2021 (page 2 of 5)

Comment on “Memoirs of Women and Harvard” by Alice B. Kehoe

Editor’s note: The following essay is a response to “Memoirs of Women and Harvard” by Alice B. Kehoe, published on 9 August 2021 in Reviews. You can find the original essay here.

Alice Kehoe, in her review article, “Memoirs of Women and Harvard,” makes the following inaccurate assertion, “Cora Du Bois was there [Harvard’s Department of Anthropology] only because wealthy patron Doris Zemurray Stone recommended her for the chair the Zemurray family endowed specifically for a woman.” This was in the context of discussing Victoria R. Bricker’s book, Transformational Journeys: An Ethnologist’s Memoir (2017), in which Bricker mentions some of her experiences as a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard and references Du Bois’s mentoring of her.

Continue reading

Memoirs of Women and Harvard

Victoria R. Bricker. Transformational Journeys: An Ethnologist’s Memoir. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 106, part 5. 344 pp., illus. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2017.

Becky Cooper. We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence. 512 pp., notes. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2020.

That Harvard’s Department of Anthropology did not favor women is well-known. So well-known that some of it is pure myth. Contrary to a common story, women were not required to sit outside classrooms listening through the door. David Browman, who researched and wrote most of Anthropology at Harvard,[1] discovered that up until about 1925, professors could, if they wished, offer separate meetings of their classes, one for men and one for women. Harvard had a School for the Collegiate Instruction of Women that in 1893 became Radcliffe College, with its own campus and classrooms. During the 1920s, women began sitting in classrooms with men.[2] Women who earned an Anthropology PhD at Harvard received a Radcliffe diploma until 1963. Mine, in Spring 1964, may have been the first Harvard diploma in Anthropology issued to a woman.

Continue reading

‘Structures’ in Context

“Mythical thought, this bricoleur, builds structures by putting together events, or rather the residues of events, while science ‘at work,’ simply as a result of having been established, creates its means and its results in the form of events, thanks to the structures that it is ceaselessly producing and which are its hypotheses and theories.”

            Claude Lévi-Strauss, Wild Thought (2021[1962], 25-26).

“It is the hallmark of productive experimental systems that their differential reproduction leads to events that may induce major shifts in perspective within or even beyond their confines. In a way, they proceed by continually deconstructing their own perspective.”

           Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things (1997, 36).

“Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event,’ if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structuralor structuralistthought to reduce or suspect.”

            Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1978[1967], 278).

“Archaeology, however, must examine each event in terms of its own evident arrangement; it will recount how the configurations proper to each positivity were modified…it will analyze the alteration of the empirical entities which inhabit the positivities…it will study the displacement of the positivities each in relation to the others…lastly, and above all, it will show that the general area of knowledge is no longer that of identities and differences…but an area made up of organic structures, that is, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function…”

            Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970 [1966], 218).

“Although Foucault, in his analysis of the processes by means of which the classical episteme was replaced by our own, had proposed that these epistemes be seen as being discontinuous with each other, what he oversaw was that such a discontinuity, like the earlier discontinuity that had been effected by the classical episteme itself, was taking place in the terms of a continuous cultural field.

            Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” (2003, 318).

“This book has traced how epistemology and ethos emerged and merged over time and in context, one epistemic virtue often in point-counterpoint opposition to the others. But although they may sometimes collide, epistemic virtues do not annihilate one another like rival armies. Rather, they accumulate…”

            Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison, Objectivity (2007, 363).

***

If structuralism has implied a denial of history, does studying structuralism as a historical phenomenon mean denying its validity? What difference might it make to shift analytic attention from specific structuralists or structuralisms to structures as epistemic things?

The historical and current status of structures and structuralisms presents a panoply of apparent paradoxes. As early as the 1970s, the French anthropologist Dan Sperber (already on his way to becoming a cognitive scientist) wrote that few anthropologists had ever gained the fame of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and yet few had ever been so abstruse (1979, 19). Or, as Lorraine Daston noted more recently, although it was not all that long ago that the concept was absolutely “glittering,” there are few terms that seem as “dusty and dated” as structure does to historians of science today. And yet it doesn’t take an anthropologist to notice that, even if departments of anthropology have mostly relegated the study of structuralism to a week on French formalisms, buried in the middle of a syllabus, the term structure abounds outside of the academy—whether in discussions of structural inequality, structural racism, or structural reform.

Sixty years is a long time when it comes to epistemic tastes. The quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. It seems almost banal to note that structures of mind, language, or society—to say nothing of the purported universal relations among them—do not appear pressing or even promising as objects for historical or anthropological study. Almost, that is, because there is something rather remarkable about just how much the epistemic values guiding cultural anthropology and the history of science have changed—have nearly inverted—in the last half century.

One guiding aim of this Special Focus Section (SFS) is to grapple with these changes by resituating now-familiar histories of twentieth century “French Theory” in a broader historical frame, and shifting analytic attention from histories of structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger coined the term “epistemic things” to refer to objects of sustained scientific inquiry which “present themselves in a characteristic, irreducible vagueness” precisely because they “embody what one does not yet know” (1997, 28). It is in the process of inquiry, through specific technical conditions, institutional contexts, scientific instruments, and epistemic practices, he wrote, that epistemic things become stabilized objects of research and, sometimes, well-defined elements in the technical conditions that allow sciences to continually generate new epistemic objects. By focusing on histories of structures as epistemic things—as known, robust, resilient, but technically-established, worked-over, and thoroughly historical entities, given different conceptual and material contours across disciplines, periods, and locations—this SFS seeks a broader historical vantage and pursues several analytic openings.

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have demonstrated how, as early as the 1860s and 1870s, structures had emerged as objects of study in physics, physiology, logic, and mathematics. Here structures appeared to offer modern solutions to perennial problems of incommunicability across time, space, sciences, and even potentially species (2007, 253-255). Writing about the subsequent “structuralist fever” that linguists, psychologists, and analytic philosophers caught en masse in the 1910s and 1920s (2007, 256), Daston and Galison effectively dislodged Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics as the historiographic point of departure for histories of structuralisms. In doing so, they began to pry open a wider historical frame that makes space for histories of technical activities that preceded and helped make possible the emergence of the twentieth century human and social sciences—many of which initially took as their objects of study, precisely, structures of mind, language, and society.

In her re-issued keyword contribution to this SFS, “Structure,” Lorraine Daston returns us to the scene of a more recent sea-change in the history of science: the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). She implores us to recall that, at the time of the publication of Kuhn’s seminal work, “structure was a word to conjure with.” So how and why, she asks, has the term come to sound so utterly “bizarre” to historians of science in the intervening decades?

Perhaps, Daston muses, the semantic salience of certain once-scholarly terms merely shifts as their usage gains traction with popular, para-academic, and literary publics more broadly. Case in point: “once the word ‘paradigm’ became the stuff of New Yorker cartoons, mandarin scholars practically broke out in hives when forced to use it.” More pointedly, however, Daston diagnoses structures’ becoming-bizarre as a symptom of broader historical shifts in scholarly sensibilities and epistemic virtues: “from the streamlined to the dense and detailed,” a driving desire in the history of science (and in cultural anthropology, we can add) in recent decades has been to “reveal variability rather than uniformity” in the subjects, objects, and foci of scholarly examination.

It is also worth noting, however, that Daston underlines the lasting influence of Kuhn’s pluralization of scientific revolutions, intimating that further such ruptures might always be in store, even within the history of science and anthropology. Modish beliefs about structures’ capacities and limits can change, and a passion for structures, in either familiar or new guises, might appear once again.

