I interviewed Paul-François Tremlett in early 2012, hoping to draw out some of the links between his 2008 book Lévi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind (Equinox Publishing) and the relevance of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss for the contemporary study of religion. The result was a fascinating, insightful conversation, presented here in 3 parts.
Part 1: Lévi-Strauss’s connections to theory and method in the study of religion and cognitive science of religion.
Part 2: Politics and Post-Structuralism
Part 3: Gender and Lévi-Strauss’s legacy
DOS: The book helped me understand Lévi-Strauss’ political agenda (such as changing the name of his chaired professorship from the “Study of Religions of Non-Civilized People” to “Comparative Religion of Peoples Without Writing”) as well as aspects of his context that situate his work politically (for instance, your discussion on page 75 of the meaning of the French word sauvage and how the full spectrum of its associations in French is erased when translated into the pejorative English word “savage”). You also write that Lévi-Strauss was a member of the Socialist Party as a young man but would later denounce the May 1968 demonstrations in France. How do you think Lévi-Strauss viewed himself politically? Did he see his scholarship as political labor and if so, in what political directions was he pushing?
PFT: When reading Tristes Tropiques one is struck by Lévi-Strauss’ empathy and anger for the horror that the West has visited on the peoples it colonized. The passions of Tristes Tropiques are absent in his more strictly academic writings. But in the essays ‘Race and History’ and ‘Race and Culture’ some of the issues that Lévi-Strauss broaches in Tristes Tropiques are refracted through theoretical models that seem to divest the analysis of any agonistic politics. I found Lévi-Strauss frustrating on this score, but I would be a poor inheritor of the structuralist legacy if I agreed to your invitation and began to impute psychological states or intentions to Lévi-Strauss!
DOS: I really liked your nuanced discussion of Jacques Derrida’s critique of Lévi-Strauss in Chapter 6 (“The Structure of Nostalgia”)—pointing out both its direct hits and its misses. I’ve read that critique so many times but I feel like the book helped me appreciate it in a new light. Could you say more, though, about an earlier passage, where you write, “Derrida’s critiques of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss suggested not a post- or anti-structuralism but perhaps instead a revitalized and expanded one, inspired by Nietzsche.” (p. 24). What do you mean by this? Of course it’s a truism that the prefix post- is always an inclusion as well as a passage beyond, but how, specifically, do you see this working in Derrida’s critique?
PFT: Derrida’s work is all about the ruses and duplicities of meaning—we might note a debt to Freud’s work on dreams, jokes and slips of the tongue—and about the fact that texts contain or convey only the illusion of authorial intention and, as such, are constantly un-done by the “play” of meanings that language always sets in motion. For Derrida the metaphysics of presence is the central delusion of the Western philosophical tradition, and there is a sense of tragedy that emerges from this condition, a sense that we are condemned to misunderstand, to fail in our quest for intimacy. I think the tragedy that Derrida’s critique of presence points to has powerful Nietzschean (and Judaeo-Christian) undertones, and that sense of tragedy is also played out in Derrida’s critique of Tristes Tropiques where Lévi-Strauss was reflecting on his time with the Nambikwara. In short, Derrida makes sense for me as a post-Freudian and post-Nietzschean thinker. The post-structuralist moniker is another way in for reading Derrida—namely through Saussure’s idea of difference which Derrida seizes on and pushes to its limit.
DOS: I loved your line that Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship “[wants] not just to eat his cake but indeed to take possession of the entire bakery.” This is a criticism that is often leveled, justly or unjustly, against “theory.” Is Lévi-Strauss part of the transformation of theory over the course of the 20th century—its possible scope, its “inspired audacity,” as you call it?
PFT: Structuralism was a big deal—it promised a lot and generated a great deal of excitement. I think Lévi-Strauss and structuralism are hugely important to developments in theory in the twentieth century. As I said before, I cannot overstate their importance. Perhaps the biggest irony is that the anthropologists will likely be the last ones to return to Lévi-Strauss because of the indelible association of structuralist ethnography with a complete absence of historical sense. And of course it is always, in retrospect, easy to criticize the excesses of theory. But those excesses are necessary. They are part of the process of building theory, of formulating hypotheses and of developing narratives. That is where our objectivity, in the human sciences, comes from—from the objections and from the conversations that goods idea put in play.
DOS: Going back to the question of Lévi-Strauss’ adoption in religious studies: in my corners of the field there seems to be a lot more discussion of Mauss than of Lévi-Strauss. Does this match your experience?
PFT: Lévi-Strauss was a significant part of my training in anthropology. However, except for The Gift I never read Mauss until much later, after I started reading Bourdieu and decided to excavate the notion of ‘habitus’.
DOS: You seem to suggest on page 32 that Lévi-Strauss misreads Mauss. How do you see that misreading unfolding? And do you see it as a strong misreading that productively appropriates Mauss’ work, or a mistake that weakens Lévi-Strauss’ project?
PFT: I wasn’t suggesting that Lévi-Strauss had misread Mauss; Mauss’ work on reciprocity is obviously central to The Elementary Structures of Kinship. However, whereas for Mauss the analysis of reciprocity is at the same time a critique of capitalist modernity, with Lévi-Strauss it becomes a question that will be solved mathematically through the generation of models.