The Illusive Code Waiting To Be Discovered

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Levi-Strauss’s Search For The Illusive Code-Fixed In Time And Waiting To Be Discovered

The Kinship System As A Form Of Language

Although one could argue that Levi-Strauss is as Kantian in outlook, as is Chomsky, it quickly becomes apparent after reading some of Levi-Strauss’s anthropology that there will be no attempt on his part, to populate his mansions with real, freedom loving people. Whereas, as I have already pointed out, Kant makes an attempt to personalize his transcendental subject, Paul Ricoeur tells us “Levi-Strauss’s philosophy is a Kantianism without a transcendental subject.” [Philip Pettit, p. 78] Levi-Strauss’s zealous attempt to capture the categories of mind in his structural analysis of myth, kinship, and totemism turns the subject into the object produced by his structural analysis.

Levi-Strauss’s 1949 study on kinship systems came at the beginning of his career before he had fully developed his structuralist method. But, in his approach to kinship, his object method was already apparent. Levi-Strauss brought to this study a collectivist, functionalist perspective. He was following the line of study already documented in the works of Durkheim and Mauss. In his emphasis on using women as objects for gift giving, he was simply extending Mauss’s thesis that gift giving promotes social solidarity within one’s own culture as well as promoting a cross culture solidarity when gifts are cross culturally exchanged. Like Mauss, Levi-Strauss believed that these reciprocal relationships were established for integrative rather than for economic purposes.

Kinship relationships are varied and perplexing. All societies have to have social arrangements which allow men and women to get together for the purpose of having children. For Levi-Strauss the incest taboo became the distinguishing characteristic which sets man apart from other animals. This rule, that one had to marry outside of the family, became the first principle in his kinship system. The second and more controversial principle could be found in his explanation concerning who gets to marry who. “In early human societies,” Lewis informs us, “kinship was too important a matter to be left to chance or to individual whim. Systems of regular intermarriage among groups were therefore set up, and Levi-Strauss demonstrated ingeniously how they could have resulted from the idea of marrying out, but not too far out i.e., marriage between certain kinds of first cousins.” [David Maybury-Lewis, Claude Levi-Strauss and the Search for Structure, Wilson Quarterly, 12:82-95] This cross culture marriage and exchange of cousins (usually on the maternal side but not always) became the key, according to Levi-Strauss, that unlocked the perplexing nature of kinship systems.

Another suggestive and more structuralist feature of Levi-Strauss’s analysis of kinship systems is found in his claim that marriage regulations and kinship systems are a kind of language. He says:

“(Marriage regulations and kinship systems are)…a set of processes permitting the establishment, between individual and groups, of a certain kind of communication. That the mediating factor, in this case, should be the women of the group, who are circulated, between clans, lineages, or families, in place of the words of the group, which are circulated between individuals, does not at all change the fact that the essential aspect of the phenomenon is identical in both cases.” [Philip Pettit, p.70]

Understanding kinship systems in this way moves us, once again, in search of that illusive “code,” fixed in time and waiting to be discovered, that, ultimately, Levi-Strauss believes to be at the core of his investigations. In his structural analysis of myth we get a better understanding of this idea.

The Code-When The Brain Acquired The Ability To Make Plus/Minus Distinctions

Things Can Be At The Same Time Both Similar And Different

A major influence on Levi-Strauss’s anthropology came by way of Marx and Freud. Both of these men tended to place extreme emphasis on the concealed aspect of the motivational force behind human behavior. For Marx this motivational aspect was a natural consequence following from the social fabric of social structure and economic realities, while for Freud these motivational aspects were repressed deep within a person’s psychological experience of the unconsciousness. Following in the path of the thought of these men Levi-Strauss identified gift giving (as the integrative function promoting social solidarity) and the incest taboo to be part of the hidden matrix holding together kinship systems. But, for Levi-Strauss, the hidden agenda behind a person’s motivational consciousness is nowhere more revealing than can be found in the mythology of any given culture.

Levi-Strauss began his investigations of myth with the publication of The Structural Study of Myth (1955). He believed myth to contain the “universal code” that if properly understood would unlock the door to the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. For Levi-Strauss, mind
represented an objective component of the brain and, like any other object, the principles underlying its constitution could be investigated and discovered. With this end as his goal, he investigated the structural nature of myth. In his book The Savage Mind, he sought to disclose in his description of the “concrete logic” of Pre-modern man that “…there is no such thing as ‘The Primitive Mind’; or, for that matter, ‘Modern Mind’; there is only ‘Mind-As-Such.’” [Hayes and Hayes, editors, Claude Levi-Strauss: The Anthropologist As Hero, 1970, p.224]

One cannot read very far into the works of Levi-Strauss without concluding that he believed he had found the mind’s code, however subtle, variable, and kaleidoscopically shifting it was, in the elementary logic of Pre-modern man. According to Bottomore and Nisbet, this universal logic becomes identifiable in the significance Levi-Strauss places in the concept of binary opposition:

“Levi-Strauss argues that man, by the very nature of his mind, views the world with binary concepts–for example, odd and even numbers. …(M)an’s capacity to symbolize with his fellows requires that in the course of evolution the brain acquired the ability to make “plus/minus distinctions for treating the binary pairs thus formed as related couples, and for manipulating these relations as in a matrix algebra.” [Tom Bottomore and Robert Nisbet, A History of Sociological Analysis, 1979, p.584]

It was precisely in the significance Levi-Strauss attributed to binary opposition that lead him to believe “the mythical value of myth remains preserved, even through the worst translation.” [W. A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt, Claude Levi-Strauss, The Structural Study Of Myth, p. 292] Using the framework of binary opposition, Levi-Strauss has given us a description of how to structurally analyze myth. Accordingly, myths are more susceptible to a semiological analysis then were kinship systems and he wastes no time in making that analogy. Acknowledging the Saussurean principle of the arbitrary character of linguistic signs, he says:

“In order to preserve its (Myth) specificity we should thus put ourselves in a position to show that it is both the same thing as language, and also something different from it. Here, too, the past experience of linguists may help us. For language itself can be analyzed into things which are at the same time similar and different. This is precisely what is expressed in Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole…If those two levels already exist in language, then a third one can conceivably be isolated.” [Ibid. p. 291]


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