Structuralism and Levi-Strauss
IN THE LAST year or so Levi-Strauss has become a kind of cult. For Americans his structural anthropology is new, brilliant, maybe even a way out of the jumble of inexplicable data collected over the years by social science. But a more important part of his appeal is his brashness. Levi-Strauss is a theorist attempting to discover in the materials of culture the universal structures of the human mind. His objectives are just that large, and one senses he may be already part of the way there.
But for traditional anthropologists Levi-Strauss is a problem. He doesn't observe their rules-rather than empirical investigations and an emphasis on the behavioral act, LeviStrauss has evolved a formula for cultural analysis that centers on linguistic structures. He goes beyond the observable, and no longer takes as given symbolic meanings, communication and the structure of understanding.
Most Anglo-American criticisms of structural anthropology attack the nature of its evidence. Levi-Strauss's most energetic critic, David Maybury-Lewis, points to inconsistencies, even manipulations of traditional ethnographic data to fit the structural schema. But Levi-Strauss would argue the definitions of social fact must be reevaluated. The functionalist anthropologist's notion that social fact is simply observable social action is too narrow. Structural anthropology expands the definition by trying to observe societies at both their conscious and unconscious levels.
But regardless of the debate over evidence, it must be recognized that Levi-Strauss has made a major, perhaps pivotal, contribution to the way we perceive the world. The implications of structuralism outside anthropology are only beginning to be explored. What is needed most right now is not more obscure criticism of obscure ethnographic details, but a clearer understanding of what Levi-Strauss is trying to say.
Edmund Leach's Claude Levi-Strauss has been published this year in the Modern Masters series that includes works on Wittgenstein, Marcuse, Guevara, Chomsky, Joyce and others. Concerned primarily with bringing together some of the major themes in contemporary thought, the series (edited by Frank kermonde) has been written by scholars for the general reader.
Leach has been a critic of structural anthropology for nearly twenty years and under Levi-Strauss's influence developed his own theories of structural analysis. His book is concise and summarizes when possible, but it is not a popularization-he remains honest to the complexities of Levi-Strauss. Blending the old and new anthropology in his approach to structuralism, Leach presents Levi-Strauss as a uniquely important if not over-zealous, thinker.
STRUCTURALISM is best introduced by examining the social theories outside anthropology that shaped Levi-Strauss's early development. Both Marxism and psychoanalysis demonstrated to him that understanding consists in reducing one reality to another; "that the true reality is not the obvious reality." As Leach makes clear, these same assumptions underpin Levi-Strauss's claim that there are universal structures that apply to all societies, though they are frequently hidden. The job left for the structuralism is the refinement of his method with new and broader applications aimed at new ways of handling cultural data.
In part because Levi-Strauss writes with a style that relies heavily on nuance, and in part because structuralism operates at so many different levels, it is difficult to sift out a central theme. Leach tries to clear the jumble by interpreting structurally, step by step, the Ocdipus myth and examples of kinship terminology. But finally he confuses his own idea of what structuralism means with Levi-Strauss's and one is left anxious to dive back into The Raw and the Cooked.
Leach is best at pulling together the different kinds of criticism that have been directed at Levi-Strauss. He puts into perspective the often repeated attack on structuralism's shaky ethnographic evidence while at the same time outlining his own belief that Levi-Strauss may indeed have fudged in certain cases. But Leach's primary objection to structuralism is more profound. In Levi-Strauss's eagerness to find the universal determinants of human society Leach fears he has "over-looked the plain, matter-of-fact world we see all around us." The noble savage has become in Levi-Strauss's hands a "reduced model."
In a sense, Leach is correct. Levi-Strauss did not spend long years in field work and received most of his ethnographic information secondhand. He never lived in any one primitive society long enough to form intimate associations. But maybe this kind of distance is necessary to an examination that insists on finding unconscious structures. For the moment all we can say is that Levi-Strauss has made complexity revealing instead of confusing. Losing the "plain, matter-of-fact world" doesn't seem like too much to pay.