LÉVI-STRAUSS (see also ADORNO)
The key example Žižek takes from Lévi-Strauss is his famous analysis in Structural Anthropology concerning two different groups from the same tribe, each conceiving of their village in a different way. Zižek's
point is that the "truth of the village is to be found neither in some
reconciliation of the two competing versions nor in some neutral,
"objective' overhead view, but in this very split itself: "Returning to
Lévi-Strauss's example of the two drawings of the village, let us note that it is here that we can see in what precise sense the Real intervenes
through anamorphosis' (p.338). This will be related by Zižek to that
fundamental 'split' of sexual difference, where again the "truth' is not to be found in some reconciliation or putting together of a whole, but in the antagonism itself. As he asks: 'How ... are we to understand the "ahistorical" status of sexual difference? Perhaps an analogy to Claude Lévi-Strauss's notion of the "zero-institution" might be of some help here' (p. 335-6). Žižek will use Adorno's analysis of the social in exactly the same sense as that of Lévi-Strauss here.
Second Edition 2005
The leading figure in post–World War II French ethnology, Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) adapted approaches from linguistics, Durkheimian sociology, and several schools of anthropology to analyze comparative kinship and marriage, ritual practice, mythologies, and the interrelation of semantic, aesthetic, and economic values of nonliterate societies. Anthropologie structurale (1958, Structural Anthropology, 1963)was the title given to two widely influential volumes of essays on cross-cultural method and theory. Lévi-Strauss was particularly inspired by ferdinand de saussure’s semiology, roman jakobson’s poetics, and both mathematical and musical theories of "internal properties" of any system of signification. His influential ideas about pensée sauvage—undomesticated, differential thought codes, which he contrasted to conformist regulations of centralized state administrations—helped consolidate the movement designated structuralism throughout the social and literary sciences. Literary theorists and critics of various schools and interests have eclectically drawn from his work on myth, communication, and methodology.
After fieldwork experiences in Amazonia (1935–39) and wartime expatriation from France at the New School for Social Research in New York (1942–45), Lévi-Strauss joined the Musée de l’homme and later the École pratique des hautes études. In 1959 he received the first chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France, and in 1973 he was voted a member of the Académie française. Educated in philosophy, learned in literature, masterful in encyclopedic ethnology, aggressive in polemic, and brimming with preferences and prejudices in all the arts, Lévi-Strauss became for his colleagues and followers a bona fide savant. He was seen as somewhat less significant by the intellectual vanguard after the political developments of 1968 and was branded as logocentric by critics turning to deconstruction in the 1970s and 1980s. Lévi-Strauss nevertheless remained very prominent, as he continued producing ambitious analyses in a virtuoso prose saturated with details of remote human evidence and flavored with pastiches of many styles of rumination on human nature and culture. His corpus helped restore intellectual verve and reflexive rhetoric to anthropological-cum-philosophical argument and critique.
Lévi-Strauss’s formation, fieldwork, and travels are intricately recalled in Tristes tropiques (1955, Tristes Tropiques, 1973), a narrative of professional awakening whose complex style echoes both Amerindian mythic devices and moments from European literary history. De près et de loin (1988, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1991)looks back over accomplishments, ironies, and incongruities of his illustrious career; he revisits important debates with jean-paul sartre concerning the salience of historical consciousness and reiterates misgivings about phenomenological, existentialist, and functionalist approaches insensitive to variational structures of human experience informed by the ethnographic record.
Lévi-Strauss’s views of marriage exchange as regulated social arrangements positively asserted to back up negative incest taboos (brother-sister, parent-child, etc.) have been particularly influential. He approached not just marriage systems but all cultural classifications as representations of desired communication (periodicities, reciprocities, cycles, and circulations) posited against those contradictions and transgressions elaborated in myths of incest, unanswered riddles, and unspoken questions. Various critics, however, have found aspects of power, gender, political strategy, and individual endeavor inadequately addressed in his work.
