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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 15 (Oct. 1998)


Lucien Scubla Lire Lévi-Strauss

(Paris, Odile Jacob, 1998). Pp. 337.

What is the relationship between Lévi-Strauss's canonical formula, Fx(a):Fy(b)::Fx(b):Fa-1(y), and the sacrificial mechanism described by René Girard? The answer to that question, at first sight, is far from evident. Yet, once it is worked out by Lucien Scubla in his magnificient Lire Lévi-Strauss it makes both for a fascinating story and a major contribution to theoretical anthropology. First introduced in 1955, in "The Structural Study of Myth", the canonical formula should be understood in the context of Lévi-Strauss's definition of a myth as the set of its variants. A myth, in other words, is made up of its various versions, some of which can be far different from the version of reference the anthropologist began his study with. The canonical formula gives the rule of transformation which unites the different variants of the myth. Nothing it seems is more intellectual and formal than this definition or appears further away from social processes and institutions, from conflict and rivalry. Notheless, argues Scubla, a careful reading of Lévi-Strauss reveals that the formula aims to capture the fundamental intuition of his structuralism: that every structure is generated by a conflict.

The demonstration of that claim is long and sinuous, for it is not only to the layman that the canonical formula is obscure and, to a large extent, Lévi-Strauss himself is responsible for this lack of clarity. When he first introduced it, Lévi-Strauss gave little indications as to how it should be interpreted and apart from a few mentions in the late 1950s, the formula completely disappeared from his writings until the mid 1980's when it made a triuphant return in The Jealous Potter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). This strange attitude of Lévi-Strauss towards his formula, who always affirmed that it guided all his research on myth while never explicitly using it, is confirmed by the fact that when he first reintroduced it, in one of his courses at the College de France, he applied the formula not to a myth, but to a ritual, though it has always been an article of faith of his structuralism that the two phenomena are radically different.

According to Scubla, these hesitations reveal, not a lack of rigour on the part of Lévi-Strauss, but the power of the anthropological intuition which the canonical formula tries to capture. Through an attentive reading of Lévi-Strauss's text, but also of the those, anthropologists and mathematicians, who tried to make sense of the formula, Scubla succeeds in showing that once it is translated in an appopriate formalism - that of the catastrophe theory - Lévi-Strauss's formula does express, as he claimed, the unity of myths, but also their relationship to other social institutions like rituals and kinship systems. Further Scubla shows that the formula is inseparable from Girard's hypothesis of violent victimage as the origin of all institutions and sees in Lévi-Strauss's intuition a confirmation of Girard's thesis.

Lire Lévi-Strauss is a difficult book, but very rewarding to the careful reader. It offers not only powerful justification of Girard's theory, it also constitute a profound reflection on the place of formalism in human sciences, on the value of theoretical anthropology, on the importance of morphogenetic theories. In the foreword to his book, Lucien Scubla mentions those authors who have given him "intense moments of intellectual pleasure." On my list of those authors, there now is one more name: Lucien Scubla.

Paul Dumouchel Université du Québec à Montréal