Roger Poole on the seductions and dangers of structuralism
- Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida edited by John Sturrock
Oxford, 190 pp, £5.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 19 215839 2
John Sturrock’s little book is the best single guide to its subject that has yet appeared. Structuralism and Since demands, though, that its title be taken literally. It traces, technically and without concession to idle curiosity, the course of ‘structuralism’ in its modern phase – from the moment when it achieved new importance in the work of Lévi-Strauss in the early Sixties, through its development and extensions in the work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, to its present position, which is known either as ‘post-structuralism’ or simply as ‘deconstruction’.
It is significant that it should bear the date 1979, though, for it is very much a book which closes and summarises the ideas of two decades, not a book which opens a new decade of inquiry. The clarity and incisiveness with which all five experts write on their chosen author is due in part to this time factor: 20 years have passed, and the stirring and often ambiguous movements of the Sixties and Seventies can now get what seems like a definitive ‘placing’. Indeed, the sheer expertise of these five essays, the sense of there being nothing significant to add after a 20-page summary, makes one realise how much time has passed since Foucault published, in 1966, what was then an almost incomprehensible book, Les Mots et les Choses, and since Lacan published, in the same year, what was agreed on all sides to be an absolutely incomprehensible book, Ecrits.
To read Dan Sperber on Lévi-Strauss, Hayden White on Foucault, or Malcolm Bowie on Lacan, is to realise that the terrain, until recently so inhospitable, has been expertly mapped, the rough places made plain, and pleasant bowers and seats arranged for the ascending traveller at just the conceptual altitude where he will feel the need for them. The subject of structuralism, and its offshoot, ‘post-structuralism’, has been mastered. It has become a matter of knowledge almost, rather than opinion. Brilliantly expounded, with cracking pace and unflappable self-confidence, the book is a mine of information and an indispensable primer to anyone who comes to the subject fresh and ready to make a new conquest, just as it is an extraordinarily adept configuration of the field for those who may come to the subject weary from old failures to understand, or convinced that it is either marginal or obscure.
What is strikingly original is that the five expositors, each of them a well-known expert in his field, have chosen to expound the central contentions (the ‘facts’, the ‘subject’, the ‘materials’ which have been the concern of the five mages) in terms of the rhetorical assumptions and tropes that the mages have used when writing. It was one of the central contentions of structuralism in its early days that what we had to study was not so much discrete ‘things’ in isolation, but bundles of relationships, binary pairs, transformations within a system, and so on. Consequently, each one of the five mages developed a special or characteristic rhetorical cast, slant or habit with respect to his ‘materials’, and it is in terms of these characteristic rhetorical slants that the story of their achievement is now told. And it makes a great deal of sense.’ Meta-treatments are here subject to meta-description, and the gain in ‘primary’ comprehension is enormous.
It is very fitting that Dan Sperber, approaching the vast oeuvre of Claude Lévi-Strauss, should begin with a simple matter, the trope (which is almost a habit of thought) which Lévi-Strauss uses most consistently in his work: ‘One of his favourite figures is a fairly rare form of “abstract for concrete” substitution, or synecdoche, whereby a quality is used as an equivalent for the person or thing which possesses it: a calabash is referred to as a “container”, the beverage in it as the “contained”.’ But this is only part of the story of this ‘tropical’ way of processing thought: ‘These abstract synecdoches become the instruments of a second favourite figure of speech: antithesis ... The more elaborate synecdoches enable the antithesis to be further developed into a chiasmus, or “symmetrical inversion” in Lévi-Strauss’s terms.’
How often, in reading through one of his analyses, has one not been thrown by some sudden swerve, some unexpected transformation in the structure? This goes a long way to explaining why. Dan Sperber suggests that there is some particularly satisfying ‘fit’ between this rhetorical cast of mind and the thought processes of ‘Untamed Thinking’: ‘There is an interesting relationship between Lévi-Strauss’s way of thinking and that of people who tell myths. It is not one of similarity but complementarity: Lévi-Strauss tends, as we have seen, to represent a concrete object by one of its abstract properties; this makes him particularly apt at unravelling the thought of people who tend, contrarily, to represent an abstract property by some concrete object which possesses it, i.e. people given to using a “concrete for abstract” form of synecdoche.’
