Between Magic and Science:
Structure, Event, and Mediation
in Lévi-Strauss’s Aesthetics


Thanks for inviting me to speak ... Today I want to speak about Lévi-Strauss’s aesthetics ... Hopefully this topic will contribute to your ongoing discussions about aesthetics and, as I understand, its relation to the political or, if I may suggest the more broad horizon, the social. Addressing this topic turns out to be a difficult task since, in a certain sense, a large segment of Lévi-Strauss’s body of structuralist writing — almost everything written after The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage, 1962) — can be read as an aesthetics. Here I mean “aesthetics” in the more or less strict sense of that branch of philosophy devoted, since Baumgarten (1735, 1750), to the subjects of art, taste, and beauty, as opposed to aesthetics as the study of percption itself, a meaning the word takes on in the twentieth century — and, incidentally, one more in line with the Greek root aisthesis (αἴσθησις), roughly "perception."

It is not that Lévi-Strauss is not in tune with this later development — indeed, the Savage Mind is dedicated to Maurice Meleau-Ponty, whose Primacy of Perception may be counted among the most important works in this twentieth-century development, and provides the existentialist foil, along with Sartre, to Lévi-Strauss’s post-existential thesis. It is rather that Lévi-Strauss, surprisingly for an anthropologist, who cites Freud and Marx as major influences, retains an interest in beauty, and is unwilling to relinquish the horizon of human inquiry to the merely political. As you may surmise from the brief extract I asked you to read (pages 22 to 30 from the english translation) he is capable of making aesthetic judgements in the Kantian manner of being both subjective and universal. Following a tradition the historian Anthony Grafton traces to Gibbon, he chooses to throw his most poisoness darts of judgement within the footnotes:

... non-representationl painting does not, as it thinks, create works which are as real as, if not more real than, the objects of the physical world, but rather realistic imitations of non-existent models. It is a school of academic painting in which each artist strives to represent the manner in which he would execute his pictures if by chance he were to paint any. (29-30)

Beyond such remarks — which, it must be conceded, may be more on the order of credential-showing to a learned audience than any solid proof of subscription to a traditional definition of aesthetics — I cite the following evidence.

First, cultural structuralism itself can be viewed as a particularly virulent outgrowth of the linguist Roman Jakobson’s seminal essay on poetics, mapped onto the domain of “primitive” myth and art. As such, structuralism is poetics and, to the extent that poetics is a species of aesthetics, then structuralism is an aesthetics.

Second, Lévi-Strauss, the son of an accomplished Parisian painter, who began his academic career as a philosopher, whose first published essay was about Picasso and cubism, and who hung out with André Breton duting their exile in New York in the 1940s, never abandoned the generalist and foundationalist mission of philosophy.

Third, and finally, the four volume Mythologiques, the magnum opus (beginning with The Origin of Table Manners) for which The Savage Mind is but a prolegomenon, has as its highest explanatory referent not power or desire or the blind hand of evolutionary selection or even the structure of the brain (research on which Lévi-Strauss was an enthusiastic follower), but in music, in the what may be considered the highest aesthetic mode of expression possible, given its magesterial aloofness from both language and reference, its quality of being a self-referential glass bead game, an autonomous perfect world in which time is "overcome," as he would put it. It is an analogy that marks Lévi-Strauss's first significant publication on myth in 1955, "The Structural Study of Myth."

Under these conditions, it is hard to imagine how his studies of myth and art could be anything but works of aesthetic theory. Unlike many other anthropologists, Lévi-Strauss was never interested in merely an anthropology or a sociology of art.

The difference is important. Most anthropologists carrying out an “anthropology of art” have no concern for beauty or aesthetics responses beyond their role in a dynamics of power. Here I include, on the one hand, Pierre Bourdieu, who did fieldwork in Algeria before writing Distinction and whose brand of poststructuralism can only be read as a response to Lévi-Strauss, and, on the other, Alfred Gell, author of the influentialArt and Agency, for whom art objects are traps in an economy of attention. For both, the “aesthetic” is a Western, bourgeois construct with its own logic, keyed (predictably) to the dynamics of class, and has no place in a comparative study of what people around the world do with their churingas, songs, and stories.

Lévi-Strauss, then, by no measure a member of the cultural right, would disagree with this position, or at least its hair-shirted populism, its muscular socialism. For Lévi-Strauss, the category of the aesthetic is both real and profound. It is worth our attention, as I hope our reading for today will demonstrate.

Lévi-Strauss was aware of the scandal of falling into aestheticism, and frequently pauses in his works to convince the reader that, in fact, he really is a materialist and a nihilist, indeed an academic anti-humanist in line with the predominant intellectual culture of his time. For example:

The sense in which infrastructure is primary is this: ... man is like a player who ... picks up cards at the table, ... cards which he has not invented, for the cardgame is a datum of history and civilzation. (95)

and later

I accept the characterization of aesthete in so far as I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not constitute, but to dissolve man. (247)


I began by pointing out that the topic at hand is particularly daunting — if everything Lévi-Strauss wrote from Savage Mind onward is aesthetics, clearly I’ve bitten off rather more than I can chew, especially for this occasion. However, I am inspired to pursue this task by the fact that the passage I've selected is one of the few in which the author focuses specifically on European art and addresses directly "the essential problem of the philosophy of art" (29).

It is an odd passage. His observations appear to be tossed off as incidental remarks, supplementary to his thesis at best, perhaps intended to dazzle the reader with culture as he discusses the entirety of art — the West and the Rest — between stops on semiotics and game theory in an introduction to a text that is itself a preface to later works. However, as a recent commentator of Lévi-Strauss and aesthetics has written, the passage is characteristic of the anthropologist — apparently a digression, but if not indispensible to the reader’s grasp of the ensuing argument, then particulary illuminating of it.

At this point I would like to provide a brief summary of the argument he makes about art — the specific contribution to aesthetics that he suggests — and then to conclude with an observation about what makes this contribution so unique, from both a philosophical and an anthropological perspective.

To understand the argument, it is helpful to have some shared understanding of what we mean by aesthetics. I find it helpful to think of aesthetics as a space of inquiry defined by three boundary questions associated with taste, or more generally, the verb "to like" something.

The three questions are:

(1) Why do we like what we like?

(2) What is it to like?

and (3) Why do these issues arise particularly in the context of represenation? In other words, what do we like most of all?

Each of these questions defines a dimension large enough to subsume most of the discourse associated with the subject. The first concerns reasons and causes for the exercise of taste, and includes explanations from Kant's philosophy to Bourdieu's sociology. The second concerns the aesthetic response itself, the major categories of taste that appear in discussions about it: Beauty (of course), but also the Sublime, the Grotesque, the Banal, the Uncanny, and so on. The last addresses the fact that in aesthetics we are specifically concerned with human-made artifacts designed to evoke the aesthetics responses in the second question.

Now, in spite of its brevity, the passage I've asked you to read contains answers, or at least the genuine seeds of answers, to each of these questions. It contains a cloud of aesthetics in a drop of structuralism.

Regarding the second question first, on the nature of what we can call the aesthetic response, we can see that Lévi-Strauss refers througout the text to the emotion and "sense of pleasure" that are the occasion for aesthetics as a specific field of inquiry. In the very first paragraph, he asks us to

... look at this portrait of a woman by Clouet and consider the reason for the very profound aesthetic emotion which is, apparently inexplicably, aroused by the highly realistic, thread by thread, reproduction of a lace collar. (22)

And later, he asserts:

In the case of miniatures, in contrast to what happens when we try to understand an object or living creature of real dimensions, knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic on these grounds alone. (23-24)

These announcements are of course made in the context of answering the first question, which is the focal question of the piece. (In fact he has very little to say about the nature of the response itself — he takes its existence as axiomatic, and he clearly refers to a form of pleasure associated with the sense of beauty.) In response to the primary question, Lévi-Strauss's answer, of course, is that the aesthetic response is caused by the integration of contingency into structure in the aesthetic object.

The argument goes something like this. All art achieves its effects through the dual operations of miniaturization and the encompassment of contingency within the space provided by this process.

By miniaturization, Lévi-Strauss refers to what today, from the perspective of cognitive (and computer) science, would be called the mapping of features from one domain onto another. The operation is similar to, but more than, what we would normally understand by the process of abstraction, where salient elements are selected from the complex concreteness of the object and re-presented in another space, the medium of the aesthetic vehicle. Of course, what counts as salient is the essential contribution of the artist in creating the work of art, the assertion of the real that object expresses.

The process of encompassing contingency is more difficult to explain. Lévi-Strauss begins by describing the way in which Clouet's painting contains a clear element of necessity in the depiction of the lace collar — to do so requires something like a scientific understanding of both the technology of lace production and the physics of light and color — combined with a series of contingencies that produce what Benjamin would call the aura of the work (and which, of course, would be undermined by its reproduction). The contingencies include the particular play of light at the time of day when the painting was executed, the particular expression of the subject, and so on.

Now, according to Lévi-Strauss, the painting achieves its effects not merely by combining what can be called, using Aristotle's categories, necessity and accident, but by the encompassment of accident by necessity, or at least the illusion of producing this effect. Art produces a mediation, an overcoming, even if it is tragically fated to be repeated, Sisyphus-like. To use the language of Marshall Sahlins, the poststructuralist American cultural anthropologist, art produces a second-order structure from the synthesis of structure and event, the "structure of the conjuncture" which he sees as the key to understanding cultural logic itself, and the relationship between culture and history.

