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Claude Levi-Strauss at 100

On Friday, November 28, Claude Levi-Strauss turned 100, an event that set loose a series of worldwide commemorations.  As one might expect, an intellectual of such enormous influence provoked competing reactions.  In London, the Guardian dismissed Levi-Strauss (“the intricacies of the structural anthropology he propounded now seem dated… [and] he has become the celebrated object of a cult’) while the Independent celebrated him (“his work, after going out of fashion several times, is more alive than ever”), both judgments issued on the same day.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid a personal evening visit to the Levi-Strauss apartments, and the museum he inspired in Paris, the Musee du Quai Branly, gave away free admission for a day in his honor (that day 100 intellectuals gave short addresses at the museum or read excerpts from his writings).  ARTE, the French-German cultural TV channel, dedicated the day to Levi-Strauss, playing documentaries and interviews and films centered on his lifework, and the New York Times reported that “centenary celebrations were being held in at least 25 countries.”

Levi-Strauss has not, for obvious reasons, made many public appearances of late.  His last was at the opening of the Quai Branly in 2006; not only did he inspire the museum intellectually but many of the exhibit objects were donated by him, the accumulation of his own worldwide life of travels.  In a 2005 interview given with Le Monde, he expressed some pessimism about the planet:  “The world I knew and loved had 2.5 billion people in it.  The terrifying prospect of a population of 9 billion has plunged the human race into a system of self-poisoning.”  In my own field of communication studies, I am not aware that he is widely read or remembered at all, even in seminars on mythology and narrative (two fields in which he made significant contributions), probably an unfortunate byproduct of Jacques Derrida’s sharp attack in two essays that are widely read by rhetorical scholars (“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, Routledge, 1978 and “The Violence of the Letter:  From Levi-Strauss to Rousseau,” in Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins UP, 1976).

For all I know Levi-Strauss remains must-reading in anthropology, the discipline he did so much to shape as an intellectual giant of the twentieth century.  But his wider absence from the larger humanities (which I mean simply as a reference to the extent to which he is read or cited across the disciplines) is, I think, unfortunate.  No intellectual of his longevity and productivity will leave a legacy as pure as the driven snow.  His campaign against admitting women to the Academie Francaise (he argued for what he saw as long tradition) was wrong and rightly alienating.  His attempt to systemize the universal laws of mythology, which formed what was for some an off-putting four-volume work, remains a brilliant and densely rich analysis of the underlying logics of mythological meaning-making.

But the trajectory of structuralism, and in turn poststructuralism and contemporary French social thought (including the research tradition shaped by Jacques Lacan, who founded his account of the Symbolic on Levi-Strauss’ work on kinship and the gift), cannot be understood without engaging his work, his engagements with Marxist dialectics, Malinowski, Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Ricoeur and many others who respected his work even when they profoundly disagreed with it.  Lacan’s first 1964 seminar on “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis” virtually begins by raising a Levi-Strauss-inspired question (Lacan wonders whether the idea of the pensée sauvage is itself capacious enough to account for the unconscious as such).  Today it is Foucault who is fondly remembered for pushing back Sartre’s temporally-based dialectical theory, but at the time Levi-Strauss played as significant a role (and his essays, which take on Sartre in part by deconstructing the binary distinction between diachronic and synchronic time, remain models of intellectual engagement).

Levi-Strauss has been a key advocate for a number of important ideas that have now become accepted as among the conventional wisdoms of social theory, and that absent his articulate forcefulness might still have to be fought for today:  the idea that Saussure and Jakobson’s work on language should be brought to bear on questions relating to social structure, the thought that comprehending the relationship of ideas within a culture is more important to intercultural understanding than anthropological tourism, the sense that cultural difference cannot be reduced to the caricature that modern peoples are somehow smarter or wiser than ancient ones or that modern investigators should inevitably disparage the “primitive,” the insight that the relationship between things can matter more than the thing-in-itself, and many more.

