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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lévi-Strauss 2: Subject and Object

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/19/09 at 05:33 PM

In response to my previous post on Lévi-Strauss, rob reminded me of Derrida’s essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” revised from his presentation at the 1966 structuralism symposium held at Johns Hopkins. And not only that. In evoking Kant and capital “R” Reason, rob also reminded me that both Lévi-Strauss and Derrida had been operating within a philosophical tradition that stretches back to Kant though Heidegger and Hegel and various others. While I certainly read in that tradition as an undergraduate, and marked those books in blue, red, and green felt-tip pen, I abandoned it with Derrida, or perhaps with Lévi-Strauss himself – the exact formulation doesn’t matter.

I want to revisit that abandonment. Perhaps, even, re-enact it. In a small way.

Let us consider some passages from Derrida’s essay, which I present not to critique them, but simply to display them. For example (p. 256 in Macksey and Donato, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, 1970): “In effect, what appears most fascinating in this critical search for a new status of the discourse is the stated abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute arché.” On the next page (257): “There is no unity or absolute source of the myth. . . . Everything begins with the structure, the configuration, the relationship. The discourse on this acentric structure, the myth, that is, cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center.” From the subsequent discussion, in response to Jean Hypolite: “. . . this center can be either thought as it was classically, like a creator or being or a fixed and natural place; or also as a deficiency, let’s say; or something which makes possible “free play” . . . and which receives—and this is what we call history¬—a series of determinations, of signifiers, which have no signifieds [signifiés] finally, which cannot become signifiers except as they begin from this deficiency.”

That is to say, talk and thought of the center, the subject, and the sign are intimately bound together. Eugenio Donato, in his contribution to the symposium (“The Two Languages of Criticism”), notes (p. 94): “It is the possibility of maintaining the discontinuity between the order of the signifier and the order of the signified that permits Lévi-Strauss to avoid dealing with the problem of the individual subject and makes for the extreme rigor of his work.” Note that phrase, “extreme rigor.”

That’s how things were conceived in the middle of the fray. Now let’s consider a passage from Maurice Bloch’s obituary for Lévi-Strauss that appeared in The Guardian. He is now reflecting, albeit informally and for a general audience, on those matters:

There is also another, even more fundamental, way in which his thought seeks to rejoin that of the mythology of the Amerindians as he understands it to be. Myths have no authors. Their creation occurs imperceptibly in the process of transmission or transformation over hundreds of years and across hundreds of miles. The individual subject, the self-obsessed innovator or artist so dear to much western philosophy, had, therefore, no place for Lévi-Strauss, and indeed repelled him. He saw the glorification of individual creativity as an illusion. As he wrote in Tristes Tropiques: “the I is hateful”. This perspective is particularly evident in his study of Amerindian art. This art did not involve the great individualistic self-displays of western art that he abhorred. The Amerindian artist, by contrast, tried to reproduce what others had done and, if he was innovating, he was unaware of the fact. Throughout Lévi-Strauss’s work there is a clear aesthetic preference for a creativity that is distributed throughout a population and that does not wear its emotions on its sleeve.

It is one thing to abandon the “subject” in favor of an abstracted structure sans center. But to abandon the creative individual in favor of “creativity that is distributed throughout a population,” that is a bit different. Yet that abstracted structure—consider, as a related example, the formal models of Chomskyian linguistics—can have no real existence except as it is embodied in and maintained by a human population. Bloch continues:

This central philosophical tenet of his approach has often been forgotten, partly because of some subsequent writers, such as Foucault or Derrida, who although they acknowledged his influence, were bizarrely labeled as post-structuralists, as though they differed from him in this respect. They were then credited with the idea of the “death of the subject” while, in this, they simply followed in his footsteps. Yet, the philosophical implications of this position not only implicitly underlay so much of his thought, but were made quite explicit in the polemic against Sartre’s glorification of individual choice, which forms the final part of Lévi-Strauss’s most adventurous book, The Savage Mind (1962).

And so it is that Bloch locates the great rupture in Lévi-Strauss. Perhaps rightly so.

Let’s turn to Lévi-Strauss and consider two passages from The Raw and the Cooked, not those problematic passages where he can’t distinguish between himself (and his discourse) and those Amerindian mythographers (and their discourse), but passages where he is deep in his analytic work.

This particular passage is near the end of “Fugue of the Five Senses.” He begins (p. 162): “These transformations are so scrupulously observed that the adoption of a particular point of view implies, in the case of any given myth and any given population, a correlative change in all aspects of the myth belonging to the same community, in which the opposite point of view was expressed.” Notice the phrase “correlative change,” implying that there is an economy to myth such that if you change one or three things here, you get correlative changes there. The passage continues (162-163):

To see this, we have only to compare two Caraja myths, M70 and M85. The first deals with the prospective immortality of humans alone; immortality was denied them because they went from below to above and chose to settle on the surface of the earth where they found fruit and honey (natural products) in abundance, as well as the dead wood which allowed them to light a fire (and cook). On the other hand, M85 contrasts the human condition with that of the animals that slough off their skins. Here the problem is no longer how to prolong life beyond its normal duration, but, as the myth shows, to restore youth to old men. Correlatively there is a descent instead of an ascent (the bird flying earthward); heavenly light is granted instead of earthly fire (which, as the myth is careful to point out, men already possess); and the arts of civilization replace natural resources. As has already been seen, the precondition of prospective immortality in M70 is not to hear; that of retrospective youth in M85 is to hear.

Those final two sentences gives us the correlatives. These two different stories follow equally from the same set of underlying relations. The only way to see that, however, is to compare them with one another and with other more or less closely related stories.

Now let’s consider a passage late in the book, where Lévi-Strauss reaches way back to the beginning to consider the first myth he brought into examination, the so-called key myth (pp. 270-271):

I have proved the existence of a parallel between the animal helpers who intervene in M1 and M124. In so doing, I noted, too, that in each myth a fourth personage comes onto the scene at the end and is not just an animal but a relative: a grandmother in M1, who acts positively by giving the hero a magic stick; an uncle in M124, who acts negatively by killing the alligator with his harmful fluid, for this uncle is a skunk. We observe, then, that the following transformation has taken place:

a) (M1) helpful grandmother (human)→(M124) helpful uncle (animal=skunk).

And since it has also been shown that M1 and M5 are symmetrical, it is not at all surprising that, via the medium of M124, the following transformation can now be proved:

b) (M1) helpful grandmother (human)→(M5) hostile grandmother (human≡skunk).

This having been established, we come to realize that the myth about the origin of diseases, in its two successive episodes, illustrates the two possible way for a woman not to behave like a mother: physically, if she is a grandmother or a woman who has got beyond the age of child-bearing; morally, if she is a young mother whose excessive appetite prompts her to abandon her child. The one kills metonymically by breaking wind (the wind is part of the body); the other by diseases she exudes metaphorically, since she is unable to evacuate the food she has eaten. However different they may be, these two solutions are referable to one and the same principle; if you remove the maternal element from femininity, what is left is stench.

The correlatives are there, and we’ve got some more linguistic terminology (swapped from classical rhetoric), “metonymically” and “metaphorically.” And we’ve got those transformations (one of which has been proved) which I mentioned in the previous post, and two of those quasi-mathematical formulas. Such displays are an important aspect of Lévi-Strauss’ expository rhetoric and the serve two functions. One the one hand, they provide a short-hand representation of correlated bundles of features and allow you to imagine those relationships in some kind of (collective) semantic or conceptual space.

