Notes on Appiah’s Lévi-Strauss

Detail from Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Composition X (1939).
Detail from Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Composition X (1939).

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s New York Review of Books essay (subscription access), reviewing two books on French anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, reinforced my antipathy for his ideas on meaning and myth, but also showed me something new.

Lévi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson, and Ferdinand de Saussure were all prominent names in the core ‘Literature, Language and Culture’ units of my undergraduate degree.  Examining their work was supposed to teach me something about how humans make, transmit, and derive meaning from ‘texts’—any human artifact capable of being meaningful.

Appiah clarified that Lévi-Strauss met Russian-American linguist and literary theorist Jakobson in New York and became strongly influenced by Jakobson’s ideas, themselves strongly influenced by those of Swiss linguist and semiotician de Saussure.  Interesting, in an academic sense, but still not enlightening. 

I have strong recollections that I found all three of them interminably dense and impenetrable.  I suspected it was because I was reading bad translations.  Only years later did I realize they were inaccessible under any conditions.  They just didn’t make any points with relevance or currency in my sphere of interests. Who cares about ‘signs’, ‘signifiers’, and ‘syntagms’?  Then or now?

What Appiah offers today that I never bothered to investigate is the reason why I felt so indifferent to Lévi-Strauss.

Structuralism and myth

Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Akroma-Ampim Kusi Anthony Appiah (b 1954) is a British-Ghanaian philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist.

The Lévi-Straussian approach to myth was to find the smallest part of a myth—mythemes—and then to examine the relationships between these smallest parts in sequences, and in further relationships between the more fleshed out parts of the mythic narrative, and finally between those and other myths.  Also, that ‘all myth concerns the passage from nature to culture’.  I remember thinking, at the time—the later 1980s—how useless these ideas seemed.  Why function like a computer to tabulate all possible variations and relationships?  Why not, instead, look for what seems meaningful in particular contexts?

Lévi-Strauss may not have intended a possible interpretation of his ideas, but his work does offer an interesting speculation: If we accept that a small core of foundational myths around the world are endlessly re-told in all human communications, we might see in them the problems of barbarity resolved as a newly minted, valued cultural state.

Beowulf overcomes the barbarity of war with a monster to strengthen an alliance and cement his own ascension to become a wise ruler.  Marshal Will Kane (High Noon) overcomes the threat of gunmen to transcend his own barbaric job with a beckoning marriage and a respectable, bourgeois life.  Batman overcomes the chaos of the Joker/Riddler/Penguin crime syndicates to restore cultural equilibrium and move close to his own state of settled bourgeois marriage (Babs Gordon/Batwoman/Catwoman, and so on).

Looking at Lévi-Strauss’s idea that way has at least the utility of a tool in critical analysis of cultural meanings, probably seen most commonly in art, literature, film, television, and music reviews.  I can’t guarantee, either, that this line of thinking hasn’t already been explored elsewhere, and my description could be a kind of ‘plagiarism-by-not-remembering-the-source’.

Lévi-Strauss’s trajectory, however, set him on the preposterous course of seeking to reduce myth to mathematical abstraction.  Appiah wrote:

In what was either the acme or the reductio ad absurdum of his intellectual aspiration, Lévi-Strauss, proceeding with his “logico-mathematical analysis,” presented the formula to which “every myth (considered as the aggregate of all its variants) corresponds,” namely

Fx(a): Fy(b) ≃ Fx(b):Fa-1(y).

This was the narrowing focus of Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques quartet: Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), 1964, translated 1969; Du miel aux cendres (From Honey to Ashes), 1966, translated 1973; L’Origine des manières de table (The Origin of Table Manners), 1968, translated 1978; and L’Homme nu (The Naked Man), 1971, translated in 1981.

He never really explained how to work that formula of his. What was he thinking?

The faux scientism in these works approaches theology: proposing that humans are pre-programmed machines with no free will.  Creationism of the clockwork universe again, which many people confuse for a complete explanation of the way in which human physiology works to produce the products of thought.  As if these were no more than pre-ordained or programmed responses, denying the potential for individual and varied human creativity and inspiration.

If that is the ultimate expression of structuralism, it is no better than religion, or its secular equivalent, ideology.  I don’t see a use for an anthropological determinism to add to the political totalitarianisms.

