The Metaphysics of Structuralism


Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences (1966)

Jacques Derrida’s (1921-2004) full frontal attack on the movement that had just ended the reign of Existentialism, was not only on the Structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he also had to dismantle the founder of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure himself. In order to do so, Derrida examined what would be the the weak points on any argument–its assumptions–and found problems. Structuralism is based upon language which makes it possible for humans to speak and the most significant contribution of Structuralism is the realization the first, language is structured, and second, that this language is arbitrary and is comprehensible only through the network of relationships, and third, that people do not speak language, language speaks the person. Human thought itself is likewise structured by language and this structure is based upon binaries or opposite pairs. To put it simply, in terms of words, we understand “day” because it is arranged in the network opposite “night.” But, that said, what a Structuralist analysis is interested in is not content but the structure itself. This distinction between content and structure is the difference between a formalist reading of a text, which focuses on the intention of the artist in terms of content, and Structuralism which proposes a structured communication.

In his four volume Mythologies, Lévi-Strauss was unconcerned with the “meaning” of myths and more interested in the universality of how myths are put together. Regardless of origin a myth revolves around pairs who are set in opposing relationships to each other. The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss’s second book in his series linked the distinction between “raw” and “cooked” to the distinction between “nature” and “culture.” This paired/opposite arrangement is significant and will be one of Derrida’s main targets of the Structuralist method. The main first problem is, as he pointed out in “Structure, Sign and Play,” is the idea of the structure itself and that problem is that “structure” is a figural concept or a definitive “shape,” if you will. And, if that is the case, which it is, then any structure has to have a center. As Derrida noted,

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme -that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy-and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistemé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure-or rather the structurality of structure-although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.

The idea of the center proposed many problems for Derrida. First that the structure denies its own “structurality” in other words the structure is not conscious of itself and “neutralizes” the very fact that maintains its existence, namely the center. The center, Derrida maintained has a “presence” and an “origin,” both highly problematic for the philosopher. First, the “center” is not located “within” any particular “structure” but is part of the “totality” itself or the entire system of thought, what Derrida called “the condition of the épistemé.” This center contains, in the literal and figurative sense, “free play,” and this governing of free play or uncertainty, creates a feeling of certainty. In other words, the structure of the binary oppositions limits any play in-between or outside of or beyond that set of pairs. Derrida explained,

The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay. With this certitude anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were from the very beginning at stake in the game. From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arché as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions. the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens]-that is, a history, period-whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence.

Derrida was pointing out a nearly unsolvable problem in Structuralism, the fact of the Structure itself. An integral part of the Structure, the center is a structural matrix that is “kept out of play,” that is, the center is unacknowledged on one hand but on the other hand, the analysis itself is dependent upon the balance and coherence and organization that is deployed around a controlled point, the center. Therefore, the center is the origin or the fixed subject, the absolute archia, meaning that without the center there would be on foundation (archia) and this archia is what Derrida called, the “essential operation of metaphysics.” The purpose of the centered structure is to limit the possibility of the kind of play that might interfere with the neat placement of opposing elements in interpretation. The center, therefore, is protection against what Derrida called “freeplay,” and in fact rules out play. But, and here Derrida made one of signature moves, he asserts that “play” precedes the operations of structuralism. The point that Derrida made is that the structure is so rigid and bounded and so pointedly centered, that this will toward boundary must have a purpose. And if that purpose is to control play (and it is) then, play has to have existed otherwise there would have been no need to asset and impose a structure.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida’s room of his published books in his home in Ris Orange, France, 2001

It should be stated at this point that “structure” does not necessarily mean a little box that contains play which is bouncing round inside, but any structuring device, from thesis, anti-thesis, thesis, beginning, middle, end, or Freudian modeling, such as id, ego, superego or consciousness and unconsciousness. As Jean-François Lyotard pointed out in Discourse, figure (1971), the “figure” lies at the heart of discourse. The fact that Lyotard wrote this book five years after Derrida’s paper indicates the impact of the essay. Lyotard, echoing Derrida, pointed to the fundamental contradiction between two disparate elements. Derrida would call this internal discrepancy a “scandal,” and he located this scandal at the heart of the writings of Lévi-Strauss, specifically on the thorny issue of incest.” According to Derrida,

In the Elementary Structures, he begins from this axiom or definition: that belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm. That belongs to culture, on the other hand, which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. These two definitions are of the traditional type. But, in the very first pages of theElementary Structures, Levi-Strauss, who has begun to give these concepts an acceptable standing, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted and which seems to require at one and the same time the predicates of nature and those of culture. This scandal is the incest-prohibition. The incest-prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural.

