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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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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Roland Barthes: Mythologies

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

PART TWO

Mythologies (1957)

In the fifties, Roland Barthes was a semiologist, following Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), in using the sign, the signifier and the signified to study the social condition. The timing of this volume is an interesting one, coming after the deprivations of a long war and occupation and during the decade in which France tried to recapture its pre-war prestige before surrender and humiliation. The nation was entering into the delirium of consumerism and mass media that was the common property of a European culture, rapidly becoming Americanized. The period was also one of nationalism with the country being still mired in the throes of late-Empire, struggling with what would be a long and depressing decade of colonialist chaos. Mythologies, like its content is also part the longer turn towards Structuralism, still in development, and owes much to Lévi-Strauss whose groundbreaking works taught Barthes how to look at cultural forms and analyze them. It is no accident that the foundational article, or the afterword of the book, is entitled “Myth Today,” which discusses contemporary mythology.

In Mythologies, written in 1957 from a compilation of fifty-three short articles published between 1954-56, Barthes became concerned with mass culture and the messages it sends to the hapless watchers of television and readers of magazines. By examining popular culture, Barthes, an admirer of Bertold Brecht, was following in the footsteps of Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Like Benjamin before the Second World War, his colleague Theodor Adorno examined the ideology of the “culture industry” and revealed how the interests of the dominant classes were furthered through Hollywood films. At this time, however, the pioneering and preceding work of Benjamin and Adorno was not well known and the analyses of Barthes were some of the earliest and most accessible de-codings of contemporary myths. Make no mistake, “Myth Today” was an extremely political tract, a scathing indictment of French colonialism and racism that still resonates in the 21st century. As Marco Roth pointed out in his 2012 article in The New Yorker on the new edition of Mythologies, the essays lay out

..his frustrations with social and political landscape of France from 1954 to 1956: a time of increasing middle-class prosperity, coinciding with France’s struggle to hold onto its colonies in North Africa and Southeast Asia, and DeGaulle’s attempts to restore some kind of national pride in the aftermath of the Second World War. Most worryingly for Barthes, these were years that also saw the rise of an explicitly anti-intellectual, racist, and populist political party..

American readers would have not been familiar with the political background of the quarrel Barthes, a Marxist, had with nationalism and right wing politics and French imperialism but “Myth Today” entered into very controversial territory. Keeping in mind the association between Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre was associated with and connected to Francis Jeanson, a post-war “resistance” figure who started a network of opponents to colonialism in France. According to a 1991 article by Martin Evans, “French Resistance and the Algerian War,” the Jeanson networks were sympathetic to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algerian insurrectionists. Jeanson had published a book condemning French behavior in Algeria in 1955, spreading the resistance from Africa to France. As Evans wrote,

In 1954 there were 200,000 Algerians living in France. Of those 150,000 were working, the majority in the building or steel industries. Slowly but surely the FLN began to organise Algerians in France. It was Algerians in France that were to finance the war.In 1954, French Algeria was a society rigidly polarised along racial lines, economically, politically and culturally. On the one side there were one million French settlers; on the other nine million Algerians..During the Algerian war the resisters’ activity was seen as ‘abnormal’ behaviour, it marked them out as traitors, rebels, outsiders in the eyes of French society. And, despite the time that has elapsed, even now a large number of French people would be reluctant to endorse what they did. For the right they were traitors; for the established left they were irresponsible, adventurists. The Communist Party might have taken a clear position against the war but it never condoned illegal action..in siding with the FLN in such a way they crossed too many taboos. This means that their action has never been accepted within the dominant culture in the way that Second World War resistance was..

In uncovering this hidden corner of French history, the article by Evans highlights the extent to which Barthes was taking a transgressive position. In fact “Myth Today” goes on for a number of pages before Barthes introduces his major character, found on the cover of Paris Match:

..a young Negro officer is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor..I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.

Paris-Match

This sudden tough political confrontation is all the more striking, given that the reader of the volume of essays had been browsing through short little narratives on bourgeois habits: the spectacle of wrestling, soap-powdrs, margarine, steak and chips and striptease. Barthes is the sarcastic observer of the absurdities of consumer culture but Mythologies is also a very serious attempt to use semiology as a science and the first half dozen pages of “Myth Today” carefully lay out the semiological structure of myths. Heavily influenced by the 1955 essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss “The Structural Study of Myth,” Barthes organized the structure of myth into a framework that brought its constituent parts together into an assemblage. It is the arrangement of the elements that give the meaning to the myth. Lévi-Strauss pointed out the myth was a third term between the implied times of langue and parole, because “myth is language.” Myth has a double structure, both historical and ahistorical. Of course from a political point of view, this very frozen state of a myth is exactly what gives it power: because it has always existed, it must be true or “natural.”

