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Happy Trails to You

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Lévi-Strauss 3: What’s the Subject?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/27/09 at 04:53 PM

When I wrote my first post on Lévi-Strauss I had no intention of writing a second. Rob’s response, however, led me to take a stroll through Derrida and Donato and in turn led me to take another shot at explicating Lévi-Strauss’s analytic method in The Raw and the Cooked.  At about the time I was posting that second piece I’d also decided to develop that first post into a formal article and, in the process of doing that—I’m still working on it—I continued to read some older pieces, mostly about Lévi-Strauss and the subject, more in the Donato pieces, but also some de Man, which I’d not read back in the day, and Joseph Riddel. “So that’s what was afoot,” thought I to myself, though not exactly in those terms, “that’s what folks were all psyched about. Hmmm.” I’d pretty much forgotten that material, though I’d obviously read it with some care as the texts were underlined and had marginal comments. And then I got out Tristes Tropiques and reviewed some of the underlined passages, again, on the subject.

This is not my first copy of Tristes Tropiques, it is not the one I read in Dick Macksey’s course on the autobiographical novel at Johns Hopkins. That was an abridged translation, which I discarded when I purchased the 1973 translation of the whole book. So these underlings and marginalia were not those of a provincial newly arrived at the Big University. These markings were made by a sophisticated young intellectual who had both a philosophy BA and a humanities MA from Hopkins and who was then pursuing a PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo. I’d gotten my MA for writing a long and quite sophisticated thesis on “Kubla Khan.” Lévi-Strauss was my central methodological touchstone, but there was Jakobson and, I suppose, Piaget as well. And Merleau-Ponty. And the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. Others, including Nietzsche, but also a bit of Chomsky.

I came out of that thesis convinced that cognitive science was the way forward. And that’s what I pursued at Buffalo. The story of how I managed to study cognitive science while enrolled in the English Department, well, that’s the story of an institutional style — and I do mean that, institutional — that may well have been unique in American letters, a style of adventure and generosity that is now gone. But that’s a story for another day.

Let’s return to Lévi-Strauss, and to the subject. I can’t imagine how puzzled I must have been to read about and hear talk of “the subject.” When I read Lévi-Strauss’ eclipse of the subject in Tristes Tropiques the exposition must have been strange, but without weight. That is, without the weight of the philosophical tradition Lévi-Strauss, himself trained as a philosopher, was critiquing. Sure, I knew of that tradition, and I’d even read about it in the later pages of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. But I’d not read Kant or Hegel, nor the phenomenologists. Thus, I suppose, Lévi-Strauss’s rejection of the self is where I began, one of the places. All the rest is backfill.

Tristes Tropiques, as you may know, is a genre-buster, a mongrel, hybrid, bastard, monster, what have you, and that no doubt is part of its intellectual attractiveness. It is a cross between a travelogue, complete with pictures, and an intellectual autobiography: How I drifted into the empty intellectual virtuosity of philosophy, found geology, Freud, and Marx, and became an anthropologist by hanging out with some South American Indians. Something like that. Lévi-Strauss tells us (p. 58 of the 1974 Athenaeum edition):

Phenomenology I found objectionable in that it postulated a kind of continuity between experience and reality. I agreed that the latter encompasses and explains the former, but I had learned from my three sources of inspiration that the transition between one order and the other is discontinuous; that to reach reality one has first to reject experience, and then subsequently to reintegrate it into an objective synthesis devoid of any sentimentality. As for the intellectual movement which was to reach its peak in existentialism, it seemed to me to be anything but a legitimate form of reflection, because of its over-indulgent attitude towards the illusions of subjectivity. The raising of personal preoccupations to the dignity of philosophical problems is far too likely to lead to a sort of shop-girl metaphysics, which may be pardonable as a didactic method but is extremely dangerous as it allows people to play fast-and-loose with the mission incumbent on philosophy until science becomes strong enough to replace it: that is, to understand being in relationship to itself and not in relationship to myself. Instead of doing away with metaphysics, phenomenology and existentialism introduced two methods of providing it with alibis.

Strong stuff that: $hoP-gUrl mEtaphyZicks — in blinking pink, chartreuse, and aquamarine neon lights. Wham! Kabl00ie! ZaapPp! But what of understanding being in relationship to itself? What does that mean? And science? Remember, this book was originally published in 1955, those days of innocence!

Perhaps the central problematic of the book is that of the exotic (p. 47):

I imagined exotic countries to be the exact opposite of ours, and the term ‘antipodes’ had a richer and more native significance for me that its merely literal meaning. I would have been most surprised if anyone had told me that an animal or vegetable species could have the same appearance on both sides of the globe. [Surely he exaggerates, no?] I expected each animal tree or blade of grass to be radically different, and its tropical nature to be glaringly obvious at a glance. In my imagination, I associated Brazil with clumps of twisted palm trees concealing bizarrely designed kiosks and pavilions, and I assumed the atmosphere to be permeated with the smell of burning perfumes . . .

