PRINT April 2010


Only a handful of modern thinkers have had so profound an impact on our understanding of the world as Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose revelatory application of linguistic theory to the field of anthropology—in tracts such as The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), Tristes Tropiques (1955), and The Raw and the Cooked (1964)—gave birth to a structuralist model that forever transformed the studies of art history and literature, psychology and sociology. In the opening decades of the twenty-first century, his rethinking of global cultures and circuits of exchange has never been more relevant. When Lévi-Strauss died this past October, at the age of one hundred, we asked art historian THOMAS CROW, anthropologist MICHAEL TAUSSIG, and cultural theorist SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER to consider his life and legacy. Taussig’s contribution appears below. For Crow and Lotringer’s considerations, pick up the April issue of Artforum.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in Brazil ca. 1936. Photo: Apic/Getty Images.

MY MOST DISTINCT MEMORIES of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the structuralist earthquake he introduced in the United States shortly before I first arrived here as a lecturer in 1971 are these:

A youngish man from the art school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in my regular café, engrossed day after day in a book called Structuralism (by Jean Piaget, as I later learned). Not much of a memory, you say, but the intensity of that young man’s concentration sticks in my mind, emblematic of the extraordinarily exciting, almost religious passion then sweeping the University of Michigan campus. No one really knew or understood what structuralism meant, but there were plenty who were willing to explain it to you, as though offering a path to the promised land, if only you had the time—and in those days, unlike now, there was time (and unlimited cigarettes and coffee) to get you through. We had a map to Treasure Island, but half of it was missing. Structuralism held the promise of an intellectual utopia, by which I mean a utopia of the intellect, a perfected diagram of the workings of thought itself that encompassed the hitherto hidden structures in any- and everything, from salt crystals to myths.

A second memory harks back to my student days in London in 1968, when street fighting, largely an expression of outrage against the Vietnam War and the suppression of dissent, spread across Western Europe, inflaming university students everywhere, and our professors became subject to what I can only call structuralist bullying. It was insane. Structuralism at that time consisted of a holy cross-Channel foursome: Lévi-Strauss in anthropology, Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis, Michel Foucault in philosophy, and Louis Althusser in political theory. We were all buried in Althusser’s notion of the “relative autonomy” of culture and the coupure épistémologique—the epistemological break—that transformed Marx from a mere humanist into a structuralist without his even knowing it. We were busy reading indecipherable essays on structural this and structural that in journals that sprang up like poppies in spring, bearing titles like Theoretical Practice. (That journal measured roughly eight inches across and six inches high, with monochrome covers in a different hue for each issue—of which there were not many.) British empiricism was out, French stuff was in, and our poor professors were put out to pasture. Anticolonial and Marxist politics coincided with “student power” and the worst obfuscations and marvelous revelations of structuralism.

In anthropology, the time-honored intellectual method of situating something in a context and finding the utilitarian links connecting part to whole was mercilessly sundered by structuralism. Lévi-Strauss came out swinging, first with his overarching—should I say “cosmic”?—theories about nature and culture in his 1949 (English translation, 1969) Elementary Structures of Kinship, a five-hundred-page tome ostensibly on the arcane topic of cross-cousin marriage in so-called primitive societies. What grabbed one’s attention, however, was his philosophical daring in granting the incest taboo (read: the gift) central importance. Inasmuch as it ensured marrying out of one’s family and hence creating what we call society, the incest taboo was poised between the two great players in Lévi-Strauss’s scheme: nature and culture. In his words, the incest taboo is “where nature transcends itself.”¹ The taboo leads away from static to dynamic analysis, he wrote. It is neither nature nor culture nor simply a composite of the two.

Lévi-Strauss’s style of thinking and of writing—his love of forms that transform and of binaries that somersault—is well brought out in the following quotation. “The prohibition of incest,” he wrote, is the “fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture is accomplished. In one sense, it belongs to nature, for it is a general condition of culture. . . . However, in another sense, it is already culture, exercising and imposing its rule on phenomena which initially are not subject to it.”² From this you get a sense of the mystical quality adhering to his otherwise elaborately coherent and ingenious thinking.

Fundamental to the incest taboo is the principle of the gift as the infrastructure of all so-called primitive societies and, in a way, of all nonmarket societies as well. Of all gifts, that of a woman is the most esteemed. It is the gift underlying all gifts, and thus in one fell swoop not only is society created out of the family but other crucial exchanges and circulations are established, namely the exchange of goods and signs—i.e., language itself.

