This is the fifth in a series of posts on postmodernism. It follows posts on Nietzsche’s politics and philosophical ideas, on the core ideas of postmodernism, and an introduction and historical background to postmodernism.
A central contributor to postmodernism was the post-structuralist philosophy coming out of France in the 1970s. This in turn emerged from the structuralist thinkers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They took up terms and concepts developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, who had founded structural linguistics early last century.
The politics of language
Saussure’s linguistics rejected the theory of language formulated by John Locke. For Locke language was simply a passive reflection of the world: words are effectively just “phantoms of the material world,” as Karl Marx said, or as Alex Callinicos put it, “meaning is held to consist in the entity outside language to which it refers… ideas are the signs of things and words the signs of ideas” (Callinicos page 26). Ultimately this way of thinking assumes the existence of God, who establishes external meanings and equips individual human beings to identify them.
Marx had a different view. He understood that language, simply capturing and housing information from external reality also shapes that information within our minds. Marx also pointed out that this process is social not individual: language provides a social framework through which individual minds come to grips with the world around them. So language plays a political role, a means for dominant classes impose their worldview, which can be contested by opposing classes.
Like Marx, Saussure recognised that there are no self-evident associations between external things, ideas and words. And like Marx, he saw that meanings are not constructed at the individual level. However, he tended to ascribe to language its own system of meaning, sharply separated off from the rest of society: “a system closed into itself, basking in its own internal coherence”, “like a game of chess” (Sebastiano Timpanaro pages 145-51).
Interestingly, Saussure himself did not think that his linguistics could be applied to other aspects of society. “We are convinced,” he said, “that whoever sets foot on the ground of language is bereft of all the analogies of heaven and earth”. Economic value, for example, is “rooted in things and their natural relations” (quoted in Timpanaro pages 157-8). Nevertheless his concepts were applied to anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, and to the psychology of Jacques Lacan, and were hybridised with Stalinism by Louis Althusser (see here. For a longer critique of Althusser see here). Structuralism also prepared the ground for Derrida’s later assertion that “there is no outside-text”, that language is effectively the only reality.
Claude Levi-Strauss, structural anthropology, and the attack on history
Claude Levi-Strauss is perhaps the most important representative of structuralism. His early work is known for its hostility to Eurocentric racism, which identified the progress of a society with its degree of similarity to the societies of the major western powers. In his book Structural Anthropology he rebutted the crude analogy between cultural development and biological evolution, used to support Eurocentrism. (Levi-Strauss Structural Anthropology page 4) But this became an attack on any concept of historical development, or the analysis of any phenomenon in historical terms.
In reality, phenomena like the Christian church or women’s oppression are irreducibly historical, undergoing qualitative changes over time as part of the wider society. For Levi-Strauss, however, a “detailed history” of any phenomenon is needed precisely to cull its superficial, changeable elements from the supposedly essential, ahistorical core beneath them. “By showing institutions in the process of transformation,” he wrote, “history alone makes it possible to abstract the structure which underlies the many manifestations and remains permanent throughout a succession of events”. This underlying structure consists of humanity’s collective unconscious thought. It provides the key to understanding not just language but “the kinship system, political ideology, ritual, art, code of etiquette, and – why not? Cooking.” (Structural Anthropology page 85). It is valid across times and cultures.
If, as we believe to be the case, the unconscious activity of the mind consists in imposing forms upon content, and if these forms are the same for all minds – ancient and modern, primitive and civilised (as the study of the symbolic function, expressed in language, so strikingly indicates) – it is necessary and sufficient to grasp the unconscious structure underling each institution and each custom, in order to obtain a principle of interpretation valid for other institutions and other customs, provided of course that the analysis is carried far enough…
With surprising rapidity – which shows that one is dealing with an intrinsic property of certain modes of thinking and action – collective thought assimilates what would seem the most daring concepts, such as the priority of mother-right, animism, or, more recently, psychoanalysis, in order to resolve automatically problems which by their nature seem forever to elude action as well as thought. (Structural Anthropology pages 19-23)
This mystical collective unconscious also seems to explain economic forces: “Economic history is, by and large, the history of unconscious processes”. (Structural Anthropology page 23)
Things are as they are because our collective unconscious wants them that way. Women’s fashion, for example,
actually is, in the highest degree, a phenomenon that depends on the unconscious activity of the mind… this seemingly arbitrary evolution follows definite laws. These laws cannot be reached by purely empirical observation, or by intuitive consideration of phenomena, but result from measuring some basic relationships between the various elements of costume. (Structural Anthropology page 59)
Levi-Strauss also strays into irrationalism. In The Raw and the Cooked he talked of “the search for a middle way between aesthetic perception and the exercise of logical thought” and tells us that Richard Wagner, the nineteenth century composer and right wing irrationalist ideologue, is “the undeniable originator of the structural analysis of myths”. (Raw and Cooked pages 13-15)
Liberation has no place within this worldview. The notion that oppressed layers of society might develop a collective, conscious critique of the current social order, then act collectively to overthrow it, simply does not exist. This is structuralism’s greatest legacy to postmodernism.
From structuralism to postmodernism
Structuralism’s denial of historical development reflects its own historical position, flourishing as it did during the years of the post-world war 2 boom when fundamental social change seemed to have stopped forever, summed up in Daniel Bell’s proclamation of the “end of ideology”. (For an excellent summary of this period see chapter 1 of The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Chris Harman 1998.) The stifling conservatism of this era was broken by the mass upsurges of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Every conservative ideology, including structuralism, was thrown up in the air.
When the wave of liberation struggles ebbed in the 1970s, things didn’t return to “normal”. A new world was left in its wake. It was harsher: profit-making involved less productive investment and expansion and more speed-ups at work, welfare cuts, casualisation, and a corporate feeding frenzy around the sale of public assets – all reinforced, and also masked, by globalisation. Yet there was little resistence. Working people felt weak, scared, demoralised, and many drifted away from trade unions or any sense of us-against-them. Among students and intellectuals especially there was a sense that liberation theories had been tested out, and had failed. This was the soil in which postmodernism took root. Structuralist thinkers either adapted to the new circumstances, like Foucault and Althusser, or they were pushed to the sidelines.
The next posts in this series will examine the theories and impact of the most influential postmodernist thinkers, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Sources not hyperlinked in the blog post:
Alex Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism? McMillan 1982
Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology Basic Books New York London 1963.
Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked Jonathan Cape London 1970
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Collins and Sons Glasgow 1964. Also available online.
Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism, New Left Books 1975.