Clearly, Derrida uncovered a hidden or unacknowledged problem within Lévi-Strauss’s writing on incest, that is Lévi-Strauss “confused” universal with natural and disregarded the “prohibition” part which is, of necessity, an aspect of the cultural. This critique exposed the reason for the existence of a center, which, once again, should not be thought of as one of think of the bull’s eye on a target, but as the agent of “structuality” itself or the organizing principle around which the structure organizes itself. Nature and culture are opposites and that (binary arrangement) structure is made possible by the center which controls any intervening third or uncontrollable term. Witheringly, Derrida chided Lévi-Strauss for not thinking through his own philosophical system, “Once the limit of nature/culture opposition makes itself felt, one might want to question systematically and rigorously the history of these concepts. This is a first action.” To be fair to Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist was attempting to finding a way to organize his materials, but Derrida’s criticism was quite devastating, for he uncovered a process that worked, until it failed to examine itself or do what he advised: “to step outside of philosophy.”

Then Derrida took up the subject of the myth makers themselves, those whom Lévi-Strauss called bricoleurs or those who constructed culture from what the anthropologist called <“the means at hand.” Lévi-Strauss, who was pretty handy with mechanics, borrowed the idea of bricoulage from the language of people like his father who worked with their hands, making, repairing, fixing, inventing, all he while using the tools and the elements at their disposal. In thinking of myth, Lévi-Strauss was making point that myths are preexisting and that storytellers retell preexisting stories, sometimes rearranging the elements already ready. Now Derrida himself will later find this idea of preexisting materials important but for this essay, “Structure, Sign and Play,” he noted that the bricoleur was opposed, by Lévi-Strauss to another sort of creator, the engineer. It is at this point that Derrida will attack a second troubling aspect of Structuralism, the idea of an “origin.” He wrote,

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. The engieer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse and would supposedly construct it “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself. The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that thee engineer is a myth produced by the From the moment that we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse breaking with the received historical discourse, as soon as it is admitted that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage, and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning decomposes.

Derrida had pointed to a far more obvious problem, the metaphysics that lurked at the heart of Structuralism. As noted previously, Structuralism moved away from the unique and subjective human mind that creates independently. But as Derrida found, the Structuralist philosophers had assumed a “metaphysics of presence”–that the human being can spontaneously express her/himself–and that language is a transparent medium for an inner truth. The continuing criticism of Lévi-Strauss as a thinker is far more severe than any criticism of his work as an anthropologist could be. First, Lévi-Strauss had already been called out by specialists in anthropology for errors in data and second, if, as he affirmed, his sole concern was a way to structure his data and not the content itself, then, when Derrida picked holes in the method, the entire notion of “structure” collapsed. As Derrida explained his own impact, “For lack of expressly posing this problem, we condemn ourselves to transforming the claimed transgression of philosophy into an unperceived fault in the interior of the philosophical field.”

Derrida noted that the concept of the structure, as the “interior of the philosophical field,” was “totalizing.” Either Structuralism was empirical or it was not. If it was empirical and aspired to totalization, then the transplanting the techniques of linguistics to the field of anthropology is a reflection of the desire to totalize the materials of anthropology. If the structure provided a means of controlling (through an unacknowledged center) the vast data of anthropological materials, then it is totalizing. However, Derrida located the whiff of metaphysics at the heart of the method which was supposed to be empirical. This presence of metaphysics at the heart of empirical science was another “scandal.” The “center” had always always been a factor in human philosophy: in the spiritual age, it was God, who “organized” the world, in the scientific worlds, the center was rational thought, and with Structuralism, it was revealed, in some sense, that the center was constructed or was a deliberate, not transcendent, construct. This revelation of the constructed nature of human thought was, as Derrida put it, a “rupture” or an “event” in the field of philosophy.

The “rupture” was an acknowledgement that totalization, i.e., the structure, was driven by desire to control all elements. Desire is “irrational” or unconscious and cannot be accounted for and like God stands outside the Structure. Desire drives not just the structurally of the structure but also the way in which it contains its interior elements. Derrida noted that Structuralist anthropology began as a comparison of cultures with the West as the “center” or the point of “origin” being the standard by which all other societies are measured and evaluated. The West may be a convenient starting point for Western anthropologists and it may be a useful center, but by establishing European cultures as the center, there is a suggestion of superiority and Eurocentricism sneaks in, contaminating the work. The possible contamination of the research is not at issue here: the problem is that this center or what Derrida called “the central presence” cannot be accounted for or escapes evaluation and cannot be compared to anything else.

In contrast to classical philosophy, which privileged the “presence” and the “intention” of the speaker which indicates a conscious subject creating the signified, Structuralism stressed the signifier which rendered the “speaker” unconscious or acted upon by language. Derrida acknowledged that it is impossible to do without structures or without centers and, what is important to acknowledge is that the role of the structure is to manage the freeplay or the excess. However, the excess, the supplementaries of the Structure need to be taken into account. Given that here are elements that escape control, it is important to consider the possibly of “freeplay” or excesses to proscribe interpretation. As Derrida pointed out, Lévi-Strauss was quite aware of the internal problems within his system. He “named” this problem as excess or supplementary–elements that could not be contained within the structure. But for Lévi-Strauss these “supplementals” a term he also used, were interesting but not important to his entire project. Derrida, however, pounced upon these elements that could not be contained by the system–“freeplay”–and argued for allowing all aspects of the discourse to be mobilized.

