Past insight illuminating our present

The Essential Edmund Leach
December 7, 2001

The anthropologist Edmund Leach is perhaps best remembered as Claude Lévi-Strauss's mortal representative on earth. The editors of these two expertly assembled and very full volumes wish to dispel such a simplistic reduction, preferring instead to resurrect Leach as a key commentator on "major philosophical questions about the human condition". Different sections in the volumes group Leach's writings on his intellectual influences, kinship and social structure, and classification and taboo, among others. Several pieces are published for the first time, and others, whose first venue was obscure, are made accessible.

Leach is at his most dazzling in his psychoanalytically inflected structuralist mystifications of biblical and other narratives. Once such dazzling inventiveness seemed a step closer to enlightenment. Most would now agree that it was a creative detour up an unfalsifiable dead end. Even the editors are eager to demonstrate that they are "not in the smallest degree interested in seeing a 'structuralist revival'". So how do these pieces read "after" structuralism? Are they only of historical interest, evidence of a failed paradigm, or do they endure on their own terms?

The thrill of a Lévi-Strauss analysis (perhaps especially in his celebrated and reviled analysis of the myth of Asdiwal) derived in large part from his wondrous ingenuity. It puts one in mind of T. S. Eliot's comment concerning David Jones's In Parenthesis that if the text "does not excite us before we have understood it, no commentary will reveal its secret". The converse of this was that it hardly seemed to matter if it was "wrong". The ethnographic criticisms of Asdiwal did not so much falsify Lévi-Strauss's analysis as blast it off the face of the earth, and yet it endured.

One of the most interesting pieces in this collection of Leach's work, "Levels of communication and problems of taboo", starts with a proposition concerning the potency of art's coded ambiguities, suggestive of Roman Jakobson, and a privileging of transcultural biological signifiers that is reminiscent of the later E. H. Gombrich position on the hierarchy of responses. Gombrich argued that our ability to decode and enjoy complexly (arbitrarily) coded representations was often anchored by an instinctual recognition of other parts of an image (for example the face of a tiger in an otherwise abstract London Transport poster). Leach also essays an interesting argument about the tactility of vision but the Benjaminian productivity of his argument is quickly erased by his concern to formalise the nature of what he terms the "intercategories of sensation" away from a phenomenology predicated on a unified human sensorium and towards his familiar model of taboo as the regulatory mechanism that patrols the interstices between categories. Art's power is thus a reflection of a powerful ambivalence but an ambivalence that - in Leach's hands - is (putatively) completely decipherable through structuralist alchemical tabulation.

Perhaps the most enticing of the editors' claims for Leach's enduring significance lies in their suggestion that he was a precursor of the current interest in the anthropology of the body and the senses. Leach's earliest academic positions involved teaching about art and material culture and a selection of pieces in this area are reprinted in volume two under the rubric of "Meanings and Feelings". Encouraged by the editors, readers may embark upon this section with great expectations of an undiscovered cache of insights into the persistence of the sensuous in the face of abstraction. However, they are likely to be disappointed for they will encounter much more "meaning" than "feeling". With the exception of a short and somewhat inconsequential 1979 piece on "Taste and smell" which concedes that the "messages" conveyed through taste and smell are " not structured like a language", the other pieces in the section are all markedly structuralist and lead in a direction that most readers will not wish to follow.

The volumes conclude with a set of public pronouncements that will chiefly interest historians of British public intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s. Titled "The professor in the pulpit", texts include Leach's final peroration in his controversial 1967 Reith lectures, A Runaway World? in which he extolled "a political philosophy of continuous revolution", an analysis of the Minority Rights Group's "moral imperialism", and a 1981 consideration for the New Statesman of the "nauseating gush" about the wedding of Charles and Diana. The contrasting positions of these, the editors suggest, demonstrate Leach's desire to tell diverse audiences what "they least want(ed) to hear".

The present usually besmirches the recent past with a blandness, a blank stodginess. Perhaps this reflects an anxious attempt to armour itself against the recognition that there is nothing new except what is forgotten. Sometimes when this past speaks, one is brutally shaken by its ability to cut through the complacent compromises that we make with our own age. The editors of these volumes observe that the past is a foreign country and remark that some of Leach's comments "fairly hit one between the eyes". These remarks startle because of Leach's own time and culture-bound assumptions, as when he describes the Kachins of highland Burma as being "like the villagers and farmers one knows at home". The editors, who draw our attention to this squirarchical perspective, rightly bemoan the redundancy of "judgements from hindsight" but it is of course disappointing that many of those tiny sparks of contingency that leap across the years and hit one between the eyes are archaic, rather than inspirational. Leach's Reith lectures read like the exhortations of a liberal headmaster and while most of the sentiments expressed in them are completely admirable they lack the intellectual density that make one wish to return to them.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of this selection was a sense that Leach's work is not a toolbox to which one could return with profit, but that it is a valuable record of a force that is still in evidence in British social anthropology.

The exceptions to this rather downbeat assessment are Leach's critique of anthropological notions of culture that appear here incarnated in his 1976 Radcliffe-Brown lecture. His homage is a famously barbed attack on Radcliffe-Brown's butterfly collecting ("at best defective, at worst fraudulent") which elaborates a critique he had been developing since the late 1950s. The bombast is wearisome, but the analysis of structural-functionalism's reliance on impossibly bounded cultural isolates remains vividly fresh and resonant with anthropology's ongoing struggle to live inside the fragments of the prison house of culture that it has created. Those who think that post-structuralism's critiques of anthropology and social-science methodology are simply degraded repetitions of a wisdom perfected in earlier ages are right to find succour in these early critiques.

Had it been reprinted here, another key source for engaging present dilemmas might have been Leach's 1977 Munro lecture, "Custom, law, and terrorist violence". This consideration of the cyclicality and moral ambiguity of political power's transmigration through the identities of (bad) terrorism and (good) state terror suggest (if my hazy recollection is correct) that were he alive today, Leach would have used his anthropologically acquired understanding of the contingency of value systems to ridicule Euro-American politicians' glorification of the crimes they also commit. Leach would not have tolerated Henry Kissinger as the elder statesman of liberal democracy.

The editors have done their job extremely well and Yale has produced substantial volumes elegantly presented at a bargain price. If the key works of other central figures in anthropology and the humanities were available in a similar format and price (rather than the box sets at many hundreds of pounds that other publishers currently favour) we might all be less likely to delude ourselves with "discoveries" that turn out to be part of a past that we have forgotten.

Christopher Pinney is senior lecturer in material culture, University College London.

The Essential Edmund Leach: Volume One Anthropology and Society; Volume Two Culture and Human Nature

Author - Edmund Leach
Editor - Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw
ISBN - 0 300 08124 3 and 08508 7
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00 each
Pages - 406 and 420

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