Friday, November 12, 2010

MacCabe, Colin. Review of Patrick Wilcken, CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS: THE POET IN THE LABORATORY. NEW STATESMAN November 4, 2010.

Wilcken, Patrick.  Claude-Levi-Strauss: the Poet in the Laboratory.  London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Between his own publication of Tristes tropiques in 1955 and Jacques Derrida's publication of De la grammatologie in 1967, Claude Lévi-Strauss bestrode western humanities and social sciences as no one has before or since. Unlike philosophy or literary criticism, his discipline, anthropology, was not divided between "Anglo-Saxon" and "Continental" approaches, and the promise of a method that would analyse the fundamental processes of the human mind was initially plausible.

From the beginning, Lévi-Strauss argued two theses, logically separate but inseparably linked in his own writing. His great idea - the fruit of a close friendship with Roman Jakobson forged in wartime exile in New York - was that both myth and kinship were to be analysed by a functional relationship not to social and physical reality, but to the most elementary processes of human thought. The establishment of difference - the distinction between animals with or without cloven hooves, say - was dictated by the need to structure the world into pairs of binary oppositions. This insight built on the greatest discovery of 20th-century linguistics: rather than analyse the positive features of sound across an infinite continuum, the Russian linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy and his successors had focused simply on the differences (between "b" and "p", for example) that produced meaning.

Lévi-Strauss claimed to have discovered the fundamental differences on which all kinship and myth were based, and produced a simple combination of differential oppositions that, he thought, underpin even the most complex and apparently dissimilar myths. Myths were privileged insights into thought, and here his second thesis came into play: "primitive" societies or, as Lévi-Strauss termed them, "societies without writing" are more authentic than societies that have succumbed to writing. Ever since Montaigne, and receiving its fullest expression in Rousseau's noble savage, there had been a current in western thought which saw in "primitive" societies a richer, less alienated relationship between men and their world than that which obtained in "civilisation".

Lévi-Strauss thus promised two things: first, a combinatory schema that would reveal the basic operations of the human mind - all kinship systems would be conceived as variations on a single theme, and all myths would operate around a set of basic differences - and second, a demonstration of the superiority of forms of thought that came before writing, before the fundamental alienation that occurred when writing intruded into an authentic idyll.

However, Lévi-Strauss's dominance of western thought evaporated after Derrida devoted a 40-page analysis to the anthropologist's foray into the world of the Nambikwara Amazonians. . . .

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