Claude Lévi-Strauss became an internationally celebrated intellectual during the heyday of cultural explanations for human behaviour. His first book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, is chiefly remembered for its ill-fated assertion that the incest taboo marks the human passage from nature to culture. Assessing Lévi-Strauss’s lasting achievement is no easy task. For a start, the French anthropologist was endlessly self-deprecating. He frequently claimed only the most modest of achievements for himself. Sometimes this modesty was entirely justified. As Patrick Wilcken points out in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), throughout his career, the French anthropologist undertook little or no substantive fieldwork. He preferred the library to the jungle, the attentive students in the lecture hall to the unpredictable Amazon tribe in its native habitat. Although he may be said to have invented structuralism, Lévi-Strauss appeared uninterested in followers or acolytes. His major opus, Mythologies, now seems like a giant uninhabited volcanic island, thrown up like a freak of nature, away from which the intellectual community has been sailing ever since.
My interest in him stems largely from two factors: the first is my interest in his work as a study in pseudo-scientific verbiage. Lévi-Strauss drew frequently on a discourse that evoked the scientific method, even though he nowhere exploits genuine scientific thought. Though now in full retreat, this discourse still exerts some measure of acceptance in the humanities. The second stems from his exchange with Vladimir Propp, an exchange that is still too often presented as if it were a debate that the Frenchman won. In truth, the debate shows up all too clearly the limitations of a style of thought that assumes a high level of charlatan-esque posturing, both in oneself and in one’s intellectual combatants. That Propp refused to play that game explains the sudden termination of the interest of Levi-Strauss in the issues he had initially raised. One purpose of this blog will be to give those issues the proper examination they require.