Relative to, say, Balloon Boy, the recent death of Claude Levi-Strauss has received scant media attention here in the U.S. This is surely indicative of something, anthropologically speaking: the rate at which the world is going to hell, perhaps, or maybe just the low esteem in which we hold intellectuals – a vestige of the Protestant work ethic. But to write off Levi-Strauss, the great pioneer of structural anthropology, as an ivory tower egghead is to lose sight of the man completely. Few thinkers – you could probably count them on two hands – ranged more widely or had more impact on the humanities in the Twentieth Century.
Levi-Strauss’ most important ideas would become so ubiquitous that you probably already know them, even if you don’t know you know. From him, we got a dismantling of the notion of the “primitive” that has more or less stuck. We got the notion of culture as a kind of language, and of the “transformation” that can reveal the myths, kinship rituals, and exchanges of one culture to be homologous to those of seemingly disparate others. His work foreshadowed, that is, much of what we postmoderns take for granted.
What this account of Levi-Strauss and his poststructuralist legatees leaves out, however, is his almost modernist ambition to find the final homology, the original difference that transcends individual, tribe, and nation: left and right, or female and male, or The Raw and The Cooked. Levi-Strauss aimed, in his own complicated way, for the universal.
Many of his theoretical positions have since come under attack from subsequent generations of philosophers and anthropologists. But their durability attests to one of the overlooked secrets of Levi-Strauss’ influence. Almost uniquely among the thinkers with whom he is often grouped, Levi-Strauss is fun to read. (Well, Roland Barthes is fun, and a certain kind of person finds Derrida fun, but you know what I mean…) I have no training in anthropology, and my dabblings in intellectual history, as you can probably tell from the above, have been idiosyncratic in the extreme, but Triste Topiques, a hybrid of travel writing and anthropological investigation, engrossed me when I read it in graduate school. With the humane, passionate voice and insatiable curiosity of its author transparently clear, Tristes Topiques reminded me then, as it does now, of what anthropology literally promises to be: the science of man. It will be some time before anyone comes as close as Claude Levi-Strauss did to making good on that promise.