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In an attempt to “denaturalize” received wisdom, which is the role of the critic, Barthes de-coded familiar myths and made them un-familiar by pointing out that “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on..because all materials of a myth..presuppose a signifying consciousness..” Given that the myth must be familiar, it is constructed, as Barthes instructed, “from a semiological chain which existed before it: sign, signifier, signified. As a “second-order semiological system,” myth is divided into the “language-object” or the raw semiotic materials used by the myth and the myth itself or the “metalanguage.” Therefore, the signifier has two points of view: meaning and form, while the signified is the concept or the correlation of meaning and form. In terms of signification, according to Barthes, signification had a “double function: it points and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

“Myth is a type of speech” and Barthes gave a great deal of attention to the structure of the linguistics of the myth, which is a system of communication, a message. The mode of signification is the form of the myth which is not defined by the object of the message but only by the way or mode in which it utters the message. The mode of writing the myth is representation, that is, the use of material that has already been worked and is suitable for communication. Each myth has two levels of meaning: a primary message is conveyed, but when the main message is bracketed, a secondary message can be discerned. This secondary message reveals the workings of socio-economic structures that function to continue the oppression of the people who receive the messages and continue an ideological world view that keeps the ruling classes in power. As Barthes stated,

..When it becomes form, the meaning leaves it contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes improvised, history evaporates, only the letter remains..the essential point in all this is that the form does not suppress the meaning, it only improvises it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal..the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment..

The myth works with raw materials, reduced to pure signifying functions so that the myth becomes a sum of signs. In fact the myth prefers to work with poor and incomplete images. The myth will naturalize the concept and will transform history into nature. The reader then consumes the myth innocently as a factual system. The myth is already a form of language that can reach out and corrupt everything as depoliticized speech, organizing the world without contradictions and establishing clarity. Barthes pointed out that the myth was emptied out and became pure form into which new and ideological contents could be poured. The significance of the dozens of essays Barthes wrote for Les Lettres nouvelles is that most of his topics are based on commercial images in mass advertising, making him a semiologist of images the same way Lévi-Strauss was the structuralist of human behavior. In crossing the techniques Lévi-Strauss used for his analysis of the myth of Oedipus with a Sassurean examination of ordinary photographs, Barthes uncovered the inner workings of the myths that shaped the mindset of fifties France.

To decode a myth is to expose a delusion, making a revolutionary of a literary critic who can point to the “science” of semiology. The myths that Barthes found floating throughout popular culture were not, at that time, taken seriously, but the role of wine in French society was as important as the role of Charles de Gaulle, for as Barthes wrote, wine was political: ..its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of he privae distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread.. Indeed, the seemingly benign exhibition The Family of Man which had originated at the Museum of Modern Art, was curated by Edward Steichen, and renamed “The Great Family of Man” in France, flattens differences into a universal cycle of birth, life and death, mythologizing the “human condition.” Barthes pointed out that the exhibition, which was also much criticized in America, obliterated the historical facts of the “condition,” which for some was positive while for others was grindlingly negative. As Barthes explained in “Myth Today,”

..In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves..

For example, America is characterized by and characterizes itself on the myth of the “Wild West.” The history of the “wild west” with its plural cast of characters, cowboys, social misfits, sociopaths, whores, settlers, opportunists, victims, lawyers and schoolteachers and sheriffs and so on. What is conveniently forgotten or emptied out is the exploitation of Chinese laborers, the genocide of Native Americans, the savage struggles between the settler and the rancher, and the wholesale rape of the land. Thus, through forgetting or suppression of the facts, the truth or history is emptied out, leaving a hollow form. What is left is the myth of the Frontier. To the consumer of the myth, this image of America is linked to nature to make “America” seem inevitable and natural. We do not question this myth of America and when those who question the myth are called “unpatriotic,” we are hearing ideology at work.

Because as Barthes stated, “Myth is depoliticized speech” that is “political in its deeper meaning,” precisely because it talks about, for example, French colonialism or American imperialism, in to “purify” these events, “it gives them clarity.” This clarity which Barthes called “blissful” is what makes it so difficult to challenge myths: to call a depoliticized myth political is to risk being refuted, in turn, charged with being “political.” Barthes understood the dilemma and suggested that the best strategy was to “produce an artificial myth”..”why not rob a myth?” he asked. To read and receive a social myth is to be complicit in the making of the myth. The myth is always form, never content, and operates as a sign of the real or as a meta-language. Myths, he pointed out, exist on the left and right as political tools that tell cultural stories. Rather than study signs from an “objective” standpoint or from the position of “scientific” analysis, Barthes understood that signs are embedded, not just in a cultural context or a network of purely linguistic relationships, but belong to politics, economics, and ideology. Although he hinted at the notion of political critique in Writing Degree Zero, it is at this point with this essay that Barthes became a critic of culture or a critic of the workings of power and a revealer of the trappings of ideology.

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

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

[email protected]