On my way home, I was thinking about fish.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, considered by many as the a pillar of modern anthropology (or at the very least, the father of structuralism), died this week at the ripe old age of 100. Lévi-Strauss was difficult reading back then; I distinctly remember photocopied readings from book excerpts that were highlighted and marked for pop quizzes and long exams. Yet as difficult as Lévi-Strauss was to understand and to comprehend, he’s a very useful repository of how to understand society. The ties that bind us all together are not only the relationships we have with individual and groups, but the cultural practices that transformed us all.
Lévi-Strauss is very well remembered for The Raw and the Cooked. If I remember it right (and please correct me if I’m wrong), human behavior revolved around what is “natural” (that which exists in its own state in the physical world) and what is “cultural” (that which is affected by the practices and rituals of man). The whole thesis of The Raw and the Cooked was a structural analysis of myth (and everything else in Mythologies) and the search of cultural universals, but I can’t remember that now. Perhaps that celebration and commemoration of Lévi-Strauss is left to authentic, practicing anthropologists, ethnologists, and the students of that interesting – if not absurd and fun and wacky – discipline that stands on his shoulders.
Most notable – and perhaps the most remembered – is cooking. What is there is transformed; in other words, practiced, “done.” Culture is all about transformation. Culture transforms not only people, but what people do.
Culture transforms fish.
A fish found in the wild is part of the ecosystem. The fish just swims around, minding its own business, content with its place in the food chain. Yet the moment that fish is caught through a net or a spear, fish begins life as a cultural artifact: the raw and the cooked. One can eat the fish as it is, guts, scales, pinbones, and all. Yet when that fish is placed over a fire, or placed in a vessel, things become different. The fish starts to have an inextricable connection with human society.
Cooking acts as a mediator not only between the cultural and the natural, but like many other practices, it sets the line between many other dichotomies and binaries: what’s delicious and what sucks, the edible and the inedible, the savage and the social, among many other things.
Even the preparation of fish can set degrees to “social-ness,” if by that we mean the sosy and the sosyal. Something as simple as “kilawin” can be called “ceviche” in other places, where raw fish marinated in an acidic spiced liquid (be it citrus juice or vinegar) can fetch a low price or a high price. Drying fish under the Sun and sold in the market is different from dehydrating the fish and selling it in the supermarket, and way different from processing fish and putting them in cans. Sinigang, cooked in essentially the same way, can have different prices in where you eat them: a high-class restaurant, a carinderia, or at home.
In the grand scheme of things this may all seem obvious, but it can go deeper than that. If all we ever need from a fish is nutrition and to satisfy hunger, then we can eat the fish without preparing it. Yet fish, like almost every artifact and facet of culture, is transformed by society. Hence eating fish, preparing fish, celebrating with fish dishes, selling fish, and everything else in between. From the ecosystem, we bring it to society. From the natural, it is brought into the cultural. Something devoid of human characteristics is made part of the human world: brought into the cultural from the natural, from the raw to the cooked.
Lévi-Strauss himself was not correct all the time, but the lenses he gave us decades ago provide at least some of the perspective we have of society today. The search for cultural universals is arguable, and the debate between dichotomies and difference still takes place today. Yet transition – transformation – is what makes us human; in a discipline that asks “what makes a man a man,” Lévi-Strauss stands out as that guy who says, at least to a certain degree, that man has the capacity to change what is within and beyond. Man can not only transform himself and the people around him, but something as “un-social” as, say, fish, into a very social, interesting cultural factor.
A beer for Claude Lévi-Strauss, and perhaps a serving of tuna sisig. Which incidentally started out as a dish from pig ears, not usually consumed in many parts of the world, served in sizzling plates – implements not common to Philippine indigenous cuisine…