Claude Levi - Strauss, The Way of the Masks (La Voie des Masques)

Claude Levi Strauss, The Way of the Masks (La Voie des Masques) provides an accessible introduction to his structuralism, including the concepts of opposition and diacritical meaning. The essay seeks to show how diacritical meaning on the axis of structure can emerge out of dialogue on the axis of history. Levi Strauss is thus linked to Bakhtin and Bourdieu.

Section I. Exposition

In The Way of the Masks Claude Levi Strauss sets out to demonstrate, through a case study, that plastic art objects specifically masks of the North West Pacific Coast Indians 'cannot be interpreted in and by themselves as separate objects' .(p.12) but, as with myths, must be returned to their transformation set: the set of masks and their associated myths in which each echoes and transforms the others. 'My hypothesis', he says, 'will be proven right if, in the last analysis, we can perceive between the origin myths of each type of mask, transformational relations homologous to those that, from a purely plastic point of view. prevail among themselves' (p.l4).

The core of Levi Strauss's demonstration occupies the first six chapters of The Way of the Masks. The remaining eight chapters extend and seek to corroborate the argument. I shall concentrate on the first six chapters, at the end of which Levi Strauss himself says, 'The analysis could end here' (p.93).

Levi Strauss begins his narrative, rather as Barthes would have, by specifying an uneasiness and disturbance which certain masks, all of the same type, have caused him. These are Swaihwe masks found among a dozen Indian groups of the Salish linguistic family: 'Much bigger than lifesize, these masks are round at the top, but their sides, which curve inward at first, are then drawn together, becoming parallel or even oblique; the remaining third of the mask thus takes on the rough shape of a rectangle, or an upsidedown trapezium. At the lowest extremity, the small base is perfectly horizontal, as if the design had been sawn off in midcourse, representing a sagging lower jaw in the middle of which hangs a large tongue, which is either carved in basrelief or painted red. The upper jaw protrudes about one third of the way up the mask. Immediately above this, the nose, which is sometimes indicated in rough outline or may even be absent is most often replaced by a very prominent bird head with half open or closed beak; two or three additional such heads rise like horns on top of the mask ... whatever the type, the general configuration remains the same, as does that of the eyes, consisting of two wood cylinders, either carved into the mass or added to and made to bulge powerfully out of the orbits' (pp 10-12 and see Illustration 1). When worn, the mask is habitually worn with a white costume and surmounted by white feathers.

Illustration 1

These Swaihwe masks, and the right to wear them in profane ceremonies, belonged exclusively to a few lineages of high rank, were transmitted by marriage, and brought luck and facilitated the acquisition of wealth. The myths which explain their origin give them an aquatic or aerial provenance and link them to copper, much prized by these Indian groups.

Neighbouring groups of Indians have borrowed the Swaihwe masks from the Salish, among them the Kwakiutl who call the masks Xwexwe. Though the masks came to the Kwakiutl through intermarriage, the Kwakiutl have their own myths of origin for the masks, which, however, make them incompatible with the acquisition of riches, and specifically copper (p.5)

The Kwakiutl possess other masks in addition to the Xwexwe they have acquired, including one the plastic characteristics of which are the opposite of the Swaihwe mask. This mask is the mask of Dzonokwa (see Illustration 2): she is black, rather than white; has sunken rather than protuberant eyes; has protuberant lips but no tongue: and is trimmed with fur rather than feathers (which Levi Strauss takes to be an opposition: see p.57). Levi Strauss locates a parallel mask among the Salish, who is called Sasquatch or Tsanaq (p.65), but this is not illustrated and elsewhere (p.153) Levi Strauss says that 'most Salish groups' owned only one type of mask. 

Illustration 2

However, though the contrary of the Swaihwe masks in plastic characteristics, the myths or origin of Dzonokwa lend her similar attributes: she is the source of material and immaterial wealth, specifically of copper.

