Levi-Strauss as Bricoleur: Exam Answer

Arguably, “The Story of Asdiwal” connects’ and mediates two otherwise distinct Lévi-Straussian projects, that of The Elementary Structures of Kinship on the one hand, and that of The Savage Mind (and the Mythologiques) on the other. How so?

“The Story of Asdiwal” certainly provides evidence that Levi-Strauss’ choice of subject matter had changed since Elementary Structures of Kinship(ESK) but it also suggests a theoretical reorganization of his thought had occurred – or at least was occurring. In ESK Levi-Strauss had made an argument about kinship, exchange, and social structure. The title of that book situated it firmly in the French tradition of sociological analysis epitomized by Durkheim; the centrality of ethnographic comparison and exchange to his argument were reminiscent of Mauss; and his preoccupation with the divide between nature and culture hearkens back to the origins of academic anthropology in the nineteenth century. If there were remarkable insights in ESK it was nonetheless still in many ways a straightforward analysis of a social phenomenon: cross-cousin marriage. In “The Story of Asdiwal” however it is no longer Levi-Strauss who is talking about social phenomena but the savage himself – and as a consequence it is no longer the structures of primitive society that are subjected to the anthropologist’s gaze, but the structures of the primitive mind. The theoretical ground on which the virtuoso performance of “The Story of Asdiwal” stood was cleared retrospectively by Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, a text in which he explicitly develops a structuralist psychology.

My formulation of The Savage Mind as ‘retrospective theory’ is not simply an attempt at playful paradox but part of an argument that – in the manner of a bricoleur – Levi-Strauss constructed his theory after the fact. In the same way that myths are representations of social reality constructed out of bits and pieces found in other myths, so Levi-Strauss’ theory of structuralism is not the foundation of his thought, but a conclusion about his thought reached by rearranging the assorted bits and pieces of his previous experiments into a convincing argument. In The Savage Mind for instance Levi-Strauss transformed elements of an argument he had made a dozen or so years earlier in ESK – certain patterns of cultural behavior are universal because they are produced by universal psychological structures – into the ultimate end of ethnography – ethnography is psychology.[1] The Savage Mind is an answer to his critics in which Levi-Strauss justified the shimmering and disconnected psychologism of work like “The Story of Asdiwal” as scientifically (and politically and ethically) valid, by reconfiguring anthropology as the study of superstructure.

The conclusion of The Savage Mind consists of Levi-Strauss’ half of an argument with Sartre over the relative virtues of their philosophical styles, and in particular their conflicting representations of primitive thought. The Sartrian project in Levi-Strauss’ view depends on a contrast between the ahistorical worldview of the primitive and the historical worldview of the modern that is untenable. Sartre, like 19th century anthropologists, insists that modern and primitive thought are discrete modes of thinking, separated by the cataclysms of evolutionary history, while Levi-Strauss describes them as contemporary and complementary elements of the same psychological system. Levi-Strauss suggests Sartre himself provides evidence of this by imagining a teleological history in which he understands the French Revolution in a mythical rather than a scientific sense – the interpretation Sartre constructs from the fragments and shards of that event may well be the richest and most useful of possible interpretations, but that does not mean it is historically accurate.[2] Levi-Strauss also makes the claim that his own anthropological approach has more in common with Marx than the dialectic historicism of disciples such as Sartre. Neither of these two moves – “Marxism is just myth” and “I’m no Marxist but I’m a better one than you” – are particularly original or interesting but in the course of making them Levi-Strauss admits an error he made in ESK; that error was not in his method, his data, or his argumentation, but in his presentation. Levi-Strauss suggests that ESK has been misunderstood by critics because he failed to make his debt to Marx explicit enough. [3]

For Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind ideas about society – as held by both primitive and modern political philosophers – belong to the realm of the superstructure and not to infrastructure. A meaning, as the philosophers construe it, is never the right one per se but simply a useful one, one that in Levi-Strauss’ words has “‘made it’ socially.” [4] Levi-Strauss makes it quite clear on a number of occasions throughout The Savage Mind that despite his preoccupation with analytic categories he is not giving priority to ideology, or suggesting that ideological transformations give rise to social ones. “Only the reverse is in fact true,” he tells us, we should not forget that he is merely studying the “shadows on the wall of the cave.” [5] If we accept these arguments verbatim than Sartre has failed to see that from the very beginning Levi-Strauss was not interested in social structure per se but only in representations of social structure.

In regard to ESK however such arguments are a gloss. As I suggested the Levi-Strauss of ESK and the Levi-Strauss of “Asdiwal” and The Savage Mind are not so perfectly analogous as the latter claims – structuralism did not leap fully formed from Levi-Strauss’ Olympian brow in 1949. In writing ESK Levi-Strauss may well have challenged the reigning account of kinship as a descent system, and replaced it with an account of kinship as an exchange system, but this was not simply a matter of swapping revolutionary structuralism in, and an exhausted functionalism out. One might even say that structural analysis evolved over time, as Levi-Strauss needed it to perform a variety of different intellectual functions. The Savage Mind for instance disengages itself from the non-ideological at every turn, by constantly reminding the reader that analysis is always analysis of a particular level – theoretical, technical and so on. This disengagement can be read as a justification of the shift from the social to the mythic that we can see occurring so clearly in “Asdiwal.” But that disengagement with certain “levels” of thought and behavior does not occur not in ESK. On the contrary that text identifies the exchange of women as gifts as the source of all social and cultural life. In her essay “The Traffic of Women” Gayle Rubin describes ESK as “a grand statement on the origin of and nature of human society” which is very different from the spin it gets at the end of The Savage Mind. [6] Rubin’s description of ESK as an attempt to discern the structural principles of social relations contradicts Levi-Strauss’ belated claim that it is really a muted account of ideology. My inclination is to think Rubin right no matter what Levi-Strauss the elder might say. In the process of demolishing the old arguments about the transition of man from nature to society, and the biological necessity of incest taboos, Levi-Strauss the younger leans – at times quite heavily – on what are essentially functionalist arguments about the development of social structure.

But to say that this early Levi-Strauss seemed functionalist does not mean elements found ESK do not reappear in later work. If the argument of ESK is that men exchange women in order to produce social solidarity, the very process of exchange suggests the men are inclined towards reciprocity to begin with. [7] This certainly is psychological but it is a far cry from the rigid distinction Levi-Strauss makes in The Savage Mind between the psychology of culture and social praxis, and which he claims is in ESK but simply underemphasized. In my view ESK does not depend on comparative psychology so much as it does on comparative ethnography, and the presence of Freud and Piaget in the argument do not so much buttress actual claims as point to the poverty of Levi-Strauss’ interlocutors. There is no doubt that relative to the work of the British Functionalists ESK is psychologically rich, but compared to the proliferation of mental structures that occurs in The Savage Mind it seems a pretty thin soup. His claim in the later text that his theory was always already there is tenuous at best, and it is more accurate to say that Levi-Strauss uses corollaries plucked from his earlier argument as the foundation of his later, mature structuralism.

If ESK is at best an embryonic structuralism than “The Story of Asdiwal” is a structuralist tour-de-force. Social structure is no longer a part of anthropological analysis except in so far as it is the subject of myth. In “Asdiwal” Levi-Strauss describes the myth as an apparatus with which the mythmakers conduct thought experiments. In the course of telling and retelling the story of Asdiwal the Tsimshian run a series of ideological calculations to come to the conclusion that their particular cultural practice (matrilocality) is the best of all such cultural practices imaginable. Social structure and kinship are still superficially relevant to Levi-Strauss’ work here, but if in ESK the psychological was a means to a sociological end (the destruction of biologically driven explanations of kinship), here the sociological provides the means to a psychological end (Tsimshian reflection on social structure is used to illuminate primitive psychology). To read The Savage Mind after “The Story of Asdiwal” is to read an almost point by point explication how such analysis is of vital importance to the project of understanding how humans think.

