How structuralism matters

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Danilyn Rutherford. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.008


How structuralism matters

Danilyn RUTHERFORD, University of California, Santa Cruz

How does structuralism matter? How does it still matter well past its heyday in anthropology and the other so-called “sciences of man?” In this lecture, which is one part intellectual memoir, one part lay of the land, with some autoethnography involving my disabled daughter thrown in at the end, I suggest that certain premises associated with structuralism are at the heart of anthropology’s most interesting new work.

Keywords: structuralism, Lévi-Strauss, kinship, Elementary structures of kinship, relationality, difference, disability

How does structuralism matter? How does it still matter one hundred years after the publication of Saussure’s Course in general linguistics ([1916] 1983), well past its heyday in anthropology and the other so-called “sciences of man”? There is, of course, an easy answer to this question. Structuralism matters in the way that every intellectual trend matters. We have attached the label, structuralism, to books, lectures, and ways of talking—discourses, in a word—that appeared in the world in response to what came before and have shaped what came after. We still feel structuralism’s effects in the ripples of bygone debates about “structure” and “agency” or, in my current neck of woods, “totalizing” and “partial” truths. In this essay, I go out on a limb and offer a more forceful response. Certain premises associated with structuralism are at the heart of anthropology’s most interesting new work.

My observations on this topic are admittedly perverse. Structuralism focuses on langue, as Saussure called the system of signifers, not parole, the act of using them, let alone on the history of linguistic changes over time. Defined in this way, structuralism is a line of research that demonstrates what not to do. Structuralism’s critics have issued a series of strict instructions: don’t follow Saussure, follow Peirce, don’t focus on “cultural units,” focus on “behavior,” don’t get fixated on plot structures without paying heed to the situations in which stories are told. Taking the synchronic view—one fixed on a system abstracted from practice—can tempt us to overlook the ways in which cultural forms emerge in the rough and tumble of real-world contexts, fraught with contingency and shot through with power. Structuralism seems to lack an account of what it means to matter: what it means to have real live consequences, to exert a pressure on the world. To the extract the useful elements of the structuralist tradition, we have to examine this corpse’s underbelly. We find this underbelly in passages in the structuralist canon that are often [62]dismissed or overlooked— passages that describe how something beyond structure intervenes to create or deform a system. To grasp how structuralism matters, we have to examine its matter out of place.

This might sound high minded and lofty, but I’m actually up to something quite modest. What follows is one part intellectual memoir, one part lay of the land, with some autoethnography involving my daughter included at the end. I take as my starting point Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Elementary structures of kinship (1969) with a focus on moments where Lévi-Strauss finds himself compelled to tell us how kinship begins. Kinship is a hoary old topic that has experienced a renaissance. Beginning closest to this recent literature, I consider three turns in Lévi-Strauss’ thought that have proven to have great analytic potential. If taxonomy is taxidermy, to quote Asif Agha (2007: 2), a quaint fiddling with a corpse, then this talk represents an attempt to restore life to dead stuffed things. I consider Lévi-Strauss’ treatment of the matter of residence first, before moving on to the matter of relation and the matter of difference. Without further ado, allow me to welcome you to Lévi-Strauss’ house.

The matter of residence

Sometimes an exception becomes the rule. This is the case when it comes to the treatment of Lévi-Strauss’ corpus within the contemporary anthropology of kinship, which has gained analytic traction by resuscitating Lévi-Strauss’ writings on “house societies”—“sociétés à maison,” literally “societies with houses” (see Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995; see also Lévi-Strauss 1984). For Lévi-Strauss, the house was a “fetish,” “gluing together real interests and mythical pedigrees” and “providing for the enterprises of the great a starting point endowed with absolute value” (1984: 185). As such, “societies with houses” were stuck in a cultural purgatory of sorts between “cold societies,” where the “elementary structures of kinship” provided an exhaustive guide to whom one married and where one lived, and “hot societies,” structured by capitalism and the state, which were inhabited by individuals who mated in accordance with such prosaic, class-based factors as where they worked, studied, drank, or exercised, not to mention the online dating sites where they lurked. In societies with houses, which were “lukewarm,” if not “just right,” “descent can substitute for affinity, and affinity for descent,” as Lévi-Strauss (ibid.) put it, the classic example being the noble houses of medieval Europe, where one could make up for the lack of a suitable heir in the patrilineal line by designating a son-in-law or sister’s son as heir.1 It’s easy to dismiss Lévi-Strauss’ house society as a “jerry-rigged category”—a halfway house on the road to modernity (McKinnon 1995, 2004; see also Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995). And yet, the recent anthropology of kinship has built on this unpromising foundation in ethnographies that approach human belonging as irreducibly mediated: by wood and stone, by sleeping [63]compartments and hearths, by the durable substance of precious metals and the ephemeral beauty of cloth, not to mention the varied potentials of human bodies. In these studies, houses serve as indexical anchor points for “thens” and “nows,” “heres” and “theres,” orienting social actors in time and space. Place is matter out of place, we might say, in Lévi-Strauss’ corpus—and yet his house is looming larger these days than the dichotomies with which he began.

I have to confess, I initially found Lévi-Strauss’ brief discussion of the house troubling. This was not the Lévi-Strauss whom, in graduate school, I came to know and, in a twisted way, to love—despite his sexism, despite his evolutionism, despite his omission of so much I cared about.2 I came to that Lévi-Strauss by way of Jim Siegel, who, during my first year of graduate school at Cornell, circa 1989, introduced me to anthropology.3 In his standard workhorse course, “Myth, Ritual, and Sign,” we read Victor Turner, then Hegel, then Frazer, then Mauss, then Saussure, then Benveniste, then Lévi-Strauss, before ending with Bataille and a mess of Derrida.4 Hegel tells us there is something outside of language and that he knows what it is, Jim explained. Derrida tells us there is something outside of language and we can’t say what it is, Jim went on. Lévi-Strauss followed Saussure in insisting there is nothing outside of language. At some misty moment in human prehistory, the whole world began to signify. The healer we read about in “The effectiveness of symbols” (1963a) harked back to this moment by deploying floating signifers, signs that embodied the power of signification, providing a surfeit of meaning for a sufferer who had none.

I did not read The elementary structures of kinship (1969) until 1991, when I was taking a seminar at New York University with Fred Meyers and Annette Weiner. Fred and Annette referred to The elementary structures in class, with Annette spitting in rage as she did so. (This was at the peak of Annette’s attack on the norm of reciprocity; she wasn’t feeling gracious.) Thinking this might be important, I got myself a copy and read it from cover to cover. I looked at the diagrams and traced the pathways of repeated marriages between mother’s brother’s daughters and father’s sister’s sons. Later, I briefly toyed with figuring out some way to describe the kinship system in my field site, an offshore island on the Indonesian-occupied side [64]of New Guinea, as a degraded version of the Murngin (see Lévi-Strauss 1969: 175). My friend in London, Fenella Cannell, rescued me from this wheel spinning by pointing out the obvious: Biak patrilines were really houses. Belonging was based on residence, as much as birth, as is the case throughout Southeast Asia, Oceania, and much of the world. The most elaborated dwellings in Indonesia housed patrilineal kin groups that practiced mother’s brother’s daughter’s marriage: what Lévi-Strauss called “generalized exchange with long cycles.” (Hence distinguishing it from “restricted exchange” and the “short cycle” version of “generalized exchange.” A three-way contrast set, naturally. “Circulating connubium,” Dutch structuralists called it, somewhat more colorfully.) Nothing jerry-rigged here. Lévi-Strauss was right about the house, but wrong about its function as a mechanism for the evolution of society.5 The house is quite simply where kinship lives.

Of course, as anyone who has tried to teach The elementary structures of kinship to undergraduates can attest, this makes sense. At the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), a common sticking point is the diagram that uses pluses and minuses to trace the credits and debits created by marriages within two allied descent groups over several generations (see Lévi-Strauss 1969: 131). “Who is keeping track?” my students invariably want to know. The calculus seems to presume an enduring point of view. Who keeps track, one might say, is the house—the house that recruits members to serve it over time. Lévi-Strauss’ house calls to mind Weiner’s inalienable wealth—what must be kept to make giving possible, if we assume that every gift calls for a return to the source (Weiner 1980, 1985; see also Mauss [1925] 2016). With their heavily emphasized material embellishments, some houses are persons, living embodiments of the distributed personhood of a group (see Gell 1998; Waterson 1998). The matter of residence points to the irreducibly mediated character of the identities that exchange presupposes and entails—mediated by bodies, by sites on the landscape, and, yes, by houses. The necessity of this premise becomes obvious when we try to do without it. We simply can’t make sense of how kin groups emerge in time.

But this isn’t the last word. In the best of recent work inspired by Lévi-Strauss’ writings on the house, a force more central to his oeuvre looms large—our next matter, the matter of relation. Susan McKinnon (2000) has made it clear that houses are just as relational as they are material. In Eastern Indonesia, where she did fieldwork, houses often exist in hierarchies, fueled by marriages that only gain significance through their coexistence with other unions, including ones that take a less valued form. Annette Weiner (1985) writes of the ultimate form of inalienable wealth—the bones of an ancestor buried in a cave, protected from [65]thieves, wind, and rain. But this most valuable heirloom teeters on the verge of worthlessness: as anyone who has hidden a treasure can attest, the more dangerous threat is not discovery but oblivion. A treasure is worth nothing if no one knows it exists. Inalienable wealth requires recognition: a trading of gazes as well as things. The matter of residence points to the fact that kinship requires bodies. The matter of relation points to the fact that bodies must be enacted to be real (see Mol 2002).

