Thursday, March 13, 2014

Reading :: Totemism

By Claude Levi-Strauss

"Totemism is like hysteria," Levi-Strauss says in the first sentence of this slim book, "in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any identifying interpretation" (p.1). Like hysteria, he says, totemism involves bracketing certain phenomena as outside one's own moral universe (p.1).

Levi-Strauss develops this argument throughout the book, as here: "it is not because they are totemic that such systems must be regarded as irregular; it is because they are irregular that they can only be totemic" (p.53). Through a careful examination of the then-extant work on totemism, Levi-Strauss developed this influential work, calling into question what was up to that point a broadly held assumption about how "savage culture" worked.

I'm not an anthropologist, so although I enjoy Levi-Strauss' works, I can't evaluate the argument directly. But as a scholar of rhetoric and writing, I do recognize the approach—identifying a well known concept, taking it apart, and seeing how well it stands up to scrutiny. Levi-Strauss does this well and methodically, and as a result, the concept of totemism (at least, as a universal phenomenon) declined after this book made its impact. If you're interested in totemism—or in how concepts disintegrate—take a look.

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