by Perry Meisel
An intellectual revolution is coming to birth in American universities today. It bears the problematic name that attended its Parisian incarnation during the '60s - structuralism - and it promises to displace traditional humanistic ways of interpreting art and experience in virtually every phase of our lives. Structuralism is a method, not a program or an ideology, and its usefulness has begun to change the face of research and discussion in a wide variety of academic disciplines. At the same time, it frees us from asking questions that have no answers - Where is life's inherent meaning? What can I do about alienation? - without risking the usual alternatives of nihilism or solipsism.
Structuralism is a vexing phenomenon. It violates normal expectations about the nature of revolutions in thought because there is no real center to its beginning or, indeed, to its multiple procedures and sometimes contradictory versions - no Newton, no Darwin, no Marx, no Freud; no "Principia," no "Origin," no "Capital," no "Interpretation of Dreams." Instead, a broken series of texts, dates, and personalities. Even the use of the term structuralism is tactless in certain academic circles. Parisian watchdogs tell us now that the structuralist moment has, after all, passed in Paris itself. Indeed, debates within the structuralist community are almost as passionate as those between structuralists and their humanist adversaries. Not only is structuralism embattled as a rising sensibility; it also contains warring factions within itself. So it is perhaps best to speak instead of a structuralist imagination to which various practicing versions of the method more or less conform.
It is an imagination predicated on the inevitability of loss. It realizes that alienation is the timeless and normative condition of humanity rather than its special modern affliction. But this condition does not require us to seek a return to nature in order to overcome our separation from it. It renders that conventional quest naive because our distance from nature is permanent. Even more, the method presumes no inherent qualities in things as they are. It erects instead a view of meaning as a valorized lie, as an organized conspiracy of belief in images designed by men to explain the world in which they live. And because these images are bound only arbitrarily to concepts, they can take on alternative meanings, too. Hence the structuralist imagination offers a trans-psychoanalytic account of why we feel ambivalent about our lives. It intimates a new ethic, one which calls for a willing suspension of belief in the ground on which we presume our values, claims, and commitments to stand.
Structuralism's point of origin is usually designated by the publication in 1955 of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss's South American narrative "Tristes Tropiques," the book that established his fame much as the "Voyage of the Beagle" established Darwin's more than a century before. Other commentators on structuralism take its beginnings from the "Theses" presented by the Prague Linguistic Circle in 1929, though it may be dated even before that to the publication in 1916 of Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure's "Course in General Linguistics." Larger influences - the notion becomes ironic soon enough - may be seen in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.
In any case, structuralist activity was a la mode in Paris by the '60s and a series of books and journals began to institutionalize structuralism there. The structuralist imagination ranged through social sciences like anthropology, political science (Althusser), and psychology (both the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan and the learning theory of Swiss clinician Jean Piaget), to the history of ideas (Foucault), literary criticism (Barthes, Derrida), and the interpretation of film (Metz). The growing prestige of structuralism not only revolutionized the nature of discourse in specific fields. It soon began to demythologize existentialism, that "exasperated compensation of a philosophy," in Lacan's words, "no longer sure of being master of its own motives."
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It is Levi-Strauss's four-volume "Mythologiques" that probably contains the most formulated and explicit of structuralist positions. This enormous catalog of the myths and customs of South American Indian tribes is a model attempt to find the common structures of mind that generate any of its particular manifestations in human culture. Like American linguist Noam Chomsky, Levi-Strauss believes in a kind of "deep structure" that lies behind day-to-day cultural activity, and, like Piaget, he believes that such structures are self-regulating (self-contained and self-balancing like an engine or a gyro) and capable of self-transformation (they persist in a variety of permutations).
These structures are present at the same time in the most complex and the most elementary cultural artifacts and social styles. Basic oppositions on a sensory level, like the raw and the cooked or the sun and the moon, reflect more sophisticated cultural oppositions like married and unmarried in social life or self-generation and parentage in mythology. What is relevant here finally is nothing less than every human thought or action ever committed, for the ambition of Levi-Strauss's project is to discover those neurologic structures engraved, so to speak, in the synapses of the brain itself. In this sense, the bushman and the businessman are identical, and the profoundly democratic assumptions of the enterprise become gratifyingly clear.
At the same time, Levi-Strauss's attitude toward history is a problematic one. Given the diverse nature of life at any given moment in time, our usual notion of history as a narrative movement or unfolding turns out to be an illusion. By portraying events as a series, the historian must select his evidence and organize it into the fiction of a narrative sequence. Thus real history becomes our modern myth par excellence.
Levi-Strauss's project is informed by a general semiotics, the science of signs that is roughly synonymous with structuralism itself. Semiotics, announced by Saussure and systematically extended by Barthes and Milanese semiotician Umberto Eco, holds that all culture can be understood best by means of a linguistic model. We understand the world by means of languages (nonverbal as well as verbal ones) with which we designate and organize the flux of perceptions, emotions, and events which assail us in experience. As Michael Lane of the University of Essex says, "all manifestations of social activity, whether it be the clothes that are worn, the books that are written or the systems of kinship and marriage that are practiced in any society, constitute languages in a formal sense. Hence their regularities may be reduced to the same set of abstract rules that define and govern what we normally think of as language." So a sign is anything that tells us something, anything that yields any kind of meaning at all. To the botanist, for example, the forest is a plentiful text because he has a language or a code with which to read or interpret the vegetable objects that pass before him. The city dweller, by contrast, finds the forest a relatively blank or simple page because he has not discovered a language, an interpretation with which to recognize it. Similarly, to the uninitiated, the sound of jazz is a cacophony of unrelated noises while, to aficionados, it is a text of wonderful richness and coherence.
It is important to stop and think for a moment about what it is that makes up any particular sign. Notice, for example, how the image "pain" has a different meaning in French than it does in English. The fact that the same image can signify two entirely different concepts - bread in French, hurt in English - suggests that any single sign is a compound operation. For something to mean (that is, to be a sign at all), it has to represent the fusion of an image (what Saussure calls the signifier) with a concept (the signified). The image "pain," in other words, has in itself nothing at all to do with the concepts of either bread or hurt. "Pain" signifies these concepts only by virtue of collective agreements in French and English to valorize the image differently in each case. This is Saussurean linguistics, and it is to Saussure that we owe the notion of the arbitrary status of the sign (a notion almost coincidental in time with Einstein's theory of relativity).
Or take, as another example, the face of Louis Lasser. To the uninitiated, it is a signifier of (a) no meaning, (b) Woody Allen's one-time wife and co-star, (c) possibly the woman who did an amusing car commercial last year on television; but to devotees of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," it unequivocally signifies (d) Mary Hartman.
The same kind of operational confusion baffles the hero of Richard Wright's "Native Son." Bigger Thomas has been trained by his religious mother to recognize the image of the cross as a sign for love. But when he is moved from prison to the courtroom one afternoon during his Chicago ordeal, he sees the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan for the first time in his life. His confusion - "That was not right," thinks Bigger, "his eyes wide with astonishment, his impulses deadlocked, trying to remember something" - focuses on the double operation involved in constituting the sign. It calls attention to the way alternative concepts can attach themselves to the same signifier (the sign of the cross means love; the sign of the cross means hate). This ambiguity succeeds in revealing multiple systems of relation and additional codes of meaning attendant on single images.
It is just this aspect of language's nature that allows creative misreadings of classic texts - for example, Iago's remark in "Othello" that "these fellows have some soul," or Emerson's proleptic "The truth lies on the highway." It allows, too, for puns to occur.
From its total perspective on culture, semiotics is in a position to claim that no phenomenon has any ontological status outside its place in the particular information system(s) from which it draws its meaning(s). The existence of an isolated fact is a logical impossibility. We can't even perceive the existence of a particular fact or message if we don't have a competence in the code with which that fact or message speaks its existence. In this sense, structuralism is collectivist, and indebted to Marxism in its assumption that human life is essentially social and relational.
It should come as no surprise, then, that structuralism allows us to talk about language systems as diverse as jazz, the English novel, and television all at the same time. They are all built the same way, with particular codes and subcodes which each of its readers - jazzies, scholars, and viewers - shares with others who possess the same competence. A jazzie may not know about Laurence Sterne while an academic may not know about Bernie Maupin, but each has a place in the peculiar sign network in which it forms a part.
The structural equivalence of riffs in rock music and tropes (figures of speech) in poetry is a good example of the way semiotics can unify our perspective on diverse arts and simultaneously reject naive preconceptions about the status of particular aesthetic forms. Petrarchan tropes, for example, function in the tradition of the sonnet the same way that Chuck Berry riffs function in the history of rock music. Each provides a set of grounding units or conventions in an aesthetic language which future generations have treated as a kind of lexicon, deriving from these conventional figures part of the recognizability of the art that they practice. Both Petrarch and Berry stand at equivalent moments in the history of their respective media, too. Not only is each normally taken to be the originator of a form - the love sonnet and (arguably) rock and roll. Each also stands as a mediator between the cloudy history of a regional art in the past (the Provencal troubadours and the early bluesmen of the South) and the urbane permutations to follow in the future of each form.
The situation is a little different, of course, in the practical criticism of individual works of art. Working analysis must pursue deconstruction before it can pursue semiotics proper. That is, practical criticism has to disassemble the way texts mean so as to reveal the total structure of any given piece of art - to map out the ways aesthetic discourse constructs alternative (and intersecting) vectors of signification. In the process of deconstruction, any figure of speech may be interrogated for the assumptions about knowledge that sustain it.
Deconstruction thereby denaturalizes texts (poems, novels, drama, films, rock, jazz, sculpture, television, and so on) and studies the ways in which the thematic or emotive meanings we normally find in them (e.g., Keats or Hardy is "about" nature, Joni Mitchell "deals with" human relationships, Brando "expresses" existential longing," Jimmy Carter "exposes" his "private" life on TV) are produced by the play of rhetorical figures within the discourse itself.
This radical formalism in structural analysis proceeds from Saussurean assumptions about the collective agreements culture sustains between signifier and signified. Texts really present us only with signifiers, that is to say, with meanings up for documentable grabs. Carter's facial expressions, for example, tease us with any number of possible meanings (a hermeneutic problem paying lots of journalist's bills these days) because they are not signs but merely signifiers. They are images to which we attach now this concept (he has a sense of humor), now that (he is a hard-nosed professional) as we interpret the text of the candidate.
Even television coverage of the Democratic National Convention contained as much self-commentary as any literary or cinematic text. All three major networks focused cameras on Carter as he watched himself nominated for the presidency on television. What he watched, of course, were images of himself watching himself watch himself on TV, like the chain of mirrors in an infinite regress. The "real" Carter was impossible to verify, much less to find, in this spiraling puzzle of signification, perhaps the ultimate media event of Carter's elastic career.
This liberation of the signifier augurs profound consequences for the notion of meaning. No longer does the language of art (or, for that matter, any language at all) function in a one-to-one relation to the world it appears to describe. Instead, texts take on the characteristic of play whereby "for every work" there is, as novelist-critic Maurice Blanchot says, "an infinity of possible variants."
A brief example of this kind of play lies in the opening line of a London Wainwright song: "I saw a businessman on the plain/plane." The subsequent context tells us that the narrator "means" airplane, but the initial phonetic ambiguity (possible because this is a song, not literature) generates a submerged analogy throughout the tune between modern-day jets and tycoons and their imperial forebears in the Wild West. One could argue that Wainwright's tunes often function at their wildest level of meaning precisely this way, where different planes or vectors of signification intersect or collide within a single signifier.
It is just this kind of delight in proliferating meanings that Barthes designates by his notion of jouissance (erotic/aesthetic pleasure), though it is also the kind of sensibility that Levi-Strauss seems to be condemning when he speaks of the "deviance" of literary structuralism in the last volume of "Mythologiques." (This is only one small example of the way the scientific structuralists, among them many literary critics, have faced off against those of Barthesian sensibility).
In any case, though, structuralist activity in criticism alone obviously spells numerous consequences. A sample list would include the treatment of all aesthetic objects in similar ways and the consequent end to once-functional distinctions like high and low, literary and cinematic, primitive and advanced; canon revisions in literature (Wallace Stevens replaces T.S. Eliot; Spenser rises anew as an ironic artificer); a profound caution about notions of progress in the arts and about the status of historical and biographical data in interpretation; above all, an end to value-laden humanism as the dominant mode of criticism itself.
The ironies of Barthesian jouissance indicate the furthest extensions of the structuralist imagination. That the play of a text is premised on the volatile status of the sign reminds us that all language is finally groundless. The natural bond we too often assume to exist between language and the world is, as Saussure claims, an entirely arbitrary one. We can even say that the world exists at the behest of language (though this is by no means a mere or vulgar Hegelianism). Our experience, our reality, is comprised, after all, of the collective and personal representations of the world with which our existence is encoded and thereby granted ontological status. Life comes to resemble a Pynchon novel in which everything makes too much sense rather than too little, and in which the ideology of the Wasteland holds no logic at all.
Inherent in the notion of the sign is a formalized ambivalence about culture itself. The arbitrary bond between signifier and signified speaks, on the one hand, of the collective faith that holds civilization together and, on the other, of the precarious nature of our linguistic condition which jeopardizes all meanings. Moreover, language - everything that signifies - always distances itself from the thing it names in the act of naming it. The world is not present in language at all, for all signs are signs of an absence. Hence our linguistic condition traps us in a perpetual state of "belatedness" (to use poetic theorist Harold Bloom's term) in relation to immediate knowledge, immanence, presence in the world. Like Hardy's mayor of Casterbridge, we all stand aware after the fact, and this belatedness is the signature of our humanity, of our exile from some (equally) mythical Eden in which men and things existed in a prelinguistic harmony, where nature was to be seen - as Emerson demanded - without a mediation.
But signs, of course, lead only to only to other signs, never to origins, essences, presences of any kind. Sealed as we are from the world (including, for example, our instincts, which appear to us through linguistic representations as different as psychoanalysis, appetite, or love), notions of sincerity and authenticity become problematic and priorities fall open to question. Centers, privileged moments, apocalyptic orgasms, mysticisms of the flesh - all this precious modern baggage apparently has to go. Existential notions of selfhood and discovery become naive, and quests for fixed or ultimate meaning become absurd.
So it is by no means coincidental that the structuralist imagination in America arises in a decade that pursues existential myths without believing in them. This new sensibility is precisely the sublimation device that survivors from the '60s have been searching for - hopelessly till now - in order to fill the absence left by disillusion with existential hipsterism. That '60s generation has turned out to be not quite Lost or Beat after all. It was - it is - something we find ourselves without a suitable name for. No name, at least, until structuralism came along and provided one. After all, the real change in our way of thinking didn't happen in the '60s at all. The "adversary" counterculture was simply the full ripeness of the bourgeois humanism of Erich Fromm, Perry Como, and Walt Disney. No, the real change is happening right now in the supposedly empty '70s, quietly to start with in the corridors of universities, and it will bring us eventually to a wholesale renovation of the way we think.
We have already learned to delight in stars and artifacts premised on irony, loss and high self-consciousness - Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Philip Roth, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" - and to dismiss the obligatory critique of the conventional which prevailed during the '60s. The return to conventions we have witnessed recently in rock, jazz, painting, film, and so on, suggests a new concern with lexicons and systems, for their own sakes rather than for the concepts designated by them.
We are, after all, especially sensitive to the lack of a clear or solid relation between signs and what they signify, for Watergate still stands as the grandest metaphor of them all in a list of structuralist intrigues that includes the Hearst case, assassinology, and congressional hermeneutics. Even the old '60s tension between role and reality has now evaporated in favor of the only assumption possible in a post-Watergate era - that the artifice is the only reality available. This Wildean moment in American life bespeaks the connection between the structuralist imagination and contemporary consciousness itself, and may signal a new means to the end of American innocence. We await the consequences of this emerging style of identity.
Originally published in The Village Voice, August 23, 1976