Perhaps the most general critical debate has concerned the nature of "universals" sometimes invoked in Lévi-Strauss’s programmatic essays and of "dialectics" often inscribed in his actual analyses. Some commentators have declared him a roundabout, Enlightenment logician of totalized order; others have considered him a dialectician who decoded meanings of social divisions in contexts ignored by theories of superstructure restricted to dramatically antagonistic historical classes. Lévi-Strauss’s clearest statement on such issues was offered in 1972, after he completed his four-volume magnum opus, Mythologiques (1964–71, Introduction to the Science of Mythology, 1969–81):
The difference [in my approach] from a Hegelian outlook lies in the fact that instead of coming from nowhere as the philosopher’s writ (or maybe inspired by a hasty flight over a few centuries of a local past history), these specific constraints of the human mind are inductively found . . . by making a minute study of . . . the particular ideology of many different cultures. Besides, they are not given once and for all, as a kind of key which from now on and in the psychoanalyst’s fashion, may open all the locks. We rather follow in the path of the linguists well aware that all grammars exhibit common properties or that, in the long run, universals of language may be reached. But linguists are also aware that the logical system made up of these systems will be much poorer than each particular grammar and never replace them. They also know that since the study of language in general and of the particular languages which have existed or still exist is an endless task, their common properties will never become encapsulated in a final set of rules. If and when universals are reached, their framework will remain open so that new determinations can be adduced while earlier ones may be enlarged or corrected. ( "Structuralism" 104)
Many critics pointed out Lévi-Strauss’s relative neglect of historical process and his overreliance on Saussurean notions of langue/parole and synchrony/diachrony in theories of structure as relational differences. But one should not forget his active rejection of historical consciousness, linear sequencing, and developmental schemes. Many formats, elaborate digressions, and winking asides in Lévi-Strauss’s most memorial arguments, particularly in La Pensée sauvage (1962, The Savage Mind, 1966)and "The Structural Study of Myth," challenged epistemologies of historicism, questioned cause-effect explanation, and carnivalized chronology as a mode of authoritative order. Moreover, three of his methodological trademarks were to metaphorize metonymies (and vice versa); to pulverize plot (i.e. , assert narrative "harmony" over "melody"); and to use allusive alliteration (Tristes tropiques, Le Cru et le cuit) as a way of suggesting his model of variation: repetitions plus difference.
Much of the aptly designated "structuralist controversy" restricted itself to abstract issues of theory and method. These quarrels conveyed little of the actual experience of reading Lévi-Strauss’s dauntingly orchestrated texts. A typical section of Mythologiques II, Du meil aux cendres (1966, From Honey to Ashes, 1973), provides a telling example. The section first outlines South American myths of the origin of cultivated plants that are sometimes endowed with speech. It then reviews long-term evidence of the utterly unstatic quality of tribal codes: such Indian languages as Nambikwara and Machiguenga, for example, demonstrate creative plasticity by self-consciously distorting terms, playing with muttering, altering consonants, inventing slang, and indulging in interlingual "osmosis" when unmaking and remaking words. Next come ethnographic details of meaningful sounds (flutes, rattles, whistles, speech, cries, taps) and myths of communication modes between gods and humans, humans and plants, women and men, and allies and enemies. From these Lévi-Strauss distills a general theme, a formula, and a crystalline diagram (320–33, esp. 328).
The theme here, that "music supplements language, which is always in danger of becoming incomprehensible if it is spoken over too great a distance" (326), leads to the tricky, vital formula "a melodic phrase is a metaphor of speech" (328). (Unfortunately, the English translation here renders discours as "speech," also used to translate parole, contrasted to song [ chant] and signal [ signal] on the diagram; discours and parole cannot be merged in Lévi-Strauss’s model.) The force of his formula is that "metaphor" (versus metonymy) stands to discourse as "melodic phrasing" (versus harmony) stands to music. This provocative, general analogy vibrates with implications for different arts of message-making, including both the specific myths under investigation and the Mythologiques investigating them. Finally, the diagram: called "the structure of the acoustic code," it is redescribed as a prism whose "four diagonals form two isosceles tetrahedra which interpenetrate" (332). In this vintage Lévi-Straussian twist, parallel and oblique relations are shown among indigenous categories of song, speech, and signal. These include styles of insulting, courtly, confused, and whistled "language" ; signalings by name, epithet, tapping, and again whistling; and variant instrumentations of flute, drum, gourd, and shell rattle. The lush cross-connections key to a local, Amazonian organology that meticulously opposes drums to diverse, jangling noises from rattles made of nutshells or animals’ hooves, used in dances to imitate ambiguous buzzing sounds of dragonflies, wasps, and hornets.
Readers of Lévi-Strauss tolerant of copious ethnographic details found that his demonstrations eventually wound back to Marcel Proust’s petite phrase mélodique—a leitmotif of leitmotifs invoked at the finale of Mythologiques, as Wagner and Debussy were saluted in the overture. Such are the simultaneities of Lévi-Strauss’s texts, whose endlessly challenging pages both disclose and reinscribe reticulations of riddled communication. According to the theatrically oracular endings of his major books, diverse cultural sciences concrètes(including his own "myth of mythology") have been left in and as the wake of a humankind doomed, no doubt, to Dämmerung.