This is, of course, not all there is to it, and Dan Sperber has some hard things to say about this use of synecdoche. For instance, later on, he suggests that Lévi-Strauss achieves some of his more spectacular results through an abuse of synecdoche. He also claims that Lévi-Strauss does not often refer to a formula for myth which he says is basic to it, and has no interest in finding the ‘minimal elements’ of myth, which other, less inspired, workers could then move from as the basis of a unified scientific enterprise. He has not defined ‘mythemes’, nor has he put forward a grammar of myths. But with his pointing-up of synecdoche, Dan Sperber has illuminated a great deal.
Likewise, when Hayden White comes to account for the kind, or status, of the analysis that Michel Foucault has been producing (which is not philosophy, not sociology, not philology), he finds it useful to isolate a form of analysis which Foucault almost constantly uses – catachresis. ‘Wherever Foucault looks, he finds nothing but discourse: and wherever discourse arises, he finds a struggle between those who claim the “right” to discourse and those who are denied the right to their own discourse.’ So much, so to speak, for the ‘what’ of Foucault’s interests: the analysis of what he calls ‘the discourse of power’. But what of the ‘how’?
It is not surprising, then, that Foucault’s own discourse tends to assume the form of what the critic Northrop Frye calls the ‘existential projection’ of a rhetorical trope into a metaphysics. This rhetorical trope is catachresis, and Foucault’s style not only displays a profusion of the various figures sanctioned by catachresis, such as paradox, oxymoron, chiasmus, hysteron proteron, metalepsis, prolepsis, antonomasia, paronomasia, antiphrasis, hyperbole, litotes, irony, and so on; his own discourse stands as an abuse of everything for which ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ discourse stands. It looks like history, like philosophy, like criticism, but it stands over against these discourses as ironic antithesis ... Foucault’s ‘discourse about discourses’ seeks to effect the dissolution of Discourse. This is why I call it catachretic.
Vol. 2 No. 12 · 19 June 1980
SIR: Roger Poole says exceptionally kind things about the quality and usefulness of Structuralism and Since (LRB, 5 June): as that book’s editor, part author and main shareholder, I’m grateful to him. I am only sorry that the experience of reviewing it should have brought on a fit of such global despondency. Mr Poole comes to needlessly alarmist conclusions about what structuralists and deconstructionists are doing to the world. Why, I ask myself first, does he welcome the appearance of Structuralism and Since now, ‘as we turn into the Eighties, with resources of every kind running out’? Can he be planning to burn his review copy, in order to eke out dwindling supplies of heating oil, or what? Fossil fuels may be running out, intellectual resources are very obviously not. There are plenty of new and intricate arguments to try and understand, too many books and articles to keep in touch with. If intellectual resources were truly running out, there would have been no need for primers such as Structuralism and Since in the first place.
More serious is the political issue Mr Poole raises – the issue of deconstructionist ‘nihilism’. He worries that ‘the idea of the individual as legal and ethical subject within the State and before the Law’, is in jeopardy, and that the dignity or bravery of such men as Andrei Sakharov are menaced by Derrida’s notions of ‘absence’ and ‘textuality’. The idea of the individual as legal and ethical subject is neither sacrosanct nor unchanging in its form: it has evolved, it will evolve. It may be that the ideas introduced into the philosophical world by Derrida and Lacan will affect its evolution; more likely, given their refined and byzantine nature, they will not. These ideas could never annihilate the ‘idea of the individual’, nor, that I have heard, do they seek to. Selves may be fictions, but they are fictions we cannot do without; they are necessary expedients.
As for Sakharov, whatever he writes is susceptible of deconstruction. It is not inviolate simply because he has written it: it may contain just the kind of philosophical contradictions Derrida is so expert at detecting. Sakharov’s arguments are not guaranteed to be totally coherent by his courage in resisting persecution. It is demeaning to him to argue that he should be above suspicion of this kind. To detach the text of his statements from the man himself is actually to increase their power, since it is to elevate them to the level of ideas, not persons. Their author’s maltreatment is of no relevance to the analysis of his arguments. Mr Poole’s fears for mankind are entirely respectable, but they are misplaced in a review of the book in question. Deconstruction in no way entails nihilism. It does not evacuate meaning from the text it deconstructs, it adds to that meaning by showing at what point the writer has failed to be aware of his own presuppositions. It exhibits inconsistencies of argumentation. It is, as practised by Derrida himself, a form of scholasticism aimed incidentally at showing that language is inevitably the bearer of more meanings than we can any of us assume when we use it.
