Sunday, June 19, 2011

From Bollocks to Lévi-Strauss on Myth

In late 2009 I published several posts in The Valve* on Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular, on his work on myth. It’s time to revisit that work.

I was cruising through Marginal Revolution the other day and came across a link to a nonsense generators: Arty Bollocks Generator. Let’s have a go at analyzing some arty bollocks and see what, if anything, that tells us about what Lévi-Strauss was up to with myth.

Arty Bollocks

Here’s Arty Bollocks #1:
(AB1) My work explores the relationship between the body and recycling culture.

With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and Andy Warhol, new tensions are crafted from both explicit and implicit meanings.

Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as hope soon becomes corrupted into a cacophony of power, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the prospect of a new beginning.

As temporal phenomena become frozen through emergent and critical practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the edges of our world.
As these things go it seems reasonable enough. It’s rather vague, but then artist statements often seem like that.

Let’s give the bollocks generator another spin:
(AB2) My work explores the relationship between emerging sexualities and midlife subcultures.

With influences as diverse as Blake and Roy Lichtenstein, new combinations are created from both traditional and modern meanings.

Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as vision soon becomes corrupted into a tragedy of greed, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the inevitability of a new reality.

As temporal impressions become transformed through emergent and personal practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the inaccuracies of our era.
AB2 seems rather like AB1, with changes here and there, none of which add up to greater clarity. Which is why these word toys work so well. The texts they generate don’t have to make sense. They just have to offer the pretense of sense.

But that’s another discussion. Let’s go for Arty Bollocks #3:
(AB3) My work explores the relationship between the tyranny of ageing and emotional memories.

With influences as diverse as Munch and Frida Kahlo, new combinations are created from both simple and complex meanings.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of the mind. What starts out as triumph soon becomes corrupted into a cacophony of temptation, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the inevitability of a new synthesis.

As temporal phenomena become frozen through boundaried and critical practice, the viewer is left with a statement of the edges of our era.
As we expected, cut from the same cloth to much the same pattern. Different influences are given in each statement, for example, but they’re all “diverse.” All deal with temporal something becoming something through yadda yadda.

Arty Bollocks Analyzed

The generator appears to be a “fill in the blanks” mechanism drawing on a relatively large Chinese menu of options: pick one from column A, two from column B, and so forth. Here’s the bollocks frame with the variable elements removed:
(AB frame) My work explores the relationship between ____ and ____.

With influences as diverse ____ and ____, new ___ are ____ from both ____ and ____ meanings.

Ever since I was a ____ I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of ____. What starts out as ____ soon becomes corrupted into a ____, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the _____.

As temporal ____ become ____ through ____ and ____ practice, the viewer is left with ____ the ____ of our ____.
As a check on the analysis, here’s AB4, where I’ve underlined the ‘fill in the blanks’ elements. Note that some items in AB4 are bolded. The elements filling those ‘slots’ had been the same in AB1, AB2, and AB3; so I assumed they were fixed in making my analysis. It turns out, however, that they are variable and so they are different in AB4 than in any of the previous arty bollocks statements.
(AB4) My work explores the relationship between gender politics and emotional memories.

With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and Frida Kahlo, new combinations are crafted from both explicit and implicit layers.

Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as vision soon becomes corrupted into a hegemony of power, leaving only a sense of decadence and the inevitability of a new reality.

As spatial forms become transformed through emergent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a statement of the edges of our era.
Thus “layers” had been “meanings” in the first three; “decadence” had been “what could have been” and “spatial” had been “temporal.”

Now, if we were in fact interested in arty bollocks, we’d go back and revise our hypothesized frame to reflect our new knowledge and then spin the wheel again. We could also prepare lists of the items that appear in the variable slots and . . . . But it’s not arty bollocks we’re interested in. It’s Lévi-Strauss on myth.

One More Time: Lévi-Strauss on Myth

LS’s work in Mythologiques presupposes the sort of thing I’ve done with the arty bollocks statements. LS noticed that, taken two, three, four at a time, the South American myths seemed pretty much alike. A particular pair of myths seemed to share the same frame, which he called the armature, while other elements change. These he calls the code, and when the code changes from one myth to another, so does the message (The Raw and the Cooked, p. 199).

Given a pair of myths sharing the same armature, then, LS adopted the term transformation to characterize the relationship between them. One myth, then, is said to the transformation of another. And here’s where obscurity begins to descend upon us. As I said in my first post, The King’s Wayward Eye: For Claude Lévi-Strauss:
While one might think that he’s making a genetic argument, that some myth X is derived from some other myth W by applying some transformation to W to yield Y, that is not at all what he means. It’s not at all clear that these transformations are anything but analytic tools, or fictions, if you will. The idea is that myths are expressions of underlying mental structures, including kinship systems and the associated roles, all the arts of living, lore about local flora and fauna, the local geography, and so on. Beyond an insistence upon binary oppositions, Lévi-Strauss has no explicit account of how that knowledge is organized and so cannot offer a very explicit account of how myths are derived from that knowledge, which is largely unconscious. That is, he was unable to say: 1) Here is a body of knowledge organized in such and such a way. 2) Here is a procedure that operates on that body so that, 3) upon execution, we have a myth.
Well, AB statements aren’t so complex, nor so interesting, as myths, and so it turns out that 1, 2, and 3 pretty easy to provide:
1) Given a string of words, AB frame, with slots X1 through Xn, and lists Y1 through Yn;
2) Read the string from left to right. When you come to slot Xn, fill it with a randomly chosen item from list Yn;
3) When all slots have been filled. Stop. Arty bollocks is complete.
Since we more or less know the procedure for creating AB statements, there’s no need to talk of transformations. AB2 is not the result of applying some transformation to AB1. All the ABs are the result of executing the same computational procedure on some set of data (the frame and the lists). If the ABs seem rather alike, that’s because the computational procedure works so as to produce limited results. AB frame is the same for each and every AB statement. That alone guarantees the sameness.

Whatever’s going on in myths, its more complex than this, by far. And LS’s invocation of the notion of transformation isn’t quite so empty as this comparison might suggest. For he never simply uses transformation as a fancy label for whatever it is that accounts for the limited difference between two myths. He always explicates a given transformation in terms of some aspect of social structure of cultural practice. Just what that is, obviously, varies from case to case. But it is always there.

And that’s what makes his work worth reading. If we want to advance our understanding of myth beyond LS’s project, then we’re going to have to come up with some proposals for real computational procedures. And for that, we’re going to need a better understanding of the human mind than we’ve currently got. I’m rather inclined to think that a close study of his work will give us some useful clues.

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*Previous posts on Lévi-Strauss:

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