Claude Lévi-Strauss: Interview with Patrick Wilcken

Patrick Wilcken discusses highly influential work from Claude Lévi-Strauss

Can you provide a brief summary of Lévi-Strauss’s main ideas and arguments?

Lévi-Strauss’s ideas were complex and wide-ranging, but a few vital threads run through the many scores of books and articles that he produced throughout his life. The first, and perhaps most important, was his ardent belief in the formal unity and overall logic of culture. Underlying the vast array of different beliefs and traditions that ethnographies from around the world described were abstract structural invariants - a kind of syntax of culture. Using tools from structural linguistics – like binary oppositions - he analysed different domains, including kinship systems, religious thought and, most famously, mythology, teasing out these properties, just as a linguist might uncover structural similarities between apparently diverse languages. Speaking more philosophically, he said that he wanted “to reduce apparently arbitrary data to some kind of order, until a sort of necessity becomes apparent, underlying the illusions of freedom.” His ultimate reference was cognitive: he believed that deep structural properties of the brain were reflected in the way culture was organised.

For Levi-Strauss, these structures were more apparent in indigenous, pre-literate cultures, whose style of thought was freer and more attuned to their immediate social and physical environment, as opposed to the highly disciplined, deliberately abstract western style of scientific thinking. Although his general orientation was towards the discovery of human universals, he made many contrasts between pre-literate and western cultures, including, famously, his notion of “hot” (western) and “cold” (indigenous) societies; the former obsessed with history and rapid change, the latter devoted to stasis and continuity.

The theories of the linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson were significant influences on Lévi-Strauss’s work. Why is this and how did they help shape Levi-Strauss’s own ideas as an anthropologist?

The work of Roman Jakobson was fundamental to Lévi-Strauss’s thought, and it was through Jakobson that he discovered the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Lévi-Strauss met Jakobson in New York in the 1940s; both were Jews who had fled Europe during the Second World War, and ended up teaching at the New School of Social Research on Manhattan. Jakobson was then pioneering structural linguistics, looking at how the contrast between phonemes generated meaning, and mapping sets of differences that recurred across diverse languages. Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, was working on his PhD thesis which compared different kinship systems across the world. They became good friends and Jakobson encouraged Lévi-Strauss to use the insights he had gained from structural linguistics, and apply them to ethnographic problems. This was the key moment in Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual development; from this point on, he began seeing cultural domains as language-like systems. In the Elementary Structures of Kinship, he saw in marriage rules not as an apparently arbitrary array of different traditions, but rigorously logical systems of exchange; marriage rules, like grammars, operated below the threshold of consciousness, but displayed a pan-human desire for order and symmetry. The language metaphor, along with Saussurean notions such as binary oppositions, would be the touchstone of his work, as he moved through studies on Totemism and myth.

Lévi-Strauss called geology, Marxism and Freud his ‘three mistresses’. Why were this particular subject and these two thinkers so important for Levi-Strauss?

Lévi-Strauss wrote about his ‘three mistresses’ in ‘The Making of and Anthropologist’ – an early chapter in his memoir-cum-ethnography, Tristes Tropiques, which described his intellectual formation in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. Elsewhere he said that he first came across the works of Marx and Freud while he was still at school; at university, he wrote a dissertation on the philosophical implications of Marx’s historical materialism. While there are certainly Freudian elements in Lévi-Strauss’s work – in the 1940s he wrote an essay comparing a shamanic cure to psychoanalyst; he also used Freudian terminology such as “transformations” in his analysis of myth - the influence of Marx is less apparent. A devoted socialist in his youth, Lévi-Strauss became increasingly conservative as he aged and he distanced himself from the revival of Marxism in the 1960s.

However, as he explained in Tristes Tropiques, he shared a general orientation with both Freud and Marx; like them, he wanted to go below the surface of the everyday in search of the deep structural properties which ultimately generated empirical phenomena. For Freud this was the unconscious; for Marx class conflict. Both thinkers created complex models driven by hidden forces and abstract ideas (the id, the ego, commodity fetishism and so forth). Lévi-Strauss saw geology as similar, albeit in a more concrete way. The task of the geologist was the explain how subterranean forces – the heating and cooling of rock strata or tectonic movements, for instance – created the diverse landscapes across the world. It was this outlook, rather than any specific ideas, that Lévi-Strauss was referring when he spoke of his ‘three mistresses’.

