This article is about the anthropologist. For the clothing manufacturer, see Levi Strauss.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (English:;French: [klod levi stʁos]; 28 November 1908, Brussels – 30 October 2009, Paris) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of structuralism and structural anthropology. He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France between 1959 and 1982 and was elected a member of the Académie française in 1973. He received numerous honors from universities and institutions throughout the world and has been called, alongside James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the "father of modern anthropology".
Lévi-Strauss argued that the "savage" mind had the same structures as the "civilized" mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere. These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques that established his position as one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought. As well as sociology, his ideas reached into many fields in the humanities, including philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as "the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity."
Early life, education, and career
Claude Lévi-Strauss was born to French Jewish parents who were living in Brussels at the time, where his father was working as a portrait painter. He grew up in Paris, living on a street of the upscale 16th arrondissement named after the artist Claude Lorrain, whose work he admired and later wrote about. During the First World War, he lived with his maternal grandfather, who was the rabbi of the synagogue of Versailles. He attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly and the Lycée Condorcet.
At the Sorbonne in Paris, Lévi-Strauss studied law and philosophy. He did not pursue his study of law, but passed the agrégation in philosophy in 1931. In 1935, after a few years of secondary-school teaching, he took up a last-minute offer to be part of a French cultural mission to Brazil in which he would serve as a visiting professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo while his then wife, Dina, served as a visiting professor of ethnology.
The couple lived and did their anthropological work in Brazil from 1935 to 1939. During this time, while he was a visiting professor of sociology, Claude undertook his only ethnographic fieldwork. He accompanied Dina, a trained ethnographer in her own right, who was also a visiting professor at the University of São Paulo, where they conducted research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest. They first studied the Guaycuru and BororóIndian tribes, staying among them for a few days. In 1938, they returned for a second, more than half-year-long expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. At this time, his wife suffered an eye infection that prevented her from completing the study, which he concluded. This experience cemented Lévi-Strauss's professional identity as an anthropologist. Edmund Leach suggests, from Lévi-Strauss's own accounts in Tristes Tropiques, that he could not have spent more than a few weeks in any one place and was never able to converse easily with any of his native informants in their native language, which is uncharacteristic of anthropological research methods of participatory interaction with subjects to gain a full understanding of a culture.
In the 1980s, he suggested why he became vegetarian in pieces published in Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica and other publications anthologized in the posthumous book Nous sommes tous des cannibales (2013): "A day will come when the thought that to feed themselves, men of the past raised and massacred living beings and complacently exposed their shredded flesh in displays shall no doubt inspire the same repulsion as that of the travellers of the 16th and 17th century facing cannibal meals of savage American primitives in America, Oceania or Africa."
Claude Lévi-Strauss was an atheist.
Lévi-Strauss returned to France in 1939 to take part in the war effort, and was assigned as a liaison agent to the Maginot Line. After the French capitulation in 1940, he was employed at a lycée in Montpellier, but then was dismissed under the Vichy racial laws. (Lévi-Strauss's family, originally from Alsace, was of Jewish ancestry.) By the same laws, he was denaturalized (stripped of French citizenship). Around that time, his first wife and he separated. She stayed behind and worked in the French resistance, while he managed to escape Vichy France by boat to Martinique, from where he was finally able to continue traveling. In 1941, he was offered a position at the New School for Social Research in New York City and granted admission to the United States. A series of voyages brought him, via South America, to Puerto Rico, where he was investigated by the FBI after German letters in his luggage aroused the suspicions of customs agents. Lévi-Strauss spent most of the war in New York City. Along with Jacques Maritain, Henri Focillon, and Roman Jakobson, he was a founding member of the École Libre des Hautes Études, a sort of university-in-exile for French academics.
The war years in New York were formative for Lévi-Strauss in several ways. His relationship with Jakobson helped shape his theoretical outlook (Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss are considered to be two of the central figures on which structuralist thought is based). In addition, Lévi-Strauss was also exposed to the American anthropology espoused by Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia University. In 1942, while having dinner at the Faculty House at Columbia, Boas died of a heart attack in Lévi-Strauss's arms. This intimate association with Boas gave his early work a distinctive American inclination that helped facilitate its acceptance in the U.S. After a brief stint from 1946 to 1947 as a cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, DC, Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris in 1948. At this time, he received his state doctorate from the Sorbonne by submitting, in the French tradition, both a "major" and a "minor" doctoral thesis. These were The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians (La vie familiale et sociale des indiens Nambikwara) and The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Les structures élémentaires de la parenté).:234
The Elementary Structures of Kinship was published the next year and quickly came to be regarded as one of the most important anthropological works on kinship. It was even reviewed favorably by Simone de Beauvoir, who viewed it as an important statement of the position of women in non-Western cultures. A play on the title of Durkheim's famous Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Elementary Structures re-examined how people organized their families by examining the logical structures that underlay relationships rather than their contents. While British anthropologists such as Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown argued that kinship was based on descent from a common ancestor, Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship was based on the alliance between two families that formed when women from one group married men from another.
Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss continued to publish and experienced considerable professional success. On his return to France, he became involved with the administration of the CNRS and the Musée de l'Homme before finally becoming professor (directeur d'études) of the fifth section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, the 'Religious Sciences' section where Marcel Mauss was previously professor, the title of which chair he renamed "Comparative Religion of Non-Literate Peoples".
While Lévi-Strauss was well known in academic circles, in 1955 he became one of France's best known intellectuals by publishing Tristes Tropiques in Paris that year by Plon (and translated into English in 1973, published by Penguin). Essentially, this book was a memoir detailing his time as a French expatriate throughout the 1930s, and his travels. Lévi-Strauss combined exquisitely beautiful prose, dazzling philosophical meditation, and ethnographic analysis of the Amazonian peoples to produce a masterpiece. The organizers of the Prix Goncourt, for instance, lamented that they were not able to award Lévi-Strauss the prize because Tristes Tropiques was nonfiction.
