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.”
Now, this is odd, at several levels. First, this is odd in the sense that it is a break with a pattern of practice; it is not the way that Levi-Strauss dedicated his prior books. The Elementary Structures of Kinship is dedicated “[t]o the memory of Lewis H. Morgan,” which seems fair enough give the topic and ambition of that book. Savage Minds is dedicated to the memory of Lévi-Strauss’s then-recently departed friend, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Lévi-Strauss’s collection of essays, Structural Anthropology, goes to Emile Durkheim, with a nod to the entire Année Sociologique. Totemism doesn’t even have a dedication, merely an epigraph taken from Comte, who is often referred to as the founder of sociology. So up until this point, there is a definite pattern here, with the choice being to dedicate the work to a dead senior scholar whose work is closely related to whatever the book’s task-at-hand is. Why not a dedication to some person who wrote on myth? It’s not like there isn’t a lot of them to choose from. Also, if book dedications are intimately connected to a book’s subject, is music suppose to be the primary object of The Raw and the Cooked? If we cheat and turn the page to look at the table of contents, we might well make that assumption, seeing how we have an “overture” in place of an introduction, in addition to various interludes, variations, sonatas and symphonies further on in the text. But still, we know that this is a book that is not about music, but myth….
This brings us to the second way that this dedication is odd. Now, dedicating a book to music is just odd; generally inanimate forces or abstract social constructs don’t get a shout out. But that just scratches the surface of the other sense of ‘odd’ here. That is because when reading this page, we are immediately thrown into the problem of whether or not this is a dedication ‘to music’ at all. We can note that ‘to music’ can just as easily be read as an imperative, perhaps something like stage directions in a script. But then we notice that on the page, below the dedication, there are two lines of staff, bearing musical notation. This is a passage from a musical piece called… “To Music.” So is this a dedication to music writ large, or a dedication or reference to this particular musical composition? To add to the confusion, it turns out that the lyrics to the passage presented here adds further semiotic uncertainty, because those lyrics read as an invocation: “Mother of memory and feeder of dreams, Thee would we fain invoke today beneath this roof!” These lyrics, then, are therefore an invocation to a personification of music.
Put succinctly, we have a problem of determining the conceptual level being indicted here. Is this to an abstract, trans-human phenomenological category, to a particular instance of it, or to the lexical contents that form (part) of one particular instance? And is this to be thought of as a reference to an object, or as the equivalent of stage directions for the reader as the reader expresses the work through the act of reading?
Assuming that the author is being purposeful (and Lévi-Strauss is nothing if not purposeful) then the obvious answer to our question is “all of the above.” But that does answering “all of the above” mean? It is either an attempt to laminate these categories together, to destabilize an implicit hierarchy between categories, or to create a phantasmic statement that presents a different face each time it is looked at, at one moment indicaing the sense produced by these particular lyrics, at another moment the piece of music as an object, at and yet another reading the category write large, or perhaps something else entirely.
Compare all this to the totemic operator. The operator presumes a sharp difference between levels – as Lévi-Strauss states “the species level can widen its net upwards, that is, in the direction of elements, categories, and numbers, or contract downwards, in the direction of proper names.” As a whole, the operator comes “designed with reference to two axes, one horizontal and the other vertical, which correspond up to a point with Saussure’s distinction between syntagmatic and associative relations.” [The Savage Mind 149]. And we should recall that the totemic operator is not just about totems. Mythic thought is like totemistic thought in that they both can be characterized structural rules, and are not dependent on specific lexical items. It is any set of structured and hierarchically organized oppositions that can be used in the operator, as long as this set maps onto some other structured and hierarchically organized complex of oppositions.
As we’ve seen, the implicit structure and logic of the dedication in The Raw and the Cooked is not like that at all, instead making hierarchical order into uncertain play. And at least at this point in our reading, music doesn’t point to some other entity, the way that the upright pyramid in the totemic operator maps onto the inverted pyramid, allowing each category to become intelligible by comparing it to its other. In the dedication, if music (as a class, a single instance, or a lexical index) stands for something, it stands for music. It is not unlike a symbol that stands for itself. But there is another difference between the sort of reasoning that animates the operator and the sort of reasoning implicit in our reading of the dedication “To Music.” The operator is atemporal. This is not because Lévi-Strauss chooses to deny time. In fact, The Savage Mind can be read as a meditation on history, a concept that subsumes time. But in The Savage Mind, time is something that happens to the totemic operator, as it is accosted by forces such as “wars, epidemics, and famines” that eat at it. “In such [totemic] societies there is a constantly repeated battle between synchrony and diachrony from which it seems that diachrony must emerge victorious every time.” [The Savage Mind 155]. By contrast, music by its nature unfolds over time, and is about action of a sort (this may be one reason to not dismiss the alternate reading of the dedication as actually being stage-directions, which presume both performance and sequence). Rather than have time as the enemy, time, whether actual in the case of performance, or notional in the case of musical score, is music’s medium.
The claim being made here is not about the heart of Levi-Strauss’s reasoning in this book – or at least not yet. We would need more evidence. After all, for all the correspondences between myth and social order for Levi-Strauss, this is still arguably a comparison of apples with oranges. Furthermore, there is a limit to how seriously one can take a reading that consists of a decontextualized juxtaposition of a diagram with a book dedication. But still, there is enough here to suggest that Lévi-Strauss is going about something that is quite different from what he has done before.