***

Another analytic aim of this SFS is to contribute to a more geographically symmetrical history of structuralisms. For example, while we include an abridged and re-translated excerpt of François Dosse’s history of structuralism in France—vividly capturing the luster that structures held in mid-1960s Paris—it appears alongside Kang Shin-pyo’s new English translation of a conference that took place in Korea in 1981. In this presentation, Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps as clear as he ever was about his own concept of structure, as the soon-to-be-founders of Korean Studies and leaders of late twentieth century Korean anthropology pressed him across three languages to clarify his concepts, methods, and philosophy of science.

To take another example, although it has become standard to begin histories of structuralism with Saussure’s famous lectures in Geneva (1906–1911), structuralisms’ historians have tended to quickly move their geographic attention west to Paris and wartime New York. If one instead steps east and takes the view from Soviet-occupied Hungary that Csaba Pléh offers in his essay, the political, institutional, and epistemological stakes of structuralism shift yet again. As Pléh recounts, structuralisms faced opposition in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s from both proponents of “traditional historical linguistics” within the academy and official communist ideology governing academic life under Soviet occupation.

Thus, in its very arrangement, this SFS intends to advance an analytic argument. The history of structuralism is far from exhausted by familiar histories of French intellectuals promulgating abstract ideas developed in the French academy, adopted in American “comp lit” departments, and subsequently (if selectively) exported elsewhere. Instead, a historical epistemology of ‘structures’ can illuminate how twentieth century structuralisms took shape amid unprecedented global flows of people and things. At the same time it can show how they emerged in the context of new scales of state-sponsored violence, international war, and human displacement. It is, after all, no exaggeration to state that most structuralisms were given form by scholars who were literally on the move in an effort to avoid mortal annihilation.

How then to structure the texts of this SFS? How to arrange, order, organize, relate, regulate, present, position, or express these contributions as a set of elements, each of which would stand meaningfully on its own, yet resonate together as a whole with a significance that exceeds any mere sum of its parts?

To characterize Daston’s contribution as prescient would be an understatement. Consider that several of the essays comprising this SFS play profitably with structures’ epistemic potential for probing our own bizarre present’s most varied problems. In their contributions, Helen Verran, Frédéric Keck, and Bernard Geoghegan trace ‘structures’ analogically across domains as diverse as chemistry and political science, neuropathology and epidemiology, media philosophy and artificial intelligence. If in 1966 Michel Foucault famously professed structuralism to be “not a new method,” but the “awakened and troubled consciousness of modern thought,” (1994[1966], 208) this collection more modestly offers structures not as remnants of a failed, half-forgotten approach of surpassed human sciences, but as latent and generative sources for thinking about our own troubled modernity.

Helen Verran, for example, synthesizes an idiom from the physical chemistry of colloids with imaginative resources amassed through her decades of experience as an ethnographer. Verran’s ethno-chemical method—which she names “conceptual flocculation”—equips her to conjure experimentally with notions of structure and relation, an “entwined pair of concepts” central to anthropological theory. Put another way, her exercise plays with the “lives of concepts” by decoupling structure from relation. Verran thus dissects both anthropology’s historical relation to structuralist theory as well as theory’s structuring role for contemporary anthropology—offering up anthropology as an ethnographic, empirical, and conceptual engagement with the “complex happenings in collective knowledge and culture work” of today.

While explicitly indebted to Georges Canguilhem’s historical epistemology, Verran elaborates how she has also departed from his legacy to concentrate on how concepts “work in the wild,” as opposed to discursively in the pages of scientific texts. Verran distills a playful process for “doing things with” concepts, even those as “contrived” as structure, relation, and assemblage, as well as with intellectual interlocutors including Phillippe Descola and Marilyn Strathern, who “offer possibilities to imagine futures different than pasts.” But while the structure of past imaginaries and their potential relations to futures may suggest infinite possibilities to the historian or anthropologist of science, Verran convincingly argues that what we really need today is “an a-theoretical anthropology of the present that might offer a basis…[for a] knowingful doing of the present.”

Through a consideration of the SARs-CoV-2 pandemic, Frédéric Keck employs a structural analysis that considers contemporary conditions for social contagion amid planetary viral pandemonium, while recasting the conceptual lineage of structure itself. Keck refreshingly locates structuralism’s “intellectual roots not in mathematics,” as has been sometimes assumed, “but in biology.” From the vantage of the history of the life sciences, scholarly antagonism toward structuralism’s universalizing abstractness appears misguided. Structure instead comes into view not as the angelic geometry of nineteenth century anatomy, but rather through perspectives grounded in the bestial bricolage of twentieth century pathology.

For Keck, viruses are ideal figures for thinking structurally (as well as rethinking structure) in the twenty-first century. As SARs-CoV-2 has demonstrated, viruses are agents of change, catalyzers of discontinuity, and conduits of anthropogenic crisis. They are forms of living matter without which no “normal” organism could exist today—but they are not exactly alive. Structurally, in biology, viruses are voids, absences that produce an overabundance of pathology. Keck takes up mask-wearing as an instance (and event) through which to explore how representations are not merely social facts that go viral on the level of practices, habits of thought, or symbolic systems; they literally transform human bodies and biologies as well. For Keck, the mutagenetic spread of representations regarding zoonosis, pandemic emergence, and viral contagion all call to mind the “structuralist notion of transformation.” In our age of social media and a bio-mediatized pandemic of world-historical proportion, virality structures the pathogenesis of both living bodies and body politics.

Bernard Geoghegan harnesses what we might call a counter-history of structuralism, modifying Foucault (1994[1966]), to consider the contemporary ubiquity of modern social media, information technologies, virtual databases, and algorithmic automation in light of twentieth-century “structuralism’s dreams for social data.” Geoghegan enables us to see how “the political and scientific stakes of structuralism are better grasped in terms of a database of language (or practices, performances, mentalities, etc.)” than a “prison-house” (as Fredric Jameson would have it); he invites us to “think of structuralism as a mid-twentieth century, relatively non-monetized, conceptual corollary of today’s social media and its ambitions for data crunching and cultural analytics.” Facebook patents appear as concretized network and kinship theories, Lévi-Strauss as an early artificer of AI.

Geoghegan demonstrates how this “structuralist database” offered less a solution to the problems of violence at the heart of modern statist, nationalist, and culturalist systems, than a vehicle for such problems’ presentation as entropically organized. The structuralist database is intrinsically opposed to a dusty archive of letters; it is, rather, “a fundamentally generative platform” alive to future possibilities. Positioning an “archeology of cultural analytics” as integral to an understanding of the development of “contemporary IT industries” and digital technologies, Geoghegan figures structuralism as a contingent precursor to our virtual present, as a meaning-making and model-building machine. He attends to the ways that structuralist “theorists’ experience with colonialism, war, and criminology shaped their outlooks,” and how this familiarity with state violence was an explicit biographical factor in their turn to structural methods, which offered some “measure of salvation in the face of the…varieties of collective violence sanctioned by modernity.” It is too easy, he suggests, to retrospectively denounce structuralism’s fetishes and oversights, or to see it as merely a displacement of one (nineteenth century) modern European scientism for another (twentieth century) one. Geoghegan pushes us towards the powerful fact—perhaps difficult to reckon with but impossible to ignore—that structuralist thought “only took on its canonical form when its leading practitioners turned their eyes on European and Eurasian subjects who fell victim” to the violence of modern European states.

One can read Pléh’s personal recollections regarding the Soviet state opposition to institutionalized structuralist thinking and teaching in postwar Hungary as an Eastern corollary to the trans-European refugees and exiles who convened in New York, Cambridge, and Paris. As Geoghegan observes, “the prominence of this community of researchers in anti-fascist and anti-Soviet consultation helps explain the great consequence with which they approached the science of communication.” The same can be said, Pléh shows, for certain linguists and psychologists in Soviet-occupied Hungary. Structuralism was born in the margins of a Europe that had turned some of its most frenzied forms of marginalization upon itself. No one ought to doubt what Walter Benjamin called the “destructive character” of European rationalism; Geoghegan’s contribution forces us to remember that structuralism was stewed in a cauldron of craven autophagic excess which consumed Europe for most of the twentieth century.

***

Finally, a focus on structures as epistemic things allows us to observe the curious social fact that, in spite of the suspicion with which they are viewed in some corners of the academy, the term structure is truly ubiquitous across contemporary vocabularies—scientific, political, and popular. Medical anthropologists and historians of medicine have examined forms of “structural violence” and worked to cultivate “structural competency.” The influential theorist of settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, famously described invasion as “a structure not an event” (2006, 388). Political analysts, anthropologists, and historians have studied many forms of “structural inequality,” including those produced by the infamous “structural adjustment” programs of international financial institutions. To focus in on a further example, in 2020 and 2021, it has been impossible to ignore the many ways that politicians, social analysts, and activists around the world have both mobilized around and contested the term “structural racism.” Structural racism was first conceptualized by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (1997) to address what he saw as a lack of theoretical vigor in race and ethnic studies. Lamenting how “many social analysts researching racism assume that the phenomenon is self-evident,” Bonilla-Silva advanced a “structural reinterpretation and theory of racism” to counteract these problems.

Bonilla-Silva noted that Ruth Benedict, in her book Race and Racism (1945), “was one of the first scholars to use the notion of racism…defined as ‘the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority’” (1997, 465). He observed that social scientists in the following decades likewise almost always conceived of racism in terms of beliefs, doctrines, ideologies, or individual psychology. Calling for a more rigorous conceptual framework to analyze “the operation of racially stratified societies,” Bonilla-Silva proposed to study the practices and mechanisms through which humans and social systems become racialized—how “economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races” (1997, 469). For him, only such a structural approach to racism—accounting for the ways that “racialization occurred in social formations also structured by class and gender”—would make it possible to grasp the everyday and institutionalized “racial practices and mechanisms that have kept Blacks subordinated” globally, “whether individual members of the races want it or not” (1997, 470, 473). 

The currency beyond the academy of Bonilla-Silva’s term “structural racism”—coined in part as a response to the rampant psychologism of early twentieth century anthropology—raises the question of the latent vitality of “structure” even after the surpassing of structuralisms. Even without identifying as structuralists, can we not benefit from conceptual frameworks capable of identifying and holding together complex sets of relations among disparate forces that are at work simultaneously and transformed over time and across space, while nevertheless retaining certain fundamental elements?

Rather than confine ourselves to the study of structuralist intellectuals or institutions, then, our focus on structures as epistemic things, ever situated in multiple and moving contexts, aims to open and engage a range of histories as well as the seemingly countless social lives that structures continue to lead today. Reflecting on his own aspirations for a history of epistemic things in the experimental life sciences, Rheinberger wrote that with the combinatorial fourfold “of theory and practice, nature and society, we remain, despite all rotation of competences, within the confines of a conceptual framework that Jacques Derrida has qualified as the logocentric legacy of occidental metaphysics” (1997, 17-18). Rather than announce another after or post, or posit any more beyonds, this SFS instead follows the various moves of structuralists, certain anthropologists, and historical epistemologists around this logocentric sandbox. Perhaps this is merely one more “rotation of competences,” but it invites us to look around Verran’s proverbial playground for others who too might be asked: “Do you want to play?”

***

“Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure…has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center…By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form…Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible…The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground…”

           Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1978[1967], 278-279).

el centro
de un poema
         es otro poema
el centro del centro
         es la ausencia

en el centro de la ausencia
mi sombra es el centro
del centro del poema

the center
of a poem
          is another poem
the center of the center
          is absence

at the center of absence
my shadow is the center
of the center of the poem

           Alejandra Pizarnik, “The Short Cantos (posth.) III.” (2016, 179). 

“Philosophy, anyone?”

            Lorraine Daston, “Science Studies and the History of Science” (2009, 813).

***

Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth. 1942. Race and Racism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 62, No. 3 (June): 465-480.

Daston, Lorraine. 2009. “Science Studies and the History of Science.Critical Inquiry 35, No. 4: 798-813.

Daston, Lorraine and Peter Galison. 2007. Objectivity. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978[1967]. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In Writing & Difference, translated by Alan Bass, 278-293. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1994[1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2021[1962]. Wild Thought, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Pizarnik, Alejandra. 2016[1962-1972]. Extracting the Stones of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, translated by Yvette Siegert. New York: New Directions Paperbook 1303.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sperber, Dan. 1979. “Claude Lévi-Strauss.” In Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida, edited by John Sturrock, 19-51. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” The New Centennial Review 3, No. 3 (Fall): 257-337.

Structure

Editors’ note: This essay was first published in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 42, No. 5 (November 2012), 496-499. Special Issue “50 Years of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” edited by Michael Gordin and Erika Lorraine Milam. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and HSNS editors.


“Structure” was a word to conjure with in 1962. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology had appeared in 1958 (translated into English in 1963); Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was first published in 1957 and had reached its fifth printing by 1965.[1] Even if they didn’t brandish the word “structure” in their titles, a cluster of influential books in the humanities and social sciences published circa 1960 raised hopes that the complexities of, say, the plays of Racine or cultural taboos or bargaining might reveal simpler basic structures the way an X-ray revealed skeletons.[2] The runaway success of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did its part to glamorize an already up-and-coming word. Even scholars more resistant to the lure of structuralism than linguists and anthropologists, for example historians and philosophers but also psychologists and psychoanalysts, fell under the spell of Kuhn’s structures of scientific development.[3]

Yet probably no word strikes historians of science nowadays reading Kuhn (if they do) as more dusty and dated than the once glittering “structure.” This is not because the whole book is a fossil from a bygone era. Even if it is no longer assigned in courses across the university, much of Kuhn’s analysis still seems fresh and even avant garde: the close studies of scientific pedagogy that he flagged as crucial to understanding the cognitive and social cohesion of research communities are still a desideratum; much work in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science still focuses on the resolution of controversies as the moment when researchers’ most fundamental assumptions are laid bare; topics such as the know-how implicit in mastering scientific paradigms have been revived by the history of the body and other explorations of what is often called, not always accurately, tacit knowledge. Even though many of the polestar words that do now guide the history of science—“context,” “controversy,” “consensus”—were first made luminous in Kuhn’s Structure, “structure” itself has lost its shine.

Why? It’s not because what Kuhn meant by structure was vague or because the actual structure he proposed for narrating the history of science has been definitively falsified by subsequent research. The structure was crystalline and cyclic (but not cumulative): establishment of a paradigm, normal science pursued within that framework, growing awareness of anomalies that resist solution within the reigning paradigm, a crisis in which the coherence of both paradigm and research community frays, and the emergence and eventual triumph of a new paradigm to start the cycle anew. There was criticism aplenty of the specifics of Kuhn’s account, but by giving different answers to the questions he had posed, its effect was more to reinforce than to refute his scheme. From the outset critics worried that Kuhn’s structure might hold only for the physical sciences or that research conducted within different paradigms might not be as incommensurable as Kuhn claimed or that the crises had been melodramatized by a few well-chosen quotations. And once the word “paradigm” became the stuff of New Yorker cartoons, mandarin scholars practically broke out in hives when forced to use it. But Kuhn’s determination to wrest the definite article and majuscules away from “the Scientific Revolution” of the seventeenth century and to apply the miniscule version to many other episodes in the history of science has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations: we now nonchalantly speak of all manner of revolutions—the Darwinian, the Einsteinian, even the Genomic—even if we balk at the now vulgar “paradigm.” Kuhn’s central contention, viz. the inevitability of recurrent scientific revolutions in all fields, in the emphatic plural of his title, has become a commonplace.[4]

So why has “structure,” the other part of the title, fared so badly, at least within the history of science? Not because Kuhn’s own version of structure has been decisively refuted, much less because an alternative pattern of historical development has replaced it. Most historians of science no longer believe that any kind of structure could possibly do justice to their subject matter. The very idea of looking for overarching regularities in the history of science seems bizarre, a kind of leftover Hegelianism, the last attempt to give Reason (now incarnate in science) a rational history—or still worse, scientism applied to science itself, more historical than Derek de Solla Price’s statistical “science of science” but just as quixotically in quest of illusory regularities.[5] The words that have replaced “structure” among the bywords of the humanities and social sciences—terms like “culture” and “context” and “thick description”—deliberately baffle all attempts at generalizations, whether philosophical or sociological, that aspire to span places and periods. Since roughly the 1990s, the focus in these disciplines has shifted from the streamlined to the dense and detailed; the professed aim has been to “complexify” rather than simplify and to reveal variability rather than uniformity. “Focus” is used here advisedly, since the object of inquiry has contracted to ever smaller scale, both geographically and chronologically, as even a glance at the titles of articles in leading journals for the last decade or two will confirm. Even the adjectives routinely used to praise lectures index this shift in intellectual sensibility from Bauhaus (or perhaps Swedish modern) to baroque: good papers are “rich,” no longer “acute” or “incisive.”

Kuhn himself heralded this change, perhaps unintentionally and almost certainly not realizing that it would undermine a search for structures in the history of science. In a sharp and occasionally bitter 1971 article on why historians had not embraced the history of science, Kuhn placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the historians: “The historian’s ignorance of even the main developmental stages of science has no parallel for the other disciplines on which he touches.”[6] Yet Kuhn was unwavering in his conviction that the future of the history of science lay in history departments. This was because insofar as historians of science were at all responsible for their marginalization by historians, it was due to the “Whiggishness” inherited from the scientists’ own version of their past. Only recently, under the tutelage of Alexandre Koyré, Anneliese Maier, Frances Yates, and others, had historians of science begun to think about past science in its own terms: “For the first time, it [science] has become potentially a fully historical enterprise, like music, literature, philosophy, or law.”[7]

That potential has been fulfilled, perhaps with a vengeance. History of science has never been more resolutely historical in its methods (archival) and modes of explanation (contextual, where the appropriate context is mostly defined by the accepted historical rubrics and specialties, e.g. “Victorian” or “postcolonial”); most of its practitioners teach in history departments, where Kuhn thought they belonged. (Whether history of science—though not the history of technology and, especially, medicine—is any better integrated into mainstream history than it was when Kuhn reproached historians for their ignorance is another question.) Yet the historicism Kuhn prophesized and welcomed has ultimately dissolved the structures he sought: an essential tension at the heart of his own still riveting vision for the history of science.


[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structural, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963); Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (The Hague: Mouton, 1965).

[2] Among the other iconic works in this vein and of this era were Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1960); Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966); and Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

[3] Kuhn himself used the words “structure” and “pattern” interchangeably, as in the following description of the history of physical optics, presented as typical of all the “mature” sciences: “That pattern [of pre-Newtonian optics] is not unfamiliar in a number of creative fields today, nor is it incompatible with significant discovery and invention. It is not, however, the pattern of development that physical optics acquired after Newton and that other natural sciences make familiar today” (13).

[4] Kuhn himself thought this point would encounter so much resistance among readers conditioned to think of scientific development as smoothly continuous that he devoted all of chapter II to its explication.

[5] Derek J. de Solla Price, “The Science of Scientists,” Medical Opinion and Review I (1966): 81-97; see also Derek J. de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963). Kuhn cautiously discussed prospects for “the science of science” in Thomas S. Kuhn, “History of Science,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 14 (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 74-83, on 82.

[6] Thomas S. Kuhn, “The Relations between History and the History of Science,” originally published in Daedalus 100 (1971): 271-304, and reprinted in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 127-61, on 154.

[7] Ibid., 150.

1966: The Year of Light

By François Dosse

Translated by Cameron Brinitzer & John Tresch

Editors’ note: This is a new translation and abridged version of text previously published in François Dosse, Histoire du structuralisme, Vol.1 Le champ du signe, 1945-1966: chapitres 33 à 35 (Paris: La Découverte, 1991), translated by Deborah Glassman, The History of Structuralism: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). This translation is printed here with the permission of the author and La Découverte.

Copyright © Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1991, 2012.


“Everything went downhill from 1966 on. A friend had lent me Les mots et les choses, which I was giddy to open… I suddenly abandoned Stendhal, Mendelstam, and Rimbaud, just as one stops smoking Gitanes, to devour the people that Foucault was discussing: Freud, Saussure, and Ricardo. I had the plague. The fever didn’t let me go and I loved that plague. I was careful not to cure myself. I was as proud of my science as a louse on the pope’s head. I was discussing philosophy. I called myself a structuralist, but I did not shout it from the rooftops because my knowledge was still tender, crumbly; a wisp of wind would have dispersed it. I spent my nights alone learning, stealthily, the principles of linguistics, and I was happy… I filled myself with syntagms and morphemes… If I debated a humanist, I would crush him in a single blow of épistémè … I pronounced, in a voice filled, almost trembling, with emotion, and preferably on autumn evenings, the names of Derrida or Propp, like an old soldier caressing flags taken from the enemy… Jakobson is my tropic or my equator, E. Benveniste my Guadeloupe, and the proaïretic code my Club Med. I see Hjelsmlev as a steppe… It seems to me that I am not the only one to have strayed into these canyons” (Lapouge 1986, 30).

It is in these burlesque terms that Gilles Lapouge described, twenty years later, what was in 1966 a true Saturday night fever for a structuralism reaching its peak. All the effervescence of the human sciences converged at that moment to light up the horizons of research and publication around the structuralist paradigm. 1966 is the “central landmark (…) It can be said that, at least at the Parisian level, there was that year a great, and probably decisive, mixing of the most acute themes of research” (Barthes 1981, 7). The year 1966 can be crowned the year of structuralism, and if we can speak of the children of 1848 or those of 1968, we must add the children, just as turbulent, of the luminescent year of structuralism, 1966.

That year’s publishing news reflected in all domains the force of the structuralist explosion, taking the form, in 1966, of a veritable earthquake. One can judge by the number of major works appearing in print that year alone. Roland Barthes published his famous response to Raymond Picard’s pamphlet Nouvelle critique, nouvelle imposture (edited by Jean-Jacques Pauvert), Critique et vérité (Seuil) with the banner: “Should we burn Barthes?”. Greimas published, for his part, his Sémantique structurale at Larousse: “My semantics has become, thanks to Dubois, structural in red letters. He told me, ‘We’ll sell a thousand more copies if you add ‘structural’” (Greimas 1984, 97). The qualifier of structural/ist was a good sales pitch in the mid-sixties. All social milieus were affected by the phenomenon, right up to the coach of the French national football team who declared that he was going to reorganize his team, which was losing on all fields, according to structuralist principles.

François Wahl, the great friend and editor of Roland Barthes at Seuil, succeeded in convincing Lacan to gather his writings into a collection. This enormous 900-page volume written in baroque style, as hermetic as can be, consecrated Lacan in 1966 as the “French Freud”. When the reviews began to appear in press, Lacan’s Ecrits had already sold 5,000 copies and Le Seuil urgently needed to reprint the work, which had not finished its long career, since more than 36,000 volumes would be sold by 1984. Appearing as a paperback in 1970, and divided into two volumes, it would beat all records for a work of its kind: 94,000 copies sold of the first volume and 65,000 of the second. Still at Seuil, in the same year, in the collection “Tel Quel,” Tzvetan Todorov introduced the work of the Russian formalists to the French public with his Théorie de la littérature, prefaced by Roman Jakobson. Figures by Gérard Genette appeared in the same collection.

But the event of the year that relegates other works to the background by its success was, of course, the publication at Gallimard of Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses. Without precedent, the first printing ran out in just a few days: “Foucault sells like hot cakes: 800 copies of Les Mots et les choses sold out in 5 days during the last week of July (9,000 copies in all)” (Le nouvel observateur).

The work of Foucault enabled the launch of the Bibliothèque des sciences humaines by Pierre Nora, who had just joined Gallimard at the end of 1965. Nora simultaneously released in the same collection, alongside Foucault’s book, the work of Elias Canetti, Masse et puissance, that of Geneviève Calame-Griaule, Ethnologie et langage, and a work that was to become the great reference of the moment, bringing its author out of the isolation in which he was confined at the Collège de France, Problèmes de linguistique générale, by Émile Benveniste. At the same time, Pierre Nora did not want to limit himself to the role of spokesman, a mere echo of structuralism, so he asked Raymond Aron, whose seminar he was attending, to prepare a work that would appear in 1967, Les étapes de la pensée sociologique. Yet his position as head of the human sciences imprint at Gallimard in 1966 made him, in spite of himself, a champion of structuralism. He even tried (and failed) to get Lévi-Strauss to move from Plon to Gallimard. It was in 1966 that Payot decided to publish a book originally intended for a German publisher, La religion romaine archaïque, by Georges Dumézil. Pierre Nora immediately grasped the advantage that he could draw as an editor from the work of Dumézil in this structuralist climate, so he approached Dumézil: “Pierre Nora intervened. He is the one who made me. I am a Gallimard creation” (Dumézil 1986).

Even if certain houses such as Le Seuil or Gallimard appear as the spearheads of the structuralist editorial enterprise, other publishers joined in the festivities of 1966. Les Éditions de Minuit published a book by Pierre Bourdieu, L’amour de l’art, written with Alain Darbel. The Éditions Maspero created a shock in 1965 with the double publication of Lire le Capital and Pour Marx. They published a work by the Althusserian Pierre Macherey, Pour une théorie de la production littéraire. The Presses Universitaires de France republished Georges Canguilhem’s thesis, Le normal et le pathologique, originally appearing in 1943. As for the historians, they did not remain silent in the face of this rising tide of structure, and the Annales school also brought out in 1966 a number of major works such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s thesis, Les paysans de Languedoc, published by SEVPEN (Ecole pratique des hautes etudes) and the work of Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV et vingt millions de Français, published by Fayard. As for the master of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel, he took advantage of this enthusiasm for the longue durée and structures by republishing Armand Colin’s thesis, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéan à l’epoque de Philippe II, with a new conclusion where he admitted that he had a structuralist temperament.

The year 1966 was also one of intense structuralist activity among periodicals. First, some of them were created. The journal Langages ran its first issue in March 1966 and presented the scientific study of language as an essential dimension of culture. Its editors wrote that their project was to open up the interface between various disciplines that use language as a subject of reflection. Likewise, it was at the beginning of 1966 that Cahiers pour l’analyse was published by the Epistemology Circle at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, with a foreword, signed by Jacques-Alain Miller on behalf of the editorial board, setting itself the ambition of constituting a theory of discourse based on all of the sciences of analysis: logic, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. The first issue was devoted to truth and contained Lacan’s famous “Science and Truth,” which would be reprinted in Ecrits at Seuil. In the third issue of Cahiers pour l’analyse, from May 1966, Lacan clearly situated himself in the structuralist movement in a response to philosophy students: “Psychoanalysis as a science will be structuralist, to the point of recognizing in science a refusal of the subject” (1966, 5-13). The analyst’s discourse must therefore lead to the construction of a theory of science.

A major event was the publication of issue 8 of Communications, devoted to the structural analysis of narrative, gathering the major names in semiology of the moment: Roland Barthes, Aljirdas-Julien Greimas, Claude Brémond, Umberto Eco, Jules Gritti, Violette Morin, Christian Metz, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gérard Genette. More than just one issue among others, this had programmatic value. In addition to an introduction to the structural analysis of narrative, written by Barthes, who offered linguistics itself as a founding model to “de-chronologize” and “re-logify” narrative in a structural framework, Greimas situated the enterprise at the intersection of semantics and the Lévi-Straussian analysis of myths. His contribution was written in homage to Lévi-Strauss, and he situated his studies in a perspective that complemented that of the anthropologist, as containing the elements for a theory of interpretation of mythical narrative: “The progress recently made in mythological research, thanks above all to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, constitutes a contribution of material and elements for considerable reflection to semantic theory” (Greimas 1966[1981], 34). Greimas thus settled on the same terrain as Lévi-Strauss, taking up again the Bororo myth of reference, which had been used as a basis for the first volume of the Mythologiques, Le cru et le cuit. He shifted, however, the angle of the analysis, envisaging the mythical story as a narrative unit, and not as a unit of the mythological universe, in order to clarify its descriptive procedures.

This Hjelmslevian approach to the material studied by Lévi-Strauss in order to grasp its immanent structures, did not, however, especially satisfy Lévi-Strauss himself, who did not feel the need for a lesson in rigor, even from a semanticist of Greimas’s status. Soon after, Lévi-Strauss, who housed a team of semioticians directed by Greimas in his laboratory of social anthropology at the Collège de France, sent them packing without notice. Lévi-Strauss could no longer house a team that claimed to do better than he by undertaking a synthesis of his own paradigmatic approach and Propp’s syntagmatic analysis.

The contribution of Umberto Eco reveals one of the ambitions of the structuralist program, which is to decipher everything, and not to limit the corpus to a conventional list of great texts from literary history. Eco chose Fleming’s popular detective novels, the 007 series with James Bond. Already in the first of the series, Casino Royal, written in 1953, Eco perceived the invariant matrix of all the books to come and asked about the source for the popular success of the heroic figure of James Bond. Eco shifted the conventional analysis of Fleming’s works, which highlighted ideological aspects, by showing that they responded above all to a rhetorical demand. Fleming’s world is Manichean world as a matter of convenience for the art of persuading the reader: “Fleming is not reactionary because he fills in the “bad guy” box in his schema with a Russian or a Jew; he is reactionary because he proceeds by schemas” (1966[1981], 98). Eco thus set aside Fleming’s typical depiction as reactionary in order to characterize the particular genre—the fable—whose inherent dogmatism inevitably induces reactionary thought through its schemas.

Todorov, for his part, relied on the shift made by Russian formalists to establish the categories of literary narrative within the framework no longer of “literature” but of “literariness”; not the direct apprehension of works, but of the virtualities of literary discourse that made them possible: “This is how literary studies can become a science of literature” (1966[1981], 131).