Lévi-Strauss was named to a chair in social anthropology at the Collège de France in 1959. At roughly the same time he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of his essays which provided both examples and programmatic statements about structuralism. At the same time as he was laying the groundwork for an intellectual program, he began a series of institutions to establish anthropology as a discipline in France, including the Laboratory for Social Anthropology where new students could be trained, and a new journal, l'Homme, for publishing the results of their research.
In 1962, Lévi-Strauss published what is for many people his most important work, La Pensée Sauvage, translated into English as The Savage Mind. The French title is an untranslatable pun because the word pensée means both "thought" and "pansy", while sauvage has a range of meanings different from English "savage". Lévi-Strauss supposedly suggested that the English title be Pansies for Thought, borrowing from a speech by Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet (ACT IV, Scene V). French editions of La Pensée Sauvage are often printed with an image of wild pansies on the cover.
The Savage Mind discusses not just "primitive" thought, a category defined by previous anthropologists, but also forms of thought common to all human beings. The first half of the book lays out Lévi-Strauss's theory of culture and mind, while the second half expands this account into a theory of history and social change. This latter part of the book engaged Lévi-Strauss in a heated debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over the nature of human freedom. On the one hand, Sartre's existentialist philosophy committed him to a position that human beings fundamentally were free to act as they pleased. On the other hand, Sartre also was a leftist who was committed to ideas such as that individuals were constrained by the ideologies imposed on them by the powerful. Lévi-Strauss presented his structuralist notion of agency in opposition to Sartre. Echoes of this debate between structuralism and existentialism eventually inspired the work of younger authors such as Pierre Bourdieu.
Now a worldwide celebrity, Lévi-Strauss spent the second half of the 1960s working on his master project, a four-volume study called Mythologiques. In it, he followed a single myth from the tip of South America and all of its variations from group to group north through Central America and eventually into the Arctic Circle, thus tracing the myth's cultural evolution from one end of the Western Hemisphere to the other. He accomplished this in a typically structuralist way, examining the underlying structure of relationships among the elements of the story rather than by focusing on the content of the story itself. While Pensée Sauvage was a statement of Lévi-Strauss's big-picture theory, Mythologiques was an extended, four-volume example of analysis. Richly detailed and extremely long, it is less widely read than the much shorter and more accessible Pensée Sauvage, despite its position as Lévi-Strauss's masterwork.
Lévi-Strauss completed the final volume of Mythologiques in 1971. On 14 May 1973, he was elected to the Académie française, France's highest honour for a writer. He was a member of other notable academies worldwide, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1956, he became foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Erasmus Prize in 1973, the Meister-Eckhart-Prize for philosophy in 2003, and several honorary doctorates from universities such as Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. He also was the recipient of the Grand-croix de la Légion d'honneur, was a Commandeur de l'ordre national du Mérite, and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. In 2005, he received the XVII Premi Internacional Catalunya (Generalitat of Catalonia). After his retirement, he continued to publish occasional meditations on art, music, philosophy, and poetry.
Later life and death
In 2008, he became the first member of the Académie française to reach the age of 100 and one of the few living authors to have his works published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. On the death of Maurice Druon on 14 April 2009, he became the Dean of the Académie, its longest-serving member.
He died on 30 October 2009, a few weeks before his 101st birthday. The death was announced four days later.
French PresidentNicolas Sarkozy described him as "one of the greatest ethnologists of all time".Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said Lévi-Strauss "broke with an ethnocentric vision of history and humanity ... At a time when we are trying to give meaning to globalisation, to build a fairer and more humane world, I would like Claude Lévi-Strauss's universal echo to resonate more strongly". In a similar vein, a statement by Lévi-Strauss was broadcast on National Public Radio in the remembrance produced by All Things Considered on November 3, 2009: "There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals. And it's clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves. And the world in which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like." The Daily Telegraph said in its obituary that Lévi-Strauss was "one of the dominating postwar influences in French intellectual life and the leading exponent of Structuralism in the social sciences". Permanent secretary of the Académie française Hélène Carrère d'Encausse said: "He was a thinker, a philosopher ... We will not find another like him".
Lévi-Strauss sought to apply the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to anthropology. At the time, the family was traditionally considered the fundamental object of analysis, but was seen primarily as a self-contained unit consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children. Nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all were treated as secondary. Lévi-Strauss argued that, however, akin to Saussure's notion of linguistic value, families acquire determinate identities only through relations with one another. Thus he inverted the classical view of anthropology, putting the secondary family members first and insisting on analyzing the relations between units instead of the units themselves.
In his own analysis of the formation of the identities that arise through marriages between tribes, Lévi-Strauss noted that the relation between the uncle and the nephew was to the relation between brother and sister, as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife, that is, A is to B as C is to D. Therefore, if we know A, B, and C, we can predict D, just as if we know A and D, we can predict B and C. The goal of Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology, then, was to simplify the masses of empirical data into generalized, comprehensible relations between units, which allow for predictive laws to be identified, such as A is to B as C is to D.
Similarly, Lévi-Strauss identified myths as a type of speech through which a language could be discovered. His work is a structuralist theory of mythology which attempted to explain how seemingly fantastical and arbitrary tales could be so similar across cultures. Because he believed there was not one "authentic" version of a myth, rather that they were all manifestations of the same language, he sought to find the fundamental units of myth, namely, the mytheme. Lévi-Strauss broke each of the versions of a myth down into a series of sentences, consisting of a relation between a function and a subject. Sentences with the same function were given the same number and bundled together. These are mythemes.
What Lévi-Strauss believed he had discovered when he examined the relations between mythemes was that a myth consists of juxtaposed binary oppositions. Oedipus, for example, consists of the overrating of blood relations and the underrating of blood relations, the autochthonous origin of humans and the denial of their autochthonous origin. Influenced by Hegel, Lévi-Strauss believed that the human mind thinks fundamentally in these binary oppositions and their unification (the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad), and that these are what make meaning possible. Furthermore, he considered the job of myth to be a sleight of hand, an association of an irreconcilable binary opposition with a reconcilable binary opposition, creating the illusion, or belief, that the former had been resolved.
