HOMMAGE À CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS
à l’occasion de son centième anniversaire
28 novembre 2008
Département d’Études françaises et hispaniques
Saint-Jean, Terre-Neuve et Labrador
1. Claude Lévi-Strauss is well known and recognized for his ethnology of the Amerindians and for his doctoral thesis of 1949: Les structures élémentaires de la parenté; this work is based on the phonology of Roman Jakobson and the prince Troubetzkoï of the Prague Circle (around 1930), which was influenced by the general and structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, who taught in Geneva before World War One. It is this same phonology that is used in the analysis of the sonnet « Les Chats » from Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, published by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss in 1962.
2. One can find the foundations of the anthropology of Lévi-Strauss in Tristes tropiques, Anthropologie structurale (volumes one and two), Le totémisme aujourd’hui, and La pensée sauvage. In the latter work, Lévi-Strauss maintains that “la pensée sauvage” is not “primitive”, unlike the ideas proposed by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. For Lévi-Strauss, there are unconscious structures of the mind that are common to every human being, regardless of space or time and whether they produce binary classifications or not.
3. For many years, Lévi-Strauss has been interested in mythology, by the myths that are the object of the four volumes of Mythologiques from 1964 to 1971, where he added a transformed morphology of Vladimir Propp to the phonology of the Prague Circle. The semiotics of A. J. Greimas and the School of Paris was inspired by these ideas of Lévi-Strauss. For him, “mythemes” are like phonemes and the myth of origin is the origin of myth.
4. Lévi-Strauss has always been directly associated with structuralism : he said one time that he was the only true structuralist with Georges Dumézil or Émile Benveniste - unlike Michel Foucault, who said that he was not a structuralist…
There are so many definitions of structure and structuralism that it is difficult to put them in the same bag or file: Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Althusser, Barthes, Lacan. Gilles Deleuze himself, who is associated with “poststructuralism”, proposed a complex structuralist definition of the structure in Différence et répétition.
There is however certainly a link between Lévi-Strauss and the Roland Barthes of Mythologies and Système de la mode. Barthes wrote about Le totémisme aujourd’hui and La pensée sauvage in 1962. I have copies here of a letter by Lévi-Strauss to Barthes in 1970 about S/Z: it is a good example of the way Lévi-Strauss was thinking at that time.
There is also a link between Lévi-Strauss and Greimas, as I already mentioned, mainly regarding the relations between nature and culture with the prohibition of incest as the rule of the “sociolect” or the “collective universe”. Joseph Courtés published a book about the semiotics of the Mythologiques in 1973. For Lévi-Strauss, what is collective is cultural and particular and what is individual is natural and universal; but ultimately, there is no separation or opposition between nature and culture.
There is also a link between the symbolism according to Lévi-Straus and the symbolique according to Jacques Lacan: both are a matter of language, prohibition and rules. But Lévi-Strauss is not Freudian, despite his respect for Freud – and for Marx… After the suicide of Lucien Sebag, in analysis with Lacan, Lévi-Strauss broke his relationship with him in 1965.
5. One of the problems I have with Lévi-Strauss is his rejection or dismissal of totemism; he has a very narrow conception of it. He does not accept or understand, contrary to Sigmund Freud and Émile Durkheim or Alain Testart, that there is a blood taboo, what a would call the “prohibition of infest”, related to the complex of castration, the “evil” foundation of the prohibition of incest and the prohibition of murder, with its perverse effects that continue still: sexism, chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism and genocide…
6. In his Introduction à la pensée de Marcel Mauss and mainly about the Essai sur le don, Lévi-Strauss cannot see that exchange can take place outside reciprocity, that is with the gift; for that, I refer to Testart again and to Alain Caillé, Jacques Godbout and the MAUSS periodical or to Maurice Godelier and Marcel Hénaff. Lévi-Strauss insists on three types of exchange or trade: women, goods and words or messages; these can be related to the three ideological functions of Dumézil (fecundity, sovereignty and war) and to the three indo-european social classes of Benveniste (farmers, priests and warriors).
7. To conclude, I would say that, basically, the thinking of Lévi-Strauss is a paradigmatic one with an insistence on system and synchrony; it is not a syntagmatic one. For that, see his polemic with Jean-Paul Sartre in Race et histoire in 1951 and the last chapter of La pensée sauvage entitled “Histoire et dialectique”.
Claude Lévi-Strauss has great followers like Françoise Héritier and Philippe Descola; he has been criticized by Marxists, functionalists and evolutionists; his immense glory was a screen for other original ethnographers or ethnologists like Laura and Raoul Makarius or Alain Testart. But let us not forget that he is one of the greatest French writers of non-fiction of all time, with Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jacques Derrida.
The 100th Birthday of
The Thinker of the Century?
A Panel discussion with Jean-Marc Lemelin,
James MacLean, Adrian Tanner
November 28, 3.00 p.m.
Moderated by Myriam Osorio
Department of French and Spanish Seminar Series