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?

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MAI, without further ado, let me say that you are an absolute delight to engage with in this kind of dialogue. I look forward to more—I hope many more—conversations with you. You are, however, right that we have reached a point where getting any further requires some reading on my part. Could I ask you for fuller citations of the key works you have cited, especially Baugmann and Gingrich and Müchlich (2004). If, moreover, you happen to have PDFs handy, I would be most grateful to have them sent to john.mccreery@gmail.com (As an independent scholar, I don't have the access to libraries that would make it possible for me to lay my hands on them directly).





MAI Saptenno said:
That said, the case to which you have pointed us is, as you have described it, open I believe to four lines of critical attack: (1) much ado about nothing; (2) misappropriation of language; (3) mistaking illustration for testing; and (4) missing the main point. Let's take them one at a time. … what have I missed here?


Thank you so much John. I’ve found your critical questions properly addressed to Baugmann and Gingrich’s theory (questions 1-3) theory and Müchlich’s (4) ethnography. It would be very interesting though to know what you think if you read their theory and the ethnographers’ works, i.e. in terms of the contributions and failures of the theory. I honestly don’t know if could do that, providing more information on the theory or Müchlich’s ethnography, not to mention what you might have missed, perhaps other anthropologists who are working on that theory would definitely do better than my second-hand summary. I could only say that I have my own doubts concerning the language part that to my mind has reduced the complexity of other works. At one time in my studies, I had worked on the works the linguists-structuralists, for instance that of Hjemslev, Greimas and the narratologists, but I admit I’ve experienced difficulties in understanding the parts of their grammars that were worked on language.

One thing however that I found very interesting is why and how they approach structure and agency with such framework, as it’s very much related to my research. Recalling Roger Sibeon’s (2004) book on Rethinking Social Theory that works from a sociological perspective on what he called ‘the four cardinal sins’ of social theory - reductionism, essentialism, reification, and functional teleology –through Berger, Foucault, Elias, and Giddens made me reflect in the first place of the place of structuralism and the Marxist’s dialectics.

(I apologize Joel for sliding further to what a postgrad struggling to do, walk the walk.)
I was always suspicious of the intellectual style adopted by my own school of social anthropology which insisted on close ethnographic analysis, but never inspected the sources for its own most general ideas.

Keith, you make a good point here. You have described before how sloppy the anthropologists with whom you studied seemed compared to the classicists with whom you had studied previously. Glifford Geertz makes a similar point in Alan MacFarlane's "Ancestors" interview (2004). Two of the things I admired most about Victor Turner were the genuine erudition of his comments on Norse sagas and Dante's Divine Comedy and the openness with which he acknowledged his intellectual debts to Marx, Freud, Van Gennep and Simmel.

That said, I wonder if preoccupation with our intellectual ancestors doesn't too often become a kind of ancestor worship. Whenever I read someone writing, "Shouldn't we look at what X (where X=Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Simmel, Pareto....Aristotle, Plato, Thales) says?" I find myself wanting to reply, "What makes you think that X had the last word?" or "Why aren't you trying to improve on what X said?" Why can't we be more like physicists who, while they may revere Newton, don't go digging through the Principia in search of answers to the problems that interest them today?

I am all for anthropologists acknowledging their intellectual predecessors (just started reading a new translation of Herodotus). I am all for anthropologist having a better than average grasp of the history of philosophy and political thought, so we don't waste time reinventing arguments that were fresh centuries or millennia ago. I am concerned, because I am subject to this tendency myself, if deep in retrospection we become lost in the past and fail to look forward to things we ourselves might add to the conversations in which we play our passing parts.


John McCreery said:
I wonder if preoccupation with our intellectual ancestors doesn't too often become a kind of ancestor worship.

John, at one level it is quite simple. I think like a historian and not like an ethnographer. I don't say that the rest of you should be like me, but when I am surrounded by ethnographers who know little history, I find myself trying to fiill in the gap. I get frustrated with the one-sidedness of my approach, but it is what I have become.

I admire ethnographers because I could not become one. I spent two and half years doing fieldwork with the Tallensi as migrants and at home. I thought I was very good at it. I was. Meyer Fortes recommended my PhD thesis to Cambridge University Press with the highest praise. I know because, after I had spent seven years trying and failing to write a monograph, the editor showed me his report in a vain attempt to revive my flagging spirits.

When I did write a book, it was a historical review of the secondary literature on West African agriculture, the very opposite of what I had been working on for a decade. I asked Fortes why more people didn't write such reviews, since I found it so easy (it took me three weeks to write the unadorned text). He said, "Anthropologists are like peasants, Keith. They like digging holes. But sometimes they need people like you to show them where to dig." Which was kind of him, because he could do both and I couldn't. For my job talk at Yale, I found myself improvising a historical narrative about the Tallensi which was as much intellectual as social. In any case I was already in full flight from regional ethnography into development land.

