Claude Lévi-Strauss’ (1908-2009) chef-d’oeuvre Tristes Tropiques (1955) is there among the top 50 books of the XXth century. It is also one of the books that influenced me a lot when I was a teenager. I read it at least three times. It was novel, exotic, and very inspiring. Maybe it is one of the reasons why I live now on the equator.
Anthropology at that time was still a relative newcomer in the academy, uncertain in its methods and still establishing its legitimacy. Named chairs and lecture courses were set up in the 1930s, thanks in part to increased government funding to promote more “scientific” colonial policy. For Lévi-Strauss the attraction of the newer social sciences was both pragmatic and existential. In France he was expected to spend at least another decade teaching secondary education in the provinces before he could apply for university positions in Paris. Besides the promise of adventure, the post in Brazil fast-tracked him to university teaching. But anthropology also held a further appeal: it offered not so much a break with philosophy as the means to revitalize it. It had, for too long, been possible to make claims about the human condition on the basis of a very limited set of data: one’s own thoughts. Insights gained through introspection were proof enough of their universal validity. Lévi-Strauss was not convinced. To take full measure of the human experience, he insisted, one needed to know how life was lived in places that were not the industrialized West. With the yearning of a romantic, Lévi-Strauss set off to study societies that had not been corrupted by so-called civilization.
Language is nothing more than a system of signs in which every sign stands in a relation of opposition or distinction from other signs. Together those relations give meaning to the words we use.
This understanding of language was significant for at least two reasons. First, it meant that language depends on a complicated set of rules, even if we need not be conscious of them in order to communicate. And second, it suggested that language could be analyzed as a formal system, or structure. The content became irrelevant. These rules applied in theory to any language and were at play no matter the subject under discussion. For Lévi-Strauss this was a revelation. He could take Saussure’s ideas about language and apply them to the study of non-linguistic phenomena, to the study of culture. Thus what became known as “structuralism” was born.