Levi-Strauss’s "twilight" —a metaphor he applied to the après-Mythologiques phase of his career—was happily protracted. In the 1990s he amplified and honed efforts on myth, social structure, and intersensory arts and rites, culminating in Regarder écouter lire (1993, Look, Listen, Read, 1997). Wildly learned, the book ranges from Proust to the Popol Vuh, from Poussin and Rameau to Northwest Coast Indian artists placed alongside Raphael. Chapters of random length revisit Diderot, jean-jacques rousseau, and Franz Boas; whispering ruminations are proffered as leftovers (restes) from a personal and professional lifework intent on reconciling painting (his father’s art) and music, or its analogue, myth, the "music" of mind (l’esprit). Among the book’s figurative remains are several literal ones: a rediscovered letter from André Breton to token Lévi-Strauss’s surrealist connections; a deleted, ludic addendum to the magisterial "Finale" of L’Homme nu (1971, The Naked Man, 1981). Despite the engagingly incidental quality, something like a "structure" materializes: twenty-four pieces cycle precisely (12/12) round the keynote "entre-deux" (81). This pivotal term signals a theme of Kantian "mediation" stretched into transformation and translation among visual, aural, and polysensory codes where—contra immanuel kant—music moves from the bottom rung of aesthetics to the top, toppling the intellectual primacy of sight and light. Regarder écouter lire thus keeps fashioning comparative theory in accordance with a mode of questioning that for Lévi-Strauss sustains any mythic process: "Dans une collection finie d’elements procurés au hasard, ou que le bricoleur trouve dans son trésor. Comment établira-t-on un ordre?" (In a concluded collection of components procured by chance, or that the jack-of-all-trades finds in his hoard, how does one establish an order? [ Regarder 157 ]).
James A. Boon
See also anthropological theory and criticism, myth theory and criticism, narratology, and structuralism. Primary Sources
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale 1958, Structural Anthropology Claire Jacobson, trans. , Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, trans. , 1963; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale deux 1973, Structural Anthropology, Vol. II Monique Layton, trans. , 1976; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Des symboles et leurs doubles, (1989); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Histoire de lynx 1991, The Story of Lynx Catherine Tihanyi, trans. , 1995; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques I–IV Introduction to the Science of Mythology John Weightman, trans. , Doreen Weightman, trans. , Le Cru et le cuit 1964The Raw and the Cooked 1969Du meil aux cendres 1966From Honey to Ashes 1973L’Origine des manières de table 1968The Origin of Table Manners 1978L’Homme nu 1971The Naked Man 1981; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paroles donnés 1984, Anthropology and Myth: Lectures, 1951–1982 Roy Willis, trans. , 1987; Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée sauvage 1962, The Savage Mind 1966; Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Potière jalouse 1985, The Jealous Potter Bénédicte Chorier, trans. , 1988; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Regard éloigne 1983, The View from Afar Joachim Neugroschel, trans. , Phoebe Hoss, trans. , 1985; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Regarder écouter lire 1993, Look, Listen, Read Brian C. J. Singer, trans. , 1997; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Saudades do Brasil Paolo Neves, trans. , 1994, Saudades do Brasil: A Photographic Memoir Sylvia Modelski, trans. , 1995; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism and Ecology (1972)View from Afar ; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté 1949, The Elementary Structures of Kinship Rodney Needham , James Harle Bell, trans. , John Richard von Sturmer, trans. , Rodney Needham, trans. , 1969; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Totemisme aujourd’hui 1962, Totemism Rodney Needham, trans. , 1963; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques 1955, Tristes Tropiques John Weightman, trans. , Doreen Weightman, trans. , 1973; Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Voie des masques 1972, The Way of the Masks Sylvia Modelski, trans. , 1982; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Didier Eribon, De près et de loin 1988, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss Paula Wissing, trans. , 1991
TOP Secondary Sources
Raymond Bellour Catherine Clément Claude Lévi-Strauss, (1979); James A. Boon, From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a Literary Tradition, (1972); James A. Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions, and Texts, (1982); James A. Boon, The Reticulated Corpus of Claude Lévi-Strauss The Philosophy of Discourse: The Rhetorical Turn in Twentieth-Century Thought Volume 2 Chip Sills , George H. Jensen (1992); Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, (1977); Marcel Henaff, Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology, (1998); Michel Izard Pierre Smith Le Fonction symbolique 1979, Between Belief and Transgression: Structuralist Essays in Religion, History, and Myth John Leavitt, trans. , 1982; Christopher Johnson, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years, (2003); Edmund Leach, Claude Lévi-Strauss 1970, rev. ed., 1974; Edmund Leach The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism, (1967); Richard Macksey Eugenio Donato The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, (1970); Ino Rossi, The Logic of Culture: Advances in Structural Theory and Methods, (1982); Ino Rossi Structural Sociology, (1982); Boris Wiseman, Judy Groves, Richard Appignanesi, Introducing Lévi-Strauss, (1998)