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.
On my October 12th entry on the dedication page to Mythologiques, I contrasted two different readings of structure. One reading was an atemporal one, or more exactly, a synchronous one that was subject to the ravages of time, but didn’t depend on time to express it. The structure was always already completely there, albeit only in its virtual form. The other reading was one of structure as it is found implicit in music (and also, for what it is worth, in the act of speaking, though we did not develop that thought at that moment); rather than resisting time, this other form of structure can only be expressed through duration. It was this latter model, I suggested, which would end up dominating Mythologiques.
So I imagine some readers might expect a mea culpa from me when they read a passage on page three of The Raw and the Cooked. Lévi-Strauss, by way of promising that this work wouldn’t fashion some sort of total and final armature for myth, states that “[t]he ambition to achieve such knowledge is meaningless, since we are dealing with a shifting reality, perpetually exposed to the attacks of a past that destroys it and of a future that changes it. For every instance [of myth] recorded in written form, there are obviously many others unknown to us; and we are only too pleased with the samples and scraps at our disposal.” This passage sounds like an even more aggravated case of the compliant that Lévi-Strauss makes about totemism in The Savage Mind (a compliant that I quoted in my prior entry): “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.” Totemism and myth are both subject to the injuries of time, and myth is perhaps even the more vulnerable of the two.
I actually don’t believe an apology is in order. Here is why: while Lévi-Strauss on one hand gives us myth as a corpus that can be damaged by all the chaos that is exterior to it, he also presents myth as something like a generative chaos, a force only partially capable of ever being mapped even as it always is pushing out, expanding. And this incapacity to be mapped is because the object itself is always in transition, working on some new permutation of itself.
To see why this is the case, we have to attend to how Lévi-Strauss deals with the conceptual process of tracing myth (as opposed to the real process, which consisted of endless exercises with reams of index card stored in an office in Paris). As he describes it, his process consists of isolating the constituent elements of the Bororo myth that he starts with. The next step is to
[E]stablish the group of transformations for each sequence, either within the myth itself, or by elucidations of the isomorphic links between sequences derived from several myths originating in the same community.
These sequences of myth, strung along by tracing their foldings and involutions, form what Lévi-Strauss calls an “axis.” But as implied by the choice of the term axis, this sequence is not alone. At the point where the analysis starts to identify particular patterns in the axis, another operation occurs – or should I say, the same operation, just running out in a different direction.
[A]t each point on the axis where there is such a pattern or schema, we then draw, as it were, a vertical line representing another axis established by the same operation but carried out this time not by means of a myth originating from a single community, but by myths that present certain analogies to with the first, although they derive from neighboring communities.
This iterated process produces patterns, and each pattern “becomes the source of a new axes, which are perpendicular to the first on different levels, and to which will presently be connected, by a twofold prospective movement….”
This is in short a proliferation of dimensions; definitely far more than three. These dimensions still have their contact with one another; this is as much an incorporative process as it is a centrifugal one. We can see this in the metaphors that Levi-Strauss uses. He refers to what he has crafted as a “nebula,” and at another moment he compares the analytic work to that of some sort of amoeba, noting that “just as primitive organisms, although enclosed within a membrane, still retain the ability to move their protoplasm within this covering and to achieve such extraordinarily distention that they put out pseudopodia: their behavior appears less strange, once we have ascertained that its object is the capture and assimilation of foreign bodies.” Both these metaphors are based on expansive yet disordered systems – or more to the point, systems that have a non-linear order that are an expression of internal forces, rather than any kind of external spatial grammar of right angles and symmetrical, crystalline growth. It is true that axes meet each other at 90 degree angles in Euclidian space, but given these metaphors, and the proliferation of axes, perhaps this is not a Euclidian mental space were are dealing with here.
There is one technophilic metaphor that seems to break with the nebular and amoebic frames, a moment based around engineering and precision, rather than the gaseous and organic. Lévi-Strauss refers to the investigative process as being something similar to what occurs “in the case of an optical microscope, which is incapable of revealing the ultimate structure of matter to the observer, we can only choose between various degrees of enlargement: each one reveals a level of organization which as no more than a relative truth and, while it last., excludes the perception of other levels.”
Based on this reading the objection that could be made that we are not dealing with the actual object itself – rather, we are dealing with our capacity to grasp the object. It is one thing to say that we are looking at a vibrant, expansive, pluriform system, and something else to say that they are window onto an expansive yet fixed field, one that escapes our capacity to take it all in at once, but which still has a structured and exhaustive organization. After all, a microscope limits our ability to grasp to whatever level of resolution it is pitched at in a single viewing, but that does not mean that there is no overarching or emergent order.
To break this deadlock, we will have to read on. We should be able to open this issue up soon, though, because we are about to discuss a more detailed meditation on the always incomplete nature of myth, and also run into what may be one of the most striking metaphors in the book: Indigenous America as a kind of “Middle Ages that never had a Rome”….