Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part One

Discours/Figure (1971)

Part One

Perhaps because Jean-François Lyotard was a prolific and sometimes too hasty writer (as he termed himself), the reader is a witness to the development of the philosopher over time. Discours, figure was translated into English decades after its publication in French and was known to English readers only through commentary or the occasional translated bits and pieces. Despite its comparatively early date of publication, 1971, Discours, figure was not an immature work but a marker on the way to Lyotard’s own position in philosophy. In its own fashion, Discours, figure inaugurates or illustrates his incorporation of received and traditional ideas in Modernist philosophy but through critiquing the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), he adapts well-understood concepts of language and phenomenology for his own ends.

In 2001 Mary Lydon (1937-2001) wrote in Veduta on Discours, figure, Discours, figure is a notoriously difficult book. Bordering frequently on the impenetrable, it demands a level of concentration and intellectual stamina sufficient to give even the sophisticated reader pause.” Lyotard’s early work was written for his dissertation (thèse de doctorate de d’État), and Discours, figure (translated by Mary Lydon and Antony Hudek) explored the meaning between the discursive and the figure and discursive significance or meaning and that which resists representation. Her co-translator, Anthony Hudek agreed with the difficulty of the book, writing in 2011, stating,

The complexity of Lyotard’s pharasing with its words taken at face value (all their possible meanings layered one on top of the other) and neologisms (dé-jeu) is indicative not only of the often perilous task that awaits any translator of Lyotard’s writing, but also of the ambiguity Lyotard invests in the proper pronoun (s’attendre as waiting for each other/oneself”) and thus of the care he takes in foiling (déjouer) the grasp of the philosopher, the historian and the biographer-critic. This evasion is playful, no doubt, but also deadly serious: un-game, dé-jeu. The solution Lyotard proposes to translate this elusive strategy is to translate the verb s’attendre in the language in which it is written or writes iself—whatever language presumably this may be.

So one approaches this notorious book, not translated until 2011 and considered essentially untranslatable by one of its translators, Lydon, who worked in the translation for twenty five years, with caution. Just as another of his earlier works, Libidinal Economy (1974), came out of his time as a student of Jacques Lacan, Discours, figure was a product of Structuralism and its end at the hands of Deconstruction, a reiteration of Freud through the lingering ghost of Lacan and the always present political implications of Marxism. Considered one of his four “books” by Lyotard, Discours, figure also reflects the investigation into phenomenology of his first book, Phenomenology (1954) and laces psychoanalytical theory into its pages. As in all of Lyotard’s books, there are digressions and wanderings, thick layered footnotes, and what his translators termed a deliberate “elusiveness” as to a topic or a thesis or a goal.


The publication of the book, 1971, was significant in that it followed the impact of Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction upon the literary and philosophical scene. Wending his way through Saussure and Merleau-Ponty to get to Derrida, Lyotard arrived at his own version of language and its discontents. Discours, figure is all about the comma that divides the two words, inserting an element of incommensurability that sought to insinuate a diminutive radicality that allowed for the entry of an alien term, “figure,” into the warp and woof of “discourse.” Discourse is a conceptual view of language which flattens language into a system of pure oppositions, but the Figure is corporeal, connected to the eye which is never civilized and always mobile and is inevitably repressed by linguistics.

Lyotard privileged the eye in the opening sentences of his book. Quoting André Breton, “The eye exists in a savage state,” the philosopher wrote,

This book takes the side of the eye, of its sitting; shadow is its prey. The half-light that, after Plato, the word threw like a gray pall over the sensory that it consistently thematize as a a lesser being, whose side has been very rarely taken, taken untruth, since it was understood that its side is that of falsity, skepticism, the rhetorician, the painter, the condottiere, the libertine, the materialist—this half light is precisely what interests this book.

Readers of Lyotard’s later works, “books” or not, will recognize the seeds of these texts which crop up in Discours, figure. Discourse is representation by concepts that organize the object of knowledge as a system or units of meaning. These meanings are defined in terms of their positions in that particular discursive network. In other words, that discourse imposes what should be/can be thought or spoken by way of spatial arrangements. The resulting net(work) imposes itself upon objects that are rendered textual and lie down in opposition to one another. Lyotard envisioned this space as flat, like a table, where language and its grids could be conveniently laid out for all to see. Upon this (flat) “space” of arrangements, various texts coalesce into a “discourse,” or that which can be articulated, called the “discursivization of textual space.” In other words, signifiers morph into discourse and signifieds or meaning is produced by the oppositional play between signifiers.

For those familiar with Saussure’s Structuralism, Lyotard’s discussion is a familiar one, but he rejected the homogeneity of the discursive space asserted to be as purely textual and placed himself firmly in the Post-Structuralist camp by introducing the Figure into the undifferentiated space of Discourse. Although his insistence upon the alien and unwelcome Figure is akin to Deconstruction, Lyotard’s critique of both Saussure and Derrida was that both philosophers confined themselves to the “text” or that which was constructed through representational concepts. Famously Derrida asserted “There is no outside the text,” (il n’ya pas de hors texte”) but Lyotard begged to differ. The task of discourse is to represent, and, in taking up that task, language tautologically assumes that representation is possible. This assumption of control over language is linked historically to the invention of perspective in the Renaissance, a visual system of lines that “represented” space. But in order for language to represent, heterogeneous elements, such as the Figure or the Figural, had to be suppressed, written out of language, as it were.

It is important to note that both Saussure and Derrida conceived of language as a flat depthless site in which the signs were totally unmotivated or lying in arbitrary oppositions, activated only by or within the network of relationships. Lyotard was not so much asserting depth onto a spaceless plane nor was he inserting a materiality as he was introducing a form of thinking that was linked to seeing or the visible. The Figure lies just outside of language, at its periphery, on its edge, invading its well planned system and inserting itself without being acknowledged. The Figural cannot be acknowledged because it invokes that which cannot be represented. In its (non)function of designating or in its role in pointing to, the Figure can be linked to the “here” as opposed to the “there” as the finger points and the eye follows. In formal language “here,” “there,” “this,” “that,” “now,” “then,” and so on are designators and are, in linguistic terms, so vague and imprecise that they are useless as representations. That said, these physical and linguistic gestures refer to sensory and/or temporal conditions that are outside the discursive but are necessary to speech and writing or what Lyotard referred to as expression.

Lyotard, who wrote often of art, turned to the French scientist and expert on Prehistoric art, André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) to make a case for the expressive value of words. He stated that

One would be more inclined to back André Leroi-Gourhan’s well-argued hypothesis, according to which the oldest language performed a sacred function and the first significative spoken units were uttered by a narrator who simultaneously gestured toward the corresponding painted figures during ceremonial processions followed by the robe in temple-caverns. The hypothesis is very appealing since the function of designation immediately comes across in all its power and specificity. The latter hinges on two decisive points: speech is not uttered in the absence of the designated thing, but in its presence; and the designated thing is not a thing but a symbol which legitimately can be said from the outset to be opaque.

Therefore, it is this expressiveness, this pointing function of figuration–the sayer of the word pointing to (the picture of/the sign for) the thing that consists of the depth or the “thickness,” as Lyotard would have it, in the language. Rhetoric, then, partakes of the Figure in that, like the hand of the narrator, rhetoric gestures to that which is beyond uttering, that which escapes discourse or representation through concepts. The philosopher set aside linguistic models based on firmly opposed opposites and insisted upon the simultaneous presence of heterogeneity due presence of the (suppressed) other haunting the textual. As the example of the cave paintings suggested, vision is a necessary element of speaking and the glue of concepts and this physicality of language cannot be reduced to phenomenology, which seeks an impossible “pure” pre-cognitive vision untouched by words.

To envision, so to speak, the points that Lyotard was making, one would do no better than to return to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1897, published as a book in 1914). Lyotard lauds the poem’s “power to figure.” Mallarmé’s contribution was to call attention of the physicality of the marks on the page and to the visuality of the poem which rolls and bounds from page to page, shedding, in its exuberance, one font and trying on another, leaving gaps and spaces which assert themselves in a graphic negation. Here, on the white pages, the figural emerged to confront the reader with the dark ink forming physical lines that run erratically, like a tossed die, against the winds of chance. The figural is never discourse’s Other but always its ghost, vision separated from concept by a mere comma.

Discourse/figure is incommensurable in spatial terms and constitute a co-present of heterogeneous spaces, an informal mode of art work’s presentation of itself as is seen (literally) in the thick and materiality of Mallarmé’s poem. Lyotard referred to the intrusion of the figural as an intrusion of the “rhetorical” or that which discourse considers to be excessive and is incommensurable with discursive representation. There is something other than representation that cannot be contained by nor captured by discursive concepts. This something other, for Barthes, was “style”, for Lyotard it was “figure.” The second part of the discussion of Discourse, Figure will take up the role of art as the Figural.

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Roland Barthes: Mythologies

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


Mythologies (1957)

In the fifties, Roland Barthes was a semiologist, following Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), in using the sign, the signifier and the signified to study the social condition. The timing of this volume is an interesting one, coming after the deprivations of a long war and occupation and during the decade in which France tried to recapture its pre-war prestige before surrender and humiliation. The nation was entering into the delirium of consumerism and mass media that was the common property of a European culture, rapidly becoming Americanized. The period was also one of nationalism with the country being still mired in the throes of late-Empire, struggling with what would be a long and depressing decade of colonialist chaos. Mythologies, like its content is also part the longer turn towards Structuralism, still in development, and owes much to Lévi-Strauss whose groundbreaking works taught Barthes how to look at cultural forms and analyze them. It is no accident that the foundational article, or the afterword of the book, is entitled “Myth Today,” which discusses contemporary mythology.

In Mythologies, written in 1957 from a compilation of fifty-three short articles published between 1954-56, Barthes became concerned with mass culture and the messages it sends to the hapless watchers of television and readers of magazines. By examining popular culture, Barthes, an admirer of Bertold Brecht, was following in the footsteps of Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Like Benjamin before the Second World War, his colleague Theodor Adorno examined the ideology of the “culture industry” and revealed how the interests of the dominant classes were furthered through Hollywood films. At this time, however, the pioneering and preceding work of Benjamin and Adorno was not well known and the analyses of Barthes were some of the earliest and most accessible de-codings of contemporary myths. Make no mistake, “Myth Today” was an extremely political tract, a scathing indictment of French colonialism and racism that still resonates in the 21st century. As Marco Roth pointed out in his 2012 article in The New Yorker on the new edition of Mythologies, the essays lay out

..his frustrations with social and political landscape of France from 1954 to 1956: a time of increasing middle-class prosperity, coinciding with France’s struggle to hold onto its colonies in North Africa and Southeast Asia, and DeGaulle’s attempts to restore some kind of national pride in the aftermath of the Second World War. Most worryingly for Barthes, these were years that also saw the rise of an explicitly anti-intellectual, racist, and populist political party..

