Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism

CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS (1908-2009)

Structuralism and Anthropology

Although it has long roots, stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century, Structuralism found a home in philosophy and reigned as the leading movement from the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1960s. These rough dates are connected to French philosophy and coincide with the rise of Claude-Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist and philosopher, who changed the way philosophy was read and written. The rise of Structuralism was connected to the desire to make philosophy more scientific and more analytic, more connected to the real world and to remove it from the realm of abstraction and metaphysics and, most importantly, the clutches of humanism. Structuralism was a linguistic movement and a very rigorous means of understanding language by breaking down speech into the smallest possible units and organizing these units in opposing pairs and arranging these opposites into a network of relationships. But the pathway of Structuralism from linguistics to anthropology to philosophy was a long and round-about journey.

The informal education of Lévi-Strauss was eclectic, reflecting his interest in the avant-garde arts, from Stravinsky to Picasso to Surrealism, and his entry into the Marxist politics of his time. For such a cultivated young man, with degrees in law and philosophy, he showed a marked interest in the outdoor life and his hikes in the French countryside caused him to contemplate geology. The very land itself was composed of layers, compressed by time, reminding the young man of Sigmund Freud’s notion of the human mind as a site to be excavated. There was a structure to the meaning of landscape and later in his life, Lévi-Strauss would regard Freud, Karl Marx and geology as his guides into the new field of anthropology. Perhaps it was his interest in the avant-garde post-war culture that led him to ethnology just then under development in France.

Lévi-Strauss spent the Depression years, from 1935 to the onset of the Second World War, in Brazil doing fieldwork. He completed his mission with numerous notebooks and detailed description of the indigenous inhabitants of the relatively untouched territories. Of course, Brazil was hardly “uncivilized” by the mid twentieth century and original cultures had been overwritten or impacted by European colonial rule. But like most Europeans of his time, Lévi-Strauss through that “colonialism” mean the subordination of “less evolved groups” by more evolved societies, and he was typical of his time in assuming that the role of the European anthropologist was to “study” the less evolved. That said, the accepted mode of analyzing the tribal cultures was through kinship, which was assumed to be the key to their social systems. The question was not what to do with the data he had collected, the problem for Lévi-Strauss was how to organize the materials. In other words, what was the organizing principle?

As was typical for his generation, Lévi-Strauss’s career was derailed by the outbreak of the Second World War. For someone who was well-versed in the writings of Karl Marx and in the psychology of Signmund Freud, he was naïve about his Jewishness and was slow in coming to terms to the dangers posed by the Nazi occupation of France. Still at the beginnings of his career, he was lucky enough to be among the Jewish intellectuals allowed to escape to New York, where he began teaching at the New School for Social Research, established to utilize the sudden wealth of scholarship that had washed up on American shores. It was in New York, during his long and fruitful American stay, that Lévi-Strauss met the man who would lead him to his organizing principle–Structuralism–and where he would come across a wealth of anthropological materials that would supersede his work in Brazil.

In New York, Lévi-Strauss was able to join the influx scholars and it was here that he met Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), a Russian linguist who came to America during the war and spent the rest of his life there. Born in Russia, he began his career as a linguist in the school of Russian Formalism and then taught in Czechoslovakia, where he as a member of the well-known Prague School of Linguistics. By the time he arrived in New York, Jakobson, influenced by Ferdinand Saussure had realized that it was necessary to go beyond a diachronic study of words and how language developed over time and to study language synchronically, that is to understand language in terms of structure. Linguistics broke language down into its smallest units, phonemes, or sounds which allowed words to be formed and distinguished one from another. Like the meaning of words, sounds were arbitrary and functioned only to allow the speaker and the listener to differentiate one sound/one word from another: “bat,” “mat,” “cat.” Like the meanings of words, the sounds that made them possible functioned within a structure of relationships or a network which allowed them to perform.

In his series of lectures given in 1942, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, Jakobson stated,

We have pointed out that the distinctive features of the phonemes are strictly appositive entities. It follows from this that a distinctive property never stands alone in the phonological system. Because of the nature, in particular the logical nature, of oppositions, each of these properties implies the coexistence in the same system of the opposite property; length could not exist without shortness, voicing without voicelessness, the acute character without the grave character, and vice versa. The duality of opposites is therefore not arbitrary, but necessary. The oppositions themselves also do not stand alone in the phonological system. The oppositions of the distinctive features are interdependent, i.e., the existence of one opposition implies, permits or precludes the coexistence of such and such other opposition in the same phonological system, in the same way that the presence of one particular distinctive feature implies the absence, or the necessary (or at least probable) presence of such and such other distinctive properties in the same phoneme. Here again arbitrariness has very restricted scope.

Somewhat fluent in English, Lévi-Strauss began teaching at the Free French supported École libre des hates études de New York, where Jakobson was teaching, and at Barnard, and, in the midst of his reorientation to a new country, he reconnected with the Surrealists, fellow émigrés. Is is a measure of how much his English improved, probably due to his hours of study in the New York Public Library, that Lévi-Strauss began to write in English. According to his biographer, Patrick Wilcken, he found the writings of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), a biologist, a zoologist, a mathematician whose most famous book was On Growth and Form. This book pointed out that nature and its many shapes could be organized aesthetically and intellectually in terms of mathematical constructs. In other words, beneath the accumulations of nature and all of its variety was a core principle that organized its morphology.

