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Frédéric Keck: How I discovered Claude Lévi-Strauss through French Theory

Frédéric Keck has kindly provided us with a brief account of his personal exchanges with Lévi-Strauss, the legacy of his work, and how he contributed to Keck’s exploration of French anthropology. Keck is currently a researcher in social anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in France (CNRS):

How I discovered Claude Lévi-Strauss through « French Theory »
[January 25, 2010]

Frédéric Keck

After the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss on October 31st 2009, local newspapers celebrated « the last French intellectual ». Lost in the murky waters of a debate on « national identity », France seems to have found in Lévi-Strauss a collective totem to recall the grandeur of its cultural production. It would have been more faithful to the historical truth, and to the structuralist method itself, to talk about « the last Franco-American intellectual ». Lévi-Strauss always claimed that everything he knew about anthropology he learnt in the libraries of New York during the war. And he continues the tradition of American cultural anthropology, founded by Franz Boas, as well as the French tradition of social thought, opened by Auguste Comte. Hence the acronym he created for his chair at the Collège de France, mixing these two traditions: social anthropology. The extraordinary creativity of Lévi-Strauss’s works probably comes from the fact that they were produced at this limit between two intellectual traditions: the prestigious French history from Montaigne to Rousseau, and the tragic American history, from anonymous Indian myth-tellers to the exiled figures of Boas and Jakobson. This double origin also accounts for the fact that, in a catastrophic century such as the one which has just passed and in which Lévi-Strauss  happened to live, he displayed such a belief in the rationality of Enlightenment, thus giving us reasons to hope for the coming future.

It is true that in the last ten years Lévi-Strauss appeared more as a literary writer than as a scientist. It was one of the reasons why he survived the demise of structuralism: his anthropological work was overcome by critics coming from cognitive sciences and postmodern  politics, but his writings still showed this marvelous classical style. Hence the incredible success of the publication of his « œuvres » in the prestigious « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade » where major literary writers are raised to eternity. In this volume, he republished not only Tristes tropiques, the book that made him famous and that he considered with remorse as an undue confession, but also Le totémisme aujourd’hui and La pensée sauvage, two books that he conceived as one and that constitute a major philosophical step in twentieth century thought. He added what he called his « small Mythologics » – La voie des masques, La potière jalouse and Histoire de Lynx – to present to a wider public the refined methods of his « tetralogy », and finally Regarder écouter lire, a free wandering in the great works of art of his personal memory. Since I contributed to the edition of this volume (with Vincent Debaene, Marie Mauzé and Martin Rueff), I have had to explain how it was gathered, and the signification it has taken in our current intellectual situation.

As many researchers of my generation, I came to anthropology through a reading of what is now called « French Theory »: a constellation of French thinkers who are widely read and used in the United States and elsewhere, but seldom mentioned in their own context of production. I learnt anthropology at UC Berkeley under the enlightened supervision of Paul Rabinow because I wanted to know how the works of Michel Foucault could be put to the test of fieldwork. When I came back to France in 2000, I was surprised to see that this kind of anthropology was not under great consideration. I had to do a PhD on the history of French anthropology starting from Auguste Comte’s notion of fetishism until what came to be known as theories of « primitive mentality ». I sent this work to Claude Lévi-Strauss who very kindly wrote me a letter in 2003 and started a correspondence about the various publications I was to extract from this work. Lévi-Strauss could be extremely severe in his comments, not so much on theoretical points, for which he gave me the greatest freedom as when I compared his notion of « savage mind » to that of « logic of practice » in Bourdieu, but on empirical data, as when he told me I had made mistakes on the Navaho classifications of Artemisia frigida or in the description of the Gulo luscus in the Hidatsa eagle-hunting ritual. I was amazed to see that the precision of details on natural environments was more important to him than theoretical debates long overdated. This attitude was confirmed by the attention he gave to the edition of his works in « La Pléiade » and by the generosity he showed in answering our minute questions. I often felt embarrassed to ask him when he wrote such and such text – he never had the memory of dates and was desperately searching in his immense past – but I was rewarded with nice documents lent by his shaking hand, and with the spectacle of him reading while I was working in his apartment.

It now seems to me that the rigor with which Lévi-Strauss dealt with anthropological knowledge is one of the causes of the extraordinary stimulation produced by the works of « French Theory ». Lévi-Strauss was not doing theory for itself but to give a new visibility to empirical data that remain in themselves unordered and unnoticed.  His totalizing notion of an unconscious structure has been criticized for the prejudices it carries, but the way this theory was put to work still remains accessible in his writing, particularly thanks to the formidable twist he imposed with the use of the notion of groups of transformations in his Mythologics. As such, it still continues to produce among the most exciting works of anthropology, on Amerindian cosmologies or on global forms of scientific knowledge. Reading and meeting Lévi-Strauss when he was alive was a way to go back to the sources of « French Theory », and to give it a new productivity. It was probably necessary to practice once again Lévi-Strauss’s detour through American anthropology to understand why he is not only « the last French intellectual », but the impulse for new intellectual work to come in a global community.


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