The “rupture” of which Derrida spoke was the realization that “the center is not the center,” in other words the center is conceived of as inside the Structure but in order to function, it must not be “seen” or acknowledged and therefore must exist outside the structure/system. The Structure contains the play and play is integral to the structure itself. Given the importance of play all meaning becomes discourse. The transmutation of fixed and centered (transcendental) meaning into discourse or constructed meaning. The signs which operate within the discourse point to other signs which, in turn, indicate other signs, and so on until meaning is unfixed and unbounded and de-centered. What has been recognized by the play among signs is “history” itself, as Derrida explained,

Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternativeof presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around.

The assertion of the importance of the Other to the Center–Play which should be free was also the expression of an outsider to the entire edifice of Western philosophy. The role of Outside temperamentally suited the young Derrida, still being supervised by Jean Hippolyte, in his relative youth and in his status as one of the “colonized” from Algeria. The method Derrida deployed against Lévi-Strauss was that of what was then called “close reading,” which would be named later as Deconstruction. Derrida, in order to remain Outside, became a writer who read the works of others, analyzed the texts and found buried or unrealized inconsistencies within the writing and, as if under his spell, these discourse gave up their buried surpluses, their hidden excesses, and were allowed their moment of freeplay. Derrida had no wish to de-construct in terms of destruction. He was quite able to come to terms with the “irreducible differences,” he found in the works of Lévi-Strauss. Derrida argued “..we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference..” a statement that predicted the direction his own take on philosophy which would be based on what he would call “différance,” “difference” misspelled with a “silent” “a.” In the end he gave the listeners at the Symposium a prelude of things to come,

I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing-but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

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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Jacques Derrida and Post-Structuralism

JACQUES DERRIDA (1921 – 2004)

The Path to Post-Structualism

Jacques Derrida was a notoriously difficult philosopher to comprehend, especially for Americans, who are baffled by his writing style and his purpose. Americans, being pragmatic, prefer ideas that can be applied to the real world and Derrida’s works seems to belong to the realm of the esoteric and untethered from actuality. Certainly, for English speakers, Continental philosophy is challenging. English sentences are relatively brief, constructed in terms of beginning middle and end. German sentences are characterized by their often extreme length–pages in some instances–their many digressions and add-ons–and the oddity of the verb at the end. French writers, that is those who write non-fiction, tend to layer their texts. The writer has a point to make and makes it and then makes it another way and then makes the same point yet another way. Derrida, however, needs to be approached, not was an ordinary philosopher, but as a poet of sorts. Basically, he was a reader who read the works of other philosophers and who then writes about the writings of others. Derrida is also a reader who reads and contemplates words and enjoys playing with words and creates word play. If one wanted to visualize his books, a flock of starlings would be a good analogy: the flock swoops in one graceful direction and then gathers itself together to swarm off in another arc. The reader of Derrida needs only to follow along and enjoy the ride.

In retrospect it is interesting to note how many French philosophers were impacted by Algeria, Jean-François Lyotard taught there, Pierre Bourdieu did his military service there and studied the sociology of the post-colonial nation, and Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, both Jewish were born there. In the article, Algeria’s Impact on French Philosophy: Between Poststructuralist Theory and Colonial Practice (2011) Muriam Haleh Davis listed these notables:

What were the implications of Algeria’s role in social theory, and how do we make sense of the fact that the list of thinkers directly influenced by events in Algeria — Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Michel Foucault — reads as a canonical list of French philosophers?>

In Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots (2010), Pal Ahuluwalia made the case that the end of (French) colonialism in Algeria also marked an end of all of the promises of Modernism. On one hand, the Enlightenment had high ideas and made extravagant promises, while at the same time its agents busily conquered and colonized non-Western lands in its zeal for imperialism. Modernity was full of contradictions that imploded under their own weight. As Ahuluwalia noted, the attacks on received wisdom came from marginalized outsiders, such as Derrida and Cixous, who were pushed to the fringes because they were Jewish. He stated, “the most vigorous dismantling of the assumptions of Western intellectual orthodoxy comes from its margins” Cixous referred to the generation of French philosophers who came of age in the 1960s as the “incorruptibles.” Indeed, most of this group had outsider status and, having no vested interests in the status quo, proved to be the most trenchant critics of established modes of thought, hence “incorruptible.”