The next shock Lévi-Strauss delivered, in 1962, was his demolition of extant anthropological theories of totemism, a word derived from a British fur trader working around the Great Lakes of North America in the late eighteenth century: the idea that American Indians and people like them were spiritually tied to an animal or element in nature and that this link was directly related to that animal or element as something useful to physical survival. Surveying the immense amount of anthropological literature garnered since the nineteenth century by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Smithsonian Institution—this was his modus operandi, making American anthropologists aware of the riches therein—Lévi-Strauss convincingly argued that this condensation of beliefs and behaviors into an ism, such as totemism, and the subsequent reification of this ism into an evolutionary stage in the “development” of societies, was unwarranted, amounting to a sort of colonialist pigeonholing: It was an artifact of the observer’s need for so-called materialist explanations.

Michael Taussig with Don Pedro in his garden, Colombia, 1977.

His own conclusion was that animals and things in nature (plants, stars, thunder, vomit, heat, cold, the cardinal points, and colors, to name but a few) were seen by these remarkably observant peoples to form series and phyla that could be intricately coordinated with their society’s divisions into various intermarrying groups and with the love of classifying in general. There was no one-to-one connection between Clan A and a raven or between Clan B and an egret (based on the desire to hunt and eat such). Instead, ravens were to egrets as Clan A was to Clan B. It was semiotic play, aesthetic and relational. Differences in nature were manifold, and, as with language, some of these differences could be selected to form systems by which to order our human world, too.

Hence a third memory I have, from the early 1970s, is of Christopher Davis, who had been a student of the anthropologist Irving Goldman at Sarah Lawrence College, telling me how wonderfully fortified Goldman was by Lévi-Strauss’s taking so seriously the intellectual character of so-called primitive cultures—reading myth and ritual, for instance, with the same seriousness with which one would consider Western works of art and literature. Let me quote Lévi-Strauss’s Savage Mind (first published in France in 1962), from the chapter called “The Logic of Totemic Classifications”: “The ‘savage’ has certainly never borne any resemblance either to that creature barely emerged from an animal condition and still a prey to his needs and instincts who has so often been imagined nor to that consciousness governed by emotions and lost in a maze of confusion.”³ This was more than moral or political sympathy for colonized societies. It was intellectual and aesthetic respect as well, not for any particular individual so much as for the culture as a whole, just as we credit language as a collective achievement transcending any individual contribution. And of course the model of language, as filtered through the “new” linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson—meaning language as semiotics, or a sign system—was precisely what the Lévi-Strauss revolution was based on.

Goldman, who lived in Brooklyn and had been a student and assistant to Franz Boas at Columbia University, had written few but fabulous books, beginning with The Cubeo: Indians of the Northwest Amazon (1963), which was based on fieldwork in the Colombian Amazon in 1939 and 1940. After some two decades of indifference or even hostility on the part of mainstream American anthropology toward Boas’s legacy of culture as a pattern of meaning, Lévi-Strauss provided an antidote to the watered-down Marxism then pervasive in the discipline as practiced in the US. An extreme example of this was the “cultural materialism” purveyed by Marvin Harris, who “explained” whatever wanted explaining in human culture as the search for scarce resources, such as protein (hence cannibalism!), and who was for a long time taken seriously, giving standing-room-only lectures at Columbia in the 1960s and ’70s. But even cursory knowledge of cannibalism reveals an immense body of ritual in which the eating of the victim-cum-god—as with the Christian Mass—is highly symbolic.

It took that mischief maker Marshall Sahlins, in works such as Culture and Practical Reason (1976) and a series of essays in the New York Review of Books in 1979, to gleefully point out that Harris’s approach was merely(!) the projection of the common sense of capitalism onto far different economies: This wasn’t anthropology at all, but rather an unwitting endorsement of market logic. In his studies of Hawaiian and Fijian history (e.g., Islands of History [1985] and How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example [1995]), Sahlins went on to bring Lévi-Strauss into the postcolonial fold, as well as to bring history into a Lévi-Straussian mode of approaching problems, a daring move that fundamentally altered the way many of us look at cause and effect in historical change.

But intellectual fashions are inevitably discarded after a decade or so. Nothing is so sexless, opined Walter Benjamin, as yesterday’s fashion—indeed, not just sexless but the “most radical anti-aphrodisiac imaginable.” Fate delivered that cruel blow to structuralism, such that after the veritable frenzy for cryptography in the 1970s, with anthropologists everywhere “cracking the code,” claiming to discover beneath the chaos of observable life a hidden language or sets of correspondences—be it in artwork, the organization of male and female, or the organization of living spaces, rituals, myth, or dress—the structuralist project was spent. The anthropologists had been led to the promised land, parched, and had drunk accordingly. The inevitable surfeit of intoxicated revelation led to the routinization of charisma. What in the master’s hands had been quicksilver magic became boring and predictable when secondhand, and the whole thing went up in smoke to make way for—what else?—poststructuralism.