Lévi-Strauss's theory is set forth in Structural Anthropology (1958). Briefly, he considers culture a system of symbolic communication, to be investigated with methods that others have used more narrowly in the discussion of novels, political speeches, sports, and movies.
His reasoning makes best sense when contrasted against the background of an earlier generation's social theory. He wrote about this relationship for decades.
A preference for "functionalist" explanations dominated the social sciences from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, which is to say that anthropologists and sociologists tried to state the purpose of a social act or institution. The existence of a thing was explained, if it fulfilled a function. The only strong alternative to that kind of analysis was historical explanation, accounting for the existence of a social fact by stating how it came to be.
The idea of social function developed in two different ways, however. The English anthropologist Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, who had read and admired the work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, argued that the goal of anthropological research was to find the collective function, such as what a religious creed or a set of rules about marriage did for the social order as a whole. Behind this approach was an old idea, the view that civilization developed through a series of phases from the primitive to the modern, everywhere in the same manner. All of the activities in a given kind of society would partake of the same character; some sort of internal logic would cause one level of culture to evolve into the next. On this view, a society can easily be thought of as an organism, the parts functioning together as do the parts of a body.
In contrast, the more influential functionalism of Bronisław Malinowski described the satisfaction of individual needs, what a person derived by participating in a custom.
In the United States, where the shape of anthropology was set by the German-educated Franz Boas, the preference was for historical accounts. This approach had obvious problems, which Lévi-Strauss praises Boas for facing squarely.
Historical information seldom is available for non-literate cultures. The anthropologist fills in with comparisons to other cultures and is forced to rely on theories that have no evidential basis, the old notion of universal stages of development or the claim that cultural resemblances are based on some unrecognized past contact between groups. Boas came to believe that no overall pattern in social development could be proven; for him, there was no single history, only histories.
There are three broad choices involved in the divergence of these schools–each had to decide what kind of evidence to use; whether to emphasize the particulars of a single culture or look for patterns underlying all societies; and what the source of any underlying patterns might be, the definition of a common humanity.
Social scientists in all traditions relied on cross-cultural studies. It always was necessary to supplement information about a society with information about others. So some idea of a common human nature was implicit in each approach.
The critical distinction, then, remained: does a social fact exist because it is functional for the social order, or because it is functional for the person? Do uniformities across cultures occur because of organizational needs that must be met everywhere, or because of the uniform needs of human personality?
For Lévi-Strauss, the choice was for the demands of the social order. He had no difficulty bringing out the inconsistencies and triviality of individualistic accounts. Malinowski said, for example, that magic beliefs come into being when people need to feel a sense of control over events when the outcome was uncertain. In the Trobriand Islands, he found the proof of this claim in the rites surrounding abortions and weaving skirts. But in the same tribes, there is no magic attached to making clay pots even though it is no more certain a business than weaving. So, the explanation is not consistent. Furthermore, these explanations tend to be used in an ad hoc, superficial way–one postulates a trait of personality when needed.
But the accepted way of discussing organizational function didn't work either. Different societies might have institutions that were similar in many obvious ways and yet, served different functions. Many tribal cultures divide the tribe into two groups and have elaborate rules about how the two groups may interact. But exactly what they may do–trade, intermarry–is different in different tribes; for that matter, so are the criteria for distinguishing the groups.
Nor will it do to say that dividing-in-two is a universal need of organizations, because there are a lot of tribes that thrive without it.
For Lévi-Strauss, the methods of linguistics became a model for all his earlier examinations of society. His analogies usually are from phonology (though also later from music, mathematics, chaos theory, cybernetics, and so on).
"A really scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory," he writes. Phonemic analysis reveals features that are real, in the sense that users of the language can recognize and respond to them. At the same time, a phoneme is an abstraction from language–not a sound, but a category of sound defined by the way it is distinguished from other categories through rules unique to the language. The entire sound-structure of a language may be generated from a relatively small number of rules.
In the study of the kinship systems that first concerned him, this ideal of explanation allowed a comprehensive organization of data that partly had been ordered by other researchers. The overall goal was to find out why family relations differed among various South American cultures. The father might have great authority over the son in one group, for example, with the relationship rigidly restricted by taboos. In another group, the mother's brother would have that kind of relationship with the son, while the father's relationship was relaxed and playful.
A number of partial patterns had been noted. Relations between the mother and father, for example, had some sort of reciprocity with those of father and son–if the mother had a dominant social status and was formal with the father, for example, then the father usually had close relations with the son. But these smaller patterns joined together in inconsistent ways.
One possible way of finding a master order was to rate all the positions in a kinship system along several dimensions. For example, the father was older than the son, the father produced the son, the father had the same sex as the son, and so on; the matrilineal uncle was older and of the same sex, but did not produce the son, and so on. An exhaustive collection of such observations might cause an overall pattern to emerge.
But for Lévi-Strauss, this kind of work was considered "analytical in appearance only." It results in a chart that is far more difficult to understand than the original data and is based on arbitrary abstractions (empirically, fathers are older than sons, but it is only the researcher who declares that this feature explains their relations). Furthermore, it doesn't explain anything. The explanation it offers is tautological–if age is crucial, then age explains a relationship. And it does not offer the possibility of inferring the origins of the structure.
A proper solution to the puzzle is to find a basic unit of kinship which can explain all the variations. It is a cluster of four roles–brother, sister, father, son. These are the roles that must be involved in any society that has an incest taboo requiring a man to obtain a wife from some man outside his own hereditary line.[clarification needed] A brother may give away his sister, for example, whose son might reciprocate in the next generation by allowing his own sister to marry exogamously. The underlying demand is a continued circulation of women to keep various clans peacefully related.
