- The Way of the Masks by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Sylvia Modelski
Cape, 249 pp, £15.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 224 02081 1
One of the most disconcerting aspects of introducing the work of Lévi-Strauss to students is that those who are just beginning an anthropology course often seem able to grasp quickly and easily the main points of his work, while those who have a good anthropological training seem almost invariably incapable of understanding what he is saying. The reason is that Lévi-Strauss’s work deals with different questions from those which are traditionally assumed to be the subject-matter of anthropology. Trained anthropologists often wrongly assume that he is asking similar questions to theirs and therefore find the answers baffling. He himself rarely, if ever, places his work in relation to that of others in an illuminating way. The work of his colleagues is, for him, not a body of alternative theories but rather a resource to be exploited as data in the building of his system. As a result, his references to other anthropologists simply further obscure what he is doing, especially for those who know well the works he refers to.
The reason for this astonishing independence is partly a matter of personality. Like Rousseau, whom he so much admires, he is very much a ‘promeneur solitaire’. It is also a product of the way he entered anthropology and of the way his work has developed. Unlike most British or American anthropologists, he has never been trained in an academic anthropological tradition, and he has never had to prepare undergraduates for a degree. Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological career began in Brazil, where he chose to go and teach before the war in order to try his hand at ethnography. He succeeded in this to a certain extent and has produced a number of studies on Brazilian Indians. However, this introduction to his subject-matter often seems more important for the personal and moral significance it had for him than as a source of data. Again, he is unlike most Anglo-Saxon anthropologists in this. They tend to amass their piles of field notes and work from them as though these were the only reliable facts on the people they study. Lévi-Strauss by contrast makes great use of all information available from previous writers, whether anthropologists or not. As a result, his data are often much richer than those of his colleagues, but also much less contextualised and less systematic.
It is not in Brazil that Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology took on its unique character but in New York, where he fled the Nazi victory in France. He took a post at the New School for Social Research and met, among others, the linguist Roman Jakobson. The significance of this meeting is central, because it is the combination of Lévi-Strauss’s ethnographic knowledge and the theories of a particular school of linguistics called ‘structural linguistics’ which produced ‘structural anthropology’, from which the whole range of ‘structuralisms’ claim to derive. Structural linguistics was an amalgam of ideas sometimes seen as going back to the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who himself was strongly influenced by the sociological theories of Durkheim. De Saussure’s main contribution was to show that the study of language need not be a matter of building up language families by presumed historical affinities. This had been the concern of earlier, mainly Germanic linguists, and still forms the basis of the language maps of school atlases. Another type of study was possible: looking at language as an internally-regulated system whose nature makes it possible for people to say what they want to say. This study of language was the study of the ‘structure’ of language. The ideas of de Saussure were further developed by a group of Eastern European linguists, the Prague School, with which Jakobson was associated. They demonstrated, with apparently extreme scientific rigour, the nature of the system governing the organisation of significant sounds in language – what is called phonemics. This scientific rigour predictably appealed to American linguists such as Bloom field, who tried to expand the principles of phonemics to all aspects of the study of language and so produced structural linguistics, the future Aunt Sally of Chomsky.