of the day in books and articles about ethnic violence in India and Sri Lanka. Above all, he will be remembered by his colleagues as role model of the generous scholar and human being. His generosity, kindness, and humility seemed to combine the best of all the different cultures he lived in, from English gentleman to humble Buddhist to Sri Lankan Christian. His loss gives us a chance to reflect on the values he lived and that we, in turn, ought to continue to follow. Continue reading

Additional coverage of Lévi-Strauss

Just a quick update of some highlights of recent coverage on the passing of Lévi-Strauss:

In addition to the New York Times, there are fine obituaries in The Telegraph, and The Guardian — I’ll get to the French papers later if I have a chance.

There is a fine gaggle of links at The Atlantic.

The AAA blog has run a couple of pieces about Lévi-Strauss, including one by Richard Price. There is also an older posting from Marshall Sahlins, which is, obviously, a much better summary of Lévi-Strauss’s thought and relevance than mine. And written by someone who should know, so check it out.

There is a lot of Lévi-Strauss’s writing circulating around the web, including a great collection of pieces he wrote for UNESCO (some of them you will recognize as versions of longer, more famous essays). Perhaps best of all, his little gem Father Christmas Executed is available as a pdf. If you’ve never read any Lévi-Strauss at all, this fun short piece (with both diachronic and synchronic perspectives, and a zinger of an ending) is a good place to start.

Remembering Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Internet is now full of the news that Lévi-Strauss has passed away, including an obituary at the New York Times and a collection of links at the AAA blog. Our blog — whose name is inspired by Lévi-Strauss — has discussed him in the past including some thoughts about his legacy on his 100th birthday. Many people have already shared their memories of him but what are we who never met him supposed to remember of his legacy? Perhaps it is time to be overly schematic and pare down the paeans to something more manageable for those who may be reading the news but find much of the veneration impenetrable. What, specifically, has Lévi-Strauss taught us? These are, to me, the things to take away from Lévi-Strauss’s writings:

First, Lévi-Strauss taught us that culture is a force in its own right. The idea that arbitrary and conventional systems of meaning are sui generis and have a determining force on our lives is one that is continually under assaults from various forms of reductionism. And yet Lévi-Strauss demonstrated forcefully and for all to see that the embarrassment of cultural riches found at our fingertips cannot be explained away as a result of protein or rational choice theory. Of course, we now have a much stronger understanding of how cultures work in practice than Lévi-Strauss had. But at a time when his work was interpreted at ‘intellectualist’ and people thought the etiolated visions of second-stringers like Marvin Harris were the ‘future of anthropology’, Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that it was impossible to ignore the power of culture.

Second, Lévi-Strauss taught us connoisseurship of culture. He treated cultures like works of art, and was in many sense the first person to analyze them — really analyze them — with the care that they deserved. Even today, when concrete analysis of culture has fallen by the wayside in the name of ‘theory’, Lévi-Strauss remains the great exemplar of how anthropologists work with cultural materials. The sources of his connoisseurship are varied — art appreciation, a French belle lettristic tradition, Boasian particularism — but there is no doubt that he was more or less single-handedly responsible for creating a mode of anthropological analysis that, while not universally practiced in our discipline, served both to create a distinct anthropological voice while demonstrating our utility and accessibility to other disciplines. Simply put, Lévi-Strauss taught us how to work with ethnographic materials.

More than that, Lévi-Strauss taught us to see anthropology as a work of art. He taught us that there was nothing wrong with writing beautifully — that in fact good analysis was itself beautiful, that its power to disclose new imaginative horizons was the result of its rhetorical power. Not everyone thinks this was a good idea — some see Lévi-Strauss as a harbinger of unobjective postmodernism, while others just bemoan the poor quality of the tremendous about of derivative work that followed in his wake. Whatever your stance on his position, no one can disagree that he showed us what a rigorous, humanistic anthropology looked like.

Finally, Lévi-Strauss got the relationship between the general and the particular right. He taught us to see the universal in small details. Boasian in his obsession with details, he also lifted us up to the highest and most abstract levels of thought, using little more than the detail on a piece of lace or the curve on the edge of a mask. Anthropology has always been haunted by its fierce commitment to the particular even as it strikes out towards general accounts of human society. Lévi-Strauss somehow knitted together ethnographic minutiae, comparative scope, and transcendent theorizing. This isn’t really an act that the rest of us can follow, but it was a vision that inspired others, and continues to set the tone as future generations of anthropologists try to imagine their own futures.

Of course — and I think this needs to be said despite the fact that this is a time for reverence — there was a lot wrong with Lévi-Strauss. While some pieces on the web hail mythologiques as his masterpiece, for many people it was a disappointment. The man is handed the world on a platter and the piece he produces to lead us on was… this? Its power was undeniable, and his positions much more complex than characterizations of his thought often presume (Marcel Henaff’s book Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology is the best (and extremely sympathetic) overview of his work). But still — there are points in the final chapters of Tristes Tropiques where I feel like my soul is being twisted by some titanic power to agree with a vision of the world that I find not just wrong but disturbing. His attempts to fit history and agency into his theoretical framework in his Introduction To The Work of Marcel Mauss always seemed painful and awkward to me. Nevertheless, the headlines are right — with Lévi-Strauss’s passing the world is watching one of its greatest intellectual move on. Will this spark a spate of fevered rereadings of Way of the Masks? Probably not — and we are probably worse off for it. And so now at the time of his passing we should celebrate him as he takes his leave from us to attain what is well and truly his regard éloignée.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2009

From: Lydia Robin

Mes chers collègues,

J’ai la tristesse de vous annoncer la disparition de notre collègue Claude Lévi-Strauss, dans sa 101ème année.