Cue Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now, Apache helicopters on the fly, Wagner on the soundtrack, napalm streaking through a Vietnamese village, “the horror, the horror!” Brando, The Heart of Darkness. What Lévi-Strauss learned, time and again, is that when you journey to the exotic and dwell there, it ceases to be exotic. As Coleridge said, Aye! and what then? That is to say (p. 421): Every effort to understand destroys the object studied in favour of another object of a different nature; this second object requires from us a new effort which destroys it in favour of a third, and so on and so forth until we reach the one lasting presence, the point at which the distinction between meaning and the absence of meaning disappears: the same point from which we began.” From the last page (p. 414): “The self is not only hateful: there is no place for it between us and nothing.” And again: “Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe.”


* * * * *

Though it is a bit of a fiction to say so, it is not unreasonable to assert that that is where my intellectual life began. Three decades later I found myself declaring an end to the subject in a book about music, Beethoven’s Anvil. Though I did not have Lévi-Strauss in mind when doing so, I knew perfectly well that I was joining “a long parade.” In setting myself against the subject I specifically had in mind the Cartesian subject, the subject whose primary problem was whether or not there was an external world and how to know it.

My arguments were of a rather different character. I too needed a starting point and decided that it would be a group of people locked together in synchronized activity, such as dancing, or chanting. In this view music is fundamentally a group activity and one must start one’s investigations with the group rather than trying to derive or construct the group activity from the actions of autonomous individuals.

Yes, I know that it has always been possible for an individual to make music while utterly alone, and that modern technology has made it possible for lone individuals to listen to music of any kind at any time any where. And I know there is a sophisticated psychology to be teased out of the process whereby sound waves impinge on the inner ear and become perceived sound and that this psychology is to be studied at the level of the individual. But not all sound is music, the solipsistic technology is quite recent, and the ethnographic evidence is that, in the simplest societies, people make music in groups, the whole group.

Beyond that, we have fireflies. As I said at the beginning of Chapter 3 of Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 47-48):

Physicists do understand one element of dance, simple repetitive rhythm. This understanding has been applied to many biological systems, one of which is male fireflies in Southeast Asia. These fireflies gather in large groups on river banks, flashing on and off in unison to signal their availability to females. When they begin gathering around sunset their flashings are uncoordinated. But, as dusk darkens into night, regions of synchronized flashing emerge and spread until whole trees are cloaked in fireflies flashing in synchrony.

There is no reason to believe that this activity is directed in the way that a conductor directs an orchestra. There is no lead firefly setting the pace of the others. The flashing simply emerges; it is self-organized. Each firefly is making his own decisions about when he’ll flash, influenced by the activities of his neighbors. This activity has been analyzed as a system of coupled oscillators, a phenomenon first noticed by the seventeenth century Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens, who invented the pendulum clock — the pendulum being a prime example of an oscillator. One day Huygens saw that the pendulums of two clocks on the same wall were swinging in perfect synchrony. He disturbed one of them so that the synchrony dissolved, but it returned within half an hour. After a bit of experimentation he concluded that the clocks were affected by the vibrations each transmitted to the wall behind them. These vibrations led them to synchronize their periods and thereby minimize their collective energy expenditure.

If it is simple enough that clocks can do it, let alone fireflies, then it is simple enough to serve as a starting point. The interesting thing is that I arrived at this starting point in part by insisting on treating music as a physical phenomenon which, as such, is commensurate with neural activity considered as a physical phenomenon. Thus by reducing both music and mind to the physical I can treat a group of music-making people as a single system, as a “whole” that is “greater than the sum of its parts.”

Huygens’ physics is old and Lévi-Strauss likely encountered it at some point in his education. He may well have seen fire-fly synchrony, which is not confined to Southeast Asia, but he probably did not know the math used to analyze it. Nor would he have known the neuroscience that employs similar math. Of course, he did love music.

Yet, what has that to do with the subject of Lévi-Strauss, with the subject he bracketed out, if not actually erased? That music-making collectivity is evanescent; when the music-making stops, it no longer exists and the individuals return to themselves. Conversely, in order to enter into the music-making, the individuals must give up their individual freedom to the group. I could go purple and assert that, in the musical moment, the self ceases to exist. But that is not true, not most of the time. The self continues to function, if only residually. When it does, indeed, extinguish, what then? Does the loss of self imply also the loss of the subject?

And how does one generalize from the collectivity of music to that of myth?

It is all well and good that we know about neurons. But how far along them can we, actually, journey into the subject?


Comments

’And how does one generalize from the collectivity of music to that of myth?’
Two preliminary points
1) the notion that apes and humans have subjectivity, recognize themselves in a mirror,have theory of mind etc- seems well established.
2)a problem with Levi Strauss- or a parallel attempt by structuralist mathematicians to really turn something like graph theory into a Leibnizian mathesis universalis- came up against what we might term lack of Ashby requisite variety- i.e. we were seeking a mapping onto a relatively impoverished set. Or more simply, our math wasn’t up to it; our logic, our concepts are simply too crude and have too much superstition mixed up in them for much meaning to be generated. Thus that approach failed.

Returning to the question you pose- ‘in the musical moment, the self ceases to exist. But that is not true, not most of the time. The self continues to function, if only residually. When it does, indeed, extinguish, what then? Does the loss of self imply also the loss of the subject?’

This, of course, is the great question for (among others) Sama Vedic udgatrs (i.e. the chanters of the Vedic psalms). Indeed, some schools of udgatrs (e.g. in Kerala- who strangely preserve what appear to be more archaic features then those in the areas from which they most recently migrated) show song as prior not just to poetry but also speech and originating in the animal kingdom.
The question of cessation and resumption of self is also a prominent feature of Buddhism- indeed kshanikavada- the doctrine of momentariness is the ontological basis for the ‘no self’ doctrine- and it is interesting to see the great prominence of Music in Buddhism (but not Jainism which developed in parallel)
How this relates to myth has to do with the Mahabharata which contains the Bhagvad Gita- the ‘Hindu Bible’. Here Lord Krishna says he is himself the Sama Veda (i.e. the musical rather than ritualist Veda) and its accompanying Upanishad (the Chandogya Upanishad)
Now, the Mahabharata systematizes a lot of mythological material according to very strict rules which make it coherent and ‘holographic’or displaying semantic holism.
Noether’s theorem tells us that for non-dissipative systems, presence of a symmetry relationship is evidence of a conservation law or conserved property. In the Mahabharata there is a sort of double entry book-keeping so that everything happens twice, each particle has an anti-particle (so to speak) and thus 2 properties are conserved. These are karma (diachronic) and dharma (synchronic) which give coherence and meaning to individual lives through time as well as social interaction across space.
The interesting thing about Mbh, however, is that undermines binary modes of thinking for eg. dharma/adharma (righteousness/unrighteousness) to show that ‘real’ Reality is symbiotic and displays univocity.
We know, in India, that ‘primitive’ tribes are able to incorporate their own mythology into the Mbh template in a manner that any Pundit will recognize as correct- i.e. there is noting in the tribals way of life or level of cognitive development such that they lack Ashby requisite variety.
However, what is interesting is that great European mathematicians like Andrei Weil (the brother of Simone, and founder member of Bourbaki) who studied Sanskrit and lived in India still failed to see what was going on in the very text he came to India to study and which later guided his decision not to be conscripted into the French Army.
Ultimately, we have to understand that our logic is still mired in superstition- we use Zorn’s lemma (for eg) all the time but don’t really know when or why it is legitimate. In other words, Western heuristics may be great in some fields but not in others like myth making and oral literature which we have let wither on the vine.
This is not to say that the sheer intellectual horse power currently being expended on Math & computing and so on might not completely change the picture even in our own life-times.
Till then- well, there’s South Park. Remember how they solved the problem of Meinongian objects in ‘Imaginationland’? Well, it’s only a matter of time before they give us the full Mathesis Universalis.

By vivek on 11/28/09 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Bill

Sorry to go quiet on you for a while. I see you’ve now moved on in lots of directions, and so I’m not sure if my thoughts concerning Derrida’s reading of Lévi-Strauss are relevant any more. For what it’s worth, I’ll lay them out below (citing the version of D’s paper from Writing and Difference, as I don’t have the other version to hand). I’m not really forwarding them apropos of any specific claim you’ve made, but rather just laying them out to see if they confuse or clarify or clash with your take on D/LS.

So, from your first post on LS:

a decade after he began the study of myth Lévi-Strauss still hadn’t figured out what he was doing. Thus he designated the first myth as the “key” myth, but then asserted that it was but an arbitrary starting point. If arbitrary, then how key?

D paraphrases LS on this point by using the term “reference myth” (286), instead of “key myth”, although he does go on to cite LS using the latter phrase. D in turn reads this as part of a negation on LS’s part of any claim to there being an original myth (keeping in mind that “origin” would be one name in that “series of substitutions of centre for centre” (279) that D talks about at the start of the paper). As such, the “key myth” is an arbitrary starting point in the sense that one could just as legitimately have started with any other “instance” of the myth in question. In the absence of an original myth against which all the others could be identified as derivations or deviations, no isolated myth can be granted any analytical privilege (only pragmatic/strategic privilege). (Side note: in the absence of such an original myth, there is, as you’ve already noted, Bill, only transformation. To that extent no isolated “instance” of a myth can actually count as an instance of that myth because both its identity as myth and as transformation of myth is dependent on its relation to at least one other “instance” of “the” myth).

