Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Totem Poll

The theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday, are relevant yet again this holiday season as totemism takes over in the Internet promotions for this winter's family movies. Readers may remember that I thought that last summer's blockbusters invited Heideggerian interpretations. In contrast, the current crop of vacation flicks seems to suggest that Structuralism may be flourishing at the moment in the box office.

Witness how the websites for Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Golden Compass urge potential viewers to identify with a specific group of animal counterparts. The Alvin movie spurs participation in the franchise, by having visitors record their voices and then have them "munked." (Click to play.)

In the case of The Golden Compass, site users fill out an entire personality test, which is used for the purpose of identifying their "daemon" or spiritual familiar. It's a strategy also used in the procedural rhetoric of Internet dating sites or online recruitment by the military and the CIA.

Lévi-Strauss contended that totemism as it was supposedly practiced by "savages" closely identified with the natural realm did not really exist, as it had been described by his predecessors. Much like the concept of hysteria that had emerged in psychology contemporaneously, Lévi-Strauss wrote that "once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation." "Totemism" for Lévi-Strauss could be recognized as a form of metaphorical thought in which the metaphorical construct depended not on organic similarities but rather on systematic differences. Thus nature serves as a metaphor for culture.

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