The matter of relation

“There is nothing outside of language.” In Lévi-Strauss’ writings on kinship, it’s not clear this is always the case. Consider the opening of The elementary structures of kinship, where Lévi-Strauss explains the origins of the incest taboo by throwing a series of solutions at the problem. Avoiding incest was adaptive for the species not because it helped people avoid producing monsters. Rather, it helped them survive. Nature generously provided a slot for culture in the intersection between two facts of life—the fact that human ancestry is determined while human couplings are contingent—humans can in principle mate any partner without waiting until someone goes into heat. The notch provided by sexual intercourse opens the space of rules—rules that demand the existence of relationships among groups. Nature militates for such relationships, given the uncertain nature of its bounty: food is perishable, much more so than the memory of someone given a few of your extra berries in hopes she would reciprocate in turn.6 In the world Lévi-Strauss posits, relationality is adaptive: it promotes survival. Relationality is also individuating: it creates ordered differences among the groups or individuals who stand as parties to an exchange.7[66]

Passage comes before position. The relation comes first. This is a matter not of temporal precedence but of ontological priority in the unfolding of the world (see Massumi 2002: 8). There are no terms without relations. Terms only make an appearance in the company of other terms. The movement between relations and terms is dialectical: like the alternating faces and vase in the Rubin’s figure–ground illusion, a term can’t come into appearance without a relationship hovering in the background; for their part, relationships only assume primacy at the cost of diverting attention from terms. This premise is part of the architecture of contemporary anthropological thinking: thinking about exchange, but also thinking about performance and all those other processes through which identities get made. It is a key premise of the work of Marilyn Strathern (1988), whose thinking Alfred Gell (1999) captured in diagrams with great skill. It’s like this, Gell told his readers.8 You get a letter from the Red Cross. It starts, “Dear friend.” You are compelled—if in a receptive frame of mind—to send in $10. A relationship between friends is objectified in this salutation. The same holds in what Gell calls Strathern’s System M, a thought experimental world named after both “Marilyn” and “Melanesia,” where relationships between spouses are objectified in pigs, when presented in a context that leads their recipients to view them as evidence of a human couple’s division of labor, rather than a porcine night of love. One sends in the money, one becomes a friend, making the salutation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, there are individuals who write funding appeals and other individuals who raise and round up pigs, but they only become recognized actors in their own right when particular conditions are met. Whether we are talking about the payment of a salary or the giving of a gift, the gestures that create identities must unfold in the right place, at the right time, using the right signs, and in the presence of participants who share an understanding of what’s going on, all of which makes the premise of autonomous action even harder to maintain. The matter of relation is the force that produces agents, the force that localizes force.

This line of reasoning has not simply made Marilyn Strathern famous; it finds expression in the writings of thinkers who work far from Melanesia. Particularly inspiring is the work of Karen Barad, a theoretical physicist in the feminist studies and philosophy departments at UCSC. During my first month at Santa Cruz, I met a student who announced that he planned to do an ethnography from the perspective of a fish. Barad would probably chide him for not going far enough: an ethnography from the perspective of an electron is something I once heard her propose (see also Latour 2005). Presuming that relations are ontologically prior to terms is not simply good anthropological practice. For Barad, it’s key to understanding how the universe works.

In Meeting the universe halfway (2010), Barad explains that matter is what matters. The question to ask of something is not what it is but what it does. What’s more, matter only comes to matter by virtue of its participation in a relation, or what Barad calls an “intra-action,” a neologism she uses to describe the folding in of the world upon itself. An intra-action is an event that enacts an “ontological cut” that carves out an object of investigation from the apparatus that creates it as [67]a consequential element of the world. Barad draws inspiration from Niels Bohr’s interpretation of the two-slit experiment, which presents light as either a particle or a wave depending on how the equipment is set up. Bohr’s friend and rival, Heisenberg, interpreted this experiment as marking an epistemological limit; humans could only get so close to reality before their means of engaging it transformed what they could see. Bohr went much further. There is no reality, Bohr argued, prior to measurement. The two-slit apparatus, organized differently, would not simply measure reality differently; it would make reality into a different beast. What is real are not facts but phenomena, which Bohr defined as pairings of experimental apparatuses and objects. Barad takes the point even further. One finds phenomena—apparatuses and objects—whenever, within an infinite field of possibilities, one part of the world takes the measure of another, thus making it relevant and real. Blood calls forth hearts; hammers call forth nails. The indexical forms we use in speaking, like “here,” “there,” and “I,” point to different dimensions of a context and make them count. The action makes the actor, as in the US Declaration of Independence, the founding document that created the “We” who “declare.”

“In my agential realist account,” Barad explains, “humans do not merely assemble different apparatuses for satisfying particular knowledge projects, humans are part of the configuration and ongoing reconfiguration of the world—that is they/we too are phenomena” (2010: 171). Barad’s approach reflects a sensibility also found in recent work in biological anthropology. It’s long been known that tool use played a critical role in the evolution of the human species. Current theories of niche construction go even further in stressing the mutual constitution of human populations and their material and social surround (see Fuentes 2004, 2010). One arena in which Barad lays out the implications and potential of this approach has to do with a difference that Lévi-Strauss took for granted: that between women and men. Barad begins with the piezo-electric crystal, which plays a key role in ultrasound technology, exploring how it acts as either a transmitter or a receiver depending on whether it is in intra-action with electricity or sound. Barad builds on this discussion to account for the emergence of certain kind of ultrasonic entity, one associated with the difference that creates a girl or boy. Whereas Judith Butler followed Foucault in describing the conjuring of male and female subjects from mute substance, Barad shows that substance is itself performed—in this case in ways critical to the future of the embodied individual the fetus purportedly will become. The same surfeit of potential that enables a single “thing” to function as more than one sign provides the basis for the emergence of different phenomena. An intra-action might create a phenomenon consisting exclusively of nonhumans—say a sound wave and a crystal. Or it can unfold in the classic scene of interpellation, with a policeman yelling “Hey you!” and creating a subject, or a prisoner looking at a tower and subjecting himself or herself to the hidden gaze. Processes of both kinds, involving both human and nonhuman elements in intra-action, go into making gender matter within and beyond the clinics where technicians conjure sexed fetuses out of the lines and shadows of a scan.

