Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Science
Ever since the 1980s, it has become a truism that particularity, nuance and complexity are the highest forms of anthropological truth. For many anthropologists, the more radically empirical – and less theoretically abstract – an analysis is, the better. But why is that, actually? Maybe we need to clarify what was precisely so bad about old anthropological modes of abstraction, generalization, and formalization, and as part of this reflexive move also consider whether something methodologically useful and analytically productive can be salvaged from the debris of past grand narratives.
This panel asks its participants to revisit structuralism, especially (but not only) the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. While there has been attempts to revitalize Lévi-Strauss’ oeuvre over the years, we wish to ask a rather different set of questions by honing in on the much-criticized role of formalism in the structuralist project. More precisely, we are interested in the distinct characteristics (and therefore also the pros and cons) of what might be called the “structuralist aesthetics of description” – viz., its lavish use of “dry” technical language, models, matrixes & formulas, and other styles of reasoning and forms of persuasion otherwise associated with the natural and socalled hard sciences.
Structuralism has been much criticized for its favouring of systemic logics and totalizing explanatory models. And perhaps rightly so. But while structuralism might (predictably) have failed in delivering an all-encompassing theoretical framework for the study of social life, there might be some analytical purchase in engaging anew with its aspirations of developing a formalist anthropology - not to resuscitate the structuralist project writ large but to instantiate an experimental critical dialogue framed around the idea of formalism but without abstraction. While structuralism aspires towards topological and relational order, it is one that does not seek fixity based on the coordinates of an assumed pre-existing reality. Rather, meaning arises within a formal topological space structured by a series of differential relations while the structure itself has no distinct content. And if structuralism thus articulates a form of meaning that derives from the combination of differential relations in an analytical topological space, it might be that its formalization will lead not to a reduction of complexity but to its transformation. As such, structuralism does not suppress the nuances of the particular. It breaks it up and distributes it systematically according to a formalist analytical procedure that is as concrete (and as abstract) as the ethnographic data from which it derives.
A range of questions – methodological and theoretical, political and ethical - are raised by revisiting the structuralist project along the formalist lines suggested above. Might it, for instance, be possible to investigate the global environmental crisis, ethno-nationalism, and other urgent matters of concern through an updated structuralist aesthetics of description? Can Levi-Strauss’ formalism be used to rethink the relationship between aesthetics and ethics? What is the purchase of models and formulas in the anthropology of data-worlds? What might a structuralist account of suffering and care look like?