Claude Levi-Strauss: The Structural Study of Myth

For an updated version of this lecture, see English 2010, Fall Semester 2001:”The Structural Study of Myth” and Other Structuralist Ideas

To start with–no, this guy has nothing to do with the makers of your favorite jeans.

Claude Levi-Strauss is a French anthropologist, most well-known for his development of structural anthropology. In his book The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Levi-Strauss argued that kinship relations–which are fundamental aspects of any culture’s organization–represent a specific kind of structure; you might think of genealogical charts, with their symbols for father and mothers, sisters and brothers, as an example of kinship systems represented as structures. Levi-Strauss is also known for his structural analyses of mythology, in books like The Raw and the Cooked, where he explains how the structures of myths provide basic structures of understanding cultural relations. These relations appear as binary pairs or opposites, as the title of his book implies: what is “raw” is opposed to what is “cooked,” and the “raw” is associated with nature while the “cooked” is associated with culture. These oppositions form the basic structure for all ideas and concepts in a culture.

In “The Structural Study of Myth,” Levi-Strauss is interested in explaining why myths from different cultures from all over the world seem so similar. Given that myths could contain anything–they aren’t bound by rules of accuracy, or probability–why is there an astounding similarity among so many myths from so many widely separated cultures?

He answers this question by looking at the structure of myths, rather than at their content. While the content, the specific characters and events of myths may differ widely, Levi-Strauss argues that their similarities are based on their structural sameness.

To make this argument about the structure of myth, Levi-Strauss insists that myth is language, because myth has to be told in order to exist. It is also a language, with the same structures that Saussure described belonging to any language.

Myth, as language, consists of both “langue” and “parole,” both the synchronic, ahistorical structure and the specific diachronic details within the structure. Levi-Strauss adds a new element to Saussure’s langue and parole, pointing out that langue belongs to what he calls “reversible time,” and parole to “non-reversible time.” He means that parole, as a specific instance or example or event, can only exist in linear time, which is unidirectional–you can’t turn the clock back; langue, on the other hand, since it is simply the structure itself, can exist in the past, present, or future. Think of this sentence again: “The adjectival noun verbed the direct object adverbially.” If you read the sentence, you read from left to right, one word at a time, and it takes time to read the whole sentence–that’s non-reversible time. If you don’t’ read the sentence, but rather think of it as being the structure of English, it exists in a single moment, every moment–yesterday as well as today as well as tomorrow. That’s reversible time.

A myth, according to Levi-Strauss, is both historically specific–it’s almost always set in some time long ago–and ahistorical, meaning that its story is timeless. As history, myth is parole; as timeless, it’s langue.

Levi-Strauss says that myth also exists on a third level, in addition to langue and parole, which also proves that myth is a language of its own, and not just a subset of language (like other literary productions, which are made of language, and which might be thought of as “paroles.” Peter Barry gives this explanation in Chapter 2 of Beginning Theory). He explains that level in terms of the story that myth tells. That story is special, because it survives any and all translations. While poetry is that which can’t be translated, or paraphrased, Levi-Strauss says that myth can be translated, paraphrased, reduced, expanded, and otherwise manipulated–without losing its basic shape or structure. He doesn’t use this term, but we might call that third aspect “malleability.”

He thus argues that, while myth as structure looks like language as structure, it’s actually something different from language per se–he says it operates on a higher, or more complex level. Myth shares with language the following characteristics:

1. It’s made of units that are put together according to certain rules.

2. These units form relations with each other, based on binary pairs or opposites, which provide the basis of the structure.

Myth differs from language (as Saussure describes it) because the basic units of myth are not phonemes (the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes one utterance from another, like a letter), morphemes (the smallest unit of relatively stable meaning that can’t be subdivided, like a non-compound word), or sememes (the meaning expressed by a morpheme), or even signifiers and signifieds, but rather are what Levi-Strauss calls “mythemes.” His process of analysis differs from Saussure’s because Saussure was interested in studying the relations between signs (or signifiers) in the structure of language, whereas Levi-Strauss concentrates on sets of relations, rather than individual relations–or what he calls “bundles of relations.”

His example for this is a musical score, consisting of both treble and bass clefs. You can read the music diachronically, left to right, page by page, and you can read it synchronically, looking at the notes in the treble clef and their relation to the bass clef. The connection between the treble and bass clef notes–the “harmony” produced–is what Levi-Strauss calls a “bundle of relations.”

Basically, Levi-Strauss’ method is this. Take a myth. Reduce it to its smallest component parts–its “mythemes.” (Each mytheme is usually one event or position in the story, the narrative, of the myth). Then lay these mythemes out so that they can be read both diachronically and synchronically. The story, or narrative, of the myth exists on the diachronic (left-to-right) axis, in non-reversible time; the structure of the myth exists on the synchronic (up-and-down) axis, in reversible time.