But they also represent an attempt to objectify the system, that is, to turn it into an object out there that one can examine, an object with a finite number of discernible properties. This objectification is also an abandoning of the subject, one that is more far-reaching and certainly more problematic than favoring the collective over the individual. (When they talked of Lévi-Strauss and the sign, I suspect that Derrida and Donato were more concerned about this abandonment than that other.) But the problematic nature of that project is not something I wish to take-on here and now. Rather, let’s just bracket it and set it on the self.

In this context, my point is simply that that’s the stuff that caught my attention. That technical language and conceptualization (that bodies forth what Donato called the “extreme rigor” of Lévi-Strauss’s work), the sense of an impersonal economy at work in those texts, between them, in their interrelations. That’s what I wanted to bring to my study of literature. Even as I was being excited by Lévi-Strauss, I was also being excited by the nascent cognitive sciences (the phase itself wasn’t coined until 1973). I saw that the linguistics had been more successful in objectifying syntax than Lévi-Strauss had been with myth, and I attributed that to the fact that it was syntax they were objectifying, not semantics, not meaning. Could meaning actually be objectified, as Lévi-Strauss was attempting to do in the case of myth?

(Note that when I talk of objectification I do not imply objective truth. Objectification is just that; whether such a model embodies an objectively true characterization of the world, that’s a different issue. The many syntactic models proposed by linguists are objectifications, but it is not at all clear that any of them are objectively true. The same holds for the various formal models that have been proposed for conceptual or semantic structure, including that in my piece on Sonnet 129.)

Thus, in my early encounter with Lévi-Strauss, I was influenced by that aspect of his project which has otherwise been all but abandoned. As far as I know, nothing has come of his work on myth (cf. Sperber). It’s there, people read it, refer to it, and binaries pepper many discussions, but no one has attempted to deepen it or extend it. Perhaps such an effort is, in the principle of things, impossible. And perhaps it is only very difficult.

In any event, what was taken up is Lévi-Strauss’s various mystifications about his work. In 1975 Donato reviewed all four volumes of Mythologiques in Diacritics (vol. 5, no. 3, p. 2): “Lévi-Strauss and the Protocols of Distance.” He tells us that “what follows, then, is not an attempt to describe or evaluate Lévi-Strauss’ contributions to specific areas as much as to question some of the implicit or stated assumptions which Lévi-Strauss himself relates to the ultimate significance of his work.” He goes on to assert that “despite Lévi-Strauss’ repeated protestations to the contrary, the anthropologist is not completely absent from his enterprise.” No, he was not. But was it wrong or wrong-headed of him to make the attempt to disappear? And, what, after all, has come of this endless critiquing and meta-critiquing?

Can we take inspiration from Lévi-Strauss’s work on myth and do only as well in the study of our, literary, texts? Can we look beyond our queasiness about objectification—for I do think that played a role in how and what we were willing to learn from him—and discover something about literature that we have not known before?


My old anthropology teacher, who, besides having just gotten a PhD under Clifford Geertz and Mircea Eliade, was also a native American, told me back in 1966 that he was able to make up and pass off to his Tewa relatives new myths about the Blue Corn Maiden that he had cooked up following Levi-Straussian recipes. It struck me at the time, however, that this success was irrelevant to most anthropologists and, more generally, that the trouble with the Mythologiques wasn’t that it was wrong but that nobody was interested in the kind of knowledge it produced/revealed. Maybe if Levi-Strauss had written a Volume 5 that began with the Gospel according to Matthew as M-814 somebody would still care.

I doubt if Levi-Strauss cared much for the riffs Derrida or Foucault made on his ideas. I think he thought of himself as a sort of meta-positivist. He wasn’t all that crazy about philosophy.

By Jim Harrison on 11/19/09 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Revised from his presentation”?  Wasn’t it more or less just translated by Catherine Macksey?

By on 11/19/09 at 11:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...the trouble with the Mythologiques wasn’t that it was wrong but that nobody was interested in the kind of knowledge it produced/revealed. Maybe if Levi-Strauss had written a Volume 5 that began with the Gospel according to Matthew as M-814 somebody would still care.

