Art and “Thick Description,” Part Two



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Arnofini Portrait (1425)

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

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

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

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

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

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Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)


Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.


Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

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

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

[email protected]

Language, Culture, and Philosophy


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

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

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

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

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

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

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

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

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

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

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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