Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism

CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS (1908-2009)

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.

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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.

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 Meaning of Art

RE-DEFINING ART AS TEXT in the POSTMODERN ERA

Postmodernism promises endless creative play in contrast to Modernism, which, according to Roland Barthes (1916-1980), was a fraudulent attempt to find the universal in every solution. For Barthes, Structuralism, or the method of reading a text through the process of seeking its structure or boundaries, was an “activity,” and with this essential insight, he opened the way for the interactivity of Post-Structuralism. All meanings in literature are plural, and the ultimate (non)conclusion is (never)completed by the audience and/or the reader. The “work” is no longer a “work,” but is a “text.” The measure of a text’s success is not its finality but the amount of “production,” or activity, the text brings to the viewer. To read is to discover how the text was written; to view is to see how the painting was painted. One places oneself within the production (the process), not the product, and the audience is freed from presumptions of received or pre given meaning and can enter into the rite of creation itself.

In contrast to Modernism’s aristocratic/autocratic taste for authority, Postmodernism privileges change–better defined as choice–over necessity or singularity, and randomness over preconceived order. In contrast to the presumed “depths” of Modernism, in Postmodernism there is only surface. In contrast to the search for meaning that defined Modernist methodologies, in Postmodernism, there is nothing to be uncovered, no hidden world to discover, no seeking of purpose, just play, and the randomness of a work in process compared to the finished state of Modernist works. Postmodernism preferred metonymy above metaphor’s identification with one object or another. With the operation of metonymy, a play of associations and referrals and substitutions, each element can remain itself (as in allegory). Postmodern surface replaced Modernist depth, because the surface is where the activity of art making takes place between the artist and the spectator.

Postmodernism began to separate itself from Modernism about the same time Structuralism gave way to Poststructuralism in America, in the late sixties and the early seventies. Being preoccupied with the end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Conceptual art, the art world of fine arts in America was introduced rather late to this significant philosophical shift. The break between the dominant tradition of Formalist purism and a hybrid stance that (re)examined the older philosophical systems was paralleled by activities in the art world and the philosophical world. The new generation of the art world that Joseph Kosuth (1945-) wrote about in his essay, “Art after Art Philosophy” (1969) was extricating itself from the hegemony of formalism and “taste,” exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s generation of art criticism. In America, it was the art critics and art historians who defined art or decided what could and would not be deemed “art and the generation that the Marxist art historian, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), belonged to, the fifties, was a time in which the art world was very concerned with questions of “Style” (1953) or pure appearance. As Schapiro wrote,

To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life-history, and the problems of its formation and change. He, too, uses style as a criterion of the date and place of origin of works, and as a means of tracing relationships between schools of art. But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works maybe measured.

These two articles, “Art after Art Philosophy” and “Style,” were considered groundbreaking in their time and, written some twenty years apart, establish an important position for the next stage of the art world. Their divergent stance towards art is mirrored by the difference between early and late Barthes: one assumes a definition of “art” and the other critiques that assumption. Kosuth began his book by separating himself from Formalism:

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy which dealt with “beauty” and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bond to discuss art as well. Out of this “habit” grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. The idea drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but also because the apparent other “functions” of art..used art to cover up art.

Schapiro’s essay, “Style,” was a summation of previous art historical attempts to distinguish art of one period from another, an exercise in connoisseurship inspired by Hegelian concepts of thesis and antithesis (compare and contrast) applied to a developmental model in which art evolved and devolved. The only difference between Schapiro and his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, was that Schapiro felt that style emerged from a historical context. For Kosuth, style was synonymous with taste with formalism and, like Marcel Duchamp, he sought to free art from materialism and to reinstate art as concept, free of physicality. But for Schapiro, art always has a purpose, if only to indicate a dominate mode of thinking of a particular society at a certain time. With this art historian who seemed to write with Heinrich Wölfflin’s “period eye” in mind, art is a manifestation of a culture, but he ended on a note of uncertainty—how to discuss art within culture from a Marxist perspective?