American readers would have not been familiar with the political background of the quarrel Barthes, a Marxist, had with nationalism and right wing politics and French imperialism but “Myth Today” entered into very controversial territory. Keeping in mind the association between Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre was associated with and connected to Francis Jeanson, a post-war “resistance” figure who started a network of opponents to colonialism in France. According to a 1991 article by Martin Evans, “French Resistance and the Algerian War,” the Jeanson networks were sympathetic to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algerian insurrectionists. Jeanson had published a book condemning French behavior in Algeria in 1955, spreading the resistance from Africa to France. As Evans wrote,

In 1954 there were 200,000 Algerians living in France. Of those 150,000 were working, the majority in the building or steel industries. Slowly but surely the FLN began to organise Algerians in France. It was Algerians in France that were to finance the war.In 1954, French Algeria was a society rigidly polarised along racial lines, economically, politically and culturally. On the one side there were one million French settlers; on the other nine million Algerians..During the Algerian war the resisters’ activity was seen as ‘abnormal’ behaviour, it marked them out as traitors, rebels, outsiders in the eyes of French society. And, despite the time that has elapsed, even now a large number of French people would be reluctant to endorse what they did. For the right they were traitors; for the established left they were irresponsible, adventurists. The Communist Party might have taken a clear position against the war but it never condoned illegal siding with the FLN in such a way they crossed too many taboos. This means that their action has never been accepted within the dominant culture in the way that Second World War resistance was..

In uncovering this hidden corner of French history, the article by Evans highlights the extent to which Barthes was taking a transgressive position. In fact “Myth Today” goes on for a number of pages before Barthes introduces his major character, found on the cover of Paris Match:

..a young Negro officer is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor..I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.


This sudden tough political confrontation is all the more striking, given that the reader of the volume of essays had been browsing through short little narratives on bourgeois habits: the spectacle of wrestling, soap-powdrs, margarine, steak and chips and striptease. Barthes is the sarcastic observer of the absurdities of consumer culture but Mythologies is also a very serious attempt to use semiology as a science and the first half dozen pages of “Myth Today” carefully lay out the semiological structure of myths. Heavily influenced by the 1955 essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss “The Structural Study of Myth,” Barthes organized the structure of myth into a framework that brought its constituent parts together into an assemblage. It is the arrangement of the elements that give the meaning to the myth. Lévi-Strauss pointed out the myth was a third term between the implied times of langue and parole, because “myth is language.” Myth has a double structure, both historical and ahistorical. Of course from a political point of view, this very frozen state of a myth is exactly what gives it power: because it has always existed, it must be true or “natural.”


In an attempt to “denaturalize” received wisdom, which is the role of the critic, Barthes de-coded familiar myths and made them un-familiar by pointing out that “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on..because all materials of a myth..presuppose a signifying consciousness..” Given that the myth must be familiar, it is constructed, as Barthes instructed, “from a semiological chain which existed before it: sign, signifier, signified. As a “second-order semiological system,” myth is divided into the “language-object” or the raw semiotic materials used by the myth and the myth itself or the “metalanguage.” Therefore, the signifier has two points of view: meaning and form, while the signified is the concept or the correlation of meaning and form. In terms of signification, according to Barthes, signification had a “double function: it points and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

“Myth is a type of speech” and Barthes gave a great deal of attention to the structure of the linguistics of the myth, which is a system of communication, a message. The mode of signification is the form of the myth which is not defined by the object of the message but only by the way or mode in which it utters the message. The mode of writing the myth is representation, that is, the use of material that has already been worked and is suitable for communication. Each myth has two levels of meaning: a primary message is conveyed, but when the main message is bracketed, a secondary message can be discerned. This secondary message reveals the workings of socio-economic structures that function to continue the oppression of the people who receive the messages and continue an ideological world view that keeps the ruling classes in power. As Barthes stated,

..When it becomes form, the meaning leaves it contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes improvised, history evaporates, only the letter remains..the essential point in all this is that the form does not suppress the meaning, it only improvises it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal..the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment..

