Monday, November 08, 2010

New Statesman - Claude Levi-Strauss: the Poet in the Laboratory

Practical deconstruction:
Lévi-Strauss claimed to have discovered the fundamental differences on which all kinship and myth were based, and produced a simple combination of differential oppositions that, he thought, underpin even the most complex and apparently dissimilar myths. Myths were privileged insights into thought, and here his second thesis came into play: "primitive" societies or, as Lévi-Strauss termed them, "societies without writing" are more authentic than societies that have succumbed to writing. Ever since Montaigne, and receiving its fullest expression in Rousseau's noble savage, there had been a current in western thought which saw in "primitive" societies a richer, less alienated relationship between men and their world than that which obtained in "civilisation".

Lévi-Strauss thus promised two things: first, a combinatory schema that would reveal the basic operations of the human mind - all kinship systems would be conceived as variations on a single theme, and all myths would operate around a set of basic differences - and second, a demonstration of the superiority of forms of thought that came before writing, before the fundamental alienation that occurred when writing intruded into an authentic idyll.

However, Lévi-Strauss's dominance of western thought evaporated after Derrida devoted a 40-page analysis to the anthropologist's foray into the world of the Nambikwara Amazonians. Derrida showed that Lévi-Strauss's position, far from breaking with a Eurocentric model, reproduced it. He demonstrated how the notion that the Nambikwara inhabited a different and better world, one before writing, reflected a long-held western prejudice that ignored the way in which any system of language had all the features of a writing system that Lévi-Strauss considered distinctively modern. The Amazonian enjoyed no more direct and unmediated a relationship with his surroundings than the western anthropologist trying to persuade little girls to break tribal taboos.

Derrida not only demolished Lévi-Strauss's sentimental valorisation of the Amazonians, but took an axe to his "scientific" project. Linguistics was based on the discovery of the phoneme, the basic element of sound difference from which all meaning in a language flowed. Yet the anthropologist's mythemes were always the result of interpretation.