From left: Cover of Theoretical Practice 6 (May 1972). Cover of Theoretical Practice 2 (April 1971). Cover of Theoretical Practice 3 and 4 (Autumn 1971). Photos: New York Public Library.

And it must be admitted that a lot of what Lévi-Strauss did was magical. It created wonder like a conjuring trick. His writing is meticulous yet contains innumerable shifting plates of oppositions, similarities, and transformations. He wrote some amazing essays on shamanism and was a shaman himself, in the sense that he concealed his sleights of hand—only his moves were tricks of language, tricks that his obsessively semiotic theories would never admit to. One of the more glaring ones, which appears in his essay “The Effectiveness of Symbols” (in Structural Anthropology [1963]), and is basic to his entire method, was his notion of “inductive property,” by which “structures,” salt crystals as much as myth—affect one another through what I can only call their “structuration.” The example brilliantly worked through was that of a Cuna Indian shaman in the San Blas Islands off Panama and Colombia in the Caribbean who is able to coordinate his nightlong song with the transformation of the heaving body of a woman laboring in obstructed childbirth such that her body is “restructured” and the baby is born. In reality, what this inductive property amounts to is anyone’s guess, yet the ethnographic material—the story, if you will—is so heady that such mumbo jumbo on the part of the writer goes unseen. (Let it not pass unnoticed that Lacan said he got his understanding of the unconscious from this essay.) In other words, the natives’ magic is used to propel your own—structuralist—magic.

But oh, what joy it was then to be alive! An offshoot of the exuberant ’60s, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism had more than a tangential relationship with what came to be called the literary turn in the human sciences. Together with the influence of Antonio Grasmsci, the literary turn demolished the economic determinism of regnant Marxism and opened the floodgates both to a passionate interest in culture as a force in its own right and to taking the idea of structure the full hog, as with Homo ludens Roland Barthes and with Derrida’s Nietzsche-inspired vision of what it means to have a structure of relationships with no center.

Finding one’s way through this potent stuff was wonderful and wonderfully confusing. I doubt there has been an intellectual and emotional revolution of this profundity since the advent of the “historical avant-garde” in the early twentieth century. My own path was guided as much by this intellectual ferment as by my fieldwork, first on the impact of agribusiness on peasant economies in western Colombia and then on the attribution of magical powers by colonists—rich and poor—to the Indians of the eastern foothills of the Andes, which drop off into the swirling mists of the Putumayo River basin, where William S. Burroughs had drunk yagé with shamans in the early 1950s. My issue with Lévi-Strauss was that his approach could only straitjacket the blooming, buzzing confusion of the all-night rituals involving hallucinogens, the sinuous quality of the shaman’s wordless singing coming out of nowhere, the opening out of the body into multiple selves and organs, and the immensity of the fear and incandescent beauty—all experienced within an aesthetic of stops and starts and, of interruptions in speech, mood, and music, in the ongoing battle with sorcery. With its obsessive stress on signs to the neglect of emotion and ambiguity, structuralism has little purchase on the affective and aesthetic power of such experiences, which, if anything, turn structuralism on its head—a Dada-esque creative cacophony, as applicable in my opinion to the violence of the metaphysical struggle with one’s body, imagination, and sorcery as to the atrocities of the early-twentieth-century rubber boom in the same area, as reported by Roger Casement to the British government. The underlying rhythm of order and disorder in ritual and colonial terror does not allow for structuralist magic bent on nailing things down but calls for a far more unstable and destabilizing confrontation, testing our writing to the full in an endless give-and-take with the elusive reality depicted.

Anxiety of influence, you ask? A predictable, even Oedipal, reaction to the master, as we see with Deleuze and the riches of poststructuralism in general? Of course. But so what? For so long as there is mystery, churned up as much by our own mad pursuits as by the world at large, we will be as alive and bug-eyed as was the face I still recall of that young man in Ann Arbor devouring Structuralism in Dominick’s café way back when.

Michael Taussig is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York.


1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 25.

2. Ibid., 24.

3. Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 42. Following the passage I have just cited, Strauss goes on to bunch together with this “logic of totemic classification” not only magic as “the science of the concrete” but also the work of the alchemists of antiquity and the Middle Ages, as well as the writings of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Thus in one stroke we are catapulted into thinking hard about the coming science wars and global meltdown, ecological and financial—Green Hermeticism being in my eyes the most interesting philosophy of science available as an anarchist alternative to capitalist-generated systems of classification (for which see Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Kevin Townley, Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology [Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2007]).