Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 2

[All the Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.]

I'm going to continue offering work by or about Lévi-Strauss for the next week in the hopes that I'll learn something useful and in that some of you will have the patience to read something a little heavier than normal blog fare if it's in short doses. And some people have complained that reading blogs prevents them from reading books, so we come full circle.
[Photo credit below*]

I'm drawn in this section, to the point, mentioned yesterday too, that Lévi-Strauss believed that the mind of 'primitive' peoples was no different from the mind of 'civilized' peoples. My experiences overseas certainly confirm this. There are bright inquisitive minds in every culture just as there are dull ones. Although I live in a 'civilized' community, neither I nor most of my fellow citizens have done much to create the world in which we live. We are dependent on technology most of us cannot even fix let alone create. And few of us can even make 'simple' things like baskets or weave fibers into cloth. In Alaska this is particularly of interest, since many of the rural inhabitants, who are looked down on by the many urban inhabitants, can probably do a lot more to create and repair the environments in which they live.

In any case, here is an excerpt from one scholar's (Hans H Penner) introduction to Lévi-Strauss. He's very sparing of the commas, so if you get confused, try reading it out loud until you figure out where he meant to pause. At one point I stuck in [,]s because I really needed them.

The list of scholars who have changed the course of an academic discipline in their own lifetime is very short. Einstein and Chomsky are clearly on the list and so is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who made the words "structuralism" and "structural analysis" common terms in most newspapers and weekly magazines around the world. The terms were certainly used before Lévi-Strauss made them so popular. No one would deny that the term "structure' was used in physics, logic, and anthropology long before Lévi-Strauss began to lecture on "structural anthropology." This being so it is often claimed that there is really nothing new in what Lévi-Strauss has to say, his popularity was nothing more than one of the many vogues that arise and pass away in Paris. If this is true then it is hard to explain the explosive controversy that took place after Lévi-Strauss began to publish essays on something called "structural analysis." Structuralism simply cannot be separated from the thought of Lévi-Strauss. After Lévi-Strauss the study of kinship, totemism, myth and ritual would never be the same again. As one disgruntled scholar put it, "Yet it has been said that when one turns from Lévi-Strauss to any other attempt to analyze these myths, the results look old-fashioned and unconvincing; and I too find this to be so." I agree.

The Fundamental theme running through all of his writings is that it is a serious error to follow the thought of Lévy-Bruhl (as many do) and think that there is a fundamental difference between so-called "primitive" and "modern" societies. That "primitive mentality" is like the mentality of our children, or, that they are "mystical" and we are "logical" in our way of thinking, that there are two modes of thinking that are different in kind. The basic binary opposition, nature/culture (raw/cooked) can be found in all of his publications. It would be an error to think of this basic opposition as a dualism or as containing ontological significance. Nevertheless, the opposition nature/culture clearly marks what Lévi-Strauss thinks human nature is all about. We are rational creatures who [,] says Lévi-Strauss [,] must first of all know the world before it becomes useful to us. Lévi-Strauss is not a pragmatist. What fascinates Lévi-Strauss are such questions as, "since it is clearly not necessary for our existence, why do human beings cook food?" Why are there prohibitions on eating certain kinds of food? Perhaps the most significant question Lévi-Strauss asks is, "what is the significance of 'the other'?" "We/they?" Throughout all of the diverse material he studies Lévi-Strauss finds a logic, a structure. And for Lévi-Strauss where there is a logical structure there is also rationality.


Plenner, Hans H (ed)(1998) Teaching Lévi-Strauss, Atlanta: Scholars Press, pp. 1-2

*The photo of Claude Levi-Strauss is from culturamauff.blogspot.com but I suspect is not original to that blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.