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  • Lévi-Strauss, Deleuze, and the Joy of Abstraction
  • Eleanor Kaufman

Gilles Deleuze insists at different points that the most radical possibility for thought (if not politics) is to become more, not less, abstract. It is this potential for becoming more abstract that I will locate as the hinge point between what might be narrated as Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism and Deleuze’s poststructuralism: in short, Lévi-Strauss never fully crosses into the promised land of abstraction, remaining too insistent on the return to the concrete, whereas Deleuze insists on the need to bring the concrete back to the abstract. This is not to claim that the so-called poststructuralist moment ever really left the fundamental orientations of structuralism (and the mark of this non-abandon is the continual tension in both domains between the drive to the two-or four-part schema and the concomitant appeal to the univocity of the one single term that encompasses everything). Moreover, traversing both French structuralism and “French poststructuralism” as it extends from Jean-Paul Sartre to Deleuze and on to Alain Badiou, is a preoccupation, often not acknowledged as such, with the inhuman, making it a central term of what I would claim to be a continuous twentiethcentury French philosophical project. Insofar as the inhuman numbered structure would seem to reside at the heart of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology, we might also ask to what degree the “anthropo-” in anthropology is a misnomer. On the one hand, Lévi-Strauss embraces the inhuman structure in all its abstraction, yet on the other he calls for a return to the concrete. By contrast, Deleuze will formulate a movement from the abstract to the concrete and back to the abstract, which has an even stronger affinity with Karl Marx’s model of capital.

It is first useful to survey a range of critical commentary, some coming from Lévi-Strauss himself, that asserts that his is not a humanist, subject-oriented project. As Christopher Johnson writes in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years:

Parallel to the desacralization of the object of anthropology is what one might term the dehumanization of the subject. If anthropology’s point of departure is the lived experience of fieldwork, the concrete interaction of [End Page 447] the ethnologist with the other culture and his or her testimony of that experience, then in Lévi-Strauss the destination of such experience is the abstraction of structural analysis. . . . The effective suspension of human agency one finds in structuralism is of course already present in the discipline Lévi-Strauss sees as its main inspiration, linguistics.1

Johnson’s analysis underscores the antihumanist dimension of Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre, and more specifically the movement from the concrete to the abstract. Whereas the “point of departure” of anthropology centers on questions of “lived experience” and “the concrete interaction of the ethnologist with the other culture,” the movement that Lévi-Strauss inaugurates bypasses these dimensions to land at the “destination” of “the abstraction of structural analysis.” Even if this antihumanist tendency is already present in linguistics, in the anthropological domain it must follow the trajectory from the concrete to the abstract.

The dominant refrain of critical writing about Lévi-Strauss emphasizes the idea that he comes to rest at the abstract, at the structure itself, and cannot get beyond this. This is often articulated as the shortcoming inherent in Lévi-Strauss’s omnipresent structures. In Elementary Structures Reconsidered, Francis Korn asserts, “With respect to the concept of ‘structure’ as used in Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, there is no consistent meaning to the term throughout the book. ‘Structure’ is assimilated by Lévi-Strauss to ‘regulating principle,’ or to the Gestalt concept of ‘whole,’ or alternatively to the division of societies into actual institutions such as moieties, sections, and subsections.”2 Not only does everything come to rest at the level of the structure, according to Korn, but structure becomes so general that it emcompasses a whole range of categories. Jonathan Culler writes in Structuralist Poetics, in reference to Lévi-Strauss’s four-part structural mapping of the Oedipus myth, that...


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pp. 447-458
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