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Out-of-Place in the Sad Tropics:
Reading Lévi-Strauss with Jakobson


In the editorial introduction to its selection of work by Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism quotes the once dispossessed French anthropologist as describing his 1941 encounter with Roman Jakobson in New York as a ‘revelation.’ (Leitch 1416)1 We take this as an indication that a fruitful reading of Lévi-Strauss can be had if one does so with Jakobson. The claim made here is that the textual richness of the former is revealed to us most readily if we consider his work in light of the latter’s development of structural linguistics. More specifically, in this paper we propose to examine the chapter entitled ‘A Writing Lesson’ from Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques using key conceptual categories from two of Jakobson’s position papers, ‘Linguistics and Poetics’ and ‘Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.’ However, our analysis will hardly be complete and this remains true despite examining such a limited selection from Lévi-Strauss’ autobiography with a finite number of Jakobson’s concepts. On the contrary, we hope to indicate that structural analysis as such is inherently open-ended and limited only by the skill of the analyst who puts it to use. This is true since the analysis takes as its proper object the language of the text, while itself necessarily operating within the horizon of the language of that text.2

We could almost say that it is because we have such a limited amount of Lévi-Strauss’ text before us that we are best positioned to appreciate how structural analysis is potentially interminable. Of course, Jakobson’s system is a ‘meta-language’ – one which speaks of and theorizes language as such – a term he himself uses following Alfred Tarski. (Jakobson 1263) But we also get the sense that Jakobson is well-aware that there is no meta-position to be had with respect to the analysis of language when he agrees with Voegelin regarding the need to revise ‘the monolithic hypothesis about language;’ and further when he notes that ‘for any speaker, there exists a unity of language, but this over-all code represents a system of interconnected subcodes; every language encompasses several concurrent patterns, each characterized by different functions.’ (Jakobson 1260) To put this in other terms, any effect of analytic transcendence while engaging with a text is strictly immanent to this text. This is perhaps the ultimate lesson to be had with Lévi-Strauss’ ‘A Writing Lesson.’ To begin to see this – with the tools Jakobson has given us – we will proceed by first characterizing this text at its most broad, most ‘meta’ level and only then work our way down through particular elements to perhaps its most singular point. This point has to do with subjectivity and we claim it can only be through such a point that we can understand many of the key claims Lévi-Strauss makes in his text, including those regarding writing itself.

Even a superficial first reading of Lévi-Strauss’ multilayered writing in this piece betrays the fact that it comes from a book that first began as a novel, then as an autobiography and ended up as an account of an exoticized journey through the Brazilian tropics in the late 1930s. (Leitch 1415, 1417) The text certainly does encompass ‘several concurrent patterns’ which only seem to increase in number with subsequent readings. We will, however, focus on only the most notable: how a major third-person theoretical reflection is embedded within an overall first-person narrative account in which the author appears as one of the active characters of his story. But this is not as jarring as it may first seem, as Lévi-Strauss is quite masterful at how he moves out of and back into the text’s overall temporal trajectory.3 At any rate, this trajectory does have a definite beginning and ending in time which provides the necessary cohesive framework for its various elements and occasional digressions both big and small.

Loosely speaking, ‘A Writing Lesson’ recounts how Lévi-Strauss – ostensibly to ascertain the size of the local native population – was able to secure a reluctantly granted place among a native group as it set out on an expedition to meet up with other native groups. He does reach his goal of observing interacting native groups by the end of the paper, but about one third into the story there is a significant detour from what started out initially as a personal account of his experiences of travelling with the caravan. Suddenly we find ourselves reading an ‘academic’ text written in an impersonal style covering everything from ancient civilizations (both East and West) to a Marxist analysis of the ideological role that writing plays in modern domestic and post-colonial governmental administrations. Yet two pages later we find ourselves abruptly returned to the (now altered) original narration for the remaining pages. As we shall see below, in Jakobson’s terms, what we are dealing with here is a diachronic text in which the particular terms of its system have changed over time from its first to last pages. But as well, we shall also see how this two-page punctuation ultimately deviates and over-determines the narrative flow, channeling it into a particular direction. Ultimately, ‘A Writing Lesson’ exemplifies how diachronic development is best seen as being simultaneous with its synchronic development according to the terms they both share. One of the aims of this paper is to provide more evidence to this effect.

