Notes on Structuralism
An underread (or maybe just underassimilated) genre of intellectual history is the critical history of structuralism, fixing on the linguistic theories of Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson and their reception by the greater Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s via Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myth. The ‘debunking’ thesis of Thomas Pavel’s The Feud of Language (given the sexier and less threatening title The Spell of Language in a later edition) is that the dramatic intellectual moment of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Derrida, et al. — the moment going under the name Theory in North America — is based on illegitimate extrapolations from linguistic models that had already been discredited within their home discipline. Some variant of this critique is probably common knowledge among enthusiasts of the staggering variety of work faithful to the structuralist moment. But it’s unclear what practical consequences critiques like Pavel’s, both foundationalist and methodological, should have on writing that follows a structuralist lineage. Pavel himself preemptively warns against carrying the arguments of his book too far:
“To attempt to exorcise the philosophical singularity of a Derrida or of a Foucault with the help of references to structural linguistics, to Heidegger, or to Nietzsche, or to say that Greimas derived his notions from Hjelmslev, or Levi-Strauss from Jakobson amounts to no more than acknowledging a debt. The most singular part of the enterprise undoubtedly lies in the nature of the decisions taken.”
Rather than a ‘philosophical’ formal critique of the contemporary, he is interested in telling the story of why and how such a towering philosophical edifice was constructed on such shaky grounds, entirely ignoring mainstream (Anglo-American, Austrian, German, and even much French) philosophy of science in the process. I happen to think that a critique of that kind is both possible and called for (I’ll be embarking on Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World in a few days in the hopes of finding it), but will content myself here with mentioning a few of Pavel’s more serious claims.
A big focus is on precisely what problems Saussure’s most influential theses – the arbitrariness of the sign and the subsequent bracketing of the linguistic/semiotic system from its ‘natural’ (causal/functional) context – were intended to solve. Saussure asserted the autonomy of linguistics as a discipline in response to failed attempts to reduce it to evolution, geography, history, or physics. Methodological autonomy of the kind usually invoked was originally based in phonological analysis. Pavel criticizes Levi-Strauss’s generalization of this phonological theory to analysis of morphemes, and his reduction of loosely defined cultural objects like Oedipus to morphemes. In contrast, Chomskian generative grammar (which he is mildly critical of but basically accepts) includes a set of constraints to limit arbitrariness that Levi-Strauss ignored. This allowed him and his followers a “hermeneutical freedom” that makes it impossible to retrace emic (abstract, ‘synchronic’) conclusions – like the symbolic structure of the Oedipus myth – back to their etic (‘diachronic’) constituents – the parts of the different narratives. In this way, Pavel argues, Levi-Strauss repeats precritical, premodern forms of exegesis (scholasticism, cabalism, astrology, etc.). Interestingly, Pavel defines ‘modern’ here as the break initiated by Spinoza’s critique of Biblical hermeneutics in the Tractatus. But this vagueness is what made ‘structuralism’ so attractive to so many different fields, and also what makes it impossible to reduce the later uses of the theory to their common ancestor.
He goes on to point out that further linguistic research has only found differential phonological networks in extremely limited phonetic systems, such as in languages with only thirty or so sounds. And at the semantic level, the differential thesis crumbles: “there is no need for an economy of means in vocabulary, since words can be invented or forgotten on a daily basis,” no verbal structure indeed capable of placing a priori limits on semantic meaning.
Pavel groups the development of structuralist influence on literature and philosophy into a sequence of three partially overlapping moments: “moderate” or “heuristic structuralism,” including literary critics like Todorov and Genette more interested in literary objects than methodological issues (he identifies Jameson as a later member of this group); “scientistic structuralism,” or Levi-Strauss, the early Barthes, and Greimas, who sought complete structuralist models for their respective fields (and I wonder to what extent Franco Moretti should be included here); and finally the “speculative structuralism” of Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, late Barthes, who took eccentric or simply loose interpretations of structuralist linguistics well after the discipline had moved on and extrapolated them into reformulations of metaphysical categories.
Pavel identifies their common factor — and common error — similarly to the ‘speculative realist’ critique (I keep the scare quotes because half the group seems not to want the label anymore): that they took language to be the transcendental condition of knowledge. But we can see in retrospect that when we shift to a new transcendental field we inherit all the determinations of the prior discredited one. Positivisitc analytic philosophy encountered the same problem, but the choice of Saussurian linguistics over formal logic has different consequences. Pavel argues that Derrida (for example) has to assume a preexisting harmony between his theory of temporality and objectivity (deferral and writing), and the immanent, arbitrary algebra-governed language posited by Saussure and Hjelmslev. In his attempt to use linguistics to solve a phenomenological problem (the Heideggerian one of the difference between being as presence and being as existence), Derrida has to treat Saussurian/Hjelmslevian linguistics as if their object is metaphysical instead of material — objectivity itself, and not just empirical linguistic phenomena. It’s a translation that tends to be asserted and not argued.
Pavel classifies this key maneuver under linguist C.E. Bazell’s ‘correspondence fallacy’: “the structuralist belief that applying two or more sets of criteria to the same phenomena of language would [necessarily and independently] make the results of the analyses isomorphic, indeed, identical.” One could generalize this: the fallacy of assuming that a given object fundamentally conforms to its initial form of appearance, such that the application of any two or more forms of analysis will produce isomorphic results. This fallacy grounds the transcendental move, whereby we assume both that analysis of the given must start with the way it first appears and that it is not adequately justified ‘in itself,’ concluding that the proper method of critique is to derive the real (transcendental) conditions of its appearance.
There’s more to the book, but I’ll end by emphasizing a few things today’s speculative realists seem to have in common with their speculative structuralist predecessors. The structuralists too were driven by a modernizing impulse, to close a perceived methodological gap between humanist scholarship and natural science. Their anti-humanism was more central to their approach than anti-realism, which they took to require, for reasons that had nothing to do with the provisional autonomy of structuralist linguistics, minimizing or at least ‘bracketing’ intentionality, meaning, and reference (whether physical or functional) from the pure objects of their analysis: signs. Though different in most other respects, the stated justifications for why the speculative realists do, and the form, broadly speaking, of what they’re doing, what moves they want to make within philosophical and cultural (and institutional) discourse, seem unchanged from those of their immediate adversaries. Which is why I suspect the real target here is not the ‘linguistic turn’ per se, but — again same as with the structuralists —historical materialism.