Lévi-Strauss at 100
November 29, 2008 3:38 PM   Subscribe

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss turned 100 on Friday. NPR's Frank Browning offers an appreciation of his work (audio). Anthropologist Dan Sperber (at OpenDemocracy) offers a succinct appraisal of his influence. Patrick Wilcken (TLS) writes about "the century of Claude Lévi-Strauss."

Need to know the basics? Claude Lévi-Strauss (Wikipedia). Here are some Books by CLS. (Google Books search). There's no quick way to summarize a career that taught us whole new ways of understanding the place of mind in culture, the language-like qualities of myth and kinship, or the nature of cross-cultural inquiry and understanding. But here's some excerpts from his 1958 book Structural Anthropology, which was personally influential for me.
posted by fourcheesemac (22 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Ugh, here *are* some excerpts . . . sorry. /pedantic
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:53 PM on November 29, 2008

There should be a contraction for "here are"... "here're"?

Happy birthday, you old bastard!
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:27 PM on November 29, 2008

don't worry, i think misusing "here's" as a contraction for "here are" is something claude would find interesting

happy birthday monsieur levi-strauss
posted by sentinel chicken at 4:56 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Holy crap! He's still alive?!
posted by cropshy at 5:20 PM on November 29, 2008

Whoa, I thought he'd died in the mid-nineties. Crazy, if you think that he was around when the First World War broke out.
posted by Bearded Dave at 5:28 PM on November 29, 2008

Holy crap! He's still alive?!
posted by sciurus at 5:41 PM on November 29, 2008

I used to keep his book "The Raw and the Cooked" among my cookbooks, to see if anyone would notice. (Along with E. B. White's "One Man's Meat.")
posted by beagle at 6:16 PM on November 29, 2008

The structuralist who outlived all the post-structuralists.
posted by nasreddin at 6:35 PM on November 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

not only that, nasreddin -- his influence will long outlast the influence of most of his critics.

the post-structuralist critique was only necessary because structuralism got so much right.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:39 PM on November 29, 2008

Never read him, but I've occasionally worn his jeans.
posted by zadcat at 6:57 PM on November 29, 2008

Great jeans - love his 501's.
posted by kcds at 7:00 PM on November 29, 2008

Argh! Confound you, zadcat!

My preview-fu is weak.
posted by kcds at 7:04 PM on November 29, 2008

nthing the "ZOMG he's alive?!" sentiment, and this is coming from somebody who does anthro-y work in Paris. You don't exactly see him skipping up and down the streets of Paris these days, so I had just assumed that he had passed on. Good for him for sticking around to pester people with persistent binaries.

4xMac's got it right, tho. The history of much social/critical theory isn't teleological and periodized. That is, post-structuralism doesn't replace structuralism doesn't replace behaviorism and so on. They all start out as "strong" theories that promise to explain the whole world, then they're whittled back to "weak" or "local" theories that are really good at explaining a certain kind of thing. Structuralism can still explain a lot of things, but post-structuralism came about as an attempt to figure out what's going on beyond the limits of structure.

ok, sorry, I just wrote my first diss chapter and I've got theory up to *here*. I'll stop now.
posted by LMGM at 9:47 PM on November 29, 2008

So, I echo all the 'OMG he's still alive" posts.

I think the important thing about Levi-Strauss is that his greatest influence was beyond his own discipline: "The Raw and the Cooked" is an important conceptual base for work in many different fields.

That's pretty rare.
posted by jrochest at 10:13 PM on November 29, 2008

The structuralist who outlived all the post-structuralists.

Says who?
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:04 PM on November 29, 2008

Way too many years ago, completing a social studies requirement in college by taking anthropology, the professor told a CLS joke: an academic colleague invited Claude to see his new office. He was especially proud of the fine grain wood used in his large and impressive desk. Levi-Strauss examined it very closely, and announced "It's just a veneer."
posted by Araucaria at 11:27 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

He's not only alive; he's intellectually active. As a professional anthropologist, I certainly knew he was alive and well. May he last another generation.

As for structuralism as something "whittled down" to a "local theory," I predict that the perspective of a century or so the history of structuralist thought from DesCartes to Saussure to Lev-Strauss and Jakobson to Chomsky will be seen as one of the few truly original breakthroughs of 20th century social and cognitive scientific theory. And perhaps the last "grand" theory exercise that was possible in such a divided world where every unified theory is called out immediately as interested and hegemonic no matter what its purchase on reality.

I was schooled in the post-structuralist critique, coming of intellectual age in anthropology in the 1990s. I accept many of the charges against the structuralist enterprise; but not the rejection of its basic premise.

L-S's basic insight was simple: for all the riotous differences between cultures, our minds are all the same. Still right, still misunderstood. But in the end, right is what matters.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:21 AM on November 30, 2008

Some might be interested : a page from French Public Radio with LOTS of links towards video, audio, texts... to celebrate his birthday.
posted by nicolin at 8:12 AM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

The structuralist who outlived all the post-structuralists.

That's probably because most of the post-structuralists ended up offing themselves.
posted by Falconetti at 10:48 AM on November 30, 2008

"Triste Tropiques" transcends anthropology to be a great, wonderful, useless work of art -- with a ten page description of a sunset! (I once had a cat named De-clawed Levi Strauss.)
posted by Faze at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anyone who lives this long must have great genes.
posted by gman at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2008

Anthropology major here, and I too went, "Whoa, he's not dead?!"

My aging hippie Anthro Theory professor started his lecture on structuralism thusly: "You know how when you're on acid the music has colors?"
Class: (blank stares)
Prof: Huh. Ok then.
posted by naoko at 8:24 PM on December 2, 2008

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