Claude Lévi-Strauss: the Poet in the Laboratory

Between his own publication of Tristes tropiques in 1955 and Jacques Derrida's publication of De la grammatologie in 1967, Claude Lévi-Strauss bestrode western humanities and social sciences as no one has before or since. Unlike philosophy or literary criticism, his discipline, anthropology, was not divided between "Anglo-Saxon" and "Continental" approaches, and the promise of a method that would analyse the fundamental processes of the human mind was initially plausible.

From the beginning, Lévi-Strauss argued two theses, logically separate but inseparably linked in his own writing. His great idea - the fruit of a close friendship with Roman Jakobson forged in wartime exile in New York - was that both myth and kinship were to be analysed by a functional relationship not to social and physical reality, but to the most elementary processes of human thought. The establishment of difference - the distinction between animals with or without cloven hooves, say - was dictated by the need to structure the world into pairs of binary oppositions. This insight built on the greatest discovery of 20th-century linguistics: rather than analyse the positive features of sound across an infinite continuum, the Russian linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy and his successors had focused simply on the differences (between "b" and "p", for example) that produced meaning.

Lévi-Strauss claimed to have discovered the fundamental differences on which all kinship and myth were based, and produced a simple combination of differential oppositions that, he thought, underpin even the most complex and apparently dissimilar myths. Myths were privileged insights into thought, and here his second thesis came into play: "primitive" societies or, as Lévi-Strauss termed them, "societies without writing" are more authentic than societies that have succumbed to writing. Ever since Montaigne, and receiving its fullest expression in Rousseau's noble savage, there had been a current in western thought which saw in "primitive" societies a richer, less alienated relationship between men and their world than that which obtained in "civilisation".

Lévi-Strauss thus promised two things: first, a combinatory schema that would reveal the basic operations of the human mind - all kinship systems would be conceived as variations on a single theme, and all myths would operate around a set of basic differences - and second, a demonstration of the superiority of forms of thought that came before writing, before the fundamental alienation that occurred when writing intruded into an authentic idyll.

However, Lévi-Strauss's dominance of western thought evaporated after Derrida devoted a 40-page analysis to the anthropologist's foray into the world of the Nambikwara Amazonians. Derrida showed that Lévi-Strauss's position, far from breaking with a Eurocentric model, reproduced it. He demonstrated how the notion that the Nambikwara inhabited a different and better world, one before writing, reflected a long-held western prejudice that ignored the way in which any system of language had all the features of a writing system that Lévi-Strauss considered distinctively modern. The Amazonian enjoyed no more direct and unmediated a relationship with his surroundings than the western anthropologist trying to persuade little girls to break tribal taboos.

Derrida not only demolished Lévi-Strauss's sentimental valorisation of the Amazonians, but took an axe to his "scientific" project. Linguistics was based on the discovery of the phoneme, the basic element of sound difference from which all meaning in a language flowed. Yet the anthropologist's mythemes were always the result of interpretation.

Patrick Wilcken's biography barely mentions Derrida, and often seems somewhat ill at ease in dealing with Lévi-Strauss's intellectual project, but does succeed in describing the life behind the work. The picture that emerges is remarkably unengaging. Lévi-Strauss comes across as an opportunistic intellectual bureaucrat, always ready to bend the knee to power, and so uninterested in his own work except as a means of advancement that, despite building a considerable academic empire, he left behind no successors or inheritors. He was heavily dependent on close dialogue - with Jakobson, Georges Du­mézil, Émile Benveniste and Jacques Lacan - but once his career had taken off (he was easily the most institutionally successful of all the structuralists), he seems to have communicated intellectually with no one. The idiosyncratic analyses of the four-volume Mythologiques, published between 1964 and 1971, emerged from a life that had been hermetically sealed. He made contact with the contemporary world only to denounce it: he voted against admitting women to the Académie Française in 1979.

The most interesting passages in the biography occur early in the book as Wilcken follows the young Lévi-Strauss to a government teaching job in Brazil and then on to the expedition that brought him into contact with the Nambikwara and gave rise to the most important sections in Tristes tropiques. Wilcken also writes informatively about the semi-accident that led to Lévi-Strauss writing this, his best-known work, some 20 years later when, having failed in his first attempt to be elected to the Collège de France, he contemplated an alternative career in journalism. Tristes tropiques not only made Lévi-Strauss an intellectual cele­brity of a new type, but consolidated the "anthropological turn" that was the most significant development in the humanities in the 20th century, as every culture came to be seen as a potential bearer of meaning.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: the Poet in the Laboratory
Patrick Wilcken
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £30

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania