Claude Levi-Strauss

The importance of the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in the creation of the basic tenets of what is now modern Literary Theory is often underrated. We will therefore look in detail at his most controversial and interesting works The Structural Study of Myth and The Elementary Structures of Kinship. In the latter book, Levi-Strauss argued that kinship relations - which are fundamental aspects of any culture's organization - represent a specific kind of structure; you might think of family trees, with their symbols for father and mothers, sisters and brothers, as an example of kinship systems represented as structures. Levi-Strauss is also known for his structural analyses of mythology, in books like The Raw and the Cooked, where he explains how the structures of myths provide basic structures of understanding cultural relations. These relations appear as binary pairs or opposites, as the title of his book implies: what is "raw" is opposed to what is "cooked," and the "raw" is associated with nature while the "cooked" is associated with culture. These oppositions form the basic structure for all ideas and concepts in a culture.

In The Structural Study of Myth, Levi-Strauss is interested in explaining why myths from different cultures from all over the world seem so similar. Given that myths could contain anything - they aren't bound by rules of accuracy, or probability - why is there an astounding similarity among so many myths from so many widely separated cultures? He answers this question by looking at the structure of myths, rather than at their content. While the content, the specific characters and events of myths may differ widely, Levi-Strauss argues that their similarities are based on their structural sameness. To make this argument about the structure of myth, Levi-Strauss insists that myth is language, because myth has to be told in order to exist. It is also a language, with the same structures that Saussure described belonging to any language. Myth, as language, consists of both "langue" and "parole", both the synchronic, ahistorical structure and the specific diachronic details within the structure. Levi- Strauss adds a new element to Saussure's langue and parole, pointing out that langue belongs to what he calls "reversible time," and parole to "non-reversible time." He means that parole, as a specific instance or example or event, can only exist in linear time, which is unidirectional - you can't turn the clock back; langue, on the other hand, since it is simply the structure itself, can exist in the past, present, or future. Think of this sentence: "The adjectival noun verbed the direct object adverbially." If you read the sentence, you read from left to right, one word at a time, and it takes time to read the whole sentence - that's non-reversible time. If you don't read the sentence, but rather think of it as being the structure of English, it exists in a single moment, every moment - yesterday as well as today as well as tomorrow. That is reversible time.

A myth, according to Levi-Strauss, is both historically specific - it's almost always set in some time long ago - and ahistorical, meaning that its story is timeless. As story, myth is parole; as timeless, it's langue. Levi-Strauss says that myth also exists on a third level, in addition to langue and parole, which also proves that myth is a language of its own, and not just a subset of language (like other literary productions, which are made of language, and which might be thought of as "paroles." Peter Barry gives this explanation in Chapter 2 of Beginning Theory). He explains that level in terms of the story that myth tells. That story is special, because it survives any and all translations. While poetry is that which can't be translated, or paraphrased, Levi- Strauss says that myth can be translated, paraphrased, reduced, expanded, and otherwise manipulated - without losing its basic shape or structure. He doesn't use this term, but we might call that third aspect "malleability." He thus argues that, while myth as structure looks like language as structure, it's actually something different from language per se - he says it operates on a higher, or more complex level. Myth shares with language the following characteristics:

1. It's made of units that are put together according to certain rules.

2. These units form relations with each other, based on binary pairs or opposites, which provide the basis of the structure.

Myth differs from language (as Saussure describes it) because the basic units of myth are not phonemes (the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes one utterance from another, like a letter), morphemes (the smallest unit of relatively stable meaning that can't be subdivided, like a non-compound word), or sememes (the meaning expressed by a morpheme), or even signifiers and signifieds, but rather are what Levi-Strauss calls "mythemes." His process of analysis differs from Saussure's because Saussure

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