Between Magic and Science: Structure, Event, and Mediation in Lévi-Strauss’s Aesthetics

This is a slight­ly revised ver­sion of a talk giv­en at the Carlisle Aes­thet­ics Club and Roller Der­by a cou­ple of years ago. 


Today I want to speak about Lévi-Strauss’s aes­thet­ics. Hope­ful­ly this top­ic will con­tribute to your ongo­ing dis­cus­sions about aes­thet­ics and, as I under­stand, its rela­tion to the polit­i­cal, or, if I may sug­gest the more broad hori­zon, the social. Address­ing this top­ic turns out to be a dif­fi­cult task since, in a cer­tain sense, a large seg­ment of Lévi-Strauss’s body of struc­tural­ist writ­ing — almost every­thing writ­ten after The Sav­age Mind (La Pen­sée Sauvage, 1962) — can be read as an aes­thet­ics. And here I mean “aes­thet­ics” in the more or less strict sense of that branch of phi­los­o­phy devot­ed, since Baum­garten (1735, 1750), to the sub­jects of art, taste, and beau­ty, as opposed to aes­thet­ics as the study of per­cp­tion itself, a mean­ing the word takes on in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry — and, inci­den­tal­ly, one more in line with the Greek root ais­the­sis, rough­ly “per­cep­tion.” It is not that Lévi-Strauss is not in tune with this lat­er devel­op­ment — indeed, the Sav­age Mind is ded­i­cat­ed to Mau­rice Mer­leau-Pon­ty, whose Pri­ma­cy of Per­cep­tion may be count­ed among the most impor­tant works in this twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry devel­op­ment, and pro­vides the exis­ten­tial­ist foil, along with Sartre, to Lévi-Strauss’s post-exis­ten­tial the­sis. It is rather that Lévi-Strauss, sur­pris­ing­ly for an anthro­pol­o­gist who cites Freud and Marx as major influ­ences, retains an inter­est in beau­ty, and is unwill­ing to relin­quish the hori­zon of human inquiry to the mere­ly polit­i­cal. As you may sur­mise from the brief extract I asked you to read (pages 22 to 30 from the eng­lish trans­la­tion) he is capa­ble of mak­ing aes­thet­ic judge­ments in the Kant­ian man­ner of being both sub­jec­tive and uni­ver­sal. Fol­low­ing a tra­di­tion the his­to­ri­an Antho­ny Grafton traces to Gib­bon, he choos­es to throw his most poi­so­nous darts of judge­ment with­in the foot­notes:

… non-rep­re­sen­ta­tionl paint­ing does not, as it thinks, cre­ate works which are as real as, if not more real than, the objects of the phys­i­cal world, but rather real­is­tic imi­ta­tions of non-exis­tent mod­els. It is a school of aca­d­e­m­ic paint­ing in which each artist strives to rep­re­sent the man­ner in which he would exe­cute his pic­tures if by chance he were to paint any. (29–30)

Beyond such remarks — which, it must be con­ced­ed, may have more to do with cre­den­tial-show­ing to a learned audi­ence than any sol­id proof of sub­scrip­tion to a tra­di­tion­al def­i­n­i­tion of aes­thet­ics — I cite the fol­low­ing evi­dence. First, cul­tur­al struc­tural­ism itself can be viewed as a par­tic­u­lar­ly vir­u­lent out­growth of the lin­guist Roman Jakobson’s sem­i­nal essay on poet­ics, mapped onto the domain of “prim­i­tive” myth and art. As such, struc­tural­ism is poet­ics and, to the extent that poet­ics is a species of aes­thet­ics, then struc­tural­ism is an aes­thet­ics. Sec­ond, Lévi-Strauss, the son of an accom­plished Parisian painter, who began his aca­d­e­m­ic career as a philoso­pher, whose first pub­lished essay was about Picas­so and cubism, and who hung out with André Bre­ton dut­ing their exile in New York in the 1940s, nev­er aban­doned the gen­er­al­ist and foun­da­tion­al­ist mis­sion of phi­los­o­phy. Third, and final­ly, the four vol­ume Mythologiques, the mag­num opus (begin­ning with The Ori­gin of Table Man­ners) for which The Sav­age Mind is but a pro­le­gomenon, has as its high­est explana­to­ry ref­er­ent not pow­er or desire or the blind hand of evo­lu­tion­ary selec­tion or even the struc­ture of the brain (research on which Lévi-Strauss was an enthu­si­as­tic fol­low­er), but in music, in what may be con­sid­ered the high­est aes­thet­ic mode of expres­sion pos­si­ble, giv­en its mages­te­r­i­al aloof­ness from both lan­guage and ref­er­ence, its qual­i­ty of being a self-ref­er­en­tial glass bead game, an autonomous per­fect world in which time is “over­come,” as he would put it. It is an anal­o­gy that marks Lévi-Strauss’s first sig­nif­i­cant pub­li­ca­tion on myth in the the 1950s, “The Struc­tur­al Study of Myth.” Under these con­di­tions, it is hard to imag­ine how his stud­ies of myth and art could be any­thing but an aes­thet­ics. Unlike many oth­er anthro­pol­o­gists, Lévi-Strauss was nev­er inter­est­ed in mere­ly an anthro­pol­o­gy or a soci­ol­o­gy of art.

