Reviews

Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words

David Camak Pratt

Although worthwhile to have his interviews compiled and contextualized as they are here, one might as well just read Lévi-Strauss


Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Words

Director: Pierre -Andre Boutang;Annie Chevallay
Cast: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Vincent Debaene, Frédéric Keck
Distributor: Arte / Facets
Rated: not rated
Year: 2008
US DVD release date: 2009-07-28

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.

5


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.