Vol. 2 No. 13 · 3 July 1980
SIR: I suspect the issue is a good deal more complicated than either Roger Poole (LRB, 5 June) or John Sturrock in your last issue is prepared to admit. There is no distinction between a man and what he writes, asserts Poole; there is an absolute distinction between a man and what he writes, asserts Sturrock, speaking for Derrida. But the central theme of art and thought since the Romantics has been a search for an answer to precisely this question: what is the relation between what a man is and what he says or does? For Wordsworth, Keats, Holderlin, Proust, Kafka, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Pinget (not to speak of Nietzsche and Freud), the lack of a clear answer to this question is a source of doubt, despair or exaltation, depending on the context. For Poole and Sturrock, the answer seems to be obvious. Of course it is much easier to hold to the single vision of either the biographical or the textual fallacy than to try to come to terms with something which is bound to remain problematic and mysterious. But surely we need to make that effort, and we could do worse than start from Keats’s lines on reading Chapman’s Homer:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer rules as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Keats’s experience is surely much closer to that of every good reader: he did not study a text or discover an ‘ethical subject’; he heard a voice. It is the complex relation between what we still call a writer’s ‘voice’ and the facts of his biography, social context etc that we need to grasp, and reference neither to ‘the text’ nor to ‘the ethical subject’ will help us there.
SIR: I am very grateful indeed to Mr Sturrock for writing as he did, in the last issue of the LRB, about my recent review of Structuralism and Since, because it allows me to make a matter of wider debate the ethical and political status of structuralism.
My reaction is: ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’! Very eminent practitioners of post-structuralism have ticked me off again and again for querying its destruction of the ethical subject, and this must show some sort of uneasy conscience in them. Recently, Jonathan Culler has written me a violent letter of complaint from Paris, his grounds being, apparently, that if a thing is sufficiently difficult technically, it is above ethical inquiry. Mr Sturrock makes the same assumption (twice) in his letter. Now Mr Sturrock writes (of Sakharov’s statement): ‘their author’s maltreatment is of no relevance to the analysis of his arguments.’ Try telling that to Sakharov, or to the millions in Russia whom he speaks for!
Only Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman, at Yale, seem to share my fears, and they do express them very explicitly in Deconstruction and Criticism. Harold Bloom worries that, in their effort to deconstruct the authorial subject, his colleagues may go so far as to destroy the meaningful subject as well. I share his fear, and am glad to find I have a powerful ally in him. Mr Sturrock writes:. ‘Deconstruction in no way entails nihilism.’ Very well. Then let him argue, not with me, but with Harold Bloom, who writes (Deconstruction and Criticism, page 4) of ‘de Man’s serene linguistic nihilism’ and of his ‘distinguished linguistic nihilism’. Let Mr Sturrock aim at the target, not at a mere observer!
SIR: Deconstruction? And about time too!
As a writer, I endeavour to make sure my work does deconstruct, and have progressed from deconstructing to reconstructing, using basic materials, with successful results; also incorporating some new stuff. As a result of this method of working, I set out to search for what is now being described; but this idea, let alone the word, didn’t seem to be causing any ripples in anybody’s literary flow in the Sixties and early Seventies, when I was trying to get to the bottom of what is proving to be the most ingenious verbal confidence trick since the serpent talked Eve into giving away her apple.
I look forward to hearing and reading more about this activity, and wish to offer encouragement – and material, possibly – to any who practise it, for I have been campaigning at length for such a structure in which to place my output. It’s matter for regret that Professor Goldberg (LRB, 22 May) can’t find a use for it, but personally, I find it has considerable inspirational possibilities – there’s a deal of timber in M. Derrida’s name alone.
Ham Street, Kent
Vol. 2 No. 16 · 21 August 1980
SIR: Mr Poole (Letters, 3 July), with whom I incline to agree, may also protest too much. The analysis of Sakharov’s argument has nothing to do with his maltreatment: i.e. there is an interpretative perspective which can eliminate the personal and social context of a text. If, for example, there were discovered to be flaws in a particular argument, these are internal to the text. Another question is, of course, possible: why did the author make the mistake? This is to move from text to one of the possible contexts. The author is eliminated only if that context is shown to have nothing at all to do with the text. Deconstructive criticism has been uninterested in this context; some deconstructionists have attempted to go beyond disinterest to prove the theoretical point; they have not been, to my mind, successful. Finally, there is a distinction between the ‘author’ and the ‘authorial subject’: the latter is a character within the text, and as such not necessarily any more coherent than any other character; the former is not a character in the text, even in an autobiographical text. It is possible for both readers and writers to confuse the two. Barthes’s work on ‘himself’ is a deliberate attempt to write ‘autobiographically’ without succumbing to that confusion.
University College, Cork