Writing just a few years later, in a series of monthly or bimonthly columns in Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1955 culminating in the essay, “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes began to extricate himself from the strictures of Modernism. Barthes has a general audience and not being a traditional art historian he was free to embrace the vernacular as the site of his discussion of (popular) culture from a Marxist perspective. The collection of observations upon post-war politics in France was gathered together in one volume, Mythologies, which was translated in 1970 and produced in a new and unabridged edition in 2012. But Barthes also came to the point in his career where he realized that it was not the role of art to be in the service of society in the “reflective” fashion of vulgar or simple minded Marxism. He left “vulgar” Marxism behind, along with politically based art making, for what he called écriture blanche, or white writing. White writing, according to Barthes, was uninflected with politics (ideology), but, due to its lack of dependence upon codes and conventions,the neutrality of écriture blanche could intervene upon the reader’s expectations of received meanings.

If white writing is writing about writing, then the art world equivalent of white writing would be Minimal Art’s non-referential objects, uninflected by art world codes and gallery conventions. Barthes searched for a clean and clear language that could smash meaning: the “semioclasm,” perhaps best reached by the Minimalists insistence of a kind of “bracketed” form of perception of their “specific objects,” recommended by Edmund Husserl. Likewise, Joseph Kosuth spoke of a “blank” slate for art and returned to the Kantian notion of the a priori, noting that art was an analytic statement, containing its own definition. But Kosuth took Kant apart, discarding Greenberg’s use of Kantian notions of “art for art’s sake,” but returning to the philosopher’s first Critique on Pure Reason. In so doing, Kosuth placed art in a different place, in the site of language as a statement that contains its own definition. In following Marcel Duchamp, the artist moved away from object-based art that lent itself to a personal response based upon critical “taste.” In releasing art from “objecthood” and “taste,” Kosuth walked through the doors opened by Neo-Dada artists, Rauschenberg and Johns, and made the case that it is the art world that establishes “art.” Thinking along the same lines as Arthur Danto and George Dickey, Kosuth came to the conclusion that art was not a transcendent absolute. “Art” is an institutional entity.

Just as Kosuth fought against conventional definitions of art as a beautiful object, Roland Barthes, in his examination of literature, also was concerned with “style” as a middle ground for the prose writer who was trying to invoke something else, reaching beyond mere “realism.” The bête noir for Barthes was “realism,” a literary practice he saw as being composed of ideological codes that served to reinforce the very social system the writer was purporting to investigate. His struggle as a critic was to not only actively intervene as a critic and to expose the iconological underpinnings of literary practice, but he also struggled to re-imagine a new way to write. Barthes turned his back on “horizontal” writing, that is, writing that logically led to a conclusion and looked instead to a highly stylized écriture, writing with no purpose other than jouissance, for the writer and the reader. For Barthes, the structurality of Structuralism–the straight line from beginning to end–and its belief in style as depth was a form of ideology. He understood that realism was a form of style that reinforced the dominant belief systems, and the attempts on the part of Barthes to break the spell of good writing with neutral writing or self-conscious writing were also attempts to call attention to Formalism as an ideology of authority.

These decades between the 1950s and 1970s were the grounds for struggle upon which a series of transitional critics wrested Postmodernism out of Modernism. As will be discussed in future posts, it was Jacques Derrida who fired the final warning shot across the bow of Structuralism/Modernism in 1966 with his talk, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” which interrogated the structural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida warned,

The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the epistémé as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.

Intertextuality is linked to Deconstruction and the techniques of Deconstruction involve a kind of reading that fundamentally undermined unified or finalized meaning. Most famously practiced by Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction read text as pure productivity, a literary offering without essence or fixed meaning, an utterance that could not be unique only a re-writing of the already written. However, the text was also a singularity in that it is always repeatable and iterable–resayable. Freed from Modernist formalism, the postmodern text was seen as a “performance” by the writer, advertising the ability to collect, containing a record of other texts, or an act that re-en-acts. To “deconstruct” a text is to draw out its conflicting contained logics and to show that the text never means what it says or never says what it means. Borrowing from the Modernist practice of “close reading,” or analysis of a supposedly bounded “work of art,” Deconstruction inverted and reinterpreted close reading by making this form of exposition to a reading against the grain of the overt meanings and intentions of the text.

