Nov 232016

Claude Lévi-Strauss, We Are All Cannibals and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press 2016; 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0231170680

Reviewed by Matthew R. McLennan, Saint Paul University  

Engaging with Claude Lévi-Strauss should be a mandatory component of anyone’s education in contemporary French thought.  We shouldn’t forget that the famous ethnologist was trained as a philosopher, and that his voluminous writings on ostensibly empirical topics like kinship structures and indigenous American mythologies comprise a sustained attempt to think questions as broad, deep, and important as the structures of the human mind, or the properly metaphysical aspects of the invasion of Turtle Island and its subsequent histories. Lévi-Strauss immeasurably enriched the field of anthropology while engaging in productive, sometimes antagonistic philosophical exchanges with figures as important as Lacan, Beauvoir, and Sartre. Alain Badiou—granted, in characteristically self-regarding fashion—once named Lévi-Strauss as representative of a rightist deviation of the revolutionary materialism defining the historically important moment of French philosophy in the post-War period. (Badiou, 2013, 207) The charge was that, while correctly breaking down the idealist humanism of pre-War philosophy, Lévi-Strauss went too far in eliminating the subject altogether, losing it in the endless algebraic play of mythemes and other cultural signifiers. Regrettably perhaps, Lévi-Strauss has for the past few decades been overshadowed precisely by more “left”-leaning deviations in materialism such as Deleuze, which appear to privilege topology, i.e. individual intensities, over algebra, and therefore commit the opposite error. My feeling—which will need to be developed at length in another venue—is that Lévi-Strauss’s algebraic tendencies are an important resource, if by no means sufficient, for conceiving resistance to ideology in the present. But the question is—and certainly remains, in the newly translated posthumous collection We are All Cannibals—whether his thought in and of itself, or taken as a whole, is irremediably conservative.

We are All Cannibals helps, in any case, to overturn the conception of Lévi-Strauss as an austere 20th-century relic. A late work, written in a more popular style, it thereby closes the loop of his early, passionate, and widely popular Tristes tropiques by showing the author engaged in contemporary cultural, political, and ethical debates. The book collects a 1952 essay from Les Temps modernes and 16 articles published between 1989 and 2000 for the Italian daily La Repubblica. It ranges over topics as broad as the cultural meaning of Santa Claus, the “topsy-turvydom” of Japan, the figure of the artist in indigenous societies, the meaning of jewelry, models of development, Montaigne, Comte, the figure of the maternal uncle, the Echo myth, cannibalism, mad cow disease, methodology in structural anthropology, female sexuality and the origin of society, indigenous American metaphysics, female genital mutilation and assisted reproduction. Readers wishing to get their feet wet but put off by Lévi-Strauss’s monumental works on kinship and mythology should find no better introduction to his thought than these essays. (Note however that two other volumes published by Belknap Press in 2013—The Other Face of the Moon, which collects Lévi-Strauss’s thoughts on Japan, and Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, which repeats while deepening many of the themes of We are All Cannibals—are also highly accessible introductions.)

Throughout the book, Lévi-Strauss attempts to demonstrate the fundamental continuities between so-called “primitive” peoples and modern societies. The title We are All Cannibals, for example, references the fact that all human societies literally incorporate the bodily tissues of other human beings (and non-human animals, our close cousins) for various symbolic and therapeutic purposes (think organ transplants, blood transfusions, certain hormone therapies). But viewed another way, Lévi-Strauss claims that “Cannibalism in itself has no objective reality. It is an ethnocentric category: it exists only in the eyes of the societies that proscribe it.” (88) Hence he reminds us that the ethnocentric point of view serves to construct a world in which the meaning of what we are doing is hidden in plain sight—albeit refracted through the figure of the savage other which we hold up as an index of our own progress.

Lévi-Strauss, however, is cautious not to assimilate the indigenous to the modern, or the modern to the indigenous. There are deep philosophical differences between the two (assuming, perhaps problematically, that there is one modern and one indigenous mode of thought), in terms of both underlying metaphysics and concrete styles of thinking. Unquestionably the most important essay from a philosophical point of view is the reprinted introduction to his final volume on indigenous American mythology, Histoire de Lynx. Lévi-Strauss intended the book, published in 1991 and therefore on the eve of the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s invasion, as “a tribute to Amerindians.” (49) He isolates from American mythology the “notion of an impossible twinship, which holds a central place in the Amerindians’ philosophical thought.” (52) To indigenous Americans, “The same always engenders the other” in a non-symmetrical fashion; (52) essentially, indigenous American metaphysics implies a non-static dualism that “draws its dynamism from its openness to the other.” (56) This accounts for the striking differences in how indigenous Americans and Europeans respectively reacted to first contact. In “Amerindian thinking the very existence of the Indians implied that of non-Indians,” hence the first peoples already expected in some sense the arrival of the European invaders, already envisioned their power, and made haste, at the outset, to welcome them. (54) On the other hand, “That withdrawal into oneself, that skittishness, that willful blindness” of the European colonizers “were the response of a group that, having believed it constituted humankind as a whole, suddenly discovered that it was only half the human race.” (55) Note here that Lévi-Strauss, twenty-five years ago, was plainly saying what many philosophy departments still have trouble with today: that indigenous American thought is philosophical, that it is meaningful to speak of the philosophy, not simply the “religion” or “mythologies” or “folk beliefs,” of first peoples.

