Monday, November 24, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 7: Friendly Ciriticism

[All my Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.]
None of these Lévi-Strauss posts are intended to be accurate reflections individually or as a whole. They are basically snippets from a small pile of books and from websites that I find interesting and perhaps someone else will too.

From Edmund Leach (1970) Claude Lévi-Strauss, New York: Viking Press, pp. 11-13

This search for "fundamental properties" is a recurrent theme in all Lévi-Strauss' writings, but it is not just a matter of antiquarian curiosity. The point is rather that what is fundamental and universal must be the essence of our true nature, and we can use an understanding of that nature to improve ourselves:
The second phase of our undertaing is that while not clinging to elements from any one particular society, we make use of all of them in order to distinguish those principles of social life which may be applied to reform our own customs and not those of customs foreign to our own. . . . Our own society is the only one which we can transform and yet not destroy, since the changes which we should introduce would come from within. (Tristes Tropiques, pp. 391-92)
As this passage shows, Lévi-Strauss is a visionary, and the trouble with those who see visions is that they find it very difficult to recognize the plain matter-of-fact world which the rest of us see all around. Lévi-Strauss pursues his anthropology because he conceives of primitive peoples as "reduced models" of what is essential in all mankind, but the resulting Rousseau-like noble savages inhabit a world very far removed from the dirt and squalor that are the field anthropologist's normal stamping ground.

This is important. A careful study of Tristes Tropiques reveals that, in the whole course of his Brazilian travels, Lévi-Strauss can never have stayed in one place for more than a few weeks at a time and that he was never able to converse easily with any of his native informants in their native language.

There are many kinds of anthropological inquiry, but Malinowski-style intensive field work employing the vernacular, which is now the standard research technique employed by nearly all British and American social anthropologists, is an entirely different procedure from the careful but uncomprehending description of manners and customs, based on the use of special informants and interpreters, which was the original source for most of the ethnographic observations on which Lévi-Strauss, like his Frazerian predecessors, has chosen to rely.

It is perfectly true that an experienced anthropologist, visiting a "new" primitive society for the first time and working with the aid of competent interpreters, may be able, after a stay of only a few days, to develop in his own mind a fairly comprehensive "model" of how the social system works, but it is also true that if he stays for six months and learns to speak the local language very little of that original "model" will remain. Indeed, the task of understanding how the system works will by then appear even more formidable than it did just two days after his first arrival.
Well, I certainly can relate to this. When I had been in Thailand six months, I thought I was just figuring it all out. But after a while, the longer I stayed, the less I knew. Not because I actually knew less, but because my awareness of what I didn't know was growing at a much faster pace than what I did know.

Lévi-Strauss himself has never had the opportunity to suffer this demoralizing experience, and he never comes to grips with the issues involved.

In all of his writings Lévi-Strauss assumes that the simple, first stage "model" generated by the observer's first impressions corresponds quite closely to a genuine (and very important) ethnographic reality - the "conscious model" which is present in the minds of the anthropologist's informants. In contrast, to the anthropologists who have had a wider and more varied range of field experience, it seems all too obvious that this initial model is little more than an amalgam of the observer's own prejudiced presuppositions.

On this account many would argue that Lévi-Strauss, like Frazer, is insufficiently critical of his source material. He always seems to be able to find just what he is looking for. Any evidence, however dubious, is acceptable so long as it fits with logically calculated expectations; but wherever the data runs counter to the theory Lévi-Strauss will either bypass the evidence or marshal the full resources of his powerful invective to have the heresy thrown out of court. So we need to remember that Lévi-Strauss' prime training was in philosophy and law; he consistently behaves like an advocate defending a cause rather than a scientist searching for ultimate truth.

But the philosopher is also a poet. William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1933) belongs to a class of literary criticism which is wholly antipathetic to contemporary structuralists, but none the less it makes excellent introductory reading for any would-be student of Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss has not actually published poetry, but his whole attitude to the sounds and meanings and combinations and permutations of language elements betrays his nature. His grand four-volume study of the structure of American Indian mythodoly is not entitled Mythologies but Mythologiques - the "logics of myth" - and the object of the exercise is to explore the mysterious interconnections between these myth-logics and other logics. This is poet's country, and those who get impatient with the tortuous gymnastics of Lévi-Straussian argument - as most of us do - need to remember that he shares with Freud a most remarkable capacity for leading us all unawares into the innermost recesses of our secret emotions.

I'm not sure if this is damning with faint praise, or, what I would rather see it as, an acknowledgment that while Lévi-Strauss does not practice what most anthropologists practice, it's because he is doing something else. I'd go on to say something more sublime, but I'm like that anthropologist who has visited this Lévi-Straussian village for a few weeks. All my impressions are suspect. But there is a lot to churn the brain cells.

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