Levi-Strauss seems utterly indifferent to the ethical and political ramifications of structural analysis. If after “Asdiwal” myth as a social phenomenon is by definition conservative ideology that is beside the point – how myth functions is not what matters, what matters is what it reveals of deeper structures. It is interesting, but not particularly surprising, that Sartre accuses Levi-Strauss of being a cold-blooded aesthete who studies men as ants, and that Rubin is outraged that he turns traffic in women into the root of all romance. [8] It is even more interesting that Levi-Strauss does not write such attacks off as spurious and ad hominem but reacts to them – or at least to Sartre’s. I would suggest such criticisms as those of Sartre spurred Levi-Strauss on to develop the distinction between a social infrastructure and a psychological superstructure that is fundamental to The Savage Mind, but was peripheral to ESK. Such a distinction permits him to strike a pose as a scientific observer of the misrepresentations perpetrated by both savages and contemporary social critics. What better way to silence the pretensions of “the so called men of the left” than to condescend to them like one does to savages; to call their point of view legitimate and practical, but simply not on the same lonely and rarefied plane as that of Levi-Strauss’ own analysis.

There are at least three possible modes of analyzing the relations of these three texts – ESK, “The Story of Asdiwal,” and The Savage Mind. The first – that of Levi-Strauss – amounts to a vulgar structuralist argument that since some of the same analytic categories can be identified as operating in each one of them their theoretical claims can be conflated. I reject this account because although some of the same categories exist to some degree in all three texts they are mobilized in quite different ways. The second mode of analysis is that of classic intellectual history which describes the trajectory of an idea – structuralism – developing over time. Structuralism existed in rudimentary form inESK, flowered in “Asdiwal,” and reached its full maturity in The Savage Mind. I am suspicious of this one because it is reads Levi-Strauss’ conclusions in 1962 back across time and into the text he wrote in 1949. Even if we conceded it was a possibility it begs the question as to why providence selected certain attributes of ESK for development, but not others. And that leaves the third mode – one which seems more Levi-Straussian than that of Levi-Strauss himself. There is a radical difference between the functionalism of ESK and the structuralism of “Asdiwal” and The Savage Mind – they are two different sets of ideas being used for two distinct purposes. From this point of “Asdiwal” does not so much mediate between the other two projects as it drives them apart – makes them into two different things. That they seem similar is not the result of structural analogy, or of evolution, but of their being comprised of odds and ends drawn from the same intellectual repertoire and cobbled together in the same workshop by the same ingenious bricoleur.


[1] The Savage Mind, p. 130-131.

[2] The Savage Mind, p. 254.

[3] “I must confess to having myself unintentionally and unwittingly lent support to these erroneous ideas, by having seemed all too often in Les structures élémentaires de la parenté as if I were seeking to out an unconscious genesis of matrimonial exchange. I should have made more distinction between exchange as it is expressed spontaneously and forcefully in the praxis of groups and the conscious and deliberate rules by which these groups – or their philosophers – spend their time in codifying and controlling it.” The Savage Mind, p. 251.

[4] The Savage Mind, p. 254

[5] The Savage Mind, p. 117. See also p. 130: “It is to this theory of superstructures, scarcely touched on by Marx, that I hope to make a contribution. The development of the study of infrastructures proper is a task which must be left to history – with the aid of demography, technology, historical geography and ethnography. It is not principally the ethnologists concern, for ethnology is first of all psychology.”

[6] Rubin, p. 49

[7] This imbues EKS with a hint of the conservative circularity familiar to us from British Functionalism: reciprocity leads to social structure therefore social structures encourage reciprocity.

[8] The Savage Mind, p. 246, Rubin, p. 49.