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?

But what exact operation are we engaged in? It appears that in this experiment, we are manipulating the concrete “empirical categories” that exist in myth to create an abstract statement about human thought, which is the same activity that Levi-Strauss also says that indigenous people engage in through their own manipulation of empirical categories when they are telling myths. Not only that, but we are engaging in this work using the very same empirical categories that that these indigenous people use, since we are restricting ourselves to a distinct set of myths taken from these very communities. Well, not exactly – Lévi-Strauss is going to quite soon open up what we can use contextually as material to make sense of these concrete categories, and include all sorts of ritual, as well as chunks of ethno-biology and ethno-astronomy, as proper supplemental material. But then, this is presumably the same context that indigenous people also use (hence the need to place ourselves virtually ‘within’ the community when we are doing our readings of myth). So, it appears that we are engaging in the same general sort of intellectual labor as the people we are studying. While doing this work, their tasks are our tasks, the raw material they work is the raw material we work as well, and to the degree that we can say that these myths are about questions, then the we temporarily adopt the indigenous questions as well, the there is an emphasis in process as we ask these questions, and not in answers.

I want to be clear. What we have found is not some short circuit in Lévi-Strauss’s reasoning, some chink in his mental armor. He knows what he is doing. Lévi-Strauss will shortly be telling us that his discussion of myth can in the end itself only be a myth – or rather, can only be yet another myth. So, this is not catching anyone with their pants down. But the understated presence of this thought in the very first paragraphs shows that from the very beginning, a kind of radical immanence can be found in Lévi-Strauss of Mythologiques. There is no gap between them and us. Some will not buy this argument, and complain that the academic and formal nature of the exercise is a sign of an instrumental attitude towards the indigenous informants, and hence of an obvious disjuncture. But when they object that the a-subjective, clinical style of Lévi-Strauss’s dissection of myth still suggests some yawning subject-object divide that destroys any joint kinship between author and indigenous sources, we might want to note that if Lévi-Strauss is correct, the indigenous myth-tellers are themselves also engaged in forming “abstract” ideas and propositions. True, this doesn’t insulate Lévi-Strauss from critique; claiming immanence is not an unbreachable firewall against other forms of criticism (criticisms which I hope to address later on in this project), and of course these claims of immanence may be unwarranted upon further investigation. But in his mind, at least, there are clear resonances between Lévi-Strauss’s informants and himself, as there is between his project and the myths that he writes about

Of course, there are differences between myth and Mythologiques; even if there weren’t, there is the fact that the same project carried out twice isn’t the same project because the second repetition is carried out in the shadow of the first. But more than weird doubling is going on here, because Levi-Strauss also is giving himself a greater scope for iterations of mythic thought than was historically afforded to almost all indigenous people due to limitations in mobility. Lévi-Strauss is going to travel with myths, chasing them from community to community, and slowly grow to work at an incredible scale. In his own words, it will be a “long journey through the native mythologies of the New World, starting in the heart of tropical America and leading, as I can already foresee, to the furthest regions of North America.”

This itinerary is not the only journey possible. There are many points of departure, though of course the most natural point of departure is where one is. The point of departure here is the Bororo Indians, the group with whom Lévi-Strauss had the closest thing to fieldwork in the classic Malinowskian tradition. As Lévi-Strauss says, it was contingency, and nothing else, that brought him to begin with a Bororo narrative. “I could… have legitimately taken as my starting point any one representative myth of the group,” he tells us, and is clear that he means ‘group’ in a very extended sense; he appears to be meaning any myth from the ultimate breadth of the territory he will cover in these four volumes. It certainly wasn’t any exceptional feature of this myth in particular that captured his attention; he states that he starts with the Bororo myth even though this myth is not any “more archaic than other that will be examined later,” nor “because I consider it to be simpler or more complete.” Both archaism, completeness, or simplicity are false desideratum. This is not because these three metrics do not exist, but because preeminence in any one of these categories still does not give the myth any priority. This is a continuation of a thought Levi-Strauss presented in, among other place, The Story of Asdiwal, an essay that might safely be considered to be a first draft at the sort of analysis that matured into Mythologiques. If legends are all the result of some kind of immanent thought process, then there could be no better or worse narrative, only different but equally immanent narratives, only in these cases with their features reflecting not some kind of prelapsarian purity, but rather just the same process cognitive carried out in different circumstances. His terminology could be read as pushing against this claim. After all, he calls the myth that he begins with the “key” myth, but that is not key as in some master mechanism that unlocks a puzzle, but (to follow a different definition) key in the sense of being more along the lines of a ‘an arrangement of the salient characters of a group of plants or animals or of taxa designed to facilitate identification’ (to use one dictionary definition).  What he starts out with is just another topological folding of some common abstract structure, “simply a transformation, to greater or a lesser extent, of other myths originating either in the same society or in neighboring or remote societies.” And among these permutations, there is no form of the idea that is closer to some image of the ‘true’ myth. There is just a partial wandering, from one point in the sequence to another. And clearer picture of why this should be the case, and what it means for both The Raw and the Cookedand for Mythologiques, is what we will turn to next time…

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