The dif­fer­ence is impor­tant. Most anthro­pol­o­gists car­ry­ing out an “anthro­pol­o­gy of art” have no con­cern for beau­ty or aes­thet­ic respons­es beyond their role in a dynam­ics of pow­er. Here I include, on the one hand, Pierre Bour­dieu, who did field­work in Alge­ria before writ­ing Dis­tinc­tion and whose brand of post­struc­tural­ism can only be read as a response to Lévi-Strauss, and, on the oth­er, Alfred Gell, author of the influ­en­tial Art and Agency, for whom art objects are traps in an econ­o­my of atten­tion. For both, the “aes­thet­ic” is a West­ern, bour­geois con­struct with its own log­ic, keyed (pre­dictably) to the dynam­ics of class, and has no place in a com­par­a­tive study of what peo­ple around the world do with their churingas, songs, and sto­ries. Lévi-Strauss, then, by no mea­sure a mem­ber of the cul­tur­al right, would dis­agree with this posi­tion, or at least its hair-shirt­ed pop­ulism, its mus­cu­lar social­ism. For Lévi-Strauss, the cat­e­go­ry of the aes­thet­ic is both real and pro­found. It is worth our atten­tion, as I hope our read­ing for today will demon­strate.

Lévi-Strauss was aware of the scan­dal of falling into aes­theti­cism, and fre­quent­ly paus­es in his works to con­vince the read­er that, in fact, he real­ly is a mate­ri­al­ist and a nihilist, indeed an aca­d­e­m­ic anti-human­ist in line with the pre­dom­i­nant intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture of his time. For exam­ple:

The sense in which infra­struc­ture is pri­ma­ry is this: … man is like a play­er who … picks up cards at the table, … cards which he has not invent­ed, for the cardgame is a datum of his­to­ry and civilza­tion. (95)

and lat­er

I accept the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of aes­thete in so far as I believe the ulti­mate goal of the human sci­ences to be not con­sti­tute, but to dis­solve man. (247)


I began by point­ing out that the top­ic at hand is par­tic­u­lar­ly daunt­ing — if every­thing Lévi-Strauss wrote from Sav­age Mind onward is aes­thet­ics, clear­ly I’ve bit­ten off rather more than I can chew, espe­cial­ly for this occa­sion. How­ev­er, I am inspired to pur­sue this task by the fact that the pas­sage I’ve select­ed is one of the few in which the author focus­es specif­i­cal­ly on Euro­pean art and address­es direct­ly “the essen­tial prob­lem of the phi­los­o­phy of art” (29).

It is an odd pas­sage. His obser­va­tions appear to be tossed off as inci­den­tal remarks, sup­ple­men­tary to his the­sis at best, per­haps intend­ed to daz­zle the read­er with cul­ture as he dis­cuss­es the entire­ty of art — the West and the Rest — between stops on semi­otics and game the­o­ry in an intro­duc­tion to a text that is itself a pref­ace to lat­er works. How­ev­er, as a recent com­men­ta­tor of Lévi-Strauss and aes­thet­ics has writ­ten, the pas­sage is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the anthro­pol­o­gist — appar­ent­ly a digres­sion, but if not indis­pen­si­ble to the reader’s grasp of the ensu­ing argu­ment, then par­tic­u­lary illu­mi­nat­ing of it.