The significance of LS’s negation of the original myth thus turns out to be as methodological as it is “metaphysical”, and D/LS cash this out towards the end of D’s paper, when D cites LS on the “empirical” (D’s term) and fallible nature of structuralist analysis, i.e. such that “experience” (LS’s term) may produce “fresh data” (LS’s term) that requires that the existing hypotheses be modified, etc.

But there is also an epistemological (and “political") significance to that negation, to the extent that the negation of origin/original/originality is part and parcel of what D sees as LS’s relentless critique of ethnocentrism. Indeed, the key to just about everything that D says about LS lies in the former’s reading of the latter as exemplary in the critique of ethnocentrism (282). LS’s refusal to presume the legitimacy of (European) concepts of origin/al/ity is part and parcel of this critique. And it’s with an eye towards such critique that LS makes his remarks about The Raw and the Cooked being itself a myth, “the myth of mythology”. In D’s words:

The discourse on the acentric structure that myth itself is, cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center. It must avoid the violence that consists in centering a language which describes an acentric structure if it is not to shortchange the form and movement of myth. Therefore it is necessary to forego scientific or philosophical discourse, to renounce the episteme which absolutely requires… that we go back to the source, to the center, to the founding basis, to the principle, and so on. In opposition to the epistemic discourse, structural discourse on myths — mythological discourse — must itself be mythopoetic. (286)

If it is to do justice to the a-centricity of structure, then, the discourse on structure must avoid the impulse to centre — an impulse which characterises the history of Western metaphysics. So there are now two ways to make sense of LS’s claim about mythological discourse being itself mythical: (1) as a negation of (a certain form of) scientific discourse that would seek to find/impose a centre where there were none; (2) in the sense that, as linguistic analyses are meta-language (i.e. language about language), so too are mythological analyses meta-myth (i.e. myths about myths). This second reading seems tenuous until one recalls LS’s affirmation of the bricolage as the most appropriate method, where bricolage entails using the means to hand, and where, in the context of myth analysis, those means must therefore be found in the myths themselves.

I think the thing to note here (and throughout not just D’s paper, but pretty much all of his work) is that when D’s says something like “The discourse on the acentric structure that myth itself is, cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute centre”, he’s projecting; he’s employing a kind of free indirect discourse. So I agree with Bloch’s point about D & F following in LS’s footsteps. But it’s also worth keeping in mind, that while D actually affirms LS’s work to a far greater degree than many readers of D acknowledge, his account isn’t entirely uncritical. Or, at least, he shows that a certain amount of work needs to be done in order to arrive at that account, that there are moments in LS’s work which could lead one away from D’s understanding of LS.

I want to follow this comment up with a few more about the rest of what you’ve written, especially as concerns (1) the extent to which “subject” and “self” are interchangeable philosophemes, and (2) what it might mean to speak of “the death of subject” and whether LS’s emphasis on structure can be thought to entail a radical elision of the subject. As with before, though, I may not be able to get back with these sooner rather than later.

By on 11/30/09 at 02:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So there are now two ways to make sense of LS’s claim about mythological discourse being itself mythical . . .

Ah, yes, making sense of LS’s claim etc. When I emphatically denied that R&C is a myth about myth I was making a rather heavy-handed statement and simply leaving things there. I was saying that, on the face of things, the statement is not true. So, in the course of R&C LS recounts 187 stories gathered from various South American peoples; those stories are what we call myths and they have various characteristics. The discourse of R&C does not have those characteristics. Therefore, no matter what LS claims, R&C is not, cannot be, a myth, or a myth about myths.

Now, I rather suspect that LS didn’t mean to assert what I have said he did not and could not have asserted. So, my rather heavy-handed denial is a denial of a proposition that never really was in play. It’s an empty denial. So, why’d I do it? And what was LS attempting to do in making that oblique, sideways, statement, and others? That is to say, how does one make sense of such claims?

That, it would seem, is what Derrida was up to and it is what, I gather, you are up to now. OK.

And how might one make sense of my denial? What interests me is what LS actually does in the process of analyzing myths. As far as I can tell, his concrete procedures do not depend on his ‘mythologizing’ pronouncements about his activity. The analysis is what it is and doesn’t require that some myth be designated as the key myth, only to assert that this key myth enjoys no special privilege, is not a privileged origin. Nor, for that matter, does LS need to assert that one myth is a transformation of another in order to point out certain interesting relationships between them. One can drop all that language from the work and still have the comparative analysis of the myths.

It would be interesting to know how LS worked in writing R&C. Did he keep notebooks in which he worked out his concrete analyses? Does the order of exposition in the book reflect the order in which he thought about these myths? Does the mysterious meta-language appear at all in the hypothetical notebooks or did he draft it only when drafting the book itself?

* * * * *

Vivek:

Till then- well, there’s South Park. Remember how they solved the problem of Meinongian objects in ‘Imaginationland’? Well, it’s only a matter of time before they give us the full Mathesis Universalis.

