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.

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