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Celebrating Lévi-Strauss, and Barbie March 28, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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I have neglected to celebrate two significant birthdays on this blog, so now I want to make amends: Neither one is a philosopher, but both have given the late 20th century a very distinct flavor, each in his/her own way. The first birthday we should celebrate happened last November 28, when the famed French cultural anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss turned 100. The extraordinary thing about this is that Lévi-Strauss is still alive and kicking! The grand old man is truly a living legend, having transformed anthropology—which at the time was a generally accepted lesson in ethical relativism and a study in tribal ritual function—into a broad analysis of myth, focusing on binary opposing elements, based on the linguistic theory of structuralism developed by Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure. Instead of focusing on the content of the tribal stories, Lévi-Strauss analyzed the relationship between the opposite components of the story (hunter/prey, raw/cooked, life/death, etc). For him, the stories of myth have no deeper meaning other than a tension between opposites that becomes resolved by being transformed into another set. And ultimately, the structure of myth becomes the template for all human cultural activity. Structuralism is no longer considered the key to the concept of meaning that many held it to be in the 1970s, but nevertheless, a theory of meaning can’t just bypass it. Binary tensions simply are fundamental structures of our stories at all levels—although most narrative philosophers look beyond the binary tensions to some assumption of underlying meaning/message. Lévi-Strauss was at one point a philosophy student, and has once said that he got into anthropology to escape from philosophy. However, he may have thought he left philosophy, but philosophy never left him. You never escape from philosophy…you just expand your territory…And since I myself latched on to philosophy to escape from anthropology, way back in the 20th century, I have always found that my own escape was more successful than his…


The other birthday of a cultural icon is that of Barbie. This month Barbie turned 50. Still youthful, still skinny, still with those long impossible legs. And the symbolic image of everything from the liberated woman to the brainwashed anorexic teen—-a doll that was no longer a baby doll, but became the mirror in which girls saw their future self—-and despaired. At least that’s what some say. And she has been analyzed to pieces in a number of ways, by Barthes and Baudrillard,  through post-structuralism to deconstruction. So in honor of  Lévi-Strauss’s 100th birthday, here is a quickie (and, yes, incomplete) structural analysis of Barbie: Think of the opposites involved in her figure as well as her pervasive popularity, as opposed to many little girls playing with Barbie. Tall/short, skinny/chubby, passive/active, often also white/non-white (before the Barbie line became racially diverse), young adult/child, unchanging/changing, loved/hated, and so forth. And the resolution of the tensions? For some girls, growing up, coming to terms with their own figure. For others, apparently, Barbie-torture. And then there is the ultimate reification of the little idol, if she has survived the torture-phase: regarding her as a collectible, an investment. Probably a better bet these days than most of our pension plans.



1. Paul Moloney - March 29, 2009

I am somewhat flabbergasted to hear that Levi-Strauss is still alive. I do not know how many times I have come across his name in reading philosophy. I have never read anything by him. I do not have a real inclination toward anthropology, but I am coming to appreciate its importance more and more. I think that anthropology has a definite relationship to philosophy. Hobbes and Rousseau both based their political thinking on what seems to be myths, myths developed by themselves. There was no anthropological evidence to back up their ideas concerning early humans. Their political thinking does, indeed, stand on its own, but it bothers me that they have to contrast their ideas with a state of nature that never was or for which there is no evidence. It seems better to me that one would be better off contrasting their political or social ideas with societies of which we have anthropological and historical evidence.

My sisters had Barbies. Women in some of the older movies seem more sensual than some of the women of recent times, in not trying to be as skinny as possible that is. It seems to me that a person would be better off trying to get rid of a big ego than a big body.

I have been interested philosophy since I was sixteen. I remember trying to impress a girl with my philosophical ignorance when I was sixteen. I did so out of jealousy and envy. She ended up marrying a friend of mine. I had a brief fascination with psychology, but philosophy has the greatest thinkers. Aristotle, Plato and Socrates had such great stature when I was young. I had a premonition that, if one was to attain a high stature in humanity, one has to reach the excellence of someone like Aristotle. Even in my own lifetime the stature of the Greeks seems to accrue with time. The name of Aristotle is greater now than when I was a kid! Socrates is loved more now than when I was a kid and these people have been dead for centuries!

2. Nina Rosenstand - April 3, 2009

Interesting point about Hobbes and Rousseau, and the State of Nature. Indeed, a complete fiction. So what were they thinking? Years ago I read an analysis that made everything fall into place: For us the lack of historical evidence (or downright contradiction of historical evidence, such as Hobbes’ assumption that the American Indians live in the State of Nature without a government) is very troubling, and detracts from whatever may be compelling about the theory. But that’s because we are modern people. We have to get all the way into the 19th century before the concepts of verification, source-critique and evidence become important. Archaeology as a science wasn’t even invented until the 19th century. So for Hobbes, Rousseau, and many others it was perfectly legitimate to make things up—for a purpose. The purpose was to create a thought experiment in support of their political theories, in other words, to be as persuasive as possible. What’s really extraordinary is that Locke chose to reinterpret the State of Nature so it wasn’t dependent on any postulate about history. But that’s another subject.
About Levi-Strauss: The Savage Mind is really a fascinating read. Go for it.

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