I recently read Patrick Wilcken’s Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (Penguin, 2010). Lévi-Strauss may well have been the most influential anthropologist of the late twentieth century. More than any other individual, he gave rise to the theoretical approach to the humanities and social sciences known as “structuralism” and to its successor “post-structuralism.” His fundamental idea, derived primarily from the structural analysis of language, was that human kinship relations and mythological accounts expressed systems of thinking driven by the need to order the world according to binary systems of oppositions.
Although he generally expressed his theories in complex and difficult literary works, Lévi-Strauss also achieved a wider renown among members of the general reading public. His bittersweet, elegiac memoir Tristes Tropiques (roughly “sad tropics”) about his field work in Brazil, published in 1955, established him as one of the great commentators on the labors of anthropology, the questionable benefits of modernity, and the nature of the disappearing life of tribal people. Ironically, as Patrick Wilcken points out in this account, Lévi-Strauss was not much of a field worker and the explorer of the pre-literate mind always felt most at home in libraries. I was reminded of that other armchair anthropologist, the British author of The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer.
Born into a family of secular Jews of Alsatian origin, Lévi-Strauss from his youth found himself at the boundaries of different cultural worlds in the frequently anti-Semitic society of France. His father, Raymond, was a portrait painter just at the time when the adventurous movements of artistic modernism and the rise of mass photography were making realistic portrait-painting outmoded. From his father, Lévi-Strauss acquired a strong aesthetic sense and perhaps also an old fashioned fondness for tradition that would lie behind the anthropologist’s inclination toward tribal societies and that would come to the surface in the growing conservatism of his later years.
As a student, Lévi-Strauss became involved in socialist politics and studied law and philosophy. After teaching secondary school for a time and marrying Dina Dreyfus, he accepted an offer to go with his wife to Brazil as part of a French cultural mission. The two were appointed visiting professors at the University of São Paulo. Although most French expatriate intellectuals formed insular communities, Lévi-Strauss and Dina became friends with Brazilian writers and artists and they conceived the idea of a journey of ethnographic exploration into the vast inland region of Mato Grosso.
The first forays into the indigenous cultures of Brazil brought Lévi-Strauss into contact with the Caduveo and the Bororo. Prefiguring his later fascination with structural forms in cultures, he became intrigued with the elaborate facial designs of women in the former and the expressions of social relations through housing patterns in the latter. The early studies on these groups helped to establish Lévi-Strauss as an anthropologist. His, however, was far from the ideal approach to fieldwork. His stays with his subjects were brief. He did not speak their languages or have deep grounding in their cultures. The great journey into Mato Grosso that followed also showed these shortcomings, since it was more of a caravan of exploration than an immersion in indigenous cultures.
In 1938, Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss and a well-supplied team set out to follow the Rondon Line, the remains of a telegraph line that had been strung earlier in the century, making contact with the indigenous people who lived along the way. Lévi-Strauss had corresponded with the anthropologist Curt Unckel, who had adopted the Brazilian name Nimuendajú. He tried to get Nimuendajú, the foremost expert on the peoples of the region, to accompany them, but the authority was too busy working on his field notes. Although the expedition that followed was amateurish in many respects, Lévi-Strauss proved to be an assiduous note-taker and a talented photographer. Although he would never again do fieldwork after this trek, the Brazilian adventure did inspire some of the ideas that helped to form his theories and it supplied the material for his 1955 memoir.
Lévi-Strauss might well have enjoyed a distinguished career if he had spent the rest of his life in France after the Brazilian expedition, but World War II sent him to another exotic location, where he came into contact with some of the great minds of his time. When the war broke out, he was drafted into the French army. The German invasion and the rapid collapse of France left Lévi-Strauss, as a Jew, vulnerable to Nazi anti-Semitism. At first, he was so unaware of the danger that he requested an appointment to teach in Paris, which was within the German Occupied Zone. However, he soon learned the insecurity of being Jewish even in the unoccupied zone governed by the French administration in Vichy when he was fired under an anti-Jewish statute. The reputation he had made in Brazil earned him an offer of a teaching position at the New School for Social Research in New York, which was taking in German refugee intellectuals. Although he offered to bring his now ex-wife Dina with him, Lévi-Strauss made his way alone to America.
New York enabled Lévi-Strauss to flourish in one of the most vibrant intellectual hothouses of the twentieth century. War and oppression drove many of Europe’s most notable artists and scholars across the seas and New York held the greatest concentration. On board the ship, Lévi-Strauss formed a friendship with the surrealist André Breton and once in New York he associated with Breton and the surrealist artist Max Ernst. Lévi-Strauss and the surrealists shared interests in mythological expressions of the subconscious mind and they became collectors of tribal artifacts in the shops in New York. This environment encouraged Lévi-Strauss to move away from the specialized study of particular human groups and toward patterns of thought underlying all of the mythologies and artifacts Lévi-Strauss and his associates were collecting.
The most important of his contacts in New York may have been the Russian linguist, Roman Jakobson. Jaksobson argued that languages should be understood not as ways of representing the world, but as systems of structural relations, expressing mental patterns. Drawing on structural linguistics, Lévi-Strauss developed the concept of an abstract system of oppositions and linkages lying behind specific cultural relations. This led to a doctoral thesis and to a first major book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) that presented kinship as a code of relations among people.
As Wilcken presents the life, New York provided the foundation for the rest of Lévi-Strauss’s career. The time in New York not only brought him in to the currents of thought of the mid-century, it also helped to bring him into the intellectual establishment. Once back in France, he became an able administrator. As he produced a steady stream of erudite works, he became recognized as part of the post-war intellectual elite of France. He became particular friends with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Although Lévi-Strauss wrote only a little directly about psychoanalysis and the unconscious, the idea of an unconscious was clearly part of his structural anthropology. In turn, Lacan incorporated some of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas into elaborate and often incomprehensible psychoanlytic theories.
Being Jewish continued to be a barrier to Lévi-Strauss’s acceptance in the inner circle of France. However, the old prejudices were weakening. After the war, he had almost been elected to membership in one of the most selective circles of the French academic hierarchy, the Collège de France. He had, though, been repeatedly blocked, apparently by the unwillingness of some members to accept a Jewish colleague. In 1960, though, he finally achieved this honor. By the early 1970s, his public appearances and his popular memoir had made him almost a celebrity intellectual, while he had become enough of an established figure that many of the new “post-structuralists” had begun to define themselves in contrast to him. In 1973, Lévi-Strauss reached the pinnacle of French intellectual life, when he was elected to the Académie Française.
Ironically, as Lévi-Strauss moved into the center of his own tribal group, he became ever more a loner. In his own work, he assembled examples and illustrations of his theories from the reports of ethnographers and travelers, some of which were not always accurate. While many were influenced by his writings, he had no close students or successors who would carry on his tradition. Also ironically, as French intellectuals in general tended to move sharply to the left, Lévi-Strauss became much more conservative socially and politically. One of the interesting points made by the biography is that his conservatism was not an aberration at all but was deeply rooted in his anthropological respect for tradition.
The biography portrays Lévi-Strauss as a polite but distant and stand-offish figure. In interviews with the biographer, Lévi-Strauss refused to provide much information on his personal life. His first wife, Dina, appears in these pages largely because of her role in the Brazilian expedition. His second wife, from whom he was also divorced, and his third receive only a few lines of text. Although it does not give a very intimate portrait of a man who apparently did not take readily to intimacy, it does give an account of the development of his ideas. Patrick Wilcken’s critical discussion of these ideas is somewhat limited. He does not, for example, give much consideration to the question of how much tribal people actually do think in terms of abstract binary oppositions, rather than in terms of coming up with practical solutions to the material and social problems that face them daily. I wondered whether Lévi-Strauss described how tribal people really think or whether he was giving his imaginative version of how tribal people would think if they happened to be French intellectuals in loin cloths. Wilcken also does not discuss the problem of how the theories of Lévi-Strauss might be verified or falsified, or, if they cannot be falsified, what use the theories might have beyond giving us pleasurable contemplation.
The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?
Copyright © 2011 Carl L. Bankston II