I have found that I like to teach anthropology as intellectual history. My book, The Memory Bank, which I wrote after I abandoned Cambridge for a freelance life in Paris, is ostensibly about the future of money in the digital revolution, but actually it is a retrospective of all those lectures over three decades. My Yale students wanted me to discuss with them the current clash between Chicago and Columbia in anthropological theory. One day a voice asked me in the shower, "Why would you read Marvin Harris when you haven't read Immanuel Kant?" and I listened to it. I pushed my project further back from Marx, Weber, Durkheim to Hegel, Kant, Rousseau and Locke. As an economic anthropologist, I have always felt we were handicapped by not knowing the rich history of economic ideas, a conviction I shared with my class mate, Steve Gudeman, but he also remained open to ethnography, as I did not.

In my practice as an anthropological writer, I work with colleagues who complement my onesidedness. Thus Chris Hann, who is a consummate ethnographer, and I have just completed a work on Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique. Bill Maurer and I have an ongoing conversation about money which plays on what we share as well as what we don't. I have a book coming out this week based on a collaboration with a French and a Brazilian sociologist. And so on.

I am sorry if my comments come across as a one-track record referring only to classical writers. It is a groove I must confess to being in. I was asked by the editors of Focaal to write a piece on the latest Nobel prizewinners in economics. I ended up with New lamps for old: why Veblen beats the Nobel laureates.

I have made two bets. One is the classicist's: it pays to study the individuals who made a big difference to the way we think, preferably in the original. The other is that future generations will be interested in us as the primitive digging-stick operators in the biggest revolution since the invention of agriculture. They may well be most interested in our ethnographies of that moment, but I will continue to play off my practical insertion into what is moving today against my passion for intellectual history. I understand that not many people share my preoccupations, but I have not always found that an obstacle to conversation.

I believe that I am part of the long human conversation about making a better world that is thousands of years old. As Eliot once said, "The great poet is someone who immerses himself in his own tradition and then writes the next poem that is necessary to move it along." I don't think I am that poet, but I understand what is needed if I am to have a chance of becoming one.

I am not a physicist, I am an anthropologist and world historian who loves works of fiction. I sometimes think the social sciences would benefit from knowing more about what the physicists have actually achieved in the twentieth century. But the methodological discoveries of scientific modernism (relativity, quantum mechanics), never mind the new sciences of complexity that have flourished since the 1970s, are a closed book to most of them. I study the history of science too and that convinces me that most of so-called social science is merely ideology.
Beautifully written Keith. I too have had a long attraction to history, though I will admit that I have very little interest in intellectual history.

The last few days I have been working through a very good educational text on special and general relativity called Discover Relativity for Yourself. And while intellectually I can accept various ideas (like the fact that simultaneity of events is not absolute but depends on an inertial observer, yada yada yada), my intuition consistently rebels. I am confronted with a fact and my mind (no, my gut) screams 'Bullshit!'. It is very disorienting. I am sure that with time and practice seeing the world in a radically different way intellectually, my intuitions will eventually align. The book is very good because at every step it encourages you to be skeptical.

I mention this because science is sometimes accused of merely reproducing the culture that produced it, and this may be true, at least in some cases (like some of the most vulgar evolutionary psychology), but in many cases science produces radically transformative ways of seeing the world that remain out of reach to all except those willing and capable of shaking free of their visceral intuitions, reborn on scientific vision quest. And science has achieved this in part because of its basic humility.

Keith Hart said:


John McCreery said:
I wonder if preoccupation with our intellectual ancestors doesn't too often become a kind of ancestor worship.

John, at one level it is quite simple. I think like a historian and not like an ethnographer. I don't say that the rest of you should be like me, but when I am surrounded by ethnographers who know little history, I find myself trying to fiill in the gap. I get frustrated with the one-sidedness of my approach, but it is what I have become.

I admire ethnographers because I could not become one. I spent two and half years doing fieldwork with the Tallensi as migrants and at home. I thought I was very good at it. I was. Meyer Fortes recommended my PhD thesis to Cambridge University Press with the highest praise. I know because, after I had spent seven years trying and failing to write a monograph, the editor showed me his report in a vain attempt to revive my flagging spirits.

When I did write a book, it was a historical review of the secondary literature on West African agriculture, the very opposite of what I had been working on for a decade. I asked Fortes why more people didn't write such reviews, since I found it so easy (it took me three weeks to write the unadorned text). He said, "Anthropologists are like peasants, Keith. They like digging holes. But sometimes they need people like you to show them where to dig." Which was kind of him, because he could do both and I couldn't. For my job talk at Yale, I found myself improvising a historical narrative about the Tallensi which was as much intellectual as social. In any case I was already in full flight from regional ethnography into development land.

