The Canon: Totemism by Claude Lévi-Strauss

October 21, 2010

I recently wrote a piece celebrating the longevity of Claude Lévi-Strauss. His unfortunate death while it was in press converted what was intended as sincere tribute into sneering irony. But the point is made. Once the dominating force of innovation in academic anthropology, he is now scarcely mentioned in the articles of its trade journals, not referred to in doctoral bibliographies, less borrowed from libraries than Bronislaw Malinowski.

Le Totémisme aujourd'hui was published in the French original in 1962, but I first encountered it several years later, halfway through a one-year course in social anthropology. I knew, as yet, nothing of his earlier work on kinship, the book's subsequent development in La pensée sauvage (1964), or of the on/off intellectual romance of his translator Rodney Needham with Lévi-Straussian thought that was the stuff of university soap opera at the time. I only knew that, after dozens of stodgy, fact-obsessed fieldwork studies by British Commonwealth anthropologists, the book came as rather more than a breath of fresh air: it was a whirlwind.

Instead of seeking to define totemism by induction, this tiny book dissolved it and showed that it was an illusory creation of anthropology itself. For generations, anthropologists had worried about the relationship between groups that named themselves after animals and plants, their special relationships with their "totem" and their exogamous marriage rules. With one wave of his wand, Lévi-Strauss showed that the isolation of these components from a larger whole was arbitrary.

What lay at the bottom of it all was not emotion or superstition, but a simple form of classification that associated natural and cultural orders in one of a small number of logically possible ways. From this, everything else follows inevitably as Lévi-Strauss rampages through world ethnography, reducing the most diverse data - everything from marriage arrangements to religion, food and gender difference - to variations on the same underlying crystalline structure, regardless of time and place. According to the dominant dour functionalism of the time, this was outrageous, wicked - and wonderfully liberating.

Then the fun really starts as he dismantles functionalist explanations based on the utility of species. Natives are allowed to have minds, even if these are largely collective and exclusively structuralist, and this leads us towards the structuralist war cry: "Animals are not just good to eat, they are good to think!" Finally, he rubbishes resemblance between totems and the groups they represent. It is, instead, the similarity of the differences between different species and groups that lies at the basis of the phenomenon. Poof! Totemism is gone, together with generations of flawed thought.

At the time, I thought the whole of anthropology was going to be as orgasmic an experience as Totemism. Alas, I was misinformed. It opened the floodgates to French influence, but, looking at the poverty of anthropology today, the result has not been fertilisation but mere intellectual erosion.

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