Interlude: On influences of, and for, Lévi-Strauss

I want to do something different today, and briefly acknowledge someone whose reading of Lévi-Strauss is influencing this project, as well as someone who was a large influence on Lévi-Strauss on the first place.

A page from d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form

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Overture: page 2-4

Before we begin, there are two things that I want to mention. The first is that a very close friend of mine has recently bought me a present: a copy of the final book of the Mythologiques series, L’Homme Nu, in the original French. This may seem to be an odd thing to mention, but this was not any random copy of that book. Rather, it was the very copy that belonged to the late Marcel Hénaff, who wore the twin hats of philosopher and anthropologist. While I know many people that were far more close to him than I, it still would be hard to quantify my debt to Marcel Hénaff. He was the sort of person who always was willing to make time to meet, to check in how the career is advancing, to see what you were arguing with, to hear about what it was that was next on the horizon. (Whenever I saw him in San Diego when I was back from the University of Edinburgh, he would always greet me by loudly saying in his inimitable French accent, “How is my European friend?”) He was the person who first taught me about Gilles Deleuze, who’s work has had an oversized effect on my thoughts. And, most of all, he as the author of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology. That book, a wonderful précis of Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual career, was one of the books that I read most assiduously in the opening days of graduate school. This was not because Lévi-Strauss had any particularly outsized importance in my department. Rather, it was because of Lévi-Strauss’s lack of weight in that milieu that I turned to him, and particularly to Marcel Hénaff’s distillation of him. A careful reading of a careful thinker, I remember how I would flip through it at night before I went to sleep, reading it not so much as model of what to think, but of how to think, of what rigorous thinking looks like. It was a model of deliberate, carefully attentive grace. I have never been captured by the cognitivism inherent in structural anthropology (this will probably become increasingly clear as we go deeper in our readings), but the desire to see all variation as paradigmatic expressions of the same complex – a desire also seen in Freud’s brave (albeit it probably mistaken) suggestion that the same processes are responsible for both neurotic and non-neurotic thought – struck me as a vital insight.

All this is to say that this gift of L’Homme Nu is a weighty one. All the more so because L’Homme Nu is the final book of the Mythologiques cycle. My friend bought it because of this status – he said it was his hope that it would give me “courage” in my reading of the series, as well as “motive to drive to the conclusion.” It does give me courage, though I have to say that the conclusion is honestly something that I can’t envision. Which is not to say that I will not try to reach the conclusion; rather that at least in this point in time, it’s the voyage which is the horizon against which I think this project.

Second, a more comedic note. I just want to mention in passing that WordPress has been sending me all sorts of messages about how I could monetize this blog. I suspect that they either haven’t looked at its contents, or alternately feel much stronger about high structuralism than I would have guessed.

I apologize for the asides. Well, I apologize, but I’m not going to debase myself. If we are to treat Mythologiques like it is Trieste Tropiques, then moments like this are inevitable. And more to the point, they are desirable. If reading in this manner is to have any point – and I have no idea what ‘this manner’ is, other than a gradualist one that denies any kind of total mastery because it unfolds in real time – then that reason is to see what is summoned up outside of the text through encounters with the text.

Now, back to makin’ big WordPress money and readin’ Mythologiques.

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Overture: page 1-2

On the first post, we packed our bags; on our last post, we squinted our eyes as we stared at the placard that marked the trailhead. Today, we go into the rough of things. It will still be slow going for a while – in time we’ll be able to cover much greater expanses in a single outing. But the beginning will be slow. And this is in part because the trailhead may look clearly marked…but as we will see it still has some kinks, rough passages, and surprising turns that are hard to see when looking ahead.

The beginning section of this essay is labeled an ‘overture.’ We have spoken a great deal about music in the last posting, and the first page and a half of the book gives us no more red meat in this regard. But we should still remember that this is no mere ‘introduction,’ and we will take an opportunity a bit further down the line to think out loud as to why this is the case. But now is not the time. That is because rather than reflecting on the obviously driving musical motif, the book begins in an incredibly straight-ahead statement of purpose, a single sentence almost airtight in how succinct it is. It’s admittedly a long sentence, but still it seems so straightforward in a day where some academic books never manage to clearly state their raisen d’etreat all. It even manages to present both the warrant for and the import of the book’s title in its first line. I repeat that sentence here because of its crystalline nature, but also because it’s so taut that it would be hard to give a gloss of it that didn’t either lose precision or gain length:

The aim of this book is to show how empirical categories – such as the categories of the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the decayed, the moistened and the burned, etc., which can only be accurately defined by ethnographic observation and, in each instance, by adopting the standpoint of a particular culture – can nonetheless be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the form of propositions.