We can further analyze the difference between the two modes Lévi-Strauss utilizes to write this text in terms of Jakobson’s functions of language. The narrative portion of the text is clearly ‘emotive,’ as it invites the reader into the subjective position of the first-person addresser who is actively participating in the story. We see things as this subject does. Thus, when Lévi-Strauss gets separated from his group, suddenly finding himself alone in the jungle and reflectively aware of how he is hopelessly out of his element to the point of having ‘lost [his] weapons and at any moment... [expecting] to be pierced by a shower of arrows’ as he had stumbled into hostile territory, the text takes on a definite ‘expressive’ function. (Lévi-Strauss 1422) Yet one paragraph later when he launches into the aforementioned two-page theoretical interlude, this function is replaced by a ‘referential’ or ‘cognitive’ function which is oriented toward the context and is of the ‘”third person” properly (someone or something spoken of).’ (Jakobson 1261–2)

Interestingly, we can also consider this interlude as demonstrative of other functions that Jakobson adds to the traditional model of language. Of course, that Lévi-Strauss inserts this third-person text into a first-person narration seems calculated to jar the reader out of a complacent reading of the text, so such a strategy is clearly oriented toward the addressee – here, language takes on what Jakobson calls a ‘conative’ function. (Jakboson 1262) But does this tactic not also have a ‘phatic’ function in that it serves to test out whether the contact between the narrator and the reader is working properly, as if to say: ‘Are you still there, dear reader? Can you hear me?’ Moreover, this interlude also throws up another flag for us which could be considered ‘metalingual’ in the sense that we become aware that Lévi-Strauss qua academic is teaching us the new language of structural anthropology and thus needs to ensure that his readers are up to speed with the unique codes of this new language.4 Closely related to the focus on codes as such is the meaning conveyed by these codes and thus simultaneously we can read the interlude in its ‘poetic’ function, one concerned with the meaning and palpability such codes and their signs should have for us. It is as if Lévi-Strauss stops the first-person narrative to say: ‘Just in case you are not understanding the message of the story and having trouble reading its signs, let me make it clear for you with a theoretical re-conceptualization.’ In sum, the uniqueness of the way Lévi-Strauss organizes ‘A Writing Lesson’ provides a demonstration of many of the basic functions of language, including the more difficult to understand phatic, metalingual and poetic functions. (Jakobson 1263–4)

Another way to characterize the two styles employed in this text is in terms of the weight each gives to their respective use of metaphor and metonymy. When Lévi-Strauss is in full narrative mode telling us of his negotiation with the chief, providing us vivid depictions of the treacherous route through the jungle and of the temporary difficulty in securing food for the entire group, Jakobson might note the predominant use of metonymy which underlies the realistic descriptions employed. (Jakobson 1267) However, when Lévi-Strauss assumes an academic tone in which he provides the reader with correlations (or lack thereof) between writing and the rise and fall of great civilizations of the past, Jakobson might note that this illustrates how the ‘researcher possesses more homogenous means to handle metaphor’ as ‘[n]ot only the tool of the observer but also the object of observation are responsible for the preponderance of metaphor over metonymy in scholarship.’ (Jakobson 1269) This is not to say that there is no use of metaphor in the narrative portion of the text. Certainly insofar as ‘Sad’ is a predicate to the noun ‘Tropics’, the translated title ‘Sad Tropics’ itself would be classified as involving a ‘semantic similarity’ that might serve to indicate the author’s ambivalent stance toward the text’s subject matter.5 But the point here is that whenever Lévi-Strauss predicates the various objects he describes in the opening and closing pages, he tends to do so in a rather straightforward, factually descriptive manner and in terms which suggest a predisposition towards ‘positional contiguity.’ (ibid)