Nous aurons prochainement l’occasion de nous retrouver pour lui rendre hommage.

Je vous prie de croire, mes chers collègues, en l’assurance de mes sentiments amicaux.

François Weil

Lydia Robin
Secrétariat de la présidence

Claude dit:

And yet, it seems that the diversity of cultures has rarely appeared to men for what it is:  a natural phenomenon, resulting from the direct or indirect relationships between societies.  They rather tended to see in it a sort of monstrosity or scandal…

This mode of thought by which the “savages” (or all those one chooses to qualify as such) are rejected outside mankind, is precisely the most marked and characteristic of these very savages themselves… Mankind stops at the frontiers of the tribe, of the linguistic group, and sometimes even of the village, to the extent that a great many of the peoples called primitive call themselves by a name which means “men” (or sometimes — shall we say with more discretion — the “good ones,” the “excellent ones,” the “complete ones,” thus implying that the other tribes, groups, and villages have no part in human virtues or even human nature, but are at the most made up of “bad people,” “nasty people,” “land monkeys,” or “lice eggs.”  One often goes so far as to deprive the stranger of this last shred of reality by making him a “ghost” or an “apparition.”  Thus curious situations are created in which two interlocutors proceed to cruel exchanges.  In the Greater Antilles, some years after the discovery of America, while the Spaniards sent out investigating commissions to ascertain whether or not the natives had a soul, the latter were engaged in the drowning of white prisoners in order to verify, through prolonged watching, whether or not their corpses were subject to putrefaction.

This anecdote, at once baroque and tragic, illustrates well the paradox of cultural relativism (which we will see elsewhere in other forms).  It is by the very manner in which one attempts to to establish a discrimination between cultures and customs that one identifies most thoroughly with those one tries to refute.  By refusing to see as human those members of humanity who appear as the most “savage” or “barbaric,” one only borrows from them one of their characteristic attitudes.  The barbarian is first of all the man who believes in barbarism.

–Race and History; see also (esp. pg. 475); cf.

Claude dit:

The truth of the matter is that the principle underlying a classification can never be postulated in advance. It can only be discovered a posteriori by ethnographic investigation, that is, by experience.

The Savage Mind 58

Moreover, the “ethnographer cannot interpret myths and rites correctly, even if the interpretation is a structural one … without an exact identification of the plants and animals which are referred to or of such of their remains as are directly used.” (p. 46)

Claude dit:

In order to understand what myth really is, must we choose between platitude and sophism?  Some claim that human societies merely express, through their mythology, fundamental feelings common to the whole of mankind, such as love, hate, or revenge or that they try to provide some kind of explanations for phenomena which they cannot otherwise understand–astronomical, meteorological, and the like.  But why should the societies do it in such elaborate and devious ways, when all of them are also acquainted with empirical explanations?

Structural Anthropology, 203

Claude dit:

In Culture in Practice, Marshall Sahlins proves himself to be one of the most profound and original anthropologists of our time. In the breadth of his perspective, his immense knowledge, his balanced sense of judgment and his refusal to bow to intellectual fashion, Sahlins is without doubt the wise man of contemporary anthropology.

Zone Books blurb

Claude dit:

What disappears with the death of a personality is a synthesis of ideas and modes of behaviour as exclusive and irreplaceable as the one a floral species develops out of simple chemical substances common to all species. When the loss of someone dear to us…moves us, we suffer much the same sense of irreparable privation that we should experience were Rosa centifola to become extinct and its scent to disappear for ever. From this point of view it seems not untrue to say that some modes of classing, arbitrarily isolated under the title of totemism, are universally employed: among ourselves this ‘totemism’ has merely been humanized. Everything takes place as if in our civilization every individual’s own personality were his totem: it is the signifier of his signified being.

Savage Mind, p. 214

Claude dit…

I do not postulate a kind of pre-existent harmony between the different levels of structure. They may be – and often are – completely contradictory, but the modes of contradiction all belong the same type. Indeed, according to dialectic materialism it should always be possible to proceed, by transformation, from economic or social structure to the structure of law, art, or religion. But Marx never claimed that there was only one type of transformation – for example, that ideology was simply a “mirror image” of social relations. In his view, these transformations were dialectic, and in some cases he went to great lengths to discover the crucial transformation which at first sight seemed to defy analysis.

From Structural Anthropology, pp. 329-330.

Claude dit:

“Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

Charles Baudelaire”, see also

Claude dit:

The greater our knowledge, the more obscure the overall scheme. The dimensions multiply, and the growth of axes of reference beyond a certain point paralyzes intuitive methods: it becomes impossible to visualize a system when its representation requires a continuum of more than three or four dimensions. But the day may come when all the available documentation on Australian tribes is transferred to punched cards and with the help of a computer their entire techno-economic, social and religious structures can be shown to be like a vast group of transformations.

The Savage Mind
, p. 89