Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 3: What Others are Saying

Today I'm going to give you glimpses of what others - people who know this topic much better than I - are saying about Claude Lévi Strauss' 100th birthday. [All the Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.] In each case you are only getting a small portion of what they have written. You can read the rest by following the links. These are in the order that I found them.

From Robert K. Blechman at Blogcritics - Sci/Tech
Beyond his well-known scholarly accomplishments, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Professor Lévi-Strauss' personal longevity is a testament to the positive benefits of the pursuit of structural anthropology on long life and good health. Just carrying around his four-volume, 2200 page oeuvre, "Mythologiques" will improve your muscle tone and cardiovascular capacity...

Some critics get hung up on discrepancies within the structural methodology which Lévi-Strauss used to explain mythology, totemic systems and kinship systems. Other criticism focuses on how a particular interpretation doesn't fit the recorded ethnography for a culture. While the methodology itself, or its particular application may be subject to review and revision, what is important is that Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that there is a universality to the human mind, and given sufficient symbolic material, all peoples -- whether within an oral culture, a literate culture or our post-literate culture — still retain a commonality which can be explored through our symbol systems and perhaps understood in terms of the underlying structures transmitted via the stories told.

Our own "modern" culture also has a mythic "score," but being part of it, it is difficult for us to see. The distinctions between "raw" vs. "cooked," "nature" vs. "culture" and "modern" vs. "primitive" that Lévi-Strauss finds in his studies of North and South America native populations drive the narratives, beliefs and social customs of 21st century populations as well. [continue here.]

From Patrick Wilcken at the Times [London] Literary Supplement: [Note - this looks like the really authoritative piece to read]

The century of Claude Lévi-Strauss: How the great anthropologist, now approaching his 100th birthday, has earned a place in the prestigious Pléiade library

In 1938, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss drove a mule train up a derelict telegraph line, which wound its way across the scrublands of Mato Grosso state in Brazil. He headed an ethnographic team conducting fieldwork among the semi-nomadic Nambikwara who roamed the plains through the dry season. Photographs from the journey look dated even for their era. Men in pith helmets mingling with virtually naked tribesmen, mules heaving crates of equipment through the wilderness, laden-down canoes and jungle campsites – it all has the feel of some grand nineteenth-century scientific expedition. Yet, after the Second World War, Lévi-Strauss would add a modern twist to anthropology with the development of a completely new way of thinking about ethnographic data...

As he approaches his 100th birthday on November 28, Lévi-Strauss has become one of the few living authors to find a place in Gallimard’s Pléiade library. From the almost weightless Bible paper and soft leather cover to the pale pink flyleaves and the gold-embossed “Claude Lévi-Strauss Oeuvres” on the spine, Gallimard has retained the library’s old-world gravitas. In a testament to just how differently the publishing industry works across the Channel, this 2,000-page, seventy-euro edition sold 13,000 copies in its first three months...

The first thing one notices about this book is a huge absence. Organized chronologically, the collection skips from 1962, when Lévi-Strauss had only recently entered the Collège de France, to the mid-1970s, after his retirement; from the birth of structuralism in the popular imagination to the beginning of its decline. The core of Lévi-Strauss’s career when he was professor at the Collège, a media celebrity and one of the most influential theorists of his age, has been excised. Lévi-Strauss has opted for what he described as his “petites mythologiques” over the centrepiece of his career, the monolithic Mythologiques quartet. A further absence is his PhD thesis, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949), the reinterpretation of the field of kinship studies which established him as a leading thinker in post-war France. As Lévi-Strauss himself made the selection, it seems a timid assessment of his own output. [continue here]

Here are some 1988 (so he's 79 or 80) video interviews in French with several anthropologists (Lévi-Strauss is the first). These aren't related to his birthday, but they give us a chance to see and hear the man. Even for those of us who don't understand French - you surely can pick out some words, including the French pronunciation of his name - they are worth watching.
Entretiens avec Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS, Jean-Pierre VERNANT, Jacques Le GOFF, Pierre BOURDIEU, Andre, COMTE-SPONVILLE, Michel TOURNIER et Luc de HEUSCH. 1988
(part 2 is here)

And one in English, no, it turns out to be in French too. This is 1972 I believe, so he would be 63 here (his birthday is the end of November).

This link at YouTube will give you more videos from these two sets of interviews.

For a detailed discussion of Lévi-Strauss' political development, we have
An essay to mark the 100th birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss: Anti-Historicism and the Algerian War

Andy Blunden. May 2008


The publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind” in early 1962, as France stood on the precipice of civil war, launched a trend of “anti-historicism” in social philosophy. This “anti-historicism” had its roots in Durkheim’s sociology and structural linguistics, and while remaining a positive contribution to scientific technique, the ethical and political implications of this turn were far reaching and mixed. The point of this article is to show how social movements impact on the development of science. In spite of Lévi-Strauss’s adoption of the cloak of scientific objectivity, his “anti-historicism” was a direct response to the Algerian struggle for independence and presaged the decentred post-colonial world then emerging from such struggles across the world. The impact of this “anti-historicism” on science and politics shifted over the following decades but such transformations were also responses to social movements, whether or not they were valid scientific paradigms shifts. I will explain what I mean by “anti-historicism” later, once some of the nuances of Lévi-Strauss’s position and its relation to the Algerian independence war have been explored.

