Triptych image: Lindsey Landfried, "Memory is a Palimpsest," 2009
TIME MAKES US ALL ANACHRONISMS to ourselves. As we get older, we are all left behind by a history we had once been sure we were making. We struggle, in our aging bodies, to recall the embodied force of fitter, sharper selves.
The problem is worse, presumably, if you live to be 100, like the late anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (born in 1908, he finally passed away in October 2009). By then, you may have lived long enough, as Lévi-Strauss did, to see your upstart theories kill their most visible father (Jean-Paul Sartre), dominate the village for decades, produce a litter of influential children (Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu), and gradually fade into respectability, granting you the privileged gestures of institutional and governmental recognition — Nicolas Sarkozy visiting you at home on your birthday, for instance — that we use to bury something while praising it.
The world passes you by, or seems to. But even that passing, as Lévi-Strauss taught us, can be subject to an anthropological analysis. Feeling out-of-date is a special kind of modern problem, as he notes in one of these two little books, posthumous collections of the eminent anthropologist’s essays and lectures given in and on Japan. “Elderly people and the young do not react to events in the same way,” he writes in Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, the first English translation of a series of lectures he delivered in Tokyo at the invitation of the Ishizaka Foundation in 1986. For the old, history feels stationary, “opposed to the cumulative history they witnessed in their youth. An era in which they are no longer actively involved, where they no longer play a role, no longer has any meaning.” This produces the two-ply structure of elderly resentment: a sense that conditions were harder (and more character-building) in one’s youth, and that the decadence of the present reflects an inevitable downward slide that holds up the mirror of biology to the face of history. I am dying, the old man thinks, and so the world must be dying too. “Western-style civilization has lost sight of the model it had set up for itself and is no longer bold enough to offer that model to others,” Lévi-Strauss writes:
We communicate with the vast majority of our contemporaries through all sorts of intermediaries — written documents or administrative mechanisms — which enormously increase our contacts but which at the same time confer on them an inauthenticity.
From one perspective, this feels like the usual old person’s complaint that technology is destroying humanity. (Lévi-Strauss was 78 when he made it, after all.) From another, however, it shows us a thinker attempting to consider, as he did for his entire life, the facts of human social life by placing them in the broadest possible comparative context.
That context, when it comes to Japan, passed, during Lévi-Strauss’s lifetime, through a number of significant reversals. The years before the second World War were dominated by the idea that Japan might be the first significant non-Western nation to pose a military and economic threat to European dominance; the years immediately after, by the restoration of a concept of Japan as chastened, modest, and friendly. In the 1950s and 1960s the Chinese Red Menace took on the mantle of Yellow Perilism Japan had laid down in 1945. Japan, of course, regained that mantle during its economic boom in the heady 1980s. Events like the purchase of the Rockefeller Center by the real estate arm of the Mitsubishi Group, novels like Michael Crichton’s despicable Rising Sun, and movies like the retrospectively hilarious Gung Ho! (released in 1986, the same year as Lévi-Strauss’s Tokyo lectures) frightened the credulous into imagining a Japanese takeover of the American economy (and, hence, the world’s). The 1997 Asian financial crisis put paid to that story. Today, we are left once again with a friendly and relatively harmless Japan, often contrasted, whether implicitly or explicitly, with a newly threatening and anxiety-provoking China.
The strange mixture of roles Japan has played in relation to world history — it was, at one point, a sort of limit-case for modernity itself; William Gibson once wrote that “Japan is the global imagination's default setting for the future” — makes it an especially rich territory for a thinker like Lévi-Strauss. For Lévi-Strauss was one of the great theorists of the anthropological nature of history, its relation to myth, and its role in constructing patterns of meaning designed to help any given society organize its relation to being and doing. In Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, he states that modern society uses history “to give itself reason to hope, not that the present will reproduce the past and that the future will perpetuate the present, but that the future will differ from the present in the same way that the present itself differs from the past.” Lévi-Strauss does not want the future to differ from the present in that same way. Anthropology, along with its companion volume The Other Face of the Moon, which collects other writings on Japanese culture from the 1970s and 80s, recapitulates his longstanding project to dismantle the models of progressive, evolutionary history that have conferred on the Western world the sense of its own specialness, exclusivity, and originality. His pessimism about the future — the best of all possible worlds exists there “less and less,” he tells Junzo Kawada in a 1993 interview reprinted in The Other Face of the Moon — is in these books exposed, in Lévi-Strauss’s characteristically personal style, as both the figure and the ground, the cause and the symptom, of his anthropological analysis of the human condition.