Alas, I do not watch South Park, so I don’t know how they dealt with Meinongian objects. But then I do not know what a Meinongian object is. As for the full Mathesis Universalis, I’ve got my doubts. Sounds like another obscure object of desire.

By Bill Benzon on 11/30/09 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Meinongian objects are things ‘that belong not in Being’- like ‘the present King of France’- of which contradictory qualities can be predicated with equal truth value. They pose a problem for deontic logic- i.e Practical Reason.
The self is a Meinongian object in that contradictory things can be predicated of it- must be predicated of it if is truly a subject- yet it belongs in Being- or does it?

The growth of Algebra- or more generally, ‘artificial language’ as opposed to natural language- is believed to have given the West its decisive advantage over Indians, the Chinese and so forth. Now, the Indians had developed an artificial language for linguistics a very long time ago but- like the Arabs & Chinese- they did not then go onto a thorough going algebraic treatment of physics- which, in turn, allowed the development of modern economic and political thought.
Instead they went in for baroque literature- the same drives being yoked to a pretty sterile project.
The notion of a Mathesis Universalis, in the tradition of Descartes & Leibniz is about the interconnectedness of all Thought and the hope that an algorithmic procedure exists to crank out more and more true knowledge.
For the reason Edmund Burke noted- viz. that France had a centre, England none- the Cartesian co-ordinate system has a black hole at its centre- but only for them not us.
Thus the French diverged from the Anglophones in the importance they gave to Algebra. The Bourbaki project- but also Grothendieck ‘Yoga’- are proposals for unifying branches of Mathematics on the basis of greater generality. This was the Structuralist project. Levi Strauss, in that sense, was very much a man of his time.
The wholly French problematic that this ‘Knowledge machine’ demands the abolition of the knowing subject arises from the fact that the commandment ‘gnothi seauton’- is constrained to yield something so general and abstract it can be appropriated by anybody without any Girardian drama of mimetic desire- i.e. no (Kojeve’s) Hegelian struggle for recognition- no politics, no dialectics, no splendours and miseries- i.e. no Frenchness.
There is actually no necessary connection between belief in a Mathesis Universalis (Godel and Mandelbrot are very different) and commitment to the death of the subject or the abolition of haecceity.
It’s just bad Math dressed up as fancy literature.

Well, got to admit, pretty damn good literature. Can’t get away from that.

By on 11/30/09 at 03:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I pretty much agree with all you’ve said there, Bill. In particular, I think you’re quite right to highlight any discontinuity between what LS does and what he says he does (so to speak).

Just to elaborate the tiniest bit on one of the questions I raised above. I have to admit that I’m both surprised and unsurprised that LS sought to elide the subject. And this theme of the death/absence of the subject strikes me as particularly interesting in this context for the way that LS’s work can be positioned in relation to earlier moments in that (post)Kantian tradition you referred to in your second post.

I don’t know how wrong this will sound — or, indeed, whether this is how he is read generally — but I see LS as proposing a kind of Freudian Kantianism, where Kant stands for Reason (as distinct from the “I think") and where Freud stands for a theory of the unconscious, but an unconscious not defined in terms of desire, etc. but rather taking the form of structures that order thought and expression. So, I see LS’s structure as being a re-imagination of “human nature” (albeit quite a strange or ambivalent re-imagination, insofar as he intends his mythologies to relativise mythology itself).

To that extent, LS negates the subject (understood in terms of phenomenology’s embodied, hence individual subject) by (1) emphasising the universal over the individual (something which Hegel also carried on after Kant via the former’s notion of Spirit); and (2) decentring consciousness through the hypothesis of unconscious structures.

I guess my question of LS (and a question for you to consider/address, if it’s one that interests you) concerns the extent to which these two moves can amount to an erasure, or even a bracketing, of the subject? If “the subject” is reducible to the cogito or the “I think”, then LS has indeed killed it off. But the very fact that Kant’s subject already takes two forms — universal reason and the “I think” — makes me wonder whether LS really gets as far even as bracketing the subject as distinct from “the self”.

Again, I’m not too sure that these observations are at all relevant to where you’re headed. I present them purely because you’ve provoked me to think them.

By on 12/01/09 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Paul Ricoeur put it to Levi-Strauss that his thought amounted to “Kantianism without the transcendental subject” and the latter accepted the designation.

By on 12/01/09 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . relevant to where you’re headed.

Here and now I’m not headed anywhere in particular. I’m exploring, playing around, digging up the past. Now, back in that past I rode the “discontinuity between what LS does and what he says he does” right into cognitive science and a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory.” That is, I came down on the side of what LS did, took a look at Chomsky, then Sidney Lamb, and then others and decided that cognitive science was the way to go, ultimately hooking up with (the late) David G. Hays at SUNY Buffalo. Alas, no one else in literary studies picked up on cognitive science back then (late 70s, early 80s), and so I found myself hung out to dry. Now that some literary scholars have become interested in cognitive science (and its curious cousin on the biology side, evolutionary psychology), well, I wish they’d studied Lévi-Strauss and taken him to heart. They’d be doing more interesting practical criticism.