What did Lévi-Strauss discover during his field work in Brazil in the 1930s and how did this period influence his anthropological outlook as a whole?

While working at the newly founded University of São Paulo, Lévi-Strauss mounted two significant ethnographic research missions. The first took him to the far west of Brazil where he studied the Caduveo and the Bororo; in the second, longer expedition he went further to the north where he studied the Nambikwara and several other groups. His fieldwork has subsequently been criticised for its brevity by anthropologists – he only spent a few weeks with most groups and few months with the Nambikwara – and for the fact that he used interpreters throughout. It was, in many ways, an old-fashioned expedition, in an era in which anthropology was beginning to professionalise. Lévi-Strauss himself said that at root he was more of a “library man”. He also said that while his fieldwork was limited, his experiences gave him the tools to assess the many hundreds of ethnographies he read, analysed and deployed throughout his academic life.

While Lévi-Strauss used a huge array of ethnographic material from around the world to illustrate his theories, Brazilian ethnography was central to some of his work. He was fascinated by Caduveo face tattoos, and wrote several interpretations of the geometric designs they used. An early piece on the layout of Bororo huts and its relationship to their social life was also significant. Much later, a Bororo myth opened Lévi-Strauss’s epic Mythologiques quartet, forming the starting point of an analysis that eventually included over 800 myths from across the Americas.

Lévi-Strauss said that the ultimate goal of the human sciences ‘is not to constitute man but to dissolve him.’ What does Lévi-Strauss mean by this and why is it important in understanding his work?

This somewhat mysterious-sounding statement cuts to the heart of an aspect of Lévi-Straussian sructuralism that caught the philosophical mood in 1960s. When Lévi-Strauss’s ideas began to take hold in the 1950s thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were in the ascendancy, and existentialism and phenomenology dominated. With Lévi-Strauss the emphasis switched from these introspective philosophies, in which the idea of the self played an important role, to something far more conceptual, more abstract; from an examination of thinking, to the study of thought. What Lévi-Strauss means here, is that the human sciences should be looking at the abstract properties of culture rather than individual experiences. In structuralism, individual invention is subsumed in much bigger pan-human categories. The myth project, for instance, was not about individuals thinking up or relaying mythic narratives, but a whole system of mythic thought, ultimately encompassing hundreds of groups across the Americas. Man is dissolved in the sense that at Lévi-Strauss’s level of analysis, he becomes a mere artefact of the system, a vessel through which culture is expressed. This was one of the leitmotifs of the era, pursued, in different ways, by thinkers like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault.

Why was Lévi-Strauss so interested in the subject of myth and what did he think myths were about, fundamentally?

One of the foundations of Lévi-Strauss’s thought was cognitive. He believed that structures in culture mirrored those of the mind. In myth, Lévi-Strauss found a cultural domain in which the mind was set free, producing narratives, images and symbols at will, in a display of “pensée sauvage” or wild, trammelled thinking. Unlike the studied, self-consciousness of novels, myths were a “magnifying glass of the way in which man has always thought”.

In his epic study of mythology, he broke down myths into their constituent elements, which he called “mythemes”, just as linguists had broken language down into phonemes, and ordered their relationships into abstract models. He set about mapping underlying codes: culinary, astronomical, zoological, social, sexual, vestiary; and traced inversions, symmetries, substitutions, permutations, that were stacked one upon the other in vast system of formal analogies. He found, over an exploration of over 800 myths, which took him on a journey from the rainforests of Brazil to the west coast of Canada, that the further he travelled the more structurally similar the myths became. He concluded that there was really only one myth, which went through thousands of variations in an endless chain of transformations. He was more interested in form than meaning, but did make some rather vague references to what ultimate significance of this pan-American myth might be. It explored, but never resolved, eternal themes: the passage from nature to culture and the separation of man from nature.

