Remembering Claude Lévi-Strauss, Academic Giant

Anthropology theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss dies at 100

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Claude Lévi-Strauss, defining French anthropologist of the twentieth century, has died at the age of 100. For devotees and dilettantes who know of the "anthropology god" (as Gawker calls him) what should be remembered at his passing? As the obituaries begin to roll in, here are what journalists are remembering about the eccentric academic:

  • Complex Work  Calling Lévi-Strauss's studies "erudite, often mind-bendingly labored," the Washington Post's Alexander Remington describes his work "popularizing a social science theory known as 'structuralism.'" Structuralism is "a philosophical method of approaching anthropology that identified behavioral codes that were crucial to the functioning of any society and that are inherent in the human mind." An example: Instinctive  "culinary distinctions between roasting and boiling."  He pulls from Levi-Strauss's pages: "'Boiling provides a means of complete conservation of the meat and its juices, whereas roasting is accompanied by destruction and loss,' he wrote. 'Thus one denotes economy; the other prodigality; the latter is aristocratic, the former plebian.'" Unsurprisingly, given this sentence, Reuters's Estelle Shirbon also recalls the scholar's erudition: "Levi-Strauss was not the most accessible of thinkers and many of his works are impenetrable to laymen, but he managed to transcend the esoteric bounds of science with 'Tristes Tropiques.'"
  • Predicted the End of Humanity  In said title, Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss discussed his belief that the world would end devoid of humans, and likely showing little sign of their previous existence. "A safe prediction," pronounces Gawker's Hamilton Nolan.
  • Eccentric, with a Following that Fluctuated  This work's "opening sentence--'I hate voyages and explorers'--was hardly designed to win the approval of his scientific peers," notes Estelle Shirbon, but "lovers of literature considered it a triumph." Alexander Remington likewise observes that the scholar seemed "[i]mpossibly precious to some," marrying as it did varying fields like philosophy and comparative literature: "[H]is reputation as a theorist constantly bounced in and out of favor." He was likewise unusual in his hobbies, Bloomberg's David Henry adds: "Levi-Strauss had a passion for classical music and referred to Marxism, psychoanalysis and geology as his 'three mistresses' in life."
  • Generationally Relevant, But Perhaps Over-Emphasized?  Arthur Goldhammer has the dissenting opinion at the Global Post, writing that "A more rigorous history of the age will probably reduce Lévi-Strauss's role considerably, and his work was never received with the same warmth outside France as inside it." Here's his take on the academic, whom he admits had a "formidable mind":
In some ways too much was always made of his role. The title of the book with which he first made his mark, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, provided a word, "structure," which became an emblem for all sorts of things that should never have been yoked together, but given the slapdash way in which intellectual "movements" are often conjured up out of very little more than ragtag platoons of irregulars, the word, and the "mythology" of "structuralism," if I may put it that way, colored the way in which a whole generation came of age intellectually.
  • Indisputably Influential  British publication the Telegraph writes that Lévi-Strauss "was widely considered the father of modern anthropology." David Henry provides evidence of the intellectual's influence: Such giants as "Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida cited Levi-Strauss’s methods in their social analyses," while Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach described him in 1970 as "the most distinguished exponent of this particular academic trade to be found anywhere outside the English-speaking world."

The French love affair with Levi-Strauss endured until the end of his life. Shirbon writes that "[t]he academy that awards France's most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, announced the night before making public their choice that year that they regretted being unable to choose 'Tristes Tropiques' because it was not a novel." The ultra-elite organ of French intellectualism, the Academie Française, plans a tribute to its late member later this week, the Telegraph reports.

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