The death of Aaron Swartz marks the end of an era — an era that had been slowly fading away until his passing gave it a terrible, sudden finality.
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.
What can one say about Ursula K. Le Guin on the occasion of her eightieth birthday that has not been said before? She has already been memorialized in numerous articles, interviews, and award ceremonies — five Hugos and six Nebulas according to Wikipedia — and her eminently practical attitude makes further paeans seem ridiculously overblown. Nevertheless, what better excuse than a birthday to return to one of anthropology’s greatest authors — and what better birthday present to give to her and those who do not know of her work than to recommend it?
Le Guin, as many people know, is the daughter of two great anthropologists — Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora. Her fiction, poetry, and essays on writing defy easy classification. Her stories are like pieces of wood furniture — simply and sturdily written, with a beautiful simplicity and craftmanship. They are easy enough for children to read, but have an emotional profundity that gives them great depth. Before her, no one thought to combine Boasian anthropology, Daoist inclinations, and keen sense of place rooted in Northern California, and after her the niche is pretty well filled. Like ethnographies, LeGuin’s best pieces — which for me means Left Hand of Darkness and especially The Dispossessed — ask universal questions through the exploration of particular times and places. Like fieldwork, her prose often begins with culture shock — strange words and ideas slowly resolve into coherence as one reads on. This summer in Papua New Guinea I read Birthday of the World, a collection of short stories, and was amazed at what lay within: Incan diety-kings, post-apocalyptic societies with social structures very similar to those of certain fringe-highlands populations in Papua New Guinea and, best of all, a world where men have nothing to do but play sports and have casual sex with women — a world that LeGuin slowly shows us to be a nightmare, not a utopia, for men.
We should be teaching Le Guin’s work in our classes, forcing it onto our graduate students, and talking about it at parties. It’s great reading, superb anthropology, and provides a unique form of knowledge and insight. So happy Birthday to Ursula K. Le Guin, and congratulations to all those who take this opportunity to (re)read her work and, in doing so, become more human.
Following up a citation in that Andy Abbott book I read a piece that I guess is an old chestnut for others but was new to me — Daniel Chambliss’s article “The Mundanity of Excellence”:http://www.jstor.org/stable/202063, which examines how championship swimmers become championship swimmers. The answer: they do dozens of little things right each and every day, and enjoy doing it. Chambliss’s article reminds me Sennett’s discussion of craftwork and the rhythm of practice and increasing fascination that he says it engenders.
The obvious thing to do is read the Chambliss article and then figure out how to become mundanely excellent in your own way — ethnographic sociology as self-help literature. When it comes to teaching, you could do this either by “thinking about the mundanity of excellence in teaching”:http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6BxLIN_7EoYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA422&dq=mundanity+of+excellence&ots=ztby3HHKPE&sig=GVsiljyylP4TiLw6KxzdDSiDS1w or else “teaching the article to students to teach them how to become mundanely excellent”:http://www.jstor.org/stable/1319298. I am definitely trying this second exercise the next time I teach introduction to anthropology.
Finally, Chambliss has a paper on “how to hire departmental faculty”:http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/hiring%20departmental%20faculty%20oct06.pdf. For various strange reasons my department did four job searches in my first two years on the job, and as a result I have thought long and hard about this part of the job since it sort of marked my initiation into the professoriate. I must say that while I haven’t exactly done a literature review on the topic, this is the best thing I have read how to hire new faculty, ever. Down to earth, frank, wise, well-written. Might even be a good read for job candidates.
“Epeli”:http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU0901/S00096.htm “Hau’ofa”:http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=112135 “passed”:http://fijidailypost.com/news.php?section=1&fijidailynews=21483 “away”:http://solomontimes.com/news.aspx?nwID=3381 on 11 January 2009, and with his death the Pacific looses one of its most important intellectuals and anthropologists. Ethnically Tongan, born in Papua New Guinea, educated in Australia, and a naturalized citizen of Fiji, Hau’ofa’s life exemplifies the vibrant, diverse, and connected image of Oceania he promoted throughout his life. Those of us who study Papua New Guinea will remember him as an ethnographer of the Mekeo, but his influence expanded far beyond his ethnographic work — indeed, he is most often remembered as a novelist and author of short stories, and his humorous, satirical writings about the fictional but too-close-to-home Tikongs are widely read both in and out of the Pacific.
Most central for, as someone who was not raised in the Pacific (or at least, grew up on its right coast) was his essay “Our Sea of Islands”:/wp-content/image-upload/our-sea-of-islands-epeli-hauofa.pdf. In Our Sea of Islands Hau’ofa argued against the then-common (and still-common) presumption that Pacific Islanders lived in small, isolated, remote communities separated by a massive ocean. Instead, he argued that Pacific Islanders were connected by an ocean which facilitated movement and connection. Like all great ideas, it was an inversion of popular understandings that was so true and so timely that in retrospect is seems impossible to imagine how we lived without it.
If anyone reading this blog teaches courses on the Pacific, or simply wants to learn more about the area, this seminal essay is a must read. As unfortunate as his passing is, I hope that it will refocus attention on his life and work — even though his pen is stilled, we still have much to learn from Epeli Hau’ofa.