Varenne: Quotes from Claude Lévi-Strauss's Totemism

Claude Lévi-Strauss


Tr. by R. Needham. Boston: Beacon Press. 1963 [1962]


Totemism is like hysteria, 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 unifying interpretation. (p. 1)

and like autism and all forms of LD's, and like indigeneity, culture, etc.---though the process can work in reverse, not from persuasive fact to doubt that makes symptoms disappear, but from persuasion to facts that make one see phenomena as symptoms "of" the fact. Where I would differ with LS is in eschewing "persuasion," "we," or "the mind of the scholar (or people)"---all phrases that come easily under his pen.  By the end of the paragraph he writes about "cultural conditions." Fifty years later, what we are to mean when we speak of "conditions" is the issue.  But, first, we must recapture doubt.

From the social to the symbolic and back

Let us suppose, therefore, that each time the sections of sub-sections were invented, copied, or intelligently borrowed, their function was firstly sociological, i.e. they served--and still serve--to encode, in a relatively simple form applicable beyond the tribal borders, the kinship system and that of marital exchange. But one these insitutions were given, they began to lead an independednt existence, as objects of curiosity or aesthetic admiration, and also as symbols, by their very complication, of a higher type of culture. (p. 53)

The source of sentiments

We do not know, and never shall know, anything about the first origin of beliefs and customs and the roots of which plunge into a distant past; but, as far as the present is concerned, it is certain that social behavior is not produced spontaneously by each individual under the influence of emotions of the moment. Men do not act, as members of a group, in accordance with what each feels as an individual; each man feels as a function of the way in which he is permitted or obliged to act. Customs are given as external norms before giving rise to internal sentiments, and these non-sentient norms determine the sentiments of individuals as well as the circumstances in which they may, or must, be displayed. (p. 70)

The culturing of nature

We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen [as totems] not because they are 'good to eat' but because they are'good to think.' (p. 89)

check a totemic representation of the European colonial powers seeking to dominate China.


The social and the intellectual

Durkheim at his best admits that all social life, even elementary, presupposes an intellectual activity in man of which the formal properties, consequently, cannot be a reflection of the concrete organization of the society. (p. 96)

November 1, 2022 [1999]