November 05, 2009
Either binary or not
Portrait of the anthropologist as a young man. Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1930s. Image by way of wikipedia.
A few years back, and for reasons that now escape me, I went on a reading jag of books about anthropology, semiotics (the study of signs), structuralism, and literary theory.
I think I must have been really bored.
It was kind of amusing as long as I didn't take it too seriously. The Spousal Unit was probably right when she said to pretend like it was science fiction.
One person whose work I grappled with was French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who recently died at the age of 100. Not that I read all the way through his major tomes--even El Cabrero has his limits--but I read some snippets and several secondary works.
I probably missed a lot, but it seems to me like he was right about one of his major ideas (assuming I'm getting this right). The human mind seems to kind of like a fishing tackle box and we seem to be hardwired to classify things and put them in different compartments. Each culture seems to have its own classification system but the urge to classify remains the same.
The systems themselves are kind of arbitrary from the outside, with each part only having a meaning in relation to others within it. To use an example from linguistics, there is nothing about the symbols c-a-t that necessarily refer to a feline; it only does so within the context of the system of modern English.
We seem to be especially disposed towards binary categories: us/them, good/bad, raw/cooked, etc. Even when we try to break away from our cultural conditioning, we seem to substitute a different binary system for the old one.
As someone once said, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who break things into two major categories and those who don't. Like it or lump it...
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