Having now characterized these two literary styles in various ways, we now turn to examine the text more closely. Accordingly, we will comment on the two different subjective levels which suggest themselves by this general framework. First, as already noted Lévi-Strauss himself plays a role in the narrative portion of the text, at times appearing as an inept Western academic who is painfully out-of-place amongst the natives and their environment, so much so that his very life and others are put at risk. At other times, he is able to leverage his anthropological knowledge to great effect within the story itself. Both extremes speak to us (the text’s addressee) at the poetic level and cause us to reflect on what message this text holds for us. Such moments also invariably remind us that Lévi-Strauss is the author of this text (its addresser) and not only a character that appears in the narration.6 A second concern, therefore, is not only with Lévi-Strauss qua subject in the enunciated portion of the text, but also in his capacity as the subject of the text’s enunciation who doubtlessly has an anthropological lesson in store for us. Such intentions are most keenly experienced by the reader during the theoretical interlude in which the previous narrative structure with its set of characters is momentarily suspended, transcended and replaced by a more direct yet eruditely delivered message. The general paradox here is that the overall message of ‘A Writing Lesson’ is much more unambiguous when Lévi-Strauss abstracts himself from the text and delivers a mini-lecture on writing than when he simply appears as one of the characters in the narrative.

Common sense might tell us that the reverse is the case. Should we not expect that being projected into the text through a first-person narrative with its more expressive style might affect a greater immediate identification with the intended message of its author? To demonstrate that this is not the case, consider that after a precarious night of keeping a watchful eye over one another, Lévi-Strauss suggests to the chief that the symbolic exchange of gifts should proceed without delay in order to establish better relations amongst natives and Westerners. In a reflective mode – while still remaining within the narrative portion of the text – he tells us of the ‘farce’ that is perpetrated by the chief on his own people with respect to the ‘unintelligible scribbling’ which Lévi-Strauss himself ‘pretended to decipher.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1421) It was of course Lévi-Strauss himself who introduced the paper and pencils into the native population which we are told has no written language. However, what is truly unintelligible for us at this point is whether this is the ‘writing lesson’ that we have been expecting and whether and to what extent Lévi-Strauss is reflectively aware of his complicity in this farce. The matter is left quite ambiguous, as he writes as if he is uncertain as to his proper role in this exchange. It is only after the conclusion of the academic interlude three pages later that the ‘lesson’ of this incident is clarified for us. We learn that writing has historically been linked with political power from its initial days when it was used to facilitate slavery, to the modern development of compulsory education in the last centuries to better indoctrinate the proletariat into complying with the dictates of Capital. What is crucial to note here is the radical shift Lévi-Strauss effects right at the most abstract point at the end of the argument. As the line of reasoning reaches its loftiest peak, expounding on the process of colonialization and the international exploitation by privileged countries on the rest of the world such that ‘there can be no turning back,’ he suddenly collapses back into his previous local narration with a quite personal turn-of-phrase: ‘But in my Nambikwara village...’ (Lévi-Strauss 1424, emphasis added) The most referential (or cognitive) function of language here immediately encounters its most emotive function through a reminder that we are being addressed by an author who is summarily re-introduced into the previously left narrative whose thread is now to be re-established to its conclusion.

We argue that this is the point in which the entire text pivots.7 Here we have utmost abstraction immediately condensed into a concrete subjective point which allows us to more clearly reread the previous ‘writing incident’8 as a power struggle which, Lévi-Strauss tells us, the chief eventually loses as his subjects later abandon him. But more importantly, this interlude in which Lévi-Strauss synchronically rearranges and develops new terms not only has a retroactive effect on our understanding of the earlier narration, but has a definite anticipatory impact on the remaining diachronic flow of the story. From this point onward, when Lévi-Strauss observes symbolic exchanges, they are not curious ‘incidents’ with an unknown, ambiguous status, but have a clear meaning: these are political struggles over the distribution of power between individuals and groups. A new point of view is introduced here, constituting a new schema within which to read the remaining pages.