Derrida described himself as “little black and very Arab Jew” and indeed, in some of the pictures of him as a young man, when the light is right, he is notably darker than his companions, but in other images, he is not “little black” at all. It can be presumed that Derrida was expressing his personal feeling of being marginalized. His biographer Benoît Peeters described his intellectual life as an outsider who was at the heart of French thought, a man in the middle who always stood somewhat apart from a society that had named him alien. It is predictable that it would be he, in an act of audacity, who would put Structuralism under an analytic spotlight and would challenge its leading thinker, Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is interesting that one of Derrida’s first forays into the writing of Lévi-Strauss is an oblique accusation of ethnocentric thinking uncovered in Tristes Tropiques (1955). This popular book by Lévi-Strauss is neither fish nor fowl, both biography, memoir, and an anthropological of his time in Brazil that is more anecdotal than scientific. In his essay, “The Violence of the Letter: From Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau,” published in Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida enlarged upon an essay, “Nature, Culture and Writing” published in Cahier pour l’analyse. Indeed, as Benoît Peeters reported in Derrida: A Biography (2012), Lévi-Strauss himself responded to the analysis by writing to the editors,

..aren’t you playing a philosophical farce by scrutinizing my texts with a care that would be more justified if they had been written by Spinoza, Descartes or Kant? Frankly I don’t think that what I write is worth so much fuss, especially Tristes Tropiques, in which I didn’t claim to be setting out any truths, merely the daydreams of an ethnographer in the field–I’d be the last to say there is any coherence in them.

Whether or not Tristes Tropiques was “serious” enough to bear the weight of Derrida’s analysis is perhaps immaterial for the younger philosopher found a contradiction, unrealized by the anthropologist at the heart of this book. In Lévi-Strauss chapter, “The Writing Lesson,” there is an assumption of the superiority of writing illustrated when the anthropologist handed out pencils to the supposedly untouched native tribe in Brazil. But this move against Tristes Tropiques was not the serious attack on Lévi-Strauss, that would be a paper given by Derrida, not in France, but on the shores of provincial America, at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This now famous paper, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences,” would deliver a coup de grâce to Structuralism on the very day when this relatively recent philosophical trend was being “introduced” to America.

The year was 1966 and Derrida was a young upstart, looking to make his mark. Writing in Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2012, Bret McCabe discussed this famous event. “Structuralism’s Sampson” is about how and why such an important event took place in, of all places, America. The conference was organized by René Girard, Chair of the Romance Languages Department, Richard Macksey, and Eugenio Donato as “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium. A number of philosophical notables, such as, according to McCabe, “Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Lacan, Charles Morazé; former Johns Hopkins faculty Georges Poulet, Guy Rosolato, Nicolas Ruwet, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Johns Hopkins faculty Neville Dyson- Hudson, Donato, Girard, and Macksey.” The Belgium scholar, Luc de Heusch, would not attend and Derrida was a last minute fill-in. Although very junior to most of the speakers, he came well armed. McCabe recounted how J. Hillis Miller missed Derrida’s paper, given on the last night of the symposium, and heard from his colleague Georges Poulet: “I have just heard the most important lecture of the conference—it’s against everything that I do but it was the most important lecture.”


Jacques Derrida

This statement by Poulet proved to be prophetic, for, in retrospect it seemed evident that a single paper took the “structuralist” turn and diverted it to “post-structuralism,” which in the case of Jacques Derrida would become a branch of philosophy called “Deconstruction. In America all of these French tendencies were lumped together into a rather reductive version called “theory.” In his book From the New Critics to Deconstruction. The Reception of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1988), Art Berman noted the uneven and un-chronologial publications of French philosophy. Berman explained, in part, that

Culler’s Structuralist Poetics was published in the United States in 1976, by which time the publication in France of Derrida’s De la grammatologie, which inaugurates post-structualism, is an even seven years old. Of Grammatology was published in the United States in 1976; yet de Man’s Blindness and Insight, which relies upon Derrida, was published in 1971, the year before Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language (1972), analysis of basic structuralist assumptions and preceding post-structuralism.

Today’s students are fortunate to have access to most of the philosophical works of this and the pre-war period, translated from French, German, Russian, Czech, and so on but it is important to have a sense of chronology and context. In order to understand the break announced by Derrida it is important to understand just what it was about Structuralism that left it so vulnerable to attack. Part of its vulnerability was Structuralism’s claim to “science” and “empiricism”and it is this very aspiration towards certainty and rigor that Derrida would target. The next post will discuss The Metaphysics of Structuralism.