Laying the text bare to a new kind of Postmodernist scrutiny, Deconstruction is a form of activist reading, a search through the multiple texts, locating the “unconscious” of philosophy in signs and symptoms of the text’s repressed rhetorical and figural and metaphorical tradition that contain a surplus of meaning that spills over in its own excesses. Writing disseminates a surplus of meanings, like a sower tossing seeds into the air, allowing them to randomly fall and take root. Derrida claimed that language itself is always subject to dislocating forces at work which throw meaning in other directions. He followed Kant’s interrogation of the grounds of the possibility of meaning itself, and Deconstruction follows a mode of argument in which epistemological problems of knowledge, meaning, and representation are raised once again and redeployed to define Postmodernism. These questions–the grounds of knowledge, how meaning “works,” and how representation constructs the subject are the main issues of Postmodernism.

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

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

[email protected]

Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier

THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN

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, “..it 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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Roland Barthes: “The Pleasure of the Text”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

PART FIVE

The Pleasure of the Text (1973)

In his 1997 history of Structuralism, History of Structuralism: Volume One: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966, François Dosse described Roland Barthes in a number of ways–“the Mother Figure of Structuralism,” “one of structuralism’s best barometers,” “a weather vane for structuralism,” “a mythic figure of structuralism.” Most importantly and all in his opening paragraph on Barthes, Dosse described Barthes in terms of “his flexibility with regard to theories” quick to embrace them, Barthes was just as quick to disengage from them.” As Dosse summed up, in his early career, Barthes was writing in the midst of a post-war crisis in literature which had produced no notable writer since Marcel Proust. He wanted to get beyond this impasse of alienated writing, from political writing to academic writing to the direction suggested by Stéphane Mallarmé–the silence of writing that is the break from the expected or that which was required by the establishment, a state termed “white writing.”

According to Barthes, after 1848 and the breakdown of the social order into fragmented classes, serious writing began to reflect upon writing as writing and to write was to contend–self-consciously or self-reflexively with literature itself. This new approach to language as writing or literature about literature can be traced from Gustave Flaubert to Mallarmé to Proust to the Surrealists to writers of the era of Barthes whom he championed, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Albert Camus. At this last stage,the end of the fifties, according to Barthes, writing arrives at its end-point or what he called zero degree writing or “écriture blanche.” The “white” or neutral writer refuses commitment to either style of ideology and struggles against conventional literature, which Barthes called lisable or “readerly, in favor of writing that is scriptible or writerly, which questioned writing and literary conventions. As a critic who was “nauseated” by the old order, Barthes was particularly attentive to the new writes who, as artists, where also searching for a nouveau récit–a new way of writing–an new narration.

Barthes found an artist whose writings deserved his support, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) whose first two novels The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) had not exactly attracted critical acclaim. But when Barthes supported his third book, Jealousy (1957), the career of Robbe-Grillet was established, thanks to the reception of a voice very respected in literary circles. For Barthes, the novel was “objective” or a turn towards the object, but for Robbe-Grillet, the term became to rigid. That said, in 1956, he wrote an essay “For the New Novel” (which later named an entire literary movement) that stated,

Instead of this universe of “signification” (psychological, social, functional), we must try, then, to construct a world both more solid and more immediate. Let it be first of all by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves, and let this presence continue to prevail over whatever explanation or theory that may try to enclose them in a system of references, whether emotional, sociological, freudian or metaphysical. In this future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something..

In 1961, Robbe-Grillet–who got top billing–wrote one of the most innovative scripts for one of the most beautiful and innovative films of the late 20th century L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). Directed by Alain Renais with costumes by Coco Chanel and cinematography by Sacha Vierny, the film became a celebrated part of the French Wave of experimental films. The droning opening monologue was a description of the ornate architecture of a Versailles-like mansion, a lexicon of words that gave the visualized objects “presence.” Although he was slightly older than the New Novelist or the New Wave filmmakers, Barthes, as a literary critic, was part of this struggle against the art-for-art’s sake hermeticism. Barthes preferred awareness of time and place from writers and a rejection of the notion of universality.

