Monday, October 23, 2006

Levi-Strauss' Mistresses

Claude Levi-Strauss claimed that he had three mistresses: Marx, Freud and geology.

I've already discussed the influence of geology on his thinking, so what about those other two mistresses, Marx and Freud? What is it that makes them structuralists? It is this: both tried to formulate underlying theories to explain cultural phenomenon. Not just theories, in fact, but deep structures which account for human actions and which control conscious decision making.

Marx sought to show that the way men and women think is constrained by the society into which they are born and by their position in that society. Western society has an economic basis so it follows that the wealth of individuals in society has a strong defining character on the way they think. If we are born into riches, we are more likely to end up defining the laws and cultural rules by which the rest of society must live, and that these rules will be more likely in our own favour. If we are born poor, we end up accepting laws and cultural rules imposed on us by the rich.

Freud, for his part, sought to explain human behaviour in terms of underlying unconscious motivations. He sought data about the unconscious in the form of dreams, slips of the tongue, word associations and accidental misuse of words. Freud devoted much effort to analysing and interpreting myths, an activity that Levi-Strauss was later to continue.

During the 1960s, structuralism was really a buzz word, and Levi-Strauss, due to his insights in anthropology which seemed very striking and brilliant at the time, was its high priest. Today, structuralism is no longer a buzz word. There has been a swing away from this style of what is now considered an anti-humanistic and deterministic style of thinking.

Structuralism has been replaced by postmodernism. Postmodernists tend to focus on 'ecological' relationships. They would like us to pay more attention to the implications and contingencies of our knowing, to recognize and escape the constraints of the reductionist perspective provided, for example, by structuralism, and to realize that the world and our tasks are too dynamically interactive for formulaic approaches.

Structuralism and postmodernism are themselves cultural constructs which must have deep underlying causes. Why, at one point in time was philosophy aligned towards explaining all our cultural phenomenon by underlying causes, and at another point, thirty years later, only interested in saying that this approach was too formulaic? This, after all, implies a major rejection of the previous thinking of Freud, Marx and Levi-Strauss.

Is it the case that we no longer wish to confront underlying motivations? Is it that, in moving towards a society in which 'everybody is middle class' we no longer feel impelled to analyse our own dying or dead class system? In a homogenised society, are we consigned to search forever through our own cultural debris in search of meaning? What damage are such societies capable of doing to other societies that are 'old fashioned' (read 'religious') and which are not 'homogenised'. Do such 'old fashioned' societies seem intrinsically threatening? Are homogenised societies intrinsically unbalanced since they have no internal societal argumentation process with the result that the vast majority thinks the same way, which is to say, according to market forces?

No comments: