Synopsis of Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘A propos de Lévi-Strauss dans le XVIIIe siècle’ (CpA 8.5:89-90)
[‘Regarding Lévi-Strauss dans le XVIIIe siècle’]
Volume four of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse was entitled ‘Lévi-Strauss dans le XVIIIe siècle’, and consisted of just two substantial articles, by Jacques Derrida (CpA 4.1) and Jean Mosconi (CpA 4.2); both offered nuanced and partly critical philosophical readings of aspects of the anthropologist’s work. In this brief letter addressed to the editor of the Cahiers, Lévi-Strauss objects to such efforts to read his work, and in particular his 1955 autobiographical travelogue Tristes Tropiques, according to philosophical criteria: ‘I wasn’t trying to demonstrate truths but only relate the reveries of an ethnographer working in the field, and I would be the last person to insist on their coherence’ (89).
Lévi-Strauss objects in particular to Derrida’s deconstructive analysis of his apparently ‘Rousseauist’ account of the Nambikwara people. ‘Derrida manipulates the principle of the excluded middle with the agility of a bear. No doubt the Nambikwara are both good and bad, and no doubt the evils that accompany the introduction among them of [the technique of] writing are only one manifestation of practices that they were already familiar with in other forms. No doubt the affirmation that all social life is oppressive is much more simplistic that the attribution of concrete forms of oppression to determinate types of social organisation.’ But since Lévi-Strauss remains persuaded that ‘the idea of a just society is inconceivable’, so then he insists that all such types are best understood as historically variable instances of a more general theoretical ‘truth’ (89).
Lévi-Strauss ends with a defensive justification of the unapologetically ‘casual’ recourse to philosophy in his work. ‘I have no particular respect for philosophy, and I reserve the right, from one book to the next [...] to borrow from it in different ways.’ The goal is not to elaborate a system but to use any and all available ‘schemas’ to help explain the various social practices, representations, and beliefs of interest to the ethnographer - ‘philosophical considerations are only the improvised pedestals upon which I display these precious objects’ (90). Drawing on a distinction he developed in the first chapter of his 1962 collection La Pensée sauvage1, the method he affirms is the ad-hoc do-it-yourself approach of the ‘bricoleur’, rather than the abstract consistency of the ‘engineer’.
References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:
- Derrida, Jacques. ‘Nature, Culture, Écriture (de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau)’, CpA 4.1. Reprinted as ‘La Violence de la lettre: de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau’, chapter one of part two of Derrida’s De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), 149-202, and in English as ‘The Violence of the Letter: from Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau’, in Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 101-140.
- Mosconi, Jean. ‘Sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement’, CpA 4.2.
- Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955.
- ---. ‘La Science du concret’. In La Pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon, 1962.
Selected Secondary Sources:
- Debaene, Vincent, and Frédéric Keck. Claude Lévi-Strauss: l’homme au regard éloigné. Paris: Gallimard, 2009.
- Henaff, Marcel, and Mary Baker. Claude Levi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)
- Johnson, Charles. Claude Levi-Strauss. The Formative Years. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Sturrock, John. Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
1. The engineer works according to abstract principles and designs, with purpose-built tools; the ‘handyman’ or bricoleur works with whatever random materials are at hand, and invents solutions from the ‘semi-particularised’ leftovers of previous projects. If the engineer works with rigorous concepts, the bricoleur works with intermediary elements, elements positioned between pure concepts and mere (contingent, shapeless) images of things – i.e. with ‘signs’ (Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée sauvage, 31-35). ↵