How the work of Levi-Strauss informs us of the relation between nature and culture
If I may be permitted, I would like to begin with a footnote, as it were, but one which I consider to be fairly important. Should one play a game of associations and mention the name Levi-Strauss, the association which most people may call to mind is that of 'binary oppositions'. Much has been made of these (and whether they are logical or not), but I would cautiously advance that the centre of Levi-Strauss's argument lies less on them than it does on their integration. Thus he attempts to straddle the oppositions of nature and culture (ultimately man-made constructs) with man himself, as the mediator. The method by which he informs us of this relationship leads not only forward into culture, but ultimately back into nature (as a totality) again.1
The problem in understanding him lies perhaps with his method of argument which appears to jump from one idea to another by means of associations, and by trying to pressurise the facts to fit the theory, or leave out those that do not fit. Meanings of words often change, or are not made clear (of which he is aware, viz, in The Raw & the Cooked, p.28: "loose senses in which I have employed terms such as 'symmetry', 'inversion'", etc) and, worse, concepts which determine the very substance of the argument are not questioned.
There are two aspects to this question, one, how Levi-Strauss informs us and, two, what he informs us of concerning the relationship between nature and culture. There appear to be two themes that he is concerned with: that the basis of social organisation is found in the exchange of women, arising out of the principle of exogamy (exchange of women gives rise to kinship systems which give rise to larger structures, with exchange of goods and services, etc, extending out of these) with an underlying structural pattern which determines the permutations and combinations of every type of exchange.2 The second theme is that man, in order to introduce some order into his life, classifies the empirical world in a way that reflects these underlying structures in his mind.3 The two are connected in that societies are "incarnated mental activities made concrete by their appearing in a certain space and time."4 Further these unconscious structures are of a binary nature.5 The position of nature and culture within these themes was initially one of a methodological device,6 but gradually the relationship between the two assumed a more definitive importance for Levi-Strauss.
The subjects of incest prohibition and totemism are chosen for what might temptingly be called vehicles for his more central concerns. Both were problems in anthropological analysis which had yet to be 'solved'—the assumption being that there was something to be solved.7 As he says— "contemporary sociology has often preferred to confess itself powerless than to persist in a closed issue" (of incest prohibition)8 and, with respect to totemism, said in connection here with Bergson, "an anthropological problem still unsolved by professional anthropologists".9 While they were frequently seen as vestiges of customs which no doubt once had some function, ie, were habits, for Levi-Strauss (pre-determined by his interpretation) their vitality was still extant.
Briefly the theme of the beginning of Elementary Structures of Kinship, wherein incest prohibition appears, is this:
Society as we know it would not be if the family was endogamous (marrying in). For its natural tendency, according to Levi-Strauss, was towards maintaining a monopoly over its women (men were naturally polygamous, an assumption made by comparison with what he saw as the polygamy of the apes, which existed in the natural world). Through this endogamy, some families, through scarcity of women, would no doubt die out and communication with subsequent alliances and the superstructure of economics, etc, between families and thereafter groups would not take place. Survival of the group, with exchange through a method that ensured a large network (eg, AB, BC, CD, and DA) was thus dependent on some means of ensuring that families were exogamous, that they marry out. The mechanism by which exogamy was (and is) maintained is that of the prohibition of incest. Levi-Strauss's argument is, in fact, written in inverse order, but the above account tries to explain why prohibition of incest assumes such an important place in the book. He begins with a somewhat speculative description of the difference between nature and culture and the place of the prohibition of incest in relation to the two.
The problem lies in distinguishing nature from culture, since there is no means of actually experimentally abstracting someone from culture (when does culture begin?) to determine what reactions are biological, thus natural, and which are social, or cultural. Levi-Strauss's method is to compare the society of man with the behaviour of some animal species (those that are deemed closest in pedigree to man, that of the apes). Animal life, it appears, is characterised by the lack of regular patterns and its sexual life is not specific, eg, polyandry, monogamy, and so on is committed without rhyme nor reason. Thus the criteria that seems most obvious for distinguishing culture from nature is that of rules:absence of rules. Once distinguishing the two with a positive term for culture he tries to find a positive criterion for nature - that of universality, for culture is recognisable by its variety and distinctions. By association Levi-Strauss also classes nature as spontaneous (without prior thought and organisation) and that culture is relative and particular.
