on October 30, 2003
Claude Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques, of which this is volume 1, are brutally difficult to work through, endlessly fascinating once you get the hang of them, and ultimately not something one ought to imitate or emulate. But until you have read The Raw and the Cooked, at the least, you are not really entitled to speak about the study of myth, and certainly not about structural anthropology (or its weaknesses).
The whole book-the whole four volumes, actually-is structured according to a complex musical metaphor, and the Overture to The Raw and the Cooked explicates this metaphor in detail. You'll need to know something about serialism (i.e. Schoenberg) to understand it, but once you do you'll really begin to see what Lévi-Strauss is up to. He thinks that myth is not like poetry, and is more like music than ordinary language. I think his comparison is misguided, based on a misunderstanding of serialism, but it's essential to understand why he correlates myth and music to understand the project.
In the main part of the book, he goes on to select a "key myth," a somewhat arbitrarily-chosen tale from the Bororo, a people he has studied fairly intensively (and did some fieldwork among). He then begins a massive project of connecting this myth to other myths from South America, breaking down and analyzing all the little bits and pieces as he goes. The logic can be hard to follow at times; his little diagrams don't help much, and in fact he seems to see this and ditches them in later volumes. But if you lose the thread, you can lose track of the whole book.
Ultimately, he's going to link up a thousand-odd myths from both Americas, demonstrating how each transforms and adds to other themes, until we get a vast complex of American mythical thought laid out in a mesmerizing sort of crystalline web of relations.
In short, Lévi-Strauss thinks that myths are a way of thinking, using concrete objects, about such problems as self and other, social relations, kinship, cooking, culture and nature, and so forth. He argues that each myth demonstrates a particular thinking-through of such problems by what amounts to cultures as intellectual entities. This may seem hard to believe, but if you've read The Savage Mind, this is the bricoleur at work.
The big problem, as various people have noted, is that his readings are necessarily somewhat subjective; he could be breaking the myths down incorrectly, splitting up whole units or lumping discrete pieces. What we really see is Lévi-Strauss giving it a shot, not a conclusion. Indeed, he calls this a "prolegomenon to a science of mythology," which hits the nail on the head.
I doubt very much whether anyone ought to continue the work, correcting the readings on the basis of further fieldwork or computerized analysis, as he seems to want. Once you've read through this series, you really have to wonder whether it's worth going further, or whether there aren't more interesting questions to ask about mythology. But his point really does stand: myth cannot be taken as a bunch of moral tales and ritual foundations; it must be recognized as thought enacted, or action thought-through.
The big question he doesn't address is history; as in The Savage Mind, he wants to exclude the historical from analysis. Thus the next big step would be someone like Sahlins, who tries to build an appreciation of the historical into structural analysis. Nevertheless, these books really do deserve serious study. If you want to see what mythology really is about "in the raw," as it were, you need to read this. As far as I'm concerned, those who haven't read The Raw and the Cooked have no business saying that structuralism is dead, or that it's unhelpful; they don't know what they're talking about.
Lévi-Strauss is a genius, and if he goes in directions that maybe now seem a bit dated, let's remember when he wrote all this stuff (i.e. the 60s). But only the intellectually lazy can afford to pass over this essential moment in the study of myth and religion; we have to work through, not skip over.
on November 27, 2013
When reading Claude Levi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked, one is necessarily reminded of how his concept of bricolage fits into and forms the needed underpinning of nearly all of his other concomitant theories. On the one hand, one can continually contest the value of the nature/culture opposition. While on the other hand, one does so by using whatever means are handy even if these means were not specifically designed for that purpose. Levi-Strauss calls this method of using whatever is handy to be bricolage. And the one who uses bricolage is a bricoleur. Whenever one subverts a text looking for ambiguities, one uses whatever methods apply, thus making bricolage an indispensable tool of deconstruction. The originator of any term or concept is, oddly enough, not to be thought of as the one who created that term or concept from nowhere but his creative consciousness. . Rather the creator who in the past might have been credited with originality now noted deconstructionist Jacques Derrida accuses of being a bricoleur. In the infinitely deferring universe of deconstruction, there are no original points of reference, just words which lead to other words in an infinite loop of self-referentiality. The inner purpose of bricolage, then, lies in its new status of discourse and its stated abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute archia.
Now what does all this technical minutia have to do with Levi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked? Levi-Strauss himself candidly admits that his description of their tribal rites is a myth: "There is no unity or absolute source of the myth." Further, Levi-Strauss adds that "there is no real end to methodological analysis, no hidden unity to be grasped once the breaking-down process has been completed." Much of The Raw and the Cooked is couched in deconstructive terminology that is innate to the nascent post-structuralist thought processes of Levi-Strauss. This book is no less than a "myth of mythology," which prefigures his other implied deconstructive tenets. One may justifiably note that it is not only the text, but the author as well, that may be indeterminate: The absence of a center is here the absence of a subject and the absence of an author. What emerges from a considered analysis of The Raw and the Cooked is that the philosophical or epistemological requirement of a center appears as mythological, that is to say, as a historical illusion. It is the attempt of any author to reach a fruition of totalization that inevitably degrades into uselessness and impossibility. This plunge into indeterminacy is not due to the infiniteness of a field which cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field--that is language and a finite language--excludes totalization. In short, The Raw and the Cooked is an unwieldy melding of ill-used terms that seem logical but only until one delves beneath the surface to discover that Claude Levi-Strauss is asking the reader to disengage for too long a willing suspension of disbelief.