The myth works with raw materials, reduced to pure signifying functions so that the myth becomes a sum of signs. In fact the myth prefers to work with poor and incomplete images. The myth will naturalize the concept and will transform history into nature. The reader then consumes the myth innocently as a factual system. The myth is already a form of language that can reach out and corrupt everything as depoliticized speech, organizing the world without contradictions and establishing clarity. Barthes pointed out that the myth was emptied out and became pure form into which new and ideological contents could be poured. The significance of the dozens of essays Barthes wrote for Les Lettres nouvelles is that most of his topics are based on commercial images in mass advertising, making him a semiologist of images the same way Lévi-Strauss was the structuralist of human behavior. In crossing the techniques Lévi-Strauss used for his analysis of the myth of Oedipus with a Sassurean examination of ordinary photographs, Barthes uncovered the inner workings of the myths that shaped the mindset of fifties France.

To decode a myth is to expose a delusion, making a revolutionary of a literary critic who can point to the “science” of semiology. The myths that Barthes found floating throughout popular culture were not, at that time, taken seriously, but the role of wine in French society was as important as the role of Charles de Gaulle, for as Barthes wrote, wine was political: ..its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of he privae distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread.. Indeed, the seemingly benign exhibition The Family of Man which had originated at the Museum of Modern Art, was curated by Edward Steichen, and renamed “The Great Family of Man” in France, flattens differences into a universal cycle of birth, life and death, mythologizing the “human condition.” Barthes pointed out that the exhibition, which was also much criticized in America, obliterated the historical facts of the “condition,” which for some was positive while for others was grindlingly negative. As Barthes explained in “Myth Today,”

..In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves..

For example, America is characterized by and characterizes itself on the myth of the “Wild West.” The history of the “wild west” with its plural cast of characters, cowboys, social misfits, sociopaths, whores, settlers, opportunists, victims, lawyers and schoolteachers and sheriffs and so on. What is conveniently forgotten or emptied out is the exploitation of Chinese laborers, the genocide of Native Americans, the savage struggles between the settler and the rancher, and the wholesale rape of the land. Thus, through forgetting or suppression of the facts, the truth or history is emptied out, leaving a hollow form. What is left is the myth of the Frontier. To the consumer of the myth, this image of America is linked to nature to make “America” seem inevitable and natural. We do not question this myth of America and when those who question the myth are called “unpatriotic,” we are hearing ideology at work.

Because as Barthes stated, “Myth is depoliticized speech” that is “political in its deeper meaning,” precisely because it talks about, for example, French colonialism or American imperialism, in to “purify” these events, “it gives them clarity.” This clarity which Barthes called “blissful” is what makes it so difficult to challenge myths: to call a depoliticized myth political is to risk being refuted, in turn, charged with being “political.” Barthes understood the dilemma and suggested that the best strategy was to “produce an artificial myth”..”why not rob a myth?” he asked. To read and receive a social myth is to be complicit in the making of the myth. The myth is always form, never content, and operates as a sign of the real or as a meta-language. Myths, he pointed out, exist on the left and right as political tools that tell cultural stories. Rather than study signs from an “objective” standpoint or from the position of “scientific” analysis, Barthes understood that signs are embedded, not just in a cultural context or a network of purely linguistic relationships, but belong to politics, economics, and ideology. Although he hinted at the notion of political critique in Writing Degree Zero, it is at this point with this essay that Barthes became a critic of culture or a critic of the workings of power and a revealer of the trappings of ideology.

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

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Language, Culture, and Philosophy


How do words mean? How is meaning constructed? These seemingly innocent questions are lethal to the entire edifice of knowledge. If we imagine knowledge, not as wisdom, but as an architecture of writing, then the foundation of “truth” is undermined. The question becomes not what do we know but how do we write? If philosophy in the nineteenth century was about ideas, then philosophy in the twentieth century was about language or linguistics. We live in the aftermath of this “Linguistic Turn.”

This “turn” away from ideas and towards language meant that words, not things, would be examined in terms of how words, put together into speech acts and discourse, acquire meaning. Which philosopher marks this “turn,” when and where this “turn” took place depends upon which account is read and which definition of “linguistic turn” is used. Some have contended that German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, others think that the “turn” was British (or Anglo-Austrian) and was the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps it is best to think not in terms of “first” but in terms of the significance of what is a change in direction. As Richard Rorty said,

The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeen through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.