But the reasons to read Levi-Strauss are well justified on grounds that go beyond his interesting biography (including his sojourn in exile from the Nazis at the New School for Social Research in New York and public longevity as a national intellectual upon his return to France), his historical role in old philosophical disputes, or even the sheer eloquence of his writing (Tristes tropiques, written in 1955, remains a lovely piece of work and a cleverly structured narrative argument).  It is, I think, a mistake to dismiss Levi-Strauss’ work as presuming to offer a science of myth – the best point of entry on this point is the set of lectures he delivered in English for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in the late 1970’s (published as Myth and Meaning in 1978), where his overview reveals, as if it was necessary, the layers of ambiguity and interpretation that always protected Levi-Strauss’ work from easy reductionism).

And the exchanges with Derrida and Sartre merit a return as well.  There is an impulse, insidious in my view, to judge Derrida’s claims as a definitive refutation when they signal a larger effort to push the logic of structuralism and modernism to its limits.  The post in poststructuralism is not an erasure or even a transcendence but a thinking-through-the-implications-of maneuver that lays bare both the strengths and limits of the tradition begun by Saussure.  Levi-Strauss developed a still-powerful account of how linguistic binaries structure human action but he was also deeply self-reflective as he interrogated the damage done to anthropological theory by its own reversion to binary logics (such as the elevation of literacy over orality, or advanced over primitive societies).  Paul Ricoeur, and Derrida himself, saw the debate with Levi-Strauss as a definitive refutation (Ricoeur, writing in his Conflict of Interpretation, set Derrida’s “school of suspicion” against Levi-Strauss’ “school of reminiscence”).  But the insights generated by principles that Derrida (and Levi-Strauss) rightly understood as provisional and even contradictory remain powerful, perhaps even more so at a time when poststructuralist logics seem to be running their course.

None of this denies the real objections raised against Levi-Strauss’ version of structuralism – its methodological conservatism or its tendency (offered in the name of scholarly description) to valorize or make invisible power arrangements that reinforce the tendency of one part of any binary to obliterate or repress its opposite.  But the richness of Derridean thought is enriched and not subverted by putting it back into conversation with Levi-Strauss.  To take just one example, CLS’s work on myth usefully presages Derrida’s own insights on the limits of inferring a “final” or “original” meaning.  The elements of myths circulate within the constraints of social structure to create endless transformations and possibilities of meaning best understood not through the logics of reference or mimesis but logics of context and relationship.  And the case Levi-Strauss articulated against phenomenology still holds up pretty well in the context of its reemergence in some quarters (in communication studies, phenomenological approaches are increasingly advocated as a way forward in argumentation theory and cinema studies).  The first volume of Structural Anthropology remains one of the most important manifestos for structuralism.

From the vantage point of communication, one of the intriguing dimensions of CLS’s work is his claim that modern societies are plagued by an excess of communication.  When first articulated, his concern related to the risk that too much cross-cultural exchange would obliterate differences, a view then current in the work of scholars like Herbert Schiller and the circa-1970s view that the allures of America’s entertainment culture was producing a one-way destruction of other societies.  But Levi-Strauss means something more too, and his argument is made intriguing in the light of his lifelong commitment to the idea that the deep grammars of cultural mythologies are universal.  For it is the interplay of universally shared experience and local variability that expresses the real genius of the human condition, and the twin threats of global groupthink and overcrowding are still not quite fully apprehended, even within the terms of the poststructuralist conversations he did so much to shape.

Michel Foucault, writing in Order of Things, says of Levi-Strauss that his work is motivated “by a perpetual principle of anxiety, of setting in question, of criticism and contestation of everything that could seem, in other respects, as taken for granted.”  Foucault’s sentiment is complicated and not intended, as I read it, as a simple compliment.  But it points to an aspect of his century-long work that should also attract continued interest.

SOURCES:  “In praise of Claude Levi Strauss,” (London) Guardian, 29 November 2008, pg. 44; John Lichfield, “Grand chieftain of anthropology lives to see his centenary,” (London) Independent, 29 November 2008, pg. 38; Steven Erlanger, “100th birthday tributes pour in for Levi-Strauss,” New York Times, 29 November 2008, pg. C1; Albert Doja, “The advent of heroic anthropology in the history of ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas (2005): 633-650;  Lena Petrovic, “Remembering and disremembering: Derrida’s reading of Levi-Strauss,” Facts Universitatis 3.1 (2004): 87-96.


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