Structuralism and its Illegitimate Offspring
“In the discussion of the mind-body problem, or of materialism, it is generally assumed that we understand what is meant by ‘body.’ That is, we come to the problem with a basic understanding of the material world and its principles, and we ask whether the principles and entities postulated in some domain – in this case, the domain of mental representations and processes — can be ‘reduced’ to a material basis, presumed to be understood, or whether the richest concept of ‘matter’ will not accomodate this domain. But a little thought about the history of science suffices to show that the initial assumption is highly questionable. Surely our ideas about the material world have changed radically in the past several centuries. To the Cartesians, action-at-a-distance was incomprehensible, and it seems that Newton too considered it an ‘occult quality.’ The success of Newtonian physics led to the incorporation of this mysterious property of matter within the common sense of the next generation. As physics extended its scope to incorporate electromagnetic forces, massless particles, and other novel ideas, it was the basic concept of ‘body’ that changed. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental history of science has come to an end. Thus it is certainly imaginable that our present concept of ‘body’ — our basic picture of the ‘material world’ — will be shown to be fundamentally inadequate, as has so often been the case in the past. If so, then the question of ‘reducing’ the theory of mind to a materialistic basis cannot be posed in any clear terms.
Roughly speaking, it seems reasonable to say that our concept of ‘matter’ will be extended to include any domain that can be shown to be in some sense ‘continuous’ with physics. If this new domain requires new physical assumptions that can be integrated with the rest of natural science, then our concept of the material world will have changed, and the new domain will have become part of physics in an expanded sense of ‘physics.’ The question whether linguistics ‘qualifies as materialist’ then can be rephrased. A positive answer might arise in one of two ways: (1) by showing that the theory of language can be ‘reduced’ to physics as now understood, as many biologists now believe that problems of life have in effect been ‘reduced’ to biochemistry, ultimately physics; or (2) by showing that physics can be extended, if need be to include the principle of this new domain, as it has been extended in the past to include many phenomena and principles that were entirely beyond the scope of the ‘material world’ as previously conceived
Consider what is sometimes called ‘the creative aspect of language use,’ that is, our ability to use language freely to express our thoughts, independently of the control of identifiable stimuli. It is this ability to which Descartes appealed as a kind of criterion for the existence of ‘other minds.’ Honesty requires us to concede that we have no insight into any possible physical basis for this normal human ability. Whether this remarkable and apparently unique human ability can be reduced to physics as now understood, or whether physics can be extended in some natural way to accommodate it, remains an entirely open question, a perplexing mystery.”
Noam Chomsky, Materialism in linguistics and the morality criterion (28 March 1977).
“It is likely that the evolution of human cortical structure was influenced by the acquisition of a linguistic capacity so that articulated language not only has permitted the evolution of culture, but has contributed in a decisive fashion to the physical ‘evolution of man’; and there is no paradox in supposing that the linguistic capacity which reveals itself in the course of the epigenetic development of the brain is now part of human nature itself intimately associated with other aspects of cognitive functions which may in fact have evolved in a specific way by virtue of the early use of articulated language.”
— Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (1971)
“The aim of all structuralist activity, in the fields of both thought and poetry, is to reconstitute an object, and, by this process, to make known the rules of functioning, or ‘functions,’ of this object. The structure is therefore effectively a simulacrum of the object, but it is a simulation that is both purposeful and relevant, since the object derived by this process brings out something that remained invisible, or, if you like, unintelligble in the natural object…The simulacrum is intellect added to the object.”
— Roland Barthes
“Volosinov’s decisive contribution was to find a way beyond the powerful but partial theories of expression and objective system. He found it in fundamentally Marxist terms, though he had to begin by saying that Marxist thinking about language was virtually non-existent. His originality lay in the fact that he did not seek to apply other Marxist ideas to language. On the contrary he reconsidered the whole problem of language within a general Marxist orientation. This enabled him to see ‘activity’ (the strength of the idealist emphasis after Humboldt) as social activity and to see ‘system’ (The strength of the new after Humboldt) in relation to this social activity and not, as had hitherto been the case, formally separated from it. Thus in drawing on the strengths of the alternative traditions, and in setting them side by side showing their connected radical weaknesses, he opened the way to a new kind of theory which had been necessary for more than a century.