We will examine the impact of this new vantage point more closely in a moment, but we should note how it is textually indexed (unconsciously, no doubt) in the following paragraph metaphorically, through his wife’s evacuation from the group because of an infection to her eye, a detail of which is also noted in the editorial introduction. (Leitch 1417) But far from simply revealing for us the empirical fact that Lévi-Strauss has been among other hitherto invisible Western field-workers all along,9 what is truly revealed here is that precisely as absent, such absence (which is now made complete and actual) announces a new frame with which to view the narrative going forward. Consider that because of this episode, Lévi-Strauss decides to further separate himself from the remaining main group to rest ‘a fortnight... in semi-idleness.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1425) It is at this point that we begin to see how he deftly handles himself as he becomes entangled in multiple struggles involving two new hostile native groups. With the original group now absent and his own decision for further separation, he figuratively has achieved a new ‘eye’ on things, taking on a new relation to his environment. Beginning with his initial confrontation with these two new native groups, it is as if Lévi-Strauss finds a ‘place’ for his Western ‘out-of-place-ness:’ he is no longer excluded as a Western academic but is included precisely because of this exclusion. That is, he falls back into the first-person narrative as a scholar whereas before the theoretical interlude and its contextual re-shuffling of terms this was not possible.10 This achievement affords him the position of an involved meta-eye-witness to the various political power struggles which arise in the remaining pages of the text. From this point forward, he confidently analyzes the signs displayed in the numerous variations of such struggles and does so concurrently with his narration of them, securing for himself a much more sure-footed part in the story. We will conclude with a closer examination of some of these scenarios using Jakobson’s terminology.

The first confrontation pits Lévi-Strauss against two groups ‘as ill-disposed towards each other as they both were towards me. From the start, they did not so much ask for my presents as demand to be given them.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1425) We must state upfront how refreshing such sentiment is in today’s ideological climate. That is, how less ‘racist’ it is than what is permissible with today’s liberal-democratic ideology with its injunction to understand the Other in its diversity (with the necessary – and hidden – caveat of ensuring that a safe distance from the Other is maintained at all times so as not to disturb one’s ‘tolerant’ multiculturalist subjective position). That Lévi-Strauss at times directly makes such statements which reveal his underlying resentment of these groups when they instinctively and systematically try to exploit and deceive him is probably what has earned his Tristes Tropiques the right to be both ‘loved and hated by a generation of anthropologists.’ (Leitch 1417) So when four members of this group attempt to persuade Lévi-Strauss to assume a principle role in a plot to kill a fifth man from a competing group, he displays no hesitation in feigning ignorance over the language code used by the would-be murderers and deftly buys the time to alert the would-be victim. While we can certainly imagine Lévi-Strauss often resorting to the metalingual glossing function of language (as he is far from a native speaker and would need to check often with them to ensure a similar lexical code is in use), here he understands all too well what the ‘threatening tones’ and the ‘grey powder packed in four little tubes’ mean, well beyond his comprehension of the repeatedly used word kakoré. (Lévi-Strauss 1425)

In a third scenario, Lévi-Strauss is again involved. Whereas in the first, his presents were demanded and in the second, he was to abet in a murderous crime, here we find him providing the ‘neutral territory’ of his encampment as the venue for two groups to ‘vent their animosity.’ From this unique vantage point – which also serves as a metaphor for his own out-of-place-ness put to good use – Lévi-Strauss is well positioned to assess the prolonged exchange of verbal ‘provocations and protestations,’ along with the ‘threatening gestures’ and protracted ‘scuffles’ and ‘fighting [which only] subsided at dawn.’ Although ‘the mixture of songs and arguments produced a most extraordinary din, the meaning of which [he] failed to grasp,’ Lévi-Strauss does reason that ‘[a]ll of the threatening gestures centered round the sexual organs’ and given the type of native clothing, these actions must have been ‘purely symbolical’ in nature. There were also exaggerated and symbolic gestures involving the seizure of each other’s weaponry. Lévi-Strauss marks the verbal exchanges as particularly interesting, noting that he never heard such ‘alternating monologues, uttered in plaintive, nasal tones.’ All the cited dialogue is made in the imperative form: ‘Give it!’ or in a later exchange, ‘Come here! Come along! I am angry! very angry! arrows! big arrows!’ (Lévi-Strauss 1425-7)This certainly brings to mind Jakobson’s view that the conative function of verbal communication, orientated as it is toward the addressee, ‘finds its purest grammatical expression in the vocative and imperative, which syntactically, morphologically, and often even phonemically deviate from other nominal and verbal categories.’ (Jakobson 1262)