At this point I would like to pro­vide a brief sum­ma­ry of the argu­ment he makes about art — the spe­cif­ic con­tri­bu­tion to aes­thet­ics that he sug­gests — and then to con­clude with an obser­va­tion about what makes this con­tri­bu­tion so unique, from both a philo­soph­i­cal and an anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive.

To under­stand the argu­ment, it is help­ful to have some shared under­stand­ing of what we mean by aes­thet­ics. I find it help­ful to think of aes­thet­ics as a space of inquiry defined by three bound­ary ques­tions asso­ci­at­ed with taste, or more gen­er­al­ly, the verb “to like” some­thing.

The three ques­tions are:

(1) Why do we like what we like?

(2) What is it to like some­thing?


(3) Why do these issues arise par­tic­u­lar­ly in the con­text of rep­re­se­n­a­tion? In oth­er words, what do we like most of all?

Each of these ques­tions defines a dimen­sion large enough to sub­sume most of the dis­course asso­ci­at­ed with the sub­ject. The first con­cerns rea­sons and caus­es for the exer­cise of taste, and includes expla­na­tions from Kant’s phi­los­o­phy to Bourdieu’s soci­ol­o­gy. The sec­ond con­cerns the aes­thet­ic response itself, the major cat­e­gories of taste that appear in dis­cus­sions about it: Beau­ty (of course), but also the Sub­lime, the Grotesque, the Banal, the Uncan­ny, and so on. The last address­es the fact that in aes­thet­ics we are specif­i­cal­ly con­cerned with human-made arti­facts designed to evoke the aes­thet­ics respons­es in the sec­ond ques­tion.

Now, in spite of its brevi­ty, the pas­sage I’ve asked you to read con­tains answers, or at least the gen­uine seeds of answers, to each of these ques­tions. It con­tains a cloud of aes­thet­ics in a drop of struc­tural­ism.

Regard­ing the sec­ond ques­tion first, on the nature of what we can call the aes­thet­ic response, we can see that Lévi-Strauss refers througout the text to the emo­tion and “sense of plea­sure” that are the occa­sion for aes­thet­ics as a spe­cif­ic field of inquiry. In the very first para­graph, he asks us to

… look at this por­trait of a woman by Clou­et and con­sid­er the rea­son for the very pro­found aes­thet­ic emo­tion which is, appar­ent­ly inex­plic­a­bly, aroused by the high­ly real­is­tic, thread by thread, repro­duc­tion of a lace col­lar. (22)

And lat­er, he asserts:

In the case of minia­tures, in con­trast to what hap­pens when we try to under­stand an object or liv­ing crea­ture of real dimen­sions, knowl­edge of the whole pre­cedes knowl­edge of the parts. And even if this is an illu­sion, the point of the pro­ce­dure is to cre­ate or sus­tain the illu­sion, which grat­i­fies the intel­li­gence and gives rise to a sense of plea­sure which can already be called aes­thet­ic on these grounds alone. (23–24)

These announce­ments are of course made in the con­text of answer­ing the first ques­tion, which is the focal ques­tion of the piece. (In fact he has very lit­tle to say about the nature of the response itself — he takes its exis­tence as axiomat­ic, and he clear­ly refers to a form of plea­sure asso­ci­at­ed with the sense of beau­ty.) In response to the pri­ma­ry ques­tion, Lévi-Strauss’s answer, of course, is that the aes­thet­ic response is caused by the inte­gra­tion of con­tin­gency into struc­ture in the aes­thet­ic object.

The argu­ment goes some­thing like this. All art achieves its effects through the dual oper­a­tions of minia­tur­iza­tion and the encom­pass­ment of con­tin­gency with­in the space pro­vid­ed by this process.

By minia­tur­iza­tion, Lévi-Strauss refers to what today, from the per­spec­tive of cog­ni­tive (and com­put­er) sci­ence, would be called the map­ping of fea­tures from one domain onto anoth­er. The oper­a­tion is sim­i­lar to, but more than, what we would nor­mal­ly under­stand by the process of abstrac­tion, where salient ele­ments are select­ed from the com­plex con­crete­ness of the object and re-pre­sent­ed in anoth­er space, the medi­um of the aes­thet­ic vehi­cle. Of course, what counts as salient is the essen­tial con­tri­bu­tion of the artist in cre­at­ing the work of art, the asser­tion of the real that object express­es.

