Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism


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.


The Library of Claude Lévi-Strauss with 6, 500 volumes

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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Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1986)


Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975)

The opening pages of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault were one of the best representations of his long term project of making history or the past “strange.” Barely a two decades before the Declaration of Independence was issued in the American colonies in 1757, “Damiens the Regicide” was tortured to death in Paris in a manner so gruesome that the 21st century reader recoils in shock and horror. In fact, the distance was not just the two centuries and twenty years between the execution of Damiens and the publication of Discipline and Punish but also the difference between an absolute monarchy in France and the budding democracy in the Colonies. However, the content of Discipline and Punish is not a tale of progress from absolutism to self-rule but an archaeology of discourses and an analysis of how these discourses mold and shape societies and lives and personas. Discipline and Punish is the middle step between the Archaeology of Knowledge and the three volume The History of Sexuality, published just a year later, which can be read as the journey of Foucault from the way in which discourses were formed to the impact of those discourses. The reentry into is a re-visiting of the question of the formation of the “subject” and Foucault’s “historical a priori” shifted from mechanics to application.

Just as The Archaeology of Knowledge encouraged a number of scholars to initiate their own discourses on various forms of knowledge, so too did Discipline and Punish suggest new ways to talk about a subject that began to weigh upon Foucault from the early seventies on. Perhaps his concerns with power came from his experience with the “days of May” in 1968 or due to the obvious implications of the impact of discourses, or savoir, Foucault began to link “voir” or “to see” with “pouvoir” or power. He works out an unholy trinity of voir, savior, pouvoir, in other words, to see is to know is to have power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault tranced to rise of the discipline of the body, rather than punishing it as a public spectacle which was, not a spectacle of pain but of the centralized power of the king. As long as power radiated outward from the ruler, it was negative or prohibitive, but during the Enlightenment a new kind of power emerged: not the negative power–the “shalt-nots”–but a positive power that dispersed, multiplied, spread out, and became non-localized. As opposed to the bloodthirsty and regressive regime of torture that acted as a public deterrent to crime and as a form of entertainment, the new positive power introduced a regime of the regard or the steadfast gaze of power.

Foucault did not seem to be interested in power until he mentioned it in public until 1970 when he began to shift from archaeology to genealogy which allows him to examine these discourses as they are received: as regimes of “truth.” However, his interest in state power came from his involvement in a campaign to reform French prisons. This practical experience, which included visits to French and American prisons, was followed by a theoretical book on power. Foucault came to understand, via the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on genealogy, that knowledge is entangled in power. With Nietzsche morality is neither metaphysical or sacred but is implicated in changing conceptions of “good and evil” that are tools for domination. Indeed, for Foucault, knowledge is part of a larger “will to power” which is “malicious” and unjust. Foucault became preoccupied with power because it seemed clear that although society was enmeshed in a web of laws, there was no clear idea of power. We understand a government by laws, but we had no conception of modern power until Foucault, beginning with his early writings on the clinic and madness, slowly came to the realization that a combination of the “gaze” of the authority and discourse (knowledge in the service of the dominant) had the power to construct where to put what kind of bodies and why. As Foucault wrote,

The classical age discovered the body as the object and target of power. It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body–to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces.

As early as Madness and Civilization (1966), Foucault talked about the “medical gaze” bearing down upon an individual, discursively named as “patient.” He made the link between voir (to see) and savior (to know) and pouvoir (to be in power). The body became objectified in order that it be controlled, disciplined, and placed under surveillance in the panopticon society. Although madness, for example, has always existed, the language to discuss language has not, nor have the conditions always existed to “construct” the idea of the mad person. The “mad” or “madness” come into being only through the force of discourse. Under certain conditions, discourses begin to form as distinct objects, but these social “conditions” are not what intrigued Foucault. Like language itself, discourses cannot exist outside of groups of relations. These complex relations are what enables the objects to appear and these relations are what is interesting to Foucault.


Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish (1975)

In the spirt of investigating discursive structures and their impact, Foucault began Discipline and Punish. This is the most accessible of Foucault’s books: it starts with a riveting scene of horror and then he established a sequence of social practices that established what he called “the carceral society,” which is where the book concluded. In the chapter, “The Gentle Way in Punishment,” Focault described the changed from from public spectacles to different forms of penalties. As Foucault wrote, “..everyone must see punishment, not only as natural, but in his own interest; everyone must be no more spectacular, but useless penalties. There must be no secret penalties either, the punishment must be regarded as a retribution that the guilt man makes to each of his fellow citizens, for the crime that has wronged them all..”

The role of government is to maintain good order, and by the 18th century the role of discipline before the fact, rather than punishment after the fact began to play an important role in social control. Foucault selected several institutions which were large and influential in creating the “docile bodies:” the military, the factory, hospitals, and schools, all being located in enclosed spaces. According to Foucault, these “projects of docility” are based upon “the scale of control” that were used to put the body under “meticulous control.” During the classical age, society was subjected to what Foucault described as “A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political awareness of these small things, for the control and use of men, emerge through the classical age bearing with them a whole set of techniques, a whole corpus of methods and knowledge, descriptions, plans and date. And from these trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism was born.”

This is a striking passage and it is buried in the middle of the book but sums up its entire contents. Foucault made the point that discipline needed what he called “an analytical space.” The analytical space separated individuals into specific areas “ locate individuals, to set up useful communications, to interrupt others, to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculated its qualities or merits. It was a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering, and using. Discipline organizes an analytical space. Perhaps the most powerful and frightening chapter is the one on “docile bodies” where Foucault explained the meticulous training of the large bodies of the soldiers and the small bodies of elementary school students, all of whom are trained to respond to tiny signals and small gestures, creating what he called“the correlation of the body and the gesture.”