There are other misgivings.  Writes Appiah:

Lévi-Strauss’s work was variously roasted and boiled by former enthusiasts. [British anthropologist Rodney] Needham decided that Lévi-Strauss was “the greatest Surrealist of them all,” hopelessly unreliable in his ethnographic references. Lévi-Strauss on myth was like Freud on dreams, [British anthropologist Edmund] Leach wrote: “It is all so neat, it simply must be right. But then you begin to wonder.” He had come to think that Lévi-Strauss would admit any evidence, however dodgy, so long as it fit in with his logic, and ignore or find ways to rule out any evidence that contradicted it. Others were dismayed by what they saw as his ahistoricism. “Lévi-Strauss painted a perfect picture, of everything fitting into an overarching scheme,” Alban Bensa, an ethnographer of New Caledonia, told Patrick Wilcken. “But when I started going into the field and seeing the effects of colonialism, I began to have my doubts.”

At the end of all this, there appears to me a facetious irony in right wing cultural warriors labelling Lévi-Strauss as one of the icons of some pinko academic conspiracy to undermine Western civilization, when, clearly, he had much more in common with a species of right wing, paternal, parochial totalitarianism.  Appiah draws attention to the fact that Lévi-Strauss was a political ‘conservative’.  Something Americans on the right, and their overseas kindred spirits, conveniently overlooked?

The irony is less comfortable when recognizing Lévi-Strauss as an ideological progenitor to Silicon Valley mathematical reductionism, regarding all human affairs as fair game for a grotesque libertarian technological manipulation.

Appiah highlighted some interesting observations by Lévi-Strauss in the domains of kinship and cultural diversity.


Appiah mentions Lévi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), proposed that ‘women were the ultimate object of exchange’ in a new anthropological mapping:

The real marital relationship of reciprocity wasn’t between husband and wife, he revealed, but between the groups of men who had exchanged the woman.  (Men were to be seen as “the takers of wives and the givers of sisters”: debtors and creditors.)

It seems a simple formulation with hindsight, but in the 1950s it must have been shocking in its bald statement of how men have commodified women.  As an academic thesis, it seems quite out of step with Lévi-Strauss’s work.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009), French structuralist, anthropologist, and ethnologist.

Cultural diversity

In Lévi-Strauss’s semi-autobiographical Tristes Tropiques (1955) he proposed that contact between civilizations reduces cultural diversity.  Of course, I’d heard of American cultural imperialism in the 1980s, but Lévi-Strauss’s idea is not partisan: it corresponds with cross fertilization between the cultures of major ethnographic groups, drawing these closer together and reducing differences just as Lévi-Strauss suggested. 

Is this an anticipation of Hollywood and Bollywood, LA and Moscow rap music, African and South American fashions, Chinese and German beer, Japanese and Australian cuisine … ?  The inevitable ‘cosmopolitization’ of most of the planet’s human population?

Sartre attack

I didn’t know that Lévi-Strauss has attacked Jean Paul Sartre for narrow historicism and a parochial philosophic register, but I suspect the critique is valid.  Without the need to dismiss all of Sartre.  Academic spats in France were common, and attributed with much more significance than they really deserve.  The corollary is that rejecting Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism doesn’t require rejecting all of Lévi-Strauss’s work.


Appiah’s own conclusion is worth repeating:

When the landmarks of science succeed in advancing their subject, they need no longer be consulted: physicists don’t study Newton; chemists don’t pore over Lavoisier. Their publications are subsumed and supplanted by later installments of scientific inquiry. By contrast, cultural objects—innervated by the literary or musical imagination—ask to be experienced as themselves and for themselves. That is why, as Hazlitt observed, “the arts are not progressive.” Every Casaubon is bound to fade into irrelevance; George Eliot abides. If some part of Lévi-Strauss’s scholarly oeuvre survives, it will be because his scientific aspirations have not.

So why did we study Lévi-Strauss at all?  Surely his work was already ‘subsumed and supplanted’?  Not quite.  Appiah writes: ‘When the [French literary] magazine Lire conducted a poll in 1980 of who was considered the most influential contemporary thinker, Levi-Strauss came in first.’  Maybe that reputation alone forced him on us, unwitting undergraduates.

My personal opinion? Lévi-Strauss is not very interesting.  His ideas are, for the most part, preposterous and dated.  But I do have an interest in knowing about the parentage of later ideas by other thinkers.  An in that context Lévi-Strauss is still a signpost worth being able to decipher.


The books Appiah was reviewing are—

Lévi-Strauss: A Biography by Emmanuelle Loyer, translated from the French by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff. Polity, 744 pp.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Critical Study of His Thought by Maurice Godelier, translated from the French by Nora Scott. Verso, 540 pp.

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