My impression, Jim, is that while people are willing to genuflect toward Mythologiques, there hasn’t been much of an attempt to actually study it. When people illustrate L-S’s myth analysis they either summarize one of his earlier efforts, such as “The Story of Asdiwal,” or they do their own analysis modeled on those earlier efforts. I don’t even see much notice of the fact that his analytical method in Mythologiques is rather different from his earlier work. Whether the problem was the texts he chose to analyze, or his methods, I don’t really know, but I suspect the latter. I doubt that things would have changed much if L-S had strayed into the sacred texts of the West. That might, in fact, have made things worse, though I don’t think the Edmuch Leach caught any flack for doing Genesis.

Josh, the text in the structuralism volume has a footnote indicating that it is a translation of a revised text. There was an earlier translation that circulated in mimeograph form and it may well have been of the text that Derrida actually delivered at the conference.

By Bill Benzon on 11/20/09 at 08:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim Harrison sent the following comment, which I accidentally deleted from the comment cue, but not from my email (BB):

Bill, I’m sure your right about the Mythologiques: I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone besides myself who has actually read them all and that includes a friend of mine who wrote a book about Levi-Strauss. Too bad. Quite apart from the fascinating orbiter dicta L-S sprinkled through its pages, the stories themselves become increasingly pleasurable as you figure out how to read them. Well, maybe it’s just me.

Leach’s very sketchy foray into Biblical exegesis was probably too programmatic to upset anybody. Anyhow, my point isn’t just that dealing with sacred texts of the West would have been a good marketing move: the bird nester whose adventures begin the Raw and the Cooked can easily be seen as a type of Christ. After all, both of them mediators who bring cultural benefits after being painfully suspended between heaven and earth. Levi-Strauss never ever alludes to this analogy, but I’ve thought for a long time that his choice of the birdnester as M1 was not innocent. After all, granted his methodology, he could have begun with any myth.

By Bill Benzon on 11/20/09 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My guess, Jim, is that it was his objectification that bugged people about Lévi-Strauss (which is what I ran on a bit in my post). In 1974 Stanley Diamond published In Search of the Primitive (Google Books) in which he really raked L-S over the coals about that. Whether or not they said as much, that, I suspect, is why L-S was never picked up by literary critics except for superficial talk of binaries (and everyone talked of binaries) and commentary on his methodological mystifications. Critics balked at distancing themselves from their texts the way L-S distanced himself from those myths.

As for why L-S choose to start with that particular myth, hadn’t thought of that angle, but I’m sure he didn’t make the choice arbitrarily. He had aesthetic or rhetorical reasons.

By Bill Benzon on 11/21/09 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I expect that Levi-Strauss would point out that the existence of an autonomous and unconscious system of myths in the Americas doesn’t make the individual native Americans disappear or rule out the study of how particular myth tellers used particular myths for particular purposes. Just as there are a boggling number of ways of talking about language, i.e. as speech, langue, grammar, discourse, etc., there are surely a lot of defensible ways of defining myth as a possible object of knowledge. Of course we tend to obsess about individuals and think that’s what matters even though, as Levi Strauss is perfectly correct to point out, ours is very much the minority position relative to other times and other cultures. Well, from the center of an exception, the exception looks like a rule. 

Objectivity wasn’t all that was objectionable about Levi-Strauss. People did find Levi-Strauss objectionable because of his real or pretended objectivity, but I think they also were repelled by the sheer technicality of what he proposed. Whatever else intellectuals are supposed to do, they ought to drastically simplify things, not land us in an interminable advanced course in data structures. That’s OK for the boffins--"Sure learning about modern science is like having a swarm of bees in your head, but there they are."--but the function of highly visible thinker, in effect if not intention, is to get us all on the same page. In that respect, philosophy and its contemporary substitutes work rather like myth itself to winnow down the options so that one Indian (or grad student) can find another in the immense space of possible ideas.

By Jim Harrison on 11/22/09 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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