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Hommage à Claude Lévi-Strauss

« Structural anthropology? Well, you see: c’est la bonne anthropologie ». A tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss

Philippe Erikson
p. 12-15

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Lévi-Strauss (Claude)

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Lévi-Strauss (Claude)

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1Last spring, the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) held its Fifth Sesquiannual Meeting in Europe, first in Oxford (June 17-20, 2008), then in Paris (June 21st, 2008). A few hundred feet from the Eiffel Tower, and on the year of his 100th birthday, it was a dreamt opportunity to pay homage to Claude Lévi-Strauss. The British part of the program, convened by Laura Rival (assisted by Istvan Praet), was sponsored by the University of Oxford and took place at the Maison française d’Oxford. It was mostly devoted to general Amazonian anthropology. The French part of the program, organized by Philippe Erikson with support from the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative of the University of Paris X-Nanterre, was hosted by Anne Christine Taylor at the musée du Quai Branly. It was centered around a tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Journal de la Société des Américanistes is pleased to prolong that event with this special issue, which includes transcripts of the recorded sessions (papers and general discussion).

2SALSA’s homage happened to take place on the eve of summer solstice: Not only the longest day of the year, but also one devoted to what is known in France as « la fête de la Musique ». This fortunate coincidence added extra meaning to the event, making it quite clear that we had not gathered for funeral orations, but to celebrate Lévi-Strauss’ intellectual longevity and the great man’s musical approach to life and anthropology. Because of space limitations at the Museum, only 96 people were able to attend SALSA’s « Special day in Paris » (which indeed it was). However, quality and diversity made up for sheer numbers. Less than a third of the guests (31) were French; 24 came from other European countries (14 from the United Kingdom, others from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Poland, Spain…); 23 came from North America (United States and Canada) and 18 from the South of the continent (including no less than 14 from Brazil).

3The homage mainly consisted of a round-table during which four prominent Amazonian specialists (Stephen Hugh-Jones, Patrick Menget, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, and Philippe Descola), spoke half an hour each, followed by another half hour of general discussion, allowing other distinguished colleagues to further enrich the debate (Fernando Santos Granero, Laura Rival, Carlos Fausto, Harald Prins, Jonathan Hill and Steven Rubenstein). Marcelo Fiorini of the American University of Paris ended the session with a presentation of unreleased rushes of an interview he had recently conducted with Claude Lévi-Strauss, and pictures of his recent Nambikwara fieldwork showing postures strikingly similar to those portrayed by Lévi-Strauss himself in the mid nineteen thirties. His Visual-Anthropological talk attempted:

to cast a new light on Lévi-Strauss’ fieldwork by showing recent photographs and images of the Nambikwara, how the Wakalitesu have kept their own archives with unpublished photos of Lévi-Strauss’ expedition and how one of their elders still remembers quite vividly the passage of the anthropologist through his community (images from a new documentary film to be broadcast in France by November 2008). [author’s summary]

4Because of its exceptionally animated and graphic nature, only very limited amounts of Fiorini’s material could be included in the following pages, mainly photographs signed Marcelo Fortaleza Flores (his artistic pseudonym). These proceedings are also enlivened with illustrations taken from Lévi-Strauss, with gratefully acknowledged authorization.

5Three of the main speakers of the round-table were former students of Lévi-Strauss, and occupy (or have occupied) academic positions that were once held by Lévi-Strauss himself: Carneiro da Cunha at the Universidade de São Paulo, Descola at the Collège de France and Menget at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. The fourth panellist (Stephen Hugh-Jones) is a no less authorized commentator, his work having been described by Maurice Bloch as « sans doute le commentaire le mieux informé et le plus subtil des thèses de Lévi-Strauss jamais écrit en langue anglaise » [« probably the best informed and subtlest commentary of Lévi-Strauss’ work ever written in English »] (Bloch 2004, p. 354).

6Due to a misunderstanding regarding who was supposed to formally invite Philippe Descola (the musée du Quai Branly or the University of Nanterre), by the time his attendance was finally confirmed, our colleague had already submitted his paper elsewhere (Descola, forthcoming). Only a few significant excerpts of his text have therefore been added in the discussion section, whereas the three other contributions – transcribed and edited by Philippe Erikson, who also added the endnotes and compiled most of the references – are included in extenso. All texts were revised by their authors, the spoken words have been minimally edited to make them conform to the more rigid conventions of print, and Casey High is to be thanked for reading the English proofs.

