Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why Claude Levi-Strauss matters: "We must address with song every object we meet."

The thought we call primitive is founded on this demand for order. This is equally true of all thought but it is through the properties common to all thought that we can most easily begin to understand forms of thought which seem very strange to us.

A native thinker makes the penetrating comment that 'All sacred things must have their place'. It could even be said that being in their place is what makes them sacred for if they were taken out of their place, even in thought, the entire order of the universe would be destroyed. Sacred objects therefore contribute to the maintenance of order in the universe by occupying the places allocated to them. Examined superficially and from the outside, the refinements of ritual can appear pointless. They are explicable by a concern for what one might call 'micro-adjustment' -- the concern to assign every single creature, object or feature to a place within a a class. The ceremony of the Hako among the Pawnee is particularly illuminating in this respect, although only because it has been so well analysed. The invocation which accompanies the crossing of a stream of water is divided into several parts, which correspond, respectively, to the moment when the travellers put their feet in the water, the moment when they move them and the moment when the water completely covers their feet. The invocation to the wind separates the moment when only wet parts of the body feel cool: 'Now, we are ready to move forward in safety'. As the informant explains: 'We must address with song every object we meet, because Tira'wa (the supreme spirit) is in all things, everything we come to as we travel can give us help ....'

[Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, p. 10 (Chicago, 1966)]

The solution of a solid into a liquid alters the disposition of its molecules. It also often provides an efficacious method of putting them by so that they can be recovered in case of need and their properties be better studied. The reductions I am envisaging are thus legitimate, or indeed possible, only if two conditions are satisfied. First, the phenomena subjected to reduction must not be impoverished; one must be certain that everything contributing to their distinctive richness and originality has been collected around them. For it is pointless to pick up a hammer unless to hit the nail on the head.

Secondly, one must be ready to accept, as a consequence of each reduction, the total overturning of any preconceived idea concerning the level, whichever it may be, one is striving to attain. The idea of some general humanity to which ethnographic reduction leads, will bear no relation to any one may have formed in advance. And when we do finally succeed in understanding life as a function of inert matter it will be to discover that the latter has properties very different from those previously attributed to it. Levels of reduction cannot therefore be classed as superior and inferior, for the level taken as superior must, through the reduction, be expected to communicate retroactively some of its richness to the inferior level to which it will have been assimilated. Scientific explanation consists not in moving from the complex to the simple but in the replacement of a less intelligible complexity by one which is more so.

[The Savage Mind, pp. 247-248]