I guess this series of LS posts is an attempt to explore that discontinuity, perhaps even to attempt to string a rickety rope bridge over it, not so much because I want to go back to where I came from (origins—can’t go back), but to make it a bit easier for others to check things out on the other side of that discontinuity (e.g. my analysis of Greene & Shakespeare in that first post, not to mention the formal article I’m now working on).

I figure Lévi-Strauss’ commentary on what he’s doing is what links him to that post-Kantian philosophical tradition (minus the transcendental subject), so he has no choice but to say it. Without it he’d have no—dare I say it?—no origin, no center? Donato’s right that “despite Lévi-Strauss’ repeated protestations to the contrary, the anthropologist is not completely absent from his enterprise.” He may have banished the individual subjects of those who tell and hear the myths in favor of some universal whatever, a universal Reason of binary oppositions perhaps. But his own subjectivity is present in his analysis as those “transformations,” the designation of a “key” myth, and the assertion that his language about myths is itself another replay of those myths. The “key” myth may not be central within the myth system, but it is Lévi-Strauss’s central point of contact with that system, the origin (0 on the X and the Y) of his exposition (if not his inquiry), his omphalos and his uroboros.

* * * * *

Vivek—Ah yes, Indian mathematics, and Chinese too, conveyed to Christendom (as Europe called itself before it discovered Europe) by the Arabs. The scientific revolution would have been impossible with out, not to mention the commercial revolution dependent upon long-distance sea voyaging (logarithms to calculate position via star charts and such). But the mythology of the West has erased that strand from the story. Plato, yes, Moses, yes, but zero, the cipher? The horror, the horror.

Here’s the abstract of an article my teacher wrote on “Linguistics and the future of computation“:

My subject is the art of computation: computer architecture, computer programming, and computer application. Linguistics provides the ideas, but the use I make of them is not the linguist’s use, which would be an attempt at understanding the nature of man and of human communication, but the computer scientist’s use. In ancient India, the study of language held the place in science that mathematics has always held in the West. Knowledge was organized according to the best known linguistic principles. If we had taken that path, we would have arrived today at a different science. Our scholarship draws its principles from sources close to linguistics, to be sure, but our science has rather limited itself to a basis in Newtonian calculus. And so a chasm separates two cultures.

By Bill Benzon on 12/01/09 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the link.
Sorry, I think I may have given the wrong impression. Like most actual Asian or African people, I despise Chauvinistic claims of Ancient grandeur as well as Politically Correct whining.
Both China and India need to answer the question- how come we came close but didn’t get to calculus?
What does that say about us? What do we need to do to change?
Leaving aside Marxist explanations, just recently the favored approach seems to be to focus on the ‘unexpected generosity of formal languages’ (i.e. an algebraic representation system rather than natural language description supplemented by numerical heuristics and geometric representations) and the failure of the Indians, Chinese and Arabs to spot this potential. Sure, we had algorithms as well as a model for a formal language but we never got to the notion of a formal logical language that could algorithmically crank out all all truth. Why? Because
1) for the Arabs, the Aristotelian distinction between deontic and alethic propositions (insha and khabar) was fundamental. Thus the range of logic- as opposed to ‘persuasion’ to reach consensus (ijma)- was impoverished.
2) In India the Jains had syadvad multi valued logic (some compare it to ‘fuzzy logic’- not true)
and essentially the Classical period witnessed a cultural convergence such that ontology and epistemology appeared relatively empty. This meant logic (nyaya) was downgraded relative to Saintly enlightenment.
3) Manchu Confucianism as a stultifying force in China revives the eight legged essay at the expense of the syllogism.
In all these cultures, there definitely was the notion of the interconnection of all things on some Hermetic and mystical basis. But this was expressed in baroque poetry- mannerism gone mad- there is a good structuralist interpretation of Hafiz’s turk-i-shirazi on the web but by the time you get to Bedil- forget about it, ‘Ma’ni afrini’ (meaning creation) is indistinguishable from sonorous nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong, the Orientals were still doing algebra- but not in a purely algebraic language- indeed, at least in Kerala, people wrote up their results in a baroque poetic form.
The Jesuits in India and China are supposed to have brought back some ideas to Europe- the notion that Leibniz’s monadology is based on the Avatamsaka Sutra might be familiar but my own claim that Boscovich and thus field theory is derived from the Vimalakirtis is just as plausible (and meaningless)- however, what is noteworthy is that the Jesuits introduced new characters based on kanji script into Chinese to transmit Europe’s organon and that a Chinese scholar quotes this as showing how commitment to an obsolete language and literary form had hampered Chinese thought.