Right or wrong, this solution displays the qualities of structural thinking. Even though Lévi-Strauss frequently speaks of treating culture as the product of the axioms and corollaries that underlie it, or the phonemic differences that constitute it, he is concerned with the objective data of field research. He notes that it is logically possible for a different atom of kinship structure to exist–sister, sister's brother, brother's wife, daughter–but there are no real-world examples of relationships that can be derived from that grouping. The trouble with this view has been shown by the Australian anthropologist Augustus Elkin, who insisted on the point that in a four class marriage system, the preferred marriage was with a classificatory mother' s brother's daughter and never with the true one. Lévi-Strauss's atom of kinship structure deals only with consanguineal kin. There is a big difference between the two situations, in that the kinship structure involving the classificatory kin relations allows for the building of a system which can bring together thousands of people. Lévi-Strauss's atom of kinship stops working once the true MoBrDa is missing.[clarification needed] Lévi-Strauss also developed the concept of the house society to describe those societies where the domestic unit is more central for social organization than the descent group or lineage.
The purpose of structuralist explanation is to organize real data in the simplest effective way. All science, he says, is either structuralist or reductionist. In confronting such matters as the incest taboo, one is facing an objective limit of what the human mind has accepted so far. One could hypothesize some biological imperative underlying it, but so far as social order is concerned, the taboo has the effect of an irreducible fact. The social scientist can only work with the structures of human thought that arise from it.
And structural explanations can be tested and refuted. A mere analytic scheme that wishes causal relations into existence is not structuralist in this sense.
Lévi-Strauss's later works are more controversial, in part because they impinge on the subject matter of other scholars. He believed that modern life and all history was founded on the same categories and transformations that he had discovered in the Brazilian back country–The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Naked Man (to borrow some titles from the Mythologiques). For instance he compares anthropology to musical serialism and defends his "philosophical" approach. He also pointed out that the modern view of primitive cultures was simplistic in denying them a history. The categories of myth did not persist among them because nothing had happened–it was easy to find the evidence of defeat, migration, exile, repeated displacements of all the kinds known to recorded history. Instead, the mythic categories had encompassed these changes.
He argued for a view of human life as existing in two timelines simultaneously, the eventful one of history and the long cycles in which one set of fundamental mythic patterns dominates and then perhaps another. In this respect, his work resembles that of Fernand Braudel, the historian of the Mediterranean and 'la longue durée,' the cultural outlook and forms of social organization that persisted for centuries around that sea. He is right in that history is difficult to build up in non literate society, nevertheless, Jean Guiart's anthropological and José Garanger's archeological work in central Vanuatu, bringing to the fore the skeletons of former chiefs described in local myths, who had thus been living persons, shows that there can be some means of ascertaining the history of some groups which otherwise would be deemed a-historical. Another issue is the experience that the same person can tell one a myth highly charged in symbols, and some years later a sort of chronological history claiming to be the chronic of a descent line (from examples in the Loyalty islands and New Zealand), the two texts having in common that they each deal in topographical detail with the land-tenure claims of the said descent line (see Douglas Oliver on the Siwai in Bougainville). Lévi-Strauss would agree to these aspects be explained inside his seminar, but would never touch them on his own. The anthropological data content of the myths was not his problem. He was only interested with the formal aspects of each story, considered by him as the result of the workings of the collective unconscious of each group, which idea was taken from the linguists, but cannot be proved in any way although he was adamant about its existence and would never accept any discussion on this point.
The structuralist approach to myth
Lévi-Strauss sees a basic paradox in the study of myth. On one hand, mythical stories are fantastic and unpredictable: the content of myth seems completely arbitrary. On the other hand, the myths of different cultures are surprisingly similar:
On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. ... But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent [i.e., arbitrary], how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?:208
Lévi-Strauss proposed that universal laws must govern mythical thought and resolve this seeming paradox, producing similar myths in different cultures. Each myth may seem unique, but he proposed it is just one particular instance of a universal law of human thought. In studying myth, Lévi-Strauss tries "to reduce apparently arbitrary data to some kind of order, and to attain a level at which a kind of necessity becomes apparent, underlying the illusions of liberty". Laurie suggests that for Levi-Strauss, 'operations embedded within animal myths provide opportunities to revolve collective problems of classification and hierarchy, marking lines between the inside and the outside, the Law and its exceptions, those who belong and those who do not'.
According to Lévi-Strauss, "mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution".:224 In other words, myths consist of:
- elements that oppose or contradict each other and
- other elements that "mediate", or resolve, those oppositions.
For example, Lévi-Strauss thinks the trickster of many Native American mythologies acts as a "mediator". Lévi-Strauss's argument hinges on two facts about the Native American trickster:
- the trickster has a contradictory and unpredictable personality;
- the trickster is almost always a raven or a coyote.
Lévi-Strauss argues that the raven and coyote "mediate" the opposition between life and death. The relationship between agriculture and hunting is analogous to the opposition between life and death: agriculture is solely concerned with producing life (at least up until harvest time); hunting is concerned with producing death. Furthermore, the relationship between herbivores and beasts of prey is analogous to the relationship between agriculture and hunting: like agriculture, herbivores are concerned with plants; like hunting, beasts of prey are concerned with catching meat. Lévi-Strauss points out that the raven and coyote eat carrion and are therefore halfway between herbivores and beasts of prey: like beasts of prey, they eat meat; like herbivores, they don't catch their food. Thus, he argues, "we have a mediating structure of the following type"::224
By uniting herbivore traits with traits of beasts of prey, the raven and coyote somewhat reconcile herbivores and beasts of prey: in other words, they mediate the opposition between herbivores and beasts of prey. As we have seen, this opposition ultimately is analogous to the opposition between life and death. Therefore, the raven and coyote ultimately mediate the opposition between life and death. This, Lévi-Strauss believes, explains why the coyote and raven have a contradictory personality when they appear as the mythical trickster:
The trickster is a mediator. Since his mediating function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.:226
Because the raven and coyote reconcile profoundly opposed concepts (i.e., life and death), their own mythical personalities must reflect this duality or contradiction: in other words, they must have a contradictory, "tricky" personality.
