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.


24 Responses to “Notes on Structuralism”

  1. Master of Ceremonies Centrist Predator Says:

    Is there something to see here?


    I’m quite sure of it, although all I picked up was a much greater density of style in the writing than ever before–and that’s impressive, of course. We must write in the many excellent styles.. Not to worry, though, mon cher. Ray Brassier and his older proteges such as Martin who do not write anything for ‘technically untrained philosophers’ will be over to shore up the flank, I am quite sure. I will be sure to follow the semiosis that is sure to ensue. Of course, it’s not impossible that I might be able to follow some of it were I to probe it at least a little more determinedly than I have had time for thus far, but I am currently busy with Negotiations with Myself on whether to read Frege for Dummies.

  2. […] Notes on Structuralism « American Stranger A Moment in Literary History with Lauren Conrad was posted on Sunday, February 14th, 2010 at 3:41 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. […]

  3. anxiousmodernman Says:

    That’s a keen connection on the impulses and desires of the speculative realists and the structuralists. I’m most familiar with Levi Bryant’s and Graham Harman’s writings in that crowd.

    I’m in basic agreement with this post, which is insightful as usual, but am tempted to shrug.

    You’re right that historical materialism (of a certain variety) is in a sense threatened by the new Realist anti-humanisms, but their explicit target is Kant, and there is as you state a ‘modernizing impulse’ to simply move beyond a humanist metaphysics. And this impulse is no doubt motivated by gaps between the so-called human sciences and the so-called natural ones. All true.

    And you’re also right that the arguments against this Kantian foundation here are shaky. The attempt is precisely to move the foundation away from humanism itself. The attempt is not to disprove Kant, but to abandon him like we abandoned the pure idealism of Berkeley.

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    anxiousmodernman –

    the explicit target is kant, yes, but kant has been the bad guy (or at least the one to refute) in (so-called) continental philosophy from the time it split from (so-called) anglo-american philosophy. the SR people are just as much against hume.

    my blog hosted a long and ugly thread a while ago on just this subject:

    the association of modern philosophy’s role with fighting naive humanism is at least as old as francis bacon’s polemics against neo-platonism. the point is what kind or valence of humanism is being attacked: there’s no reason to polemicize against renaissance humanism, for example. but the (structuralist) linguistic turn, while it may have been ‘correlationist,’ was also explicitly anti-humanist. it would be helpful to figure out how these two ideas were considered compatible before trying to conflate them. exactly how are arbitrary signs different from, say, purely ontological objects?

    i have a post i hope to get to soon on in just what sense marx’s version of the labor theory of value is humanist that will hopefully make all this clearer.

  5. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Oh my. I’m debating whether or not to read that ugly thread. That was before my time here. Hell, I’ll probably read it. Well, maybe I ought to do my taxes first.

    [moments pass]

    After some skimming, I’ll definitely have to read this.

    Right now I have to catch a bus back to my house. Very interested in hearing your remarks on Marx/humanism. If you can, bring that discussion back to Althusser’s structuralism, to connect it with this post.

    Talk to you in a bit.

  6. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Read about 1/3 of my way down the thread and then things started to get repetitious. Was hoping there would be more than two voices involved.

    I just discovered your tweets!

    I’ll wait to comment on your hopefully-forthcoming Marx/humanism post. For now I’ll just agree that “humanism” is a big tent.

  7. traxus4420 Says:

    “Was hoping there would be more than two voices involved.”

    yeah, everyone else either lost interest or just weren’t able to keep up with the quantity of 500-word postings at about the same point you stopped reading. myself included.

    althusser’s a good idea.

  8. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Repetitious, but also a clear demarcation of the battle lines (unless some drastic things happened in the last 2/3):

    Should art, politics, etc. have any purchase over philosophy?

    I lean toward “no” in the answer of this question, a position that can be upheld regardless of one’s stance toward correlationism.

    As for correlationism, again I’m mostly familiar with Graham Harman’s metaphysics, but I think that rejecting this (big and complicated) category is a correct step. The thing is, I also see it as an altogether modest one. It’s an attempt at a realignment, but a subtle one. I think that many other humanist propositions in the big humanist tent can be coherently held.

    Now as for all the aggressive polemics, sometimes it’s to my taste and sometimes not. Zizek said that in today historical moment everything must be spoken in excess to get even a modest point across. Whether that is or ought to be the case is a whole other can of worms, I guess.

  9. Quantity of Butchness Says:

    Should art, politics, etc. have any purchase over philosophy?

    I lean toward “no” in the answer of this question, a position that can be upheld regardless of one’s stance toward correlationism.

    It can not be upheld, that ts the arrogance of the philosopher, and anyway leaves out science, so matters very little.. But this will be my last comment. I asked traxus to delete my earlier remarks, but I’m glad you got time to read them first. The ‘ballle lines’ need more than a couple of blog threads to do their ‘holy war’.

