Rigor Mortis In Levi Strauss Essay

1940 words - 8 pages

The incest taboo has long proved a problem for social scientists, and it is no different for Levi-Strauss. In numerous articles, Levi-Strauss attempts to reconcile nature and culture in the prohibition against incest. Although he does this effectively, and his conclusion seems valid, the way that he arrives at it opens his work, structuralism, and social science in general up to larger critiques. The critique of social science is not about the conclusions reached but about the seeming inability of the social scientist to overcome or even put through a rigorous and thorough examination the concepts inherent in their work.

Before Levi-Strauss, there were three primary theories put forward to explain the incest. Some, like Westermarck and Ellis, believed that the prohibition derived from an instinctive horror of familial sex inherent in a person's psychology. Others argued that the prohibition was the result of an elementary understanding of eugenics, making people vaguely aware of the potential genetic problems of inbreeding. The third explanation is the closest to what Levi-Strauss eventually arrives at, advanced by Durkheim. He believed that intimate relationships with blood relatives were prohibited because of the connection between blood and the substantiality of the tribal or personal totem. A man engaged in sexual acts with a woman who shares his blood would be in danger of coming into direct physical contact with his own blood, the `substantial expression of his kinship with his totem' (p.20). )

These three approaches have basic defects. Westermarck and Ellis erred in believing that the universality of the incest prohibition was based on an equally universal sentiment (p.17). This sentiment is a variation of the phrase `familiarity breeds contempt'. The idea is that involvement in someone's daily life makes them less attractive; however, this is patently not universal, and Levi-Strauss uses the example of the Chukchee model of marriage to give an example of a culture in which familiarity is considered essential to a long-term caring and sexual relationship. The eugenic explanation cannot adequately account for the incest prohibition since in a small community recessive genes are quickly stabilized and the actual occurrences of genetic anomalies related to inbreeding are extremely rare. Levi-Strauss's objections to the third theory are multiple, and more complicated. His first objection is that Durkheim is positing that all people under go a universal transition from believing the substantiality of the totem to a belief that too close a connection to that totem (through blood) is horrifying. According to Levi-Strauss, history does not work like this - the same events do not always have the same results, and so this positing of a necessary transition is in no way universal. Aside from this, Levi-Strauss refers to the connection as `extrinsic' (Problem of Incest, 24). It is not inherent in the process, but only externally imposed on it....

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