The myth of Structuralism

I was reading the introduction to Formalism and Structuralism, and it stroke me: as useful as it is to summarize and introduce the novelty of those literary theories at the time of their production, it seemed to me that as we intend to do so, we lose the “spirit” of those thinkers who, when they first intoduced those ideas, never thought about it as well defined static concepts, or as a school (what we call “Russian Formalism”, “Structuralism”) or if they did, were still very well aware of the individuality of their own work…

therefore, we think about them as a group of people, and we rationalize their ideas, organize them, make link between them, forgetting that…

1. their “theories” were created based on a real contact with the object of their observation, wether it be the reality of language and its materiality (Saussure, Jakobson), literature (Schlovsky and his love for Tolstoï), society (Barthes’ ambiguous relationship with the “Bourgeoisie” of his times…)…their theories sometimes seem like an epidermic, necessary, intimate reaction with the object of their studies. Behind the production of a theory is an affect that it is necessary to take in account if ourselves want to understand the vitality of those ideas  and what was really at stake.

2. as we study them, we select what suits the topic of our studies. In the introduction to structuralism (p.53-55) , the authors mention Barthes “most important books) (p.54)… amongst those books, one would not find Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Le Plaisir de lire (The Pleasure of the Text) or La Chambre claire (Camera Lucida), books that actually show how Barthes incorporate structuralism (defined here as the awareness of the fact that communication, including Art such as photography or literature, is a system of signs) in his own intimate relationship with a woman, a text or his past… it makes him look “dry”, it makes his work seem so abstract when it is actually so concrete

…a few years ago (2007) T.Todorov had to write a book (La Littérature en péril/ Literature in danger) to explain exactly this, how he felt that his own work (and the work of his fellows structuralists) had been misunderstood and had led to the exact opposite of his intentions: him who had to choose linguistics as the only way to study literature in a political context that did not allow any intellectual to freely study the history of ideas, did it out of love, passion maybe, for texts and books… and the use of the concepts that he analysed, applied in the French literature classes, seemed to take the students away from the very essence of texts, the emotions that they convey, letting them play, unconvinced, with tropes and narrative concepts they don’t care about.

(“Une conception étriquée de la littérature, qui la coupe du monde dans lequel on vit, s’est imposée dans l’enseignement, dans la critique et même chez nombre d’écrivains. Le lecteur, lui, cherche dans les oeuvres de quoi donner sens à son existence. Et c’est lui qui a raison.” T. Todoriv, La Littérature en péril)

3.  we could also analyze Formalism and Structuralism as signs in the intellectual westerner system of culture nowadays. Indeed, haven’t those names (Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida…) become “signs” , often quoted in scholars speech as ultimate references and signs of an extended personal knowledge?

And we could also, as Barthes invites us to do, question the mythology of the mythologist. for example, what is this “Bourgeoisie” so strongly criticized in Mythologies if not a new mythology in the 60-70s’ system of thoughts (and in Barthes’ too ), that has the function of the antagonist, the Big Evil trying to crush  the Youth revolution, the unconventional Truth? a sign in a new system?

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3 thoughts on “The myth of Structuralism

  1. I like how you propose that Formalism and Sructuralism are already signs in our western academic system. I noticed that when someone pronounce those names, writers or intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals, suddenly take a new power: those names provide them with the opportunity to belong to a new sphere, the sphere of “knowledge”. So these names provide a new sign for those who pronounce them, a hide sign, like Barthes mentioned, a sign of power.

  2. Hi Anne-Claire,

    Wow – reading this was very interesting for me! I feel like you are a bit of an expert in this area, especially keeping your mind your educational background in France where I know that the Structuralists are studied very closely. I especially liked the point that you made at the beginning of your post that their theories were the result of very close contact with and observation of the world around them and the historical and social conditions that existed in that world at that specific time – I feel that this is very important to obtaining a holistic understanding of the situation. Very interesting read and I look forward to continuing the discussion in future classes, readings, and blog posts!

    Gabby Badica

  3. I found your entry on structuralism holistic and very helpful. I wonder what do you think about Barthes myth seen as metalanguage. his system of myths tends to bring together the signifiers based on similarity, that’s why he considers books and photographs similar.

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