Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading :: The Savage Mind

The Savage Mind
By Claude Levi-Strauss

This summer I've been reading some of the classics of anthropology, especially ethnographies. Since I don't have a background in anthropology, I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to unravel these books in theoretical or analytical terms. I'm just enjoying them.

But I confess I didn't enjoy this one as much. Partly that's because, rather than a coherent ethnography, it pulls from many published ethnographies to discuss the question of the supposed lack of abstract thinking in primitive cultures. Levi-Strauss attacks this notion, arguing that like science, "the thought we call primitive is founded on the demand for order" - and "sacred items ... contribute to the maintenance of order in the universe by occupying the places allocated for them" (p.10). Magic and science are parallel and independent forms of gaining knowledge (p.13).

Levi-Strauss famously introduces the notion of the bricoleur here, the craftsman or jack-of-all-trades whose "heterogeneous repertoire, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited" (p.17). According to Levi-Strauss, mythical thought is bricolage: it "builds up structured sets, not directly with other structured sets but by using the remains and debris of events" (pp.21-22).

Through the rest of the book, Levi-Strauss extends this thesis by drawing from a wide array of existing ethnographies. These examples are often interesting, but we can understand his fervent wish for a computer in the far future that can disentangle these many connections by examining the raw transcripts of field notes (on punchcards!) (p.89). Yes, I'd like that too.

I've only scratched the surface of this book, and I think that someone with an anthropology background could probably articulate its value much more than I can. But perhaps not: the reviews on the back claim that "no precis is possible" and "no outline is possible." So that lets me off the hook. I'll end by simply recommending the book - at least the first chapter if you're mildly interested, and all of it if you have intense interest in anthropology.


David Ronfeldt said...

just a quick note to tell you that i continue to enjoy and appreciate your book reviews, especially this latest series on classic anthro works. many thanks. onward.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Thanks, David. I was just thinking yesterday that going through these works helped me to better understand the T in TIMN!

David Ronfeldt said...

yes, the nuer book helped me grasp the acephalous and the fission-fusion aspects of the t form.

btw, i just made use of your review in a comment i left over here (though it didn't paste quite right):

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Oh thanks! I should probably start reading Zenpundit, although I got some conceptual whiplash from reading that comment thread :)