If these two books feel somewhat untimely, it is partly because Lévi-Strauss clearly imagined himself, in his last two decades, to be at the far end of a gigantic, failing historical experiment. But their anachronism also has something to do with the current moribundity of structuralism, the movement he spearheaded and exemplified for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lévi-Strauss brought structuralism from the dark corners of Eastern European intellectual history to the bright world of mainstream French academia; influenced especially by his friendship with the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (which developed when both men, as World War II refugees, taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City), Lévi-Strauss’s groundbreaking work in The Elementary Structures of Kinship and The Savage Mind gave anthropologists new tools for thinking about the relationship between the general and the particular. In these books, the apparent singularity of a single anthropological object — a myth, a kinship relation, a ritual — could achieve, via its reduction and elevation to a system of relations, the comparative vantage of the universal. The analysis of myth could thus illuminate, by looking in this particularly distanced way, “invariant characteristics that have persisted or become more prominent in several realms of the [foreign] culture,” characteristics that would be “obscured” by the everyday, obvious differences visible when one looks too closely at any object. Lévi-Strauss used structuralism to make possible a new way of thinking what he calls the “common form” of the world’s variegated populations and cultures. That Lévi-Strauss’s model was, at base, anti-humanist — that is, antagonistic to the idea that human beings are in control of their own evolutionary, progressive history — made his intellectual triumph all the more ironic and astonishing.
Since its heyday in the 1960s, structuralism’s star has faded almost absolutely. Suspicions regarding its grandiose explanatory claims and critiques of its crushing indifference to difference mean that reading Lévi-Strauss today feels like stepping through to the other side of the mirror, into a world whose topsy-turvy pleasures always come, once you get over the thrill of seeing the primitives doing everything backwards, from adopting their point of view, and seeing that you do everything backwards, too.
Japan makes an especially appropriate subject for this inversion, partly because it has so often played the role of Backwards World in the European imagination. The archives are full of European documents detailing the astonishing facts of Japanese difference: we pick our noses with our index fingers, they do so with their pinkies; we use black for mourning, they use white; we sniff our melons from the top, they do so from the bottom; and so on. These are among the 600-plus observations recorded by Luís Fróis, a Jesuit missionary to Japan, in a Treatise on the Difference between European and Japanese Customs (1585), to whose French translation Lévi-Strauss contributed, in 1998, a short preface, collected in The Other Face of the Moon. “When the traveler convinces himself that practices in complete opposition to his own,” Lévi-Strauss writes, with characteristic tolerance and generosity, “which by that very fact he would be tempted to despise and reject with disgust, are in reality identical to them when viewed in reverse, he provides himself with the means to domesticate strangeness, to make it familiar to himself.” So anthropology.
At stake throughout both these short books are two major problems: first how to recognize, and theorize, what is truly “original” in a culture; and second, how to imagine a globalized human culture that does not borrow its social, philosophical, and emotional logics from what Lévi-Strauss regards as our deprecated Western experiment. The elegant solution Lévi-Strauss proposes to both problems is: Japan. But in fact this answer only makes more problems. For Lévi-Strauss every human society is “original” in some way; the question is, therefore, “what…does Japanese originality consist of?” And the risk is that the answer he comes up with will feel like exactly the kind of dopey stereotype you get when someone who spends a total of a few weeks in a place decides to answer that kind of question with too much confidence.
On this count, both these books fail. They are full of cringe-inducing statements. Lévi-Strauss finds, in Japanese cuisine, dance, or aesthetics “a system of invariant differences,” revealing itself between what he will call “the Western soul and the Japanese soul, which can be summed up by the opposition between a centripetal and a centrifugal movement.” So the Japanese pulls the crosscut saw toward himself, not away (as the Europeans and the Chinese do); so the Japanese person leaving someplace does not say, “I am going,” but emphasizes the intention to return; so a “playful spirit” in the 12th-century paintings of Toba Sojo prefigures the Japanese “victory over all its rivals in the field of microelectronics”; in ancient Japan, “people mounted horses from the right, whereas we mount them from the left”; and so on. All this comes awfully close to the worst of Fróis, or to Basil Chamberlain’s Things Japanese (1890), another famously topsy-turvy report on the advantages and disadvantages of Japanese culture (their artists are the Raphaels of insects or birds, but have “never, like the early Italian masters, drawn away men’s hearts from earth to heaven”).
Presumably the author of Tristes Tropiques and The Savage Mind is not succumbing to garden-variety Orientalism — or not only doing so. In Lévi-Strauss’s case, one cannot help but believe that the heart of the matter is the structuralist drive to see opposition where there may only be difference. In fact the problem with Lévi-Strauss’s analysis is not that it is structuralist per se, but that its structuralism remains too, well, structured: too beholden to a single model of relationality — the mirror image, the symmetrical opposition — and too sanguine about the violence done to specificity when all models of relation begin as a line between two things.
Take, for instance, Lévi-Strauss’s dubious claim that the Japanese “victory” in the field of microelectronics is the result of a spirit of ingenuity and play. This is not so much overexplanation as underexplanation. Many other nations have become good at making microelectronics, without, for all that, turning Japanese. The real trick would be to locate the precise specificity of the Japanese relation to electronics — and thus the precise nature of “Japanese microelectronics” as Japanese — in order to determine the ways in which Japan is or is not like other successful national competitors in the technological field. This would require real anthropological work, the kind of close reading and close living that Lévi-Strauss, who visited the country only as a lecturer and a tourist, never did in Japan.
I do not mean to suggest that Lévi-Strauss’s entire project here — the quest to find in Japanese culture some “originality” which can shed light on global problems — is a mistake. Rather it seems to me, reading these books, to be a wonderful, ambitious, nearly unthinkable assignment, and it is this sense of wonder and ambition that makes Lévi-Strauss so anachronistic, and so worth reading, today. His challenge is to think about the vast array of social specificities together, even as he remains open to the contradictory possibilities of originality and commonness. The task of thinking so broadly has become extremely difficult for the left in the wake of poststructuralism and deconstruction, which produced a generalized suspicion of totalizing statements and “grand narratives.” It may well be that returning to Lévi-Strauss — that famous foil of Foucault and Derrida — will give us the courage to attempt syncretism once again.
Doing so will allow us to begin to imagine, as he does, the vast shared world of the common, whose inverse is the singular, or the original. We are inclined to think that the truly original, being unsharable, can never be common, and that the common can never be, since it is shared, fully original. And yet we need, today, to believe in both the original and the common in order to stay alive and to make meaning — to believe both in the dream of a human unity that does more than assert our status as Homo sapiens sapiens, to imagine that we still have the possibility, from within that common heritage, of being original, of reaching the mixed blessing of growth and transformation, difference and change.
Here again we find Lévi-Strauss striving toward solutions, attempting, as he did throughout his entire career, to undermine the West’s drive to imagine itself either as the leading light of a singular model for historical progress or as the subject of an evolutionary pattern of human development. He gives us, in Anthropology, a vision for the future of Western culture, which, having invented historical change (a social myth) by “reducing human beings to the condition of machines,” can discover a third path beyond either tradition or modernity, in which the burden of progress would fall on culture rather than society. At that point,
society would be liberated from a millennial curse that constrained it to subjugate human beings for progress’s sake. Henceforth, history would come to pass on its own, and society, placed outside and above history, could again enjoy the transparency and internal equilibrium by which the least damaged of the so-called primitive societies attest that such things are not incompatible with the human condition. […] The observations and analyses of anthropology have the mission of safeguarding this opportunity.
This vision of life after progress echoes remarks by Lévi-Strauss’s countryman and contemporary Alexandre Kojève in his lectures on Hegel and the end of history. In a famous footnote appended to the text’s second edition (in 1968), Kojève remarked that a 1959 visit to Japan had caused a radical rethinking on the nature of history’s end. Modern Japan was showing us, he said, a fully “posthistorical” society in which “all Japanese without exception are currently in a position to live according to totally formalized values — that is, values completely empty of all ‘human’ content in the ‘historical’ sense.” The scholar Christopher Bush, among others, has shown us how much more a statement like Kojève’s tells us about the function and role Japan played in European 20th-century thought than it does about Japan itself. I thought of Bush when I found Lévi-Strauss, near the end of The Other Side of the Moon, wondering if Japan were offering the planet “an original solution to the major problem of our time”:
It has been almost half a century since, in writing Tristes Tropiques, I expressed my anxiety about two perils threatening humanity: that it would forget its own roots, and that it would be crushed under its own numbers. Japan, perhaps alone among nations, has until now been able to find a balance between fidelity to the past and the transformations brought about by science and technology. […] Even today, the foreign visitor admires the eagerness that everyone in Japan displays to perform his duty, the cheerful goodwill that, compared to the social and moral climate of his home country, seem to the traveler key virtues of the Japanese people. May they long maintain that precious balance between the traditions of the past and the innovations of the present, and not only for their own good, since humanity as a whole finds in them an example worth contemplating.
The combination of hope and extravagant imagination in sentences like these capture well the strange feeling of reading these two books. I do not believe Lévi-Strauss about Japan. Is that because I have lost my faith in, if not my love for, structuralist generality? Would it be too good to be true that the solution to human life in the present would be lying there so obviously in front of us? Probably, yes.