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Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
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Claude Lévi-Strauss

Leave all of your associations with denim jeans at the door: this is Lévi-Strauss, not Levi Strauss. Claude, that is. We're here to talk about anthropology, and about how this French intellectual helped people see "primitives" as people with their own valuable sets of customs and rituals. Different? Sure they were. Just as important as Western folk? Absolutely.

Lévi-Strauss spent a good long time studying the mythology of cultures that had been labeled barbaric, primitive, or just plain weird. What he discovered shocked some people: that the myths of these cultures are just as complex, rational, and meaningful as the myths held dear by Western civilization. Collective gasp.

Enter Structuralism—that's Lévi-Strauss's theory that human activity across all cultures shares basic structures. That means that you and someone in East Timor have more in common than you may think. All cultures, according to Structuralism, are organized around binary oppositions: animal/human, good/bad, rich/poor, man/woman. These structures are universal—all cultures have them.

Lévi-Strauss also talked about some pretty cool stuff like kinship and cannibalism. (For the curious, the latter apparently "tended to boil their friends and roast their enemies" [source]). Rather than look down his French nose at cannibals and savages, he recognized something special in them—and he thought that special something was being corrupted by modern civilization, mass production, and industry.

On top of that sad state of affairs, Lévi-Strauss felt that Western culture had lost its appreciation for myth; for him, everything in Western culture had become concrete, unspiritual, and literal. Sigh. Why does the West have no appreciation for anything but the material?

At this point, you may be asking what on earth some posses of Brazilian cannibals have to do with literature.

Well, Lévi-Strauss was an anthropologist, but many theorists took his structuralist ideas and ran with them. If it hadn't been for Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault wouldn't have "happened." They all said, "Hey! Let's use structuralism to understand narratives, words, and signs. Let's see how a plot in this novel reflects the principles of universal storytelling. Let's look at books as individual texts and as important parts of larger systems of thought. We can do that, because binaries are everywhere."

Get ready to collapse some binaries…

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