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Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009)


French anthropologist.
Claude Levi-Strauss
Freedom is neither a legal invention nor a philosophical conquest, the cherished possession of civilizations more valid than others because they alone have been able to create or preserve it. It is the outcome of an objective relationship between the individual and the space he occupies, between the consumer and the resources at his disposal.
Levi-Strauss quotes
While I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see.
Levi-Strauss
The police are not entrusted with a mission which differentiates them from those they serve. Being unconcerned with ultimate purposes, they are inseparable from the persons and interests of their masters, and shine with their reflected glory.




Levi-Strauss Claude quotes
Apart from the advantages accruing from from praying ardently to Marx, a facility for startling and often entertaining play upon words, suitable for a salon, account no doubt for much of Lévi-Strauss’s celebrity although […] equally effective in this respect must be his highly original technique of persuasion (reminiscent of a sorcerer’s spell casing) based on threatening people with mathematics: muttering darkly about algebraic matrices and transformations without revealing their exact nature.
Levi-Strauss Claude
Not only does a journey transport us over enormous distances, it also causes us to move a few degrees up or down in the social scale. It displaces us physically and also — for better or for worse — takes us out of our class context, so that the colour and flavour of certain places cannot be dissociated from the always unexpected social level on which we find ourselves in experiencing them.
Claude Levi-Strauss quotes
The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.
Claude Levi-Strauss
These facts make the creator of music a being like the gods, and make music itself the supreme mystery of human knowledge.
Levi-Strauss Claude quotes
The true meaning of myth, Lévi-Strauss held, lay below the narrative surface, and was to be detected by considering the changes apparent in different versions of the same legend. In his own metaphor, he studied the relationship between various narratives rather as a musician would seek to weave together different instrumental parts to form a symphony.
Levi-Strauss
Enthusiastic partisans of the idea of progress are in danger of failing to recognize — because they set so little store by them — the immense riches accumulated by the human race on either side of the narrow furrow on which they keep their eyes fixed; by underrating the achievements of the past, they devalue all those which still remain to be accomplished.
Levi-Strauss Claude
I would go as far as to say (as my anger comes back) that any attempt to codify musical reality into a kind of imitation grammar (I refer mainly to the efforts associated with the Twelve-Tone System) is a brand of fetishism which shares with Fascism and racism the tendency to reduce live processes to immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. Claude Lévi-Strauss describes (though to illustrate a different point) a captain at sea, his ship reduced to a frail raft without sails, who, by enforcing a meticulous protocol on his crew, is able to distract them from nostalgia for a safe harbor and from the desire for a destination.
Claude Levi-Strauss
The idea behind structuralism is that there are things we may not know but we can learn how they are related to each other. This has been used by science since it existed and can be extended to a few other studies — linguistics and mythology — but certainly not to everything.
The great speculative structures are made to be broken. There is not one of them that can hope to last more than a few decades, or at most a century or two.




Claude Levi-Strauss quotes
[Serialism] is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain, who has grown tired of its being used only as a pontoon, and who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination.…
Claude Levi-Strauss
Teaching and research are not to be confused with training for a profession. Their greatness and their misfortune is that they are a refuge or a mission.
Levi-Strauss quotes
If we judge the achievements of other social groups in relation to the kind of objectives we set ourselves, we have at times to acknowledge their superiority; but in doing so we acquire the right to judge them, and hence to condemn all their other objectives which do not coincide with those we approve of. We implicitly acknowledge that our society with its customs and norms enjoys a privileged position, since an observer belonging to another social group would pass different verdicts on the same examples. This being so, how can the study of anthropology claim to be scientific? To reestablish an objective approach, we must abstain from making judgments of this kind. We must accept the fact that each society has made a certain choice, within the range of existing human possibilities, and that the various choices cannot be compared with each other: they are all equally valid. But in this case a new problem arises; while in the first instance we were in danger of falling into obscurantism, in the form of a blind refusal of everything foreign to us, we now run the risk of accepting a kind of eclecticism which would prevent us denouncing any feature of a given culture — not even cruelty, injustice and poverty, against which the very society suffering these ills may be protesting. And since these abuses also exist in our society, what right have we to combat them at home, if we accept them as inevitable when they occur elsewhere?
Levi-Strauss Claude
In the case of European towns, the passing of centuries provides an enhancement; in the case of American towns, the passing of years brings degeneration. It is not simply that they have been newly built; they were built so as to be renewable as quickly as they were put up, that is, badly.
Levi-Strauss Claude quotes
He represents an extremely subversive vision with his interest in populations that were disdained. He paid careful attention, not touristically but profoundly, to the human beings on the earth who think differently from us. It’s a respect for others, which is very strong and very moving. He knew that cultural diversity is necessary for cultural creativity, for the future.
Claude Levi-Strauss
The image a society evolves of the relationship between the living and the dead is, in the final analysis, an attempt, on the level of religious thought, to conceal, embellish or justify the actual relationships which prevail among the living.
Claude Levi-Strauss quotes
Natural man did not precede society, nor is he outside it.
Claude Levi-Strauss
I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions. But how long it has taken me to make up my mind to do so! It is now fifteen years since I left Brazil for the last time and all during this period I have often planned to undertake the present work but on each occasion a sort of shame and repugnance prevented me from making a start. Why, I asked myself, should I give a detailed account of so many trivial circumstances and insignificant happenings? Adventure has no place in the anthropologists profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is not available; periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose and reduce dangerous living in the heart of the virgin forest to an imitation of military service … The fact that so much effort and expenditure has to be wasted on reaching the object of our studies bestows no value on that aspect of our profession, and should be seen rather as its negative side. The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when we have separated them from this dross.
Levi-Strauss Claude
Logically, the "infantilization" of the culprit implied by the notion of punishment demands that he should have a corresponding right to a reward, in the absence of which the initial procedure will prove ineffective and may even lead to results contrary to those that were hoped for. Our system is the height of absurdity, since we treat the culprit both as a child, so as to have the right to punish him, and as an adult, in order to deny him consolation; and we believe we have made great spiritual progress because, instead of eating a few of our fellow-men, we subject them to physical and moral mutilation.


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