The matter of relation. Barad’s agential realism provides the grounds for a new brand of integrated anthropology: one attuned to the historical force of institutions and the histories of genes. This would include scholarship that approaches human evolution as, in a word, historical, and social life, in all its patterning, as a [68]key factor in the “niches” humans occupy and create (see Fuentes 2004). But there’s still another direction we can take this exploration of structuralism’s matter out of place. Every intra-action excludes at the same time it brings phenomena into the world. In exploring the circles, triangles, and lines of Lévi-Strauss’ diagrams, we bump up against difference: the difference at the heart of every relationship and the difference every relationship leaves out. Indeed, it may be difference that matters the most.

The matter of difference

When I teach kinship at UCSC, I launch a frontal attack on the institution of marriage. Or at least that might be how some of my students might experience the course. We start the quarter by reading the chapter in The trouble with normal (1999) where Michael Warner offers a scathing critique of the movement for marriage equality, which he sees as implicitly heteronormative since it privileges individuals whose relationships adhere to the couple form. Each week, students watch an episode from the first year of Big love and write on how the series relates to themes we are discussing in class. You might think you are learning about kinship, I tell them. But really this is class about sex, money, life, and death, along with the pleasures, attachments, and compulsions that normative relationships leave out. The matter of difference as treated in structuralism provides a way of talking about these exclusions as generative of the norm. But it also provides a way of talking about the force of difference in the processes through which what looks like sameness is produced.

In a small gem of a book, What kinship is—and is not (2013), Marshall Sahlins takes up this problem of sameness and difference: “The specific quality of kinship,” Sahlins tells us, “is ‘mutuality of being.’” Sahlins’ kinfolk are persons who “participate intrinsically in each other’s existence: they are members of each other” (ibid.: xi). They are not unlike Maurice Bloch’s kinsfolk: people who “go in and out of each other’s bodies,” not simply through things they do with their appendages, but through the ways they enter each other’s thoughts and desires (Bloch 2012). Sahlins’ starting point is similar to Barad’s: relations, not terms. Rituals and other practices call forth consanguines by opposing them to affines, who may or may not participate in the existence of enemies or even prey. This mutuality, for Sahlins, is grounded in a more pervasive species of sameness: the identification with the other that is a precondition for every exchange of perspectives, words, and gifts. What it is not grounded in is biology, which provides only a small subset of the materials available to serve as the semiotic basis of kinship. People arrive at mutuality by multiple routes.

Sahlins covers much of the same ground as Lévi-Strauss does in the early chapters of The elementary structures of kinship.9 Yet Lévi-Strauss’ emphasis differs in subtle, yet important ways. Drawing on the child psychology of his day, he writes [69]of young children’s tendency to see other children as rivals. Unmediated symbolically, their sameness leads to hostility: think evil twins. The rule of reciprocity, imposed by culture, “integrates the opposition between self and other.” Gift exchange brings security by way of a different kind of sameness, the sameness expressed as mutual love (Lévi-Strauss 1969: 84–85). Even more striking is Lévi-Strauss’ discussion of how this dynamic operates in “lower price” restaurants where strangers dine together at group tables. Each diner receives an identical carafe of wine, and the custom is to serve one’s neighbor with the expectation that the neighbor will reciprocate in kind, thus dispelling the potential for “the trifling disagreements that the meeting might provoke” (ibid.: 59). These diners “feel both alone and together, compelled to the usual reserve between strangers, while their respective spatial positions, and their relationships to the objects and utensils of the meal, suggest, and to a certain extent call for, intimacy.” The gift of wine “substitutes a social relationship for spatial juxtaposition. . . . In this way a whole range of trivial social ties are established by a series of alternating oscillations, in which offering gives one a right, and receiving makes one obligated, and always beyond that which has been given or accepted” (ibid.).10

These examples are culturally specific: dining with unclassified others, Lévi-Strauss notes, is particularly disconcerting to the status-conscious French. It’s only Euro-Americans, as Sahlins might add, who define the social persons who come to stand as “opposites” as ending at the surface of their skin. And yet, in revealing difference as the force that fuels reciprocity and gives rise to structure, these passages reveal truths that remain implicit in Sahlins’ treatment of kinship. Difference appears as prior to sameness when we consider the infinite range of things that can [70]serve as the media of mutuality: tables, utensils, carafes of wine, the small toys children give each other as gifts. What’s more, difference appears as the starting point for every interaction: gifts turn evil twins into partners, who resemble one another enough to imagine each other’s perspective but are different enough to have a reason to exchange.11 How difference matters becomes even more obvious when we consider what kinship looks like for people who are patently nonnormative: above all those who fall within the category we designate as “the disabled”—people whose bodies and ways of relating to others are, to use another term, queer.

Take Andrew Solomon’s bestseller Far from the tree (2012). “There is no such thing as reproduction,” Solomon (ibid.: 1) starts out,

When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.

For Solomon, kinship may presume sameness, but it is forged out of difference. Solomon takes as his starting point his experience as a gay man with parents who could not accept him. His “horizontal” bonds with those he resembled in the gay community ended up being stronger than his “vertical” bonds to his kin. He continues with chapters on children who resemble him in this dimension: from the deaf and dwarves to children with Down syndrome, autism, and schizophrenia, to prodigies, children born of rape, criminals, and transgendered women and men. In each case, Solomon reveals parents struggling to find a basis for mutuality—a struggle that can lead them to attempt to “fix” their children’s bodies and behavior so they resemble their own. The outcome can be tragic. Cochlear implants, which ameliorate deafness, provide hearing parents with a way of working toward a sameness of perspective. But the cost of this “cure” is the severing of horizontal bonds. [71]Deaf culture, with its hard-won intimacies and highly elaborated narrative genres, is sacrificed for the sake of communion between parent and child. Solomon starts with difference—with the fact that reproduction is an impossible goal—and shows the difficulty it generates within a model of kinship that privileges sameness. But as he also shows, kinship lives not only in the dream of mutuality, but in the process of reaching across a gap that is only ever fleetingly crossed.12

Both points come into sharp relief in another recent work on kinship, Rupert Stasch’s remarkable Society of others (2009). For the Korowai of West Papua, what characterizes children is neither their similarity to their parents, nor their difference from them, but the fact they embody elements of both. Children extend their parents’ lives, but the work of caring for their children kills them. Children’s bodies come to look like their parents, but they start out as dirty and demonically weird. Children share pleasurable moments with their parents, but they are also temporally alien: they don’t share parents’ memories and they are likely to survive after their parents are gone. What Stasch calls the “mismatched joining close intimacy and distant otherness” (ibid.: 256) is what accounts for both the pathos and the pleasure of Korowai relations with children. Both derive from the passage back and forth between these poles (see also Fortes 1973).

What holds for the Korowai holds for us all, in my experience, including those of us with disabled children. Here’s where this essay becomes autoethnographic. The first thing I do when I’m teaching kinship is to show my students our discipline’s conventions for mapping relationships. I then set them the task of using these conventions to map their kin. (Fabulous discussions ensue on where to put their fathers’ second ex-wives’ brothers’ kids, say—or their best friends.) I’m not shy about sharing information about myself: I tell my students I’m a widow with a sixteen-year-old son named Ralph and a thirteen-year-old daughter named Millie. I also tell them I have five paid wives, mostly in their twenties, with one in her seventies, who is kind of like my mom. I’m quick to add that I don’t actually have sex with any of these women. Their main role is helping me care for my daughter. When it comes to kinship, Millie pushes the limits of mutuality in a way that recalls Solomon’s account of disability. But she also reveals something equally significant—and even vaguely uplifting—about how difference matters in the forging of all kinds of social bonds.

Like most parents of my generation, I read What to expect during the first year from cover to cover when I was pregnant with Ralph. When Millie was four months old, my husband and I noticed that she wasn’t making eye contact; when she was six months old, she developed an eye turn; when she was eight months old, an optometrist took one look at her muscle tone and got us in to see a neurologist the very next day. “Early intervention” followed in the form of three years of therapy: physical, occupational, and speech, the last of which involved a nice woman teaching me to use a purple vibrator to stimulate Millie’s lips and tongue. Running in parallel to therapy was the beginning of a fruitless search for a diagnosis—the golden ticket to [72]insurance coverage for big-ticket items like the stander Millie needed so she would develop normal joints in her hips and knees.

I like to think that Millie looks a bit like her father. But for the geneticists she’s seen, Millie’s fair skin, wide grin, and the gap between her teeth are symptoms. Their tests for Rhett syndrome, Angelman syndrome, and Pitt–Hopkins syndrome have all come back negative, and yet they continue to search for what is wrong. What is wrong is obvious. Millie wasn’t sitting on her own, let alone walking, at twelve months. Millie rolled once when she was a year old and waited until she was two to do it again. She didn’t make eye contact during that early period; she only fleetingly does today. She wasn’t imitating other people; she only recently started doing this, at thirteen, and rather erratically. She’ll clap after you clap, but after a long-enough pause that it takes a second for the fact she is doing it to sink in. Craig, Millie’s father, walked at nine months. Ralph walked at ten months. Ralph can deliver a soliloquy at the drop of a hat. Craig could hold forth on any number of topics, ranging from the Battle of Guadalcanal to the best hotdogs in the world. I have dreams in which Millie chimes in during a heated discussion at the dinner table. When we look at her in wonder, she sighs and says, “Of course I can talk! You just never asked me what I thought!” In real life, I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that sign use of any typical kind is not going to be on the cards. Millie shares a classroom with other severely disabled teenagers. But she’s not much like any of them. By Solomon’s measure, she is far from everybody’s tree.