This theory about the structure of myth helps support Lévi-Strauss's more basic theory about human thought. According to this more basic theory, universal laws govern all areas of human thought:
If it were possible to prove in this instance, too, that the apparent arbitrariness of the mind, its supposedly spontaneous flow of inspiration, and its seemingly uncontrolled inventiveness [are ruled by] laws operating at a deeper level ... if the human mind appears determined even in the realm of mythology, a fortiori it must also be determined in all its spheres of activity.
Out of all the products of culture, myths seem the most fantastic and unpredictable. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss claims, if even mythical thought obeys universal laws, then all
David Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss, photo by Sterrett Smith
David Levi Strauss is a writer and critic in New York. He is the author of From Head to Hand: Art & the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999). His new book, Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow: Essays on the Present and Future of Photography was recently published by Aperture. Strauss was a Guggenheim fellow in 2003-4 and received the Infinity Award for Writing from the International Center of Photography in 2007. He was on the faculty of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College from 2000-2005, and is now Chair of the graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
I first met David Levi Strauss (or Levi as he likes to be called) in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. I thought he was the most serious person I had ever met, nice, but serious. It took me a while to appreciate the subtle humor and intellectual generosity that suffuses his manner and speech. His commitment to writing incisively and accessibly about art, photography and politics is fueled by compassion, curiosity and an unquenchable desire for justice. I have admired him from close up and from afar for all these years.
This conversation took place in his office at the School of Visual Arts on May 22, 2014.
MAD: I know you have had a life-long interest in poetry, but I am curious about how you came to write critically about photography. You were a student at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, right? Were you interested in being a photographer as well? And if so, was there a division within yourself, or did you find a way to do both?
DLS: Yes, always both. I was a poet first, but I started making photographs early on. I went around the world on a ship, a floating university, when I was 19, and I took a lot of photographs, all over the world. Then I went to Goddard College and studied photography and writing, so I was writing poetry and taking photographs all that time, and trying to put them together. Then I went to Visual Studies Workshop in 1975 and 76 and was trying to put the two together in the same space, on the same surface.
At VSW, I started writing for their journal, Afterimage, but when I first started writing criticism there was a tremendous schism between the poetry and the criticism, and it caused a conflict.
MAD: Did reading Sontag catalyze that?
DLS: That was part of it. As I say in my essay on Sontag in Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow, Sontag’s book On Photography had just come out when I got to VSW and the attitude toward that book among photographers was pretty hostile. I found myself on the other side; her book catalyzed what I thought writing about photography could be. It was Sontag, Roland Barthes, and John Berger who were the models, and Berger was by far the biggest influence. When I saw what he was doing, I knew something else was possible, but it was not an easy transition. It wasn’t so much a conflict between making photographs and writing about them, it was between poetry and criticism, so I stopped writing criticism. I picked it up again later in San Francisco and eventually that conflict disappeared; at a certain point, it was all just writing, and I realized I could do both.
MAD: When we first met in San Francisco in the mid-1980s, I think you were driving a cab at night and you wrote after your shift.
DLS: Yes, I drove a cab for nine years in San Francisco, always at night, and usually just on the weekends. This was the most dangerous shift, but also the most lucrative, if you could manage to hang on to your cash. I got to be good at it, and I could make a living working only two or three nights a week, and write the rest of the time. I loved driving at night, and became entirely nocturnal.
MAD: I ask because you are famously a night owl and you still write through the night. Did that start with the taxi driving?
ACTS 10 edited by David Levi Strauss, 1989
MAD: During this period you started and edited a literary journal called ACTS. What were your goals with that journal and how many issues did you publish?
DLS: I started printing the journal in the poet Robert Duncan’s basement, and it was originally intended to be the house organ of the Poetics Program that I was in from 1980 to 85. So the first issue included only the poets and writers who were teachers and students in the program—Robert Duncan, Diane Di Prima, David Meltzer, Michael Palmer, Duncan McNaughton, Leslie Scalapino, Anselm Hollo, Robert Grenier, Susan Thackrey, Sarah Menefee, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Aaron Shurin—and it grew out from there. The first issue was mimeographed; Duncan had a mimeograph machine that he had printed his Dante Etudes on, and he bought the paper for me to print the first issue. Then I applied and got some National Endowment for the Arts grants and we eventually published 10 issues of the journal. When the NEA pulled our funding during the Culture Wars, ACTS died practically overnight. I’m sure that happened to a lot of literary journals during that period.
MAD: How did publishing ACTS influence how you thought of yourself as a writer and how you might proceed?
DLS: I loved doing it. I called it ACTS because I wanted to act on the world, to engage. My coeditor Benjamin Hollander and I did several book issues, including one on Jack Spicer called A Book of Correspondences for Jack Spicer, and one on Paul Celan’s work called Translating Tradition. I think it was the first thing on him in English, well before the academy turned the study of his work into an industry. ACTS put me in contact and dialogue with people in the poetry world in a way that wouldn’t have happened any other way.
MAD: I’m not sure what issue it was, maybe #10, that had the title In Relation, and it had a significant impact on me. It’s hard to pin down exactly why, but it had something to do with my (late) realization that meaning is made in relationship between things, that things don’t have intrinsic meaning, but that we establish meaning vis a vis. It made me examine how I interacted with images, texts and objects and even other people in terms of how I interpret through myriad and unexamined filters. I had never really thought about that before, I’m embarrassed to say. I am not even sure that was your goal, but there it is.
DLS: It was my intention, and a good deal of that was focused on the relation between word and image. Even now, when people talk about images they often talk about them as if they appear by themselves, but they are almost always accompanied by text, and it’s always a relation between the two where meaning is made. It’s a difficult thing to analyze because it is happening in two different parts of the brain, and it gets very complicated.
MAD: You were in San Francisco for 15 years, which has a rich literary tradition and you worked closely and were friends with many poets over the years. It must have been hard to leave. Did you come to New York because you had goals as a critic and you needed to be here?