It is a seamless passage – but there one exception to this lack of any joint or stitching that is easy to miss when giving the sentence a cursory reading. There is some wiggle room, a bit of grammatical fuzziness in exactly who is using these “empirical categories” as “conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the form of propositions.” This ambiguity, to the degree that my admittedly mediocre French can be used as a guide, is not an artifact of translation, but also can be found in the original. I mention this because a few sentences in, there is another moment where the issue of who is engaged in this tool-use activity, and what these tools are for, get opened up a little bit more. Right after insisting that we must rigorously start by inserting ourselves into the “concrete” positions of the communities that we speak of, Lévi-Strauss backs away a step from that methodological commitment, saying that this insertion into the standpoint of the ethnographic subject “cannot mask or restrict my intentions.” You can stand in their place, but not exactly in their place. That is because the value in discussing the myths exceed both the myths themselves and the telling of these myths. These myths will function as a “laboratory” for an “experiment” which, he claims, will have “universal significance.” As he states, “I expect [the experiment] to prove that there is a kind of logic in tangible qualities, and to demonstrate the operation of that logic and reveal its laws.” How can we say we are standing in the place of the originators of the myth if we get something else, something more, from the operation?

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Dedication: page v

There is granular, and there is granular; there is slow, and there is slow. And today we are engaging in a reading more in line with the italicized versions of both words, as we are going over just one page of The Raw and the Cooked. I promised that we would start with what passes for the books introduction, but like someone on a stroll something on the way caught my eye, and I want to look it over.  So we’ll talk about that. But in way of preparation for that one page, I want to start this discussion by referring to a diagram that is not in The Raw and the Cooked, or for that matter, not in any of the other volumes of Mythologiques. Before we even get to that dedication page, take a look at the diagram for the Totemic Operator, from The Savage Mind. Diagrams were important to Lévi-Strauss. In fact, diagrams are arguably important to much of twentieth century anthropological thought. We will no doubt be discussing many, and perhaps all, of the diagrams found in Mythologuiques for the light that they cast on Lévi-Strauss’s argument – when the argument is not the diagram itself!


[Totemic Operator, The Savage Mind, pg. 152]

The book the diagram is taken from was written just a little before The Raw and the Cooked. That being the case, one would imagine that the argument being presented by The Savage Mind would be simpatico with The Raw and the Cooked; after all, The Savage Mind’s indigenous bricoleur seems at first blush to be engaged in a form of cognition that is very much akin to the sort of reasoning that we will see attributed to native thought in our books. But rather than take up the issue of the resonance or difference between the large-scale claims of these books, what I want to do here instead is to just encourage you to take in the form of this totemic operator, specifically the aesthetics of it. The word crystalline is often used when discussing Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, and to be honest there are few things that are more crystalline that this diagram. It is a total, symmetrical system, where all the elements can be placed in a determinate position in vis-a-vis each other. It is so ordered that it is almost like an immanent Platonism.

Keep the totemic operator mentally close at hand, and then take a look at the first substantive page of The Raw and the Cooked: the dedication. And here, the dedication is “to music.”

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The Raw and the Cooked: Title Page

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is arguably known for two pieces of writing: one being Tristes Tropiques, and the other being the four volume Mythologiques series. This is not to say that these are the only books of his that have left an imprint in the world.  La Pensée Sauvage (or as translated into English, Savage Minds) is known for closing with a devastating disassembling of Jean-Paul Sartre; The Elementary Structures of Kinship is a synthetic masterpiece that transformed an entire anthropological sub-discipline; both Totemism and Structural Anthropology are classroom staples in many introductory anthropology courses. But when weighing Lévi-Strauss’s reputation as an author, I feel comfortable with the assertion that Triste Tropiques and Mythologiques are the texts that bear most of the weight.

This couple may be interesting, because to many eyes these texts appear to be wildly different from one another. According to reputation, Triste Tropiques is a travel memoir, saturated with a nostalgia for an indigenous (new) world that had faded before Lévi-Strauss ever had an opportunity to see it. Mythologiques, by contrast, is an exhaustive and encyclopedic crystallization of indigenous thought. It is presented as a totalizing autopsy of Native American myth, where Claude Lévi-Strauss erases himself as an author, leaving nothing behind but his structuralist intellectual apparatus and the myths which are simply the grist for that apparatus to grind apart. One thinks of images of Lévi-Strauss’s office, bloated with thousands of index cards, each containing a separate and decontextualized ’mytheme’ – the name for social roles, objects, and events that Lévi-Strauss considered to be the basic constituent material that myths are constructed from. Put this way, these two books fit a duality hinted at in the title of a recent biography of Lévi-Strauss, The Poet in the Laboratory. There is on one hand a melancholically poetic Lévi-Strauss, that is to say the Lévi-Strauss of Triste Tropiquesand on the other the unemotional pseudo-scientific Lévi-Strauss found in Mythologiques.

Such a divide, though, depends on great deal on Mythologiques to make its argument. Or rather, this argument depends on Mythologiques’s reputation. Perhaps, we could say, on the myth of Mythologiques.

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