The process of encom­pass­ing con­tin­gency is more dif­fi­cult to explain. Lévi-Strauss begins by describ­ing the way in which Clouet’s paint­ing con­tains a clear ele­ment of neces­si­ty in the depic­tion of the lace col­lar — to do so requires some­thing like a sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of both the tech­nol­o­gy of lace pro­duc­tion and the physics of light and col­or — com­bined with a series of con­tin­gen­cies that pro­duce what Ben­jamin would call the aura of the work (and which, of course, would be under­mined by its repro­duc­tion). The con­tin­gen­cies include the par­tic­u­lar play of light at the time of day when the paint­ing was exe­cut­ed, the par­tic­u­lar expres­sion of the sub­ject, and so on.

Now, accord­ing to Lévi-Strauss, the paint­ing achieves its effects not mere­ly by com­bin­ing what can be called, using Aristotle’s cat­e­gories, neces­si­ty and acci­dent, but by the encom­pass­ment of acci­dent by neces­si­ty, or at least the illu­sion of pro­duc­ing this effect. Art pro­duces a medi­a­tion, an over­com­ing, even if it is trag­i­cal­ly fat­ed to be repeat­ed, Sisy­phus-like. To use the lan­guage of Mar­shall Sahlins, the post­struc­tural­ist Amer­i­can cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist, art pro­duces a sec­ond-order struc­ture from the syn­the­sis of struc­ture and event, the “struc­ture of the con­junc­ture” which he sees as the key to under­stand­ing cul­tur­al log­ic itself, and the rela­tion­ship between cul­ture and his­to­ry.

Regard­less of the ade­qua­cy of this expla­na­tion to achieve the goals its author so blithe­ly pre­sup­pos­es — note that it is pre­sent­ed as an exhaus­tive the­o­ry of art, cov­er­ing ever­thing from the prim­i­tive to the indus­tri­al — it does pro­vide an inter­est­ing approach to answer­ing to the third ques­tion of aes­thet­ics, con­cern­ing the rea­son the aes­thet­ic response appears to arise main­ly in the con­text of human works of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and it also helps to under­stand why this ques­tion is so impor­tant in the first place. (I leave to one side the case of late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry to present Amer­i­can nature wor­ship, begin­ning with the Tran­scen­den­tal­ists, in which a sup­pos­ed­ly unmedi­at­ed nature is regard­ed as art, in fact, art at its most authen­tic.) The answer may be giv­en as fol­lows: if the aes­thet­ic response is caused by a medi­a­tion of struc­ture and con­tin­gency, and if struc­ture is always already rep­re­sent­ed, being, by def­i­n­i­tion, of the order to cul­ture, then it fol­lows that the aes­thet­ic response must nec­es­sar­i­ly be a response to a rep­re­sen­ta­tion. For one does not find in nature minia­tur­iza­tions, mod­els pro­duced from the top down, as it were, as the evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist has argued ad nau­se­um. Nature repli­cates itself, and it pro­duces organ­is­mic struc­tures by means of emer­gence, but it does not and can­not design.

Ref­er­ence to a dis­tinc­tion between nature and cul­ture expressed in these terms, as an oppo­si­tion between acci­den­tal emer­gence and inten­tion­al design sug­gests that the solu­tion to the third que­si­ton is no mere log­i­cal con­se­quence. For, giv­en the rela­tio­ship between struc­ture and con­tin­gency in the work of art, broady con­ceived, it seems pos­si­ble to argue that the work of art is pre­cise­ly about the lim­its of design and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. This is so because the nature of that which is rep­re­sent­ed in the work of art, by this under­stand­ing, is no thing, no empir­i­cal object that can be described by oth­er means, but rather a side effect of the work of rep­re­sen­ta­tion itself, a con­se­quence of consciousness’s own con­scious­ness of the effects of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Art, from this per­spec­tive, is rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the lim­its of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, a map­ping of struc­ture onto a medi­um com­bined with a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the process of map­ping itself — a map­ping which occurs at var­i­ous stages in the life cycle of the object — from cre­ation, to exe­cu­tion, to use.