It is not surprising that the next step is to reveal in the prohibition of incest the two characteristics of rule and universality - since he maintains some form of incest prohibition, certainly that including members of the immediate genetic nuclear family, is found everywhere in the world. Unfortunately the attempt to describe the prohibition as a bridge between nature and culture, as belonging to nature and yet being a general condition of culture as he puts it, finds itself in descriptive difficulties: it is alternatively "on the threshold of culture", "in culture", or "culture itself". It operates with the sexual instinct in man which is a part of nature, but is the beginning of social life ("only instinct requiring regulation of another person"), but which is individualistic and outside the group until regulated by the prohibition (the "overflow of culture into nature"). Thus the two seem to mark not a union but a "transformation" or "transition". The prohibition marks the dividing line between man as an animal and man as a social or cultural being. Thus nature and culture are seen as in opposition, with culture as the group and organisation opposed to nature as individual and disorder. They find their integration through man's sexuality, without which there would, of course, be no propagation of the species.
There are a number of problems here, the first of them directed at the prohibition itself. Levi-Strauss appears to have confused rules of exogamy with the reason why incest is banned in the family,10 and he has assumed that the prohibition exists as just that (are people aware of it as such? is it not an anthropological construct to explain the 'negative' side of preferred — not prescriptive necessarily — marriages?).11 Secondly, the use of such man-directed terms as monogamy with respect to animals may be somewhat misleading, as is the application of 'universality' to nature. For within nature — which is that which is seen by man to be outside him and appears to have a permanence which he does not have — there is surely as much variety as in what we see as culture.
Since Levi-Strauss, at this stage, stresses they are devices, it would perhaps be fairer to direct criticisms at the consistency of the nature/culture construct. One major problem is his definition of the term 'rule' — or perhaps one should say his lack of definition. As this appears to be the distinction between the two — upon rule are built up such associations of organisation, collectivity and order — it is important.
The rule it seems is first a norm, and then a command, as well as a concept to denote the establishment of order (in both senses of the word), although these distinctions are not clear cut. Levi-Strauss's confusion appears to stem from trying to create a false distinction between nature and culture while trying to explain a dialectic between the two. He does not clarify when he speaks of norms (eg, "norms and universality")12 whether these are average — as seen by the anthropologist — norms or ideal norms, how the people see they should behave. This cultural rule transfers the natural fact to a social fact with the institution of a system of exogamy (co-terminous with incest prohibition for Levi-Strauss) which, following his argument, presumes an apriori notion of the benefits for the group — which, remember, does not as yet exist — although it intervenes by imposing the rule to create its own existence! Here Levi-Strauss stresses culture as content and nature as form, though the logic of this is not quite clear since could we not say that rules are forms with different contents? At other points he appears to be talking of the rule as order (ie, making sense), eg, "the attitude of the child... whose every problem is ruled by clear distinctions".13
The problem of culture as a rule is clarified when we get to Totemism, and the relations between nature and culture undergo a radical change, with nature providing content and form, as well as order. Man as a thinking animal now assumes the centre of the stage, as the bridge between the two concepts.
For Levi-Strauss (as for others as far back as Tylor at the end of the last century) the essential difference between men and the other animal species was his speech and the ability to order the world through his conceptualisation of it. His definition of culture as a totality of symbolic systems14 is tempered with the recognition of it being given as external norms before giving rise to internal sentiments.15 Language for Levi-Strauss is important in that it is a condition of culture (we learn about our culture through it) "because the material out of which language is built is of the same type as the material out of which the whole culture is built: logical relations, oppositions, correlations, the like. Language... may appear as laying a kind of foundation for the more complex structures which correspond to the different aspects of culture".16 The locus of culture is thus in the mind, and it is upon this that he concentrates. Unconscious rules, like those governing language, determine the way we conceive of the world and the same rules, since they govern the way we behave (through our conceptualisations) are found in the kinship system, social organisation and social stratification.17 Thus the mind which establishes order on the world in a particular way, has its own order superimposed back on it.18
Since the mind is presumed to be universally similar, cultural variations are merely permutations and combinations of the underlying structures, and are seen to be transformations at a 'higher level' of these principles - their differences occasioned by history, environment, etc.
It is with the nature of this conceptualisation and ordering of the world, at the initial stage, that Levi-Strauss is concerned with in Totemism. And it is here that he tries to show how there is a fundamental scheme beneath that of the relations between culture and nature, that of two parallel serial orders.
"Totemism is like hysteria," are the first words to the introduction of Totemism, "in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation."19 Thus the characteristics of totemism which were relevant for one society (as detailed by anthropologists) were not necessarily so for another, eg, organisation into clans and the attribution of animals and plants to the clans as names or emblems. At most, says Levi-Strauss, totemism was a "contingent arrangement of non-specific elements".20 He rejects the 'subjective utility' interpretation by Malinowski that totemic species were those which were useful and edible, as he does the 'objective analogy' of Fortes and Firth that the animals chosen were chosen because of their similarity to, in this case, ancestors.21 He also rejects the 'external analogy' of Evans-Pritchard where, for the Nuer, the animal world was thought of in terms of the social world and the relation of people to animals is at a metaphorical level.
It is the study of totemism by Radcliffe-Brown that provides the entré, as it were, for Levi-Strauss's own interpretation of totemism. For Radcliffe-Brown "the resemblances and differences of the animal species are translated into terms of friendship and conflict, solidarity and opposition ... the world of animal life is represented in terms of social relations similar to those of human society".22 Using myths to determine what the people in a society think of their totems Radcliffe-Brown finds that the animal characters are given human characteristics and react in a human manner. What Levi-Strauss finds important in Radcliffe-Brown's interpretation is that instead of asking why is such and such a class of animal chosen, he asks why those two animals are chosen and interprets the myth in the light of ethnographic data concerning the society and environment of the people concerned. For Levi-Strauss this is an integration of content (which birds? for example) with form (birds) and enables a real analysis of why social groups distinguish each other by associating with a particular totem (eg, crow and eaglehawk are hunters and are associated with particular moieties, why?) The differences between the two totems becomes of prime importance. However, for Levi-Strauss the choice of particular animals lies not so much in their sentimental value as in their intellectual use: they are chosen because they are "good to think";23 totemic systems show the relationship between two serial orders, the social and the natural.
It is from Bergson, a late 19th century philosopher, that Levi-Strauss takes the concepts of class and opposition that he uses for his thesis of classification of the animal world as a means for man to classify his own. According to Bergson,24 since we are the same species (human) we distinguish each other through individuality, but see other species (the animals in nature) as classes. By reaffering their classes back to us we thus distinguish between ourselves. But it is the differences that we impose and thereafter perceive in the natural world that provide the analogies with which we order our own society. That it is the differences in relationships is an important point, for if the groups (clans, etc) saw themselves as similar to their particular totem, rather than it being the relationship between groups that resembled the relationship between the natural totems, the groups would subsequently come to identify themselves with the different species and this would accentuate diversity rather than confirm the social groups as part of the same whole. It may also prevent exogamy and exchange of women — since species are endogamous.25
The beliefs and customs of totemisms were just one kind of classificatory system which enabled "the natural and social universe to be grasped as an organisational whole".26 Thus the necessity, while animals were classed as opposites, for them to have a common characteristic so they could be compared with 'the human condition' and thus serve integration.27 For example, although the bat and treecreeper were classed in terms of the oppositions of masculine:feminine, nocturnal:diurnal, they both had their common point in being carnivorous. So too the clans using such totems — in this case, the treecreeper was a feminine totem — would have a common point of reference indicating that they, the clans, were one species. In the same way, men's conception of the relation between nature and culture could be said to be "a function of modifications of their own social relations", since the classifications were diachronic as well as synchronic.28
Thus nature, which is given meaning by man (here echoing Tylor's 1871 adage of "... if the law is anywhere, it is everywhere" with, if meaning "is not everywhere it is nowhere")29 is used in the creation of culture (myths, religions, etc), and nature — as 'the other' — is itself a creation of culture.
Peter Worsley criticises Levi-Strauss's analysis of totemism by pointing out that what he says only applies to animal totems, and that besides invention within a society totems are adopted from outside and through various other means. According to him, the assumption that there is always a fit between classificatory systems and the framework of social order is not always the case: "there is no overall order, only areas of consistency inconsistently linked together,"30 as in the case of marriage, reality does not always follow the rules. Again, as with incest prohibition it seems that Levi-Strauss gives the rules the status of law without accounting for the fact that what we construct as rules is through perception of 'norms', in the case of behaviour.31 One wonders too what Levi-Strauss would make of the Hopi, who saw their thought as part of nature (Whorf). He appears to ignore this aspect of this people.
In Totemism and The Savage Mind several passages give us the clue for the direction in which the concepts of nature and culture and their relationship develop in the work of Levi-Strauss.
According to Bergson, the ability to symbolise determines behaviour just as instinct does and is supplied the same way by nature.32 Levi-Strauss discards this approach as too close to metaphysical notions, but accepts the philosopher's attempt to apprehend as a whole the perception man has of discontinuity (creation) out of continuity - and which for him have associations of nature and culture. In praising the logic of association (which is that 'savage' man uses as opposed to the Aristotelian logic of Western man — both have the same roots, the human mind) Levi-Strauss mentions its "direct expression of the structure of the mind (and behind the mind, probably, of the brain)".33 It is in the preface to the second edition of Elementary Structures of Kinship that he formally rejects the implicit dualism in his statements concerning culture and nature; that culture may well be "a synthetic duplication of mechanisms in the adult world which actually has its roots in nature... a duplication, moreover, permitted by the emergence of certain cerebral structures in the brain."34 Thus culture is no longer "hierarchically superimposed" on nature but becomes reintegrated in it. In this way he calls for new cultural studies — ie, studies of man — which do not place him on a pedestal, apart from nature, and in Rousseau-like manner calls for a re-absorption of Man into Humanity.35 In one way Levi-Strauss echoes the work of the 16th century German metaphysician, Jakob Boehme, who saw knowledge as enlightenment of what existed in nature while nature, the visible world, was
"a manifestation of the inner world of (the oppositions) of light and darkness";
that nature and man were literally as well as symbolically good and evil. Both the moral as well as the natural universe were the same.36 As Levi-Strauss comments in Structuralism and Ecology :
"When the mind processes the empirical data which it receives previously processed by the sense organs it goes on working structurally on what at the outset was already structural. And it can only do so in as much as the mind, the body to which the mind belongs and the things which body and mind perceive, are part and parcel of one and the same reality."37
Thus were have journeyed diachronically, as it were, from the concept of nature and culture as dialectical oppositions, through them both as serial orders the one given meaning by man to establish the other, to their re-integration. One feels though that Levi-Strauss has somewhere missed the point. After initially being so concerned to use the two concepts as tools he had forgotten that they are, in a sense, both illusions.38
1 Inverted commas should perhaps be put round such words as 'back' and 'forward'. Our language appears incapable of really describing abstract notions without recourse to physical analogy. Just as in trying to describe the unity of something we use such metaphors as 'in', 'into', Superstructure', 'dialectic', etc. We seem too used to describing things by their parts and in an analytic rather than synthetic manner. Or maybe the difficulty exists because that which we are trying to describe does not exist! (eg, like the metaphysicians attempting to describe God, as vortexes, etc).