  10. sorry for my role in the ugliness

    if you want to time travel a little to see how structuralism was positioned as fad, a good destination could be 1974, Jonathan Culler _Structuralist Poetics_. He likes some of this graphing and charting for lit crit but is perplexed by Barthes’ Fashion System. He asks, basically, wtf? It explains nothing. It has set aside all criteria for description or interpretation. Why is it being greeted with such praise and admiration? I think in his engagement with why this thing (and implicitly it’s genre, but that’s to come) appeared and what it is – though without any temporal distance he misses the fact that structuralism in the humanities was producing structuralists mainly, people who vowed not to notice just about everything in human affairs – you will find a lot that is relevant to this resemblance you see between that stuff and current trends in philosophy.

  11. Of Barthes’ Système de la mode, Culler writes:

    His strategy is indeed one of neglect. He is not concerned, he says, with what was fashionable in this particular year but only with the general mechanisms of the system and therefore does not provide rules which distinguish the fashionable from the unfashionable. The decision is regrettable, first, because it makes his whole project rather obscure. Why choose a single synchronic state if one is not interested in describing that state? If one is concerned only with fashion in general, then surely one requires evidence from other years when different combinations would be recorded, lest one mistake the particularities of one year’s fashion for general properties of the system. The choice of a corpus, it seems, is determined only by the linguists’ assertion of the priority of synchronic description and the desire to give an impression of fidelity and rigour.

    Second, refusal to investigate what is fashionable and what is not makes his results indeterminate. He argues, for example, that “petite” in _petite ganse_ is rhetoricl because _grande ganse_ does not figure in the corpus and hence “petite” figures in no opposition. But the opposition might be precisely that between _petites ganses_ which were fashionable and _grandes ganses_ which were not and so did not appear in fashion magazines. Such questions cannot be decided on purely distributional grounds.

    Finally, his results cannot be checked. If the function of the system is to transmit fashion then it should be described as doing just that, and one could evaluate the analysis by calling upon the evidence of other sequences from the same year of the judgements of the fashion-conscious and seeing whether Barthes’ rules successfully distinguished the fashionable from the unfashionable. In the absence of such a project there is simply no way to test the adequacy of his descriptions.

  12. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Thank you for that reference, Chabert. I always appreciate your comments here and elsewhere. I’m no longer a student, but I do pony up the additional fee every year to retain borrowing rights at my University library, and there is a copy of Structuralist Poetics. I’ll check it out.

    It was ugly, but it doesn’t look like you were the one who chose to escalate. 🙂

  13. It was ugly, but it doesn’t look like you were the one who chose to escalate.

    Good for you, AMM, the one who did escalate would have to kiss his own ass instead and that’s difficult for most of us. I’ve hear Uriah Heep could do it, though. Yes, I agree, Chabert won that ‘ugly thread’.

  14. traxus4420 Says:


    theres’ also Structuralism and Grammatology, a slightly later essay by culler (and i’m sure this argument comes up elsewhere but i haven’t encountered it) where he says structuralism and ‘deconstructionism’ are complementary, and works out a measured distance from ‘canny’ quasi-scientific structuralism (taken strictly as an interdisciplinary methodology for the humanities) to favor ‘uncanny’ deconstruction, which under his pragmatic appropriation ends up as new form of close reading. structuralism in the bad sense ignores the text, deconstruction is all about the text. and culler was proved right insofar as neither path ended up all that close to anything of popular importance. in north america the structuralist moment seemed to be interpreted mainly in terms of methodology or and/or epistemology, and for the most part not even its immediate negations (Derrida, Deleuze, Nietzsche, De Man) escaped the initial box.

    and about that thread, we both know why it got ugly — i certainly can’t fault you for fighting back (and it’s interesting how the substantial debates haven’t seemed to move beyond where you and ‘Martin’ took them).

  15. Time for another post! And nice meeting you, Mr. T. I hope the rest of your visit to austin went off alright!

  16. ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓ Says:


    ✯ Srebrenica happened in the context of a war, and such things are to be expected in wars (“War is a life and death matter, and inevitably leads people to commit acts they would never commit in peacetime”).

    ✯ The VBiH treated the civilian population as hostages (“The Muslim military did not allow civilians to leave, since their presence was what ensured the arrival of humanitarian aid provisions which the military controlled.”), which made it predictable that the VRS would murder them, therefore the crime is the responsibility of somebody other than the people who committed it.

    ✯ Some Muslims were not killed (“But what plan for genocide includes offering safe passage to women and children? And if this was all part of a Serb plot to eliminate Muslims, what about all the Muslims living peacefully in Serbia itself, including thousands of refugees who fled there from Bosnia? Or the Muslims in the neighboring enclave of Zepa, who were unharmed when the Serbs captured that town a few days after capturing Srebrenica?”), therefore the ones who were killed must not have been killed as a part of a plan.


    ✯ Naser Oric was a criminal (“General Morillon stressed that the Muslim commander in Srebrenica, Naser Oric, ‘engaged in attacks during Orthodox holidays and destroyed villages, massacring all the inhabitants. This created a degree of hatred that was quite extraordinary in the region'”), which justified attacks against the civilian population in the area where he operated.