Lévi-Strauss’s Intellectual Development up to 1962

At school in the 1920s, Lévi-Strauss was involved in moderate socialist politics and at university was general secretary of the Federation of Socialist Students for a time, but his experience of the Second World War and in Brazil led him to a political position of refusing to accept the superiority of his own Western European culture, inclusive of both the dominant capitalist culture and the socialist alternative. He did not ‘drop out’ though, but adopted as his central value Western society’s key achievement, science, and worked assiduously to secure a place in that society as an esteemed scientist. His greatest fear was the prospect of the world being subsumed by a monoculture, and above all he valued cultural diversity, which, somewhat ironically, he credited as both the content and the source of progress.

His commitment to cultural diversity and admiration for ‘primitive’ (Lévi-Strauss’s word) cultures pre-existed all of his scientific discoveries as an anthropologist, and indeed motivated his interest in anthropology. But he almost never lent his name and prestige to a cause or spoke out publicly against the destruction of the ‘primitive’ cultures he so admired, almost never. Lévi-Strauss consistently adopted the cloak of scientific objectivity and rightly judged that his political aims could best be furthered by distancing himself behind the mask of science. Lévi-Strauss’s trope of discovering his political beliefs to be scientifically proven facts is really a very dogmatic mode of political argument.

By his own account, in his youth Lévi-Strauss had three ‘intellectual mistresses’: geology, Freud and Marx. But he was never a Marxist in any recognizable sense; Marx for him was an icon of ethical skepticism and scientific critique, but he never accepted Marx’s commitment to socialism, class struggle nor his historical method. Likewise, geology and psychoanalysis stood for the need to probe below surface impressions to the underlying structures. His public admiration for Marx and Freud did however serve to give him a probably undeserved reputation for being on the Left. [continue here]

And excerpts from the Jewish Daily Newspaper The Forward's article in honor of Lévi-Strauss' 100th birthday:
Claude of the Jungle
The other Lévi-Strauss turns 100

On November 28, the centenary of the legendary French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss will be fêted in Paris. As a centenary celebration of a legend, however, it is rather unusual, as the birthday boy is very much alive and well.

Born in 1908 to a French-Jewish family — his grandfather served as a rabbi in Versailles — Lévi-Strauss made his name with such key texts as “Tristes Tropiques” (“A World on the Wane”) in 1955 and “La Pensée sauvage” (“The Savage Mind”) in 1962. . .
[The photo came with The Forward article and is a Getty Image.]

His sheer mastery of a vast number of subjects — a friend, writer Claudine Hermann, once said that Lévi-Strauss “gave me the impression of universal knowledge” — has left some readers with the image of a remote, aloof observer. Yet over the years, the supposedly cool and reticent Lévi-Strauss has granted increasingly telling glimpses into his personality and motivations.

Among these, unquestionably, are his Jewish roots, as he recently explained to the newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “In grade school, I was called ‘dirty Jew,’” he said. He went on to recall fistfights provoked by antisemitic school bullies: “Suddenly finding oneself contested by a community to which one believed oneself to belong entirely may lead a young mind to take some distance in terms of social reality, insofar as he is forced to look at it simultaneously from within, where he believes himself to be, and from without, where he is placed.” This sense of dislocation as a French Jew, he implies, was a natural mindset for studying other cultures, and especially for reserving judgment on their qualities and right to exist. He survived World War II in exile, and part of that time was spent in New York, teaching at The New School. Faculty members there advised him to call himself “Claude L. Strauss,” lest Yankee students laugh too much at the coincidence between his name and that of the Bavarian-Jewish immigrant tailor who introduced denim blue jeans.

In 1952, a scant few years after he learned the full tragedy of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Lévi-Strauss wrote a text that continues to resonate, “Race and History.” [A small part of which I excerpted in the first post of this series.] Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the book made the case that fighting the notion that some races are inferior to others also means combating the concept that some societies are culturally superior to others. Its adamant originality may have been influenced by a close wartime friendship with surrealist poet André Breton, whose “imaginative vivacity” he lauded in a moving tribute to another writer, Georges Dumézil, at the French Academy.

The rest of the Forward piece is here.

I feel a little embarrassed because there are so many people so much more knowledgeable than I on this topic. So I have a responsibility to point out some of them and what they are saying about Claude Lévi Strauss. More tomorrow. And, oh yes, even before reading this last piece above, it became very clear that most people looking up Levi-Strauss are looking up the jeans. Is there some distant relationship between the two? Maybe that will come up as I continue this.

1 comment:

  1. Finally I found a Palotás video. It is not too professional though. If you have time check it and don't laugh too hard.

    He has long life. Luckily my family members are likely to reach nice ages.


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