Monday, November 09, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss, R.I.P.

Levi-Strauss promoted the idea of different cultures and economies as being potentially as intelligent and efficient as so-called civilized cultures. His defense of indigenous peoples social and cultural lives is something I respected him for accomplishing. I disagreed with his approach and ideas on almost every other aspect. In fact, I never considered him an anthropologist, but rather a philosopher. In that discipline he was an interesting thinker. Levi-Strauss was a philosopher of Structuralism and he was able to articulate his belief that human brains were like a dichotomy machine. Levi-Strauss was also a great philosopher with his acknowledgment of the importance of storytelling. I consider him more a philosopher of storytelling traditions. And although I reject just about all of his other conclusions and interpretations of cultures I feel a loss for the man who had massive respect to cultures other than the dominating Agricultural economy.

Thanks to The Underground Baker for pointing out the NYTs obit. Below are some selected quotes from the obit...

The world of primitive tribes was fast disappearing. From 1900 to 1950, more than 90 tribes and 15 languages had disappeared in Brazil alone. This was another of Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s recurring themes. He worried about the growth of a “mass civilization,” of a modern “monoculture.” He sometimes expressed exasperated self-disgust with the West and its “own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.”

His interpretations of North and South American myths were pivotal in changing Western thinking about so-called primitive societies. He began challenging the conventional wisdom about them shortly after beginning his anthropological research in the 1930s — an experience that became the basis of an acclaimed 1955 book, “Tristes Tropiques,” a sort of anthropological meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere.

But he worried about the fate of the West. It was, he wrote in The New York Review of Books, “allowing itself to forget or destroy its own heritage.” With the fading of myth’s power in the modern West, he also suggested that music had taken on myth’s function. Music, he argued, had the ability to suggest, with primal narrative power, the conflicting forces and ideas that lie at the foundation of society.

The final volume ends by suggesting that the logic of mythology is so powerful that myths almost have a life independent from the peoples who tell them. In his view, myths speak through the medium of humanity and become, in turn, the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s greatest mystery: the possibility of not being, the burden of mortality.


Four Dinners said...

And there's me thinking all he ever did was make jeans....;-)

Oil and Vinegar said...

Thank you for posting this. The NYT article is great. I didn't know about his fieldwork, so this was very illuminating.