Tuesday, November 3, 2009

RIP Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)

Pioneering French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has died. He was 100 years old.

Lévi-Strauss was arguably one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century in terms of Western understandings of culture. Born to an artistic Franco-Jewish family, Lévi-Strauss studied philosophy before bringing a musician's touch to the subject of cultural anthropology. Cultures and cultural artifacts, for Lévi-Strauss, were like musical pieces. They were interpreted by him as unfolding objects displaying and betraying deep, in many cases cross-cultural harmonies in the juxtaposition of their basic elements.

Another, perhaps more pertinent way of putting it is that Lévi-Strauss read cultures as languages. Profoundly influenced by the structural linguistics of Saussure and Jakobson, the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan, and the sociology and ideology-critique of Marx and Engels, Lévi-Strauss interpreted cultures and cultural artifacts, such as myths, as displaying syntaxes tied to underlying paradigmatic structures. A given myth, on his view, is an unfolding in time of basic binary oppositions constituting nothing less than a worldview.

Lévi-Strauss viewed the heart and soul of archaic or so-called "primitive" cultures as a collective, perpetual activity of bricolage; a gluing-together of environmentally ready elements, much as a craftsperson or artist uses readily available materials in his or her studio. Myths will contain local animals and weather patterns; however, what the bricoleur builds out of these elements ultimately betrays something of the most basic, universal structures of the human mind. Myths from vastly separated cultures, on this view, can be compared with a view to distilling universals. To study myths and other cultural artifacts is, in other words, to study some of the structural properties human cognition.

Modern societies are also considered to be largely constituted via bricolage; however, Lévi-Strauss posited that another type of thinker/practitioner, the engineer - one who formulates and proceeds from rational/rationalized methods - emerges in such societies. It did not follow from this distinction, on Lévi-Strauss's view, that modern societies are superior; rather, he maintained a deep pessimism about the prospects of modernity. Among other things, the workable ecological sensibility he discovered in his fieldwork in Brazil and in reading ethnographies is distorted or almost nonexistent in our own society.

Much is made of Lévi-Strauss's "structuralism", and the arguably anti-humanist vision that emanates therefrom. Seeing him interviewed or reading his texts, however, one gets the impression of an essential, animating love of humanity. My own experience with his texts and ideas as an undergraduate was immensely gratifying; I got the impression that at bottom, he wished to include the whole variety of ways of human being in the same family.

A profound pessimist who cherished the radical hope of being proven wrong: perhaps this is a good way to remember Claude Lévi-Strauss.