As for Gérard Genette, he questioned the boundaries of narrative, starting from the classical tradition of Aristotle and Plato and proceeding up to the use made of it in the contemporary novelistic writing of Philippe Sollers and Jean Thibaud, which expressed the exhaustion of the representative mode, perhaps announcing the definitive end to the age of representation. The conjunction of all these contributions offered an immense field of research for literary scholars; they would take up these new orientations to challenge the dominant discourse of classical literary history, with all the more enthusiasm as the project seemed both collective and promising for the construction of a truly new science.

In 1966, Sartre’s journal, Les temps modernes, devoted a special issue to structuralism, a sign of success which allowed all the dikes to be overrun. Jean Pouillon, who presented the dossier, started from the undeniable observation that structuralism was fashionable: “Fashion is exasperating, since criticizing it means giving in to it.” (Pouillon 1966, 769). He defined structuralism as the expression of two great ideas: that of totality, and that of interdependence, that is, the search for relations between different terms that are close together, not in spite of but by virtue of their differences. Structuralism thus consists in seeking the relations that give the terms they unite a positional value in an organized whole. Marc Barbut questioned the meaning of the word structure in mathematics and evoked the analogical use that Lévi-Strauss made of the four-class system in his analysis of the Kariera kinship system. As for Greimas, he analyzed the relationship between “structure and history” to underline the irrelevance of the Saussurian dichotomy between diachrony and synchrony—to which he opposed Hjelmslev’s conception of structure as an “achronic mechanism.” He thus responded to the reproach of ahistoricism leveled at structuralism: according to Greimas, for a structuralist everything lies at the level of the metalinguistic model, and in such a perspective, the historical dimension is relegated to the role of backdrop. In the same issue of Les temps modernes, Maurice Godelier affirmed the affiliation between Marx and structuralism. Marx “announces the modern structuralist current” (1966, 832); understood in relation to the work of Lévi-Strauss, Marx can be recognized as the true precursor of the structuralist paradigm insofar as he made it possible to dissociate visible social relations from their hidden logic, to set aside historicism in favor of structural study, and to emphasize contradiction—not within the same structure but in the relation between two irreducible structures, the productive forces and the relations of production.

The journal Aléthéia also devoted a special issue, in February 1966, to structuralism—with Godelier, again, on contradiction, as well as an article by Lévi-Strauss on scientific criteria in the social and human sciences. Kostas Axelos wrote on Lucien Sébag’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and structuralism, Georges Lapassade on Hegel, and, in an interview, Roland Barthes presented structuralism as the possibility of “defetishizing knowledge—whether old or current” (1966, 218).

The year 1966 was also one of great meetings, symposia, and colloquia. The château of Cerisy, which remains a mecca for intellectual activity, hosted in 1966 a conference on “Current Paths in Criticism,” whose proceedings were published by Plon in 1968. On the shores of Lake Geneva, in September 1966, a congress of French philosophy was held on language, with discussions centered on lectures by Benveniste and Mircea Eliade. But as a sign of the interest aroused abroad by the French effervescence of the time, the Americans organized a major structuralist ceremony in October 1966 under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University Humanities Center. This was the first time that structuralism crossed the Atlantic to reach the New World. The Americans perceived very well this phenomenon of French critical thought as multidisciplinary and thus invited representatives of various human sciences: Lucien Goldmann and George Poulet to represent sociological literary criticism; Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Nicolas Ruwet for literary semiology; Jacques Derrida as a philosopher for his work on Saussure and on Lévi-Strauss, published at the end of 1965 in the journal Critique; and Jacques Lacan for his structuralist rereading of Freud. The symposium was published a few years later in the United States (Marksey and Donato 1970). Of course, Roland Barthes was invited as one of the essential stars of the movement playing out in France; his contribution was on the repression of rhetoric in the nineteenth century and its replacement by positivism, which lastingly divided the destiny of literature from that of the theory of language. In this manner he showed the historical roots of what was happening with the renewed interest in reflections on language, and this new conjunction between literature and linguistics, or “semio-critique,” focused on writing as a system of signs, in an objectifying mode. He evoked the new frontiers to be conquered in the exploration of language, thanks to the modern symbiosis among linguistics, psychoanalysis, and literature which structuralism achieved.

But the event of the year, the bestseller of the summer, was undoubtedly the publication of Michel Foucault’s book, Les mots et les choses. If Sartre was able to say that the book was predictable, its success nevertheless surprised the editor Pierre Nora and the author, since the first print run was a modest 3,500 copies, which very quickly sold out. Released in April 1966, 5,000 were reprinted in June, then 3,000 more in July, and another 3,500 in September. Foucault was lifted by the structuralist wave and his work appeared as the philosophical synthesis of the new reflections carried out over the last fifteen years or so. Although the author later distanced himself from the structuralist label, in 1966 he was right at the heart of the phenomenon: “Structuralism is not a new method; it is the awakened and troubled conscience of modern knowledge” (Foucault 1966, 221).

Invited by Pierre Dumayet on to the great literary television program of the time, “Lecture pour tous,” Foucault expressed himself in the name of a “We” that founded a collective break, in which he took his place alongside Lévi-Strauss and Dumézil across a distance from the work of Sartre, “who is still a man of the nineteenth century, because his whole enterprise aims to make man adequate to his own meaning.” The comments he made to Pierre Dumayet to illustrate his work for the television public fully participated in the new structuralist ambition. Foucault asserted the disappearance of philosophy, its dissipation in other activities of thought: “We are entering an age which is perhaps that of pure thought, of thought in action, and even a discipline as abstract and general as linguistics, as fundamental as logic, or even literature since Joyce, all are activities of thought. They act as philosophy; they do not take the place of philosophy, but they are the very unfurling of what philosophy was in the past.”

On this TV show, Foucault defined his project of an archaeology of the human sciences (originally the work was to be subtitled: “archaeology of structuralism”) as the expression of the will to make our culture appear strange, much as we perceive the Nambikwara described by Lévi-Strauss. It is therefore not a question of tracing lines of continuity in the unfolding of thought in a continuous and evolving logic, but quite the contrary, that of identifying the discontinuities that make our past culture appear to us fundamentally other, strange to ourselves, distant once more: “It is this ethnological situation that I wanted to reconstitute.” And Foucault attacked any attempt to identify with the purely ephemeral figure of man, at once new and destined to disappear soon. God is dead; man follows him toward an ineluctable disappearance, aided by the sciences which take his name: “Paradoxically, the development of the human sciences leads us not to the apotheosis but to the disappearance of man.”

It was clearly this death of man that fascinated the era; many pressed in behind the funeral procession. The successive negations of the subject in Saussurian linguistics, in structural anthropology, and in Lacanian psychoanalysis, found in Foucault the one that reinstalled at the very heart of Western cultural history the figure of an absence, a lack around which épistémès are deployed. In all his numerous interventions of 1966, Foucault never stopped sending Sartre back to the nineteenth century or situating himself firmly on the side of Lévi-Strauss, Dumézil, Lacan, and Althusser, or of twentieth century modernity. The funeral notice whose parable Foucault elaborated may seem paradoxical at the very hour of the explosion in the human sciences, but Foucault conceived of psychoanalysis and ethnology as “counter-sciences” (1966, 391); the high status he conferred to them joined up with the structuralist paradigm that brought them to the forefront as major keys to modern intelligibility.

