Thursday, November 05, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss: 1908-2009

Few nights ago, between Saturday and Sunday, died a great man.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels the 28th of November 1908: a few days more, and he would have been 101.

He is numbered as one of the most prominent anthropologists ever. Bull shit! To say so is just a nice way to encase him in a department, sparing people from other departments the trouble of having to deal with his work.

Sparing first of all the so called philosophers from taking into account the work of one of the few real philosophers of last century.

It is true that his work was entirely based on the investigation of all the available ethnographic evidence collected on archaic peoples, a little fragment from himself in Mato Grosso in the Thirties of last century, the great mass from all the anthropologists who had lovingly reported their field work among American Indians, and aborigines of other continents. But that was his way of doing philosophy: i.e. tackling the ultimate questions raised by our peculiar capability of including ourselves amidst all other things we know.

We are all aware of that nonsense called "multiculturalism" which from the Sixties of last century spread through America and Europe becoming almost (in Europe, alas, without almost) dominant. It draws from a certain image of anthropology, summarized in an expression like "the study of the other as other", the other being peoples from other countries, of other costumes, "values" and "beliefs", tastes, and at the end gender and sexual orientations.

Now, Lévi-Strauss' teaching was exactly the opposite: anthropology appears in his work as "the study of the other as non-other".

Since the time of his field work in Brazil, that he narrates in his beautiful Tristes Tropiques, he realized that about the "other as other" we can neither know nor say anything, save that it is other, and to the limit not even this.

The beauty of what he writes, then, about archaic people (I prefer to call them so, rather than primitive), is that he sees ourselves mirrored in them. And he can do it, because he doesn't look at men (male and female, adults and children), as separate entities, but as involved in exchange relations among them, in which they define who they are. So, what they do can be intelligible for us, because it represents a principle of exchange that remains the same with all people, a constant, if I may say so, recognizable as such in the variables of social life.

He calls it "the principle of reciprocity".

It is not the simple do ut des, "I give to you, and you give to me", because it extends to all the generalized exchanges making up our life in society, that never involves just "you and me", but always also "them".

It is therefore, instead, an "I give today on one side, what I received yesterday on the other". Reciprocity is established, then, when the two sides close on each other like in a circle, and everybody has received what he has given, and vice versa.

Lévi-Strauss has recovered thus, by way of the study of what he calls pensée sauvage (which is not, he says, the thought of savages, but thought at a savage state, before being tamed in order to achieve a result), all the classical philosophical reflection on identity and diversity, constancy and change.

He has reopened the classical question of justice, potentially leading to a recovery of the doctrine of natural law: that lost today in the affirmation of natural rights, allegedly pertaining to any single biologically human individual, imagined in a social vacuum where everybody is really "other" for everybody else, with the State however that should warrant to each (only God knows why) the space to exercise his rights.

After a period of wide renown, Lévi-Strauss has been left aside by the individualistic and "multicultural" trends of dominant academic culture. Against the self-contradictory nonsense in which have fallen philosophers, and with them lawyers, it would be worthy to take up again his work: it is a good antidote.


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