Much of his effort went to recovering the full emphasis on language as activity, as practical consciousness, which had been weakened and in effect denied by its specialization to a closed ‘individual consciousness’ or ‘inner psyche.’ The strength of this tradition was still in its insistence on the active creation of meanings, as distinct from the alternative assumption of a closed formal system. Volosniov argued that meaning was necessarily a social action, dependent on a social relationship. But to understand this depended on recovering a full sense of ‘social,’ as distinct both from the idealist reduction of the social to an inherited, ready-made product, an ‘inert crust,’ beyond which all creativity was individual, and from the objectivist projection of the social into a formal system, now autonomous and governed only by its internal laws, within which, and solely according to which, meanings were produced. Each sense, at root, depends on the same error: of separating the social from individual meaningful activity (though the rival positions then valued the separated elements differently). Against the psychologism of the idealist emphasis, Volosinov argued that ‘consciousness takes shape and being in the material of signs created by an organized group in the process of its social intercourse. The individual consciousness is nurtured on signs; it derives its growth from them; it reflects their logic and laws.'”
— Raymond Williams, “Language as Sociality” (1977)
“There is no individual enunciation. There is not even a subject of enunciation. Yet relatively few linguists have analyzed the necessarily social character of enunciation. The problem is that it is not enough to establish that enunciation has this social character, since it could be extrinsic; therefore too much or too little is said about it. The social character of enunciation is intrinsically founded only if one succeeds in demonstrating how enunciation in itself implies collective assemblages. It then becomes clear that the statement is individuated, and enunciation subjectified, only to the extent that an impersonal collective assemblage requires it and determines it to be so. It is for this reason that indirect discourse, especially ‘free’ indirect discourse, is of exemplary value: there are no clear, distinctive contours; what comes first is not an insertion of variously individuated statements, or an interlocking of different subjects of enunciation, but a collective assemblage resulting in the determination of relative subjectification proceedings, or assignations of individuality and their shifting distributions within discourse. Indirect discourse is not explained by the distinction between subjects; rather, it is the assemblage, as it freely appears in this discourse, that explains all the voices present within a single voice, the glimmer of girls in a monologue by Charlus, the languages in a language, the order-words in a word. The American murderer ‘Son of Sam’ killed on the prompting of an ancestral voice, itself transmitted through the voice of a dog. The notion of collective assemblage of enunciation takes on primary importance since it is what must account for the social character. We can no doubt define the collective assemblage as the rdundant complex of the act and the statement that necessarily accomplishes it. But this is still only a nominal definition; it does not even enable us to justify our previous position that redundancy is irreducible to a simple identity (or that there is no simple identity between the statement and the act). If we wish to move to a real definition of the collective assemblage, we must ask of what consist these acts immanent to language that are in redundancy with statements or constitute order-words.”
— Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980)
“From the user’s point of view, constraints can be more or less difficult, more or less manageable. Obviously a complex relation exists between the requirements of an outwardly imposed rule and the artist’s inner freedom. (This is why the choice of mathematics, arguably in fundamental opposition to poetry, is anything but haphazard: seen from inside literature, nothing looks more artificial than mathematics). There is a true challenge here; which is why the ‘Oulipian Way,’ like negative theology elsewhere, is not to be universally recommended to those in search of literary salvation. It is here that potentiality encounters limitations. (A debate within the Oulipio, dating from early on, bears witness to this: for a proposed constraint to be deemed Oulipian, must there exist at least one text composed according to this constraint? Most Oulipians answer yes. But President Le Lionnais, ever the radical, tended to brush this requirement away. Furthermore, there is a whole Oulipian ‘tradition’ devoted to the search for combinatorially exciting constraints for which possible texts are extremely few in number.)”
— Jacques Roubaud, “The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art” (1991)
We braid the weird
Weavings of rhyme
Whose ensigns furl
To fit a rule
No more than word.
— Jacques Jouet