For Foucault, modernity lies there, in the recognition of this impotence and of the illusion inherent in the theology of man in the Cartesian cogito. After having brought down the hero and fetish of his culture from its pedestal, Foucault went after historicism, history as a totality, as a continuous referent. Foucauldian history was no longer the description of an evolution, a notion borrowed from biology, nor the identification of progress, an ethical-moral notion, but the analysis of multiple transformations at work, and the identification of discontinuities, like so many instantaneous flashes. The reversal of historical continuity is the necessary corollary of decentering the subject: “The human being no longer has any history; or rather, since he speaks, works, and lives, he finds himself interwoven in his own being with histories that are neither subordinate to him nor homogeneous with him…the man who appears at the beginning of the 19th century is dehistoricized” (1966, 380). Self-consciousness dissolves into the discourse-object, into the multiplicity of heterogeneous histories.

Les mots et les choses consecrates Foucault’s most structuralist phase, that of the science of sign systems, where behind the description of the succession of various épistémès since the classical age, Foucault searched for the unthought of each stage of Western culture, their mode of order, their historical a priori. In the same way that Lévi-Strauss sought the unthought of social practices in so-called primitive societies, Foucault deciphered the unthought of the constitutive base of Western knowledge, extending the Kantian effort to “shake us out of our anthropological slumber” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1984, 71). It is to escape from this anthropological space, from the analytic of finitude, from the empirico-transcendental plane, that Foucault assigned at the end of his book a particular status to three disciplines: psychoanalysis revised and corrected by Lacan, ethnology in its Lévi-Straussian version, and a Nietzschean, deconstructed, version of history. The book thus ended on a particular epistemology: that of structuralism, which he offered as the realization of modern consciousness.

The two great tutelary figures at work were thus Marx and Freud. The Lacanian re-reading of Freud imposed itself as the indispensable renovation of the founding work, doing what Althusser’s reading of Marx did for Marx; but there were also hybrid cases, attempts to reconcile approaches that might initially appear antagonistic. This was the case for Maurice Godelier, who attempted a synthesis between Lévi-Strauss and Marx for a return, both innovative and structural, to the work of Marx. It was thus in 1966 that Godelier published with Maspero Rationalité et irrationalité en économie, but the second part of the book is in fact made up of articles that appeared between 1960 and 1965 in La pensée and Economie et politique—which is to say, before the Althusserian rereading of Marx, Maurice Godelier was already making a maverick return to Marx, to the method and the structure at work in Le Capital. He made a distinction in Marx between the hypothetico-deductive method and the dialectical method. Maurice Godelier thus did not wait for Althusser’s return to Marx; his solitary work was in keeping with the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss.

If concepts circulated quickly in the year 1966, and if all roads led to structure, it was far from easy to capture the central, potentially hegemonic position, in this cauldron of structuralist culture. Finding any perch at all was costly, and the risk of entirely dropping out was great. The play had to be subtle. No, to be sure—structuralist Paris was an impossible game to win.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1966. Aléthéia. (Février).

Barthes, Roland. 1981. “Avant-propos: 1971,” in Essais critiques. Paris: Points-Seuil.

Eco, Umberto. 1966[1981]. “James Bond: une combinatoire narrative.” Communications, No. 8. (Rééd) Paris: Points-Seuil.

Derrida, Jacques. 1965. “De la grammatologie”, Critique, No. 223-224 (Déc).

Dumézil, Georges. 1986. Entretien avec Jean-Pierre Salgas, La quinzaine littéraire 16/3.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. et Paul Rabinow. 1984. Michel Foucault, un parcours philosophique. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, Michel. 1966. Les mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, Michel. 1966[1988]. “Lectures pour tous,” document INA, diffusion Océaniques, FR3, 13/1/1988.

Godelier, Maurice. 1966. “Système, structure et contradiction dans Le capital,Les temps modernes, No. 246 (Nov).

Greimas, Algirdas-Julien. 1966[1981]. “Éléments pour une théorie de l’interprétation du récit mythique.” Communications, No. 8. (Rééd) Paris: Points-Seuil.

Greimas, Algirdas-Julien. 1984. Cité par Jean-Claude Chevalier et Pierre Encrevé, Langue française, No. 63 (Sep).

Lacan, Jacques. 1966. “La Science et La Verite.” Cahiers pour l’analyse, No. 3 (May).

Lapouge, Gilles. 1986. “Encore un effort et j’aurais épousé mon temps.”La quinzaine littéraire, No. 459, 16/30 (Mar).

Marksey, Richard and Eugenio Donato. 1970. The Structuralist Controversy: The languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Pouillon, Jean. 1966. “Problèmes du structuralisme,” Les temps modernes, No. 246.

Tzvetan, Todorov. 1966[1981]. “Les catégories du récit littéraire.” Communications, No. 8. (Rééd) Paris: Points-Seuil.

Nine Pails of Ashes: Social Networks, Genocide, and the Structuralists’ Database of Language

Confined as we are to a structural analysis, we need give only a brief justification of the proposition just advanced, and according to which complex kinship structures—i.e., not involving the positive determination of the type of preferred spouse—can be explained as the result of the development or combination of elementary structures. A special and more developed study is to be devoted to these complex structures at a later date.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949

It’s complicated.

Facebook, ca. 2007

Precritical and commonsensical accounts imagine language as liberation from bodily constraints.[1] Through language, internal representations escape their cranial enclosure permitting, if not a communion, at least a confluence of individual thoughts and experiences. In 1972, American literary critic Fredric Jameson suggested recent theoretical trends might be flipping this notion on its head, when, inspired by Russian formalism and structuralism, he spoke of a “prison-house of language” (1974, i, 186, 214-215). This analogy suggested a carceral account of language, in which humans—perhaps including theorists—were held captive by words and signs. Utterances became less like the expressions of a rich subjective interiority than a trace of fetters, anchored in the walls of cells assigning the speaker’s perspective.

In some crucial respects, the carceral analogy had much to recommend it. French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques recounts indigenous life enclosed by a vicious colonial state and reduced to a dispersed network of fragmentary elements. Swiss structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s accounts of speech as situated in a “spoken chain,” “sound-chain,” and “phonetic chain” envisions the subjects of language as manacled in linguistic determinants that precede and exceed them (1959, 22-23). His celebrated account of language as a game of chess implies not merely containment but also a highly regimented warfare in which capture and defeat spring more from the “rules of the game” than individuals’ agency.[2] French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s account of the criminal as subject to the demands of a social structure, rather than aberrancy of conscience or soul, suggest analyst and society are, in fact, oriented and constrained by an individual’s pathology (2006, 102-122, 739). Such examples illustrate a few of the “constraints” operative within structuralist models. The subjects of structuralism find themselves governed by spaces, operations, procedures, and transformations not of their own making, where potential moves follow precisely assigned steps.

These examples also suggest how structuralist theorists’ experiences with colonialism, war, madness, and criminology shaped their outlooks.[3] The indigene, the player, the hysteric, or the criminally insane may devise original responses to the problems they face, yet their possible moves are constrained by a network of forces given concrete expression in political, military, medical, and other rule-bound strategies of control. For all that pertinence, the comparison of structuralist models to a prison is misleading. Quite simply, structuralists’ deep familiarity with state violence enabled them to distinguish between structural and carceral forces (though they might, admittedly, coincide). More to the point, it is the contention of this essay that it was precisely their familiarity with state violence that explains their turn towards structural methodology as a harbor from the great destructive forces unleashed by modernity.[4]

Against the prison analogy, we might better grasp the political and scientific stakes of structuralism in terms of a database of language (or practices, performances, mentalities, etc.).[5] The conceptual ensemble of the database evokes not only the methods and models familiar to structuralists, but also some which have regained importance in our present moment.[6] One might even think of structuralism as a mid-twentieth century, relatively non-monetized, conceptual corollary of today’s social media and its ambitions for data crunching our social arrangements.[7] While we often think of social media as relying on a series of specific technological advances, or even economic modes, it also rests upon a series of conceptual presumptions about social life as symbolic fields of networked relations which, if properly mapped, provide general outlines of future exchanges.