This is not for lack of trying. Last summer, I ran into a Mennonite family at Niagara Falls—a mother and father traveling with six children, including a daughter they’d adopted from Guatemala, the women in prairie skirts and bonnets, the father in a beard, suspenders, and a suit. The couple approached me and Marilyn, Millie’s seventy-year-old caregiver. Millie reminded the couple of their daughter. Their daughter had died a year earlier; they were clearly moved. She had had a rare genetic condition—there were only four people with it in the world—maybe Millie had it, as well. (She doesn’t, I learned by looking up the syndrome on my phone after we got back into the car.) I felt a rush of affection for this family, so different from my own, yet united by shared experience. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers—they didn’t use email—and pledged to stay in touch. Yet while I flirt with communities of affliction like the one this family was grasping for, Millie’s real kin group is in fact much more unlikely. For Millie, mutuality is not given in some recognizable commonality. Its emergence involves a leap of faith.

At 8 a.m. I walk into Millie’s bedroom, where she is lying fast asleep, splayed out on her back, her face turned away from me. Millie has to get up at 6 a.m. on school days. Marilyn or Ashlee, her other morning caregiver, arrives at 5 a.m. to empty the dishwasher and make the oatmeal we use to feed Millie Keppra, the medication that keeps her seizure-free. On Saturdays, I fly solo. I’m the one who removes the wooden rail from the top half of the bunk bed where she sleeps, places her feet on the floor, and pulls her upright. (It’s not always easy; sometimes she acts the lazy teenager and crumples to the floor.) I’m the one who eases myself around her, pressing my knees against her buttocks to prompt her to march in the direction of her bathroom, where she sits on the toilet to have her teeth brushed and her leg braces put on for the trip to the kitchen table. Millie can walk, but not without someone [73]behind her to keep her from falling. And she can interact, but only in highly idiosyncratic ways.

I lean over the rail to whisper in Millie’s ear. “Good morning, Millie,” I say softly. Millie’s eyes are still closed, but her lips curl into a gentle smile. When I say it again, she grins. I say it once more in a funny voice—“Good MORNING!!”—and she laughs in that mischievous, contagious, slightly wicked cackle she seems to have inherited from her dad. She still hasn’t looked at me, but finally she casts a glance in my direction. She meets my eyes for a fleeting, uncomfortable instant. Then she looks away. In addition to poor coordination, no balance, and no ability to get a fork full of food into her mouth, Millie has something the experts call “cortical visual impairment.” This is a condition that makes it difficult for people to organize their visual field. Millie loves looking at, and, often quite perilously, playing with straps, ribbons, belts, headphone wires, and, above all, electrical cords. Trips to the doctor or the hairdresser fill her with delight, and then frustration, once she realizes the equipment is out of bounds. She loves feeling anything stringy and watching it move. She gets off on sitting with the stuffed jellyfish I bought her at the aquarium and shaking it back and forth in front of her face. “Are you happy to see me or my zipper?” I’m tempted to ask her when I walk in the room wearing my favorite fleece vest. My daughter: a maven for the two-dimensional. Happy and warped.

Happy and warped, but also highly instructive. Millie is an object lesson in the embodied habits that define what we take as normal communication. These consist not simply of speaking with the right accent, or using the right words, but comporting oneself properly in space. I pity—but also appreciate—the well-meaning strangers who approach Millie in airports. I admire their bravery; difference is disconcerting. They lean over and get in Millie’s face. “Hello! What’s your name?” they say. Millie looks away, putting on her best lights-out, nobody’s-home look. Sometimes, when the person walks away, Millie bursts into a grin, reaching out to gently fondle the tag on their suitcase as it rolls by. These strangers are unwittingly acting in accordance with what speech therapists call the “least dangerous assumption,” which calls on those who deal with the disabled to assume an intention behind any vaguely semiotic seeming action, and to assume comprehension. Given that language comes to us from the other for all of us, this is the safest and most productive way to act.

Those of us who live with Millie on a daily basis go through routines that approximate “normal” interactions—facsimiles of conversation shot through with this hope. Millie has group speech therapy sessions in which each student is asked to chime in. The teacher asks a question—What is the weather like today? What comes next in the schedule?—and Millie hits a button. Every morning, Marilyn has her granddaughter, who lives with her, record Millie’s answer: “It’s rainy” or “Next, we have lunch.” I chatter ceaselessly when I’m with Millie, consulting her on all kinds of large and small decisions; sometimes she ignores me, sometimes she acts like she’s listening. Sometimes she laughs when I’m talking—I tease her for making fun of me, even though it’s never apparent she understood a word of what I said. One of the genetic conditions she’s been tested for—Angelman syndrome—has involuntary laughter as one of its symptoms. I prefer to think that Millie thinks her mother is a joke. There is a line in The elementary structures of kinship [74]I find moving: “Any social contact entails an appeal, an appeal which is a hope for a response” (Lévi-Strauss 1969: 59).13 Hope is the infrastructure of Millie’s communicative world.