I have found that I like to teach anthropology as intellectual history. My book, The Memory Bank, which I wrote after I abandoned Cambridge for a freelance life in Paris, is ostensibly about the future of money in the digital revolution, but actually it is a retrospective of all those lectures over three decades. My Yale students wanted me to discuss with them the current clash between Chicago and Columbia in anthropological theory. One day a voice asked me in the shower, "Why would you read Marvin Harris when you haven't read Immanuel Kant?" and I listened to it. I pushed my project further back from Marx, Weber, Durkheim to Hegel, Kant, Rousseau and Locke. As an economic anthropologist, I have always felt we were handicapped by not knowing the rich history of economic ideas, a conviction I shared with my class mate, Steve Gudeman, but he also remained open to ethnography, as I did not.

In my practice as an anthropological writer, I work with colleagues who complement my onesidedness. Thus Chris Hann, who is a consummate ethnographer, and I have just completed a work on Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique. Bill Maurer and I have an ongoing conversation about money which plays on what we share as well as what we don't. I have a book coming out this week based on a collaboration with a French and a Brazilian sociologist. And so on.

I am sorry if my comments come across as a one-track record referring only to classical writers. It is a groove I must confess to being in. I was asked by the editors of Focaal to write a piece on the latest Nobel prizewinners in economics. I ended up with New lamps for old: why Veblen beats the Nobel laureates.

I have made two bets. One is the classicist's: it pays to study the individuals who made a big difference to the way we think, preferably in the original. The other is that future generations will be interested in us as the primitive digging-stick operators in the biggest revolution since the invention of agriculture. They may well be most interested in our ethnographies of that moment, but I will continue to play off my practical insertion into what is moving today against my passion for intellectual history. I understand that not many people share my preoccupations, but I have not always found that an obstacle to conversation.

I believe that I am part of the long human conversation about making a better world that is thousands of years old. As Eliot once said, "The great poet is someone who immerses himself in his own tradition and then writes the next poem that is necessary to move it along." I don't think I am that poet, but I understand what is needed if I am to have a chance of becoming one.

I am not a physicist, I am an anthropologist and world historian who loves works of fiction. I sometimes think the social sciences would benefit from knowing more about what the physicists have actually achieved in the twentieth century. But the methodological discoveries of scientific modernism (relativity, quantum mechanics), never mind the new sciences of complexity that have flourished since the 1970s, are a closed book to most of them. I study the history of science too and that convinces me that most of so-called social science is merely ideology.
John, at one level it is quite simple. I think like a historian and not like an ethnographer. I don't say that the rest of you should be like me, but when I am surrounded by ethnographers who know little history, I find myself trying to fiill in the gap. I get frustrated with the one-sidedness of my approach, but it is what I have become.

Keith, I wonder how many of us fit that description, "ethnographers who know little history"? Indeed, I wonder, how many of us are ethnographers? You and I have done fieldwork; but mine, like yours, did not result in an ethnographic monograph. Jacob has just told us that he did anthropology as an undergraduate at UCLA; he is now doing graduate work in computer science. Joel, MAI, have either of you done the classic holistic description of the way of life of a geographically bounded community?

We are all, it seems to me, looking for ways to integrate what we think we know about anthropology with the world and the places in it in which we find ourselves. The joy of OAC is that here we can find people who share some of what we know and some of what we are interested in. Your marvelous grasp of anthropology's place in history meets Jacob's interest in mathematical models. I find myself between you, learning from you both. Then someone like Joel asks a question that resonates with all our interests, and someone like MAI comes along, who opens a connection with authors and ideas of whom I have been only dimly aware or, in the case of the authors she mentions, have never encountered before. My intellectual horizons expand, and I am grateful to you all.

I don't know whether most social science is merely ideology; the more I learn the less I seem to know. What I do know is that the new sciences of complexity you mention, including the network analysis work that currently preoccupies me, look promising. I know that the early models are simplistic and the attitudes can resemble those of the physicists in the xkcd cartoon I've linked to once before, but progress is being made.

I love seeing people at work who take Georg Simmel's work on dyads and triads, strangers and social circles seriously. I note, however, that instead of endless hermeneutical wrangling about what Simmel may have meant, they follow a different scholarly path of which the physicist in the cartoon is a sharp representation. Instead of "what did Simmel mean," they say, "What if we formalized what Simmel is saying this way? What would the mathematics tell us? And how consistent is the math with the data we have to work with?"

Will they ever have the final answer to the humanist's "Yes, but..."? No. Do the models become more sophisticated and account for increasingly complex data? Yes. That looks like progress to me, progress of a kind we haven't seen a lot of since too many of our colleagues lost track of the fact that deconstruction alone doesn't build anything.
Thank you so much John. I’ll do my best to find the PDF of the book which I got from my professor who perhaps got it from his previous university, Chicago, or his links in Europe. It has been an honor and pleasure to learn from you, Keith, Joel, Nikos, Jacob, the other members of OAC, and all other anthropologists and ethnographers, particularly the way you all leave traces for people like me to start walking. It’s always fun to imitate Sherlock or Christie or the Tuareq or Alice, an experience which to my mind, almost like crossing the bar (Tennyson). Inez

(I apologize again Joel for acting like Alice, following her rabbits … .)

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