Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Trotting out the Cliches

I was reading some obituaries for Claude Lévi-Strauss, preparatory to writing my own farewell. But I was so disgusted by the claptrap in the Times obit that I have to vent. I understand that this was written quickly, but is that any excuse for this garbage? First, to exaggerate Lévi-Strauss's contribution, we have to make everyone who came before him seem stupid:
The accepted view held that primitive societies were intellectually unimaginative and temperamentally irrational, basing their approaches to life and religion on the satisfaction of urgent needs for food, clothing and shelter.
Accepted by whom? I mean, really. Western intellectuals had been collecting myths and folktales around the world for 200 years when Lévi-Strauss was born, which suggests at least an interest in the imaginations of primitive peoples. Lévi-Strauss lived 150 years after Captain Cook went to Tahiti, bringing home the famous account of how happy and devoted to pleasure the Tahitians were. He came a generation after Malinowski, who documented the complicated web of mutual obligations that underlay ritual gift exchange in Melanesia. I could go on, but this is such an obvious falsehood that it isn't worth our time.

But Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected Rousseau’s idea that humankind’s problems derive from society’s distortions of nature. In Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s view, there is no alternative to such distortions. Each society must shape itself out of nature’s raw material, he believed, with law and reason as the essential tools.

This application of reason, he argued, created universals that could be found across all cultures and times. He became known as a structuralist because of his conviction that a structural unity underlies all of humanity’s mythmaking, and he showed how those universal motifs played out in societies, even in the ways a village was laid out.

A fair summary of Lévi-Strauss's approach, but so far nothing not accepted by most anthropologists of his time. Here we get to the interesting part:

For Mr. Lévi-Strauss, for example, every culture’s mythology was built around oppositions: hot and cold, raw and cooked, animal and human. And it is through these opposing “binary” concepts, he said, that humanity makes sense of the world.

True, and an perfect example of how one gets to be a famous intellectual. You take an old idea, that people have a tendency to think in binary terms, well known to both philosophers and ethnographers, and you inflate it into a grand principle that, you assert, explains everything. People are impressed by the many examples you can adduce in support of your view (after all, people do like to think in binary terms), and by the universal sweep of your law. The obvious fact that people also think in lots of other ways is brushed aside, and Presto! a genius is born.

And then more appalling claptrap:

This was quite different from what most anthropologists had been concerned with. Anthropology had traditionally sought to disclose differences among cultures rather than discovering universals. It had been preoccupied not with abstract ideas but with the particularities of rituals and customs, collecting and cataloguing them.
Gag. The most common criticism of nineteenth-century anthropology was actually that it was too abstract and too interested in universals. Every missionary who went up the Congo or the Amazon was eager to show how the customs of his neighbors illustrated the universals of human nature and God's Plan of Creation.

Which brings me to what I was going to say about Lévi-Strauss: he was the last great intellectual of the nineteenth-century world. I suppose what I really mean is that he was a modernist, a man of the "modern" era that stretches from about 1750 to 1960. This was the age of reason, the age of big ideas and big systems, of revolutionary ambitions in every field. It was the age of synthesis, of discovering the universal laws that underlie the apparent randomness of daily events. It was the age of classification. It was an age when an obscure professor could author a political manifesto calling for abolition of the old world, which might be taken up by a gang of bomb-making students, or even an army of jungle revolutionaries.

Our world, the post-modern world, is not so in love with grand theories and revolutionary agendas. We are suspicious of both big ideas and big changes. The most famous French intellectual of the generation after Lévi-Strauss was Foucault, to whom grand theories led inevatibly to terrible oppressions, and who ended up celebrating the anti-modern, anti-Western revolution of Iran. Most contemporary anthropologists are more interested in celebrating primitive culture and defending the rights of native peoples than in pronouncing theories; the only theory that gets any real attention in anthropology these days is biological evolution.

Lévi-Strauss was one of those thinkers who is most known for his theories, but whose work is best when it is least theoretical. His books on myth are sometimes wonderfully phantasmagorical, leaping from one strange story to another based on strained metaphorical links. He had a profound respect for all human thought, and believed that the shamans of the Amazon were intellectuals equal to the philosophers of Europe. He took people seriously and found them fascinating. What I remember best about his books is the wondrous rainbow of examples he could trot out, and his conviction that the weirdest vision of the most drug-addled shaman means something important. Somewhere in his books there is a long discourse on the myths of the half man, who has only one leg and one arm, and I remember how Lévi-Strauss's insistence on taking this notion seriously brought home to me how weird the idea is, and thus how interesting it is that it appears in myths all over the world. I never liked his more didactic passages, when he starts to insist how everything reflects the Big Idea. But he was a remarkable thinker and a humane man, and for that I celebrate him.

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