My most pleasurable interactions with Millie are those in which she takes the lead. She vocalizes—choosing from her repertoire of chirps, trills, groans, and giggles. I copy her. She bursts out laughing—sometimes she repeats herself, copying me back. When I hand her a stuffed animal, she seems to get the same pleasure out of throwing it back at me. She doesn’t follow my gaze—which is taken as an early indication of the capacity for language acquisition—but she does exchange perspectives, however tenuously, in a way that seems intentional, although it’s always possible she’s simply having trouble keeping the toy in her grip. These interactions with Millie partake in the mismatched joining Stasch describes, but in an accentuated fashion. I do something and an eternity seems to pass; the stimulus hangs in the air, waiting for the response; when it comes, the effect is electric—heightened intensity, heightened mutuality—born of the recognition of something that could be an accident but is legible as a social act. James Siegel (2005: 70–107, esp. 87–88) has suggested that every gift begins with the violence of a surprise. To be addressed is to be impinged upon; to reciprocate by addressing a recognizable other is to locate, domesticate, and avoid being engulfed by something that might otherwise seem to come from nowhere. Millie is at once my most intimate and my most alien interlocutor. Entering into the world of sign use in very slow motion, she makes evident the matter of difference—how difference matters, how it impinges and incites. She shows us how difference spurs the gestures that create the relationships that add up to kinship. She shows us how what looks like structure is set into place.


I still love the charts. I still enjoy tracing how a particular alignment of circles and triangles designates who can marry whom. I enjoy drawing diagrams of mother’s brother’s daughter’s and father’s sister’s daughter marriage patterns on the blackboard for my students, tracing the flow of brides across the generations, running in one direction in the first case and shooting back and forth in the second. I like the purity and the clarity—it’s like a game of ping-pong, I tell my students, back and forth, back and forth. The order is comforting. I only occasionally break down the process to that moment when a white orb comes careening across the net and a paddle meets it with a crack. Father’s sister’s daughter’s marriage occurs in times of “instability,” according to Lévi-Strauss. But these interruptions—when an abrupt jolt of something beyond structure deflects the flow of exchange—are not simply an exception to structuralism’s rule. The matters of residence, relation, and difference I have discussed today are what matters in structuralism; they fuel the give and take from which what look like structures are made.

“There is nothing outside of language.” Structuralism might want to tell itself this, but it can’t avoid admitting awkward intruders: from rotting berries to [75]sheltering roofs to the anxious silence that precedes the pouring of a glass of wine. These awkward intruders can lead us to a way of thinking about reality as both material and relational—material because relational through and through. Cultural anthropology needs to be willing to accept some strange bedfellows to make structuralism’s seeming minuses into pluses. Bedfellows in biological anthropology, but also psychology and cognitive science. Bedfellows in geology, ecology, and physics. Bedfellows who can help us better grasp all the ways that humans are, as Barad (2010: 206) puts it, part of the “configuration or ongoing reconfiguring of the world.” Structuralism matters to the degree it makes these matters plain.


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———. 2010. “The new biological anthropology: Bringing Washburn’s new physical anthropology into 2010 and beyond—The 2008 APA Luncheon Lecture.” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 53: 2–12.

Geertz, Clifford. 1960. The religion of Java. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and agency: An anthropological theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 1999. “Strathernograms, or the semiotics of mixed metaphors.” In The art of anthropology: Essays and diagrams, edited by Eric Hirsch, 29–75. London: Athlone Press.

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Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf. 186–205. New York: Basic Books.[76]

———. 1963b. “The sorcerer and his magic.” In Structural anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf, 167–85. New York: Basic Books.

———. 1969. The elementary structures of kinship. Edited by Rodney Needham. Translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon.

———. 1984. “Clan, lineage, house.” In Anthropology and myth: Lectures 1951–1982, Translated by Roy G. Willis. 153–94. London: Basil Blackwell.

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———. 2005. “Houses and hierarchy: The view from a South Moluccan society.” In About the house: Lévi-Strauss and beyond, edited by Janet Carsten and Stephen Hugh-Jones, 170–88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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De l’importance du structuralisme

Résumé : Pourquoi le structuralisme importe-t-il? Pourquoi compte-t-il encore bien après son âge d’or en anthropologie et pour les autres “sciences de l’homme”? Dans ce cours, qui constitue à la fois un mémoire de mon histoire intellectuelle personnelle, et une description de l’état des savoirs, le tout parsemé d’un peu d’ethnoautographie impliquant le handicap de ma fille, je mets en avant l’argument que certaines des prémisses du structuralisme sont au coeur des plus intéressants travaux ethnographiques récents.

Danilyn RUTHERFORD is Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Raiding the land of the foreigners: The limits of the nation on an Indonesian frontier (Princeton University Press, 2003) and Laughing at Leviathan: Sovereignty and audience in West Papua (University of Chicago Press, 2012). She is currently completing a book entitled Living in the Stone Age: Colonialism, anthropology, and the experience of empire in Dutch New Guinea and is beginning a new project on communication, belief, and the other side of signs in the social worlds of people with disabilities.

Danilyn Rutherford
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Santa Cruz
1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95062


1. A house is “a corporate body holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial wealth, which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its goods, and its titles down a real or imaginary line, considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship or of affinity and, most often, of both” (Lévi-Strauss 1984: 174).

2. It was as if I had a friend I could depend on for a rousing debate who suddenly showed up and acted like he agreed with me. What gives?

