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Totemism and Bricolage: Thoughts on Lévi-Strauss

August 10, 2011


The comparison of totemism [with hysteria] suggests a relation of another order between scientific theories and culture, one in which the mind of the scholar himself plays as large a part in the minds of the people studied; it is as though he were seeking, consciously or unconsciously, and under the guise of scientific objectivity, to make the latter– whether mental patients or so-called “primitives”– more different than they really are. -Lévi-Strauss (1)

Totemism was one of the few books I actually bought from the Introduction to Anthropology syllabus. I decided that I had no real interest in most of the literature and I checked it out of the library as necessary. However, something drew me to Lévi-Strauss. I am not sure of the reason; my years in school had left me with the vague impression that Lévi-Strauss was the father of most of the structuralist clap-trap that prevented anthropology from moving beyond a rather prejudiced study of “primitives” that it remained through the first two-thirds of the 20th century (as I understand it). We read about a chapter of the work in my class, which I found, to my surprise, that I quite enjoyed, and then Lévi-Strauss was driven from my mind by other concerns.

The earliest posts on the blog seemed to me to set a standard for writing about eccentric intellectuals and their bodies of work. Looking at those, I felt a little foolish, and decided that I needed to read something of interest outside of my discipline in order to meet the challenge presented. I figured that this little volume was mostly harmless (although I was hoping that it would not end in the buldozing of planet Earth). Perhaps my writing will not stand up well– as I usually require many revisions in order to make myself concise and coherent– but at least, I figure, I will have gained something by forcing myself to read a scholarly work and write about it.


To accept as a theme for discussion a category that one believes to be false always entails the risk, simply by the attention that is paid to it, of entertaining some illusion about its reality. In order to come to grips with an imprecise obstacle one emphasizes contours where all one really wants is to demonstrate their insubstantiality, for in attacking an ill-founded theory the critic begins by paying it a kind of respect. The phantom which is imprudently summoned up, in the hope of exorcising it for good, vanishes only to reappear, and closer than one imagines to the place where it was first. -Lévi-Strauss (15)

Lévi-Strauss’s introduction to Totemism accomplishes several feats simultaneously. First, it struggles with the definition of totemism, a term popular amongst anthropologists and sociologists during the first half of the twentieth century. In the wake of broken definitions of an elusive and illusive concept, Lévi-Strauss brings forth the ἱστορία (inquiry) around which his short work revolves: what is “the logical power of system of denotation that are borrowed from the realm of nature” (Lévi-Strauss 14)? Second, the introduction provides an evaluation of a number of sources on the topic which I have never read, and most of which I have never encountered in any fashion. As much as I struggled through analysis that seemed to presume at least a passing familiarity with about a half century of anthropological scholarship, I found that Lévi-Strauss was both clear and charming. This leads me to the final accomplishment of the introduction, which is to leave the audience (or at least leave me) with the distinct impression that Lévi-Strauss was far too intelligent for his time but still unable to extract himself from it.

This served, in turn, to remind me that Lévi-Strauss serves as Derrida’s example of the bricoleur [1]. Until now, I dismissed this as one of those Derridian examples dispatched with a sly smile as Derrida certainly enjoyed playing with his food. Lévi-Strauss, despite bearing the marks of his time– e.g. using words like “primitives” or “savages” in order to discuss native peoples– certainly feels like an author whose intelligence has surpassed the limitations of the tools at hand and reached for new ones [2]. Even more surprising, when I skimmed over the Derrida article recently to attempt my summery (see endnote [1]), I realized that Derrida actually borrows the terms bricoleur and bricolage  from Lévi-Strauss who coined them, and simply expanded their meaning far beyond their originally intended use.

Totemism, in a way, is an attempt to use the pieces of a broken system as tools to forge an answer to the question posed at the end of his introduction: what is “the logical power of system of denotation that are borrowed from the realm of nature” (Lévi-Strauss 14)? In the two chapters following the introduction, Lévi-Strauss discusses several supposed “totemic” cultures in detail and demonstrates how each one violates the essential concepts of totemism (as a theoretical structure conceived of by anthropologists), which Lévi-Strauss reduces to the following principles:

  1. “The frequent identification of human beings with plants or animals, and which has to do with very general views of relations between man and nature, relations which concern art and magic as much as society and religion” (Lévi-Strauss 10-11).
  2. “The designation of groups based on kinship, which may be done with the aid of animal or vegetable in terms” (Lévi-Strauss 11) usually providing a system of signs on which to understand exogamy.
  3. Often, members of the group symbolized by a totem are prohibited from eating the animal or vegetable of their totem.

