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Out of eden

In his late seventies, in 1986, making his fourth visit to Japan, a country he greatly admired, Lévi-Strauss delivered three lectures at the invitation of the Ishizaka Foundation, which had asked him to present the perspective of anthropology (“a discipline to which I had devoted my life”) on “the fundamental problems now facing humanity”.  The text of these lectures was first published in France only in 2011, and Harvard University Press has now issued a serviceable translation.

The first lecture characterizes anthropology, a discipline that “asserts its rights and assumes its function”, Lévi-Strauss told his audience, “anywhere that customs, ways of life, practices, and techniques have not been swept aside by historical and economic upheavals”. He remarks at one point that these societies are “authentic”, and that ethnography should strive for its own authenticity, by which he seems to mean an appreciation of these societies in their own terms.

Click to enlargeLévi-Strauss on a fieldwork visit (© musee du quai Branly/Scala images)

Lévi-Strauss on a fieldwork visit (© musee du quai Branly/Scala)

For Lévi-Strauss, anthropology is evidently first and foremost the study of primitive societies (which he prefers to call societies without writing). These societies are small in scale, homogenous, free of debilitating conflict, their way of life environmentally sustainable. Each society is little more than a village in modern terms. Personal relationships are all-important and are thought of as kinship ties. People without writing explain the world to themselves through myths, which, crucially, maintain the illusion that things do not change, and, indeed, help to maintain social equilibrium and long-term stability.

A difficulty for this view of anthropology is that primitive societies are not what they were, or might once have been – indeed, Tristes tropiques was an elegy to their passing. The very process of colonialism that revealed them to European scholars, and made them accessible, almost immediately began to erode their independence and their integrity. “If I may invoke a personal memory”, Lévi-Strauss told his audience at one point, “in 1981, when I was traveling through South Korea in the company of colleagues and students, I was told that the students were making fun of me: ‘That Lévi-Strauss’, they would say to one another, ‘he’s only interested in things that no longer exist.’” Lévi-Strauss himself read this as a rejection of cultural relativism, but it may have been a wry comment on his pursuit of the unattainable and perhaps imaginary pristine condition, the illusion of Rousseau. And it is true that Lévi-Strauss disparages change. In his view, all changes are for the worse. He admits no progress in human affairs.

However, Lévi-Strauss immediately, if implicitly, qualified this initial representation of anthropology’s object. Ethnography may be most at home in societies without writing (writing culture for the illiterate). However, he insists that anthropology combines objective ethnographic observation, a “view from afar”, with unrestricted comparison. It aims at generalizations about human social life. This is possible, since all societies practice a division of labour, impose marriage laws, insist on food taboos, and so on. To be sure, each society has its own way of doing things, but “differences can be compared, inasmuch as these aspects can be observed among almost every people. That explains anthropologists’ interest in variations that, though trivial in appearance, make it possible to arrive at relatively simple classifications, thus introducing into the diversity of human societies an order comparable to that which zoologists and botanists use to classify natural species.”

The comparative framework has progressively broadened, so enriching our understanding of the human condition. In Renaissance Europe, an aristocratic cultural elite learned to compare their arts, ideas and institutions with those of ancient Greece and Rome. In the eighteenth century, philosophers of the Enlightenment – a bourgeois lot, in Lévi-Strauss’s summary – introduced comparisons with the civilisations of the East. At the same time, Japanese scholars invoked similar comparisons between their own civilization and that of China. In the Victorian era, anthropology introduced a democratic comparison that encompassed the smallest, most remote societies, so opening the way for a truly universal humanism. And where its forerunners had at their disposal only the methods of history and philology, anthropology makes eclectic use of the modern sciences.

The second lecture drew on comparisons to address three “contemporary problems”.  Heading the list were the issues raised by in vitro fertilisation, donor wombs, and other technologies of conception, still controversial three decades ago when the lectures were conceived. (Who should count as the mother? The father?) Lévi-Strauss pointed out that some African societies practiced the levirate, ghost marriage, and woman-woman marriage, yet conserved the status of legal parentage. Neither the problem nor the anthropological commentary seem very interesting today. (But then have anthropologists of the 21st century added much to debates on gay marriage?)

A brief discourse on economics followed. Lévi-Strauss remarked that all economic activity is at once practical and rational and yet embedded in social relationships that may be allowed to override calculations of utility. Work was once part of the daily rhythm of social life, an integral part of identity. Jobs in industrial economies are often alienating. Economists should be reminded that money isn’t everything.  I do not imagine that any economists in the audience were shifting uneasily in their seats.

Lévi-Strauss then took on religion, parsed as myth plus ritual. Myths are rooted in a logic of the concrete. Particular natural species or implements or places are picked out because they are somehow suggestive. Granted symbolic value, they are then used as counters in a formal dialectic. The myths of societies without writing are conservative, imposing order on society and nature, justifying things as they are. Modernity prefers history, which offers a mythology of necessary change. Each modern political tendency is rooted in its particular historical myth that links an imagined past to a longed-for future. As for science – well, we do sacralise science, but science too is becoming increasingly historical (evolution, cosmology…), and so, perhaps, even science is becoming mythological. In Lévi-Strauss’s system, myth, history and science are the counterpoint of the positivists’ trinity of magic, religion and science, with the great difference that all are to be found, in different proportions, in every society.

The final lecture reverted to the theme of his famous Unesco pamphlet, “Race and History”, of 1952. Cultural diversity is a necessary human resource, but it depends on a degree of ethnocentric pride and prejudice. Globalisation is its enemy. “To be original and to maintain a distance from other cultures, one that allows for mutual enrichment, every culture must be true to itself. The price to be paid is a certain imperviousness, total or partial, to values different from its own.” Japan is exemplary, with its balance between native deities and what the Japanese call “invited gods”.

Maurice Olender claims in his preface that this short book offers “without question the best introduction to Lévi-Strauss”, but Lévi-Strauss himself did not choose to publish the text of these lectures, and they have little to say about his structuralist method or his studies of kinship, systems of classification, and mythology. Yet they do evoke the deep structure of his thought, first presented in two, contrasting essays on race, culture and history, published by UNESCO in 1950 and 1952, in Tristes tropiques in 1955, and in his exchanges with Sartre in 1962-3.  In that famous debate, Lévi-Strauss charged that the French Revolution was the formative myth that underlies Sartre’s theory of history. This book reveals once more that Rousseau provided the master myth for Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology. It inspired a wonderful body of work, but would seem to offer scant guidance to “the fundamental problems now facing humanity”, unless these are problems that can be blamed on our expulsion from Eden.

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