Just taught a section in which I introduced Levy-Strauss and structuralism, so I've been thinking about that good old standard, the binary opposition a bit. In that same section, I also introduce my class to the materialist perspective, for which I try to illuminate a link between the focus on culture core and Marx' theories on base-superstructure.
As a result, I find myself thinking about L-S and Marx in adjoining thoughts.
Can it be accurately said that the concept of binary oppositions, structured into recurring, coded relationships within myths, form as something similar to the thesis-antithesis-to-synthesis dynamic of the dialectic?
If this conclusion is correct, can we then say that L-S's structuralism was an more system-based, idealist elaboration on the concept of the dialectic?
Is it commonly held by anyone that Levy-Strauss was working from a Marxian theoretical foundation? What about Saussure?
Hi Joel, interesting question. In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Levi-Strauss claims that the inspiration for his method came from geology, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Each in their own way explains the world of experience, how things appear to us in detail, through an analysis of the deep structures, invisible to the naked eye, that produce them. Thus the landscape is an expression of rocks formed long ago; price movements in the market reflect the mode of production; a patient's dream plays out childhood traumas. He might have cited Saussurian linguistics there, how speech events are made possible by the grammar of a language, but he didn't.
Binaries and dialectic have been with us since the Greeks. So yes there has to be some link there. But Marx was a much more complicated thinker than his followers, more imaginative and playful. They had to reproduce the intellectual system that he invented. So all that stuff about base and superstructure got added later. There is a nice little book by Francis Wheen, Capital: a Biography, which follows the development of Marx's thought before, during and after writing the book. Wheen makes the point that Capital is not just an exercise in political economy, but a critique of it. In reaching for something more than pedestrian analysis, for the heart and soul of capitalism (a term he didn't use), he took on some of the qualities of his great contemporaries who wrote fiction. And of course, Tristes Tropiques is a work of fiction too at one level.
Teaching such a point of view is another matter. I found students freaked out when told that they should approach the great books of social theory as novels.
If the program described above were properly executed the result would be a theory that did not predict what would happen in any particular case but would set limits, inherent in human nature, to linguistic and cultural variation.
The Mythologigues will be remembered as a mammoth effort by a great mind that went astray, an amazing scientific project that died with its author for lack of a teachable method to replace intellectual bravado expressed, alas, in too easy to think with terms.