February 6th, 2009

Out of the Frying Pan. . .

Students at the University of Strathclyde have apparently won a major victory for the Palestinian cause. In the comments posted in response to this news, one person advocated taking the struggle to a higher level:
These students did not go far enough. They must occupy all the Scottish hospitals and get rid of all the Israeli medical equipment there, especially the CAT scanners. Millions of pounds are paid for this equipment each year profiting the pockets of the Israeli oppressors. Let’s only buy medical equipment from China or Russia.
Yes, what better way to advance the cause of human rights than to boycott Israeli technology and buy exclusively Chinese and Russian instead.

Time and Relativism

My preference, when given the choice, is almost always to read primary sources rather than commentary on them. I would rather develop a take on something by myself, without overt guidance, than let someone else, however smart, influence my opinions unduly. That said, some of the most productive reading that I've ever done came when I was an undergraduate just beginning to tackle cultural theory and used texts like Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction, Terence Hawkes's Structuralism and Semiotics and, above all else, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory to get my bearings. I distinctly remember reading the first chapter of that last title while being operated on. The book opened up so many intellectual doors for me that I completely forgot that I was in the middle of a mildly invasive procedure.

Anyway, I mention my resistance to reading secondary sources because I profited greatly this afternoon from reading one. Edward Leach's 1970 book Claude Lévi-Strauss -- I have the University of Chicago Press's 1989 edition -- one of the best introduction-to-a-difficult-thinker texts that I've encountered. A distinguished anthropologist in his own right, Leach demonstrates that the best way to explain something is to critique it. Rather than simply trying to paraphrase Lévi-Strauss's arguments in a condensed form, he makes it clear when he disagrees with them and why. Although I think that Leach is at times a little too uncharitable in assessing his French counterpart, faulting him on specifics when he is self-consciously dealing with generalities, I have benefited greatly from being shown how to find fault with prose that exudes great authority. As Leach himself writes at the end of the book's most critical chapter, discussing Lévi-Strauss's work on kinship, "it is all so elegantly done that even the most skeptical professional may find some difficulty in detecting the precise point at which the argument runs off at a tangent (124)."

The same could be said for many of Leach's points, which counter Lévi-Strauss's Continental intricacy and scope with the clarity and precision characteristic of the best Anglo-American thinking of the period before grand theory -- "with a capital T," as I like to say -- began to make substantial inroads in Britain and the United States. Like other figures in that tradition, Leach manages to make sweeping generalizations that seem modestly specific. Take this account of Lévi-Strauss's relationship to Existentialism and Hermeneutics:
For the phenomenologists and the existentialists, history provides the myth which justifies the present, but the present is also a necessary culmination of where history has brought us to. The structuralist position is much less egocentric: history offers us images of past societies which were structural transformations of those we now know, neither better nor worse. We, in our vantage point of the present, are not in a privileged position of superiority.
I find this précis illuminating, because it aids me in understanding how the fear of structuralism, to which the famous 1966 conference The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man at Johns Hopkins University was responding, is part of a more general anxiety about relativism.

Having come to theory during a period in which the emphasis was on distinguishing structuralism from post-structuralism, I have tended to identify relativism with the latter, as typified both in the rehabilitation of Nietzsche as an acceptable philosophical influence and the critique of what might, with a furrowed-brow nod to Jacques Derrida, be called "centrism." But as post-structuralism joins structuralism in a past that feels cut off from the present, the continuities between these two awkwardly designated movements are beginning to stand out more than the ways in which they differ. The confusion I experienced when first encountering the book derived from the Johns Hopkins conference is now resolving into clarity. This isn't the first time that I've had an epiphany reading "dated" criticism, which often proves as insightful to me as the latest research, but the force of the realization is particularly strong this time around. If you're interested in Lévi-Strauss, structuralism or the foundations of contemporary cultural theory, Leach's book is definitely worth a look.