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 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.

[email protected]

Postmodern Painting

DOUBLE CODING IN PAINTING

The Return of the Repressed

In the 1980s, painting, once declared “dead,” long, the repressed Other of Conceptual Art, “returned.” The “return” of painting could not have happened without the supposed death of the avant-garde and the Postmodern acceptance of the discourse history. Modernism, as it was pointed out, never looked back, only forward. But with the end of the optimism of Modernism, the past history of art began to make a return in the form of dead languages of dead styles. Artists began to look back at these old and dead styles, picking through the ruins of art history. If art was a language, a semiotic expression, then all languages were theoretically available and could be deployed. Thus, the Postmodern painter was a bricoleur, to borrow a term from Claude Lévi-Strauss, a structuralist philosopher/anthropologist.

It is worth pausing to examine this central concept of Postmodernism, so well-known that bricolage has passed into the popular culture as “mash-ups” found in music, literature and film. The fact that Lévi-Strauss was a structuralist thinker need not deter us here because his idea of the bricoleur seemed uniquely appropriate for Postmodern activities. Lévi-Strauss studied the human mind, not the individual human being, but the epistemology of a culture. His idea for the bricoleur as one who assembles came from his own boyhood experiences working with his father, putting together furniture. According to Patrick Wilcken because when Lévi-Strauss began his intellectual career, anthropology was a new science and because his progression through the discipline was interrupted by exile in New York during the war years, the philosopher drew his ideas about how he would proceed into his profession from a number of diverse sources. In his book on Lévi-Straus, Wilcken explained the concept of the bricoleur as developed in The Savage Mind:

Rummaging around their environment, “savages” observed, experimented, categorized and theorized, using a kind of free-form science. They combined and recombined natural materials into cultural artifacts—myths, rituals, social systems—like artists improvising with the odds and ends lying around their studio. The central image that Lévi-Strauss used to describe this process was that of the bricoleur—a tinkerer, an improviser working with what was at hand, cobbling together solutions to both practical and aesthetic problems. La Pensée sauvage—free-flowing thought—was a kind of cognitive bricolage that strived for both intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction…As intellectual concepts, bricolage and the bricoleur were rich and evocative, and would prove influential in the years to come as a shorthand for an off-the-cuff experimentation used in the visual arts, literature and philosophy.

However, the Modernist idea of “experimentation,” which Lévi-Strauss gleaned from his association with the Surrealist artists in New York, morphed into the Postmodern idea of gathering or assembling that which was, as Jacques Derrida expressed it, “already ready” or the traces of styles or the memory of movements available in the history of art. Neo-Expressionism marked not only the return of “big painting” in the 1980s but unlike the predecessor Expressionist movements of the early Twentieth Century, but also the reemergence of representation and the reappearance of subjectivity and individuality, artistic personality and unique “touch.” What is “neo” about “Neo-Expressionism” is that “expressionism” is recognized as a style and a painting technique from the past, and what is “new” is fact that borrowing old styles and techniques is allowed “now.” What is “new” is the notion of the “return”—of painting, of figuration, of objects.

Neo-Expressionism evokes earlier styles and, unlike Abstract Expressionism, cannot be a new stylistic mode. Expressionism can no longer a mode of personal and unique expression of feelings through personalized art. Neo-Expressionism can only be a borrowed, appropriated by the artist as a code for “strong statement” or merely “big field painting.” Neo-Expressionism, like many Postmodern art forms, is openly nostalgic, betraying a longing for the relative freedom of “expression” enjoyed by artists before Greenberg’s Formalist formulas became hegemonic. Neo-Expressionism celebrated the return of painting to an art market starved for commodity. Neo-Expressionism, as with all Postmodern art, is an accumulation of quotations from a past that no longer exists. Painting, like architecture, became double-coded, a semiotic ensemble of multiple times and various places.

Neo-Expressionism was an international style, manifested in Europe in the works of the German artists, Georg Baszlitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf, and Sigmar Polke, and Italian artists, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Carlo Maria Mariana. In America, Neo-Expressionism was mostly a New York phenomenon, including Julian Schanble, Eric Fischl, David Salle and the Puerto Rican-Hatian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is not a movement where there were many women, although one could possibly include Susan Rothenberg. Moreover, the male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration.

The idea of a new style itself is bankrupt, and the Neo-Expressionist work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity or meaning while coalescing a unity of form. Notice that the term used is not “new” and all its evocations of the avant-garde but “neo” with its evocations of “return,” as with “Neo-Classicism.” For example, both David Salle and Julian Schnable produced a reiteration of the visual vocabulary and ideas of the Modernist period but do so from a position of belatedness, a key condition of postmodernism. Their work is painting about painting, art about the history of art. How then does one read a text or how does one understand a Postmodern object? The difficulties of reading Postmodern art is underlined by the fact that, unlike Modernist art, Postmodern art does not have the pretension of being separated from “life” or “low culture,” and is, therefore, immeshed in the capitalist realm.

It is no accident that the return of painting coincided with a resurgence in the stock market and the proliferation of new collectors on the art scene. Art was transformed from a secret commodity with its market connections denied by indignant Modernists to a frank commodity that was traded in a ruthless laissez-faire market like a stock or a bond. Frederic Jameson provided a trenchant critique of the Postmodern Condition, resulting in a schizophrenic culture–a culture without place or time. As if one were in Jameson’s famous essay on the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, the viewer wanders about inside the mind of a Postmodern painting seeking an entrance and an exit or a central agora of meaning. For this newly active viewer and for artists in the postmodern era, the meaning of art becomes problematic.

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

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