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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.

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ankh156 From: ankh156 Date: February 7th, 2009 09:17 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

I liked Leach too.

I had terrible problems with Levi-Strauss too. He was a student of Durkheim, and was badly infected with a kind of vainglorious hunger for the All-Ecompassing-Theory-Of-Human-Life-And-Culture-Bug, and when you add that to his distaste for field-work he starts to look like some kind of shadowy shaman, producing prestadigitational illusions from a great cloud of intellectual mumbo-jumbo. I suspect he was little more that a cargo-cult haunting the corridors and seminaries of the Sorbonne (and the dreams of french students).

I got right into the relativity/rationality issue and ended up in the 'later Wittgenstein' position (via Peter Winch) which is somewhat relativist, and that fact never caused me too much trouble, as I think science's claims of 'objectivity' and 'universalism' are a case of arrogant enthnocentricism and self-delusion. All human culture exists only in reaction to the human mind, a ghostly phenomenon cluttered with the conceptual bric-à-brac of learned concepts and limiting conditions. Wittgenstein's later project was Kantian and rather anthropological in tenor, and based on a kind of participant observation of the human animal 'trying to understand things' - usefully combining epistemology and the 'sociology of knowledge', game-based, tacit rule based, and far from the overweening pretensions of the fuctionalists and structuralists.

(Incidentally, Wittgenstein's earlier project was Kantian too, but it sought to elucidate 'fixed rules' for logical analysis, which he subsequently thought too blinkered and ambitious. You can hear his doubts about it in the closing pages of the Tractatus, where he wonders about the logical status of statements containing 'the rules'.)

Sorry if this is a bit garbled. I'm just waking up.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 7th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: I liked Leach too.

That's not bad for just waking up! Thanks so much for responding at length. It really gets my juices, recently roused from slumber, in the direction of a meaningful end.

I am definitely inclined more to the late Wittgenstein position than any other in the philosophical canon. I hadn't conceived of it the way you do here as, "a kind of participant observation of the human animal 'trying to understand things'," though, which is a formulation that works perfectly for the purpose to which I want to put him.

Lévi-Strauss has the problems you articulate here, certainly. The reason I still regard him as useful, though, is that A) I think The Savage Mind is an excellent polemic against the dismissive discussion of "primitive" societies found in Lévy-Bruhl et. al.; B) I find his discussions of kinship and classification rather like the late Wittgenstein in some ways; and C) I am partially able to bracket the lack of grounding in his anthropological examples, which betray his insufficient field work, because I concentrate on the abstract terms of his argument, obviously developed in the intellectual context he inhabited, rather than particular cases.

I'm still working that last point out, aware that it is a risky one to make, but also fairly certain that it's valid for the work I wish to deploy him, which consists of reflecting on ethnographies of the ethnographer's own society.
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