Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism


Structuralism and Anthropology

Although it has long roots, stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century, Structuralism found a home in philosophy and reigned as the leading movement from the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1960s. These rough dates are connected to French philosophy and coincide with the rise of Claude-Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist and philosopher, who changed the way philosophy was read and written. The rise of Structuralism was connected to the desire to make philosophy more scientific and more analytic, more connected to the real world and to remove it from the realm of abstraction and metaphysics and, most importantly, the clutches of humanism. Structuralism was a linguistic movement and a very rigorous means of understanding language by breaking down speech into the smallest possible units and organizing these units in opposing pairs and arranging these opposites into a network of relationships. But the pathway of Structuralism from linguistics to anthropology to philosophy was a long and round-about journey.

The informal education of Lévi-Strauss was eclectic, reflecting his interest in the avant-garde arts, from Stravinsky to Picasso to Surrealism, and his entry into the Marxist politics of his time. For such a cultivated young man, with degrees in law and philosophy, he showed a marked interest in the outdoor life and his hikes in the French countryside caused him to contemplate geology. The very land itself was composed of layers, compressed by time, reminding the young man of Sigmund Freud’s notion of the human mind as a site to be excavated. There was a structure to the meaning of landscape and later in his life, Lévi-Strauss would regard Freud, Karl Marx and geology as his guides into the new field of anthropology. Perhaps it was his interest in the avant-garde post-war culture that led him to ethnology just then under development in France.

Lévi-Strauss spent the Depression years, from 1935 to the onset of the Second World War, in Brazil doing fieldwork. He completed his mission with numerous notebooks and detailed description of the indigenous inhabitants of the relatively untouched territories. Of course, Brazil was hardly “uncivilized” by the mid twentieth century and original cultures had been overwritten or impacted by European colonial rule. But like most Europeans of his time, Lévi-Strauss through that “colonialism” mean the subordination of “less evolved groups” by more evolved societies, and he was typical of his time in assuming that the role of the European anthropologist was to “study” the less evolved. That said, the accepted mode of analyzing the tribal cultures was through kinship, which was assumed to be the key to their social systems. The question was not what to do with the data he had collected, the problem for Lévi-Strauss was how to organize the materials. In other words, what was the organizing principle?

As was typical for his generation, Lévi-Strauss’s career was derailed by the outbreak of the Second World War. For someone who was well-versed in the writings of Karl Marx and in the psychology of Signmund Freud, he was naïve about his Jewishness and was slow in coming to terms to the dangers posed by the Nazi occupation of France. Still at the beginnings of his career, he was lucky enough to be among the Jewish intellectuals allowed to escape to New York, where he began teaching at the New School for Social Research, established to utilize the sudden wealth of scholarship that had washed up on American shores. It was in New York, during his long and fruitful American stay, that Lévi-Strauss met the man who would lead him to his organizing principle–Structuralism–and where he would come across a wealth of anthropological materials that would supersede his work in Brazil.

In New York, Lévi-Strauss was able to join the influx scholars and it was here that he met Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), a Russian linguist who came to America during the war and spent the rest of his life there. Born in Russia, he began his career as a linguist in the school of Russian Formalism and then taught in Czechoslovakia, where he as a member of the well-known Prague School of Linguistics. By the time he arrived in New York, Jakobson, influenced by Ferdinand Saussure had realized that it was necessary to go beyond a diachronic study of words and how language developed over time and to study language synchronically, that is to understand language in terms of structure. Linguistics broke language down into its smallest units, phonemes, or sounds which allowed words to be formed and distinguished one from another. Like the meaning of words, sounds were arbitrary and functioned only to allow the speaker and the listener to differentiate one sound/one word from another: “bat,” “mat,” “cat.” Like the meanings of words, the sounds that made them possible functioned within a structure of relationships or a network which allowed them to perform.

In his series of lectures given in 1942, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, Jakobson stated,

We have pointed out that the distinctive features of the phonemes are strictly appositive entities. It follows from this that a distinctive property never stands alone in the phonological system. Because of the nature, in particular the logical nature, of oppositions, each of these properties implies the coexistence in the same system of the opposite property; length could not exist without shortness, voicing without voicelessness, the acute character without the grave character, and vice versa. The duality of opposites is therefore not arbitrary, but necessary. The oppositions themselves also do not stand alone in the phonological system. The oppositions of the distinctive features are interdependent, i.e., the existence of one opposition implies, permits or precludes the coexistence of such and such other opposition in the same phonological system, in the same way that the presence of one particular distinctive feature implies the absence, or the necessary (or at least probable) presence of such and such other distinctive properties in the same phoneme. Here again arbitrariness has very restricted scope.

Somewhat fluent in English, Lévi-Strauss began teaching at the Free French supported École libre des hates études de New York, where Jakobson was teaching, and at Barnard, and, in the midst of his reorientation to a new country, he reconnected with the Surrealists, fellow émigrés. Is is a measure of how much his English improved, probably due to his hours of study in the New York Public Library, that Lévi-Strauss began to write in English. According to his biographer, Patrick Wilcken, he found the writings of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), a biologist, a zoologist, a mathematician whose most famous book was On Growth and Form. This book pointed out that nature and its many shapes could be organized aesthetically and intellectually in terms of mathematical constructs. In other words, beneath the accumulations of nature and all of its variety was a core principle that organized its morphology.


The Library of Claude Lévi-Strauss with 6, 500 volumes

Thanks to his discovery of Thompson’s 1915 book, Lévi-Strauss was open to learning of a way in which to organize his cultural accumulations of his work on kinship. Jakobson, who introduced him to the idea that small units (of anything) acquired meaning only through the system of relationships and suggested that Lévi-Strauss might be interested in Saussure’s Cours de linguistic générale (1915). Lévi-Strauss was able to take Saussure’s idea of langue which is the structure that rules speaking and parole, or actual speech acts and substitute a structure for kinship which would contain actual case studies or examples. Through the close friendship with, Lévi-Strauss was able to not only organize his existing (old) work but also to begin his seminal work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). The stage was set for Lévi-Strauss to return to France with a new organizing principle for his future work and a new method that could be applied beyond the “scientific” field of linguistics, when he returned to France in 1948.

Because he carried with him a new mode of analysis and the conviction that the “structure” of kinship was the product of an entire way (structure) of thinking, Lévi-Strauss was poised to be in a unique position in post-war defeated Paris where there was a chance for new ideas to be heard by a new post-war generation. Although he was out of step with the new Hegelian thrust of philosophy, he found new allies, such as psychologist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), who realized that language, if structured, also structured the unconscious mind itself and with that insight changed the way in which Freud was understood. The Elementary Structures of Kinship focused on the presumed (and since discredited) universality of the incest taboo Lévi-Strauss, teaching at the Sixth Section of the École pratique des hautes études, shifted his interest to myths and their structure, which, like kinship, demonstrated a system of thinking. Mythic thinking was a mode of symbolic thought.

The Structural Study of Myth,” (1952) which applied Structuralism to mythology, attempted to show that all myths, regardless of originating culture, could be structured along binary lines. Instead of the phonemes of language, Lévi-Strauss used “mythemes” or the organizing principles for storytelling. These mythemes could be organized in paired opposites, bringing order to the multiple local myths and suggesting a universality of human thought. Using a horizontal to track temporal changes in myths and a vertical track the recurring themes, Lévi-Strauss mapped out the structure of mythologies around the world in terms of bundles of relations. Neither the symbolism nor the meaning of these myths was important–an important anti-humanist and anti-subject assertion–only the structure of these myths was significant. Myth, then, was a language, constructed by the bricoleur or the myth maker, who gathered elements already ready to construct the myth. In other words, in another blow to humanism, myths have no author; myths are composed of recycled materials which work on the “composer.”

The idea that the myth worked the culture rather than the other way around is Lévi-Strauss’s own “Copernican Revolution,” dating back to the insights he gained from Jakobson in New York. In 1977 he participated in a series of radio interviews entitled “Myth and Meaning,” which begins with a statement by Lévi-Strauss to the effect,

You may remember that I have written that myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him. This has been much discussed and even criticized by my English speaking colleagues, because their feeling is that, from an empirical point of view, it is utterly meaningless sentence. But for me it describes a lived experience, because it is exactly how I perceive my own relationship to my work. That is, my work gets thought in me unbeknownst to me. I never had and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no “I” no “me.” Each of is a crossroads where things happen. The crossroads is purely passive, something happens there. A different thing, equally valid, happens elsewhere. There is no choice, it is just a matter of chance.

Between 1964 and 1971, four volumes of Mythologies were published to great acclaim. In between he also wrote and published Tristes Tropiques (1955), a memoir of his time in Brazil and The Savage Mind (1962). Over a period of innovation, Lévi-Strauss had taken the old biological term “physical anthropology” and applied it to culture as “structural anthropology,” known as “Structuralism.” By the early 1950s, young scholars were attending his lectures and his structuralism or his structural take on culture was seen as a way in which to make the analysis of other fields as systematic as science. Essentially Structuralism purported to locate a framework that made communication of ideas possible, and, if it were the case that language was structured then literature was likewise structured then Structuralism was a useful tool in understanding any form of written communication. Furthermore, Structuralism, as designed by Lévi-Strauss, allowed many disciplines to analyze their own products from the perspective of critique. Suddenly intellectual writings descended from the realm of mystic truths and entered into the investigations of active readers, who would delve beneath the depths of surface statements and find the rules that determined the text. There is an underlying assumption, within the formal strictures of Structuralism, that the communication was bounded and that the text was unified and therefore had a center.