This idea, of art being about rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the lim­its of rep­re­se­n­a­tion, helps explain the point I made ear­li­er, that Lévi-Strauss does not present here an anthro­pol­o­gy of art per se, but rather a bona fide aes­thet­ics. This is so not sim­ply because he takes seri­ous­ly the aes­thet­ic response, but because the form of the argu­ment itself — the tem­plate of causal­i­ty implied — is rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from what we would expect from a nat­u­ral­ist expla­na­tion of art. We are all famil­iar with expla­na­tions that take the form of “We like X because our pale­oth­ic ances­tors used to do Y.” The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with such expla­na­tions is that they each assume that the aes­thet­ic response is mere­ly a response to an image (say) that harks back to a pro­to­type to be found in our species’ evo­lu­tion­ary past, just as rab­bits will hide on see­ing the shape of a cross raised above their heads, an adap­tive response to the threat of birds of prey. Implic­it in such expla­na­tions — always using more or less the same com­bi­na­tion of nar­ra­tive ele­ments drawn from neur­al and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy — is that the aes­thet­ic response is, in fact, a response in the strict behav­ior­ist sense — a con­di­tioned response to a stim­u­lus, some­how deposit­ed in our genet­ic code and keyed to cer­tain cat­e­gories of stim­uli. But if this were true, then art would be high­ly pre­dictable and its forms would not con­stant­ly change from peri­od and place as we know it does. Lévi-Strauss’s argu­ment is quite dif­fer­ent: the aes­thet­ic response is not a response at all, but a state of con­scious­ness that emerges from the dynam­ics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and response at a pri­or cog­ni­tive lev­el. It is a side of effect of mam­malian cog­ni­tion bur­dened with lan­guage, an unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of what­ev­er evo­lu­tion­ary traits we acquired for sur­vival which, by that very fact, tran­scends mere sur­vival.

If Lévi-Strauss gives us an aes­thet­ics, then what sort of aes­thet­ics is it? The late philoso­pher Paul Ricouer once crit­i­cized Lévi-Strauss’s struc­tural­ism as being “Kan­tian­ism with­out a tran­scen­den­tal sub­ject.” Lévi-Strauss glad­ly accept­ed the appar­ent oxy­moron, just as he famous­ly pro­duced, in antic­i­pa­tion of Saul Krip­ke, the notion of a pos­te­ri­ori ana­lyt­ic judg­ments as a fur­ther trans­for­ma­tion of Kant’s counter-intu­itive con­cept of a pri­ori syn­the­sis. I think we can see that Lévi-Strauss’s the­o­ry is Kant­ian, that it is con­sis­tent with Kant’s para­dox­i­cal for­mu­la­tion that a gen­uine­ly aes­thet­ic judge­ment is both sub­jec­tive and uni­ver­sal. But it escapes some of the polit­i­cal con­cerns usu­al­ly tar­get­ed at Kant by its sub­sti­tu­tion of mind for self, and by locat­ing mind with­in an assem­blage of com­mu­nica­tive prac­tices that could nev­er be mis­tak­en for the what Gilbert Ryle called the “secret grot­to” the­o­ry of self. For Lévi-Strauss’s mind is Durkheim’s, a mind whose cat­e­gories sub­sist at the lev­el of col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions and are as free from the charge as nar­cis­sism as lan­guage itself.

Let me con­clude by say­ing that if Lévi-Strauss’s aes­thet­ics appears to derive from too sim­ple for­mu­la — after all, it can be expressed in short sen­tence — it is impor­tant to real­ize that by locat­ing the fun­da­men­tal medi­a­tion between struc­ture and event with­in the the work of art, Lévi-Strauss assigns to aes­thet­ics the most sig­nif­i­cant func­tion pos­si­ble with­in the frame­work of struc­tural­ist the­o­ry. For struc­tural­ism, as a phi­los­o­phy, is a species of trag­ic sto­icism that char­ac­ter­izes the human con­di­tion as an eter­nal, unclos­able con­tra­dic­tion between the struc­tures pro­duced by the human mind as it adapts to its envi­ron­ments, and the events thrown at it by his­to­ry, the one always com­ing up short in the face of the oth­er.

* * *
R. C. Alvara­do
27 March 2010
Carlisle, PA

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