7Stephen Hugh Jones’ presentation shows, that:

British social anthropologists played a pioneering role in the explosion of ethnographic research on lowland South America that began in the mid sixties, the period that Lévi-Strauss’ major works began to appear in English translation. Lévi-Strauss’ writings inspired some of this early research and his ideas on exchange, marriage, myth, and other topics have remained a constant point of reference up till the present. However, with few exceptions, Lévi-Strauss’ influence has been rather less than one might at first imagine. This, I suggest, is because some key features of Lévi-Strauss’ conception of anthropology were often at odds with the vision of the British anthropologists who mediated his ideas to younger generations of Americanists. I suggest finally that in order to realise the full potential of what has happened since the sixties, a return to a Lévi-Straussian vision would be in order. [author’s summary]

8The second speaker, Patrick Menget, focused his speech on the legacy of Lévi-Strauss and the impact of his early contributions to kinship studies, from its initial reception by Josselin de Jong in 1952 to more recent developments by Laurent Barry in 2008. Having studied in the late 1960’s at Harvard University, Menget added further comments about Maybury-Lewis’ understanding of dual organisations, a topic Hugh-Jones had also covered. Part of Menget’s presentation relied upon excerpts of a long, and so far unpublished interview of Lévi-Strauss, which he had undertaken in the late 1970’s.

9Finally, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha’s paper, simply but quite appropriately entitled « Lévi-Strauss aujourd’hui » [« Lévi-Strauss today »], sums up in most elegant fashion the spirit of this tribute, with a presentation (in French) combining humorous anecdotal reminiscences of Lévi-Strauss’ days in São Paulo (ranging from the 1930’s to 1985) with more thought-provoking epistemological considerations about the reception (or lack thereof) of his work in both Brazil and the United States. Carneiro da Cunha’s paper also provides much needed explanations about the enigmatic « canonical formula » and convincingly argues that most of Lévi-Strauss’ post-structuralist detractors actually used arguments that they might just as well have found in the great man’s own writings.

10Obviously, decades after the publication of his main work, and exactly one century after his birth, it would be most illusory to hope this homage will reveal any truly groundbreaking discovery about Lévi-Strauss’ contribution to general anthropology. All we did, all we could do, was to invite a panel of highly qualified Amazonists, enjoy hearing what they had to say, and finally transcribe it for publication here, in the very Journal in which Lévi-Strauss published his first truly influential paper and part of his doctoral dissertation (Lévi-Strauss 1936; 1948). During the special day in Paris, three of our most eloquent colleagues were content with simply repeating Stephen Hugh-Jones’ statement that Lévi-Strauss « is not only the greatest living anthropologist, but also the greatest anthropologist, full stop ». That wraps it up in many ways. However, the papers collected here will have fulfilled their purpose if they help readers to better understand how, in 2008, specialists of Lowland South American ethnology stand with respect to structuralism, and why Lévi-Strauss’ writings still bear outstanding relevance for the future of our discipline.

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Barry Laurent
2008 La parenté, Gallimard, Paris, 2008.

Bloch Maurice
2004 « Lévi-Strauss chez les Britanniques », in Michel Izard (éd.), Claude Lévi-Strauss, Éditions de l’Herne, « Cahier de L’Herne », Paris, pp. 349-356.

Descola Philippe
s. d. « The two natures of Lévi-Strauss », in Boris Wiseman (éd.), The Cambridge Companion to Lévi-Strauss, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Josselin de Jong J. P. B.
1952 Lévi-Strauss’s theory on kinship and marriage, Brill, Mededlingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 10, Leiden.

Lévi-Strauss Claude
1936 « Contribution à l’étude de l’organisation sociale des Indiens Bororo [Contribution to the study of the social organization of the Bororo Indians] », Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris, nouvelle série, XXVIII, pp. 269-304.

1948 « La vie familiale et sociale des indiens Nambikwara [Family and social life of the Nambikwara Indians] », Journal de la Société des Américanistes, nouvelle série, XXXVII, 426 p., 11 pl., 8 cartes, 34 fig.

1973 « Le champ de l’anthropologie », in Anthropologie Structurale deux, Plon, Paris.

1994 Saudades do Brasil, Plon, Paris.

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Philippe Erikson, « « Structural anthropology? Well, you see: c’est la bonne anthropologie ». A tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss »Journal de la Société des américanistes, 94-2 | 2008, 12-15.

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Philippe Erikson, « « Structural anthropology? Well, you see: c’est la bonne anthropologie ». A tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss »Journal de la Société des américanistes [En ligne], 94-2 | 2008, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2009, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Philippe Erikson

LESC/Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

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