In the hands of Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism was, like the philosophies of post-war scholars, an amalgam of multiple sources: the writings of Marcel Mauss, the a priori categories of Kant, the materialism of Marx, and the linguistics of Eastern Europe. That said, all these sources, including Freud, were based upon models, from Kant’s architectonic thinking, Marx’s dialectal materialism and Freud’s tripartite mind and linguistics oppositions. The up and coming scholars, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida, took note of the ideas of Lévi-Strauss as a form of cultural critique but it was just a matter of time before Structuralism itself could not remain immune to the impulse toward internal analysis. The formal assumptions of Structuralist models would be questioned and challenged even before the uprisings of May 1968 brought everything into question. But in order to interrogate the existing order of philosophy, the new generation had to go through the formidable Claude Lévi-Strauss.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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How Structuralism Became “Post”



Every society has its songs, its dances, the stories it tells, the myths it makes, the histories it writes. Every culture has ways of loving and mating, way of forming families and raising children. Each tribe has its taboos and stipulates what is permitted, what sort of behavior is desired, what kind of clothing to be worn, what kind of food can be cooked. These myriad practices, seen in every social system, from the caves to the Internet, are cultural, not natural. Although the shaping of a society by its people is a universal practice, every group has its own distinct and unique ways of being. But despite the specificity of the time and place–the marked differences between the Roman Empire and the British Empire–Structuralism seeks a universal underlying pattern, a deep structure that can reveal that which is timeless about human construction of culture.

The first manifestation of what would be termed, much later, as “Structuralism” flickered in the work of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) a pre-Kantian historian who, as an Italian scholar examined ancient Roman culture through what he called The New Science (1725/1744, edited in 1928). Vico was a transitional writer, aware of the limitations of assigning all events in history to the workings of a Divine being, while remaining deeply religious; aware of the secular limitations of Descartes’ proposition that human beings possessed a priori innate modes of thinking, put in place by God. Writing at the dawn of the Enlightenment, Vico sought to find a middle ground between individual agency and universal forces. His efforts led him to study culture itself and in do doing he proposed, long before Georg Hegel or Karl Marx, that history moves in terms of what would later be termed “dialectics” with barbarism and civilization ebbing and flowing, one following the other.

Interested in how nations formed from cultural world views, Vico proposed that cultures emerged from what he termed “poetic wisdom” (sapienza poetica), which had many offshoots, such as “poetic morality,” which is to be opposed to modern reason and philosophy. Out of needs Vico considered “natural” and inspired by Providence, early societies explained themselves in terms of myths and songs, but these societies would develop and, over time, human history would advance in stages. Vico had developed a “science” of human history, the “physics of man,” which he understood in terms of the symbols, myths, and metaphors. What is significant about Vico and why he is important to contemporary Structuralism is that he understood that human beings, in telling tales through symbolic acts, were creating not just their cultures but also themselves. Vico’s works were not important in his own time but by the 1820s, The New Science was translated into German and French and began impacting philosophical thought.

The leap from Vico’s “poetic wisdom” of the eighteenth century to the modern Structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was marked by Kant’s Copernican Revolution that the mind created the world, not the other way around, and the concept of the Dialectic–Ideal on the part of Hegel and Material on the part of Marx. In contrast to Kant’s concept of i priori structures that governed epistemology, the formation of knowledge about the world, Piaget, in his study of children, found that the behavior changes with maturation and that over time a structure is formed in response to society’s needs. The structure, he posited, is all-encompassing, that is, it creates an entire frame for society that is coherent, and that this structure changes over time. The structure which is transformational and responsive to changing conditions, but, as Piaget, pointed out the framework is sealed or bounded. The structure rules itself from the inside and–to stress an important point–exists solely in terms of relations among the elements that exist in its boundaries.


Michel Foucault Lecturing to BarthesLacan, and Lévi-Strauss

It is with Saussure that Structuralism and consequently philosophy took a “linguistic turn,” for, as is obvious, culture works though language, its only tool. Therefore it is language, the only human means of expression (literature, songs, music, dance), which must be studied in terms of its internal structure. By the early twentieth century, linguistics moved to the fore and culture was regarded as an entity to be “read” with effects manifesting themselves in the world of art history with the writings of Erwin Panofsky and with the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) both of whom were at the Library of Cultural Sciences, also known as the Warburg Library after its founder Aby Warburg. During his time at the Hamburg Library, Cassirer, a Kantian philosopher, wrote three volumes, Philosophy of Symbolic Form (Die Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen), between 1923-29, with a fourth being published after his death. Volume 1: Language; Volume 2: Mythical Thought; Volume 3: The Phenomenology of Knowledge; Volume 4: The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms). Like Vico and Piaget, Cassirer perceived of culture as progressing as society progressed, because human culture progressed, a liberal humanist stance that was bound to be disappointed.

Linguistic utterances–human symbolic expression–evolves throughout time from elementary or what Vico termed “primitive,” thinking to modern modern ways of thought which favored reason. Cassirer, however, used different categories of speech to explain different ways of thinking, all of which exist at the same time in any society. These ways of thinking, modes of thought, fulfilled very different needs and performed distinct functions. The foundation of symbolic thought was that which Cassirer termed “expressive” (Ausdrucksfunktion) in which humans could not see the distinction between reality and myth, or between the actual world and the stories that people tell to explain that world. The practice of representation (Darstellungsfunktion) exists at a higher level and devotes itself to the pragmatic existence in the here and now. The final category of thought, termed “signative” (Bedeutungsfunktion), or the practice of conceptual signification, was completely disconnected from real life and existed only in the abstractions of science and mathematics.

Each mode of thought, Cassirer asserted, had its place and each was equally valuable, and no one way of thinking should be elevated above another. He understood that myth, like science, was a way of explaining the world, but Cassirer also came to think of mythic thought as regressive and, in the case of the Nazis, even dangerous. While he was writing his magisterial three volumes, he also wrote a small book, Language and Myth (Sprache und Mythos) in which he placed the origin of language in myth. Myth is a purely symbolic/expressive form of language but language itself evolved away from mere expression to a more descriptive and exact denotation or pragmatic function. But because humans are symbol-making creatures animal symbolicum), we cannot/do not use words to “copy” the world but to “represent” the world symbolically. At whatever level it is working, mythic or symbolic, the mind creates the world. As Cassirer said,

The fundamental concepts of each science, the instruments with which it propounds its questions and formulates its solutions, are no longer regarded as passive images of something, but as symbols created by the intellect itself.

In this position, Cassirer was a pure Kantian, evoking the Copernican Revolution, which was, he asserted, the only way to avoid the “self-dissolution” of knowledge unfounded in palatable reality that is, at the same time, not totally dependent upon forms “outside” the mind. There are no forms outside the mind. As Cassirer stated in Language and Myth (1946),

Instead of taking them as mere copies of something else, we must see in each of these spiritual forms a spontaneous law of generation; an original way and tendency of expression which is more that a mere record of something initially given in fixed categories of real existence. From this point of view, myth, art, language and science appear as symbols; to in the sense of mere figure which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in the sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own. In these realms the spirit exhibits itself in that inwardly determined dialectic by virtue of which alone there is any reality, any organized and definite Being at all. Thus the special symbolic forms are not imitations but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension, such as such is made visible for us. The question as to what reality is apart from these forms, and what are its independent attributes, becomes irrelevant here. For the mind, only that can be visible which has some definite form; but every form of existence has its source in some peculiar way of seeing, some intellectual formulation and intuition of meaning. Once language, myth, art and science are recognized as such ideational forms, the basic philosophical question is no longer that of their relation to an absolute real it which forms, so to speak their solid and substantial substratum; the central problem now is that of their mutual limitation and supplementation. Though they all function organically together in the construction of spiritual reality, yet each of these organs has is individual assignment..Man lives with objects only in so far as he lives with these forms; he reveals reality to himself, and himself to reality, in that he lets himself and he environment enter into this plastic medium, in which the two do not merely make contact, but fuse with each other.

After Cassirer, contemporary Structuralism split into two major “camps.” First, if one followed Cassirer’s logic, then philosophy itself it but a symbolic form born of language and should be understood in terms of linguistic structure. Second, if myth is, as Vico and Cassirer claimed, the basis for language, then myth itself needed to be reexamined by contemporary philosophy. That would be the task of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his version of anthropology as analyzed through the lens of Structuralism, as discussed in the post “Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Art and “Thick Description,” Part Two



Gathered together at the Warburg Library and impacted by the neo-Kantian revival in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer created diachronic analyses of cultural symbols from the perspectives of psychology and semiotics respectively. Byron Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good commented in “On the ‘Subject’ of Culture. Subjectivity and Cultural phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz,” that Geertz’s anthropological works are..

..grounded in the work of Ernst Cassirer and his vision of “symbolic forms” as mediating between Kant’s a priori categories of mind and the perceived world, actively constituting “image worlds” (in Cassirer’s terms) of language and myth, religion, art, history, and science. But all of this becomes an ethnographic theory of subjectivity when made local..

It is their colleague, Erwin Panofsky, however, who was closer to Geertz, because Panofsky’s art historical approach was synchronic and, inspired by Fernand de Saussure, semiotic. As Michael Ann Holly pointed out a quarter of a century ago, Panofsky’s method has been drained of what we might call its “thickness” by his followers who thought in terms of decoding symbols rather than interpreting a culture. Few followed Panofsky and took his idea past iconography into iconology, except for the art historian, Michael Baxendall, who is Geertz’s guide to understanding art through his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. In Local Knowledge, Geertz maintained he relied upon Baxendall who “takes precisely the approach I here advocating. Baxandall is concerned with defining what he calls the “period eye.” Geertz continued, “The famous solidity of Renaisance painting had at least in part its origins in something else than the inherent properties of planar representation, mathematical law, and binocular vision.” Baxendall, he noted connected “the moralism of religious preaching, the pageantry of social dancing, the shrewdness of commercial gauging, and the grandeur of Latin oratory.” Geertz described “the painter’s true medium” as “The capacity of his audience to see meanings in pictures.”

Just as Panofsky attempted to recover the medieval mindset or “mental habits and controlling principles” in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Baxendall recreated the particular Renaissance worldview through Piero della Francesca’s paintings. In Studies in Iconology, Panofsky referred to Cassirer’s conflation of cultural symbols and symptoms. He warned that the historian must make sure the intrinsic meaning of the work be checked by relating it to other like works. What Panofsky called “mental process of a synthetic and subjective character,” which engender meaning is that which ultimately interests Geertz, but we must not think in terms of a diachronic zeitgeist. Geertz created a thick description of a limited number of acts and actors, who, while speaking thought a culture, can speak only out of themselves and within their own time. As Geertz wrote in his chapter on “Thick Descriptions,”

Theoretical formulations hover so low over the interpretations they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest apart from them. This is so, not because they are not general (if they are not general, they are not theoretical), but because stated independently of their applications, they seem either commonplace or vacant.