DLS: Yes. It just became clear that I needed to publish books, and I couldn’t do it there. Everyone I was writing for, all the art magazines, were in New York or in Europe, and it just became less and less tenable to remain in San Francisco. I needed to be in New York for the writing to find an audience. And a big part of it, also, was that Robert Duncan died and this tremendous community that had sustained me started to break up. The hardest thing was to leave dear friends there.
MAD: Were you ever drawn to Los Angeles?
DLS: Not really. Growing up in Kansas, the romance was always with New York. I always thought that I would end up here. The romance continues to this day; every time I drive over the George Washington Bridge, I get excited and feel like anything could happen.
Between the Eyes, published by Aperture 2003
MAD: I have a few questions about your book Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. In John Berger’s introduction, he talks about the “systematic abuse of language.” This has been a concern of many writers, George Orwell and Noam Chomsky just to name two obvious examples. This struggle against the abuse of language is a struggle that never ends. And it is quite evident in how carefully you choose your words. Not only to express your ideas and to make them accessible, but just as importantly, to oppose lies and obfuscation. Do you think that is an accurate statement?
DLS: Absolutely, and that is why Berger was such a big influence, because I saw that he was able to write about very complicated subjects in a direct and beautiful way, and that’s what I wanted to do. And I always saw that as having an implicit politics, writing that way for a general audience, with no jargon, and no specialized language. Through Berger, I understood that as a political choice.
John Hoagland, arrest of auto repair mechanic for failure to carry an ID card, San Salvador, 1979-1983
MAD: In your essay “Photography and Propaganda,” you write about two photojournalists who worked and died in Central America in the 1980s, Richard Cross and John Hoagland. You discuss Hoagland’s emphatic insistence that he did not believe in objectivity, yet he also just as emphatically refused to be a propagandist for anyone or anything. In this sense, he questions the conventional suspicion of subjectivity. As if the refusal to recognize or believe in the false ideal of objectivity negated the value of subjectivity itself.
Hoagland and Cross were dissidents in the machine of the news media, and you take specific news organizations to task for manufacturing untruths under the guise of objectivity. I know this essay won the Logan award for new critical writing on photography, yet the granting organization, the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, refused to publish it as it had every other previous winner. Can you talk about that?
DLS: Sure. What I heard was that although the jurors, Nathan Lyons and Anne Wilkes Tucker, liked it and chose it, others involved in the grant did not like the politics of the essay, and didn’t want to publish it. It was finally published in its entirety in Afterimage, thanks to the courage of David Trend, who was then the editor.
MAD: Because it pointed fingers and was deemed accusatory of powerful news organizations? It may be provocative but it is a well-reasoned argument.
DLS: I was shocked by the response. Mind you, I did not find out from them, this is what I heard later from people who knew something about the process. It had a big effect on me at the time. It had all started when I saw a show of Hoagland’s and Cross’s work at Eye Gallery in San Francisco. I met Susan Meiselas around this time as well. In the early 90s, there was a very strong critique of documentary practice being made. You couldn’t talk about documentary work without coming up against this argument about the aestheticization of suffering. And I knew that this critique fundamentally misrepresented what Hoagland and Cross, or Meiselas, were doing.
I think that the aestheticization of suffering critique was a substantive critique, and it needed to be done, but it went too far and discounted the political role of the subjectivity of the documentarian. That to me was a glaring omission, and I spent a lot of time trying to deal with that in the writing. I revisit it in my current book, in an essay called “Troublesomely Bound Up with Reality.”
Susan Meiselas, Street Fighter, Managua, Nicaragua 1979
MAD: This issue continues to this day. I had the opportunity to interview Tim Hetherington about a year before he was killed in Libya, and he continually faced the ethical questions of what it meant to document war and tragedy. He sometimes literally put the camera down for long periods of time in order to physically help as he did in Liberia after the civil war. But he fundamentally believed in the mission of the witness, that to not witness is an even greater sin. He was always trying to find new forms and new contexts for the work in the attempt to reach broader audiences.
DLS: There are many examples of contemporary photojournalists coming to grips with this. I spoke with Jim Nachtwey about the issue of trying to control the work and the way it is presented once it leaves you, when all these errant meanings come in. And Susan Meiselas has tried every way you can think of to place the work in a context in which the work opens up rather than closing down around fixed news tropes.
MAD: The last essay in Between the Eyes is a lovely and lyrical piece of writing inspired by Miguel Rio Branco’s installation “Between the Eyes, the Desert.” Instead of being an expository treatment of the work, it is more an exploration of the internal life of images, or our internal life with images. Excuse how simplistic this might seem, but after reading it I was thinking about how in writing there are these twin poles of the expository and the lyrical. In photography we have similar twin poles, the documentary and the art photograph. This is a long-lived dichotomy—a hundred years ago Lewis Hine and Alfred Steiglitz embodied these seemingly divergent approaches: social work versus camera work. Obviously these things are not mutually exclusive, but maybe it’s a useful distinction.
So it’s interesting to me that this collection of essays ends in a place where your own deep and lifelong inclinations toward the poetic and the critical are synthesized.
Manuel Rio Branco, Between the Eyes, the Desert, 1997
DLS: I first saw Miguel’s work uptown at Throckmorton gallery, and it knocked me down. I wrote something for Artforum about it and then he contacted me and that started a collaboration that went on for a number of years. He asked me to write an essay for his Aperture monograph, which is where the “Beauty and the Beast, Right Between the Eyes” essay first appeared. In the essay at the end of Between the Eyes, I imagine what the people in Plato’s Cave were thinking about. In both of these essays, I was pleased to be able to write more lyrically in relation to images. It opened everything up for me, and it all seemed possible, that I could write what I needed to write. I was a poet first and then I became an essayist, primarily because there were so few limits on what you could do in that form, at that time.
What you say about the split between documentary and art photography is true, and that split always seemed strange and arbitrary and worth contesting, to me, because the two are often mixed. And probably the work that has the most influence, the most affect, is work in which those fixed categories are threatened.