    ✯ Only parties that have committed genocide have been charged with genocide (“The charge of ‘genocide’ is what sharply distinguishes the indictment of Serbs from indictments of Croats or Muslims for similar crimes committed during the Yugoslav disintegration wars”), therefore there must not have been a genocide.

    ✯ There have been crimes committed elsewhere in the world at other times (“from Vietnam to Panama to Iraq”, and also “when the Nazi occupation broke up Yugoslavia”), therefore this crime must not be important.


    ✯ Fewer bodies have been identified than the number of people who are known to have been killed (“less than 3,000 have been exhumed”), therefore anybody who has not been identified must either have been an executed prisoner of war or not be dead at all (“this was, then, a ‘massacre’, such as occurs in war when fleeing troops are ambushed by superior forces”). Where questions of fact are involved, the only objective strategy is to cite oneself (in the name of “an independent international Srebrenica research group which will soon publish its findings in book form” which is an “unbiased investigation and serious historical analysis”) while failing to mention all other sources (with which they would appear to be unfamiliar–in 76 footnotes of this report, the authors cite themselves 36 times).

    ✯ The principle of command responsibility is unfamiliar to Diana Johnstone (“to establish what it calls ‘command responsibility’ for Serb crimes rather than individual guilt of actual perpetrators. The aim is not to identify and punish men who violated the Geneva conventions by executing prisoners, but rather to pin the supreme crime on the top Serb leadership,” and “Clearly, the purpose of the ‘genocide’ charge is not to punish the perpetrators but to incriminate the Bosnian Serb, and the Yugoslav Serb, chain of command right up to the top”), therefore it does not exist in law.

    ✯ Even though none of the events happened, they were ordered and carried out at a lower level of command (“the brutal behavior of enraged soldiers [or paramilitaries, the probable culprits in this case] out of control”) than the level of the people indicted.


    ✯ Memory might be used in the future to mobilise resentment (“The insistence on past atrocities may simply prepare the next wave”), therefore it should not be invoked.

    ✯ A genocide conviction might be inconvenient for some interested parties (“If Milosevic, as former president of Serbia, can be convicted of genocide, then the Bosnian Muslims hope to win billions of dollars in reparations that will keep Serbia on its knees for the foreseeable future”), therefore it is not justified in law.

    ✯ It is not certain that punishing one set of perpetrators will prevent another set of perpetrators from doing something else (“when all is said and done, it is an illusion to think that condemning perpetrators of a massacre in Bosnia will ensure that the next civil war somewhere in the world will be carried out in a more chivalrous manner”). Therefore punishment should not be pursued, as long as there is the opportunity to regret the fact that war ever occurs at all.


    ✯The memory of Srebrenica has been used for rhetorical purposes (here Diana Johnstone uses a rich pallette: the rhetorical purposes she declares include a) “to draw attention away from the U.S.-backed Croatian offensive which drove the Serb population out of the Krajina”; b) “to implicate Bosnian Serb leaders in ‘genocide’ in order to disqualify them from negotiating the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina”; c) “To use ‘Srebrenica’ as an effective instrument in the restructuring of former Yugoslavia, notably by replacing recalcitrant Serb leaders by more pliable politicians”; d) to contribute “to a spirit of ‘conflict of civilizations’. It has helped recruit volunteers for Islamic terrorist groups”; and e) “to justify what is perhaps the worst of all the genocidal conditions: war.” If I have missed any, or if Diana Johnstone has thought of any more in the meantime, the list can probably be expanded), therefore it must be a false memory.

    ✯ Diana Johnstone has an ideological definition of genocide (“In the world today, few people, including Bosnian Muslims, are threatened by ‘genocide’ in the sense of a deliberate Hitler-style project to exterminate a population-which is how most people understand the term. But millions of people are threatened, not by genocidal maniacs, but by genocidal conditions of life: poverty, disease, inadequate water, global climate change. The Srebrenica mourning cult offers nothing positive in regard to these genocidal conditions. Worse, it is instrumentalized openly to justify what is perhaps the worst of all the genocidal conditions: war.”) This makes any legal definition unnecessary, and preempts any existing one.

    ✯ The background against which events occur (“a radically unjust socio-economic world order euphemistically called ‘globalization'”) preempts any concern about actual events that occur, unless these events are consistent with an a priori premise about which events matter.

    I would not have taken the trouble to respond if Talos had not asked for responses, especially since in many ways the quality of Diana Johnstone’s analysis speaks for itself. Maybe there is some point in doing it, since she offers a concentrated version of several arguments that crop up from time to time. It never ceases to amaze me that there is a group of people who describe themselves as progressives (and who find some part of the left audience willing to accept that description) while in practice so much of their rhetorical effort goes into creating apologies for violent criminals of the extreme right. The implicit logical connection to be made is that anybody who is concerned about US foreign policy or globalisation is required to support any regime that is declaratively against these things. In the same breath, Diana Johnstone tries to preemptively state her worry that she might be “condemned as an apologist for frightful crimes.” She might be, yes.

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