In his example of laying out the Oedipus myth this way, he begins to see, in the synchronic bundles of relations, certain patterns developing, which we might call “themes.” One such theme is the idea of having some problem walking upright. Levi-Strauss then takes that theme and runs with it, seeing it as an expression of a tension between the idea of chthonic (literally, from the underground gods, but here meaning an origin from something else) and autochthonic (meaning indigenous or native; here, meaning self-generated) creation. He then sees that tension–or structural binary opposition–as present in myths from other cultures. This, to Levi-Strauss, is the significance of the myth: it presents certain structural relations, in the form of binary oppositions, that are universal concerns in all cultures.

This is the subjective part of Levi-Strauss’ analysis. We might come up with different interpretations for what he sees in the bundles of relations. For example, we might notice that, in one column are different ideas about walking upright; we might interpret that as an anxiety about physical ability and disability, which is an expression about fitness for survival versus needing charity and kindness, and then read that tension (between selfishness and altruism) as the fundamental structure the myth is articulating.

And here’s where you can start to see how this structuralist reading might actually apply to literary interpretation as we know it. Once you’ve found the mythemes, the constituent units, of a myth or story, and laid them out in Levi-Strauss’ pattern, you can interpret them in an almost infinite number of ways. (And that, of course, raises the idea that what you choose as mythemes, or units, and how you lay them out might well vary from person to person, depending on how you read a story. And this raises the idea that structuralism maybe isn’t so “objective” and “scientific” as it hopes to be, since its basic units aren’t self-evident. But Levi-Strauss, like Saussure, doesn’t admit that).

After laying out this basic method, Levi-Strauss goes on to talk about perfecting his system to make it useful to anthropologists. We don’t have to worry too much about this section (pp.815b-818b) because the details he discusses aren’t as relevant to the analysis of literature as they are to anthropology. In these pages he talks about doing a structural analysis of all possible variations of a myth. This would be desirable because it would prove that all variants really do have the same structure, which goes back to Levi-Strauss’ initial point that myth is a language,` and that structural analysis can account for any version of a particular myth. To prove his point, he goes into a rather lengthy analysis of a Zuni myth; this uses the same methods as his analysis of the Oedipus myth; he also analyzes a Pueblo myth with a similar structure.

He concludes that the structural method of myth analysis brings order out of chaos, as it provides a means to account for widespread variations on a basic myth structure, and it “enables us to perceive some basic logical processes which are at the root of mythical thought.” This is important to Levi-Strauss because he wants to make the study of myth logical and “scientific” in all its aspects, and not to have to rely on any subjective interpretive factors.

On pages 819-820 Levi-Strauss does a structural reading of a Native American myth and compares it to the story of Cinderella. You might want to think of other myths, or stories, which would lend themselves to similar structural analyses.

Levi-Strauss then talks about the permutations of the myth structures he’s just analyzed as algebraic formulae. Don’t worry if you don’t get this part–it’s not important to the main idea. Levi-Strauss puts this in to insist on the scientific/logical nature of his method: if you can express it in purely mathematical terms, it must be right, and universal, and objective.

Do pay attention, however, to his three final comments on p. 821b. He says that repetition, in myth as in oral literature, is necessary to reveal the structure of the myth. Because of this need for repetition, the myth is “slated,” meaning it tells its story in layer after layer (see the diagram on p. 815).

However, the layers, or “slates,” aren’t identical, even though they repeat key elements in the structure. Because of this, the myth “grows spiralwise,” meaning the story it tells unfolds as the myth goes on. In other words, the myth “grows” as it is told; Levi-Strauss points out that this growth is continuous, while the structure of the myth, which doesn’t grow, is discontinuous. This is a version of the synchronic-diachronic split mentioned earlier, and of the langue-parole distinction. Levi-Strauss compares this aspect of myth, that it both grows and remains static, to molecules (again enhancing the “scientific” nature of his method).

He also says that myths function in cultures to “provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.” Such a contradiction might consist of believing in two precisely opposite things, such as chthonous and autochthonous origins, or selfishness and altruism. The important thing for Levi-Strauss is that every culture has these contradictions, because every culture organizes knowledge into binary opposite pairs of things, and that these contradictions have to be reconciled logically (and again, he wants everything to be explainable through logic and “science).

This is echoed in his third point, on p. 822, that the “logic” of myth is just as rigorous and “logical” as the logic of science. It’s not that science is somehow smarter or more evolved than myth, but rather that the two modes of understanding and interpreting the world share the same basic structure (that of logic) applied to different things.

And yes, one might critique this view of Levi-Strauss’ by pointing out that his own explanations favor science over “myth,” as he insists that his method of myth analysis is scientific, and therefore better than other methods. But that’s a deconstructive reading, and we’ll get to that with Derrida

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