Thursday, November 5, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Don't know about anyone else, but I've found most of the obits on Lévi-Strauss to be a little underwhelming. Lots of news outlets focused mostly on his significance from a very narrow political perspective. The guy on NPR emphasized his role in according so-called "primitives" the intellectual and moral respect that all right-thinking people now agree they deserve. Well, I guess: but he wasn't really an innovator on that score, maybe just one in a long line that stretches back at least as far as Herder. Same with the discussions of his ecological sympathies. If he was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable, that sure wasn't why structuralism seemed so important a part of Western intellectual life at one point. When it came discussions of the actual theory itself, a lot of the English-language outlets were quite vague. I credit this not to the obscurity of the argument but to the fact that so many people nowadays would say that structuralism is passé, and it would be bad form to suggest that we had all moved past the great man whose praises we are singing.

In what was to my mind the best obituary, Maurice Bloch wrote in the Guardian that:

"It is striking how, in spite of the immense respect with which he is treated, especially in France, he has no direct followers or students. Many claim and have claimed to be structuralists but it usually turns out that only a limited aspect of his thought has an influence on them, and at worst the adoption of the label "structuralist" was merely a matter of passing fashion. He is a lonely, if imposing, figure in the history of thought."

Structuralism was already on the way out when I started getting interested in it, in the late 80s and early 90s. I'm not sure that I have ever quite understood why, though: beyond the mere vagaries of academic fashion. Most of the British structuralists that I've read, like Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, struck me as much more interesting cultural theorists than what came after them. And Lévi-Strauss, to the extent that I understood him, seemed to be arguing a very big idea indeed, which was that our fundamental assumptions about human nature, and more specifically human agency, were completely off-base: empirically wrong-headed and politically noxious. This still strikes me as a pretty compelling claim.

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