Clearly, this does not follow. Leibniz and Newton and Boscovich and so on got on perfectly well with Latin. Had had there been no Manchu invasion or no Tokugawa Shogunate, China and Japan would have been abreast of Europe in the eighteenth century. Okay, so the Indians did have access to Western Math but don’t produce any worthwhile maths till the twentieth century- urm… maybe that’s because...urm… India very hot? No, it’s the God thing. Indians take God stuff real personal. Urm...no, actually we’re healthily hypocritical, so actually it’s about how many good High Schools and Universities you have and there being a secure middle class- that too a Bildungsburgertum. Oh yes, and people not starving to death. Not starving is also important.

For Anglophone countries, there is no center- on the contrary, there is the (Jeffersonian) belief that in matters of belief divided we stand, united we fall. America. as the ultimate ‘wilderness Zion’ to which no Josiah can give a center, develops its own philosophy, free of the taint of German Romanticism (which is about educated young guys whining about having to work as tutors in the homes of wealthy merchants and the terrible injustice of not getting to marry the young daughter of the house)as well as the French feeling- pervasive throughout Europe- that if you weren’t in Paris, that too ascending the escalier to the right salon, on the right bank of the Seine, then the Universe needed to be abolished immediately.
Well, America- where young people could get ahead, by their own efforts, in all fields including pure knowledge- gives us a semiotics or significs and a pragmatic philosophy which is pretty much the basis for the project of unifying all Knowledge and making it infinitely more productive- FOR REAL.
In other words, America succeeds. Britain wasn’t in the game- Cromwell taught them to distrust Universities- and, anyway, they had an Empire to run and cricket to play.
But for the French, algebra they must always have with them- esprit was nothing but algebra- but algebra abolished their individuality, their haecceity. On one side of the event horizon there is the maternal plenitude of presence on the other Algebra.
(I suppose there was an alternative in Heidegger- i.e. turning up one’s plaintive face to beg coprophagic nourishment from that most costive of German arseholes- but how long could the French keep that up?)
Bwouwer, in this context is interesting. He was part of the Significs group. His intuitionism is founded on what might look like a Husserl type phenomenology. However, what is important is that this approach is incompatible with the law of the excluded middle- i.e. binary opposition.
Sorry, this has got too long.
My point is- LS, great writer, Marcel Mauss- insightful guy- Girard, real clever- but all men of their times. Which times? Modern times- when being contemporary meant being, naturaliter, an anthropologist (can there be a non Kantian Anthropologist?) with the native the vacuum one’s nature most abhors.

By vivek on 12/01/09 at 10:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Vivek:

Sorry, I think I may have given the wrong impression. Like most actual Asian or African people, I despise Chauvinistic claims of Ancient grandeur as well as Politically Correct whining.

No problem. Perhaps it is I who gave the wrong impression. I like to connect the dots, and my riff on Asian mathematics in Western Science & Commerce is one of my “hobby horses” and I like to ride it whenever I can. In brief, I think the notion of Western culture (vs. Eastern or Oriental culture or African culture) has more to do with global geopolitics than with the actual process of cultural interaction and influence.

Both China and India need to answer the question- how come we came close but didn’t get to calculus? What does that say about us? What do we need to do to change?

All good questions. But the fact that the West did, in fact, invent the calculus, that too needs an explanation. We should not allow hindsight to lull us into thinking that such invention (and others) was somehow the inevitable fruit of a cultural genius that was planted among ancient Greeks or Herbrews

. . . and essentially the Classical period witnessed a cultural convergence such that ontology and epistemology appeared relatively empty. This meant logic (nyaya) was downgraded relative to Saintly enlightenment.
3) Manchu Confucianism as a stultifying force in China revives the eight legged essay at the expense of the syllogism.

Makes sense.

In all these cultures, there definitely was the notion of the interconnection of all things on some Hermetic and mystical basis. But this was expressed in baroque poetry- mannerism gone mad- there is a good structuralist interpretation of Hafiz’s turk-i-shirazi on the web but by the time you get to Bedil- forget about it, ‘Ma’ni afrini’ (meaning creation) is indistinguishable from sonorous nonsense.

For what it’s worth, John Horgan, the science journalist, thinks that string theory (and a lot else) is mostly baroque over-elaboration of ideas that have little purchase in reality.

Okay, so the Indians did have access to Western Math but don’t produce any worthwhile maths till the twentieth century- urm… maybe that’s because...urm… India very hot?

LOL!

. . .  free of the taint of German Romanticism (which is about educated young guys whining about having to work as tutors in the homes of wealthy merchants and the terrible injustice of not getting to marry the young daughter of the house)as well as the French feeling- pervasive throughout Europe- that if you weren’t in Paris, that too ascending the escalier to the right salon, on the right bank of the Seine, then the Universe needed to be abolished immediately.

LOL!

