Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, in search of discovering universal laws of language, formulated a general science of linguistic by bifurcating language into langue, abstract system of language, and parole, utterance or speech. The phonemes, fundamental unit of sound, are the basic structure of a language. The linguistic community gives a social dimension to a language. Moreover, linguistic signs are arbitrary and change only comes with time and not by individual will. Drawing on structural linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss transforms the world into a text and thus subjected social phenomena to linguistic laws as formulated by Saussure. For instance, the “primitive systems” such as kinship, magic, mythologies, and rituals are scrutinized under the similar linguistic dichotomies of abstract normative system (objective) and utterance (subjective). The division did not only split social actions, but it also conditioned them to the categories of abstract systems that are made up of deep structures. For example, Lévi-Strauss suggests, “Kinship phenomena are of the same type as linguistic phenomena.” As Saussure discovered phonemes as the basic structures of language, Lévi-Strauss identified (1) consanguinity, (2) affinity, and (3) descent as the deep structures of kinship. These “microsociological” levels serve “to discover the most general structural laws.” The deep structures acquire meanings only with respect to the system they constitute. “Like phonemes, kinship terms are elements of meaning; like phonemes, they acquire meaning only if they are integrated into systems.” Like the langue and parole distinctions of language, kinship system consists of (1) system of terminology (vocabulary), through which relationships are expressed and (2) system of attitudes (psychological or social) functions for social cohesion. To elaborate the dynamic interdependence between systems of terminology and attitudes, Lévi-Strauss rejected Radcliffe-Brown’s idea that a system of attitudes is merely the manifestation of a system of terminology on the affective level. He turned to the concept of the avunculate as a part of a whole, which comprise of three types of relationship consanguinity, affinity, and descent. Thus, Lévi-Strauss identified complex avuncular relationships, contrary to atomism and simplified labels of avunculate associated with matrilineal descent. Furthermore, he suggested that kinship systems “exist only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.” The meaning of an element (avunculate) exists only in relation to a kinship structure.
Lévi-Strauss elaborates the meaning and structure point further in his essay titled “The Sorcerer and His Magic.” The sorcerer, patient, and group, according to Lévi-Strauss, comprise a shaman complex, which makes social consensus an underlying pattern for understanding. The work of a sorcerer is to reintegrate divergent expressions or feelings of patients into “patterns present in the group’s culture. The assimilation of such patterns is the only means of objectivizing subjective states, of formulating inexpressible feelings, and of integrating inarticulated experiences into a system.” The three examples that Lévi-Strauss mentions relate to magic, a practice reached as a social consensus, by a group of people including sorcerer and patient. It seems that people make sense of certain activities through beliefs, created by social consensus, and not by the effectiveness of magical practices. The community’s belief in social consensus thus determines social roles and sets rules and categories for attitudes. Perhaps, in this essay, magic is system of terminology, a langue, whereas, individual behavior is a system of attitude, parole. Attitudes make sense or acquire meaning through magic. Here, magic is a language.
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... Drawing on structural linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss transforms the world into a text and thus subjected social phenomena to linguistic laws as formulated by Saussure ... levels serve “to discover the most general structural laws.” The deep structures acquire meanings only with respect to the system they constitute ...
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