Is the study of language synonymous with the study of a still larger entity, culture? Levi-Strauss thinks so as he has spent a lifetime seeking to prove it. His methodology begins with an assumed linking of the two. Culture as the overarching entity and language as the subsidiary entity share related traits which he expresses using linguistic terminology. Culture, however one defines it, is an amalgam of rites and customs that link the individual to the family and the family to the clan. These links include such seemingly diverse components as courtship/marriage rites, cooking, and intra/inter-familial relationships. Levi-Strauss connects them not in a comparison of similarities but in a contrast of differences, both of which equate to the analogies between phonetics and phonemics. The former implies sound differences that blur together into an indistinguishable backdrop of a variety of undifferentiated noise while the latter refers to utterances heard by speakers who can and do distinguish one clearly articulated micro sound--called a phoneme--from another. The number of phonemes in English is quite small, a few dozen, yet they are quite sufficient to make it possible for speakers of English to comprehend and to distinguish millions of sounds. It is this combining of the relational aspect of language with its arbitrariness of meaning that Levi-Strauss sees as the key that permits speakers to see their world emerge as a self-contained entity composed of differentiated objects that in their totality allow these speakers to construct structures that will in turn become still larger structures in a very nearly infinite cycle. Phonemes then combine into bundles of sounds that represent meaning. Levi-Strauss relates phonemes to elementary structures of kinship in that both acquire meaning only when bundled into meaningful packages.
Levi-Strauss envisions the components of courtship/marriage, cooking, and familial relationships as systems which combine to form a language which in itself is seen as a sub-component of a single gigantic language that is neither language nor culture but an odd union of the two. This uni-language covers the entire spectrum of human social intercourse and is found not in the consciousness of those who inhabit it but rather in their unconscious acceptance of its seeming "rightness" or ubiquity. Whenever a clan member or a clan itself encounters any of the aforementioned systems, it tends to seek to impose structure on its seeming lack of structure. This is where the human mind comes in as a structure-building device that finds more functionality in the unconscious than in the conscious.
When clan members are internalizing the myths of their society, they do so unconsciously. They do not reason the myth; they accept its validity. Levi-Strauss uses further linguistic phraseology when he describes myth as the parole of a system. Parole is the short-term, the here-and-the-now of a spoken language, and just as a bundle of phonemes add up to a meaningful discourse so do the basic building blocks of myth. These irreducible blocks he calls mythemes. A complicating factor is how to use bundled mythemes to account for the meaning of a myth. Levi-Strauss came up with a means to explain or at least to reduce the surface contradictions between a pair of seemingly unrelated myths. He took two pair of items (a total of four units) and drew a matrix that placed them in columns and rows. Levi-Strauss used the Oedipus legend as an illustration of his theory in practice. He could read the matrix left to right to gain a superficial grasp (as most other anthropologists had done) and he could read up and down to glean previously "hidden" relationships. The problem here with accepting the viability of this homological structure is that his placement of mythemes is arbitrary. Levi-Strauss simply asks his readers to take his word that the relations among them are what he says they are. There is no empirical means either to prove or to disprove his thesis. Further, one might question whether the conclusions inferred by the reader are logically brought out by the matrix or merely represent a fleshing out of previously established concerns in a self-fulfilling prophesy.
A related problem is to identify clearly the hidden "codes" that enrich the meaning of a paired binary. When Levi-Strauss sets up a binary as from the title of his The Raw and the Cooked, one needs to know more than the literal definitions of raw/cooked. What is missing here is the unmentioned cultural/social/familial background that permits an anthropologist to draw thematic inferences in the first place. The matrix-drawer (presumably the anthropologist) must know the cultural context not only of the individual mytheme unbundled but also the cultural context of that mytheme as it is bundled, and then he must continue this process in what Levi-Strauss terms a spiral movement. This upward spiral becomes exponentially more unwieldy as more and more bundled mythemes appear with each one pointing to another such that meaning accrues only downward. The newest and uppermost myth is no more than the latest meaning-giver. Structure and meaning then overlap as the matrix-drawer must discern the often shifting boundaries between them. This process is complicated enough when one uses myths drawn from a common source. But when one attempts to draw credible inferences from widely scattered clans, the difficulties increase progressively. What works on a linguistic level may have less credible applicability to a mythic level. A linguist may have no problem slicing up a syntagmatic chain prior to overlaying bits and pieces of that chain on other chains but when he tries the same for a myth, he will discover that any claims for meaning are the result of arbitrarily placing one bundled set of mythemes atop another. Levi-Strauss would counter that he simply knows the cultural context of scattered myths well enough to draw correspondences. A reader does not know this nor can he expect Levi-Strauss to prove clear empirical proof. Though Levi-Strauss may know the operational details of a myth, he may not know its sequential organization. What then emerges from a structural analysis of myth as propounded by Claude Levi-Strauss is the notion that the totality of his logic and explanation is more clever than convincing.