week 6: arbitrariness and intelligibility (kelly)

Lévi-Strauss, in “Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology”, delineates some important distinctions that bring to the fore the crystallization of social sciences as science. Primarily, he focuses on the distinction between conscious (linguistic) phenomena and the unconscious infrastructure (33). This distinction parallels in many ways the distinction that Radcliffe-Brown makes between the “particular” and the “general” (4) or “person” and “individual” (5). And, of course most notably, the distinction that Saussure makes between langue and parole (“Signs and Language”, 55). All of these fundamental binaries point to the emergence of the conscious study of unconscious “systems”  (L-S, 33). Lévi-Strauss is shifting the study from societies as objects of study that can be displayed in, for example, the museum but to the fundamental relations that order objects. L-S wants to apply the method of linguistic analysis analogously to anthropology.

The basic, and thus universal, unit of any kinship system is, according to L-S, the incest taboo (47). For L-S, the kinship system is a “language” [in the Saussurian sense, meaning that it is “a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty” (Sassure, “Signs and Language” 33)] that is not “universal” to every culture (L-S, 47) except for the incest taboo. This makes the incest taboo a fundamental feature of his structural analysis as it functions as the universal building block of each culturally specific kinship system and serves as the foundation for the exchange of women. The Kinship system, like Saussure’s language, is therefore an arbitrary system meaning that it “does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals” (L-S, 50; emphasis original). There is something interesting happening here where traditional conceptions of objectivity are no longer required for something to function as a science of systems; more to the point, arbitrariness/non-naturalness is part of why both linguistics for Saussure and anthropology for L-S can be considered ‘sciences’. For this reason I want to examine arbitrariness, as it elucidated by Saussure, more closely.

Saussure writes that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is “arbitrary” (Course, 67). The sounds of word are not linked, in any natural way, to meaning of words. Arbitrariness does not, however, imply any sense of individual agency, as “the individual does not have the power to change a sign once it has become established in the linguistic community” (Saussure, Course, 69). Language or, analogously, kinship systems, is thus the product of “historical forces” and consequently resists any “arbitrary substitution” (72). If then the language is the product of historical forces then the fundamental question that the linguist needs to ask (and this is the fundamental question for the anthropologist as well) is: How is it transmitted? (72) If the connections or relations between the units of a system are not natural then they need to be transmitted to from one person to another in order to persist. If kinship systems are arbitrary then why do we have the universal incest taboo?

To further complicate this question I want to turn briefly to Judith Butler’s 1998 Welleck Library Lectures. Butler argues:

It is, of course, one function of the incest taboo to prohibit sexual exchange among kin relations or, rather, to establish kin relations on the basis of those taboos. The question, however, is whether the incest taboo has also been mobilized to establish certain forms of kinship as the only intelligible and liveable ones (Butler 1998, 70; emphasis original).

Butler brings up the invisible other side of this arbitrary coin; one that makes certain bodies/persons intelligible while eliding others. It is this ‘other side’ that I would like focus on this week.

Butler, Judith (1998) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life & Death. New York: Columbia University Press.

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