selections from Tristes Tropiques (1955)

  1. What are some ways in which Levi-Strauss’s approach to his topic manifests the influence of Saussure? (sees human behavior as an interelated language or means of communication) Of Freud or other psychologists?
  2. To what other sources or strands of thought do you think he may be indebted--for example, Marx or the Russian formalists?
  3. What do you make of the title? What assumptions lie beneath the description of the tropics as “sad”?
  4. What are some features of Levi-Strauss’s style and presentation of his material? (spare, emotional) Do these increase its effect?
  5. What seems to have been his relationship with the Nambikwara? Which aspects of their lives does he single out for notice, [gift exchange, writing] and what motivates his choice of topics?
  6. What observations does Levi-Strauss make on the importance of writing? What status does it confer on the writer? (1422) (helps chief seem important)
  7. Has it helped in creating other forms of progress? What in his view seems to have been its historical effect? (1423) (has increased slavery, empire, urbanization; compulsory education correlated with militarization and protetarianization, government control (cmp. Foucault); possibility of lies in printed documents, 1424)
  8. What do you think may have prompted so educated a man to emphasize the alleged evils of writing and other traits of civilization?
  9. What happened to the chief who feigned a knowledge of writing shortly after the anthropologist’s departure? (most of tribe abandoned him; understood importance of new technology) What does this seem to indicate about the values and desires of his people?
  10. How would you describe Levi-Strauss’s methods as a historian? (intervenes in story, demonstrates his own cleverness)
  11. What features does he note in the ways in which the Nambikwara conduct their quarrels with other groups? (complain, feign modesty, use genital symbolism, attack, then barter) The process of exchange and barter? What is the tone of his description? Does it convey respect?
  12. What prompts the Nambiwara to engage in war? (belief that they have not received a fair exchange; desire to avenge murder, etc.) How does the way in which these conflicts are described affect the reader’s view of their causes and purpose? (1425-27)
  13. What are some effects this work may have had on the theory and practice of twentieth-century anthropology?
  14. The work of Levi-Strauss and other cultural anthropologists has also been the object of considerable criticism--can you imagine what forms this criticism may have taken?
  15. Do you think it is just to accuse him of unconsciously colonialist attitudes? What seems to be his attitude toward women?
  16. What may be some of the side effects of the study of aboriginal cultures? To what extent has recent anthropology shifted its focus from the study of “primitive” tribes?

selections from Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1419-27

"The Structural Study of Myth," 1955

  1. What according to Levi-Strauss is puzzling about myth? To what degree is his claim that myths all over the world resemble each other valid?
  2. What does he find limited about earlier views of myth? What aspects of myths do they fail to grasp? (870)
  3. In what ways do myths resemble a language? (their structure determines their meaning? What analogy does he find between myths and the distinction between langue and parole?
  4. What does it mean to say that myth is both historical and non-historical? (871) What third entity does he believe it forms?
  5. Why is myth unlike poetry? (its plot is important, can be translated)
  6. What are some elements of myth? (its "gross constituent units" are "bundles of relations" 872; must be read both diachronically and synchronically)
  7. What qualities does he think are proper for structural analysis? (872--concision, economy of explanation, unity of solution, ability to form whole from part)
  8. What dangers might arise from the assumption that one could always derive a whole from its parts?
  9. How does Levi-Strauss interpret the myth of Oedipus? (sees parallels in the relationship of the parts) Do his correlations seem plausible?
  10. How is his interpretation different from others, say, by Freud? What are some similarities? (like Freud, relies on alleged displacements, 875.2)
  11. What seems attractive about this mode of reading myths? What might be some pitfalls?
  12. According to Levi-Strauss, is there a "true" version of a myth? (875)
  13. What possibilities are opened up by the claim that a myth consists of all its versions? What effect would such a claim have on our view of authorship? Of editing of texts? Of the importance of the study of reception?
  14. On what grounds does he claim that earlier interpretations of myth have been two-dimensional? (876-877)
  15. What causes the need for the duplication often found in myths? (877, makes structure of myth apparent)
  16. What is the relation of myth to the concepts of langue and parole? (falls between these, 877)
  17. What differentiates myth from science? Is it the nature of the thought, or its object? (877, "man has always been thinking equally well") What conclusion does he derive from these convictions? (powers of human mind unchanging)
  18. What effect do you think such views would have on one's judgment of the importance of myth, and of the thoughts of earlier or tribally organized peoples?

from The Critical Tradition, ed. David Richter, New York, 1989.