Taken together, Lévi-Strauss’s reflections on commonality and difference encourage us to view indigenous persons—but also persons of all cultures different than one’s own—as equals who bear striking similarities to ourselves but who have chosen different strategies in overcoming the existential and social problems of human life. Lévi-Strauss’s student Pierre Clastres would go on to take the question of strategy (and tactics) quite literally in his investigations into the properly political questions raised by ethnology. But whereas the political as well as the ethical stakes of Lévi-Strauss’s project are posed or at least implicit throughout We are All Cannibals, it is here however that the question of his conservatism comes to the fore in a stark and troubling way.

The article on “social problems,” which briskly covers female genital mutilation (or “ritual female excision”) and assisted reproduction, is a case in point. Lévi-Strauss’s aim is to refute the idea that since there are now very few uncontacted peoples left on Earth, and the very object of its science is disappearing, ethnology is therefore a dying discipline. To do this he demonstrates how in a globalized context, ethnologists are increasingly called upon to give expert testimony, either in contemporary legal cases or, in a more informal sense, in the domain of public ethics. Regarding assisted reproduction and the newer, stranger forms of kinship and the legal puzzles that may result, Lévi-Strauss gives ethnographical examples to show how various cultures—notably, without collapsing—have long since been able to solve analogous problems in ingenious ways. This is gratifying reading, since it is a mantra of today’s conservative right that the co-existence of non-traditional kinship forms with the patriarchal nuclear family risks the disintegration of civilization. Where I have more of a problem is the section concerning female genital mutilation. Refusing to take a stand on whether the ablation of the clitoris always constitutes a harm on the strength of anecdotal evidence and the dubious grounds that “opinions differ,” Lévi-Strauss insists that the role of the ethnologist, called upon to shed light on the practice in immigrant communities, is simply to demonstrate its coherence within the cultural systems in which it takes place. (40) Though such practices and the cultural systems sustaining them will seem alien to the host community, the ethnologist insists that we can “recognize their coherence and not be impervious to their beauty and grandeur.” (41)

This raises two problems. First, there is a methodological point which was raised decades ago by postcolonial voices such as Okot p’Bitek (2011).  The ethnologist—particularly the structuralist, who insists upon underlying cultural grammars—risks reifying the culture of the immigrant community, giving a false impression of unity where there is actually lively debate. Concerning female genital mutilation, it would be both false and pernicious to treat immigrant communities as monolithic in this respect. Second, the stance expressed here also seems maddeningly relativistic—at least until one considers that it is offered precisely as a bulwark against anti-immigrant racism. But here Lévi-Strauss equivocates; it is “not self-evident” that we must tolerate such cultural practices even once we’ve understood them, and therefore “an ethical choice, with the future of the host country’s culture hanging in the balance, can be made only between two possibilities: either proclaim that anything that can be justified on the basis of custom is permitted everywhere; or send back to their own country those who—as is their right—intend to remain faithful to their practices even if, on whatever other grounds, they gravely offend the sensitivities of their hosts.” (42) The invocation of a monolithic “they” which holds a “right” is particularly troubling here, considering that the rights of the girl submitted to genital cutting are apparently not even at issue. And in any case, Lévi-Strauss offers no concrete advice on how the ethical choice he poses might be decided.

So the problem is clearly posed: in one sense Lévi-Strauss strikes a considerable blow against cultural conservatism by dissolving its pretensions in the play of cultural codes. But in another sense, he has difficulty justifying or even articulating any particular political or ethical stance apart from cautious openness to the possibility of tolerance. In this light, We are All Cannibals might be an exemplary work of what could be called “enlightened” conservatism.


Additional Works Cited

Badiou, Alain (2013), Theory of the Subject, (tr.) Bruno Bosteels. (London: Bloomsbury).

p’Bitek, Okot (2011), Decolonizing African Religions: A Short History of African Religions in Western Scholarship. (New York: Diasporic Africa Press).