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Thanks to his discovery of Thompson’s 1915 book, Lévi-Strauss was open to learning of a way in which to organize his cultural accumulations of his work on kinship. Jakobson, who introduced him to the idea that small units (of anything) acquired meaning only through the system of relationships and suggested that Lévi-Strauss might be interested in Saussure’s Cours de linguistic générale (1915). Lévi-Strauss was able to take Saussure’s idea of langue which is the structure that rules speaking and parole, or actual speech acts and substitute a structure for kinship which would contain actual case studies or examples. Through the close friendship with, Lévi-Strauss was able to not only organize his existing (old) work but also to begin his seminal work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). The stage was set for Lévi-Strauss to return to France with a new organizing principle for his future work and a new method that could be applied beyond the “scientific” field of linguistics, when he returned to France in 1948.

Because he carried with him a new mode of analysis and the conviction that the “structure” of kinship was the product of an entire way (structure) of thinking, Lévi-Strauss was poised to be in a unique position in post-war defeated Paris where there was a chance for new ideas to be heard by a new post-war generation. Although he was out of step with the new Hegelian thrust of philosophy, he found new allies, such as psychologist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), who realized that language, if structured, also structured the unconscious mind itself and with that insight changed the way in which Freud was understood. The Elementary Structures of Kinship focused on the presumed (and since discredited) universality of the incest taboo Lévi-Strauss, teaching at the Sixth Section of the École pratique des hautes études, shifted his interest to myths and their structure, which, like kinship, demonstrated a system of thinking. Mythic thinking was a mode of symbolic thought.

The Structural Study of Myth,” (1952) which applied Structuralism to mythology, attempted to show that all myths, regardless of originating culture, could be structured along binary lines. Instead of the phonemes of language, Lévi-Strauss used “mythemes” or the organizing principles for storytelling. These mythemes could be organized in paired opposites, bringing order to the multiple local myths and suggesting a universality of human thought. Using a horizontal to track temporal changes in myths and a vertical track the recurring themes, Lévi-Strauss mapped out the structure of mythologies around the world in terms of bundles of relations. Neither the symbolism nor the meaning of these myths was important–an important anti-humanist and anti-subject assertion–only the structure of these myths was significant. Myth, then, was a language, constructed by the bricoleur or the myth maker, who gathered elements already ready to construct the myth. In other words, in another blow to humanism, myths have no author; myths are composed of recycled materials which work on the “composer.”

The idea that the myth worked the culture rather than the other way around is Lévi-Strauss’s own “Copernican Revolution,” dating back to the insights he gained from Jakobson in New York. In 1977 he participated in a series of radio interviews entitled “Myth and Meaning,” which begins with a statement by Lévi-Strauss to the effect,

You may remember that I have written that myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him. This has been much discussed and even criticized by my English speaking colleagues, because their feeling is that, from an empirical point of view, it is utterly meaningless sentence. But for me it describes a lived experience, because it is exactly how I perceive my own relationship to my work. That is, my work gets thought in me unbeknownst to me. I never had and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no “I” no “me.” Each of is a crossroads where things happen. The crossroads is purely passive, something happens there. A different thing, equally valid, happens elsewhere. There is no choice, it is just a matter of chance.

Between 1964 and 1971, four volumes of Mythologies were published to great acclaim. In between he also wrote and published Tristes Tropiques (1955), a memoir of his time in Brazil and The Savage Mind (1962). Over a period of innovation, Lévi-Strauss had taken the old biological term “physical anthropology” and applied it to culture as “structural anthropology,” known as “Structuralism.” By the early 1950s, young scholars were attending his lectures and his structuralism or his structural take on culture was seen as a way in which to make the analysis of other fields as systematic as science. Essentially Structuralism purported to locate a framework that made communication of ideas possible, and, if it were the case that language was structured then literature was likewise structured then Structuralism was a useful tool in understanding any form of written communication. Furthermore, Structuralism, as designed by Lévi-Strauss, allowed many disciplines to analyze their own products from the perspective of critique. Suddenly intellectual writings descended from the realm of mystic truths and entered into the investigations of active readers, who would delve beneath the depths of surface statements and find the rules that determined the text. There is an underlying assumption, within the formal strictures of Structuralism, that the communication was bounded and that the text was unified and therefore had a center.

In the hands of Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism was, like the philosophies of post-war scholars, an amalgam of multiple sources: the writings of Marcel Mauss, the a priori categories of Kant, the materialism of Marx, and the linguistics of Eastern Europe. That said, all these sources, including Freud, were based upon models, from Kant’s architectonic thinking, Marx’s dialectal materialism and Freud’s tripartite mind and linguistics oppositions. The up and coming scholars, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida, took note of the ideas of Lévi-Strauss as a form of cultural critique but it was just a matter of time before Structuralism itself could not remain immune to the impulse toward internal analysis. The formal assumptions of Structuralist models would be questioned and challenged even before the uprisings of May 1968 brought everything into question. But in order to interrogate the existing order of philosophy, the new generation had to go through the formidable Claude Lévi-Strauss.

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