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Claude Levi-Strauss: The Savage Mind

By Farzana Versey

08 November, 2009

I did not choose Claude Levi-Strauss; he was thrust upon me.

Structuralism was far from my mind when I was gifted a bunch of his books. A couple of academicians were arguing over the merits of burdening me, a work in progress, with the abstractions of totemism. The argument did not take place across the table. The two individuals did not know each other. I carried the messages to and fro and became the conduit of Levi-Strauss without having yet read a word by him.

Not one to shirk the onus of intellectual egotism I decided to take him on even though I was in retrograde mode having taken a break from philosophical catechism to the tedium and temperance of evanescent beliefs. Pop culture was seeping into my soul and Levi-Strauss was to save it.

I turned the first pages of ‘The Raw and the Cooked’ mainly because the title intrigued me – there was a sense of potency in the words, quite sensual in their possibilities. The flight stewardess asked me to strap on the belt. It was a Delhi-Mumbai flight. The gentleman seated next to me decided to make small conversation before the soggy airline meal arrived. “So, you like jeans?” I thought it was too personal a query. He pointed at the book.

“Yes?” I shrugged.

“So, you like jeans?”

I could not make the connection and instead of extending the futile conversation I merely nodded. It struck me after a while that he was referring to the Levi in the name. I turned to him and said, “I also like it raw and cooked.”

This man was a big corporate honcho. Levi-Strauss thrust upon me was working like greatness.

This long preamble is to emphasise his hypothesis. The arguing academicians, the fellow traveller, my own bifurcated interests, and the way we use words all led to him.

To him, binary opposites were “a pair of opposites, thought by the Structuralists to powerfully form and organize human thought and culture. Some are commonsense, such as raw vs. cooked; however, many such oppositions imply or are used in such a way that privileges one of the terms of the opposition, creating a hierarchy. This can be seen in English with white and black, where black is used as a sign of darkness, danger, evil, etc., and white as purity, goodness, and so on. Another example of a contested binary opposition is rational vs. emotional, in which the rational term is usually privileged and associated with men, while emotional is inferior and associated with women. The list goes on. Deconstruction sometimes involves identifying the oppositions working in a text and then demonstrating how the text itself undermines the hierarchy implied or asserted by the opposition”.

Today, as I read in the papers that he was dead at the age of 100, the news being relayed five days later, it seemed to all come together.

If we take his analogy, then death is a social structure and mourning, bereavement and tributes constitute social relations; they are merely the microcosm of the larger plane of truth. The routine of living, however significant it be, is merely part of the chain of events that constitute Life. As a social structure it “can, by no means, be reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be described in a given society”.

His emphasis remained on science and the disparity between the observed and the experimented. Observation was merely a pause in his scheme of things. It would be prudent to conjecture that for one who did not view history as important, it would be only natural to imagine the human as a particle that was doomed to extinction. Ironically, although it is said that he was not a proponent of humanism he brought the privileged civilisation and the tribal on par. Perhaps he would refuse to see it as a standard humanistic model, which rejects religion and relies on reason, and merely a linear movement towards culture.

There are ideas about how evolution can be viewed as not really a human endeavour but an accidental progression, a blind following of social laws. In that, the savage and the civilised cannot be differentiated. One may argue about how instincts could decide on these anomalies as well.

Why was Levi-Strauss a believer in Marxism? Is an ideology a good model to experiment on? It could be emblematic of the structure, maybe even a myth. He said “Myth, like the rest of language, is made up of constituent units.” Although the reference is to linguistics, it may apply to the language of ideas too.

His oeuvre seemed to be based on the discarding of history, therefore one must assume that every idea was a unit that could be tested. It begs the question that if human development essentially remained a natural state, then could a state be a unit? Isn’t it a structure? His elimination of individualism in the scheme of things would not allow for the ‘normative’ person as a unit to be also considered a structure.

He would perhaps scoff at such a sophistic thought. It is too intimate. But on that evening flight, I would rely on his words to explain the exchange. According to him, “Structuralism is the search for unsuspected harmonies...”

Blue jeans are beyond social relations; they are a social structure that connected one pioneer with another in an unsuspected harmony, if harmony is to be extended beyond its obvious definition to propound the continuum of history as immediacy.

Claude Levi-Strauss will certainly be more than the residue he thought we all would be and only partially due to being a totem for many thinkers.

* * *

(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins. She can be reached at


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