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Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Indeed, like all post-war theoreticians, Barthes was a product of Marxist ideas, common among European intellectuals. The political and Marxist ideas of Brecht were incorporated into structuralism by Barthes who insisted upon the importance of discovering and characterizing structures–not to find “meaning”–but to understand how structures function and how meanings are engendered by a logic of symbols or to be more precise the logical order of their “arrangement” in a structure. In contrast to traditional Marxists, Barthes did not find oppression in social relations but in the order of signs or in the framework of language itself. The order of meanings in a lisable text forces the reader to participate in violence in that to name a meaning is an act of political and ideological force. This forcible naming or interpretation subjugates and subordinates other interpretations and other meanings and other voices. Social oppression was embedded in language and acted out in the level of language, which was why Barthes chose popular as his focus in his 1953 book, Mythologies.

Language, as Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) insisted, structures the unconscious. Although he attended the seminars of the psychologist, Bathes, however, never seemed to have been particularly interested in the gendered nature of language. As a student of Lacan, Barthes would have recognized the primal act of splitting the subject as psychologically oppressive and that this act would ally the subject with language—a primal oppression. He also understand that language, arranged in terms of opposites with one term subjugation the other, was essentially oppressive. In other words, there is no avoiding the connection between language and power, but Lacan’s approach to language was, like that of Ferdinand de Saussure, more abstract than social. But Barthes, under the influence of Julia Kristeva (1941-), came to understand that abstraction was a gesture of universality and that a way out of “transcendence” was to take note of the materiality of language.

Barthes responded to this literary spectacle of will to power by circumventing the power reader expectations and complicity through a realization that there discernible limits to this readable text and its predictable referential codes. The readerly text presented a repetition of familiar codes that, in their reliability, induced nausea and made the reader sick from experiencing the same narrative. To overcome nausea, the reader must learn how to re-write and learn of the plurality behind the codes which actually contain multiple meanings. From being a passive consumer, the active reader is able to shift to the performative mode and reading becomes a performance. When the reader performs writing, the issue of “authorship” is blurred and the “Text” is presented through a process of writing and making meaning. With the shift from what Barthes called the “Work” to the new performance, the “Text,” language becomes an open-ended structure, exerting its own linguistic force and the text becomes productive. When Barthes began to understand that by working agains the codes of social power and in finding the hidden plurality in language, he slipped from the strictures of Structuralism into its next stage, often called Post-Structuralism. “Working” on the language or turning language into performance forced a contrast between an authoritative reading and the new undecidability, which overflowed the boundaries of communication.

This move to textuality meant that barriers between texts were broken down through the linguistic system of references, meaning that there can be no text, or no textuality, without intertextuality or a movement among texts. The text, with Barthes, must be read not as a form of representation but as a sequence of allusions. Once the active reader learns how to move beyond the forced meanings and the expected narrative and into the realm of language itself, the reader experiences pleasure. Under the impact of Lacan, by the late 1960s, Barthes moved to the body as the place of evaluation. In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes had insisted that the body was the site of style, but with his 1973 book, The Pleasure of the Text, he moved beyond the personal or the personae of the artist/author to the text itself. It could be a criticism to say that the conventional or ‘readerly” text is always bound up with the pleasure of the reader and the pleasure of the text is the pleasure of passive consumption of the conventional. This kind of reading of this kind of writing is part of the consumer culture.

In comparison, reading the “writerly” text produces another kind of pleasure and Barthes opened the book with a distinction between “pleasure” and “bliss.” “The text you write must prove to me that it desire me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language..” Only certain kinds of books can produce or induce bliss. To describe this “bliss,” the pleasure of the text that is jouissance, an intense, violent form of pleasure, an interruption of the consciousness, Barthes goes back to one of his essays in Mythologies, the strip tease. He wrote, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” The effects of this kind of writing of the text is comparable to erotic pleasure, for during the process–whether that of reading/writing or sexual excitation–our sense as unified subjects is suspended. Therefore, as Barthes, explained,

Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again..Whence two systems of reading: one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, it ignores the play of language..the other reading skips nothing; it weights, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages–and not the anecdote..

