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The Anthropologist as Hero: Claude Lévi-Strauss on his 100th Birthday

A brief note to celebrate the life and work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on the occassion of his 100th birthday. Lévi-Strauss was born on November 28, 1908. As a graduate student I had the good fortune to have excellent teachers–especially Joelle Bahloul, Henry Glassie and Ray DeMallie–who encouraged me to engage with Lévi-Strauss in a serious way and I wound up reading a great deal of his work during the time of my training. In my fieldwork I have had the honor of living among peoples who practice forms of dual organization and Lévi-Strauss’ work on this theme was exceptionally useful to me in a very grounded ethnographic sense. (I sometimes think that some of the difficulty experienced by readers of Lévi-Strauss who came of age in the post-structuralist era is attributable to the fact that few among them have first-hand experiences in societies like those that figure so centrally to his work.) Among my earliest published works is an article that explores dual organization in Southeastern Native North America. A high point in my career is the kind note that Lévi-Strauss wrote to me expressing satisfaction that my account supported his position. This paper appeared not long after the English translation of The Story of Lynx, in which Lévi-Strauss returned to the problems of dualism and dual organization in Native America. The book remains one of my favorite works in anthropology. I continue to draw upon the full range of Lévi-Strauss’ writings regularly in my own research.

In the teaching of anthropology and folklore graduate students in North America, I fear that Lévi-Strauss’ work has moved into the precarious liminal zone that my colleague Richard Bauman and I have come to refer to as “theories of the middle age” (a play on Robert K. Merton’s theories of the middle range). In the teaching of “core” theory courses in these disciplines (and this must surely be true in sociology and other fields as well), historical courses start with, and work forward from, classic social theory of the 19th century (or earlier), which means careful attention to Marx, Weber, Durkheim, the Grimms, Herder, Freud, etc. These courses seemingly always seem to run out of time and/or steam before attending to the post-World War II era. If such classes must come to the present, they skip the middle 20th century and take up, often in rushed fashion, the contemporary scene.  In classes that are not historical in frame, this same post-World War II era work is also often neglected. It is frequently only glimpsed through its impact on more recent scholars. This dynamic is regretable to me and is something that I have tried to address in my own work as a teacher of graduate students.

With respect to Lévi-Strauss’ work, I often teach The Way of the Masks in my Theories of Material Culture course and The Story of Lynx in my Native American Folklore and Folk Music course. I have taught the later book in a general folklore theory course as well, combing it with key essays from Structural Anthropology I and Structural Anthropology II. If I were teaching a different set of courses, I could easily see teaching The Savage Mind and Triste Tropiques. A discussion of the Elementary Structures of Kinship would remain, for me, essential to a class on kinship and social organization. These are all works that I hope that the students withwhom I work will become acquainted.

To reach 100 is a heroic accomplishment for any human being. In this spirit, I drew, in my post title, upon the subtitle of a collection of essays–well known in its day–dealing with the work of Lévi-Strauss–Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologist as Hero. May we all live as long and as productive lives as Claude Lévi-Strauss. Happy birthday Professor.

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