Friday, July 6, 2012

Animals are more than good to think with, part 1.

It seems almost mandatory that nearly all special journal issues on animal studies include the quotation from Claude Levi-Strauss that animals "are good to think" with. What is weird, though, is that is not exactly what he said.  The is an odd issue, occasionally, of misquotation here, as well. As far as I can tell, this is a reference to Levi-Strauss' comment in Totemism:
 We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen not because they are "good to eat" [bonnes à manger] but because they are "good to think" [bonnes à penser]. (p. 89 in the English translation]. 
Edmund Leach, who translated that work into English, had this to say in a footnote in another article [this one, .pdf]:

Several critics have rebuked me for mistranslation, but in fact I cite Lévi-Strauss' own words to avoid this imputation. Literally, bonnes à penser means "good to think," bonnes U manger "good to eat." But "good to think" is not English, and the adjectival plural of the French is untranslatable. It seems  to me  that  here,  as so  often, Lévi-Strauss  is  playing  a verbal  game. Totemic species  are categories of things, and it does in fact convey the meaning better to refer to them as "goods" than my critics would allow. (n. 8, np). 

What is odd is that the way this quotation is rendered is doubly wrong. There is the common move to lose the wordplay and go with the grammatically correct "good to think with", which isn't necessarily wrong, as much as a translational interpretation. But often the quotation is wrong in another way, shortening the idea of natural species into simply animals, and ellipesizing all that is in-between. Thus, we get "animals are good to think with". You can, for example, see this in the Wikipedia entry for Animal Studies (go there before they change it!). And while I don't really mind calling out the anonymous contributer to Wikipedia, I will certainly maintain that this misquotation is used again and again in academic publications. Occasionally you will see other variations, and even other citations (I have seen The Savage Mind cited a few times. I don't have a copy of that with me, but it doesn't seem to be the case in google books). Often you will see the move, like I did in the beginning, and just put the quotation marks around "good to think" or "good to think with", and put the animals before it. This is, of course, entirely acceptable, and these are not the citations I am talking about. This isn't to speak ill of the people, some of whom are friends and scholars I respect a lot, but more of just a comment about this misquotation. Especially following up with the recent discussion of the common misquotation of Adorno.

I have more to say on this quotation, and on Claude Levi-Strauss' work on animals, but that will have to be for later.