It didn’t look like a bird

Michael Wood

  • Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network by Caroline Levine
    Princeton, 173 pp, £19.95, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16062 7

‘Structures don’t take to the streets’ was a famous Paris slogan of 1968, ‘Les structures ne descendent pas dans la rue.’ The implication was that structuralists didn’t take to the streets either, that current thought and theory represented only quietism. There was an echo here of a grand debate between Sartre and Lévi-Strauss, in which Sartre represented himself as engaged in history and Lévi-Strauss as a mere aesthete, dedicated to just watching things. In his book The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss, rather surprisingly, accepted the charge of aesthete, adding a brilliant turn to his programme: ‘I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man.’ He added, with more than a little polemical mischief, that he was

not blind to the fact that the verb ‘dissolve’ does not in any way imply (but even excludes) the destruction of the constituents of the body subjected to the action of another body. The solution of a solid into a liquid alters the disposition of its molecules. It also often provides an efficacious method of putting them by so that they can be recovered in case of need and their properties be better studied.

Dissolving man was not going to get rid of people. Or streets or protests.

The interest of this argument is that it shows us how inseparable the slogan’s wit and interest are from its limitations. It’s true that structures don’t demonstrate – and that grammar doesn’t speak, that the unconscious doesn’t come out to play with the children of reason. But then some structures are already in the streets, in the form of barricades, buildings, student organisations, cadres of policemen, political ideologies. Grammar is everywhere in language, especially when it is ungrammatical; and the unconscious isn’t any less active for behaving like a secret agent. There is a real difference between history as Sartre understood it, a matter of visible human behaviour in time, and what Lévi-Strauss had come to call ‘structural anthropology’. In Tristes tropiques, he takes geology as his model of the science of what we can’t see, what we have to deduce:

Every landscape offers, at first glance, an immense disorder which may be sorted out howsoever we please. We may sketch out the history of its cultivation, plot the accidents of geography which have befallen it, and ponder the ups and downs of history and prehistory: but the most august of investigations is surely that which reveals what came before, dictated, and in large measure explains all the others.

He then associates geology with psychoanalysis, and a little later writes:

At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same way as geology and psychoanalysis … All three showed that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another; that true reality is never the most obvious of realities, and that its nature is already apparent in the care which it takes to evade our detection.

The ‘never’ in the last sentence is tendentious, and the assumption that the truth is always in hiding has led many scholars and students into trouble, not just psychoanalysts and literary critics. But the claim for different types of reality is attractive. We don’t have to deny history to be interested in structure; we can join the visible protest and also want to understand the invisible, intricately overdetermined grounds any protest is likely to have.

The debate between Lévi-Strauss and Sartre invited, almost ensured, certain consequences: the continuing achievements of structuralism in the social sciences and other disciplines; a growing philosophical and literary suspicion of structuralism’s universalising tendencies; a return to history as a way of rescuing the concrete and the local – since even structuralism’s enemies could be pretty abstract in their pursuit of implication. There were attempts to keep the two ways of thinking together. Raymond Williams wrote of ‘structures of feeling’ but didn’t forget expressions of feeling. Foucault’s metaphor of archaeology was loyal to Lévi-Strauss’s buried history but allowed constant connections to the visible history of the material world.

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