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

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

[email protected]

Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part Two

Discours/Figure (1971)

Part Two: Veduta

In 1971, in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s 1966 presentation Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, the Deconstruction of Structuralism was well under way. Jean-François Lyotard proposed the Figural which opens the discourse to heterogeneity (multiplicity) by introducing a difference that cannot be rationalized or subsumed within the rule of representation. Because of its attachment to vision (the eye) the figural cannot be brought under the logic of identity as an opposition to the text. Discourse is not the opposite of the Figure; the Figural is not the opposite of the Discursive. The discursive system cannot deal with the singularity or the disruption of the figure. The Figural is not the figurative but because it is embedded in vision/seeing, the figural is linked to art making. Politically, the Figure is that which rebells against a system (of language) and resists the totalizing effects of the linguistic network, marking the subversion of that which has been repressed. Psychologically, the Figure is the (Freudian) denial of that which is desired through negation. Historically, the Figure is the event, that which disrupts history and interrupts its supposed trajectory. The Figure breaks through the seamless Discourse as a ghost which haunts its conquerer.

Like Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectics (1969) a few years earlier, Lyotard insisted upon the singularity against totality or “identity thinking.” The figural (the eye) marks this resistance to the text, a coexistence of incommensurable heterogeneous spaces, that of text and the figure. The discursive is actually interwoven with the figural and vice-versa. As Lyotard explained,

Only from within language can one get to and enter the figure. One can get to the figure by making clear that every discourse possesses its counterpart, the object of which it speaks, which is over there, like what it designates in a horizon: sight on the edge of discourse. And one can get in the figure without leaving language behind because the figure is embedded in it. One only has to allow oneself to slip into the well of discourse to find the eye lodged at its core an eye of discourse in the sense that at the center of the cyclone lies an eye of calm. The figure is both without and within.

In 1856 it was Karl Marx who said, “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary” and so it is that the figure is always haunting discourse. In January 2014, mathematician Vlad Ionescu explained,

The figural is exactly that which comes as Unheimlich into language, breaking it into forms (visual and linguistic) that fall short in comprehending. It is not a mere variation on the sharable language but precisely an effect that this language fails to grasp in its own syntax and morphology.

The figural cannot be comprehended and becomes an ungovernable excess or alterity that disrupts the illusion of transparency that drives discourse. The figure “points” away from discourse, calling attention to the unauthorized Other that lies outside the boundaries of text. The act of pointing is referential or indicative of something else, and its function is both paradoxically necessary to and disruptive of signification. Designation is figural and introduces the visible to textual space but immediately seeks to suppress the necessary but disruptive Other. The sensible, i.e. sensory, field is absolutely heterogeneous and impure, and this encounter between textuality and vision (the eye) happens at the edges of discourse, around the periphery. The figural, then, is the Other, rejected by semiotics or phenomenological theory, but returns persistently in the realm of the visual arts, where it is allowed to exist.

For Lyotard, deconstruction is the account of figurality by suggesting a plurality or multiplicity (heterogeneity), not an opposition, as the characteristic of the differential nature of the sign. He introduced an alterity of the visible into the textual space of linguistic signification. In so doing, Lyotard was refuting the rules of discourse which define the space of communication but he is also foregrounding the fact that in order for a purely textual discourse to function, the figural must be repressed. The philosopher locates this repression of the figural by the textual in the history of the visual arts. In an italicized chapter in the middle of Discourse, Figure, “Veduta” Lyotard noted that while Medieval manuscripts allowed text and image to coexist, by the Renaissance the figure was excluded from the text and was given its own and separate field, the visual arts, i.e. painting. The total separation would take time and lingering instances of heterogeneity within works of art, in which two systems of visual communication coexist in unresolved differentiation. In Massacio’s Trinity (1427-8) below, a flat Romanesque armature encases a deep Renaissance space with contains a sculptural body of a crucified Christ.


Trinity (1427-8)

Lyotard understood that Renaissance perspective was a totalizing and constructed system of en-visioning that was totally divorced from actual vision. Like the camera obscure which cut off peripheral vision and thus flattened the curved field created by the human eye/s, the result of perspective was a “cube” that was “closed” as opposed to a curved space which is “open.” The example that Lyotard used in Discourse, Figure was one put forward by Pierre Francastel (1900-1970) who wrote on The Tribute Money (1425) by Masaccio (1401-1428). The Tribute Money below demonstrated a very rare example of an open, not closed, visual space. Technically, the painting is an example of a “continuous narrative,” or a story told across time in three scenes in the same expanded space. This is a Medieval convention carried over into the Early Renaissance. Thus, the “figure” of the tax collector who both initiates the movement through time but who also shifts in time himself, pivoting from center stage to stage right is the Figural that disrupted the Discourse of Renaissance perspective.


The Tribute Money (1425)

Perspective depends upon the fiction of one eye at one point in time immobilized within a net of orthogonal lines meeting at the vanishing point of a horizontal horizon line. The Figural (the tax collector dressed in orange) cannot be contained within this field of representation. Indeed the role of the tax collector functions like the Figure itself–he points, he designates, he references to that which is beyond the peripheral vision of the paralyzed eye and the flattened plotted space of the cube. This gesturing of the over “here” and then the indication of the passing of time which goes over “there” is the deixis, the “pointing outside itself,” as Bill Readings expressed it. But Lyotard had an even more radical example of two heterogeneous “spaces” co-exising, however uneasily, without ever being reconciled to each other.

