Friday 6 November 2009

Levi-Strauss Kicked the Structural Bucket

At a hundred, Claude Levi-Strauss observed the binary structure that death follows life. I was never really a 'believer' in the Levi-Strauss scheme. And yet...

There is plenty of evidence that there is some sort of mental brain structure, in that we do learn languages and their grammar far faster than copying from those around us. There seems to be a meta-language structure in the brain that allows in, soaks in, the actual language that we end up speaking. The speculative leap is then that such structures exist in society, on to which all important and different cultures grow. It is by studying actual cultural myths that one gets clues to structure. These too parallel linguistic rules.

It has all been another attempt to locate reality, beyond the theological, in anthropology and social science as a humanistic discipline. But how much that is psychology is really science and how much is speculative - the most scientific approach is behaviourist by inputs and outputs, but this is hugely reductionist and vacates precisely the brain workings that are most interesting. It is why education is being ruined today by this focus on inputs and outputs.

Still, here lies earthly reality. The most obvious structure is the binary one, that something is by what it absolutely is not, and the primary route to the poststructuralists was to say that what something is usually contains a trace (even by denial) of what it is not. Baudrillard went down that road. Indeed the whole thing gets exposed as speculative and in poststructuralism breaks down into a form of distinct non-realism. The theological parallels are everywhere.

I have drifted to structuralism, despite my poststructuralist preference. I have used Mauss, the nephew of Durkheim. Mauss showed that societies bind together by a process of material giving or sacrifice for spiritual benefit. This is seen in the Kula ring of the Trobriand Islanders. The giving and receiving - exchange/ gift - structure is fundamental, but its reality is seen throughout religious myths such as crucifixion (died materially for spiritual salvation) or the Eucharist (giving materially in time, money, consuming an otherwise pointless token - thus relates to Kula ring token aspect) that confers the spiritual benefit of the 'presence of Christ'.

These myths function at a symbolic (thus language, thus collective) level, and observe that Levi-Strauss sense of being collectively unauthored, and operate as means to social cohesion in the full Uncle Emile sense. But Durkheim realised that Western society did not quite work as cohesively, and clearly these myths break down - except as sectarian expressions.

The myths are bypassed by the shift in the sociology of knowledge that takes place into Western society thanks to a this-worldly view of problem solving technology and science. The issue is not about superiority of one culture over another (it was once) as indeed the complexity of the human mind and culture is as great in primitive society as in ours - a point insisted upon by Malinowski. It is about a shift in the power of symbols, so that once strong symbols as means to understanding, action and binding are now considerably weaker. They only bind the gathered few, and thus is the drift of Christianity into sectarianism in modern advanced societies, as indeed with other myth systems. People assert the 'truth' of these myths all the more in their realist defence mechanisms, but all they do as a result is distance the sect from the generality. You end up with, for example, mass media means of transmitting increasingly bust symbol systems, such as satellite religious television, that can only play to the sect.

Anthropology is itself part of the weakening of the symbols. When you expose and analyse symbols, when you show how 'the trick' is done, they lose their power of conviction, and fail to unfuction. In the West we went through an individualist phase, of subjectivity that accepted objectivity, but what the poststructuralists do is go from the structure straight to the breakdown of all of this into a flux of passing in and passing away images of instant and instantly lost truths. The danger of such 'advertising' level symbolism is that collective binding is difficult and some pessimists think means, inevitably, the need for surveillance and State force.

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