Yesterday, at the age of 100, Claude Levi-Strauss died.
He has been called the ‘father of modern anthropology’ and, in a way, I think that’s absolutely fitting. He was undoubtedly a giant in a field that he helped to create, and his ideas about how to conduct anthropological research and examine findings remains central to the discipline, as well as the academic value he placed upon myth in human understanding. He was one of the first academics to suggest that Westerners and so-called ‘primitives’ shared fundamental commonalities, that our human similarities remain the basis of our cultural differences. His work, particularly the landmark texts The Savage Mind and The Raw and the Cooked are must-reads for any anthropology student and inspired Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and Barthes among many others. A fairly thorough obituary can be found here.
However, I have to admit that as much as I respected his work, much of it never spoke to me. What follows is obviously a simplification of his theories as I understood them, and regardless or perhaps because of my reservations I recommend you read his work yourself. That caveat in place, his primary point and the basis of the Structuralism that followed him was that all cultural work can be divided along binary lines of contradiction. Life/Death, Right/Wrong, Male/Female and so on, creating possibilities and tensions that define our lives. He believed that this was innate, essential and inevitable – and that this process of human understanding of the world was what we all shared.
That’s where I fundamentally disagree. I don’t think that this binary approach to the world, which seeks out twins in order to separate them, is universal. I think it is specific and potentially very damaging because it privileges certain kinds of cross-pair associations which them lump together sets of ideas which do not, in and of themselves, belong together. If we look at the list above, a family of Life, Right and Male becomes formed and defined by its opposite of Death, Wrong and Female. This kind of binary opposition is a particularly modern, Western way of understanding the world – as is the urge to explain those understandings as natural, inevitable and empirically true. Of course, he also argued that kinship systems had developed as a method of ‘gift exchange’ of women between tribes, so it is perhaps inevitable that we would disagree.
Ultimately, I think that human experience is richer than binary systems allow, more nuanced and more alive to the complexities of human emotions, senses and relationships. I think that the human mind is capable of processing multiple, diverse and seemingly contradictory experiences at once, and that the worlds imprints itself upon us in overlapping layers. More than one thing can be true at any given time.
Of course, I came to these theories by passing through the Foucaultian Post-Structuralist woodlands of Vassar, where Butler and Barthes were rarely read, perhaps, but very often quoted. Academia would have been infinitely poorer without his work, and I think that this is the dilemma that all academics face. Not to sound overly Oedipal (as he would argue it), but we need to challenge our fathers.
I like to think Levi-Strauss appreciated critique – even if he did vote against including women in the Académie Française!