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) was painted one hundred years after Masaccio’s didactic narrative of “the tribute money.” Less a story and more a presentation of the French ambassadors to the court of King Henry VIII, The Ambassadors shows two sharp-dressed men standing in a shallow space, backed by a green brocade curtain. The two fashionable ambassadors, looking older than two men in their twenties, flank, bookend, a set of open shelves crowded with symbols of diplomacy and religious principles and scientific endeavors–in other words, discourse. But oddly, at the bottom of the painting is a distorted skull, an anamorphosis or an object from another system of vision. When viewed by the mobile spectator from a skewed angle, the skull becomes apparent or enters into the space to the right of the center of the centralized perspectival space of the Ambassadors themselves. Regardless of what it may or may not symbolize, the skull, from a Lyotardian point of view, is the Figural, another space, another form of seeing embedded in and disrupting Renaissance space.


Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors (1533)

The Ambassadors indicates that the position of art is a denial of the position of discourse. The skull is the returned of the repressed, the persistence of the negativity that is always present at the heart of the positivity of rationalized space. The position of art indicates a function of the figure, in this case the skull, which is not signified, indicating that this disruptive function haunts the edge of and/or within discourse. The symbols in this painting are transcended by the figure, that is to say, a spatial manifestation of the skull which the linguistic space of the Ambassadors cannot incorporate without being overthrown, an exteriority which cannot be interiorized as a signification, because what the skull “means” is not important. The skull, in a Lyotardian analysis, is art as plasticity, not textuality, art as desire, not discourse, art as a curved extension, not the cube, in the face of totalizing invariance and all consuming reason. The skull is about the eye and its (repressed) desires as explained by Sigmund Freud.

Lyotard used Postmodernism to introduce figurality by suggesting that a figural work of art is to block together motivated and unmotivated language. According to Bill Readings in Introducing Lyotard. Art and Politics, “blocking together” is overprinting or superimposition, an occupation of the same space by two things, while each remaining distinct. This “blocking” is a form of Dream Work–apparently unrelated objects lying adjacent, denying their unspoken meaning. Blocking permits denial of desire through negativity: “this is not my mother,” as Sigmund Freud pointed out means “this is my mother:” Die Verneinung. Linear or Renaissance perspective was understood as a kind of text that produces a fiction of “space” based upon straight lines at the expense of and the exclusion of the Other or curved lines. But Lyotard insisted on the presence of heterogeneity of curved space in vision and insisted on a different kind of seeing at the margin of vision, seen in the veduta of Canaletto’s distorted perspective of a townscape. The denied, Verneinung, asserts itself by its negation and the curved space of the eye’s “savage” vision strains against the cubed boundaries of Canaletto’s frames. The presentation of only one possible construction–the box of the camera obscura–deforms all others compared to a pluralistic presentation of numerous focal points and the viewer can choose among them indifferently.

As in The Tribute Money, Lyotard thought of time figurally, rather than as an ordered sequence of moments and attempted to think time otherwise than by a means of historical discourse with its presumed teleology. He understood the Postmodern as a temporal aproria or a gap in the thinking of time caused by the time of the “event.” Lyotard championed the style of hyperrealism as a temporal freezing, in which a moment–an arbitrary “event” is arrested by the snapshot, disrupting the “flow” of time itself. The figural force of this event/that moment over “there” gestures to and disrupts the possibility of thinking of history as a succession of moments. The postmodern is a rethinking of a culture. The Postmodern is necessarily a figure for the modern discourse.

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

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Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art


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.

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The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part One