What did Lévi-Strauss think about science and was he sympathetic to its methods?

As he wrote at the beginning of Myth and Meaning, he was fascinated by science, and took a keen amateur interest in many different branches. He often used analogies drawn from astronomy and atomic physics, and was extremely interested in mathematics (including cybernetic models) and biology. In the early part of his career, he spoke of anthropology as being on the brink of becoming a true science, though later, he was less emphatic, calling structuralism “ but a pale imitation” of the hard sciences.

He did feel, though, that with the runaway success of science, the West had lost something: the intuitive feel and understanding of the sensual aspects of life - the smells, tastes and textures that that pre-literate cultures experienced profoundly, because of their intense physical and philosophical relationship with their environments. By rejecting subjective, qualitative reactions in favour of objective measurement, science had filleted out an important aspect of our being – one which was highly valorised in pre-literate cultures. He argued that these cultures had developed what he called the “science of the concrete” – a drive to understand the world through logical models built out of pure sensation. He also said that by investigating the mechanics of the senses, particularly smell and vision, science was beginning to reintegrate something of what it had lost.

Lévi-Strauss was hailed as a major figure in his native France. How was his work received elsewhere, such as Britain and the United States?

Reactions to Lévi-Strauss’s ideas were mixed. When Lévi-Strauss’s work really took off in the 1960s, he gained many Anlgo-American devotees, including, for example, Edmund Leach at Cambridge, Rodney Needham at Oxford, and David Maybury-Lewis at Harvard. However, in part due to scepticism about the development of Lévi-Strauss’s project and in part because of Lévi-Strauss’s own, sometimes hostile, reaction to interpreters of his work, as the 1960s wore on, his non-French followers fell away. Many questioned his use of ethnographic data, and became wary as Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre became more idiosyncratic and poetic in nature. Outside of anthropology, though, he became a well known figure and something of a cultural reference-point. In the United States, he was interviewed by Time and Playboy magazine, sat for Vogue photographers Irving Penn and Henri-Cartier Bresson, and appeared on US TV; in Britain he was frequently referenced in the broadsheets and did a long radio interview for the BBC. It is a curious paradox that he achieved such popular appeal when long stretches of some of his books – particularly the Elementary Structures of Kinship and the Mythologiques quartet - are virtually impenetrable to the general reader. But he was adept at simplifying and explaining his ideas, as the Myth and Meaning lectures demonstrate.

What intellectual legacy has Lévi-Strauss left behind him? How is he regarded within anthropology today?

From the mid-1970s onwards, the excitement around Lévi-Strauss’s work began to wane. As he reached old age, his approach became more and more interpretive, belying his earlier promises of a rigorous science of culture. I think it is true to say that many anthropologists working today would regard Lévi-Strauss as an historic figure: the founder of French anthropology and the now-abandoned theory (he would say method) of structuralism. However, he continues to be cited and some well-known anthropologists, for example Marshall Sahlins in the United States, continue to draw inspiration from his work. Variants of structuralism are still alive in France and Brazil, and the debates that he stimulated around kinship rumble on. More concretely, cognitive anthropology, working on the broad premises that Lévi-Strauss established early in his career, is now a well-established branch of the discipline. Thinkers like Dan Sperber cite Lévi-Strauss as their inspiration, while critically assessing the substance of his work.

His influence also lives on as a writer. His ethnographic memoir, Tristes Tropiques, is still being read – and represents one of the earliest and most famous examples of the so-called “reflexive” ethnographies, fusions of literature and anthropology that has changed the way anthropologists think about reports from the field.

More broadly, Lévi-Strauss’s mid-century reorientation from the self to the system, meaning to structure, left a deep imprint on the humanities. Post-structuralism, while critical of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas, grew up in reaction to the challenges he set down. Looking back, Lévi-Strauss can be seen as a key hinge-figure, whose insights still reverberate across many disciplines, including literary criticism, film studies, art theory, and philosophy.

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