The linguistic turn is a concern about how language allows speech and under what linguistic conditions meaning is constructed. In other words, philosophy becomes fused with literary theory and knowledge become examined as the result of a social/cultural structure. The turn towards the study of the arts, visual and literary, through linguistic philosophy started with concerns with logic (analytic philosophy) and semiotics (the study of signs).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

After this death, the students of Saussure recreated his lectures and published them as Cours de linguistique générale (1916). This act of devotion brought their teacher’s radical reconsiderations of the way in which meaning is formed. Saussure made a distinction between langue, that is the system, the institution, rules and norms, and parole, which is the actual manifestation of the system in speech, and writing. The philosopher made the distinction between rule and behavior and noted that meaning is bound up in this system of relationships and differences. Language is composed of a network of established significations and relativism is checked by a competent reader who has a sense of what one is reading towards. Langue is a Metadiscourse and parole is a specific text, and structuralism attempted to find and establish an almost scientific approach to de-coding signs and finding their meanings.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism will specifically deny the basic precepts of Structuralism–its reliance on rules, its search for meaning and its bi-polar structure. Language is the rule and speech is the behavior. The system itself is synchronic as a functional whole and diachronic in its inevitable historical evolution. Saussure and his followers concentrated on the synchronic study of language that is examining the system as a whole as an abstract structure. The diachronic structure was left to others as this aspect of the structure changed with historical changes and was relative and ceaselessly in flux.

The Saussarian system is constructed on the basis of binary oppositions, which Saussure declared to be inherent in the language as a habit of thought that allowed any culture to order and sort out a vast heterogeneous field of elements into distinctions and differences. Structuralism, as a mode of analysis, studies signs within this network of relations. Meaning is bound up within a system of relationships based upon difference and relativism or individual interpretation/solipsism is checked by cultural competency or a sense of what one is reading towards.

Language competence is the ability to represent within a system of norms and rules. This system is one of relations and oppositions in which elements are defined in formal and differential terms. The units of language are modes of a series of differences or functional contrasts. These binary oppositions are inherent in language and this relational identity or dependent identity is crucial to language. For the signifier to express meaning, the signifier must differ from other signifiers and these differences are essential for the signs to work. The linguistic system can be defined as the place of the sign, which acquires meaning only within the system of differences.

Semiotics or semiology seeks the grounds of signifying processes. Structuralism is important because it does NOT seek the truth. There is no truth; there is no human subject. There are only codes or sign systems and it is these structures that produce meaning. Meaning is arbitrary and there is on necessary connection between these structures and “reality”. The revolution of semiotics is the undoing of the common sense link between the word and the thing. The “thing” can be “named” anything and can mean anything. Language, therefore, is not a window on reality, nor is it a mirror. Language is merely a network of signification. Furthermore, knowledge is structured by the systems of code. The structuralist discourse is a method designed to master and explain language and to create a universal grammar of narration.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce proposed a topology of signs organized into the icon, the index, and the sign, which is the combination of the significant and the signifié or of form and meaning. That the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary is one of the central insights of Structuralism. The arbitrariness of the mechanics that create the sign upsets the ancient notion that words were imbued with the qualities of their referent. Words and things become detached, and things can be known only through words, which in turn can function only within a system and only in terms of their differences. Peirce separated icons from signs by pointing out that icons are based upon actual resemblance, rather than arbitrary relationships, such as a portrait resembling the subject: a one to one relation.

These indexical signs are also mythic and change within the conventions of knowledge and the linguist reads these indices within this system of conventions. According to Peirce, all signs consist of a significant, which is the form, and of a significance, which is the meaning of the sign. All signs are fundamentally incomplete. The significance of one sign cannot be grasped by examining the sign on its own. Any sign acquires meaning only within a network of relations that presents an interpretant in the form of another sign. The sign’s meaning is developed within the system of language and the meaning is manifested through the use of the sign.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

In Structural Anthropology (1958), this French scientist combined anthropology with linguistics, understanding signs to be combination of the signifier and the signified and as forms that were fundamentally incomplete. The signifier cannot be directly grasped but can be understood only in the form of another sign and meaning is determined through this development. All cultural phenomena are signs read by the inhabitants of the culture, but these inhabitants cannot function as subjects because meaning is bound up within the conventional structure. It has been said that Structuralism is Kantian thought without the transcendental subject or without to reasoning and rational human mind actively interpreting and creating reality. The Kantian subject is dissolved and becomes a passive, unwitting object upon which the linguistic system operates at will. The structural analysis refuses to consider a notion of “self” identified with consciousness and does not seek for external causes that make the “subject” as the explanatory cause.

Any object (even human objects) is defined/structured by its place in the system, but unlike form this structure has no content. Content itself is a logical organization and is the same nature as form. Form is only a way of organizing the particular structures that make up content; and meaning is only the effect of logical, intellectual structures by which the mind orders experiences. Following Kant, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the mind imposes form on raw materials and creates myth, which are forms of concrete logic composed of bundles of relations or sets of items. Organized in terms of binary oppositions–dark and light, good and evil–myths explain or reduce the often-frightening contradictions in the real world.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung united Freud and Structuralism into his concept of the “Collective Unconscious.” He recognized Freud’s concept of the dream but asserted that the unconscious remained unconscious. Although Jung understood that “dream-work” was an active process that included actions of displacement, condensation, symbolization and so on, he disagreed with Freud’s notion that these actions were actions of censorship. For Jung, dreams did not deceive but express. Dream thinking was simply an “older mode of thought” and the interpretation of dreams will show that the meanings are bound up in recognizable form. Dreams are like plays, they dramatize through plots and culminate in a climax. The manifest content of dreams, therefore, is drama. The latent content can be uncovered through free association, for dreams are self-portrayals in symbolic form. Dreams have a creative role to play in the total human psyche and are linked to the dreamer’s life.

Both Jung and Freud considered mind and body to be linked. For Jung the psyche functioned in terms of archetypes that are inscribed in the body and are genetically transmitted. These archetypes are unconscious pre-dispositions. In the Kantian sense, archetypes are a priori conditions for actual experience, or, to put it another way, archetypes organize experiences. Archetypes are models or primordial types or ideas that act as originals or exemplars. Jung was talking about cognitive structures that were congenital structures that produced patterns of behavior.

The image, which is symbolic, is the functional form of this system and can be described as a typical situation into which energy is released. Image approaches instinct. Symbols manifested in images necessarily emerge from archetypes which, being universal, are part of the collective unconscious. It is not so much that we can read each other’s symbols but that we can read the instinct to make symbols. Once these symbols are decoded, the archetypal foundation of these forms will be revealed.

Freud and Jung corresponded but disagreed on what determined the nature of the human psyche but they were part of a philosophical mindset that sought to set out what Jean-François Lyotard would call a “grand narrative.” For Freud the engine of his grand narrative was sexual energy, for Jung the engine was the organizational capacities of archetypes. Also writing philosophy during this period was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a Neo-Kantian philosopher and Kantian interpreter, who would bring a number of these ideas together into his three volume (1923-29), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which incorporates art as a language of symbolic forms that had to be interpreted.

Cassirer worked with Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) at the University of Hamburg. These three scholars were the Hamburg School and were interested in the historical evolution of “symbolic forms.” Warburg applied the notion of psychological archetypes of art and searched for recurring images and recurring symbols that returned eternally in art as symptoms of the unconscious. Panofsky applied the notion of the Kantian mind actively constructing culture to works of art and attempted to read art according to the teachings of structuralism, especially that of Saussure whom he had read.

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

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

[email protected]