Part One

Writing in the second volume of his important book, A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee attempted to describe the moment/s in which the “Modern” ended and the “Post-Modern” began. He asserted, although Europeans and “North Americans” were unaware of what was happening, that the Modern Age was winding down in “the aftermath of the General War of 1792-1815.” Toynbee was referring to the period between the French Revolution and the final fall of Napoléon. It was during these decades that the Age of Reason was refuted by the Age of Terror, total war, and democracy and equality were delayed by a ruthless dictator bent on ruling Europe. These years of irrational and regressive political actions were also precisely the years that, in art history, marked the end of Neo-Classicalism and the establishment of Romanticism. Toynbee wrote that “…the Modern Age of Western History had been wound up only to inaugurate a Post-Modern Age pregnant with tragic experiences.” In referring to the well-to-do economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the political winners of the the Enlightenment, he continued, “They were imagining that, for their benefit a sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay in a suddenly inaugurated timeless present.” Toynbee wrote that the privileged of this Modern society were somehow able to overlook the continued inequalities. The historian described a kind of willful blindness to the fact that, in a modern age, monarchies and colonialism and imperialism simply could not continue and “must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s ‘ever-rolling stream.'” The Late Modern Age (1675-1875), according to Toynbee, “is one of the great Ages of Faith—Faith in Progress and in Human Perfectibility…A Faith that has lived three hundred years dies hard…” the historian asserted, adding that this Faith took “a knock-out blow in A.D. 1914.” His tone and style of writing is decidedly old fashioned, an attempt to look into the soul of twenty three civilizations to understand their rise and fall. One of the last of the historians who were were ambitious enough to delve into a broad sweep of historical forces, Toynbee’s approach favored the spiritual or moral (or psychological) forces of history. For example, he indicted the moral failure of American democracy and the European refusal to deal fairly with the proletariat or the poor and lower classes. Toynbee’s twelve volume history was published between 1934 and 1961 and was abridged in the early 1950s into two volumes. However, by the time of the completion of the long publication process, his style of history had gone out of vogue and attacks on his approach damaged his reputation. And yet, Toynbee presented a cogent and insightful analysis of how the Age of Faith gave way to the Post-Modern time of disillusion. By the end of the Second World War the damage to the Faith in Reason was irreparable. It was only after the final war was over and the Western world contemplated the smoldering ruins that the extent of the loss in Faith became clear. Modernism or the Modern Age was historically linked to the Enlightenment and its doctrines of human perfection through the forces of reason, its hopes of political equality and its drive towards Progress. Reason replaced Faith and Culture replaced Nature. The Modern period was marked by a new desire to cultivate and master Nature and this sense that nature could be controlled came to characterize Modernism. In the early decades, technology seemed to be a miracle which transformed an entire continent from an agrarian one into a site of industry and manufacture. It would take over one hundred years for the price of the Industrial Revolution and the relentless impetus of technology to be fully realized—the pollution of the water and air, the toll on human beings, and the spoliation of nature itself. The idea that rational thinking would lead to inhumane rationalism did not occur to the Enlightenment philosophers whose task was not to foretell futures but to replace God with philosophy. But the German (Nazi) use of logic, reason and rational thinking had lethal consequences. Given the appropriate technology, the human being could take the place of God with the powers of life and death—even to the extent of attempted extermination of an entire people. Philosophers have traced the logical consequences of scientific farming, selective breeding of animals, urban planning, and the hierarchical ordering of people according to skin color, to the ultimate act of rationalization, the Holocaust. After the Second World War, the Frankfurt School, an important precursor to Post-Modernist theory, would claim that the Enlightenment brought only darkness. “How was it possible to write poetry “after Auschwitz?” asked Theodor Adorno of artists. It seems to be the task of the Postmodern generation to ponder the problem of the monstrous potential of limitless inhumanity in an age of absolute disillusionment and cynicism. Postmodernism arrived as a mind set at the same time the international culture awaited another millennium. The war ended with the losers–Germany and Japan–becoming the economic victors and the military winners–England and France–losing status and empires and self-respect. Once again, exhausted, decimated and destroyed, Italy was lost in the shuffle. America and Russia took on the respective roles of Good and Evil as Western and Eastern Europe faced each other in a long ideological war of threat and counter-threat, a chess game of never-enacted virtual reality, a simulacrum of ultimate annihilation by apocalyptic weapons, build, cherished but never launched. The Cold War, ending only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was played out between neo-imperialist Euro-American powers in theaters of color–Algeria, Korea, Viet Nam, exotic locales where nasty little wars could be carried out without inconveniencing the Superpowers at home.

The French Connection

What is remarkable about the post-war period is the extent to which American and European powers continued the same policies of empire and imperialism and inequality without regard to ethics of morality—after Toynbee had spent decades describing these very conditions as the reasons why cultures failed. If the Modern Age failed and gave way to the Post-Modern with the beginning of the First World War, then, by the end of the conflict filled century a consciousness arose of something that could be called in a self-conscious way “Postmodernism,” of the state of being in the Post-Modern Age. The awareness of the cultural condition of “Postmodernism” could be separated from “Postmodernity,” which is a more specific concept. Postmodernity is a social and cultural state characterized by globalization and computer-based technology. That said, it is convenient to point out that Postmodernism, as a time period, played out in two different arenas, Europe and America. For America, 1968 was a year of assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—and all the cultural leaders of change were wiped away. For America, the sixties were over and were followed by an age of self-indulgence and disco. For Europe, that year was one of revolutions and uprisings, none more notorious than that in Paris, the events called “May ’68.” In his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2010), Richard Wolin described the rise and fall of the Marxist student and worker attempt to change France during a hot spring month. The time of revolution, long predicted by Marxist theory, had finally come—the masses had risen up, but, like most modern revolutions, this one lacked leaders and a coherent agenda. While everyone gave up, went home and accepted the reimposition of the status quo, the long term impact of “May ’68” played itself out among the scholars and intellectuals. As Wolin expressed it, “By the time the dust had cleared, many of France’s leading intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tel Quel group—had been swept up in this giddy left-wing political vortex.” According to Wolin, the revolution that wasn’t

