Lévi-Strauss, Claude

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

Bio: (1908-2009) French anthropologist. Claude Lévi-Strauss did his agrégation in philosophy at the Sorbonne in  1930, and in 1934 moved to Brazil to become a professor of anthropology at the University of Sao Paulo. He returned to France in 1939, but in 1941, because of WW II, he escaped France and moved to the US, where, from 1941 to 1945, he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. In the US he met and was deeply influenced by linguist Roman Jakobson, and through Jakobson Lévi-Strauss was introduced to Saussure's linguistic structuralism. After his return to France, he got his Ph.D. at Sorbonne and thought at  École pratique des hautes etudes from 1950-1958, and Collège de France from 1958-1983, and after that, he retired. Lévi-Strauss was a member of the French Academy of Science, founded two anthropological journals, L’Homme and Etudes Rurales, and founded the research center Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale (Laboratory of Social Anthropology).    

Lévi-Strauss' first book The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) introduced his theoretical approach, which was based on the structural linguistics of Saussure. Lévi-Strauss' approach is also called structuralism, and it sees social structures similar to how Saussure sees linguistic structure and different from how structural-functionalism, of Malinovsky and Radcliff-Brown, uses structure as a theoretical concept. ‘Structure’ for  Lévi-Strauss is not equivalent to the empirical relations between elements in observable reality. According to Lévi-Strauss anthropology studies the unconscious structures that underlie all cultural phenomena, and organizes those phenomena into types that express connections and relationships understandable only to scientists.

These structures are constructions of the analyst himself, reducing cultural phenomena to an unconscious common basis. The structures are built by combinations from the repertoire of ideas, and society can be explained as a set of codes whose forms are dictated by the structure of the human mind. The basis of all cultural phenomena is the unconscious teleology of the spirit, that’s why anthropology deals with the inventory of mental categories. Culture is a set of symbolic systems and as symbols are the basis of communication, the whole science of society, culture, and men is a communication theory. The world becomes meaningful only if it is structured, because symbols do not have an immanent meaning, but their meaning comes from their position inside the wider structure.

The human mind builds the entire world by dichotomization - from binary oppositions that man is consciously not aware of. The complex interactions of people and society are unconscious projections of the mind's binary logic. There is the necessity of rejecting the subject, society is a cybernetic communication machine. Culture and nature as basic binary oppositions, and the task of anthropology is to discover the neurophysiological foundations of how the unconscious brain works. Besides binary oppositions, there is also always a third element that forms a ternary structure, and this third element is always empty, ready to assume any meaning.

Although Lévi-Strauss focuses on the synchronic dimension of culture, he accepts that elements and structures are dynamic and always changing, and a third element, real or imagined,  is exactly the source that introduces asymmetry and dynamism into the situation. The best examples of this change are language and myths, whose elements are in a constant state of flux, but those changes must follow the rules of binary oppositions. In the book Mana: the Empty Signifier (1987), Lévi-Strauss states that the fact that the magical concept of “mana” can assume very diverse content proves that mana has to be seen just as an empty signifier. The mana is a third element intervening between the signifier and the signified, the element which would give the language its dynamism and continuity.

The study of myth is very important for Lévi-Strauss' theory. In the four-volume book Mythologiques (1964-1971) he refines his structuralist approach to myths. For him, any myth is a projected manifestation of the deep structures existing in the human mind. The elements of myths, which he calls mythemes (analogous to the phonemes in linguistics), are part of a larger system, and can only gain their meaning from how they are combined and not from their intrinsic value, or from some external reality. Myths represent the mind of the people who created them. Myths, although constantly going through a transformation, resist history because they are eternal. All versions of a myth follow the essential structure of a myth.  Myths are always the product of a contradiction (unchanging constant of human existence) and those contradictions are the ones that generate myths. Lévi-Strauss believed that myth constitutes a third level of language, after langue and parole, and in this myths are the synthesis of the diachronic and the synchronic sides of language.

In The Savage Mind (1962) Lévi-Strauss demonstrates that the minds of indigenous peoples work like jack-of-all-trades or Swiss army knife, having a mental non-specialized toolkit. Folklore, myths, and other knowledge of these people serve to organize and engage with the physical and cultural world and those knowledge systems are well adapted to their specific needs.

Communication in society works through the exchange of symbols. There are three types of fundamental exchange: the exchange of women by rules of kinship, the exchange of goods and services according to the rules of the economy; and the exchange of symbols according to linguistic rules. Symbolic structures of exchange in areas of kinship, language, and economy are key for understanding social life, and not human biology. The kinship system and marriage are cultural phenomena based on the prohibition of incest, and the interdiction of sexual behavior is not a natural phenomenon. The Elementary Structures of Kinship Lévi-Strauss shows that there are two basic forms of marriage exchange: direct (restricted) exchange, and generalized exchange. The direct exchange involves bilateral cross-cousin marriage, and this is often combined with the dual organization of society where the whole society is divided into two halves, (in anthropology these divisions are called moieties) whit each half having certain reciprocal symbolic properties relating to the other half. Children are a dynamic and asymmetrical element in the kinship structure.

Lévi-Strauss is also known for his “culinary triangle”, which consists of the interrelationship of baked, boiled, and smoked foods, that is, their symbolic-structural position in different cultures. Relying on the basic theoretical premise of structuralism, that the human symbolic universe is divided into binary oppositions, Lévi-Strauss applies the same principle to human diet and ways of preparing food. The basic binary oppositions in this sphere are: processed/unprocessed; culture/nature; fresh/rotten; boiled/fried and food/feces. The main culinary triangle consists of fresh, cooked, and rotten, which represent pure forms because "the main triangle reveals to us a double transformation: processed/unprocessed on the one hand, and culture/nature on the other" (Lévi-Strauss 1983).

These three symbolically pure forms never enter the diet in their pure form - cooked food is always prepared in a certain way, only some foods are eaten fresh, and even those cultures that eat rotten food do not eat it unless it has rotted in a certain way, either naturally or artificially. Cooking is a process of thermal processing of food in hot water, with the fact that water, as the most favorable medium for food rotting, essentially "carries out the natural transformation of food in the same way that the human body does through digestion, with the difference that it does it outside, and the human body inside" (Lévi-Strauss, 1983). The myths of the North American Indians are replete with myths about animals and people who have digestive problems or do not have an anus as the end of the digestive tract. Digestion in these myths performs the mediating function of stopping the natural process of rotting, and the same function is performed by the culinary processing of food.

Main works

The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1971, in French 1949);

Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1987, in French 1950);

Tristes Tropiques (1974, in French 1955);

Structural Anthropology (1967, in French 1958);

The Savage Mind (1966, in French 1962);

Totemism Today (1963, in French 1962);

The Raw and the Cooked, Vol. 1 of  Mythologiques (1983, in French 1964);

From Honey to Ashes, Vol. 2 of Mythologiques (1973, in French 1966);

The Origin of Table Manners, Vol. 3 of Mythologiques (1978, in French 1968);

The Naked Man, Vol. 4 of Mythologiques (1981, in French 1971);

The Way of Masks (1982, in French 1972);

The View from Afar (1985, in French 1983);

The Jealous Potter (1988, in French 1985);

Story of Lynx (1995, in French 1991);

Look, Listen, Read (1997, in French 1993);

Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World (2013, in French 2011).

Velizar Mircov

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