The thick description of a local culture at a specific point in time can be compared–and Geertz did–to early Michel Foucault’s notion of the épistemé, but with caution. Certainly thick description sounds like the Foucauldrian archive. Although Foucault rejected a seamless diachronic view of cultural progress, he still examines cultures over time, albeit time disrupted and ruptured. Nevertheless, Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) suggested that gaps and lacunae in knowledge need to be expected and accepted, making the inevitable “thinness” of “thick description” understandable. Geertz thought in terms of “cultural texts” or public texts that are representational and durable. In Local Knowledge he stated,

The key to the transition from text to text analogue, from writing as discourse to action as discourse, is, as Paul Ricour has pointed out, the concept of “inscription:” the fixation of meaning.

Any art historian laboring in historical archives is aware that the most careful collection of primary sources can produce only a product that looks like a sponge—more of less thick and full of holes, like Swiss cheese. While Geertzian method is obviously consequential to a historian working within a Panofsky-esque framework, several questions come up. First, art historians could be more precisely classified by working method. Anyone attempting to recreate an archive of a dead culture is traveling into the past—“a foreign country”–as David Lowenthal expressed it, and is thus working as an anthropologist. Whether or not one wants to boldly go where Baxendall goes, that researcher is more precisely a cultural historian, working though Panofsky to Geertz, recreating a thick, ultimately semiotic, description. Panofsky stated that

Every historical concept is obviously based on the categories of space and time…The cosmos of culture, like the cosmos of nature is a spatiotemporal structure…the succession of steps by which the material is organized into a natural or cultural cosmos is analogous, and the same is true of the methodological problems implied by this process. The first step is, as has already been mentioned, the observation of natural phenomena and the examination of human records. Then the records have to be “decoded” and interpreted, as must the “messages from nature” received by the observer. Finally the results have to be classified and coordinated into a coherent system that “makes sense.”

The combination of history and semiotics has attracted the attention of the New Historicists to Clifford Geertz, but what of the oxymoronic contemporary art historians? The Geertzian method removes the false dichotomy between fine and popular art—that much is obvious—but his method also breaks the confines of visual culture and transforms the historian into a cultural observer, into an anthropological watcher, who investigates and records and describes–like Honoré Balzac. As with any good researcher, all preconceived ideas, all assumptions, all theories, all hoped-for outcomes must be abandoned at the entrance of the project. For example, a study of contemporary museum practices is not Geertzian, when those practices are critiqued. A simple, careful, and methaphorically rich thick description of the cultural conditions should suffice. Clifford Geertz did not do systems analyses, for he is seeking a culture’s episteme of which the system is merely a symptom of a particular mode of thinking.

Geertzian methodology suggests that art historians need to research further afield, outside of the presumed arena of art history, if s/he wants do produce a “thick description.” A “thick description” replaces formalism, connoisseurship, and all other narrow viewpoints, with a broad cultural perspective re-created out of Wittgensteinian “bundles of family resemblances.” In “The State of the Art,” Geertz remarked that

…the conjoining of History and Anthropology is not a matter of fusing two academic fields into a new Something-or-Other, but of redefining them in terms of one another by managing their relations within the bounds of a particular study: textual tactics.

Moreover, Geertz always used the time-honored Warburgian method of compare and contrast in order to thicken and bring his description to life and to account for the change of meaning through use over time. Geertzian culture is always local, that is limited, and the scope of his research is always narrow and modest. An art historian or cultural historian has the luxury the cultural observer does not. For the cultural historian, time stands still, and the selected slice can be thickened over years of archival research. For the cultural observer of—say the art scene—-the moment is fleeting, and Pierre Bourdieu’s “field of cultural production” must be seized in the immediacy of its “habitus.”


The Arnofini Portrait (1425)

For both kinds of art historians, interpretation is the goal, but the overriding question is when to stop this interpretation. When Panofsky heard an over-interpretation of Arnolfini’s “identity,” in the so-called Arnolfini Portrait he reported,

I was dumbstruck, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck to my mouth..There is, however, admittedly, some danger that iconology will behave not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astronomy. There is, I am afraid, no other answer to this problem other than the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense.

From Panofsky’s perspective, the Portrait was a “symbolic form,” a portrait, if you will, of a shift in European culture: away from a religious or spiritual world view to a more materialistic or secular perspective on society. Like the Merode Altarpiece, the Wedding Portrait is replete with “disguised symbolism,” or ordinary objects that, in their very domesticity, hid spiritual meanings. The practice of “hiding” God in actual life was in itself a “symbolic form” of thinking and therefore of art itself which reflected this epistemology. Panofsky’s colleague, Ernst Cassirer understood that humans invested, not just language but all objects, with meanings. Those meanings, according to his three volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms were never fixed but were always mutating within the culture. Relativity means here, unfixed and evolving as the society requires and “reading” works of art like “texts,” not as objects bounded by formal thinking depends upon “thick description.” Clifford Geertz followed in the footsteps of Panofsky who followed the thinking of Cassirer, moving from Iconography to Iconology; and it is here, somewhere between Symbolic Forms and Iconology, that the anthropologist slipped himself and his thick description between philosophy and art history. The result is a traunche of contemporary thought with thick description at its core.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Art and “Thick Description,” Part One



“Art, Clifford Geertz once remarked, “is notoriously hard to talk about.” However, Clifford Geertz provided art history with a way to talk about art through material culture. A term familiar to anthropology, “material culture” means the construction of what Geertz termed a “thick description” of a local culture by a detached observer, usually an anthropologist or sociologist, using—of course–the method developed by Geertz himself. A material analysis of a culture encompasses that culture’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts for the purpose of semiotically reading a particular event at a singular point in time. The semiotic reading, as Geertz said, cannot be accomplished without the creation of a “thick” or multilayered, “description” of the conditions that make not just the production of meaning but also meaning itself possible. The ultimate outcome of a “Thick Description,” a slice of a culture, goes beyond a thin or shallow semiotic linguistic reading and seeks to understand the way a society thinks. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz stated,

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.” In comparison “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Jacques Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study. For the study of art history and aesthetics, the word “local” becomes key in relation to a Geertzian understanding of art. In Local Knowledge, Geertz asserted that

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter..

But what is the significance of Material Culture to the study of the history and the philosophy of art? In the best Foucauldrian fashion, one must begin by noting what material culture is not. First, material culture is not connected in any way with Marxism. In fact, Marxism is never mentioned in the discourse of material culture, except to note in passing that Marxists object to Geertz’s lack of attention to issues of class and power.

Geertz 1

Marxism, whether vulgar, reflexive, neo, or what have you, is a theory, which analyzes a social system from the perspective of that determining engine, economics in general and capitalism in particular. Marxism is a critique of wealth, power, and class oppression. Second, an anthropologist never critiques or judges a culture, nor does s/he have a political or activist agenda—ideally—that is. Marxism also operates in terms of the dialectic: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, critiquing the teleological movement, the dynamic movement, of historical forces over time. Material culture, in contrast, is not a theory. As Geertz commented in his book Local Knowledge,

..purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life..

Geertz never worked out or revealed a theory; rather material culture is a method of study, observation, and elucidation. Finally, the Geertzian method must be synchronic and can never be diachronic or caught up in time. The importance of the synchronic was explained by William Sewell in his chapter on Geertz, “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in that the anthropologist,

..adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony. In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

Next, since material culture is a method, not a theory, the procedure stands apart from both modernist and postmodernist theories, while at the same time making use of their theoretical insights. The young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, began omnivorously consuming, appropriating, and employing a whole array of new ideas tumbling out of that 1960s merging of philosophy and literary theory. Long before the term “blurring the boundaries” of disciplines sunk to genuflected jargon in art history, Geertz found inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Michel Foucault. Geertz built a stratified, or thick description, of an object in culture in order to interpret it semiotically in a fixed fashion, but Geertz turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein who unfroze meaning by declaring, in Philosophical Investigations,

For a large class of cases–though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning,’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

Indeed Geertz attributed his position to

..that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.” The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

..cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.

The quotation on meaning and its “use” by Wittgenstein comes from his Philosophical Investigations, “Part 1, Section 43,” as published by Basil Blackwell in 1953. Elaborating upon the ideas of Geertz, Eric Kline Slverman’s essay, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?” noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture. In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text..His textual metaphor emerges from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations. Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework. He was particularly influenced by Susan Langer..Geertz defines cultural symbols as medals of and models for social reality.

Although Geertz was sometimes lumped together with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, his project is not to read texts but to write texts. Indeed Silverman stated that “Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.” Geertz said in Local Knowledge that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them..

However, Geertz embraced the postmodern notion that academic and scientific writing is a form of literature or écriture, and he wrote deliberately in a metaphorical style, embracing the Lyotardian concept of the “figure” in the “discourse.” It not that Geertz read Derrida, it is that one can do a Derridan reading of a Geertzian text. Certainly, there is a degree of Kristvian intertextuality in Geertz, but, for a field ethnographer, a word far more suitable than “intertextuality,” would be “connections” or what historian Wilhelm Dilthy called “connectedness” or “context” (Zusammenhand) or Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” among cultural elements. Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness..are contextual. One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death. One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning. On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts. Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Geertz accepted the postmodern concept of a consciousness that is socially and linguistically constructed, but he did so via Emmanuel Kant by way of Ernst Cassirer with a drive-by for Foucault. For Geertz, the individual, or Foucault’s fictive “Man,” was never the object of study. A person is but an actor situated within a thick cultural matrix, acting and reacting, with limited agency, out of pre-existing cognitive structures, a priori producing culture. Marxists, feminists, postcolonial critics have, rightly, criticized Geertz for not including the voices of the dispossessed. The voices of women, for example, cannot be retroactively added to field research for each thick description is bound up in a synchronic moment in time. It can be stated with or without kindness that Geertz was creating his notion of “thick description” in a time in which women and people of color were silenced in philosophy at the very time when they were vocalizing loudly in the streets. It is possible that, with later anthropologists, once silent voices can be included only in a later thick description. That said, at the time, the scholars who surrounded Geertz or who commented on his theories seem to be more interested in the theory than in the practices. According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

..thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it. A thick description thus could be exceedingly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames..Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Clearly, Geertz, like many of his generation was formed from a mélange of cultural forces swirling around during the 1960s. During this fertile period, decades of thinking coalesced and philosophical ideas that dated back to the beginning of the century began to be assimilated and, having been digested, began to emit descendants in further thought. In his way, Clifford Geertz was a prototypical Postmodern thinker who assembled a coalition of concepts that allowed him to further anthropology and to take the new field in new directions, combining field work with philosophy, specifically semiotics. Material culture became a way to “read” a society like a text, but part of any society is its works of culture–art objets. Given a broad mandate as an anthropologist, Geertz would turn his attention to art and delved into the links between art history, art historians, philosophy and semiotics and philosophy–a complex combination of text and image, discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier


From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “ is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Julia Kristeva and Abjection



Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror (1980/1982) was a turning point in her career and in postmodern theory because she re-located the origin of psychoanalysis in the notion of abjection. Following in the footsteps of Luce Irigaray, this book was written expressively, in a “lightning style” and explores the psychoanalytic status of the Mother in terms of “horror,” “love,” melancholy.” There are things that are repulsive and horrible in life, things that are grotesque and formless, but what is their status? Stabbing with her pen, Kristeva replicates the powers of horror itself in her essay, “Approaching Abjection,”

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark re-volts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds—on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

Kristeva decided to write about that which is been repressed, of that at which one does not want to look or smell or experience–the skim on milk, fingernail parings, waste, cadavers and so on. She contrasts the ob-ject to the ab-ject, which is connected to the Freudian mechanism or process of repression, denial and repudiation that are part of the formation of the human subject. She explained,

The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing..Instead of sounding himself as to his “being,” he does so concerning his place: “Where am I?” instead of “Who am I?” For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, fold- able, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject—constantly question his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.

For Kristeva, the abject is part of one’s personal archaeology or buried consciousness. Abjection is part of the earliest and forgotten struggle to separate from the mother who is reluctant to recognize the realm of the symbolic or the law of the Phallus. Before the intervention of the Symbolic, there is a prior impulse compelled to expel the Mother and the mother becomes the Abject. But the symbolic (intervention of the Father between the mother and child) alone is not enough to ensure the separation. In order for the child to become detached from the mother, the Mother must be abjected: “The abject would thus be the object of primal repression.” The Mother is gradually rejected through rituals of cleanliness, toilet training, eating habits and so on. Although through these lessons in “horror,” the Mother is abjected, in signifying horror, reconciliation with the maternal body is possible.


Julia Kristeva (1941-)

The human subject is founded upon the imposition of the Symbolic Law of the Father and the abjection of the mother to prevent incest. Inspired by the rejection of the maternal body, the (unstable) prohibition of incest includes autoeroticism and is located in what Kristeva, borrowing a term from Plato, called the chora. Imagine the chora as a receptacle, a place where the repressed is pent up. The chora will, of course, return, but it is held in tenuous check by the sign or the image the subject has formed narcissistically of itself. As a result the abject is a “crisis of narcissism.” Kristeva asserted,

The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away—it assigns it a source in the non-ego, drive, and death. Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new signifiance. The abject is related to perversion.

Kristeva asserts that sex and violence form the primal intersection for humanity, and women are the victims of the symbolic order. The Murder of the Mother and the Prohibition of Incest is the precondition of the emergence of human subjectivity and the formation of society. The division or separation of mother and child makes up the two sides of the sacred. There would be no sacred if it were not for the ritual murder performed symbolically to prevent incest. For the Mother to not be the object of desire, she must be abjected and associated with menstrual blood, hair, and bodily wastes. Maternal milk binds the child to the mother and becomes the sign for incest. Because pollution outside the body threatens the identity of the body, these extrusions of the body render the body indistinct and ambiguous and the body must be subjected to ritual acts to ward off defilement.

Kristeva’s theories on the Maternal are ambiguous. First, as a theorist, she was deeply implicated in the male-based intellectual discourse of post-war Paris and her “feminist” credentials are unclear, and second, if, like Irigaray and other women of that era, she is entangled in Freudian-Lacanian theory to what extent can she ever theorized an independent existence for the female? Is Kristeva explaining, in theoretical language, the very real ways in which women are abjected in society: the prohibition of the advertising of “female” products on television until after ten in the evening, male demands that all female body hair be exfoliated, and the collective horror over menstruation, and so on? Or is she simply discussing the psychology of language in a way that in elaborating Lacan foregrounds the abject, an unwritten but necessary element in the formation of the subject?

As John Lechte pointed out in his book on Julia Kristeva, Kristeva privileges menstrual blood and excrement, which stem from the Maternal or the Pre-Symbolic. This abject is not controlled by the Symbolic but by energy drives. Abjection becomes internalized through language and spoken through the symbolic order. Lechte stressed the liminal condition of the abject: it is neither inside nor outside–human waste, properly not seen, is suddenly expelled. But excrement, like mother’s milk is privileged for it is part of the inside/outside which marks off the boundaries of the human body. Over time, there is a steady repression of the maternal element in favor of a political and social rationality of the subject and of the society. The abject becomes the dark side of narcissism: the ambiguous, the in-between, the unassailable, in other words, all that has had to be repressed for the subject to separate from the mother and to enter into society. But even though it is deposited in the chora, the abject defies boundaries, is resistant to unity, and disturbs the identity, order, and system that is necessary to create the subject. To maintain these tenuous boundaries, the abject is objectified or projected forward and away onto, as Kristeva said, the corpse, waste, filth, the traitor, the liar, the criminal, the rapist, the hypocrite, the amoralist and other social undesirables.

As Kristeva explained in Revolution in Poetic Language,

The chora is not yet a position that represents something for someone (i.e., it is not a sign); nor is it aposition that represents someone for another position (i.e., it is not yet a signifier either); it is, however, generated in order to attain to this signifying position.

The chora is the maternal receptacle for that which has been repressed/abjected and is labeled the “Semiotic,” the primal language of the Mother as opposed to the “Symbolic,” the social language of the Father. In locating the semiotic with the body and specifically with the body of the mother, Kristeva, according to Judith Butler’s 1983 critique, “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva,” lapses into essentialism and in retelling Freud’s “family romance,” Kristeva also leaves out the homosexual experience. Indeed as Evelien Geerts pointed out in 2011, in “Women’s Time,” Kristeva seems to agree with Lacan that “Woman does not exist.” On the other hand as Geerts added, there is a potential for subversion in the ideas of Kristeva: in locating the origins of language (the semiotic) in the Maternal might, as Slavoj Zizek, suggested work against the Phallocentric.

According to Kristeva, “Corruption is the socialized appearance of the abject.” Whether spiritual or social or political corruption implies a “cancer” or alien growth within the bounded object. As a social act and a rejection of the symbolic, Associated with the female or that which is unincorporated into Lawful society, abjection is always on the wrong side of the Law (of the Father. The question becomes how to reincorporate the female and the abject and separate the pre-Symbolic from the criminal? Kristeva unhinges the binary oppositions through semiotic language as a form of music, leading to an infinitization of meaning (the Semiotic). Disruptive laughter is a truly innovative practice; pleasure is the lifting of inhibitions and is invested in the production of the new and obeys laughter’s logic. Semiotic practice “pluralizes”, “pulverizes”, and “musicates” all ossified forms. According to Kristeva,

When practice is not laughter, there is nothing new; where there is nothing new, practice cannot be provoking: it is at best a repeated, empty act.

Art, for Kristeva, avant-garde practice can transform society. The work of art can explore aspects of the feminine and the masculine. Mimesis is not the woman or the feminine but the constitution and de-constitution of the subject. Kristeva posited a third way, following the failures of first and second-generation feminism, suggesting that aesthetic practices should explore and construct the singularity of every speaking being. Subjectivity can become an open system, and art can become an individuating experience of limits. Kristeva thought that a genuine dialectical materialism could be an artistic challenge—a transgression of the historical forms of the Symbolic. In other words, she is suggesting a transgression of or an inversion of a dialectic, based upon rejection and exclusion. As Kristeva stated,

This conception of the ethical function of art separates us, in a radical way, from one that would commit art to serving as the representation of a so-called progressive ideology or avant-garde socio-historical philosophy.

…no language can sing unless it confronts the Phallic Mother…

As Sarah Beardsworth pointed out in her 2009 article, “Love’s Lost Labors: Subjectivity, Art, and Politics,”

The subjective process that is the essence of art gains its significance only and through being a remedy for this blockage. While Kristeva’s diagnose of the crisis of meaning and values pertains to modernity, the blockage of subjective process has deep roots in Western culture The idea of artistic sublimation means that, in her view, art and literature have the capacity to work it through.

Because art comes from the repressed and primal loss of the Maternal, Kristeva proposes that the work of art is at the heart of the Mother. As John Lechte explained, “Art is the délire manqué that keeps social psychosis at bay.” Although the artist’s creation, as it is commonly known, has to do with the Phallic Mother, the male artist, according to Irigaray, produces works of art that reinforce the inferior status of women in patriarchy. Art is the mother castrated in the symbolic, but because the Maternal is on the side of the Material, the Mother can be alluded to through the materiality of the work of art. Kristeva seems to assert that the patriarchy and the capitalist system which is its manifestation seeks to repress the materiality of the semiotic and that art becomes a way to disrupt symbolically–through the Language of the Father–by using the texture of paint, or the smoothness of marble, or the intensity of a color, or the hand of a fabric to express the repressed primal tactility experienced through fusion with the body of the Mother.

The “dialectic” of Kristeva would place the thesis of reason and logic against that which has been suppressed, hidden away in the chora. In comparison to the fixity of Symbolic meaning, she stressed Process over Identification, heterogeneity over the signifier, and struggle over structure. By introducing the heterogeneous rupture of poetic language into a capitalist society, Kristeva is restating the arguments against totalization and “identity thinking.” The artistic creation would become “poetic language,” which is a signifying practice, and transgression defines the practice of the avant-garde artist. Indeed transgression becomes a “key moment in practice” through which poetic language is put in process.


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Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine


Transgression and the Feminine

The philosophy and theories generated by Julia Kristeva bear traces of her own personal marginality: a woman in a man’s world, an east European from Bulgaria in the heart of Parisian intellectual culture, and a philosopher trying to write her way out of the patriarchy while still maintaining a relationship with that power structure. When Kristeva slipped through a crack in the Iron Curtain, she arrived in Paris in 1965, the high point of Existentialism and of Lacanian theory. Years would pass before the intellectuals of Paris would rethink their politics and practice and a decade would go by before ideas on feminism would be articulated. Like all women caught in the liminal zone between the last of masculine domination and the first gestures of female defiance, Kristeva reflected the transition into feminism through a critique of the texts of male precursors.

Keeping in mind that Kristeva was an Eastern-European exile, who came to Paris before May 1968, it is clear that her intent is to involve art in politics through the avant-garde in art. When Kristeva arrived in France, the Hegelian lectures of Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) had been the cutting edge of philosophy in Paris, setting an example for a way to rethink traditional philosophy as inherited from the late 18th and early 19th century. The real crises that forced theory towards a more modern position was the evident failure of yet another uprising of the working class by early June 1968 and the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which exposed the fraud of Communism. As a result of these disillusioning events, there was a return to a Kantian morality of disinterest and a sense of moral commitment to the public good, fueled by the Paris events. For Kristeva and her colleagues, French theory should be political: intellectuals were engagé, involved and took political stances, and opposed the establishment through their texts. Kristeva would propose the use of poetic language becomes a ethical function for art. Poetry (art) is the “carnival” to society, a subversive practice which is destructive and conducive to madness, becoming a refusal of the “flight into madness.”

Kristeva was part of the newly formed Tel quel group, organized around the famous journal of the same name, established in 1960. Her group was engaged but opposed to writing/speaking in a “transparent” fashion, inherited from Sartre. These intellectuals become materialist writers who followed the non-academic work of Philippe Sollers (1936-), her husband, who legitimated flamboyance, intensity, and excessiveness. After the events of 1968, Tel quel (“as is”) issued a manifesto and declared the new stance for the French intellectual. Along with her colleagues, Jean-Louis Bardry, Hubert Damish, Denis Hollier, Julia Kristeva gave her support to the following points, which read in part:

it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages; consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state; in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science); any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although Tel quel remained Marxist, its authors shifted towards the theory of language and Post-structuralism, Kristeva analyzed linguistic theory from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. As one of Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) students, Kristeva took up the issue of symbolic language and its hidden other side, as unspoken element to language that she developed and named semanalysis. Through “semanalysis” (the analysis of the semoitic as opposed to the Symbolic) Kristeva reasserted the buried and repressed theoretical Mother upon whose abjected body, the consciousness of the subject is formed. Her theory of semiotics investigated poetic language as a productivity of the text through which it is possible to speak about what used to be unspeakable: the prohibited language of the maternal material body. It is important to understand that Kristeva, much like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would later do with difference and différance, commandeers a familiar word: “semiotics” and alters it slightly to “the semiotic.”


Julia Kristeva (1941-)

As Mary Ann Caws in her 1973 discussion of the Tel quel group noted, the editors used the neutral term “text” in order to separate writing from a system of capitalist ownership and valorization of the individual. In “Tel quel: Text and Revolution,” Caws marked off some of the key words for the translingualistic take on language: “Materiality, Refusal, Transgression/The sign, whether painted or written, has become opaque and therefore visible, so that the interest formerly attaching to content now attaches to the language and the structure of the text or canvas.” Caws continued, “An activity disruptive and self-aware, a development of semiotic consciousness: this general description of the deliberate and unreadable action of the “revolutionary avant-garde” displays the recurring themes of protest, distance, cutting off, refusal and political commitment, visible behind the proliferation of technical vocabulary.” By “translinguistic,” Caws means that the study of language has moved beyond Saussure and is now “a productive process, operating within another space at once self-constituting and self-exhausting, an inscription traversing language..rather than enclosed within it.”

Although Kristeva, possibly due to her association with the French feminists, is often severed by later explicators of her work from Tel quel, the genesis and the development of her break into Poststructuralist intertextuality remained part of the development of a very small but very influential group of thinkers. Clearly, as a member of the Tel quel group, Julia Kristeva was part of a group that was rethinking the role of language in society, post revolution. In La Révolution du langue poétique, 1974/1984, her doctoral thesis, Kristeva introduced the concept of le sémiotique, which would articulate the realm of the pre-Symbolic, which is the basis of poetic language. Although “the semoiotic” can be located within the signifying process, one should image the pre-Symbolic as the Feminine coming back to live and erupting back into consciousness to disrupt the Name of the Father.

This feminine element is the chora or receptacle for poetic language. The chora is a place, a theoretical site for activity that underlies the Symbolic. The chora, a term borrowed from Plato, is unbridled energy and instinctive drives that are part of a dialectic of the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. The chora, defined by Kristeva as “the place where the subject is both generated and negated,” is therefore part of the Mother’s Body, which is the unrepresentable and belonging to the semiotic as the pre-Symbolic, meaning the materiality–the energy and the drive–that precedes the Symbolic. The semiotic is the Voice and the Body, compared to the immaterial Father who is Symbolic. In a dialectic with the Mother who is the chora or Non-Place or the Semiotic, the destination of the child, which is society belongs to the realm of the Symbolic or signification. As Kristeva wrote, ‘What we call significancethen, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language.” Kristeva, using Hegelian dialectical thinking, opposes the semiotic to the symbolic, which are resolved in the “thetic,” which is the “threshold or the resolution between the two. But the thetic not only the place where the human being constitutes herself, it is also a crossing over between boundaries.

But Kristeva re-places that non-place and makes the chora into a Place that provides the materiality for the symbolic. If the Chora precedes the division between subject and object, then the “feminine” is located at language’s unrepresentable materiality, which is indeterminate and ephemeral. Kristeva questions all forms of formalism and Structuralism, which is based upon reason and rationality, which is inherently male, and in doing so opened the way to Post-Structuralism. In opposing the concept of the poetic to the rational in language and in gendering this “poetic” as female, Kristeva places the poetic on the side of the political in that it disrupts official (male) (establishment) language. Like many women of her generation, Kristeva takes the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jacques Lacan and holds them up to the light of criticality, not with the intent of dismantling their ideas from the outside but from the standpoint of appropriating their theories from the inside.

In the writings of Sigmund Freud, the woman is the “dark continent,” for Jacques Lacan, she does not exist, and it is the self-imposed task for Kristeva to recover the long lost body of the Mother and to reinstate the “feminine” in language. In Totem and Taboo, Freud’s version of the origin of Law in the Killing of the Father by the sons in order to possess the wives of the father is one the many grim tales of male-made violence. Freud places this act of fratricide at the heart of the incest taboo. The sons suffer remorse and melancholia (the refusal or inability to mourn) and renounce their claims on the father’s women (The Mother) in the name of the father. The primal Oedipal drama was the struggle between father and sons over the body of the murder, resulting in the shame of murder, which is the name for the repressed memory of the time before imposition of the Law. The original transgression, the murder of the Father in order to possess the Mother, becomes the foundation of the Law. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) would point out that the beginning of organized society and the advent of the symbolic was based, in Freudian and Marxist terms, upon the exchange of women. Lacan’s version of this primal trauma is somewhat different. The Sacrifice (of the Mother), made by all children who must be ushered into the social, is a re-enactment of this Founding Death, initiates the Symbolic at the moment in which the pre-Symbolic is divided from the Symbolic.

Here in this primal repression: the renunciation of the Mother, and this interdiction against incest, is an end to jouissance. Jouissance is a word that translates, badly, into the English word, “pleasure,” which in inadequate for the full meaning intended by French writers. The most succinct definition comes from Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body. As Gallop explained that “..Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized, and legitimated by culture, and jouissance which is shocking, ego-disruptive, an d in conflict with the canons of culture..” Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva were close colleagues and there were several topics in which both were interested, including intertextuality. The act of writing or the performativity of the text was the other side of (traditional) writing and Kristeva examined jouissance, the disruptive act of forbidden or unacknowledged “pleasure,” as the subject of serious philosophical attention. Joy is unnameable, the other side of reality, which taps into the unthinkable or the female, beyond tradition and history, drives thought beyond itself, to its own limits. Here new thought is possible or to put it another way “thought is again possible.” Writing becomes experience and engenders jouissance and pleasure and perversion. She echoes Luce Irigaray (1930-) in pointing out that the Law of the Father is predicated on the Murder of the Mother.

But for later generations of feminists, such as Judith Butler, Kristeva’s revision of phallic theory was too cautious and too wrapped up in language. Indeed, Butler called for a greater emphasis on the “materiality” of the female body, rather than allowing the woman to vanish into the theoretical materiality of language. Although Kristeva never broke with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, in her 1993 article, “Trans-Positions and Difference: Kristeva and Difference,” Tilottama Rajan argues that it is important for her to remain within the precincts of Lacan in order to retrieve “the materiality” that Freud left behind, even if it means staying in the patriarchal family. But Rajan suggests that Kristeva took an intertextual position in order to attack male theory from within as an act of a “transgression of the symbolic.” Indeed, Kristeva’s writings build upon the ideas of others and these ideas are not explained, leaving the texts opaque to the uninitiated reader and drawing the reader in the know into an extended conversation among generational writers.

By the eighties, Kristeva could be linked to key terms–all linked to the feminine: the semiotic, jouissance, abjection and transgression. “Transgression,” as described by Suzanne Guerlac in her 1996 article (later part of her book), “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)” “If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without-at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel-it is “transgression,”inherited from Bataille” and transmitted from the Surrealist writer to the Tel quel group via Michel Foucault (1926-1984). As Guerlac explained,

Foucault defined transgression as”a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance)of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.

Within French theory, “transgression” would be meaningless without “interdiction,” or that which is prohibited, that which is taboo: the limits that can be transgressed. In her 1997 book, Literary Polemics, Guerlac continued her discussion of transgression which is linked to art through Breton and revolution through Sartre and to language through Mallarmé, all of which became reconciled, as she put it, through Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Thinking once again of intertextuality working through Kristeva, it can be seen that she takes over these disjointed but joined ideas and re-pieces them together for her own purposes: to make a case for avant-garde (poetry) as a form of artistic revolution. Poetic language, rather than the logical language of exposition and knowledge, is the language of transgression, through the process of rejection and negation.

In returning to the semiotic and the material, art is both a revolution in that it is subversive of the received order and is also transgressive in the Surrealist sense. As Kristeva stated, “It is in the so-called art practices that the semiotic condition of the symbolic, also reveals it self to be its destroyer.” However, in linking art and revolution, Kristeva marks the text with both its contradiction and the formation of the contradiction, or rejection which can also contain discourse. Thus jouissance and its opposite returns under the guise of transgression and its opposite, meaning. Transgression or the defiance of a “sacred” law is bound up in both art and religion. Religion ritualizes and enshrines prohibition and taboo and enmeshes the sacred with its opposite the profane. Art is the expression of transgression which, as was noted, part of the feminine, the suppressed, the murdered. As Ceceila Sjoholm stated in her 2005 book, Kristeva and the Political,

The conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic is not just to be interpreted in terms of poetic versus normative language. It is intertwined with the processes of history, ideology and religious where woman introjected as the threatening fantasmatic inside is recast and projected as a fearful and contaminating outside.

The next post will discuss abjection, the contamination of the repressed Mother, and the alter ego of transgression.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Post-Colonial Theory: The Subaltern



Can the Subaltern Speak?

One can posit phases in Post-Colonial theory, moving across time from the post-war reaction against colonial rule in the fifties and the sixties, Albert Memmi (1920-), Aime Cesaire (1913-2008), and Frantz Fanon (1925-1962), to name a few writers, the shift towards an analysis of culture through the lens of representation, the “cultural turn,” of the seventies seen in the work of Edward Said (1935-2003), and then, in the eighties, a decisive break away from the Marxist framework to a Post-Structuralist position. Post-Structuralism, which is a hybrid alliance of philosophy with linguistic theory with literary analysis, allowed for a surge of pluralism. Before the end of the 20th century, there was a tendency to view what is a very complex picture of colonized territories as a homogeneous subject, subsumed under the yoke of imperialism. But as more and more voices from the bottom up being raised on high and asserting themselves, multiple points of view came to light: women, gays and lesbians, a variety of colors and ethnicities and religions.

With the opening of the discourse came new problems, the most important being elucidated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942-) who asked a very good question in her groundbreaking 1988 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The term “subaltern” comes out of the empire itself, for it is a British term for a military designation. A subaltern is a lieutenant, an officer whose rank is one notch higher than the non-commissioned soldiers and below the high ranking officers. The term was carried over from the military to connote the “natives” who were designated as mid-level bureaucrats and factotum figures in the service of the Empire. In order to be effective the subaltern had to learn the language of the colonizer and thus lost authenticity and were slightly removed from their native culture. By speaking the language of the dominator or the ruler, the subaltern validated or “recognized” the Master.

The trap for the colonized was certainly recognized by the early post-colonial writers but it was a problem that has yet to be resolved. When one writes/speaks in what one hopes is an authentic voice, such as Luce Irigaray, then one is not always heard and the impact is limited to one’s own community. When post-colonial critics use the theories of European philosophers thinkers and apply these Eurocentric ideas to the post-colonial condition, these same writers who question the appropriateness of Europeans speaking of and about the same colonial condition are speaking in the language of the master. As the feminist Audre Lorde (1934-1992) gave a talk in 1984 titled, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As a double outsider, a black and lesbian scholar, she asked,

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.

Like Edward Said, Spivak is an exile, living on the faculty of Columbia University. It is a stunning fact that when she was appointed Professor in 2007, she was the first woman of color to be elevated to that rank in the entire history of the University. This one fact explains why her question is important but the fact that she is able to “speak” is due to her privileged position in academia. Spivak, a native of India, a former colonial possession, completed her graduate education at Cornell, an Ivy League institution, wrote her dissertation a white male writer. W. B. Yeats, under the supervision of the renowned scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983). These bone fides gave her “permission” to “speak.” It is ironic that, in her turn, she took up the worthy cause of giving voice to those who were silence/d in society and in so doing takes up the position of someone who is “speaking for” the others. The position of Spivak is split and ambiguous–the colonized speaking as a colonizer–an illustrates the difficulties faced by any Other who seizes the power to “speak.”

Who can speak? And under what conditions does one speak? What language should be used? The answer depends on the point of view. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak investigated the issue of the “subject” in 1988. Borrowing from Structuralism and Georg Hegel, Spivak pointed out that the West is the Subject, the one who speaks and the East is the Object, the one who is spoken of. But Spivak’s essay which challenged the use of Western methodology to examine the non-Western Other, contributed to an important questioning of using Marxism in Postcolonial studies. She stated that the group of scholars who were among the first to consider the “subaltern,” the “Subaltern Studies” group “must” consider the question of whether or not the subaltern can ever speak. As Vivek Chibber pointed out in his 2013 book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, this group at the University of Sussex, used Marxist theory—a point also make by Spivak who effectively revealed the contradictions inherent in Western philosophy which empowers the One and silences the Other.


Spivak began her essay by referring to an unguarded conversation between Giles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984), which is an example of unintended ideological thinking. It was not her point to recount the conversation. Her point is that two Western philosophers were talking about the Other from the perspective of sovereign subjects. Not only that but Western philosophers, of whom Deleuze and Foucault are but examples, also interpret social and philosophical theories from a very limited and ideological perspective. Why use Marx instead of Mao? Why be confined to French thought? “The unrecognized contradiction within a position that valorizes the concrete experience of the oppressed, wile being so uncritical about the historical role of the intellectual , is maintained by a verbal slippage.” She insists that intellectual should attempt to know the Other and to not take the power position of interpreting the Other from the perspective of the One. The result is ironic: Michel Foucault had previously written about “epistemic violence” when a discourse is imposed upon a silenced group, and Spivak commented,

..a curious methodological imperative is at work. I have argued that, in the Foucault-Deleuze conversation, a postrepresentationalist vocabulary hides and essentialist agenda. In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist epistemic, social, and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical textual practice of differences.

The issue of representation is critical here. By the time Spivak is writing, Foucauldrian thought has already been applied to a critique of those in power representing those not in power. Nevertheless, Deleuze and Foucault “represent” the oppressed group and speak for the “subaltern” while assuming that they themselves are self-knowing and transparent. Marx, who had a black son-in-law, refused to acknowledge that the oppressed masses of Europe could speak for themselves. They must be spoken for. Marx made a distinction between “Vertretung” or representation in the political context in terms of substitution in which the society is subordinated to itself and “Darstellung” the philosophical concept of representation in the sense of staging or signification.

Spivak pointed out that Edward Said also criticized Foucault for being complicit in the maintenance of power over oppressed people by mystifying power and by ignoring institutional responsibility. Said, a Palestinian in exile at Columbia University, maintained that Foucault and other European intellectuals, was caught up in the constitution of Europe as Subject. The Other is represented by the intellectual as, according to Spivak, “the Self’s shadow.” Both writers agree the position of the One is “epistemic violence,” the “heterogeneous project” to constitute the Colonial Subject as the Other. The activity of the intellectual One results in “an asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of the Other.” As she wrote,

This S/subject, curiously sewn together into a transparency by denegations, belongs to the exploiters’ side of the international division of labor. It is impossible for contemporary French intellectuals to imagine the kind of Power and Desire that would inhabit the unnamed subject of the Other of Europe.

Spivak charged that the nostalgia for lost origins is detrimental to any social realism within the critique of imperialism. In other words, the concern for the “oppressed” hides a privileging of the intellectual and of the study of oppression (over a study of the oppressed). Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) asked if Deconstruction could lead to actual practice: how to keep the Ethnocentric subject from establishing itself by selectively defining the Other. The problem is benevolent Western intellectuals. Spivak took up the possibility of Deconstructing the presence of the Westerner. Postcolonial critics attempt to displace their own production only by presupposing “text-inscribed blankness” to hide any recognition of the Other by assimilation to the Eurocentric science of writing. Like Fanon, Spivak makes a distinction between the Colonizer and the masses of the Colonized and the assimilated “subaltern.” The subaltern inhabits a buffer zone of in-betweeness or what Derrida referred to as “antre” or a situational indeterminacy. This class resides within the imperialist epistemic, which hides its essentialist agenda.

While Derrida points to the danger of appropriating the Other through this textual assimilation, Spivak noted that he, Derrida, has nothing to say about women. Third World women are triply disadvantaged; they are poor, black, and female. Spivak suggested that the colonies were subjugated through a “narrative of imperialism” and that First World intellectuals do not recognize the fact that the Oppressed can speak about and know their conditions. The subaltern, like women, have only the imperialist narrative just as women have only the phallocentric tradition. Women are silenced within this imperialistic phallocentric tradition. The track of sexual difference is doubly effaced through the ideological construction of gender, which keeps the male dominant. The subaltern female is even more deeply in this shadow. Her consciousness is ignored and unacknowledged and subsumed by masculine radicalism so that she is a historically muted subplot. Spivak wrote,

Subaltern historiography raises questions of method that would prevent it from using such a ruse. For the “figure” of woman, the relationship between women and silence can be plotted by women themselves; race and class differences are subsumed under that charge. Subaltern historiography must confront the impossibility of such gestures. The narrow epistemic violence of imperialism gives us an imperfect allegory of the general violece that is the possibility of the episteme.

The Third World Woman is a monolithic construction that is an imperialist subject production, a project Spivak called “..the ferocious standardizing benevolence..of human-scientific radicalism (recognition by assimilation)..” One never hears these women’s voices, only the voices of the Imperialist who claims to be “white men saving brown women from brown men.” If the Muslim culture puts women under black veils and covers them with long garments, then Western culture shrouds women with discourse and cultural constructions. The figure of the woman disappears and is shuttled back and forth between tradition and modernization. The imperialist measures the “protection” of women as a signifier of a good society.