The political dimension to these confrontations is perhaps obvious. Each group sought to exercise power over the other. But what Lévi-Strauss suggests is that this may well have been but a prelude to a quite different intergroup dynamic. That is, he finds the two hostile groups subsequently entering into a protracted and intricate series of ‘commercial exchanges.’ What takes place here is a metaphoric substitution of the economic for the political. As Lévi-Strauss himself writes, ‘strife is replaced by barter.’ Moreover, we learn that there is a definite code to be followed in such exchanges. For instance, actual bartering among natives does not take place, nor is evaluation or arguing tolerated. Each group relies ‘on the generosity of the other side’ and if a serious balance of payments is assessed afterward, such resentments may lead to aggressive action or even war. This particular code Lévi-Strauss himself evidently did not master, as we read of a curious incident he had with a native to whom he had promised a machete in exchange for a message to be delivered to a neighboring group. He did not realize that the proper custom is to deliver payment immediately upon completion of such a task and accordingly failed to promptly hand over the machete, causing the native to depart ‘in a rage.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1426–7) On an economic and political level, this exchange was clearly a failure, but on another communicative level, there was a successful ‘phatic’ message sent to Lévi-Strauss. As Jakobson writes, such ‘messages primarily [serve] to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works.’ (Jakobson 1263, emphasis added) The native’s abrupt departure certainly ended the initial communicative exchange, but we should note the ‘other’ message sent by the departure itself.11 It was as if the offended native, through departing, had said to Lévi-Strauss ‘Are you listening? I wanted my machete promptly!’ Lévi-Strauss evidently did get this message: upon learning of his error, he immediately found another to accept the machete on the offended party’s behalf. In this way ‘the channel worked.’

But while Lévi-Strauss may have felt a personal need to fulfill the agreement (and doubly so in the case of making amends with an injured party when an error was made in meeting the initial obligation), he notes that native groups apparently do not feel collectively bound to exact reprisals for some injury done to one of its members, though ‘such pretexts are often willingly accepted, especially if a particular group feels itself to be strong.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1427) Lévi-Strauss concludes with a dense analysis of the signs and strategies of war in the final paragraph. What we need to extract here is how Lévi-Strauss is well positioned for such symbolic analyses by the text’s final pages since he has now become a more fully integrated character in his own story, much more so than how we first found him in the opening pages. This is so because he does not pretentiously attempt to suspend his academic eye (which is so often the case in today’s university discourse), but rather locates his academic subjectivity and its attendant responsibility in the very text itself. And further: far from introducing a Western bias into the analysis, this actually removes such bias by allowing a fuller identification with it.

To begin to see this in Jakobson’s terms, it is useful to highlight the stark contrast between a randomly selected sentence from his theoretical interlude (e.g., ‘During the Neolithic age, mankind made gigantic strides without the help of writing; with writing, the historic civilizations of the West stagnated for a long time,’ from page 1423) with the sample of native speech cited above (‘Come here! Come along! I am angry! very angry! arrows! big arrows!’). We have already characterized Lévi-Strauss’ third-person academic writing as cognitive and referential which, by its very being qua embedded in the first-person narrative, makes claims to a ‘meta-eye’ view of things. Critics who might claim to locate a Western bias in Lévi-Strauss would surely highlight this point. They might ask: ‘Is not such writing meant to be taken as “superior” to native speech?’ However, the true bias is more properly to be located in the critics’ eye, for what strikes us about the native speech is its resemblance to the poetic form. This gives us a final way to read Lévi-Strauss’ work with Jakobson. Consider the final paragraphs of Jakobson’s ‘Two Aspects of Language.’ There we learn that the ‘poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection [having to do with metaphor] into the axis of combination [having to do with metonymy]’. Thus in no way is the poetic function inferior to any of the other functions of language. Indeed, the two extremes – poetry and metalanguage – are simply ‘in diametrical opposition to each other: in metalanguage, the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence.’ (Jakobson 1265) In the final analysis, what we have are simply two (albeit extremely different) ways in which language manifests itself. And the strength of Lévi-Strauss is to demonstrate how each can co-exist and co-evolve on the same page. This is perhaps the final lesson of ‘A Writing Lesson.’

1 All citations to Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson will be taken from the Anthology and made in the author’s name. Citations from the Anthology’s editorial introductions to each will be made in the name of its general editor, Leitch. (cf. Bibliography below)

2 In the case of translations from texts originally written in another language, another level of complexity is added. That Jakobson wrote his two papers in English while Lévi-Strauss wrote in French is certainly significant for a structural analysis, but we will do ourselves the favor by omitting this from consideration. However, further to the obvious point that there are limitations imposed on a particular language by another through translation, we need to extrapolate to the general problem faced by any meta-language system: one can only analyze language while using language. This fact should be ever present for the perspicacious structuralist.

3 We consider the break from the first-person narrative to the third-person theoretical reflection to be clearly accomplished by at least the paragraph which begins with the sentence: ‘Writing is a strange invention.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1422) Below, we much more precisely mark the re-emergence back into the first-person narrative.

4 We will examine in more detail below, once Lévi-Strauss introduces a new ‘political’ code into the notion of writing itself, just how such a focus on codes impacts the final pages of narrative text.

5 As the editorial introduction suggests, Lévi-Strauss was not unaware of the (double) irony involved in the particular subjective stance he took as an anthropologist. On the one hand, he is the personification of the very Western forces that decimated ‘primitive’ societies; yet on the other, such decimated objects only appear within the Western horizon so that there is no need to affect nostalgia for lost cultures since nothing in a sense is truly lost. (Leitch 1417–8) In Jakobson’s theory, it is through a unique manipulation of the two kinds of connection (similarity and contiguity) in both their aspects (positional and the semantic) that ‘an individual exhibits his personal style, his verbal predilections and preferences.’ (Jakobson 1266)

6 Indeed, as Jakobson notes, the poetic function of language is least able to be studied productively in isolation from the other functions, as it is the ‘dominant, determining function’ in verbal art, presumably of which Lévi-Strauss’ narrative portion of the text would be included. (Jakobson 1263–4) So to enquire into the particular message of any text quite naturally leads to questions concerning the intentions of its author.

7 In other terms, this point is the text’s ‘singularity,’ paradoxically providing a ‘short-circuit’ between the two different modes of writing employed in this text and doing so at their furthest point from each other.

8 Let us suggest in passing that Lévi-Strauss, in his description of this incident, has uncovered a curious language ‘object’ of sorts, one which concerns ‘communication-as-such.’ That is, what he is endeavoring to articulate in this trading of non-sense writing is a certain ‘intent-to-mean’ or a ‘meaning-as-such’ which is why he characterizes the chief’s face as looking continually disappointed because, as he writes, the chief’s anxious expectation for ‘meaning to leap from the page’ never occurred. (Lévi-Strauss 1421) What Lacan later will call the objet a, such a paradoxical object, which simultaneously embodies its entire discourse, is not wholly captured by any one of Jakobson’s six functions of language.

9 We are essentially informed here for the first time that he is apparently travelling with other Westerners, most of who also need to be evacuated for the same illness.

10 Let us recall how he first ‘enters’ the theoretical interlude: he is unable to sleep, ‘[b]eing still perturbed by this stupid incident’ which refers to his being hopelessly lost in the jungle, so he ‘whiled away the sleepless hours by thinking over the episode of the exchange of gifts.’ (Lévi-Strauss 1422) He thereby is impelled by his out-of-place-ness to theoretical musings, which ultimately help him to confront and retroactively to provide a signification for his exclusion, such that he can now move forward with more assurance of his proper place in this hostile environment, which is now simultaneously ‘my Nambikwara village.’

11 As Jakobson notes, checking ‘contact’ is not limited to verbal exchanges, but ‘may be displayed by a profuse exchange of ritualized formulas.’ (Jakobson 1263)


Jakobson, Roman. Selections from “Linguistics and Poetics” and “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” with editorial introduction, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, First Edition, Gen. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, pp. 1254–69 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Selection from Tristes Tropiques with editorial introduction, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, First Edition, Gen. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, pp. 1415–27 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)