3. My exposure to the discipline up to that time was limited to Clifford Geertz’s The religion of Java (1960), which I read on Java; it took me two full years to realize that there were journals in the field. (My economist brother asked about the major ones. “We aren’t that kind of operation,” I replied.) The first class I took with Jim was “Political Anthropology,” whose prerequisite was reading knowledge of Malay.

4. The essays by Lévi-Strauss we read were exceptional, Jim explained, in that they had people in them: “The effectiveness of symbols” (Lévi-Strauss 1963a) had a woman delivering a baby and a shaman, “The sorcerer and his magic” (Lévi-Strauss 1963b) had, well, a sorcerer and various interrogators who quizzed him on how his magic worked. Notably, as Siegel points out in his brilliant Naming the witch (2005), the cast of characters doesn’t include the anthropologist who collected this case study or members of the American settler colonial security apparatus who prevented sorcerers like the essay’s hero from being killed.

5. “The whole function of noble houses, be they European or exotic, implies a fusion of categories which elsewhere are held to be in correlation with and opposition to each other, but here are henceforth treated as interchangeable: descent can substitute for affinity, and affinity for descent. . . . A crossover takes place between the ties society is supposed to secure and those that men once saw as the work of nature, even if, more often than not, this was an illusion. Thus promoted to the rank of second nature, culture offers history a stage worthy of itself. By gluing together real interests and mythical pedigrees, it procures for the enterprises of the great a starting point endowed with absolute value” (Lévi-Strauss 1984: 185).

6. See Lévi-Strauss (1969: 32–33):

The prime role of culture is to ensure the group’s existence as a group, and consequently, in this domain as in all others, to replace chance by organization. The prohibition of incest is a certain form, and even highly varied forms, of intervention. But it is intervention over and above anything else: even more exactly, it is the intervention.

This problem of intervention is not raised just in this particular case. It is raised, and resolved in the affirmative, every time the group is faced with the insufficiency or the risky distribution of a valuable of fundamental importance. . . . It is impossible to approach the study of marriage prohibitions if it is not thoroughly understood from the beginning that such facts are in no way exceptional, but represent a particular application, within a given field, of principles and methods encountered whenever the physical or spiritual existence of the group is at stake. The group controls the distribution not only of women, but of a whole collection of valuables. Food, the most easily observed of these, is more than just the most vital commodity it really is, for between it and women there is a whole system of real and symbolic relationships. . . . Thurnwald tells us that Buin women feed the pigs, relatives lend them to one another, and the villages exchange them for women.

As Derrida (1980) points out, another matter central to L«vi-Strauss’ thought is chance.

7. Affines, to use the technical term, are opposites in the strict sense of the word: equals in all respects but one.

8. Gell was repeating what he told his students—he first presented his “Strathernograms” in lectures at the London School of Economics.

9. A move made even more vigorously in Bloch (2012). Sahlins’ book is also a rejoinder to David Schneider (1968), who, in tracing the cultural origins of the category “kinship,” called into question its validity as an analytic term.

10. “The French custom is to ignore people whose names, occupations, and ranks are unknown. But in the little restaurant, such people find themselves in quite a close relationship for one to one-and-a-half hours, and temporarily united by a similar preoccupation. A conflict exists, not very keen to be sure, but real enough and sufficient to create a state of tension between the norm of privacy and the fact of community. They feel both alone and together, compelled to the usual reserve between strangers, while their respective spatial positions, and their relationships to the objects and utensils of the meal, suggest, and to a certain extent call for, intimacy. . . . An almost imperceptible anxiety is likely to arise in the minds of these table companions. . . . When social distance is maintained, even if it is not accompanied by any sign of disdain, insolence, or aggression, it is in itself a matter of sufferance in that any social contact entails an appeal, an appeal that is a hope for response. This the fleeting but difficult situation resolved by the exchanging of wine. It is an assertion of good grace which does away with the mutual uncertainty. It substitutes a social relationship for spatial juxtaposition. But it is also more than that. The partner who was entitled to maintain his reserve is persuaded to give it up. Wine offered calls for wine returned, cordiality requires cordiality. The relationship of indifference can never be restored once is it ended by one of the table companions. From now on the relationship can only be cordial or hostile. There is no way of refusing the neighbour’s offer of his glass of wine without being insulting. Further, the acceptance of this offer sanctions another offer, for conversation. In this way a whole range of trivial social ties are established by a series of alternating oscillations, in which offering gives one a right, and receiving makes one obligated, and always beyond that which has been given or accepted” (ibid.).

11. Ted Cohen makes a similar point in insisting on the difference that haunts every metaphor. “Thinking of another” involves thinking of the world as other—a remainder of alterity always remains—and it is due to this alterity that metaphors act in the world to transform perspectives, rather than just describing the world.

The identification with the other required by this operation entails not simply a merging of passions and perspectives, but the imaginative crossing of a gap. As David Hume put it, sympathy is always inferential—a matter of reading bodily signs and reproducing the feelings one imagines giving rise to them. To truly see oneself as another, one must leave oneself behind.

12. This is the kind of difference Lévi-Strauss distinguishes from the difference that opposes nature to culture and descent to alliance—the difference that makes some cousins marriageable, while others are not.

13. See also Miyazaki (2004), whose discussion of hope plays precisely on this orientation: the hope for a return.