Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss and Media Ecology

I recommend two excellent obituaries about Claude Lévi-Strauss, the father of Structural Anthrology, who died this past weekend. The New York Times does a good job summarizing his life and times.

The Guardian does a better job explaining the roots of Levi-Strauss' Structural Anthropology and I believe, underscoring its importance to Media Ecology. In particular, Maurice Bloch of The Guardian writes:

The basis of the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss is the idea that the human brain systematically processes organised, that is to say structured, units of information that combine and recombine to create models that sometimes explain the world we live in, sometimes suggest imaginary alternatives, and sometimes give tools with which to operate in it. The task of the anthropologist, for Lévi-Strauss, is not to account for why a culture takes a particular form, but to understand and illustrate the principles of organisation that underlie the onward process of transformation that occurs as carriers of the culture solve problems that are either practical or purely intellectual.

It seems to me that there is an unspoken assumption in Media Ecology that there are no differences in the intellectual capabilities of peoples of different ages or technological achievement. By this I don't mean differences in sensory balances, which may be determined by the particular technologies or media of communication available, but rather differences in the basic structure and capacity of the human mind.

When we use the terms, "oral" or "literate" or "post literate" in lieu of "primitive" or "modern", we are not referring to intellectual complexity or intelligence, but rather the modes of thought, the uses of systems of symbols and the religious, social and psychology outlooks encouraged or discouraged by a media environment. In refusing to see the people of cultures without writing (as he called them) as "primitive" or somehow inferior to Western white races, Lévi-Strauss provided the philosophical foundation for McLuhan, Postman and Ong. In a letter to the journal Technology and Culture in 1975, McLuhan acknowledged his debt to Lévi-Strauss' structural methodology for his own Laws of the Media.

If it is possible to distinguish a "primitive" mind from our own then how could we apply Marshall McLuhan's Laws of the Media universally across all cultures and time periods? We can talk about the sensory impact of different types of communication media in different eras only if we accept that the basic mental equipment and the capacity for intellectual activity we are born with has been the same throughout all human history and everywhere in the world. In his exhaustive analysis of Amerindian mythology, Levi-Strauss put the study of human culture on a scientific basis and his work belongs in our Media Ecology foundational canon along with Lewis Mumford, John Dewey and Edmund Carpenter.

Lévi-Strauss wrote:
I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact.

Isn't this what we Media Ecologists claim in our own studies of how symbol systems and technologies affect human beliefs and activities? Lévi-Strauss discovered and demonstrated connections between seemingly disparate mythic stories, and offered explanations for seemingly random elements of those stories. His methodology can be used as model for ways to interpret the products of our contemporary culture, which, while seeming to be unrelated, actually constitute our system (or systems) of symbolic meanings.

Rest in peace Professor Lévi-Strauss, and thank you for your life and your work.

1 comment:

Heresiarch said...

I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it's an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio