With Hegel, we talked about reality as a social construct. While Hegel believed that reason could build the objective system as sum of subjective positions, more skeptical thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Wittgenstein, as well as Feyerabend and Latour argue that our constructed systems are open and evolving. Today, we will look at Structuralism and Poststructuralism, examining thinkers such as Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes and Foucault, who are concerned with how and why we construct our reality the way that we do.
Structuralism is a movement and method that focuses on social constructs, language games and forms of life, much like late Wittgenstein. Hegel argues that our thinking is composed in terms of self and other. Structuralism sought to understand the life of cultures as a construction of language and system of relationships, influenced by Phenomenology and reacting against Existentialism. Like the Phenomenologists, Structuralists tried to give a scientific account of the human experience. While Existentialism emphasizes the free individual creation of meaning, Structuralism emphasizes the social determination of meaning, such that the individual is largely, if not entirely, determined by the structures in which they participate. In France, Sartre and Levi-Strauss’ disagreement over human freedom became symbolic of the fight between Existentialism and Structuralism.
Two of Popper’s favorite thinkers to hate, Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) had a profound impact on Structuralism. Marxism and Psychoanalysis, which unlike Popper still consider themselves to be sciences, argue that individual life is largely determined by underlying systems, for Marx the economy and modes of production, for Freud the unconscious mind and core drives. Both Marx and Freud argue, like Structuralists, that individuals are largely unaware of the systems by which their actions are determined, similar to Spinoza who argued that free will is an illusion that arises when we are ignorant of the causes that determine our behavior.
We will not extensively cover Marxism or Psychoanalysis in this class, but we will consider Marxist and Psychoanalytic concepts that are relevant to Structuralism. Marx, who took Hegel’s system and turned it upside-down, argued that history is the process of class conflict, of the dialectic between the rich owners and the poor laborers. Society is largely concerned with protecting the property of the owners and maintaining it through control of the laborers by the middle class.
Freud, who marveled at the similarities between his own work and the work of Schopenhauer, argued that behavior is the process of subconscious conflict, of the dialectic between satisfaction and repression. The ego, or self, is the result of the conflict between the id, which seeks gratification, and the superego, which seeks to put the id in check and delay gratification. Both Marx and Freud see a basic opposition painfully and tentatively resolved by a mediating central component, for Marx the middle class who go to college and then work in various careers, for Freud the Ego that forms individual identity by various tactics of compromise. Like Fichte’s Ich, Freud’s Ego is a negotiation of self-assertion and self-denial, much like Schelling and Hegel’s syntheses as compromise of affirmation and negation.
The third theorist who served as the basis of Structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), the Swiss linguist whose work on Semiology, the study of meaning, became very important for later European thought. His lectures between 1907 and 1911 were later published as A Course in General Linguistics. Saussure argued that words stand for concepts, which are sets of things, “apple” standing equally for each thing we gather into our conception of apples. Saussure argued that words are sets of sounds that are defined in terms of difference. ‘Cat’ and ‘hat’ are very similar words, only one of three sounds being different, but cats and hats are very different. We could far more easily confuse the words ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ than we could a cat for a hat (although, as Oliver Sacks well knows, sometimes a man can confuse his wife for a hat).
For Saussure, a sign is a signifier, the sound, image or media as physical component, and a signified, the idea or concept as mental component, like the road sign of Wittgenstein and the turn-signal of Heidegger. Notice that just as Hegel and others argue that the objective is the subjective and the mind is the world, both the physical and mental components are inseparable in the sign. If they are separated, and one or the other isn’t present, we can say that it no longer is the same sign with the same meaning. A road sign on someone’s bedroom wall no longer means what it used to, though if we put it back in its place again it would.
Saussure’s major principle is the arbitrariness of the sign. Just as we would have little trouble distinguishing a cat from a hat but more trouble with the words, for the most part words have no resemblance to the things they represent. The word ‘cat’ is nothing like a cat in shape or sound. Because of this, words that resemble each other can represent things that have little to do with each other, just as things that resemble each other can be represented by words that have little to do with each other, such as ‘cat’ and ‘tiger’. Also, because words, language, and the things that they signify can change, there is no fully fixed signification. There is no fixture of the system even though the system is the fixture, like the Pragmatists argue such as Peirce, who along with Saussure is considered one of the founders of Semiology.
There are exceptions of signs that are not arbitrary, which Saussure calls ‘motivated’. Onomatopoeia, words that imitate sounds, are motivated, such as ‘meow’, ‘zip’, and thus ‘zipper’. In English, letters and words are not presumed to look like what they represent. English and other Romance languages use an alphabet derived via Roman Latin from the Phoenician alphabet.
While scholars accept that the letters of the Phoenician alphabet are derived from picturing individual things, they are in debate over what things inspired which letters, as the alphabet evolved to the point that many of the original correspondences are long lost. Some scholars agree that ‘A’ likely came from the head of a cow or ox, and ‘B’ likely came from a house, both significant to early civilization. Notice that an upside-down ‘A’ resembles a horned animal, and a ‘B’ on its side resembles a building with a flat roof and a doorway in the middle. Similarly, in Chinese entire words can resemble the things they represent, but like the Phoenician based alphabet ancient Chinese has evolved such that there is often little resemblance that can be recognized easily. All of this seems to confirm Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness.
Another type of exception of signs that are not arbitrary are portmanteau, words that are composed of multiple words. While ‘cat’ and ‘nap’ don’t look or sound like cats or naps, a ‘catnap’ does resemble the short naps taken by cats. The word ‘portmanteau’ was itself coined by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice in Wonderland, a text I cover in the Introduction to Philosophy and Logic classes in terms of late Wittgenstein, who enjoyed Carroll’s Alice books and wrote cryptically in a footnote of the Philosophical Investigations, “Compare to a remark of Lewis Carroll’s”, which seems to refer to the poem Jabberwocky. As Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice how to read the poem, he says, “It’s like a portmanteau”. In French, ‘porter’-’manteau’ means ‘carry’-’cloak’, a conjunction which the French and English use to signify suitcase. Other than these sorts of exceptions, Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness holds.
The father of Structuralism, however, was not Saussure but the French Anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009), not to be confused with the inventor of blue jeans who shares the same hyphenated last name. Levi-Strauss said that his three loves were Geology, Marx and Freud. All three seek the hidden layers below that determine the formations above. In 1934 Levi-Strauss and his wife became professors in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and he would often venture into the jungle to meet Amazonian tribespeople, finding their cultures to be more elaborate and complex than he had expected. After the end of WWII, he returned to Paris where he merged the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud and Saussure into a new philosophy of Anthropology he called Structuralism, the search for the universal underlying patterns of human cultural behavior.
Like William James, Levi-Strauss was very much a functionalist, who argued that primitive and modern people share the same mind and behaviors, and that all human behavior is rooted in some utilitarian value. James is considered one of the founders of Psychology just as Levi-Strauss is considered one of the founders of Anthropology. Both are similar to Feyerabend and Latour in their denial of exclusive differences between ancient cultures and modern cultures. However, unlike James, Levi-Strauss argued that there are behaviors which have a symbolic value, the benefits being immaterial and mental rather than material and physical. For Freud, the symbolic, like fantasy, is a strategy of the ego for releasing repressed drives, reenacting the repressed by other means, acting in a way that one wishes to act but cannot, similar to Nietzsche.
Levi-Strauss argued that human beings do not establish absolutes, but form relationships. For example, while a parent might not be perfect or always right, they are in a relationship with a child such that they are in the position of authority. Levi-Strauss’ work was focused on examining the relationships of relationships. A family or culture is a relationship of relationships. While earlier anthropologists argued that identity is a matter of linear descent from a single patriarch, Levi-Strauss argued that identity is a matter of the relationship between families that intermarry, a relationship between two sets of relationships.
Levi-Strauss sought to understand the universal patterns underlying the similarities and differences of sets of relationships. For example, what impact or connection does the relationship of father and son have on mother and daughter, or the relationship of mother and father have on daughter and father or daughter and son? Levi-Strauss noted that these always varied by culture, finding numerous variations between the Brazilian tribes he studied, but he argued that these variations must have an underlying pattern, such that a more relaxed relationship between mother and father might correspond to a more disciplinary relationship between mother and son. While much of these correlations have been called into question by both the psychoanalytic and anthropological communities, Levi-Strauss’ work stimulated further investigations that were foundational for many anthropologists.
The title of Levi-Strauss’ most famous book, La Pensee Sauvage (1962), is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but like Feyerabend and Latour, Levi-Strauss argues that there is no savage mind or primitive thinking, and so it’s title is better translated as “Thinking in the Raw”, or “Raw Thought”. While many think of primitive people as children who have undeveloped minds, Levi-Strauss argues that primitive tribespeople are capable of sophisticated systematization, and that modern people are quite capable of foolish fetishes and totemism. Like Moderns, as Latour would say, tribespeople use logic to classify plants and animals in sophisticated systems that evolve in practice. The famed anthropologist Malinowski similarly argued that tribespeople have all of the operations of modern logic in their languages, and put them into practice with success.
Levi-Strauss borrowed Saussure’s conception of the sign, Freud’s conception of the symbolic, and Marcel Mauss’ theory that primitive culture, like modern culture, is founded on gift giving, which is not only practical but symbolic. Consider the traditional act of marriage being established when a husband gives an expensive diamond ring to his wife, practical as she carries thousands of dollars with her on her hand and symbolic as it shows that she is trusted with this wealth. The symbolic is not impractical, but an extension of the immediately practical into additional cultural significance. Levi-Strauss extended Mauss’ theory to the exchange of words and women in primitive and modern cultures. The patriarchal nature of the diamond ring example here is appropriate. Levi-Strauss later replied to feminist critics who saw this as sexist that matriarchal tribes have similarly exchanged men but that patriarchal exchange of women was unquestionably predominant. It is also possible to imagine women and men equally exchanged by varying tribes. The daughters and sons of the wealthy and powerful are still encouraged to intermarry today.
In his book Totemism (1962), Levi-Strauss argued that totemism, like that of primitive tribespeople who identify with a particular animal as spiritual kin, is very human, as the human mind is metaphoric by nature. We have seen this same idea before with Merleau-Ponty, Lakoff and Rorty. An individual or tribe may value strength or speed, and so relate to similar abilities in the bear or wolf. Totems, central cultural metaphors, are aids to the social process of thought. Just as the word ‘wolf’ serves as a handle for the concept of wolves, the word can be used metaphorically to extend to things that are not wolves, such as a rogue pack of financial advisers. Consider the trickster animals of Native American mythology, such as coyote or crow, who bring the world into existence in spite of their deceptive and playful nature.
Levi-Strauss analyzed mythology in terms of such metaphors in his massive four-volume work, Mythologiques (1964 – 1972). Myths give us metaphors that are symbolic extensions of reality. This is beneficial but also problematic, as it is still today according to Rorty. Metaphors can be used to establish patterns and themes via narratives, what Levi-Strauss called “mythemes”, and this communication of meaning can serve to support traditions or movements. Consider the lion as the animal symbolic of both British empire and Buddhist wisdom. Levi-Strauss, like Freud, argued that myths are often used by cultures to overcome or understand contradictions, a symbolic act which may be conscious or unconscious.
In the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, a famous psychoanalytic favorite, he unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, and so Oedipus expresses the contradiction of both hating and loving one’s family, friends, culture, and humanity. In the ancient Greek myth of Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, her brothers fight for the throne, one slays the other, and she chooses to bury her slain brother rather than obey the law, and so Antigone expresses the contradiction of obeying the universal law and loyalty to the familiar. As Nietzsche argued, this is displayed as a tragedy, a rational strategy for putting what cannot be resolved by reason on display. Levi-Strauss attempted to systematize the similarities of world mythology using these as central examples. We construct mythology as messages to those who will face similar problems and contradictions.
Reacting against Existentialism, Sartre and his circle, Levi-Strauss was joined by Lacan, Foucault and Barthes as Structuralism rose to prominence in French thought. This was immortalized in a 1967 cartoon, The Structuralists’ Lunch Party, which showed the four philosophers sitting on the ground wearing grass skirts. The Structuralists, like the Existentialists, were pessimistic about modern society, but rather than escape culture via free individuality, they chose to understand culture and control by studying pre-modern people. As we turn to Barthes and then Foucault, we will be passing from Structuralism to Poststructuralism, which gave up on discovering universal patterns underlying all cultures but still considers the individual to be a construct of culture.
Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) was mentioned already with Hegel, Heidegger and Bataille. He even married Bataille’s estranged ex-wife. Lacan studied Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger and Jaspers while studying medicine to be a psychiatrist. I mentioned that Lacan attended Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel with Bataille and that he tried to systematize Nietzsche using Freud. Lacan became a psychiatrist in the 1920s, while he was involved with the Surrealists in Paris. His thesis, Paranoid Psychosis and its Relations to the Personality, was an influence on many Surrealists, such as Dali and Breton, both personal friends of Lacan. He was also a contributor to Surrealist journals and Picasso’s personal physician.
Lacan is most famous for his theory of the mirror stage, when as toddlers we form a stable image and conception of ourselves by looking at others and our own reflection, then cling to it in the attempt to resolve the flux and contradictions of our thoughts and feelings, and then repress or redirect whatever does not conform to this image. Much of Continental thought has been influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and Lacan became the central interpreter of Freud for French thought and those influenced by and involved with French thought, such as the Slovenian philosopher Zizek, already mentioned several times.
Lacan’s work centers on narcissism, not merely self-love, as it is often described, but self-obsession. Both the body and the mind are composed of many parts which cooperate. After the young child forms an image of self and begins to cling to it, the child forms narcissistic complexes, forms of excluding self from other that attempt to establish stability in an inevitably insecure situation. The ego is an “inauthentic agency”, concealing its own unstable lack of unity. Note the Heidegger speak. Freud had wondered why narcissism develops early in children but is not present from the beginning, and Lacan believed he had solved this problem with his mirror stage and the formation of self-image.
Narcissism fragments the world in attempting to cling to a coherent self. The fear of self-disunity becomes anxiety, and anxiety becomes paranoia. Disunity and contradiction are projected onto the world and others, away from the self and social selves with which the self identifies. The self establishes its place relative to others as “the Real“, not the whole of reality, but merely a preferred image which is insecure, just like the self-image situated in the Real. To use the Nazis as an example yet again, we could suppose that an SS officer is insecure in his individual identity, and so he chooses to subscribe to Nazi ideology and racism in an attempt to secure his own self and its place in the world. Lacan believed that making this situation transparent to the self is therapeutic, dissolving paranoid narcissistic delusions and obsessions that entrap the static images of self, other and Real.
Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) balanced both Existentialism and Structuralism even as he was one of the four great French Structuralists, in spite of the feud between Sartre and Levi-Strauss. Barthes, who was mostly concerned with the critical analysis of literature, is famous for his pronouncement of “the death of the author”, which is also “the birth of the reader”. Just as Nietzsche argued that life, self and meaning are an open matter of interpretation, Barthes argued that texts can be read in any variety of ways, without fixture of its meaning by the author, the text’s authority. As we read a text, we are not only connecting it to our personal life experience and within our cultural and ideological frame, but we are also critical of the author, reinterpreting their work in light of what we glean about them from the text.