The subaltern is lost in the colonialist rhetoric, in the imperialist program. Derrida found complicity between European writing, which revealed structures of desire, power, and capitalization. To a woman, a person of color, or to a non-Westerner, this revelation would hardly be surprising. To fight against inclusiveness and assimilation into male discourse as “victims,” it is important to be specific and factual instead of creating “pathetic” critiques of Eurocentrism. Another possibility is to intervene through silence, that is, a refusal to be engaged with an imperialist enterprise. To speak or to be silent? If one cannot speak what difference would silence make? The subaltern is still represented and the woman is still under the “protection” of imperialism. Spivak closes without closure.

The Subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with “woman” as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual has a circumscribed task, which she must not disown with a flourish.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Post-Colonial Theory: Edward Said




Perhaps the most influential and widely read Post-Colonial critic was the late Edward Said (1935 – 2003) a Palestinian intellectual who was born in Jerusalem and died in exile in America. His well-known book, Orientalism was published in 1978 and is probably the often utilized structural analysis of Post-Colonial theory. Said’s approach is the first fully developed analysis of Post-Colonialism that is impersonal, intellectual, and yet in the tradition of engaged scholarship. A generation after that of Albert Memmi and Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, Said was more of a New Yorker than a colonized individual and belongs to the postmodern phenomenon of the global diaspora. In the privileged precincts of Columbia University, Said joined the “cultural turn,” in which literary theory and Foucauldrian discourse became methodological tools through which to view culture.

It is obvious that “culture” is neither nature nor natural, but how is culture made and for what purposes? By the seventies, Marxism had been folded into a postmodern theory of representation which is where “Orientalism” can be located. With the now-expected antecedents of Hegelian logic embedded in critical theory, it was possible for Said to build on the foundation of previous scholars. In contrast to Memmi and Cesaire and Fanon who viewed colonialism as a psychological sickness created by the twisted intertwined Master/Slave dialectic, Said took a Post-Structuralist–he read the discourse of “orientalism,” consisting of text of 18th and 19th century European scholars and antiquarians who constructed a representation of an idea of an East that was not the West and conversely of a West that was not the East.

The basic assumptions that underly the book include the historical fact of European colonial domination and imperialist exploitation that put European scholars in the position to gaze upon the exotic other and to study this alien otherness for European purposes. As was noted in an earlier post, the European concern with the East can be traced back as far as the religious clash between Christianity and Islam that began in the seventh century and continues today. For centuries a parity was reached when the demarcation between religious territories was sealed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, but, after two world wars in the 20th century, the wound was reopened and laid bare. When the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East began to weaken, the Europeans, led by the French under Napoléon, began to encroach upon northern Africa. Under the scientific gaze of Europeans, Egypt and by extension the Holy Land became an object of study and a place of imaginative exploration.

This land, Holy to Christian and Muslim, this territory that was an eternal historical battleground trod over by many civilizations was the starting point for Said who turned the intellectual tables on the West. For Said, “Orientalism” or the Western construction of the “imaginary Orient” was fashioned by Europeans through practices of writing, which had the effect of representing the Other, the East. Few people, except for hard core historians and literary theorists have ventured much beyond his introduction and most readers probably find his later work, Culture and Imperialism (1993) more interesting to read. When he established the notion of the “Occident” in opposition to the “Orient”, Said was echoing Georg Hegel and Simon de Beauvoir and using these intellectual sources, Said re-positioned the West as the masculine One to the East’s feminized Other.

That said, Michel Foucault’s elaboration on the “discourse” is probably the most important of Said’s intellectual influences. Foucault’s impact can be discerned clearly in traces: the repeated exhortations as to what Said is not saying and the long meandering sentences with endless pauses with semi-colons. When Said established a literary or discursive “field” in which “the Orient” is constructed through language and representation, he was following the concepts of Foucault. Foucault dated the habit of Western Othering from the post-Medieval substitution of the leper with the mad person as the Other in society. Someone had to be an outcast. As Foucault pointed out in Madness and Civilization, this Other was constructed through discourse, or non-expressive utterances, that constructed an object to be first written of and then examined and then incarcerated. The language must be created for the Other to be spoken of and for the discourse to be constructed. People had always lived in territories that had a Muslim history but in order for these groups to be elucidated they had to be discursively constructed–named and studied and controlled.

Foucault posited the power of the “gaze” of the One that would then represent the Other. In his later work, Discipline and Punish, he linked “voir” (to see) with “savoir” (knowledge) and “pouvoir” (power). Thus seeing (the gaze of the authority) produces knowledge, which produces power. Through historical circumstances, it was the Western regions who “advanced” technologically faster than the East and thus it was the Europeans who took it upon themselves to name the regions, “The West” and “The East,” “The Occident” and The Orient.” Today to merely use these terms is Eurocentric–Europe is at the center of the world and all other regions relate to it–a totally imperialist position. The imperialist stance and language is part of the discourse of Orientalism, which is an example of how the powerful represent the powerless. from former Secretary of State, Henry Kissenger, stating the the problem of the Middle East that the region did not experience the Enlightenment to the more recent work of scholar Bernard Lewis who insisted that the Muslim nations deliberately refused to participate in Modernism, the “Orient” has been seen as the uncivilized, barbaric, backward Other.

orientalism_John Frederick Lewis_The Reception

John Frederick Lewis,. The Reception (1873)

But all that has been stated by Western scholars is merely words, language which have created a veil of representation that allows the East to be spoken of from a position of power, not truth. Said, following Foucault, stated that “Orientalism” is a discourse, a whole network of interests. Orientalism as a practice of writing was mainly a British and French enterprise due to the particular closeness of these nations with the “Orient.” Another way of expressing this “closeness” is to point to the long history of colonialism and imperialism by these two nations in the Middle East. “Orientalism” was but part of a network of cultural effects that justified Western control over such a backward region. The Orient is not a fact of nature but an idea that has a history with its own vocabulary and its own imagery. European culture gained in strength and identity be setting itself up against the Orient, so, as Said stated, the two geographic entities support and reflect each other–as opposites in a mirror.

Like a mirror, the images reverse each other with the privileging on the side of the Occident. In Lacanian language, the Orient is the narcissistic reversal of the fictional Self of the Occident or the “idea” of Europe. This Orient is a European idea and invention, not, as Said warned, essentially an idea with no correspondence in reality. The East is a European construction that facilitates a very real relationship of power and domination between West and East. Orientalism became a textual grid through which “The Orient” was filtered into Western consciousness.In saying that the West was a prevailing ideology, Said borrowed the concept of hegemony or prevailing “cultural form” from a new influence on Post-Colonial theory, Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) and his odd assortment of Prison Notebooks from 1929-1935 . According to Gramsci certain cultural forms or representational discourses have dominance over others and reflect cultural leadership. Orientalism was a collective European notion of European superiority with the West having the upper hand. The network of discursive structures was put in place by European scholars over time with the intention to understand (to produce knowledge) in order to control and manipulate a very different world: the Orient.

The European encounter with the alien culture was not only a cultural clash but also a meeting between unequals. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Orient was but a shadow of its former self. According to Said’s arch intellectual enemy, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton, the Middle East had deliberately made the collective cultural decision to eschew Western scientific modernism and thus “missed” the Enlightenment at a crucial moment. The technological gap between East and West was signaled by the stunning victory of Napoléon over the Egyptians in 1794 (where his army discovered marijuana. Soon everyone was inhaling and Baudelaire writes under the spell of the weed. The British imbibed the drug as a “medicine” and the Queen herself used hashish for menstrual cramps.). The Western imagination was fevered by thoughts of the depravity of the East and, although Said did not discuss art, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Ingres was painting his many paintings of the legendary harems and Delacroix actually paid a visit to the secluded ladies of Algiers. The idea of the Orient was “appropriated” both artistically and scientifically by the all conquering Europeans. It is at this point in time, the early decades of the 19th century, when the West was actively changing the West, Lewis wrote,

Some centuries earlier, the Islamic Middle East had led he world in science and technology, including devices for measuring time. But Middle-Eastern technology and science ceased to develop,precisely at the moment when Europe and more specifically Western Europe was advancing to new heights. The disparity was gradual but progressive.

Not only could Western powers come and go in the Middle East as they pleased, but it was also at this time that the East became the object of the European gaze. The scrutiny of the “Orient” is linked to imperialism and empire with the Middle East the first and closest territory of conquest. As Foucault stated in Discipline and Punish, to see is to produce knowledge and to have power. The Orient was constructed along the lines of other conquered territories, as “inferior”, as “feminine”, as “uncivilized”, as “barbaric”, and as the Other. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant. The Orient is insinuating and dangerous; and Western rationality is undermined by Eastern excesses. These literary characterizations fulfilled two needs, first to justify the domination of one group over the other and second to create an identity for the dominant group. The Orient was contained and represented within the dominating framework. The rise of Orientalism as a system of representation coincides with the rise of European empires. Between 1815 and 1914, Europeans directly controlled 85% of the globe.

Orientalism as a European textual construction is implicated with colonial authority and is a product of exteriority in which the Orientalist is the one who represents the Orient as the other. If the Orient could represent itself, it would; but it cannot, and therefore, it is the task of the Orientalist to represent the silenced culture. Thus the Orient is made clear to the Westerner, and the representation of the East functions in terms of traditions, conventions, and codes. The Oriental is “irrational, depraved, fallen, childlike, different”, while the European is “rational, virtuous, mature, normal”. This “knowledge” of the Oriental produces “the Oriental”. The Orient is divided into two spaces: the Near East and the Far East, but this Orient is but a stage where the East is confined. The Orient is penalized for being outside the system of Western Christianity’s morality. The tropes of Orientalism were collections of free-floating fragments that were accumulated into units of knowledge. This “knowledge” was a resistance to the strangeness of the Orient. Said pointed out,

..Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient’ nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also a whole series of “interests” which, by means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, it not only creates but also maintains; it is rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate,what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power..