Because pleasure resists appropriation by those in power, pleasure has traditionally been suppressed and repressed by philosophy and ideology, but the right to pleasure is reaffirmed in literature to counter political (ideological) readings. Barthes makes a distinction between plaisir and jouissance when he wrote,“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas–for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” The text de plaisir is the classical readable or lisable text, while the texte de jouissance resists language and becomes a threat. This latter, or avant-garde text works on two surfaces or plays between the two edges, which are the conformist narrative and the subversive écriture. The space between the expected and the subversive is a gap between the two and this gap, as Barthes pointed out, is erotic. Barthes considered the text to be “a fetish object and this fetish desires me..but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure..”

Three years ago, Barthes “killed” the author, or to be more precise, he extended the possibilities of the text, but in his new erotic analysis of the text, he brought the author back. But now, what was the fate of the reader? With the body as a site of transgression, experiencing socially deviant bliss or transgression, Barthes shifted to discussing literature as desire. Under the influence of Lacan and Kristeva, Jouissance became a key concept for Barthes in his discussion of the play-text. Jouissance means “to die,” an orgasm, a death, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure and thus, the texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. “No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in a mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, form the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeois..The asocial character if bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence to the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion picture theater.”

Active reading and re-writing dissects author or the cult of the writer and repeated or iterative canonical codes that dominate society. Writing becomes not theory but an actual practice or praxis and names codes and stereotypes, calling them out, in order to cut them down. The task of the critic is to call attention to pre-existing institutional languages as objects to be transformed. One of the main points Barthes made in previous writings was that the fabrication of meaning is more important than meaning. For years, Barthes had opposed two terms, the “subjective” or the Romanticism of writing and the author to “objective” or the materiality of language itself, but in The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes replaced the impossible notion of “neutral writing” or “zero degree” writing a “third term,” the notion of writing as play. The process of circulation through a play of codes defeats the structuralist goal of exhausting the meaning of the text. The circulation is activated by codes and is not another structure but new perspectives opened up in the text by the blessed-out reader.

It is at this point, that, having brought back the author through the force of desire, Barthes could now deal with the reader. Because Barthes doubted that there could be an aesthetic of mere pleasure, Le plaisir du texte promotes an aesthetic of a play-text through jouissance, the key concept of the play-text. Jouissance indicates “to die” in an orgasm, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure. The texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. Not only is the reader dead of pleasure, the texte also “kills” its topic, and the language is left in pieces and the culture, as a result, is also fragmented. As Barthes wrote, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces.” Nothing can be reconstructed or recovered; the subject is obliterated and the writer is erased; all possible meanings are destroyed. Plaisir is a general term for reading pleasures generated by the excesses of the text. Barthes’s account of reading is materialistic in that he replaced mind with body and its materiality of signifiers and its source of pleasures. What comes from the body is deeper, truer, and more natural. “What I hid by my language, my body writes.” “There is a chance of avant-garde whenever it is the body and not ideology that writes.”

For Barthes, the enemy was always the establishment, always the ideology of the culture that was his target. However, in The Pleasure of the Text, he understood that ideology was the shadow of the text. “There are those,” he wrote, “who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the ‘dominant ideology,’ but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text..the text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.” Barthes abandoned the utopia of “white writing” for the atopia of the text of pleasure. This atopia allows the text to be outside of ideology and yet is activated by ideology its shadow. Another term for ideology would be history itself, the history from which writing can never escape. The writing of Barthes for the past twenty years had always struggled between opposing two terms, in this case, utopia and atopia, and, as always, he turned to the third term “shadow” to fill the gap–the favorite space of Barthes. It is the penchant for the in between that allowed Barthes to find a third term to place between “writing” and “style” and that term would be “voice,” the physical note which ends The Pleasure of the Text. “Writing aloud,” he wrote, (is) “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat..the anonymous body of the actor in my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.

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

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

[email protected]

Roland Barthes: Mythologies

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

PART TWO

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 action..in 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.

Paris-Match

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.”

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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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