Levi-Strauss and the Political: The Elementary Structures of Kinship and the Resolution of Relations between Indigenous People and Settler states/Levi-Strauss et le Politique: Les Structures Elementaires De la Parente Dans la Resolution Des Relations Entre Peuples Indigenes et Nations Colonisatrices

Article excerpt


Levi-Strauss's writings on kinship, as we are well aware, probe fundamental theoretical and analytic issues of vital interest to the study of society. Notwithstanding his own intellectual path in recent years and the vagaries of anthropological interest in the study of kinship, (1) the ideas he developed in his kinship studies continue to be considered in some detail by the scholarly community (e.g. Bataille 1991 [1978]; Butler 2000; Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995; Derrida 1974 [1967]; Foucault 1990 [1978]; Godelier 2004; Maybury-Lewis & Almagor 1989).

This article is intended to be one such reflection. It will give further consideration to Levi-Strauss's contribution to the study of the origins of society, primarily as it is explored in his monumental work on that topic, The elementary structures of kinship (1969 [1949]). I am undertaking this reflection because I have found that a return to this theme in his work is valuable in two respects. First, Levi-Strauss addresses an enduring theme in Western political thought in an innovative and productive way. Second, he addresses a specific political concern with which I have been engaged for over thirty years, that of justly resolving political relations between Canada and the indigenous peoples who find themselves living within its borders. (2) In this regard, Levi-Strauss's version of the origins of society contrasts with more familiar ones in challenging fundamentally the legal doctrine of terra nullius which settler states (3) rely on to legitimate their acquisition of sovereignty and jurisdiction over indigenous peoples. At the same time, his version facilitates an understanding of the concept of 'Treaty' as developed in an important line in indigenous thought which, if adopted by settler states, would resolve this political relationship with social justice.

In essence, my argument is that Levi-Strauss's treatise on the origins of society advances the proposition that, for society to exist, it is necessary for Self and Other to join in a common project in which it is essential for both to respect and maintain each other's distinctiveness and autonomy.

In addressing Levi-Strauss's work on kinship I am returning to a theme that has provoked much disagreement and controversy. Two criticisms are of particular importance and deserve mention at the outset. The first, levelled principally by Derrida (1974 [1967]), is that Levi-Strauss's treatise is merely a conventional version of the Enlightenment-inspired political thought in the tradition of Rousseau. The second is the objection raised by those scholars who are justifiably troubled with the obvious androcentrism of his argument and its concomitant dismissal of the agency of women and, therefore, their very humanity.

While I agree with Derrida that Levi-Strauss's argument exists within Western political thought, I will show that, contrary to his perspective, The elementary structures of kinship challenges conventional Enlightenment-inspired political discourse, including that in the tradition of Rousseau. I will also briefly raise the possibility that Levi-Strauss's argument has an affinity with the philosophical orientation of Martin Buber (1970 [1923]) and Emmanuel Levinas. I concur with the second criticism and will, as I justify below, therefore replace the word 'women' with the phrase 'marriage partners' in this article.

To set the context for this article, I will review the two principal ways in which the parameters of original society are established in Enlightenment-inspired political thought and show how these are reflected in Levi-Strauss's writings.

Establishing original society in political and anthropological theory

Depiction of the 'origins of society' and characterization of the original form of society represent central foci in Enlightenment-inspired political thought. In this tradition there have been two dominant ways in which the character of these foci has been established. …