Fiery intellect that set a field ablaze

Claude Lévi-Strauss
May 7, 2004

Claude Lévi-Strauss' time in New York in 1941-47 is the animating absence throughout much of this excellent consideration of his "formative years".

Through a teaching position at the New School for Social Research, and subsequently as French cultural attache in New York, Lévi-Strauss met most of the leading US anthropologists and developed a lifelong friendship with Roman Jakobson, whose structural linguistics was to determine the direction of Levi-Strauss' subsequent work.

Christopher Johnson is best known for his work on Derrida, whose continuing intellectual inspiration he acknowledges at the start of this work. He is, consequently, especially struck by the absence of the lengthy New York interlude in Lévi-Strauss' autobiographical anti-travelogue Tristes Tropiques , a Proustian recollection that erases "the most profound influence on his intellectual development". Johnson proposes, inevitably, that this fruitful period of intellectual reflection had to be excised to preserve the fictive unmediated nature of Lévi-Strauss' encounter with Brazil. The agonistic self-presence of fieldwork had to be recollected without contamination from the lengthy period of hybrid metropolitan theorisation that New York facilitated.

Well maybe, but as Johnson concedes, Tristes Tropiques was written at the urging of Jean Malaurie, who sought a broader and non-academic audience, and at a time when Lévi-Strauss "was convinced [he] had no future in the university system". When his friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty urged him to reapply for election to the Collège de France, he replied: "I'm writing a book, Tristes Tropiques , and when you and the professors at the college read it, you won't be trying to get me elected any longer." This was recorded by Didier Eribon, to whose wonderful volume of conversations with Lévi-Strauss Johnson's work persuaded me to return.

Johnson's argument here is an echo of Derrida's celebrated critique of the writing lesson in Of Grammatology . Derrida's careful analysis revealed the way that writing was made the agent of an alien corruption of an innocent and harmonious community. Perhaps Lévi-Strauss did seek to remove a poisonous New York "writing" in Tristes Tropiques . However, the different audiences to which he was appealing, and the tensions it aroused, render too imprecise the bludgeon of "logocentricism" in this context.

Apart from this subtle Derridean conceit, the bulk of this volume is solidly conventional and relies on Lévi-Strauss' published work and interviews: this is a synthetic work of interpretation and reanalysis, not a work that reveals new material.

A short introductory chapter places the Lévi-Straussian vision of anthropology in a disciplinary and national context, contrasting Fernand Braudel's and Georges Gurvitch's responses. Two fuller chapters then examine his engagement with exchange, kinship and myth, and much of this reads like a (densely written) undergraduate primer, complete with bullet points.

The longest (and much the strongest) chapter, on structuralism and humanism, explores in part the role of Norbert Weiner's work in cybernetics on structural anthropology's own "mechanisation of human thought".

Lévi-Strauss' desacralisation of totemism and myth into modes of intellection is well grasped by Johnson, and he places structuralism's erasure of human agency in the complex topography of postwar France. At stake was a struggle between philosophy and the human sciences, and Johnson gives a nuanced and insightful account of the "debate" between Lévi-Strauss and Sartre (later, when speaking with Eribon, he denied this could be termed a debate).

Johnson works in a department of French and his book conjures a mobile audience: its centre seems directed at anthropology students; its concluding sections raise issues that anthropologists' commentaries are more likely to sideline. Sometimes, as when he remarks on Lévi-Strauss' "free adaptation" of Pierre Corneille's Cinna , written on the reverse of his fieldwork notes, Johnson presumes more knowledge than the non-17th-century French specialist is likely to possess.

Johnson's conclusion is ambivalent. He critiques Lévi-Strauss' "will to coherence" and ends the book cryptically, claiming that to confront Lévi-Strauss's work and thinking in its totality requires "a certain suspension of disbelief". But earlier (and somewhat surprisingly in view of his Derridean sympathies) he concedes that, regardless of the defects and limitations of structuralist analysis, "its intellectual achievement has not been surpassed". This may well be true, but the emergent paradigm centred on Bruno Latour deserves discussion, not least because of the strength of its critique - especially in We Have Never Been Modern - of structuralist fundamentals. However, Johnson's account helps one to see how Levi-Strauss' antihumanism prefigures some aspects of Latour's, and the way the Latourian critique of Lévi-Strauss recapitulates the latter's critique of Sartre (in the final chapter of The Savage Mind ).

In Tristes Tropiques , Lévi-Strauss speculated that his vocational anthropology "called" him because of a structural affinity between his own way of thinking and the people that anthropology conventionally studied. "I have," he wrote, "no aptitude for prudently cultivating a given field and gathering in the harvest year after year: I have a neolithic kind of intelligence. Like native bush fires, it sometimes sets unexplored areas alight; it may fertilise and snatch a few crops from them, and then it moves on."

Johnson, in his concern to underscore the systematic nature of Lévi-Strauss' thought, ends up cultivating a coherently demarcated field.

This lucid and comprehensive account of Lévi-Strauss' middle years deploys the hoe, rather than fire, and consequently loses some of the inflammatory excitement of Lévi-Strauss himself.

Christopher Pinney is reader in anthropology and visual culture, University College London.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years

Author - Christopher Johnson
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 208
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 521 81641 6 and 01667 3

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