Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Passing Of Claude Levi-Strauss—The Mytheme Will Live On

This being a blog concerned with anthropology, I would perhaps be remiss not to note the passing of the inimitable French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss. When I posted his obituary on my Facebook page, a friend commented, wondering how many people who saw the headline thought, "Wow, the guy who makes the jeans died." But perhaps that number is less than my skeptical friend and I initially believed. Anyone who has taken an introductory anthropology course has been exposed to Levi-Strauss—as have students in linguistics, sociology, and philosophy. The man had a broad reach.

I won't wax poetic about him, not when there are countless others writing odes (here and here) and tuning lyres, but there is no doubt that he has been immensely influential to my development as an anthropologist. The mytheme—a unit of meaning in a myth, an essence, that remains unchanged and when combined with other such units of meaning reveal the overall message/lesson of the myth itself—has walked every step with me while I explored identities and essences. The concept provides core elements that figure prominently in the ways I have come to think about and understand "society." And perhaps this is only fitting since he is a part of my academic genealogy. As an undergrad, my advisor had us create academic genealogies for prominent anthropologists, listing their teachers, colleagues, and students as well as the institutions where they worked. The purpose of this exercise was to emphasize the trickle of ideas—how we as students become connected to these minds because our professors are connected to them, having been their students or students of students. Levi-Strauss escaped the German invasion of France during WWII and settled in New York to teach at my alma mater, the New School for Social Research, placing him directly in my genealogy.

He was undoubtedly a man of his time, and his writing today may seem archaic and offensive, but I still place him in my genealogy proudly. He recognized that we are shaped by our cultural histories, but retain a sameness that makes us all human. He believed that sameness was rooted in language:
“Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing.”
As our language is shaped by the growth of digital media, as the ways we think are shaped by digital media, I hope that Levi-Strauss' mythemes will continue to guide me in understanding the effects of these changes, and provide a way to continue to bind us together as humans.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, anthropologist, born November 28, 1908; died October 30, 2009.

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