A CENTURY OF LEVI-STRAUSS

A tribute to Professor Claude Levi-Strauss born 28th November 1908
Daniel Miller, UCL
Few of us are not entranced by tales of discovery. The magical feeling when something which previously existed but, but we were entirely unaware of, become known. Humanity is given a new consciousness that once we have gained seems impossible that we should ever lose it again. It’s easier to think about such discoveries in terms of natural science, such as the discovery of the atom or of penicillin. But we have been equally transformed over the last century by a series of discoveries in social science. It’s now hard to explain to people what it meant and what it was really like to live before feminism, that things that seem totally obvious afterwards, were previously simply not available to be thought about. In my memory the most profound, most long lasting, extraordinary and singular moment of discovery came when I was a student in anthropology at Cambridge. When Edmund Leach, who acted as John the Baptist, to this French Messiah, gave us a lecture about Levi-Strauss, and I knew, instantly, that I would never see the world again in the same way.
The sensation was almost as though, as well as smell and touch, I now possessed a new sense. There was another Kantian category, a foundational way of seeing the world on a par with time and space. Immediately after the lecture I literally ran back to my college and accosted every other student I could find, whatever subject they were studying, to tell them what I had discovered. Nothing has ever been quite so sudden and transformative to my life before or since.
What was it, that I could tell these students? What was the nature of this observation that changes the world? I probably didn’t even mention the word structuralism on that first occasion, it was something absurdly simple. In my memory I talked to them about tables and chairs. Up to that moment, in whatever subject I had been taught, we learnt had about entities in their own right. A historical moment, a tribe, the way a collective farm operated. The world consisted of a mass of myriad things that one tried to understand and gain information about. Each in its turn, each in its own right. But what Edmund Leach had just explained was that all these apparently separate entities were in fact an illusion. The meaning and nature of any one of them, only existed by virtue of its relationship to some other neighbouring entity that it was not. He told us how an armchair could vary only to the degree that it didn’t appear to be a kitchen chair or dining chair or a sofa. An entity was not defined by its centre but by the boundaries imposed upon it by the existence of other things that it could otherwise have been. The Welsh were in effect not English, Irish or Scottish, a town was not a village or a city. Things existed not in themselves but relationally. It’s impossible to convey how exciting this was, because I cannot put you back into a timeframe when this possibility or at least this claimed ubiquity of relationality was in effect unthought.
This, of course, was only the start. Levi-Strauss’s contribution ranged far and wide. From this simple concept of relationality all the way to the breathtaking appearance of four volumes of Mythologique. Suddenly we were confronted with the idea that there were myths that travelled around continents, like Chinese shape-changers, disguised, inverting, substituting in such a manner that these individual peoples and tribes no longer seemed autonomous, rather they were just units through which other previously unseen substances worked there way through humanity as a whole. Levi-Strauss was the quintessential anthropologist, in that at one extreme he had the scholarship to investigate in micro-detail some esoteric point of Amazonian lore, but he could use this to change our idea of what humanity as whole consisted of. As students our favourite was the Myth of Asdiwal that made the method particular clear and convincing. Fortunately we could share our enthusiasm, since if people could not be persuaded to read four volumes about tribal myths, or complex modularity’s of kinship, he had given us a popular tome, in Tristes Tropique that anyone could enjoy. Within that were sections, such as his description of a sunset, that conveyed his status as the scientist observing in intricate detail that which normally just passed us by, and everyone had watched sunsets and could admire the artistry.
At first it wasn’t obvious that this would also represent the birth of modern material culture studies, especially because at first it seemed that Levi-Strauss teaching took us much further towards the hegemony of language rather than the object world. But with Levi-Strauss language itself changed, to become not to overt world of meaning we were used to, but underlying structures of opposition and juxtaposition, that worked largely through the unconscious. What both Levi-Strauss and several prominent structuralists then noted, was that if language could operate this way, then there was a direct analogy to other things in the world, that might also work below the level of consciousness in structuring the world. For those of us involved in the development of material culture the moment of affirmation came with the publication of The Way of the Masks. We had tentatively thought on these lines but now The Master himself had, in a book length exposition, given us an exemplary exercise in which it was things, rather than myths that performed these shifts, and inversions as they moved from population to population down the North-West coast of the Americas. That to understand the precise shape and form of a mask in one region was to appreciate that it was the inverse of the mask in the next door region.
Once Levi-Strauss had as it were given us permission, a multitude of followers proclaimed the doctrine, and exhibited its application to a wide range of material phenomenon. In Britain Mary Douglas uncovered the way everyday food operates as this structuralist language, working alongside Edmund Leach. Sahlins, in the last part of the book Culture and Practical Reason gave us in the example of clothing, his translation of the work of French structuralists such as Barthes and Baudrillard. The great virtue of this idea was that people working in material culture were insisting that objects had a role in structuring our perception of the world that we were generally not aware of; and that it was not singular objects but the larger order of things. The most lasting impact of these ideas came through the work of Bourdieu, who combined elements of structuralism and phenomenology to give us a theory of practice in which we were socialised into being representative of cultural norms though constant interaction with such an ordered material culture. But there is no way we could have had Bourdieu except as an extension of Levi-Strauss. For my part I remember, as a student in archaeology, working for weeks on my grand undergraduate essay called `Towards a Diachronic Stucturalism’ which I presented to the great David Clarke, who had himself demonstrated the application of these ideas in a re-working of the Glastonbury excavations in his book Models in Archaeology. It remained an important part of my portfolio and I much later on presented it as part of my application for a job at UCL. Since then every generation of anthropology students reads at least The Savage Mind. Phrases such as `the raw and the cooked’ became part of common parlance. The point, of course, was that for many years, we were all structuralists, every last one of us.

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One Response to A CENTURY OF LEVI-STRAUSS

  1. Patrick Laviolette (SVMC, Massey Univ.) December 1, 2008 at 11:44 pm #

    By chance I just met the visual anthropologist/ethnographic filmmaker Rolf Husmann (who amongst other things co-directed the ‘Firth on Firth’ doco). Anyway, he happens to share Levi-Strauss’ birthday. As did William Blake & Friedrich Engels, and as does Alistair Darling.

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