Levi Strauss concludes: 'the link between Swaihwe and riches, which is so obvious among the Salish, is inverted by the Kwakiutl, who lend their Xwexwe masks a diametrically opposed function. Indeed, the Kwakiutl masks are avaricious, and they prevent the spectators from enriching themselves instead of helping them to do so ... (In contrast Dzonokwa is among the Kwatiutl) the sources of all wealth, (thus) a correlational and oppositional relationship .... seems to exist between the two types of masks and the functions respectively assigned to them. The canonical formula for this relationship may be stated as follows:

When from one group to another, the plastic form is preserved, the semantic function is inverted. On the other hand. when the semantic function is retained it is the plastic form that is inverted' (pp.92-93).

Levi Strauss goes on, 'I have thus demonstrated that beings as different in appearance as the Salish Swaihwe and the Kwakiutl Dzonokwa, which no one would have dreamed of comparing, cannot be interpreted each for itself and considered in isolation. They are parts of a system within which they transform each other. As in the case with myths, masks (with their origin myths and the rites in which they appear) become intelligible only through the relationships which unite them. The white colour of the Swaihwe trimmings, the black colour of the Dzonokwa mask, the protruding eyes of the one versus the concave eyes of the other, the lolling tongue and the pursed mouth, all these traits mean less in and of themselves than they do as, one might say, discritical signs. The attribution of each feature to this or that supernatural being is a function of the way in which, within a pantheon, these beings are opposed to each other in order to assume complementary roles.' (p.93)

Section II. Commentary

I shall arrange my remarks on Levi-Strauss's argument under three headings, drawing in additional material from The Way of the Masks where required.

1. Diacritical v. Inherent Meaning

The conscious source for Levi Strauss's structuralist approach is the structuralist phonology pioneered by Trubetzkoy and Jakobson. Levi Strauss wants to take over from this phonology both the notion of a system of interrelated parts, which must be reconstituted in analysis, and the notion of the nonsignificance of each element of the system in isolation. Thus, the value of the phoneme /p/ in English is defined by the other phonemes of English and not by an intrinsic properties of /p/. However, he cannot bring himself to say that the plastic features of each mask are meaningless in and of themselves, only that they 'mean less' intrinsically than they do diacritically (see quotation from p.93 above). Indeed, he cannot even bring himself to say this of sense in language: thus, he writes of the words of a language that their meaning (signification) ' is the result of two things: the sense (sens) included in the particular term chosen, and the senses (which have been excluded by this very choice) of all the other terms that could be substituted for it' (p.56). In the case of the masks it is clearly possible to place plastic elements of the masks in one to one relation with the myths of origin which motivate those elements, and this Levi Strauss does in The Way of the Masks, giving an account of each plastic feature in terms of its mythic explanation or motivation: they have feathers because of their aerial origin, and they have tongues which are or which resemble fish because of their aquatic origin (see p.120).

Furthermore, and more critically, if masks are in diacritical relationships it is not only with each other but with the human face which they cover. Levi Strauss nowhere discusses this relationship, perhaps because he does not believe it exists. To admit this relationship is to refer culture to nature, and not simply to another culture. Yet to describe masks as having 'protuberant' or 'sunken' eyes is to describe them implicitly (diacritically) with reference to features of the human face: it is this which provides the standard of protuberance and sunkenness, and which for a culture which possesses only one mask must provide the reference point of interpretation for spectators at the ceremonies in which the mask figures. However, on Levi Strauss's side, one can see in the case of the Dzonokwa mask how misleading a reference just to the human face could be in interpreting that mask. Dzonokwa is nothing if not cadaverous - a mask of death if ever there was one. Yet Dzonokwa is a beneficiary to humans: she is the source of copper. This beneficence could not, I think, be read off from her appearance alone, nor even from the contrast between her appearance and that of the Xwexwe masks (Illustration 3).

Illustration 3

2. Structure versus History

In his work on myths, Levi Strauss has above all sought to treat myths as a synchronically constituted system among which certain transformational relations hold that are indicators of ahistorical properties of the way the human mind works. The transformation of one myth into another is to be understood as a timeless 'logical' operation, not as an historical one. For many critics, this approach is unsatisfying just insofar as it abstains from any attempt at historical reconstruction.