Said wrote that the Western writers had a strategic location, or a location of power, from which s/he writes texts that become part of a strategic formation or a discourse where the “oriental studies” reside. He pointed out that the practice of Western representation of the East, from the “exterior” is done on the assertion that if the East could represent itself it could and since it cannot, the West must do this task of representation. These cultural discourses are ” not ‘truth’ but representations. “It hardly needs to demonstrated again that language itself is a highly organized and encoded system, which employs many devices to express, indicate, exchange messages and information, represent and so forth.” As a result of this “representation,” regardless of the century, the Orient is always fixed in time and place in the mind of the West and the represented “history” of the “Orient” is conceived of as a series of responses to the West which is always the actor and judge of Oriental behavior. Edward Said made the point that this binary opposition based upon the semiotics of power results in paternalistic or aggressive foreign policy decisions. He noted that Henry Kissinger based his policy towards the Orient upon the very binary relations that Orientalists had been constructing for centuries.

Henry Kissinger, architect of the last stage of the Viet Nam War, divided the world in terms of the colonizer: there are those societies which are pre-Newtonian and post-Newtonian, undeveloped and developed. In other words, Kissinger assumed that the experience of the Enlightenment is necessary for “civilization”. His assumptions were based upon the supposed superiority of Western—Newtonian—scientific, rational thinking that produced “superior” technological society. In the year 2007, Kissenger warned against imposing Western ideas upon a region that did not share the same history,

In the West, democracy developed within a religion that, even when it when it was the dominant religion, elaborated a distinction between what was God’s and what was Ceasar’s. That doesn’t exist in any other religion. Then we had the Reformation. Then we had the Enlightenment. Then we had the age of discovery. None of these precedents exist anywhere else.

Edward Said lived long enough to witness September 11th an event that elevated Bernard Lewis to a consultant to the Bush administration. He also lived long enough to watch the American invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, an invasion predicated “Oriental” perfidy and the need of backward peoples to be rescued by democracy. Forty years later and two invasions of Iraq later, Orientalism was still one of the best known books, widely read in theory but completely ignored in practice. Edward Said died in exile, never wavering from his position that Israel was a colonial entity established by imperialist powers and imposed illegitimately upon a people that were considered to have no claim to territory or to identity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Post-Colonial Theory: Frantz Fanon



Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Since the voyages of Columbus, Europeans sought out the territories of the Other, claimed the dark skinned people for slaves, and exploited the resources of those alien “virgin” lands. There are two steps to imperialism: economic imperialism in terms of a trading relationship in which the Europeans dominated the indigenous peoples of South Asia, and Asia and the Middle East and colonialism, in which colonizers are sent to these subjugated territories to either conquer and control them and keep them safe for capitalism. In this dyad of economic exploitation, the Americas were a special case: a huge continental mass supposedly “empty” and “undeveloped” through the inability of the “inferior” natives to properly put the lands to good use offended the European sensibility. Territories left in their virgin state, unclaimed and untamed cried out to be tended and in the colonial era, colonization was a migration to a permanent new home. Colonial Americans, seeing vast spaces in need of cultivation, an undertaking that required cheap of free labor, followed the lead of the British, French, and Dutch and brought in captured Africans to build the new continent.

Elsewhere, the Europeans settled in outposts that were embedded within large already established robust often urban cultures, from Hong Kong to Dubai to New Delhi. The outposts developed from trading stations to centers of conquest and rule, activities that were staffed by military and civilians shipped over from Europe. This ambiguous approach to colonialism in Africa and Asia brought a small but dominant population of Europeans into close contact with a large mass of the original inhabitants. As with American slavery, control could not be only physical–never could such a small number of people effectively control and subdue millions of human beings. As was pointed out in the last post on Albert Memmi, the problem of maintaining dominance was solved through establishing a psychological order of Master and Slave which was internalized by both the colonizer and the colonized alike.

Post-colonial writings have many points of beginning, both European and American, but among the most eloquent were the two books published by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1960), Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Like Aime Cesaire, Fanon was Caribbean, born in Martinique, one of France’s “possessions,” like Albert Memmi, he studied in France but in Lyon, practiced medicine in Algeria, next door to Tunisia, and like, Memmi experienced the end of colonialism in North Africa. Fanon’s books came out of his experiences with racism as a black man and the struggle for self-determination as the colonized. Like Memmi, he attracted that positive attention and patronage of Jean-Paul Sartre. After a short life and an all-too-short career, he contracted leukemia and went to Baltimore for treatment where he died in 1961 of cancer. In his lifetime, Fanon was little noted but he would be long remembered for his anguished and emotional accounts of what it meant to be the Other. Algeria was the last major French colony to be relinquished to its “rightful owners,” after a long and bloody and repressive war.


Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)

After the war in which they absorbed a humiliating defeat and occupation, the French viewed their former imperial empire from two perspectives–either the empire should be retained as a point of pride or, so as to not mimic the Nazis, the colonies should be set free. The French public was split, left and right, over the ethics of retaining a colony and the immorality of keeping a people in imperial bondage. The French were the colonizer and their dual positions were political ones, but Frantz Fanon viewed the struggle between Algeria and France as one of racial and not religious difference. This political contest between unequals was not just a cultural clash or a quarrel over aspirations but, on a deeper level, there was also a psychotic confrontation between two wounded souls and maimed minds. Fanon sought to analyze the combatants as one would study a patient in need of help.

Educated in the French Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian tradition/s, Fanon asked “What does the Black man want?” He relied on Georg Hegel for his answer: the Black man wants to be recognized by the White man. The problem is that the White man and the Black man are caught up in the master/slave relationship that is not mere theory but is an actual psychosis. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon wrote freely and expressively in his first book, while The Wretched of the Earth, with the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, is more measured and clinical, a theoretical critique. The early publication date of Black Skin, White Masks–1952–is remarkable, predating the rise of the Civil Rights movement in America and the wars of independence in North Africa. But this book is a shout of anger against the regime of colonialism, a form of rule that had outlived its usefulness. Fanon understood the power of the linguistic construction of opposites, the One and the Other, in which one term subordinates the other term and renders it inferior. The linguistic construction mirrored the domination of the white man over the black man in the colonies and in America. Both sides, guilty and innocent, are trapped in a sick relationship.

Fanon also paralleled the writing of his contemporary, Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “colonizer” and the “colonized”, in appropriate Structuralist language. Fanon dealt with language and pointed out that when the black man speaks the language of the white man, the black man assumes the culture and the civilization of his oppressor. The conqueror has no interest in the culture of the conquered who are considered in need of civilizing. As a result of the civilizing mission the mask of imperialism, colonized people have been stripped of their own languages and, without their own culture, they lived with inferiority complex. The colonized individual is faced with the “superior” culture that dominates her and is “elevated” above “jungle status” only to the extent that he adopts the mother country’s standards, from language to learning.

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization,” he wrote. The black man who approaches the white world and attempts to fit in–to learn French, to be educated in France, to live in France–becomes “white” only to his black friends but remains irredeemably “black” among white people. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon writes of what DuBois called “two-ness,” or the sense of being caught between cultures, a state that Fanon called “two dimensions” or “self-division” or what DuBois called “double consciousness.” This self-division is the result of colonialism and subjugation by the colonizer. The result is a psychotic break that is a recognizable mental illness.

Descended from slaves captured in African to work the plantations of the Caribbean, Fanon writes of the mental state of “the modern Negro” as a “clinical study.” “The black man becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” The black man wants only to break through this “seal” which is the white belief in white superiority to show the richness of black culture and African intellect. In other words, the black man/slave wants recognition form the white man/master. The black man has only one way out of his inferiority and that escape route is through the white world. The result of this contact or impact of whitening is that the black man is radically changed into what Fanon refereed as an “absolute mutation” with the result of “ego-withdrawal” or “restriction” or a renunciation of authenticity to avoid the pain.

The accommodation of the black man to the white man brings no rewards, only alienation, and this alienation or de-humanization, is the object of Fanon’s study. Writing in the early fifties and early sixties, Fanon could see no way out for either of the parties. “The Negro is enslaved by his inferiority, the white man is enslaved by his superiority”. The neurotic withdrawal of the black man is a defense mechanism and the Negro become abnormal due to the trauma of his encounter with white culture. Desiring the approval of the white man, the black man becomes impaired in his development and becomes one sided. In his deeply felt book, Fanon explains, more eloquently than any Hegelian variation on the One and the Other, what it is like to be judged negatively on the color of one’s skin. Fanon combined psychoanalysis and Marxism, understanding that colonized people were traumatized and could never create their own cultures unless they were truly liberated. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon described the process of “decolonization,”

Decolonization, which sets out to change the oder of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder..Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. The first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the xpoloiatiaonof the native by he settler–was carried on by dine of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the nataive are old acquaitances.

Fanon was a warrior and a healer. He actually fought against fascism in the Second World War and was disgusted with the racism of the Allies. The American military was shamefully segregated and racist elements at home in Washington D. C. plotted to prevent soldiers of color from voting in federalized elections. The British military, as well as the Free French, kept their colonials carefully separate. After the war, even the French Communist Party supported the continuation of colonialism, perhaps because to be a colonial power would still mean something to the nation’s prestige. It was his disgust that led Fanon to participate as a revolutionary in the Algerian uprising against their French masters. Fanon also participated, as a teacher, in what we would term terrorist activities. Indeed, modern terrorism has as one of its beginning moments, the war in Algeria. Fanon realized, however, that the revolutionaries were like any other revolutionary power: essentially bourgeois and wanting only to take over power from the French and to maintain the class and religious oppressions that the French had set up. As he stated, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”

Today, Algeria is a fundamentalist Muslim country, a far cry from Fanon’s Marxism vision of equality, even for women. The new interest in Fanon, for the uninitiated, can be dated back to 1995 London conference organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The book published in relation to an exhibition of the same name, Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire is an interesting example of how a writer—Fanon—has been re-contextualized and depoliticized and appropriated for contemporary purposes. The difficulty for the post-colonial writer lies in the famous opposition between the Colonizer and the Colonized, set up in a book of the same name by Fanon’s contemporary, Albert Memmi. To speak and to be heard, it is necessary to speak “in the master’s voice” and thus lose the specificity of one’s own heritage, one’s own voice. Fanon is an interesting writer because his voice was not blunted by accommodation or co-option. Although he died decades before the literary écriture feminine movement in France, Fanon, like Luce Irigaray, was an early disrupter of the politeness of university French. Fanon concluded,

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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