“We must jump off Lévi-Strauss’s bus one stop before he does.“
Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider, p. 149.
It is hard to overestimate the infliuence of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French philosopher turned anthropologist who liked to be known as a craftsman, on the discourse of the humanities and social sciences in the second half of the twentieth century. Operating among a surplus of great thinkers (especially in France) during a period of the devaluation of the role of intellectual, his name nevertheless stands out not simply for having founded one of the most important intellectual movements of the century — structuralism — but for having defined the agenda, along with Wittgenstein, for a host of major thinkers up to the present time. Without Levi-Strauss, there is no Foucault, no Derrida, no Bourdieu, no Lyotard to both absorb and react to the idea of structure and the great anthropological tradition which served to flesh out the idea. For without Levi-Strauss, the vast storehouse of descriptive ethnography that he discovered and fully absorbed in America, in the New York Public Library, while in exile during the war, would never have reached Paris. The significance of these materials — many of them dry catalogs of cultural traits interspersed with tentative observations about the nature of culture — would never have caught the attention of the European eye. And without his role as cultural vector between American empirical ethnography and French philosophical anthropology, the deep well of ethnography in general might never have informed the imagination of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. Evidence for the influence of this source can be found everywhere, both implicitly, as in Foucault’s appropriation of the idea of mana to theorize power, and explicitly, as in Lyotard’s strong reference to Lévi-Strauss and the ethnographic example of the Cashinahua in the Postmodern Condition. Surprised by his fame and notoriously absent from the activism of the 1960s, Lévi-Strauss was the unmoved mover for an entire system of thinkers whose lights shone the brighter for their proximity to him.
Today the bus has stopped. For those of us who have followed Doniger’s advice — and you have to — perhaps now we may consider getting back on for a few more stops.