Between Myth and History: Michelet, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, and the Structural Analysis of Myth

By Edelstein, Dan | CLIO, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Between Myth and History: Michelet, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, and the Structural Analysis of Myth


Edelstein, Dan, CLIO


At the beginning of structuralism was the word--or rather the phoneme. This "mythical" origin of structuralism is retold by Claude Levi-Strauss in his preface to Roman Jakobson's Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning (1978), a volume of lectures given by the linguist in New York during the war, which the then young anthropologist attended. Struggling at the time with his dissertation (later to become the Elementary Structures of Kinship [1969]), Levi-Strauss was struck by the simplicity and power of the Prague school's insights into phonemic structures, and adapted their findings to his own problems, namely kinship relations and the incest taboo. In a series of articles, most of them reprinted in his now famous books, Levi-Strauss would hail structural linguistics as the grail of the humanities, the philosophers' stone that would transform the social sciences into exact ones. In the beginning was the phoneme, and the phoneme was God ...

The direct descent of structuralism from linguistics has, of course, been questioned; in fact, the structuralists themselves raised the issue of paternity. Levi-Strauss's well-known "three mistresses" were not Ferdinand de Saussure, Jakobson, and Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, but Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and geology. A philosopher by training, he also willingly took as his own Paul Ricoeur's (critical) remark that the anthropologist practiced a "Kantianism without a transcendental subject." Other philosophical influences have been pointed out, notably Edmund Husserl's, (1) and readers of Levi-Strauss's work are well aware of these heterodox presences. Structural linguistics is more often than not an authoritative discourse that Levi-Strauss follows in spirit, but not to the letter. (2) Other theoretical notions are "recuperated" to do the job when no linguistic theory fits--for instance, the use of Freud at the end of the "Structural Study of Myth" to authorize his otherwise unexplained "canonical formula" of all myth.

Of the many sources that flowed together to form structuralist methodology, one has remained largely ignored--history. The reasons for this oversight are well known. It is now a commonplace that structuralism, with its focus on synchrony, was antithetical to history and the diachrony of events. (3) Protest as they may, the structuralists were unable to shake this impression. They could write about history: Levi-Strauss's attack on marxist historiography is widely regarded as one of the first and most successful, (4) while Roland Barthes's article on "Historical Discourse" was equally influential on later historiographic trends. (5) But the god of structural linguistics required a sacrifice, and History was the allotted victim.

In view of the perceived contradiction between history and structuralism, this essay's thesis may come as a surprise: that a historian played a decisive role in the shaping of a key structuralist theory, namely, the structural analysis of myth, one of the longest lasting (and earliest) contributions of structuralism. Myth became an object of study for two founding fathers of structuralism at practically the same time: Levi-Strauss published "The Structural Study of Myth" in 1955, and Barthes published his book on Mythologies in 1957. Barthes presumably had no knowledge of Levi-Strauss's article since it appeared (in English) in the Journal of American Folklore, only to be published in French in 1958, as a chapter of Structural Anthropology. Curiously, the definitions that both authors provide for myth rest largely on historical concepts developed by the nineteenth-century French historian, Jules Michelet. While there is an element of chance in this common reference, a closer look reveals that Michelet was no random choice in the political climate of the fifties. This paper examines the role of Michelet in both Levi-Strauss's and Barthes's definitions of myth, as well as of history, and by demystifying the "linguistic" account of structuralism's genesis, (6) discloses the ties between structuralism's theoretical developments and the intellectual and political context from which it emerged. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Between Myth and History: Michelet, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, and the Structural Analysis of Myth
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.