Given their disdain for the social sciences, certain Silicon Valley venture capitalists have an ironic affinity to unwittingly describing things in structuralist terms. And they do a poor job at it: the overloaded “bottom-up” vs. “top-down” metaphor for everything from growth to ideation to what kind of salad they ate today is just word salad in comparison to Lévi-Strauss’s Culinary Triangle or Lacan’s graph of desire.

Lévi-Strauss’s Culinary Triangle

A common criticism of structuralism from those in the “hard sciences” is that the graphs and triangles are mostly for show. Arranging concepts in the shape of a triangle or a graph not only illustrates some intended structure but also implies additional structure. This isn’t a problem so long as the boundary between the two is clear. But sometimes the boundary isn’t clear, and then it can look like the author has just made a bad-faith attempt to dress up a platitude in obscurantist but prestigious symbolism: the payoff isn’t there.

Consider for example Lévi-Strauss’s canonical formula for myths:

$$ F_x(a) : F_y(b) \sim F_x(b) : F_{a^{-1}}(y) $$

That’s a lot of structure. Yet no one can deny that he put a lot of effort into making it pay off. And so its influence extends beyond anthropology: a mathematician made an attempt to provide a category-theoretic interpretation of the canonical formula.1 All this is possible because he put in the work to develop the theory consequent from the structure he introduced in many books and papers.

In contrast, some VCs engage in argument by confusion: they’ll write a long essay where they throw five different vaguely structural metaphors at you, ensuring that by the time you’ve started to wonder whether a metaphor makes sense you already have to grapple with a new one.


Morava, Jack. On the canonical formula of C. Levi-Strauss. arXiv:math/0306174