Instead, he provides evidence that each of the societies relationships with supposedly “totemic” symbols is far more complex than previous anthropologist realized. Single thread that Lévi-Strauss pulls through each of these societies is that natural phenomena provide a powerful semantic structure upon which to base metaphorical relations of groups within the larger society, but each group uses these metaphors to articulate culturally distinct– although usually socially important– relationships that pertain to the individual society’s social structure. More clearly: Lévi-Strauss is using the lexicon of totemism in bricolage to construct the much more sophisticated concept of what he amusingly dubs “ethno-logic [3],” which is essentially the understanding that non-western societies have non-western thought structures on which they cultural conceptions. This may seem less than revolutionary now, but considering that Lévi-Strauss still used the term “primitives,” a term which certainly came from the origins of anthropology in the evolutionary hypothesis [4] and anthropologists generally approached their studies ethnocentrically and failed to credit the complexity of thought-structures of non-western societies.

After exhausting the mine of anthropological work at the time in chapters 1-4, Lévi-Strauss mixes the gold flecks of the anthropologists with a concoction of philosophy (Bergson and Rousseau) in order to present his findings (when the tools at hand are exhausted, he derives new tools). He concludes that the blanket term “totemism” for the supposedly universal religious rituals of “primitives” is actually a complex metaphoric system which demonstrates a refined cultural language. The use of animals and plants as symbols to represent particular groups involves choosing groups that have a similarity in their distinctions from other groups. For example, among the Nuer, twins are spoken of as a single human entity, or often as ground fowl.  This comes from an understanding of degree of difference between humans and the divine. Twins are humans who share many characteristics (hence they can be analogized to a single person), but they are also closer to the divine than average human beings. The Nuer believe in sky spirits, so things that fly are closer to the divine (humans, by contrast, are earth bound– or are below). However, twins are still human, so they must be birds of below, i.e. they are groundfowl (Lévi-Strauss 79-81).

Thus Lévi-Strauss concludes that the associations that appeared “totemic” are actually a set of complex metaphors for cultural phenomena made through the mind: “metaphor, the role of which in totemism we have repeatedly underline, is not a later embellishment of language but is one of its fundemental modes. Placed by Rousseau on the same plane as opposition, it constitutes, on the same ground, a primary form of discursive thought” (Lévi-Strauss 102). The book as a whole essentially serves to flesh out the thesis that “primitives” have intellect: “the advent of culture coincides with the birth of the intellect” (Lévi-Strauss 100). He uses the tool at hand, totemism, a concept riddled with prejudice and contempt, to demonstrate the commensurability of the societies of the anthropologists and their objects of study. Furthermore, although Lévi-Strauss seeks recourse to the principles of structuralism (emphasizing the term constantly when he articulates that the analogy is between similarity of oppositions), he destroys a common structuralist distinction in doing so: primitive/refined.


[1] I am assuming that most of you have read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (html, PDF). If not, it’s rather fun, and I highly recommend it. I shall provide a brief (and probably clumsy) summery of the necessary components text below.

The essay as a whole is a critique of structuralism. Derrida demonstrates that intellectuals of all types, when attempting to overturn or rupture the structure of that particular epoch of thought simply move the center around which the structure is built and reform it. Moving outside the structure deprives the thinker of logic, syntax, and lexicon from which to level a critique. Derrida explains the two possibilities moving beyond the concept of freeplay: 1) the first is a step “outside philosophy and question systematically every founding concept (Derrida 254). This appears to require what Lévi-Strauss labels the engineer, who “should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon” (Derrida 256). 2) is the bricoleur, who

“is someone who “uses the means at hand,” that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not be especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogeneous– and so forth. There is therefor a critique of language inf the form of bricolage, and it has even been possible to say that bricolage is the critical language itself” (Derrida 255).

[2] For anyone who is not aware of this particular quirk, I have a propensity to– for lack of a better description– conjure a phantom of the author whom I am reading. I’m not some looney who thinks she can talk to dead people. What I mean is that the author comes alive to me– like an stranger I might sit next to at a dinner party– someone whose character I sketch during the course of the book. In authors with strong, clear styles, this is more defined and I sometimes hear the text in my head as my imagined version of their voice reading it. I developed a crush on young David Hume when I read the first 80 pages of A Treatise of Human Nature while sitting on the floor in the book shop in which I used to work (not while I was on duty, of course). Lévi-Strauss is one of the authors about whom I feel this way, although he is not the bright and fierce but arrogant 16-22-year-old Hume, but a wise and brilliant mind with a driving thirst for knowledge but tempered by the wisdom of just over a half century. Obviously, it is possible that neither history figure resembles my description at all, but those are the voices that speak to me from the page.

[3] Lévi-Strauss employs this term to contrast it with ethno-biology, the  idea that a particular clan descends from the “totemic” animal (Lévi-Strauss 31).

[4] Evolutionary hypothesis was the thought that human progress moved on a single trajectory through time. Some societies stagnate at different points in the process, which explains the different levels of technological and social complexity of each society.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jaques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” e.d. Mackesey, Richard and Enjenio Donato. The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University press, 1970 (p 247-265). Reproduced in my Lit Theory supplemental volume.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. trans. Richard Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

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