MAD: Someone like Robert Frank, for example.
DLS: Exactly. His work was a real threat. People forget that when The Americans first appeared, the art photography community was outraged, largely because that work threatened the categories.
MAD: I say this to my students, and to myself, all the time: “Pay attention to your resistance,” because when you resist something, a boundary is being tested, and your boundaries should be examined. Are they ethical boundaries, esthetic, political? Do they come from the culture, from your parents? Boundaries are important but they should be yours and should be useful and not limiting. I think you are right that when The Americans came out, it called into question the meaning of documentary. Your ongoing concern for things “in relation” reminds me of what James Baldwin said: “If I am not what you think I am, then you are not what you think you are either.” When someone challenges or redefines a category, then everything else must be redefined in relation.
DLS: Absolutely. For our generation, Robert Frank did that. Then you get to Larry Clark and Tulsa, which blew another big hole in the idea of documentary. What is the documentarian’s relationship to the subject? What happens when he or she is inside the story?
Francesca Woodman, Self-Deceit #1, 1978
MAD: I wanted to ask about your essay on Francesca Woodman. I like how you connect her work to Surrealism, and also your observation that she short-circuits the conventional binary between subject and viewer. She was a young woman who used herself in haunting images and I supposed her suicide at age 26 amplified the sort of angsty solipsism that some people attribute to her work. I could be wrong, but I felt as if you were implicitly defending her against accusations of narcissism.
DLS: That’s the fallback criticism of any woman who turns the camera on herself, that she is a narcissist. That essay on Francesca Woodman was very difficult to do, because I spent time with her mother and father, and I felt a responsibility to them to be fair to their daughter’s work, and to say something about the work that had not already been said, which was challenging because a lot of very good writers had already written about her. I needed to take cognizance of the work’s place in feminist history and by that time she had also already been taken up as a postmodern avatar, so I had to deal with that, as well. Clearly she had a relation to Surrealist photography, and Rosalind Krauss had already opened up new territory in relation to photography and Surrealism. So my essay was trying to do a lot of things at once. I was pleased with what it finally came to, but it was very hard to get there.
MAD: As with any artist who dies young, especially one who dies at their own hand, it’s hard to see the work for what it is, to penetrate the aura of tragedy and doom that envelops the work posthumously, as if they were forever burdened by the weight of their own vision. I think your essay gives her work a life outside of that dark aura.
DLS: Thank you. That was what I was trying to do. I wanted to explore how we believe images, how they control us and how we receive them. I still think we know very little about how that happens because so much of it lies in the unconscious and in unconscious reactions. That is the nature of images, that is how they work, but getting to that through writing is extremely difficult.
Chris Marker, San Soleil, 1983
MAD: I think you would agree that Chris Marker explores this territory in film in both fictional and documentary forms. La Jetee is about a man “marked by an image,” and he uses photographs as portals, to travel in time. In his documentary films, Marker is always interrogating himself as he is looking. He examines the image and examines his reactions to the image and in the process he interrogates the language and discourse around documentary practices. In Sans Soleil, he films people looking back at him as he films them and the narrator says something like “Isn’t it stupid what they teach you in film schools, that people shouldn’t stare back at the camera?” Marker acknowledges the exchange, that the subject is being aware of being represented and that is important because it speaks to the power dynamic in representation and, to go back to our theme here, it speaks about the subject and the viewer in relation.
DLS: One of the things that photographic images do is to trace the relation between the person behind the camera and the person in front of it.
MAD: That’s what you explore in the Woodman essay.
DLS: Yes, which is complicated in her images because she is both behind and in front of the camera. She was a prodigy, and there are not that many prodigies in photography. She was involved very early on in a deep inquiry into the self, identity, and the body.
MAD: Let’s talk about the new book. First of all, there is the unusual title, Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow.
DLS: I am happy that title survived, because I really wanted it. Obviously, it is too long and too complicated for a book title, but it is a phrase that has been with me since before being at the Visual Studies Workshop. It is the first line of a poem by the photographer Frederick Sommer, who used it in a 1962 issue of Aperture devoted to his work. And I think the idea has become more and more relevant as a kind of lyrical description of what I have spent much of my life doing—setting up an economy of words and images based on how the two affect one another and what happens between them. It’s outlandish to think that words and images have an economic relationship, but it carries the idea that if you don’t use words to describe images, they lose value and will “buy smaller images” tomorrow; that is, they will have less purchase on images, and it will be harder to do later. I think that is literally true. We now live principally in this screenal world, wherein we are inundated with so many more images moving at a greater velocity than ever before in history. Like Paul Virilio said, the scale, frequency and speed of it has a politics. I am not so sure about the subtitle of the book (Laughter).
MAD: I have a different question about the subtitle (Laughter), “Essays on the Present and Future of Photography.” It suggests a shift in photography in terms of what it was, what it is, and what it might become. As you just said, one of the most fundamental ways in which photography has changed is that we see and receive the vast majority of our images on screens, as opposed to in books or magazines or on walls. Related to that, a photograph’s specificity as an object has become virtual, instantly clickable and just as quickly disappearing. The photograph’s presence has become more fugitive, less fixed in time and place.
Robert Heinecken, The S.S. Copyright Project “On Photography”, 1978, (collaged portrait of Susan Sontag made from black and white instant prints)
DLS: Yes, but there are always two different things going on. Sontag’s earlier view was that, as the frequency and number of images increased, their affect on us lessened, especially when you are talking about images of conflict or suffering. Our ability to respond decreases as the number increases. She modified that view in her last book, and stepped back from it, and I agreed with her. But the conventional view remains, that we are less subject to images because of the way images are delivered. I don’t think that is necessarily true. There is still a basic human need for iconic images; this was in us long before the invention of technical images, with religious images especially. It’s strange to even call it photography anymore, because it’s not light writing, it’s something else. Those screenal images, skittering online images, are changing us in some ways, but it does not change our fundamental need for images. I think we are mostly operating under a collective hallucination that we know what they are and how they work.
