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Lévi-Strauss once again

Dernière mise à jour : 11 mai 2021

A few days ago, I watched the delicious movie Yesterday, which tells the story of Jack Malik, the only being on earth to remember the Beatles. After an accident, Malik wakes up in a world in which this group had never existed, its songs were not known and ... well, I'm not going to spoil. But in the logical continuity of the facts, everything directly linked to the Beatles' existence did not exist either.

This movie made me imagine the current world without the existence of some great characters that I admire. As I had just finished - after three years! - the book Lévi-Strauss by Emmanuelle Loyer, I practiced this exercise with him. How to consider anthropology without the Americanist studies of which Lévi-Strauss was one of the precursors? How to imagine the evolution of anthropological thoughts without the Westerns societies position shift in the world caused by him? (Until then, a hierarchical view implied that all societies followed a common evolutionary trajectory at the end of which the Western model would be the Holy Grail, putting all other societies in a kind of permanent anachronism). How to consider ethnological researches without the establishment of Levi Strauss’ distant look and the structuralist theories? The list of his contributions is very long and they go far beyond the theoretical contribution: his institutional contribution is also large, including the creation of the Social Anthropology Laboratory.

But this post is rather a tribute to Emmanuelle Loyer, her book and the huge research she did to accomplish it. Throughout Lévi-Strauss' biography, she portrayed the history of anthropology itself. She describes in detail the early years of the young professor whose trajectory is inevitably influenced by the History with a capital H, in particular the Jews’ in the 1930s, which took him to Brazil, a turning point in his life and, later, to the United States , which will also be of great importance in the breadth of his work in the Anglo-Saxon world and his international reach. The author also tells the backstage of his nomination at the Collège de France, ego fights, personal rivalries and, most importantly, what impressed me the most, she exposes the theories raised in each of his books, as well as the theories and controversies generated by each one back then. She contextualizes each moment of his existence with sociological and historical details in a back and forth chronology. In her book, Emmanuelle Loyer humanized the monument Lévi-Strauss and gave to the man a patrimonial aura.

I could perceive the importance of Lévi-Strauss's contribution to this discipline during my Ethnological studies at the Lumière University, in Lyon, but I did not imagine, until I read this book, how fundamental and founding it was. Through this book, I could understand how innovative his thinking was, admired, but also criticized. And I would like to affirm, on my own behalf, that he was extremely premonitory about today’s world.

The reading of Lévi-Strauss required me three years because of its density and also because it raised the desire to read or reread some of his texts (specially Tristes Tropiques). What I did. I could immerse myself again in my ethnological studies, with a certain nostalgia, regretting that Emmanuelle Loyer had not written her book twenty years ago. I would certainly feel a little less lost during the fascinating Professor Verdier's master classes.

Lévi-Strauss, by Emmanuelle Loyer, Flammarion, 2015.

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