In The Way of the Masks, in contrast, there is plenty of real and conjectural history which tends to the position that the timeless transformations and relations between myths and masks which structural analysis reconstructs and interprets as indicators of an order of mental structures, are realised temporally in and through a real dialogue of cultures, where the word 'dialogue' (which Levi Strauss uses at p.145) can bear all the weight placed on it in the work of someone like Mikhail Bakhtin. Specifically, Levi Strauss uses 'dialogue' to distinguish what happened among these North West Pacific Coast Indians from, on the one hand, cultural imperialism (the Salish do not impose the Swaihwe on the Kwakiutl and, on the other, cultural autarchy (the meaning of the Swaihwe is elaborated in relation to the elaboration of the meaning of Dzonokwa, and vice versa). For Levi Strauss it is the latter contrast which is more pertinent since it allows him to oppose himself to a tradition in functionalist social anthropology: 'one of the most pernicious notions bequeathed us by functionalism, and which still keeps so many ethnologists under its rule, is that of isolated tribes, enclosed within themselves, each living on its own account a peculiar experience of an aesthetic, mythical, or ritual order. Thus, it is not recognised that before the colonial era ... these populations, being more numerous, were also elbow to elbow. With few exceptions nothing tht happened in one was unknown to its neighbours, and the modalities according to which each explained and represented the universe to itself were elaborated in an unceasing and vigorous dialogue' (pp.144 - 45).

But I think this unceasing and vigorous dialogue has a deeper significance than its role in the falsification of a particular brand of social anthropology. For dialogue on the plane of history corresponds to the diacritical on the plane of structure, and our understanding of the latter can be enriched by a better understanding of the former. Suppose, for example, at some point in time, the Kwakiutl had the Dzonokwa and the Salish the Swaihwe masks, and that then the Kwakiutl acquired the Swaihwe masks by intermarriage (the masks pass from bride to bridegroom as dowry). The 'problem' which now faces the Kwakiutl is the incorporation of these new masks into their myth and ritual. Insofar as their own Dzonokwa is linked to the same or similar myth and ritual as the Swaihwe among the Salish, then there is a problem of finding a place for the Swaihwe which utilises this new resource creatively rather than leaving it redundant. To introduce a third term between dialogue and diacritical, there is a problem of differentiation ordistinction (in the sense, perhaps, of Pierre Bourdieu) which involves expanding the system of mythical and ritual meanings to give the Swaihwe, burdened with their Salish heritage, a new place (as Xwexwe) among the Kwakiutl. So dialogue is also a way of cultural enrichment. In the present instance, the dialogue appears essentially a peaceful one, but that is not a necessary feature: think of the 'dialogue' between the Christian church and pagan festivals.

3. The Missing Term

In a canonical formula of Levi Strauss's, the relationship between two terms can often be specified as homologous to the relationship between a further two terms. Thus 'A : B :: C : D' (A is to B as C is to D). In the present case Levi Strauss suggests that there is a relationship of this sort between the masks and their associated myths of origin as follows:

Dzonokwa : Xwexwe :: Swaihwe : Sasquatch/Tsanaq

But the figure of Sasquatch or Tsanaq is only mentioned in passing (pp.65-66), and there is no illustration of her. Perhaps this is due to lack of ethnographic data. Certainly, a demonstration that Sasquatch plastically resembles Dzonokwa but has the characteristics of Xwexwe would have enhanced the argument for Levi Strauss 's central claim that when plastic form is the same, meaning is inverted and when meaning is the same, plastic form is inverted (see quotation from p.92 above).


Quotations and illustrations are from Claude Levi Strauss, The Way of the Masks, translated from La Voie des Masques (Paris 1979; originally Geneva 1975) by Sylvia Modelski (University of Washington Press, Seattle 1982 / Jonathan Cape, London 1983).

As a recipient of a Leverhulme European Studentship I was able to attend a series of lectures by Levi Strauss at the College de France in 1971 - 1972 which covered the same ground as La Voie des Masques.

First published as "The Dialogue of the Masks" in Aletheia (University of Sussex, England), number 4, autumn 1984, pp. 16 - 22. Lightly edited for this 2003 website version