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

Of course, it’s hard to talk about influences on my reading of Lévi-Strauss because not many other people read Lévi-Strauss these days.Structuralism, and particularly Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, has a bad name these days. It is seen as denying human agency, as indifferent to any form of experience outside of the sensual contact with the natural world, as too entranced with a romantic primitivism, as insensitive to the forces of both realpolitik and the global macroeconomic peregrinations of capital, as being shot through with too much math envy, as a mechanistic, hidebound, and Procrustean system that wants to grind away complexity and leave only bare recursively-nested binaries. There of course are those who either see themselves as continuing Lévi-Strauss’s project, or who recognize in the contours of their thought the influence of Lévi-Strauss. But that does not change the fact that for many in the discipline of anthropology, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism is nothing more than an obsessive-compulsive theoretical curio. 

For those not inclined to cherish Lévi-Strauss’s legacy, one of the chief objects entered into evidence is his four volume Mythologiques. For its critics, it is an anthropological shaggy-dog story that starts with a schematic presentation of a single Brazilian Borroro Indian myth (a tale of a revenge minded incestuous boy who is mistaken for dead after a series of purposeful cruel challenges administered by his father), which is then contrasted with differing variants of that myth, with the scope of comparison eventually covering all of indigenous North and South American by the time that the final book in the series ends. It is encyclopedic, but it is also exhausting. Lévi-Strauss documents every substitution, inversion, or transposition of the elements of these myths, as he employs structuralist principles to chart what he purports to be a continent spanning implicit indigenous cognitive system. This multi-volume tome can be read as a modern day version of The Key to All Mythologies, the syncretic rambling and unfinished tome written by Reverend Casaubon in George Elliot’s Middlemarch. For others readers, the Mythologiques is paranoid set of books, an attempt to make two whole continents worth of indigenous creativity submit an intellectual machine that was constructed in the second floor of a index-card strewn university office a continent away. 

But true enough to the structuralist play of difference, there are of course other possible readings of Lévi-Strauss’s magnum opus, where values are inverted and repositioned. The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro sees a mutation in Lévi-Strauss’s thought occurring over the course of writing Mythologiques. Or more exactly, he sees something that had always been latent coming to the fore. This reading of Lévi-Strauss sees his primary debt as not being towards the linguistic structuralism of Saussure, the nineteenth century scholar who tried to stabilize the slippery understanding of what constitutes phonemes by seeing each phoneme being negatively reciprocally constituted by some phonetic element that it is not. Rather, this understanding would see a Lévi-Strauss wounded by the accusations by his fellow anthropologists of his “using exclusively binary patterns.” This is instead a Lévi-Strauss who sees himself as relying on an “analogy” centered reading of myths influenced by the mathematician and biologist d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.⁠1 Thompson’s classic On Growth and Form is a strange volume, concerned with the way that variation in features such as rate of development or overall magnitudes found in biological specimens can effectuate torsions and involutions of a form, allowing in affect the same topological shape to be topographically expressed in wildly different ways, allowing for an account of the variation between not just different biological individuals, but between different members of the same genera. This idea of “transformation,” which Lévi-Strauss first encountered during her exile in the United States (which was roughly when he also became acquainted with Roman Jackobson and structural linguistics) is not incidental to his idea of structure. Rather, Lévi-Strauss states that it is “inherent in structural analysis.” 

I would even say that all the errors, all the abuses committed through the notion of structure are a result of the fact that their authors have not understood that is is impossible to conceive of structure separate from the notion of transformation. Structure is not reproducible to a system: a group composed of elements and the relations that unite them. In order to be able to speak of structure, it is necessary for there to be invariant relationships between elements and relations among several sets, so that one can move from one set to another by means of a transformation.⁠2  

Transformation allows us to not only attend to individual variation, shifts in emphasis and saliency, but also to note the thresholds where the force of the torque exercised on local instantiations creates the kind of ‘double twists’ in mythic imaginaries that (at least in Lévi-Strauss’s analysis) mark the thresholds at which identities shift.⁠3 Needless to say, such transformations, double twists, and mutational inversions were always arguably present in his writing – as one would expect if Saussure and Thompson had both truly entered Lévi-Strauss’s mental tool-kit at the same time. But as we work through the Mythologiques and other subsequent works, these transformational operations do become central to his analysis. Acknowledging the increasing importance of Thompson would make Lévi-Strauss’s mode of operation a moving target, growing “closer to dynamic fluxes than algebraic permutations” as his thinking on myth matured.⁠4 

This shift away from closed structural constellations to topological deformations not only always for shifts, gradations, and folds in myth. It even does more than moving Lévi-Strauss towards the direction of intensities and away from arrays of fixed positions. It opens up the process, allowing for a continual movement, the constant creation of new forms, in short, for a “structuralism without structure.”⁠5 No longer rigid and therefore brittle, it is a system that is always in play, and a style of thought where each movement or actualization is also a moment in working towards some other expression. And it also makes Mythologiques (and the books by Lévi-Strauss that came after those four volumes reached their conclusion) maps in a way of how variation in thought in other realms could be traversed. 

1 Ashes to Honey, p 90 n. 12.

2 Conversations with Lévi-Strauss, 113

3 See. e.g. Gow, Peter.  2004. Lévi-Stauss’s ‘Double Twist’ and controlled comparison: transformational relations between neighboring societies. Anthropology of this Century

4 Cannibal Metaphysics 198.

5 Cannibal Metaphysics 204

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