Levi-Strauss etc.

Bill Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Sun, 15 Jun 1997 08:51:38 -0500

Message-Id: <199706151248.IAA27903@brickbat9.mindspring.com>
Date: Sun, 15 Jun 1997 08:51:38 -0500
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: bbenzon@mindspring.com (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Levi-Strauss etc.

Tim Perper brought up Levi-Strauss so I thought I'd say something about
myths, folk tales, & literature, etc.


The first thing to say is that lots of attention has been given to myths &
folktales. Early in this century a Russian scholar by the name of Vladimir
Propp published a book called "The Morphology of the Folktale" in which he
tried to establish the basic functional units (motifs) of folktales and the
rules by which those units are combined into complete tales. These units
would be things like "hero leaves home" or "dragon captures kings daughter"
(these aren't real examples, but I've just moved so my library is in chaos,
sorry). Thus, we get different kinds of tales by combining these basic
units in different ways. One subsequent line of research has been to
document all the motifs which occur in the world's folk tales (the name
Stith Thompson looms large here). In the late 60s or early 70s one of
Chomsky's students attempted to recast Propp's work in formal terms, thus
giving rise to the study of story grammars, which resulted in a fairly
extensive body of literature & some computer simulations as well.

Levi-Strauss was up to something different. He wanted to show that myths
are governed by a logic grounded in conflicts and contraditions in the
underlying culture. He wasn't particularly interested basic units of
composition -- though he was aware of them. His earliest work -- an essay
on the Oedipus myth was the first, I believe -- asserted that a myth
started with some binary opposition (like life vs. death) and then proceded
from incident to incedent by substituting mediating terms for each term in
the opposition until, by the end of the myth, we arrive at a term which is
mid-way between the original ones, thus resolving the opposition. By the
time he wrote "Mythologies" (the work Tim was referencing) he'd pretty much
abandoned the decreasing binary oppositions model (without really replacing
it with anything). Now he was looking at myths from a whole region --
mostly central South America. He was interested in showing that, while
these people more or less shared the same body of stories, differences in
stories from one group to another are related to differences in social
structure (which for these peoples is mostly kinship systems), cosmology,
culinary system, etc.

Roughly speaking, Propp was after the syntax of tales and considered tales
in isolation from general social and cultural context. Levi-Strauss was
interested in semantics and considered tales as vehicle for organizing &
coordinating the various conceptual systems which folks needed to operate
their world. In any event, if you're interested in this stuff, there's
lots of material available. & both Levi-Strauss & Propp have been
influential in the general study of literature.


Albert Lord was interested in the performance of oral narrative & wrote a
book called, I think, The Singer of Songs, based on his study of Slavic
story tellers, with a chapter or two on Homer which kicked up a major fuss
in classical circles. Basically, in non-literature cultures, the notion of
exact repetition of a story doesn't exist. Most of us, sometime in our
lives, were forced to memorize something, which means reciting the poem or
story or whatever, word for word as it was written. That kind of word for
word repetition doesn't exist in oral cultures. Folks in such cultures
will judge two stories as the same where we might not, because they are not
exactly the same.

Lord (& others) were interested in this range of variation in tales & in
the verbal devices the tellers used to "improvise" the tale in real time.
A given story will be told differently by different tellers and the same
teller will tell it differently from occasion to occasion depending on
audience response, nature of the occasion, his mood. Lords main
contribution is to isolate various units of language, standard verbal
formulae, riffs as you will, which made up the telling. These formulae are
units of language, actual phrases while Propp's motifs were units of plot
structure (& Levi-Strauss's binary oppositions were units of meaning).
Thus these units would necessarily be culture-specific.

Now, to Homer. After having done his Slavic work Lord took a look at the
Iliad and the Odyssey and noticed that those epics seemed to be full of
just the kind of verbal formulae he found in the Slavic tales. He thus
opened a controversy about whether or not those written texts originated in
an essentially oral culture and then somehow got written down (by one
Homer, or perhaps the Homer committee, who knows?). Those texts are long,
much longer than any tales Lord (or any other anthropologist or folklorist)
had collected. That doesn't mean that a really masterful teller couldn't
spin out the story of Odysseus over a day or two, but... OTOH, the method
of composition uses verbal formulae just like oral "improvisation" does.

In any event, it is worth noting that these Homeric narratives certainly
seem to incorporate bits and pieces of lots of different tales.


So, we've got 3 units of organization, or construction: verbal formulae,
plot units, semantic units. Beyond that we've got the stories themselves
and the corpus of tales told in a particular culture.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A bbenzon@mindspring.com
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA http://www.newsavanna.com/wlb/

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