2 Levi-Strauss C. (1949, trs Eng 1969) The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Eyre and Spottiswood.
Levi-Strauss C. (1951) 'Language and analysis of social laws' in Structural Anthropology I (1963, rep 1979) Penguin; p.60.
3 Levi-Strauss, C. (1962, trs. 1966) The Savage Mind, Weidenfeld and Nicholson; p.9-10.
4 Levi-Strauss, (1951), op cit): 65.
5 Jenkins, A. (1979) The social theory of Claude Levi-Strauss, Macmillan.
Jenkins states that Levi-Strauss takes linguistics theory lock, stock and barrel as evidence for the nature of the unconscious. Levi-Strauss justifies the use of investigating culture with the methods of linguistics because of the latter's root in the unconscious and thus the structure of language will be the structure of other aspects of culture. The theories that Levi-Strauss used were those of the Prague school of Jakobsen, which, according to Jenkins, do not have universal acceptance within linguistic theory. For Jakobsen "The phonetic systems of all languages can in principle be described by means of a dozen 'distinctive features' all of them binary" ie, a phoneme can be distinguished through being compact/diffused, nasal/oral, etc. According to Malmberg, 1963, the picking of such distinctions is arbitrary, (Jenkins pp.17-19, 12).
6 Elementary Structures... (ESK), p.3.
7 I assume he chose them out of sheer pig-headedness as well!
8 ESK, p.23.
9 Levi-Strauss C (1962, trs 1963, rep 1973) Totemism, Penguin; p.168.
Van Gennep had written in 1919 (ib:72) that "totemism has already taxed the wisdom and the ingenuity of many scholars and there are reasons to believe that it will continue to do so for many years".
10 Robin Fox (1967, rep 1981) Kinship and marriage, Penguin; p.54, points out that "many theories which purport to explain the outlawing of sex from the family are really explanations of why marriage between family members is not allowed".
11 'Incest' among the Kachin in Burma with a mother is classified as adultery since she is not regarded as the creator of her child and intercourse is seen as an interference with father's rights. (Fox ib:119).
12 ESK, p.8.
13 ESK, p.8.
14 Levi-Strauss, C (1950) from introduction to the works of M Mauss, in Jenkins, op cit:9.
Culture is "a totality of symbolic systems, the most important of which are language, rules of alliance, economic relations, art, science and religion. All the systems seek to express certain aspects of physical reality and of social reality and between the symbolic systems themselves".
15 Totemism, p.141. "Each man feels as a function of the way in which he is permitted or obligated to act. Customs are given as external norms before giving rise to internal sentiments."
Levi-Strauss does not appear to adopt the extreme positions of Kroeber on the one hand, that culture is given and that man is simply an agent through which it acts. Nor of Sapir, in that behaviour is symbolic.
16 Levi-Strauss, C (1953) 'Linguistics and Anthropology' in Structural Anthropology I , op cit: 68-9.
17 Levi-Strauss C (1952) 'Social Structure' in ib:312.
18 It is the 'unconscious teleology' of mind which explains "how social phenomena may present the characters of meaningful wholes and of structuralised ensembles". Thus social phenomena are like things but "can be treated as ideas to be rethought in their logical order". Levi Strauss 'French Sociology' in 20th century sociology, ed. G. Gurvitch and W. Moore. Quoted in Rossi, I (1974) 'Intellectual antecedents of Levi-Strauss's notion of the unconscious' in I Rossi, ed. The Unconscious in Culture, Dutton, New York; p.23.
19 Totemism , p.69.
21 The ancestors of the Tallensi are symbolised by animals because relations with the ancestors are a struggle; they are unpredictable and aggressive just as animals are. Animals also represent vitality and immortality, and in this way resemble the ancestors. (ib: 146-147).
22 ib: 160.
23 ib: 162.
24 ib: 166-167.
25 The Savage Mind, pp.116-117.
26 ib:135. Levi-Strauss (ib:104-5) states, in talking of eating prohibitions amongst the Bushmen that while "totemism postulates a logical equivalence between a society of natural species and a world of social groups. The Bushmen postulate the same formal equivalence, but in their case it is between the parts making up an individual organism and the functional classes making up the society, that is to say, the society itself is thought of as an organism. Natural and social groupings are homologous in both cases and the selection of a grouping in one order involves the adoption of the corresponding grouping the other, at least as a predominant form."