Like Foucault, Barthes was a critic of the idea of “the natural”. Barthes saw in his own day older religious pronouncements about what is “natural” being replaced by political and scientific claims about the “natural”, as well as countercultural calls to return to the “natural” from the modern. Barthes argued that there are no natural pure states, but networks of signification that can be revealed as historical processes and cultural practices. Barthes was loyal to Saussure and his notion of the sign as signifier and signified, and he examined “texts” such as advertisements for clothes and food products, noting that certain fashions were meant to signify luxury, happiness or freedom and certain food products meant to signify health, decadence or satisfaction.
Barthes’ book Mythologies (1957), widely considered to be his best work, is a short set of critical essays focusing on modern day production of mythology and meaning. In the first essay, The World of Wrestling, Barthes argues that wrestlers, not athletes but the entertainers derived from Mexican luchadores, are personifications of good and evil, and each wrestling match is a “spectacle of excess”. Barthes is not attacking wrestling, but examining it as a human expression of meaning, as modern-day mythologizing. The signs and signification are clear, even exaggerated. Barthes writes, “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself”. The crowd wants purified, mythologized justice, and they would rather watch a wrestling match or a detective show than an actual court trial involving a real crime. The symbolic crime and punishment satisfies the displaced need for justice that is not purely obtainable in society. Barthes notes that, in American wrestling, the bad guy is often associated with Communism. When I was young, there were occasional Islamic villains.
In my favorite essay, Operation Margarine, Barthes compares a margarine commercial to propaganda for the French military and colonialism. Very much like a wrestling match, in which the bad guy cheats and seems victorious, only to be bested by the good guy, successful propaganda often puts criticized faults on display, and then has the faulty triumphantly rise over its faults. The Established Order (Barthes’ capitalization, what the Frankfurt School called the Establishment, the powers that be) admits to being flawed, but argues that only it can save us all from these flaws.
Barthes is critical of American movies in which the main character, a likable guy with whom the viewer can identify, joins the army or police, rebels against its conformity, but then, against a greater evil, leads it to victory in the name of good. Only the army can protect us from destruction and war, thus the need for slight confession followed by grand redemption. Barthes compares this to a margarine commercial, in which one housewife is appalled that another has made a mousse, not with butter, but with margarine, a new product at the time which was trying to gain household acceptance. The second housewife replies, “Here, try it!”, and the first says, “Wow, that is good!”, clearly rid of her old irrational prejudice, wealthier and wiser for using a cheaper product.
In the final essay, Myth Today, Barthes lays out his theory of modern mythology after summarizing the Semiology of Saussure. For Barthes, much of the meaning that is circulated in modern times is ideology which can serve as a mask for social contradictions, much as Rousseau wrote that polite society is a mask that conceals brutality and oppression. As a left leaning intellectual, Barthes was particularly concerned with nationalist messages of peace, freedom and equality that conceal class conflicts and colonial domination. The famous example is Barthes’ scornful analysis of the cover of an issue of Paris Match, a French equivalent of Newsweek or Time magazine, that he found in a barbershop. Barthes argues that it is clearly propaganda for French colonialism, the young black soldier’s salute signifying not only loyalty to France, but that the French government and military are loved and supported by Africans, that “all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag”. The boy’s loyalty signifies the faithfulness of France to liberty, equality and community, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, the national motto.
For Barthes, myth is depoliticized speech. This means that only political and revolutionary speech is non-mythological. Barthes, a Marxist, is here in line with Marx’s view that there is objective and scientific understanding, which is Communist and materialist, and there is ideological fiction, which is pretty much everything else. In this, Barthes seems to think Marxism or Communism are incapable of mythology or mythologizing. Barthes writes, “the press undertakes every day to demonstrate that the store of mythical signifiers is inexhaustible”. Barthes saying that only revolutionary political thought is non-mythological is very similar to Positivists saying that only scientific thought is rational or meaningful.
Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) is now a well studied thinker in philosophy, history, sociology and political theory. In his final years he taught at UC Berkeley, and he is particularly popular in this town. His books are critical historical studies of social institutions and practices such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, science and sexuality. Foucault considered himself a Nietzschean and Heideggerian, and his critical philosophy centers on the idea of the human tendency to privilege what is labeled as good while marginalizing and dominating what is labeled as evil. According to the story, Foucault went on vacation to the French Riviera and brought a book by Nietzsche with him, whom he had never read. Foucault then stayed in his hotel room the entire time reading Nietzsche overcome with his criticism of all institutions. Foucault was gay and already a psychiatrist at a time when psychiatry considered homosexuality to be a form of insanity, “gender identity disorder”, which is still applied to transsexuals but no longer homosexuals. Foucault became fascinated with the complexity of the history of good and evil, ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ in the history of psychiatry, ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ in the history of sexuality, ‘legal’ and ‘criminal’ in the history of justice and prisons.
Foucault is deeply critical of any claim to absolute or objective knowledge, distrusts binary dichotomies such as good/bad, true/false, opinion/knowledge or sane/insane, and argues that truth is a struggle between competing forces, institutions and interpretations. Like Barthes, Foucault argues that truth is complex and historical, but ideology attempts to mask this by presenting clear exclusive divisions between opposites. Institutions must support binary divisions to maintain power and pronounce themselves objective holders of genuine knowledge and truth. This bends our view of reality such that the dominant system (religion, science, politics, etc) is simply identified with truth and the messy historical process and evolution of systems of thought is obscured.
On one side, giving an institution the right to distinguish the sane from the insane is quite sane and sober. On the other, when one looks at the complex history of uses and abuses of these categories, one can find much that is outright insanity. Are the institutions sane or insane, just or unjust? How can we know so simply, when these institutions determine their own sanity, their own ability to be good or embody justice and truth? For Foucault, knowledge is always involved with power, just as for Nietzsche truth is always involved with desire. We have all heard ‘Knowledge is Power!’ as a good thing, but for Foucault knowledge is not only enabling freedom, it is at the same time domination and control, a contradiction we and the institution would often like to ignore. Truth is not outside power, but is a thing of this world. Just as for Nietzsche, institutions and their systems of thought grow and thrive on opposition and problems. Foucault held a chair in “History of Systems of Thought”, a position created especially for him.
As mentioned last time, science, such as psychiatry, serves powerful interests while baptizing itself as disinterested objective truth, and the average person believes that they are smart and free for believing what they are told in a magazine rather than understanding the complicated and brutal process of various forms of truth that compete with each other. Foucault believes that we should push for what we want and strive for greater understanding while knowing that we are naturally greedy, abusive, marginalizing, and ignorant. Power is not just a negative thing, but everything, so the form of the bad is the form of the good. Human nature is neither good nor evil, but the two together. This is why Foucault joined Sartre and students in the streets of Paris in the 60s, pushing for a better society, even though Foucault argued in his famous debate with Chomsky that there are no utopias, only societies like this one.
Foucault studied the complicated historical situations when one form of power, knowledge and dominance shifts to become another form as the circumstances change. A dominant theme of his work is that with industrialization people have to learn to police and dominate themselves and the authorities have to convince them that it is their own idea and independence. Marcuse describes something similar in his One-Dimensional Man. Here is Marcuse with his student Angela Davis.
The famous metaphor Foucault uses is the Panopticon, a prison designed by the philosopher Bentham, teacher and friend of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill. The Panopticon is a prison designed so that everyone can see that they are possibly being watched, but they can see little other than this. Never knowing when they are being watched, never seeing their observers, they learn to behave as if they are always being watched, and thus even without any guards they learn to police themselves and be constantly in self-conscious anxiety. Consider current legal issues with police filming everything but opposed to being filmed themselves.
Foucault is concerned with showing the structures of power as they grow from what he calls the capillary level, the tips of the branches, the experiences of individuals, up through the dominant institutions, cultures and identities. Foucault seeks to constantly subvert our perspectives and the institutions, to show that the insanity, brutality and evil that we seek to overcome, that we try to lock away in the asylums and prisons, that we try to barricade against through walls and warfare, becomes the new manifestation of contradiction, the new complex that continuously strives to overcome itself while simultaneously remaining blind to its own actions.