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: Especially in the section on kinship, you write a lot about Lévi-Strauss’ approach to gender, how at least in his early works women occupied a structural role in exchange between societies, making other forms of exchange possible. In the hope of eliciting a nuanced answer from you with a simple question: Is Lévi-Strauss sexist?
PFT: I think one needs to locate Lévi-Strauss’ analysis of kinship in European philosophical and political discourses about the origins of the social rather than as a strictly scientific analysis of exchange. This includes of course Hobbes, Rousseau, Freud and many others. Gender is one critical lens that we can use to re-read this material.
DOS: In the last line of the book you write that our response as post-moderns to Lévi-Strauss can only be a “wry smile.” What do you think was the most important legacy that Lévi-Strauss left for us?
PFT: The fact is Lévi-Strauss’ writings and structuralism in general created huge intellectual excitement—the sort of buzz and the kind of hope that, in retrospect, seems naïve. Structuralism seemed, if only fleetingly, to offer the chance to establish the human sciences as sciences, in a fashion not dissimilar to the kinds of claims that are being made today about neo-Darwinian theory. But beyond that utopian false dawn, it spawned a genuine inter-disciplinarity not just between anthropology and linguistics but feeding into Marxism, history, literary analysis, psychoanalysis, music, cognitive theory, cybernetics and information theory…The list could go on. I think it’s a remarkable legacy. Scholarship today seems to push us into narrower and narrower specialisms, closing down the kinds of conversations and critical collaborations that genuinely add to knowledge and understanding. Lévi-Strauss was thoroughly engaged in his time and that kind of engagement is sorely lacking today.
DOS: Do you use Lévi-Strauss in your own work?
PFT: I’m not sure that it is possible to deny that one is, at some level, a structuralist today. As I’ve already indicated, since writing the book I have been thinking a lot about the relationships between his work and that of contemporary debates in cognitivist circles. There is also an interesting article by Boris Wiseman on a sort of sensorium of Lévi-Strauss which I think may have some applications in research I’m currently engaged in exploring how different environmental contexts (forests, slums and gated communities in the Philippines) spark different bodily and cognitive capacities for well-being.
DOS: How important do you think it is for undergraduates and graduate students to be reading Lévi-Strauss? Should he be included in the canon that we use to train future scholars of religion? And if so, can he be more than a link in a genealogical chain, the series of intellectual moments that have led us to our present scholarly landscape of complexity and conceptual pluralism?
PFT: I think it’s vital that RS undergraduate students read Lévi-Strauss as part of their training. But it’s essential that students are able to get their teeth into social theory in general and to trace the traditions, genealogies and lineages that have constituted the study of religions. The study of religions is really just one part of a much bigger conversation that includes political science, sociology, philosophy and anthropology which has sought to understand and explain the varied mechanisms through which we are able to establish durable connections with one another. Religion is just one mode of producing such connections. Studying Lévi-Strauss is one excellent pathway into that conversation.
DOS: And finally: If you’re willing to speculate, what do you think Lévi-Strauss would have thought of the movie Avatar?
PFT: I haven’t seen the film but if his taste in music is anything to go by, I doubt he would have liked it.