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Structuralism and the idea of race: between Lévi-Strauss and Althusser

Miri Davidson

Supervisors: Caroline Williams, Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths)

Email: m.davidson@qmul.ac.uk

Research topic: Structuralism and the idea of race: between Lévi-Strauss and Althusser

My project seeks to examine the confluences between structuralism, as a multivocal philosophical movement in the 1950s and 1960s in France, and questions of race and coloniality. The originality of the structuralist movement is often located in the challenge it posed to Hegelian philosophies of history. Structuralism’s two paradigmatic representatives, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Louis Althusser, both constructed alternative theories of history and historical time – influenced by structural linguistics, set theory, and cybernetics as well as Marx’s political economy – in an effort to depart from what they considered to be the evolutionary underpinnings of spiritual historical totalization. In its challenge to a teleological idea of world history, and the resulting (though deeply ambiguous) interrogation of the concept of ‘primitive’ societies, the structuralist project so conceived had clear implications for theories of race and colonialism. However, Althusser’s divergence from Lévi-Strauss indicated a split wit  in structuralism, indexing a broader argument between Marxism and anthropology that replays itself in various forms today. The conviction underlying this project is that a critical return to these arguments, underpinned as they were by contested conceptions of nature, culture and ideology, promises to illuminate questions of race in the contemporary conjuncture.

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