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Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words

Director: Pierre -Andre Boutang;Annie Chevallay
Cast: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Vincent Debaene, Frédéric Keck

(US DVD: 28 Jul 2009)

The Lévi-Strauss DVD is essentially an academic tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss. It consists of two French television programs: Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words and Regarding ‘Tristes Tropiques’. As an academic tribute, the DVD succeeds. It presents Lévi-Strauss’ most famous and important ideas, provides footage of the man elaborating on those ideas, and adds a tastefully restrained amount of personal detail.


The market for this DVD outside of the classroom is, of course, fairly narrow. Those presently outside academia, their coursework long behind them but their appreciation for the 20th-century French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss intact, might find reason to watch it. However, the narrator states in his prologue to Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words that the intention of the program is to fascinate the viewer with the anthropologist’s ideas so that the viewer might seek out and read the scholar’s work. Shortly thereafter, Vincent Debaene, a professor at Columbia University, explains that “Lévi-Strauss is very readable” and “he must be read”.


The question of how widely Lévi-Strauss can and should be read is a theme throughout Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words, and only one commentator (Frédéric Keck) suggests that the man’s work might require a little more patience than the average reader is willing to give. What this central question of readability ignores is that just about anyone viewing this DVD will have already read Lévi-Strauss’ work. The programs on this DVD masquerade as attempts to widen Lévi-Strauss’ audience, but since it is unlikely anyone without at least aspirations to the academy would watch Lévi-Strauss, the programs here merely preach to a well-read choir.


The Lévi-Strauss DVD is not without virtue, of course. The man is a very important scholar, and it is worthwhile to have his television interviews compiled and contextualized as they are here. All the same, this DVD does not add much to one’s appreciation of Lévi-Strauss’ contributions to Western thought. If one is inclined to watch this DVD, one might as well read Lévi-Strauss, instead.


For those who need incentive, here are some of the juiciest bits of knowledge summarized on the Lévi-Strauss DVD and elaborated upon in the anthropologist’s oeuvre:


To start, two key pieces of background information: Claude Lévi-Strauss is the founder of structural anthropology, a school of thought based on the notion that life on Earth is subject to laws of organization. Since there is such determinate structure to all life, random chance determines nothing.


The publication of Tristes Tropiques, a first-person account of the anthropological fieldwork that led Lévi-Strauss to his structuralist worldview, made him an academic superstar. Also worthy of note: in 2008, Lévi-Strauss turned 100 years old.


Lévi-Strauss helped to develop a field known as ethnology, in which distant cultures are studied so that, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, “nothing human remains foreign to us”. Stressing his structuralist underpinnings, Lévi-Strauss also notes that “the essence of ethnological research is an act of faith in the universality of human reason”. In other words, ethnologists perform their research expecting to find similarities, even identicalities, between distant cultures.


According to Lévi-Strauss, one key component (the key component) to the structure of civilized human life is the prohibition of incest. As long as a group of people who coexist agree that incest is strictly taboo, that group is a society.


According to Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words, Lévi-Strauss was “an ecologist before his time” because his research among societies tied to their land allowed him to make connections between the natural world and the human world that his contemporaries could not make. Having made the connection, Lévi-Strauss became pessimistic. He questions humanity’s ability to sustain itself much longer, for we seem to be “not that different from flour worms” that toxify their living environment long before they run out of resources.


Lastly, Lévi-Strauss is no Indiana Jones. He believes that “adventure has no place in the anthropologist’s profession”. That the researcher must go far afield into unknown and perhaps dangerous territory to study his subjects is a hindrance to the field, not one of its perks.


And if that tidbit doesn’t make you want to read Lévi-Strauss, Lévi-Strauss the DVD won’t, either.

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