In a passage that is both inhumane and alarming, Foucault demonstrated the level of detail and control, described as dressage, that was brought to bear upon young children in the 18th century:

A distance of two fingers must be left between the body and the table; for not only to the health than to acquire the habit of pressing one’s stomach against the table, the part of the left arm from the elbow to the hand must be placed on the table. The right arm must be at a distance from the body of about three fingers and be about five fingers from the table, on which it must rest lightly.

The most famous chapter in the book concerned the “panopticon society,” a term that was derived from an experimental prison created by the architect Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who was responding to the new necessity to incarcerate and discipline, prisoners. Bentham was an economist who devoted himself to bringing about social reforms under his ideas of utilitarianism. Although he was trained as a lawyer, Bentham never practiced law and spent his career devising plans for numerous institutions devoted to incarcerating people for a number of reasons. As Bentham explained, Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated, instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

According to Foucault, surveillance began with the plague which meant that an entire town had to be closed off and all of its inhabitants kept under close watch. He compared the condition of the townspeople with that of the exclusion of the leper who is free but separated. The Panopticon, designed by Bentham, was as he described it, “A building circular…The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or…without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.” The result of the regime of watching is that the prisoners internalize the gaze and end up watching themselves, a condition called by Foucault, “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”Foucault continued,“ is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without being seen..He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both sides; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

One of the crucial conclusions made by Foucault is that power is not negative–does not reside in prohibitions, but is productive and positive. One power was no longer located within or upon the body of the ruler, then, in the modern era, power was dispersed throughout the population all of whom, whether “inspectors” or prisoners, were under the anonymous control of a myriad of regulations.“The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.” The result of the panoptic schema was the evolution of a carceral society, called by Foucault, “the carceral” or a social condition in which“The judges of normality are present everywhere..The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. The carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpectual observation; it is, by its very nature, the apparatus of punishment that conforms most completely to the new economy of power and the instrument for the formation of knowledge that this economy needs.”

There is no ultimate origin for power but a production of a discursive object through the discourse itself. Foucault investigated the discursive relationship between power and knowledge and the body in Discipline and Punish in 1975 and continued the connection in The History of Sexuality, begun in 1977 and not completed when he died. Human sciences are played out in social institutions and practices. The organization of society is carried out through bio-techico power and Foucault gave a unique, but ultimately influential, emphasis on the body in explaining the operations of power. Although The History of Sexuality suffered due to his illness–the final volumes were not as well-developed as the first–this series established a new and significant concept: that social bodies were determined through discourse. In other words, human beings are not natural and from birth they are, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, “made.”

However, influential the idea of the unnatural fabrication of even such intimate aspects of one’s private and personal life, gender and sexuality, are social constructs were, it must be noted that Foucault managed to write a “history of sexuality” which almost entirely leaves out women–half the human race. In addition, the institutions highlighted in Discipline and Punish existed mainly to control the male. Women would be found in workhouses and factories but not in schools or the military, the two largest institutions in charge of creating the “docile body.” Although Foucault does not deal with gender in this book, the fact that, once again, half the human race is left out does not seem to disturb the thrust of the thesis. In addition, the fact that women would never be in positions of authority, not as teachers, or “inspectors,” or military commanders, or as supervisors in a hospital, and so on, meant that the social condition of women and their bodies were never taken into account in creating a society of subjugation. In addition, in concentrating on the prison, it is possible for Foucault to leave out more “primitive” forms of maintaing power, such as those exercised in the American South to control slaves and those exercised in the family to oppress women.

While it is never fair to criticize a writer in terms of what s/he choses to not address, it seems clear that Foucault’s position, although always a critique, would preclude a Marxist or a Feminist reading or a post-Colonial interpretation, which might “reveal” white male dominance and oppression relative to the position of the Other. Foucault’s stance was decidedly conservative and regressive in its effects. One of the major criticisms of women and people of color make against Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism is that, just as their voices are beginning to be heard, critique for political purposes was been “ruled out” in favor is the study of discourse, silencing the Other once again. Intellectually, Foucault and his contemporaries got around the objection to the way in which theory distanced itself from the effects of real life. Post-Structuralism is located outside of Structuralism, that is, away from the task of interpretation, stems from phenomenology of Edumnd Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Post-Structuralism does not interpret but finds and describes. The divide between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism is the divide between Modernism and Post-Modernism and Discipline and Punish was an important move towards a Post-Modern critique of society. There are, however, problems with this position.

Structuralism is a method, an assumption of being and takes the object of examination out of context and subjects it to the clear light of an “objective gaze.” For the Post-Structuralist, the very idea of the “objective” is as fictitious as the “subjective.” In addition, through decontextualizing the object, Structuralism neglects history and cannot account for the force of the text. Foucault’s refusals, his “nots,” were always in opposition to Structuralism, which created a formal order of development for the sake of knowledge. Structuralism “creates” regularities that make representation possible and the world become knowable. In contrast, the Post-Structuralist refuses all the outcomes of humanism: “spirit,” “influence,” continuity, tradition, and psychoanalysis–all forms of the “self.” The self which can be actualized through affirmative action, as posited by Jean-Paul Sartre, was the major target of the post war generation.

Given that advocates for feminism and post-colonialism, both of which could be said to be part of the Modernist project of social justice still hoped for “progress” in human equality, their method of practical critique–“the personal is political”–would be excluded in favor of a more abstract critique of discourse. Although there are many elements in Post-Structuralism or Post-Modernism that were radical and even revolutionary towards authority, even Discipline and Punish, which laid out the mechanizations of power, was a conservative document. While it was of great interest to understand that gender was a social construction, the other side of such an analysis was not a proscription for change but a description of a web of power from which there was no escape.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]