My point is- LS, great writer, Marcel Mauss- insightful guy- Girard, real clever- but all men of their times. Which times? Modern times- when being contemporary meant being, naturaliter, an anthropologist (can there be a non Kantian Anthropologist?) with the native the vacuum one’s nature most abhors.

Recent Girard, On War and Apocalypse, who was almost a teacher of mine, but I have read Violence and the Sacred—albeit years ago:
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/07/apocalypse-now

By Bill Benzon on 12/02/09 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’All good questions. But the fact that the West did, in fact, invent the calculus, that too needs an explanation. We should not allow hindsight to lull us into thinking that such invention (and others) was somehow the inevitable fruit of a cultural genius that was planted among ancient Greeks or Herbrews’-

Arguing from a position of impartial ignorance, my contention is that the West arrives at an abstract mathematical conception of the Universe (while the East gets stuck producing piecemeal, purely computational, results in Analysis) because
1) Western superiority in glass-making gives them the telescope. Galileo has enough Math to flesh out a new conception of the motion of Celestial bodies and this can be empirically verified. The Ptolemaic spheres, in all their crystalline splendour, come crashing down. The party just got wild.
2) In any case, the West had conserved a high place for that element of Platonism for which Mathematics (Geometry) was the first step in the acquisition of Wisdom. For Islam, however, Plato (Aflatoon) is a sort of byword for a fatuous windbag. Aristu (Aristotle) however retains his importance but he shows that logic can’t deal with deontics (insha- intentionality) and thus rhetoric (’persuasion’) has a higher place than solving equations. The other advantage of the West’s keeping Plato on a retainer, so to speak, is that it provides an imprimatur for Mathematical formalism.
Few Mathematicians are thoroughgoing Platonists, like Godel, but it is still an intellectually prestigious position to hold.
3) the European bildungsburgertum, capturing the Universities, was successful in increasing the scope and the range of its legal forms as against Crown and Church. In other words, here in Britain, Sir Edmund Coke and Pym and Hampden and so on are able to ‘shut the gate of Equity (King’s Law)’ while Canon Law (thanks to Henry VIII’s marital problems) had been confined to a small ghetto in Doctor’s Commons. Even in France, civil law was making great strides. In Germany, a mathematical type of management theory was being encouraged in the Universities so as to provide Kings with better managers- Novalis was actually an actuary! In Britain, the Navy, and on the Continent the Artillery and Corps of Engineers, inculcated mathematical modes of thought, creating a new type of warrior class. In short, everywhere we see the trend to shore up the new National Bourgeoisie with a relatively abstract mathematical grounding- rather than the piecemeal hueristics of secretive traditional guilds.

It was the genius of Descartes and, later, Leibniz to take things a step further and posit an artificial language capable of mechanically cranking out all valid Knowledge- the Mathesis Universalis- in which every branch of study would yield up its results to every other branch without any specialist knowledge being required.
This audacious spirit enlivens the French structuralists as well as certain of their contemporaries.
Rene Girard comes up with a theory about the origins of society from a close reading of Proust. Meanwhile, the leading British scholar of French literature advances the theory that if only the French had proper Public Schools with plenty of cold showers and rugby matches and ‘fagging’ and flogging- well, Baudrelaire could have been an ornament to the Diplomatic Service and Proust- dunno- well, he was an admirer of Ruskin, so let’s say he could have done useful work preventing cruelty to animals in Venice while publishing comic fantasies in the manner of P.G.Woodhouse.

LS, in many senses, was more audacious yet.His is a Laplacian project. History, itself, becomes irrelevant. Time might be conserved in a Bergsonian sense but hysteresis (and haecceity as a sort of ‘memory’ of the system) has been abolished- I think it is in this sense that the subject disappears.

BTW, thanks for the link to Girard. Is he for real? Islam has pharmakons in plenty- from the House of Ali as well as Sufi martyrs like Mansoor al Hallaj, Shahid Shurawardy, Sarmad and so on.
Indeed, the notion that the shahid (martyr) redeems a certain number of his family members from Hell is something we might well deprecate rather than hold up as the basis for a universal soteriology.

By vivek on 12/04/09 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your suggestion about Plato is plausible to me, Vivek. I have no particular reaction your other two numbered points.

I don’t have a specific answer to my question about the West, but you might want to look at this essay I wrote with David Hays. It lays out the general framework in which I think about such things. This essay by Hays might also interest you (more here).

. . . Time might be conserved in a Bergsonian sense but hysteresis (and haecceity as a sort of ‘memory’ of the system) has been abolished- I think it is in this sense that the subject disappears.

Interesting remark about the memory of the system. Somewhere in The Savage Mind LS mentions an Australian tribe that has a finite stock of personal names. When a person dies, their name is available for use by a newborn. It’s is though the point of the system is to keep the same set of “souls” circulating though the corpus of bodies.

As for Girard, I’ve not actually read that piece. But I assume he’s serious in what he says. If he’s also misinformed, well . . . .

By Bill Benzon on 12/04/09 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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