…had a strangely beneficial on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism and thereby helping to promote a new, more modest, and democratic cultural sensibility, for in the aftermath of the aftermath of the May revolt, when Maoism had reached its zenith, French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. Much of this development was captured by Foucault’s felicitous coinage: the specific intellectual had supplanted the universal intellectual. In a further nuance of twist, the democratic intellectual would replace the vanguard intellectual…

Founded in 1960, Tel Quel, both a publication and a group of leading intellectuals, including, Jean-louis Baudry, Pierre Boulez, Claude Cabantous, Hubert Damisch, Marc Devade, Jean-Joseph Goux, Denis Hollier, Julie Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacquelin Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rottenberg, Jean-Louis Schefer, Phillipe Sollers, Paule Thévenin, Jean Thibaudou, submitted a statement in the summer of 1968. They issued the following statement, We believe it necessary to call to mind the following points:

  1. we are not “philosophers,” “savants,” or “writers” according to the representative definitions admitted by a society whose material functioning and consequent theory of knowledge we attack;
  2. this theory of language, subjugated by the metaphysical category of expressivity, seems to us to constitute one of the ideological keys to the current situation, in that disastrous complicities between the worst reactionary conservatism and baseless revolutionism are able to “spontaneously” reveal themselves here;
  3. we believe that the signifying activity of a given historical phase constitutes a decisive determinant of the transformative possibilities of that phase. The subordination of this specific level, the abandonment and the negation of its effects on consciousness and change, always coincides with an overdetermined regression by the state of things en acte, reinforcing themselves by means of local contestation;
  4. it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages;
  5. consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state;
  6. in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science);
  7. any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although the scholarly trend towards the intellectual postmodern project was well underway before Summer 1968, the stance of Tel Quel mirrored the changing social structure of French society. Founded in response to the Algerian war by a young men under the age of thirty, Tel Quel evolved from an apolitical literary review to an enterprise parallel to the seizure of art writing by the artists in New York, part of what was called in Paris, the “war of the reviews.” In contrast to the New York artists who merely wanted to explain their own art, the Tel Quel writers were deliberately avant-garde or what is called the engaged or activist intellectual—the public intellectual who deliberately courted controversy. This is a cultural role that simply did not and does not exist in America. The review was named Tel Quel after a 1943 book of poetry by Paul Valéry whose lectures at the Collège de France impacted Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and other French intellectuals who changed the face of “theory.” This literary review sought to separate “literature” from its isolated position of being a “fine art” or a creative enterprise and to join literature to a social activity. As Daniell Marx-Scouras pointed out in her book, Cultural Politics of Tel Quel. Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (1996), “This new interest in semiotics and psychoanalysis led to a reevaluation of language, which was no longer viewed as a mere instrument or decoration but rather as a sign and a truth.” She continued, “…the preoccupation with language during the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in effect, a political gesture.” Marx-Scouras quoted Roland Barthes, a frequent contributor to Tel Quel as saying, “The origin of semiology was political to me.”

The Postmodern philosophers in Paris began the process of interrogating the canonical writings of the Enlightenment, from Rousseau to Freud. Jacques Lacan’s project of rewriting and rethinking the project of Sigmund Freud from a linguistic point of view. Indeed, the Postmodern reexamination of Modern philosophy was an interesting intersection of literary theory and philosophical thinking in which philosophy was considered as language. This linguistic turn appeared early, before “May ’68” with the formation of theories of “intertextuality” from Julia Kristeva and the first flurries of “deconstruction” from Jacques Derrida which appeared in Tel Quel.

In History of Poetics and Intertextuality (2008) Marko Juvan described the emergence of a phenomenon called “Theory” which rejected the notion of an aesthetic sphere for literature. He stated, Theory pushed aside Existentialism, Neo-Marxism and Structuralism. As Jovan stated,

Theory experienced a fashionable flowering among American scholars and then everywhere that globalization penetrated with its cultural industry and intellectual market on one hand, and local resistance against it on the other. In France, Theory originally took shape as a radically critical, often explicitly politicized, transdisciplinary, eclectic and daringly speculative discourse that problematized prevailing ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and values on which traditional learning and common sense rested…Theory pretentiously offered new and would-be universal explanations of the subject and its location by weaving together concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, mathematics, analytical philosophy, heideggerianism and Phenomenology.

In the year 1966, Deconstruction was “announced,” not in Paris, but in Baltimore, with a presentation by Jacques Derrida at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in which he critiqued the structuralist philosophy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s, Structuralism, a literary theory that used a “close reading” to analyze texts, was upended and Modernism in the arts had run their course. In the beginning of the 1970s, what would be called “Postmodern” ideas began to wend their way across the Atlantic.

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

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

[email protected]