Claude Levi-Strauss—Code Searching

The Kinship System As A Form Of Language

Although one could argue that Levi-Strauss is as Kantian in outlook as is
Chomsky, it quickly becomes apparent after reading some of Levi-Strauss’s
anthropology that there will be no attempt on his part to populate his mansions
with real, freedom loving people. Whereas, as I have already pointed out, Kant
makes an attempt to personalize his transcendental subject, Paul Ricoeur tells
us “Levi-Strauss’s philosophy is a Kantianism without a transcendental subject.”
[Philip Pettit, p. 78] Levi-Strauss’s zealous attempt to capture the categories
of mind in his structural analysis of myth, kinship, and totemism turns the
subject into an object via his structural analysis.

Levi-Strauss’s 1949 study of kinship systems came at the beginning of his
career, before he had fully developed his structuralist method. But, in his
approach to kinship, his method was already apparent. Levi-Strauss
brought to this study a collectivist, functionalist perspective. He was
following the line of study already documented in the works of Durkheim and
Mauss. In his emphasis on using women as objects for gift giving, he was simply
extending Mauss’s thesis that gift giving promotes social solidarity within
one’s own culture as well as promoting a cross culture solidarity when gifts are
cross culturally exchanged. Like Mauss, Levi-Strauss believed that these
reciprocal relationships were established for integrative rather than for
economic purposes.

Kinship relationships are varied and perplexing. All societies have to have
social arrangements which allow men and women to get together for the purpose of
having children. For Levi-Strauss the incest taboo became the distinguishing
characteristic which sets man apart from other animals. This rule, that one had
to marry outside of the family, became the first principle in his kinship
system. The second and more controversial principle could be found in his
explanation concerning who gets to marry who.

“In early human societies,” Lewis informs us, “kinship was too important a matter to be left to chance or to individual whim. Systems of regular intermarriage among groups were therefore set up, and Levi-Strauss demonstrated ingeniously how they could have resulted from the idea of marrying out, but not too far out, i.e., marriage between certain kinds of first cousins.” [David Maybury-Lewis, Claude Levi-Strauss and the Search for Structure, Wilson Quarterly, 12:82-95] This cross culture
marriage and exchange of cousins (usually on the maternal side but not always)
became the key, according to Levi-Strauss, that unlocked the perplexing nature
of kinship systems.

Another suggestive and more structuralist feature of Levi-Strauss’s analysis of
kinship systems is found in his claim that marriage regulations and kinship
systems are a kind of language. He says:

(Marriage regulations and kinship systems are)… “a set of processes permitting
the establishment, between individual and groups, of a certain kind of
communication. That the mediating factor, in this case, should be the women of
the group, who are circulated between clans, lineages, or families, in place of
the words of the group, which are circulated between individuals, does not at
all change the fact that the essential aspect of the phenomenon is identical in
both cases.” [Philip Pettit, p.70]

Understanding kinship systems in this way moves us, once again, in search of
that “illusive code,” fixed in time and waiting to be discovered, that
ultimately, Levi-Strauss believes to be at the core of his investigations. In
his structural analysis of myth this quest continues.


About bwinwnbwi

About me: Marvin Gaye’s song, "What’s Going On" was playing on the jukebox when I went up to the counter and bought another cup of coffee. When I got back, the painting on the wall next to where I was sitting jumped out at me, the same way it had done many times before. On it was written a diatribe on creativity. It was the quote at the bottom, though, that brought me back to this seat time after time. The quote had to do with infinity; it went something like this: Think of yourself as being in that place where infinity comes together in a point; where the infinite past and the infinite future meet, where you are at right now. The quote was attributed to Hermann Hesse, but I didn’t remember reading it in any of the books that I had read by him, so I went out and bought Hesse’s last novel, Magister Ludi. I haven’t found the quote yet, but I haven't tired of looking for it either.
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