Lévi-Strauss and Geertz both concern themselves with that classical philosophical problem of order and chaos. The former states, “It is, I think, absolutely impossible to conceive of meaning without order” (Lévi-Strauss 12). The latter, waxing a bit more poetic, has the orderless human not as simply meaningless but also as hideous and repulsive, “a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions (Geertz, Interp. 99).  If it all comes down to order, there must then be a great deal to say about with what faculties and in what ways an individual, group of individuals, or humanity in general, goes about wresting the stuff out from chaos’ grasp. 


Both authors agree that the question of order is inextricably tied up with the problem of meaning. Lévi-Strauss can be accused of nothing less than stacking the cards when he rushes his analysis of the problem forward with a specious syllogism that draws a parallel between ‘meaning’ and ‘translation,’ asks, “Now, what would a translation be without rules?” and without skipping a beat, resolves with the formula: “to speak of rules and to speak of meaning is to speak of the same thing” (12). Are we trapped so early in the analysis into rule-governed binaries lying at the bottom of meaning? God knows we love Lévi-Strauss. It seems to me that we can rescue his question of meaning from rules by refusing outright to address his concern with translation. We might begin by proposing that meaning is the pre-condition of rules.  We might insist that meaning without rules occurs all the time, one of its forms we know as art, or more broadly put, expression.  When it rains while the sun shines overhead, the unexpected phenomena, of itself generates a cascade of other signs without necessarily producing fixed meaning itself. The point, Lévi-Strauss himself offers elsewhere, is that, “the world begins to signify before anyone knows what it signifies” (Lévi-Strauss in Deleuze and Guattari TP 112). 


Geertz, always ready with a quotable definition, has chaos as, “a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability” (Interp 100).  On the face of it, it seems very similar to the definition given by Lévi-Strauss.  Interpretation, like translation, one would imagine would be based in a common understanding. This is in fact the case. For both authors, culture lies outside the subject.  For Lévi-Strauss, “myth speaks through man”.  For Geertz, complexes of symbols are ‘extrinsic’ to the individual, lying “outside the boundaries of the individual organism as such in that intersubjective world of common understandings into which all human individuals are born” (Geertz Interp. 92).  But while Lévi-Strauss’ individual is pre-equipped with binary thinking with which to channel external information, Geertz’ lies utterly helpless with hands out, waiting for ‘conceptions’, and thus the ‘meaning’ necessary to survive among men, to be handed down to him (93). Meaning for Geertz is to place suffering and bafflement –might we call it the question of being?-- into a meaningful context, to ‘explain’ phenomena, and thus to continually justify sense-making itself.  Borrowing from The philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Geertz draws a distinction between two dispositions characteristic of religious activity (which can be read more generally as necessary in all sense-making activity): moods and motivations (96). Moods, on the one hand, represent ‘ethos’, are measured by their intensity rather than for their purpose. They are ends-in-themselves, as he says, going nowhere (97). Motivations, on the other hand speak to worldview, assume instrumentality, are vectorial or directional in nature.  Motivations gravitate toward…consummation (97). ). As dispositional states, moods and motivations represent symbols ‘of’ and symbols ‘for.’ Nonsymbolic information sources such as genes, DNA, are models ‘for’, symbolic systems that manipulate these nonsymbolic systems are symbols ‘for.’ Culture systems, for Geertz, are by nature structured by symbols ‘for’ and structure chaos by means of symbols ‘of’.  For Geertz, “the odd, strange, and uncanny simply must be accounted for—or again, the conviction that it could be accounted for sustained” (101). We might supplement this with another, rather frightening dimension of this ‘will to sense-making.’ This might be illustrated by what we do with all those perplexing dreams that visit us in the night; we wipe them clean from our mind by mid-morning. We actively forget!


Lévi-Strauss, on at least two occasions implies the revealing of the function of myth through unexpected cultural modes, technology and music. Of one myth he writes, “we could only understand this property of the myth at a time when cybernetics and computers have come to exist in the scientific world and have provided us with an understanding of binary operations which had already been put to use in a very different way with concrete objects or beings by mythical thought” (Levi-Strauss Myth and Meaning 22ish). In a discussion of Wagner’s Ring, he claims that the recurrence of a theme “at three different moments in a very long story” “shows us something never explained in the poems” (M&M 49).  These are provocative arguments. What are their implications? Are they simply reconciled with anthropo-logics?



ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture