Tapping Into The Panhuman Mainstream Of Objective Thought

Blue footed birds

Society Is The Determining Agent For Levi-Strauss

Using the concept of binary opposition, Levi-Strauss analyzes the Greek Oedipus myth into its constituent parts. For Levi-Strauss, the problem of the relationship of these parts becomes resolved in the third level of semiological analysis, i.e., the continuum of successive and related oppositions. For instance, he tells us that, in order to analyze a myth, we should isolate and identify its constituent units, and that we should write down these units, in the form of sentences, on multiple small cards. These sentences should describe a certain function as it relates to a subject at a particular time, as in the case of “Kadmos kills the dragon” in the Oedipus myth. When we group these cards according to common relationships we not only get the myths diachronic meaning (a record of events as they occur in the story), we also get the myths synchronic meaning (the “langue” side of myth– its structure frozen in time). By using this technique (Strauss compares this technique to reading an orchestra score sheet the harmony part of which is read vertically while the melody is read horizontally) the synchronic and diachronic levels of mythological meaning come into view, thus Levi-Strauss tells us: “There-from comes a new hypothesis which constitutes the very core of our argument: the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning.”[Ibid. p. 293]

In his essay on myth, Levi-Strauss, goes on to identify the bundles of relations that define the Oedipus myth and he comes up with an interpretation of the myth that is supposed to show how man, through his mythology, copes with the enigmas and inconsistencies which occur in nature e.g., birth/death, the cultural answer to origins as opposed to biological answers, etc. To sum up, Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myth plays one group of binary opposites over and against another group of binary opposites in the belief that, on some level, conflicting opposites tend to neutralize one another, or, at the very least, make myth and myth making a lively, productive and ongoing utilitarian experience. But, after all is said and done, the question, “Who fathered the first mother?” still persists.

For Levi-Strauss, man is engaged in a society that is not just a simple reflection of the mind’s universal internal categories, man is engaged in a society which is a determining agent in itself, a determining agent arising out of the unconscious laws of semiological systems. The mind, according to this view, is a thing among things, arising from the same laws that produce culture and societal relationships. This idea becomes more clear if you consider a famous passage from the introduction to The Raw and the Cooked, (where Levi-Strauss… defended himself against the criticism that his interpretations of South American myth may tell more about the interpreter’s thinking than about that of the Indians):

“For, if the final goal of anthropology is to contribute to a better knowledge of objective thought and its mechanisms, it comes to the same thing in the end if, in this book, the thought of South American Indians takes shape under the action of mine, or mine under the action of theirs.

“Here Levi-Strauss assumes that it is possible to by-pass the problems of social and cultural analysis that are central to anthropology and to tap directly into the panhuman mainstream of objective thought.” [David Maybury-Lewis, Wilson Quarterly, 12:82-95]

Is it any wonder that critics of structuralism respond that structuralism in not humanism because it takes away, or refuses to grant, man any status in the world? Levi-Strauss’s anthropology and philosophy cannot, in my opinion, escape the bite of this criticism. In the psychology of Jean Piaget we encounter another variety of structuralism which attempts to analyze the structural origins of mind from a less fixed point of view. It is now to Piaget’s structuralism that we turn.


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