Joseph Hellweg is Asst. Prof. of Religion at Florida State Univeristy. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale. He has done research with initiated hunters (dozos) and on HIV and AIDS in Côte d’Ivoire from 1993-1997 and in 2002. In 2008-2009, he was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Kankan, Guinea, where he taught social science research methods. He will complete his fellowship at the University of Bamako. He speaks French and Mandenkan and eats fonio with okra sauce whenever possible.
The Other Afrik - France - Ivory Coast - Mali - Panafrica - Religion - Culture - Tradition
Structuralism ‘au village’: An Obituary for Claude Lévi-Strauss
French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the twentieth century’s most revered intellectuals, died October 29 at the age of 100. He is best known for his writing on myth, but he touched on almost everything else, too, including history, incest, kinship, marriage, masks, painting, ritual, science, and totemism. He was the world’s foremost exponent of structuralist analysis, first developed by the Swiss linguist, Fernand de Saussure. Lévi-Strauss’s lasting contribution was to apply the perspectives of structural linguistics to understanding human culture. He proposed that everyone thinks about the world in the same way; only the content differs.
His insight may seem trivial. But consider that folks used to think—and many regrettably still do—that people outside Europe, North America, Australia, and urban Latin America and Asia are ignorant heathens. In this light, Lévi-Strauss’s ideas were revolutionary.
To illustrate his ideas, I want to begin with an example of structuralist analysis by way of Fernand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916).
Common sense dictates that we have the word “sheep” in English because the word reflects their existence in the world. I see some sheep grazing in a field, I say, “Look at the sheep.” And you look at them, instead of at some rocks or trees. We understand each other. We see the sheep. They are out there.
Then our companion gets tired of watching the sheep graze, roasts them, and invites us to share some “mutton.” You and I understand the word even if we are vegetarians, since our words correspond to things as they are in the world. Or so we assume.
Saussure wasn’t so sure.
Compare the English words “mutton” and “sheep,” he said, to the way French-speakers talk about such things. Instead of two words, they have one: ‘mouton’. ‘Mouton’ can mean either “live sheep in the meadow” or “sheep meat on a platter.” But French-speakers appear no more or less competent at distinguishing mutton from sheep than English-speakers are (although when it comes to cooking it, we might have to make an exception).
Saussure concluded that no language has a monopoly on the right way to categorize things. No language is more “natural” than another. You can categorize the world any number of ways and still get by in it.
But back to the sheep.
In English, “mutton” means “roasted sheep” because “sheep” means “woolly critters.” In French, one word means both. Saussure concluded that meaning lies between words rather than within them or in relation to the things they name. A word gets its meaning from its opposition to other words, not from the object it names. Without the word “sheep,” “mutton” means nothin’—and vice versa.
French-speakers only say ‘mouton’. While this could mean that they raise hybrid creatures—woolly and living in the front, roasted and dead in the rump—this is not the case. Nor does it mean that French-speakers can’t tell the difference between the sheep you shear and the ones you sauté.
What it means is that we understand the world not because our words stand in a one-to-correspond with things in the world, but because our words contrast systematically with each other in ways that allow us to draw analogies between relationships in the world and relationships between words. There are as many viable ways of doing this as there are languages.
I place my hand on the chicken sacrificed in my name to Manimory in the same way and in the same ritual area as I did at my dozo initiation over a decade before. I wear a dozo hat called a ‘namaturu’ meaning ‘hyena hackles’ in Julakan after the way it resembles the ears and tufts of fur on a hyena’s head and neck.
Enter Lévi-Strauss. He proposed that human culture works according to a same process of distinction. In his book ‘Totemism’ (1962), he wrote that clans have their particular totemic animals—a crow, a fox, a snake—not because each clan shares an underlying similarity with its totem, but because the differences among the animals stand for differences among the clans. The choice of the animal by each clan is arbitrary but meaningful. Without such choices, there would be no social organization. Our ways of thinking structure society as much as society structures our ways of thinking. Meaning is relational. It lies between things, not within them.
West Africa has taught me these lessons particularly well. One thing that consistently impresses me here is the way people who practice different religions manage to get along with each other—presuming that politicians and power-hungry religious leaders leave them in peace.
While I was doing research in Côte d’Ivoire from 1994 to 1997 among initiated hunters called ‘dozos’, my host, a dozo named Dramane Coulibaly, asked if I wanted to be initiated. I was flattered by the invitation and asked for some time to think about it.
As a Roman Catholic, I thought I should give some thought about what it would mean in spiritual terms. Good friends who were Evangelical Protestant missionaries in the area suggested that it might bring me into contact with demonic forces. A Cameroonian priest in Côte d’Ivoire pointed me, in contrast, toward Lumen Gentium (1964), the Vatican II document that recognizes salvation outside of the Church. I also stumbled onto the writings of Jesuit theologian Raimon Panikkar, who wrote of the “Cosmic Christ”—from Paul’s image in Colossians (1:12-14)—as a salvific presence in all peoples, times, and places.
What harm, I wondered, could there be in participating in a ritual tradition as venerable as the dozos’? According to Malian anthropologist Youssouf Tata Cissé, dozo rituals predate the eighth-century empire of Ghana. And Sunjata Keita, who founded the empire of Mali in the thirteenth, was a dozo. NEXT PAGE
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