Thursday, June 28, 2012

Claude Levi-Strauss by Terry Eagleton

In Tristes tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss writes that to understand other cultures is to understand one’s own, since what we find in such cultures, in eye-catchingly unfamiliar guise, are the same unconscious laws which regulate our own symbolic universe. Myth is the way the Other or unconscious thinks in pre-modern peoples; but this same Other also thinks in us, and it is on the ground of this Otherness, paradoxically, that we and those who seem foreign to us can effect a genuine encounter. What we and they have in common is a signifying structure which is profoundly opaque to us both. Ironically, then, the fact of a universal unconscious means that apparently remote cultures are far more intimate with us than we imagine; but it is also what gives rise to a certain self-estrangement, as we come to gaze upon ourselves with new eyes through a recognition of others as our kinfolk. We must see ourselves, Levi-Strauss remarks in a fine flourish in Structural Anthropology, as ‘an other among others.’

It is thus that Levi-Strauss makes a fetish neither of difference nor identity. On the one hand, the structuralism he founded in the anthropological field represents one of the last great surges of Enlightenment reason, with its faith in the fundamental unity of humankind. As a Jew and a foreigner in France, Levi-Strauss writes in the wake of the orgy of unreason known as the Second World War, with its lethal cult of ethnic difference. Yet in his Race and History he also advocates cultural pluralism, and resists the reduction of diversity to sameness. Moreover, though the West and the ‘savage mind’ may share the same deep mental structures, this does not put the two camps on the same level. On the contrary, Levi-Strauss finds much in pre-modern societies that is superior to modern civilizations, and from which we refuse to learn at our peril. The ‘well-ordered’ humanism he sees at work in tribal mythology is not the dominative humanism of the West; it is rather a humanism which “does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self.”

There is no question that structuralism, apparently the most value-free, technocratic of theoretical models, is (at least in the hands of its now lamentably neglected founder) a profoundly ethical affair. Today, when everything that happened ten minutes ago is ancient history, even the mildest proposal that some features of the past were more estimable than some aspects of the present is likely to be derided as primitivist nostalgia. Despite the fact that Levi-Strauss consistently elevated the cognitive power of science over that of myth, and was deeply engaged in the history of his own time, his admiration for tribal peoples can only appear like dewy-eyed sentimentalism to the traders in futures. Reading him after environmental politics, however, which scarcely existed in his day, it is possible to see a certain ecology, both natural and spiritual, as his abiding motif from start to finish. In his later writings, he concluded in elegiac spirit that it was too late for the world to be saved, and that the precious resources of la pensee sauvage were lost to us for ever.

The Event Of Literature by Terry Eagleton; Yale University Press, 2012

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