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Claude Levi-Strauss, Funeral Anthropologist, dead at 100

Claude Levi-Strauss has died at 100… anthropologist and the premier founder of unstructurable structuralism. From his obituary (nytimes):

“The thirst for objective knowledge,” he wrote, “is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call ‘primitive.’ ”

The world of primitive tribes was fast disappearing, he wrote. From 1900 to 1950, more than 90 tribes and 15 languages had disappeared in Brazil alone. This was another of his recurring themes. He worried about the growth of a “mass civilization,” of a modern “monoculture.” He sometimes expressed exasperated self-disgust with the West and its “own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.” […] By the 1980s, structuralism as imagined by Mr. Lévi-Strauss had been displaced by French thinkers who became known as poststructuralists: writers like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They rejected the idea of timeless universals and argued that history and experience were far more important in shaping human consciousness than universal laws.

“French society, and especially Parisian, is gluttonous,” Mr. Lévi-Strauss responded. “Every five years or so, it needs to stuff something new in its mouth. And so five years ago it was structuralism, and now it is something else. I practically don’t dare use the word ‘structuralist’ anymore, since it has been so badly deformed. I am certainly not the father of structuralism.”

But Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s version of structuralism may end up surviving post-structuralism, just as he survived most of its avatars. His monumental four-volume work, “Mythologiques,” may ensure his legacy, as a creator of mythologies if not their explicator.

The final volume ends by suggesting that the logic of mythology is so powerful that myths almost have a life independent from the peoples who tell them. In his view, they speak through the medium of humanity and become, in turn, the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s greatest mystery: the possibility of not being, the burden of mortality. [link]


November 3, 2009
Tax: » Death, Obituary
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