Regardless of the adequacy of this explanation to achieve the goals its author so blithely presupposes — note that it is presented as an exhaustive theory of art, covering everthing from the primitive to the industrial — it does provide an interesting approach to answering to the third question of aesthetics, concerning the reason the aesthetic response appears to arise mainly in the context of human works of representation, and it also helps to understand why this question is so important in the first place. (I leave to one side the case of late nineteenth-century to present American nature worship, beginning with the Transcendalists, in which a supposedly unmediated nature is regarded as art, in fact, art at its most authentic.) The answer may be given as follows: if the aesthetic response is caused by a mediation of structure and contingency, and if structure is always already representated, being, by definition, of the order to culture, then it follows that the aesthetic response must necessarily be a response to a representation. For one does not find in nature miniaturizations, models produced from the top down, as it were, as the evolutionary biologist has argued ad nauseum. Nature replicates itself, and it produces organismic structures by means of emergence, but it does not and cannot design.

Reference to a distinction between nature and culture expressed in these terms, as an opposition between accidental emergence and intentional design suggests that the solution to the third quesiton is no mere logical consequence. For, given the relatioship between structure and contingency in the work of art, broady conceived, it seems possible to argue that the work of art is precisely about the limits of design and representation. This is so because the nature of that which is represented in the work of art, by this understanding, is no thing, no empirical object that can be described by other means, but rather a side effect of the work of representation itself, a consequence of consciousness's own consciousness of the effects of representation. Art, from this perspective, is representation at the limits of representation, a mapping of structure onto a medium combined with a representation of the process of mapping itself — a mapping which occurs at various stages in the life cycle of the object — from creation, to execution, to use.

This idea, of art being about representation at the limits of represenation, helps explain the point I made earlier, that Lévi-Strauss does not present here an anthropology of art per se, but rather a bona fide aesthetics. This is so not simply because he takes seriously the aesthetic response, but because the form of the argument itself — the template of causality implied — is radically different from what we would expect from a naturalist explanation of art. We are all familiar with explanations that take the form of “We like X because our paleothic ancestors used to do Y.” The fundamental problem with such explanations is that they each assume that the aesthetic response is merely a response to an image (say) that harks back to a prototype to be found in our species' evolutionary past, just as rabbits will hide on seeing the shape of a cross raised above their heads, an adaptive response to the threat of birds of prey. Implicit in such explanations — always using more or less the same combination of narrative elements drawn from neural and evolutionary biology — is that the aesthetic response is, in fact, a response in the strict behaviorist sense — a conditioned response to a stimulus, somehow deposited in our genetic code and keyed to certain categories of stimuli. But if this were true, then art would be highly predictable and its forms would not constantly change from period and place as we know it does. Lévi-Strauss's argument is quite different: the aesthetic response is not a response at all, but a state of conscious that emerges from the dynamics of representation and response at a prior cognitive level. It is a side of effect of mammalian cognition burdened with language, an unintended consequence of whatever evolutionary traits we acquired for survival which, by that very fact, transcends mere survival.

If Lévi-Strauss gives us an aesthetics, then what sort of aesthetics is it? The late philosopher Paul Ricouer once criticized Lévi-Strauss's structuralism as being "Kantianism without a transcendental subject." Lévi-Strauss gladly accepted the apparent oxymoron, just as he famously produced, in anticipation of Saul Kripke, the notion of a posteriori analytic judgments as a further transformation of Kant's counter-intuitive concept of a priori synthesis. I think we can see that Lévi-Strauss’s theory is Kantian, that it is consistent with Kant’s paradoxical formulation that a genuinely aesthetic judgement is both subjective and universal. But it escapes some of the political concerns usually targeted at Kant by its substitution of mind for self, and by locating mind within an assemblage of communicative practices that could never be mistaken for the what Gilbert Ryle called the "secret grotto" theory of self. For Lévi-Strauss's mind is Durkheim's, a mind whose categories subsist at the level of collective representations and are as free from the charge as narcissism as language itself.

Let me conclude by saying that if Lévi-Strauss's aesthetics appear to derive from too simple a formula — after all, it can be expressed in a short sentence — it is important to realize that by locating the fundamental mediation between structure and event within the the work of art, Lévi-Strauss assigns to aesthetics the most significant function possible within the framework of structuralist theory. For structuralism, as a philosophy, is a species of tragic stoicism that characterizes the human condition as an eternal, unclosable contradiction between the structures produced by the human mind as it adapts to its environments, and the events thrown at it by history, the one always coming up short in the face of the other.

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