Claude Levi-Strauss Questions for English 256 Intro to Theory, Chapman University, Fall 2012



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Assigned: Claude Lévi-Strauss. Ch. 28. "A Writing Lesson," from ''Tristes Tropiques (1277-86).

Ch. 28: "A Writing Lesson," from ''Tristes Tropiques

1. On 1277-79, Lévi-Strauss' narrates the beginning of the Brazilian expedition that will be the subject of his reflections. What is the stated purpose of this undertaking, and what difficulties does he encounter at the outset of his trip?

2. On 1279-80, what does the Chief of the Nambikwara subgroup Lévi-Strauss visits comprehend about writing that his subjects do not? What effects does the introduction of writing and the Chief's subsequent behavior have on his subjects?

3. On 1281-83, what inferences about the role of writing does Lévi-Strauss draw from his observation of the Chief? Why can't we use the existence of writing to establish and maintain the opposition between civilized and uncivilized people? How is the story about the chief a story about the origin or development of writing? How does this argument run counter to the usual assumption that literacy and democracy advance together?

4. General question following from the analysis on 1281-83: what implications do Lévi-Strauss' observations about writing have for the study of literature as a sub-species of language? What might be the purpose of literature if Lévi-Strauss is correct in his suggestion that writing is linked to the maintenance of political power and rank?

5. On 1283-86, Lévi-Strauss writes that his experience with the Nambikwara chief regarding writing led him to another and more general issue: "the political relationships between individuals and groups" (1283) in Nambikwara culture. What insights does he go on to offer about that culture's aggressive dimension and its way of handling aggression? Similarly, what thoughts does he set forth about the Nambikwaras' generosity in handling its interactions with other cultures or groups?

6. On 1283, Lévi-Strauss mentions his wife for the first time in our selection. What is the narratival advantage of minimizing the presence of other Western visitors, and making it seem as if he were alone among the Nambikwara? And more generally, how would you describe Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropological method in the selection we have read? If he isn't "judging" the Nambikwara or enlisting some modern variant on the old "noble savage" myth to assess this people, what is he trying to accomplish in relating his interactions with them?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.