Tag Archives: Levi-Strauss

What would it mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary?

Here on Savage Minds we are gearing up for Levi-Strauss’s birthday. Strong has been posting LS quotes for the past few days, and we are hoping to get some high-octane people to talk about the event. All of this preparation, however, has really gotten me thinking about what it would mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary.

Who is Levi-Strauss to anthropologists today? In my experience students regard him with a mixture of awe and horror, amazed at his ability to channel massive amounts of intellectual energy into brain-twistingly complex analyses that seem, to them, radically removed from anything that matters. Even those of us who think of him as an important figure also think of him as a historic one. Can anthropologists who received their Ph.D.s after, say, 1980, boil with anger when Levi-Strauss sees women as tokens to be exchanged by men, or thrill at the way that his analyses of myth open new horizons for analysis? Could it be that hommage is just another way of saying that this work does not particularly matter to us any more?

I’m particularly worried by the American tendency to fetishize French thinkers — do we find Levi-Strauss fascinating just because he is old and kooky and French? Of course the French have been busy fetishizing him themselves — in Paris this summer LS’s upcoming birthday was covered in magazines and newspapers, and a new edition of his biography appeared in paper.

I don’t doubt that Levi-Strauss should be remember and celebtrated, even if celebration brings debate (I like debate, you may have noticed!). But I’m not quite sure, yet, what it would mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary. Are you?

Claude dit:

I hate traveling and explorers . . . The fact that so much effort and expenditure has to be wasted on reaching the object of our studies bestows no value on that aspect of our profession, and should be seen rather as its negative side.  The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross.

From Tristes Tropiques, 1961 [1955].

Claude dit:

May an inconstant disciple dedicate this book which appears in 1958, the year of Émile Durkheim’s centenary, to the memory of the founder of Année Sociologique:  that famed workshop where modern anthropology fashioned part of its tools and which we have abandoned, not so much out of disloyalty as out of the sad conviction that the task would prove too much for us.

Epigraph, Structural Anthropology

Claude dit:

only 26 days…

Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded that it is possible to arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation.  In the case of grand hysteria, the change is sometimes explained as an effect of a social evolution which has displaced the symbolic expression of mental troubles from the somatic to the psychic sphere.  But the comparison with totemism suggests a relation of another order between scientific theories and culture, one in which the mind of the scholar himself plays as large a part as the minds of the people studied; it is as if he were seeking, consciously or unconsciously, and under the guise of scientific objectivity, to make the latter—whether patients or so-called “primitives”—more different than they really are

From Totemism, (trans. Rodney Needham), p. 1

Claude dit:

All games are defined by a set of rules which in practice allow the playing of any number of matches.  Ritual, which is also ‘played,’ is on the other hand, like the favoured instance of a game, remembered from among the possible ones becuse it is the only one which results in a particular type of equilibrium between the two sides.  The transposition is readily seen in the case of the Gahuku-Gama of New Guinea who have learnt football but who will play, several days running, as many matches as are necessary for both sides to reach the same score (Read, p. 429).  This is treating a game as a ritual.

The Savage Mind, see also, cf.

Claude dit: cent pensées sauvages

{First in an occasional series celebrating 100 years of Claude Lévi-Strauss, born 28 November 1908.}

Of course, the biological family is ubiquitous in human society.  But what confers upon kinship its socio-cultural character is not what it retains from nature, but, rather, the essential way in which it diverges from nature.  A kinship system does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals.  It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.

‘Structural Analysis in Linguistics and Anthropology’