27 Totemism, p.161.
28 The Savage Mind, p.117. Pages 69ff contains a structural and historic analysis of the effects of change on the classifications of the Osage.
29 Tylor, E (1873) 'Primitive Culture', excerpt in Ideas of Culture (1976) eds, F. Gamst and E. Norbeck, Holt Rinehart and Winston; pp.43.
Levi-Strauss, C. Totemism, ib:163.
30 Worsley, P (1967) 'Groote Eylandt totemism and Le Totemisme aujourd 'hui' in The structural study of myth and totemism, ed. E. Leach, Tavistock Publications; p.155-156.
31 Levi-Strauss's rules, of course, are of a similar nature to linguistic rules in that they provide the base for a 'superstructure' of permutations and combinations, just a linguistic rules in the unconscious generate further structures at the conscious level (viz, Chomsky's 'deep structures'). The point here is that Levi Strauss does not define them as such neither here nor (to my knowledge) in ESK.
32 Totemism, p.167.
34 ESK: p.xxix-xxx.
35 For Rousseau, man's natural state was the affective one and the journey from nature into culture comes with the acquisition of intellectual distance from his animal partners... and the emergence, according to Levi-Strauss, of a logic based on binary oppositions. (Totemism, p.173-5).
In The Savage Mind p.247, Levi-Strauss looks forward to a synthesis of the sciences which would mean "the reintegration of culture in nature and finally of life within the whole of its physico-chemical conditions".
36 Boehme 'The Confessions' (1954, trs). Excerpt in The Age of Adventure, readings in renaissance philosophy, ed. G. de Santillana (Mentor).
37 Levi-Strauss C (1972) 'Structuralism and Ecology' except in Jenkins, op cit:16.
In the last volume of Mythologiques (The Naked Man) Rossi, op cit, remarks that Levi-Strauss asserts the oppositions "described by linguists are also present in biological and physical reality; an objective dialectics inherent within the physical world." (Eg, the brain as a receptor of differences in light/shade, etc).
38 Kaplan in Kaplan D & R. Manners (1972) Culture Theory, Prentice Hall, points out that ultimately culture is a "class of phenomena conceptualised by anthropologists in order to deal with questions they're trying to answer..." (p.3).
BERGER, R. (1977) Psychlosis, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Co.
BOEHME, J. (1954, trs.) "The Confessions", excerpt in G. de Santillana (ed.) The Age of Adventure, readings in Renaissance philosophy, USA: Mentor.
FOX, R. (1967, rep.1981) Kinship and Marriage, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
JENKINS, A. (1979) The Social Theory of Claude Levi-Strauss, London: Macmillan.
LEVI-STRAUSS, C. (1949, trs. Eng. 1969) The Elementary Structures of Kinship, London: Eyre & Spottiswood.
------ (1951) "Language and analysis of social laws", in Structural Anthropology.
------ (1953) "Linguistics and Anthropology", in Structural Anthropology.
------ (1962, trs. 1966) The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
------ (1952) "Social Structure", in Structural Anthropology.
------ (1963, rep.1979) Structural Anthropology, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
------ (1962, trs.1963, rep.1973) Totemism, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
ROSSI, I. (1974) "Intellectual Antecedents of Levi-Strauss's Notion of the Unconscious", in I. Rossi (ed.) The Unconscious in Culture, New York: Dutton.
TYLOR, E. (1873) "Primitive Culture", in F. Gamst & E. Norbeck (eds) Ideas of Culture, New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston.
WORSLEY, P. (1967) "Groote Eylandt Totemism and Le Totemisme Aujourd 'Hui", in E. Leach (ed.) The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism, London: Tavistock Publications.
References to Henri Bergson and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown were summaries of how Levi-Strauss understood their work.