MAD: In that case, what you do is dream interpretation. (Laughter)
DLS: Yes, I like that.
MAD: The dreams keep coming, they never stop, and we may not know what they mean, but we need to respond.
DLS: I always liked James Hillman’s idea about dreams. In response to the dream interpretation fervor a few decades ago, his contention was that we don’t need to interpret dreams, because they are going to do the work that they need to do, which is essential, regardless of our attention or analysis. We know that a person can go without sleep for some time, but cannot live very long at all without dreaming. If you don’t dream, you die. This is close to what is going on in the image environment, which never ceases to fascinate me. If we don’t absorb these images, we fade. There is so much work to be done there.
John Berger and David Levi Strauss, photo by Yves Berger
MAD: 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” which I recently re-read. I don’t have to summarize it for you, but I’ll just say that she argues for an experience of art that does not bow down to some insistent or impatient need to know what it means. She claims that interpretation can be stifling, that we suppress our phenomenological experience of an artwork in the service of categorizing it. This is an ongoing challenge; it’s a 50-year-old challenge. Do you still value that challenge, does it remain a productive one for you?
DLS: Yes, I think Sontag’s challenge is still there, undiminished. In fact, it has increased in importance. I am running this program at the School of Visual Arts in Art Criticism & Writing, really Art Writing as Literature, and the thing that I find is that, even though the students come here wanting to write about art, it is often initially difficult for them to actually look at a work of art without having a theory about it beforehand. Interpretation precedes (and precludes) perception. One of the first things I do is to put up two works of art on the wall, side by side, and have them just write their responses on the spot, without first knowing who the artist is, or what the context or circumstances of the work are. Leo Steinberg always said that an artwork will tell you how to respond to it, if you actually look at it and pay attention. I think it is still risky, even dangerous, potentially, to look at a piece of art and take it seriously, because it will change you. It has changed me. I think you have to slow things down in order to see them. My students hear me say that all the time.
MAD: It’s a bit ironic that 100 years ago, the Futurists and the Soviet Avant Garde celebrated speed, simultaneity, fracturing, in order to esthetically embrace the 20th century. We live in that collaged and fragmented future they so desperately wanted, except we got it without the redemption and liberation promised. I think you are right that now it is a matter of slowing that is the radical act, to slow it down is to oppose it. I don’t mean in some Luddite fashion, I mean slowing it down to really look at what is happening.
DLS: That is difficult to do now, because all the pressure is to keep moving, and to accelerate.
MAD: This is sort of out of the blue, but is there an artist, photographer, artwork or image that you are moved by but have not written about, that you would like to write about but for some reason you cannot find a way to do so?
DLS: That’s an interesting question. One example I can think of, which is an odd one because it’s right in the center of this documentary vs. art photography split, is the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I have never written about his work, because to me it is perfect. (Laughter) I need some kind of friction to start writing, to get at the work, and to me his work has always been self-evident and self-sufficient. So there’s kind of nothing to say about it; or I don’t know what to say about it. It’s perfect.
MAD: Does that have to do with virtuosity? Sometimes, in the face of virtuosity one just admires it and moves on because for me it is the flaw or the failure or the limitation that can be interesting about an artist, because it can illuminate so much about the artist’s subjectivity. Failures are interesting. When I teach the History of Photography, obviously I am going to talk about Cartier-Bresson, and I do admire him, but I don’t find him that interesting. In terms of those early mid-century flaneur guys, I prefer Brassai and Kertesz. I am intrigued and still beguiled by many of their images, because I think their concerns were smaller, more eccentric, more obsessive, than the universalizing decisive moments of Cartier-Bresson.
DLS: There are artists that I have written about whose work I keep coming back to—Carolee Schneemann and Alfredo Jaar, for example. Because there is always something unresolved in my own response to the work. The problems are what make me want to write about it. My boundaries get threatened by the work, some boundaries I didn’t even know were there, and that is the way in.
MAD: One last thing I wanted to talk to you about. You have an image/text piece that you worked on years ago called Odile & Odette, which are the names of the principal characters in the ballet Swan Lake. I know you have done a variety of iterations of it. Can you talk about it a bit, what it did or does for you? It begins with an image of two girls standing with their backs turned toward the camera. They are on a street in, is it Berlin?
DLS: I have never known where the picture was taken. It could be in Berlin as the Wall was going up. It could be in the Warsaw Ghetto. Two young girls stand arm-in-arm, in front of a barbed wire barrier, looking up at a couple in a window above. The poet Norma Cole in San Francisco gave me the image years ago in San Francisco, and I just started writing letters to these two girls in the photograph: Odile & Odette. It became a way to address dualities: word & image, masculine & feminine, love & war. I was travelling a lot at the time I started this writing, so I’d go to Cuba, Russia, or Berlin, always looking for Odile & Odette, and finding them everywhere.
MAD: It is epistolary.
DLS: Yes, it’s all letters to them combined with images, and I found I could address almost anything in these letters to these two imaginary girls. Well, not quite imaginary, since they exist in an image. It has always been about the relation between the past and the future, between politics and aesthetics, between words and images.
MAD: The girls are twinned, together but separate.
DLS: Yes they are two, together. At some point in the letters they become my wife Sterrett and my daughter Maya, or my two older sisters, or other pairs. I have another book of essays I am finishing, and after that I would really like to do a book of Odile & Odette, if I can find someone to publish it.
Again, it’s the relation between the text and the image that is endlessly fascinating to me—what happens between the two. As I say in the introduction to Words Not Spent Today, words and images are antagonistic to each other. In our reading of them we always want the text to explain the image and the image to illustrate the text. To do something other than that is, I think, very generative. I spent some time with John Berger in his home in the French Alps a few years ago and he gave me several assignments, of things that I had to do, and the Odile & Odette book was one of them.
David Levi Strauss, Odile and Odette, as published in ACTS 10, 1989