It’s not for nothing that anthropological, psychoanalytic, and linguistic structuralism share with Facebook a peculiar interest in mapping sexual and family relations and patterns of linguistic and commercial exchange.[8] Structuralists stand out as the great innovators in this project of “cultural analytics,” premised on computational and network analysis of databases of cultural difference. Often borrowing conceptual models from mathematics and computing, they held that a virtual field of symbolic relations governed social life. Structuralists worked with small, tractable datasets standing in proxy for larger scale or “big data” analyses that Lévi-Strauss and others predicted would later be scaled up by IBM mainframes and similar machines.

Yet an ethical charge to counteract violence set the digital methods of structuralism apart from present-day digital humanisms and social media analytics. Structuralist efforts to inventory and informatically model culture coincided with an effort to counteract the reality of cultural annihilation unleashed by science, technology, and the state. Undergirding their appeal to rule-like iterability was an effort to preserve the tremendous dynamism of ways of life disappearing or disappeared under the forces of authoritarianism, fascism, colonialism, and imperialism. The chains, chess-boards, asylums, and colonies pervading structuralist analogy echoed their own sense of the deep and abiding structural violence faced by their “informants,” and a recurrent preoccupation with their own fields’ systemic implication in that violence.

Structural method encoded the practical working conditions of its practitioners as well as the enticing prospect that lost and missing fragments might be reconstructed as by simulation. This sets them apart from the clichéd accounts, particularly those of a positivist inclination, which construe structuralism as a search for social laws and cultural universals. Such accounts contrast present-day analytics’ vast empirical corpuses against structuralists’ supposed preference for idealized formalism. If these analyses are not entirely impertinent, they nonetheless overlook the problem of intercultural difference and violence that oriented informatic and cybernetic methods. Reconstructing elements of that political history—as the present essay seeks to do—not only sets structuralism “in historical context.” Much more than that, it highlights the fundamentally political charge that informed these cultural scientists’ technical, informatic, and empirical methods. It anchors the broader problem of “cultural analytics,” particularly its pursuit by computational means, within a network of crises and responses shaping the basic legibility of cultural difference. As such, a reconsideration of structuralism’s dreams for social data is instructive for our present.[9]

What Was Structuralism?

Differing enactments across fields, regions, and across the lives of single scholars fluster systematic definitions of structuralism. The prominence of the word “structure” evokes notions of geometric formalism but most structuralists concerned themselves with consistently structured patterning of difference, rather than a complete structure or form. Their method laid more emphasis on structuring than structures, as such. Of particular importance for their work were techniques for capturing data and putting them into dynamic relations, on the basis of which an infinite series of future iterations might be derived.

In very broad scope, they inherited this problem from their predecessors—the neogrammarian linguists and colonial ethnographers—but with a decisive difference. Nineteenth-century linguists and anthropologists collected traces of disappearing “primitive” cultures, theorizing methods for collecting, classifying, and exhibiting their materials. For such purposes a museum archive, with perhaps a little more logic and order than an early modern library or cabinet of curiosity, sufficed. A monograph or exhibition offered an ideal platform for presentation. For the structuralist, by contrast, particular artifacts were necessarily fragmentary; they embodied an iteration of a formal system whose traces were largely lacking. Amerindian myth, the discourse of an analysand, or a sample of Russian offered a limited set for deducing the structural relations in a total cultural ensemble. The purpose of a statement or colonial artifact was not preservation and exhibition for its own sake, but rather to serve as data points for extrapolating a larger field of informatic permutations.

We can witness the passage from nineteenth-century archivist to modern data processor, in miniature, in the work of French structural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss. One of his very earliest scholarly works, pre-dating his initiation into structuralism, is an exhibition of ethnographic photos and artifacts shown in Paris in 1937 under the sponsorship of the Musée de l’homme [Fig. 1].

Figure 1: Cover of the catalog for the exhibition of photographs and artifacts collected by Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss on their expedition to the Indians of the Matto-Grosso in the Brazilian interior. Indiens du Matto-Grosso (Mission Claude et Dina Lévi-Strauss). Novembre 1935-Mars 1936. Guide-catalogue de l’exposition organisée à la galerie de la “Gazette des Beaux-Arts” et de “Beaux-Arts”, 21 Janvier-3 Février 1937. Paris: Musée de l’Homme, 1937.

Described in the catalog as a “natural history museum,” the institution is known for its association with anthropology. (Interestingly, the catalog recognizes Dina Lévi-Strauss’s contribution to its preparation, and her subsequent disappearance from Lévi-Strauss’s accounts of the expedition has itself been a topic of growing interest in recent years.[10]) Here, the work of ethnography is the capture and exhibition of a disappearing culture. The photographs and artifacts are singular traces of a “world on the wane,” as one translator would later describe it. They present less links in a chain of cultural transformations than soon-to-be fossils. Their sedimentation into non-calculable and non-fungible cultural vestiges—by the ravages of colonization that brings ethnographic enframing in its wake—resists datafication.

We can instructively contrast that work with Lévi-Strauss’s records, including many returns to the photos and observations of that voyage, that follow his structuralist conversion from the mid-1940s onwards. In that later research, tools, tattoos, myths, architecture, design, rituals, and kin become data-points in an infinitely generative store of symbolic units. He pairs photographs with diagrams, note cards, filing systems, algebraic formulations, culminating in the celebrated Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France. As biographer Emmanuelle Loyer has put it, Lévi-Strauss’s “objective now was to build theoretical models and not to collect, and then exhibit, material artefacts” (2018, 384) [Figs. 2-4]. For this project, no simple archive would do, and the museum itself risked becoming a relic of an earlier, pre-scientific era of human investigation. The future of cultural sciences lay in becoming information-processing centers for isolated, extracted, correlated, and extrapolated data.

Figure 2: Kinship diagram depicting cross-cousin marriage. Lévi-Strauss also furnished an algebraic analysis prepared by mathematician André Weil and discussion in terms of Mendelian genetics, part of a broader effort to substitute a welter of empirical facts for an accounting of the “distinctive features” governing relations among terms. Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, James Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 173.
Figure 3: Quasi-algebraic representation of the formal transformations of social relations in American Indian mythologies. (Diagrams by Jacques Bertin, whose integration of visualization and information is brilliantly discussed in Campolo, “Signs and Sight.”) Source: Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Mythologiques Vol. 1). Translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1969 [1964].
Figure 4: Claude Lévi-Strauss amidst the vast Human Relation Area Files (HRAF), an unrivaled index of anthropological data centrally processed at Yale University and disseminated to a select series of research institutions. Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratory of Social Anthropology in Paris was the only HRAF installation in Paris, made possible by the exceptional space and state funding he secured by classifying his research group at the Collège de France as a scientific laboratory. Source: Marion Abélès. “Le fichier des Human Relations Area Files.” La lettre du Collège de France, Hors-série 2 (2008): 66–67. Photographer uncredited.

Jakobson’s Cybernetic Structuralism

The drive to develop formal scientific models, suitable for mathematical transformation, figured prominently in diverse structuralists’ work, including Saussure, Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, and French literary critic Roland Barthes (ca. 1960-1970). Each found in structural method an account of cultures as symbolic systems composed of discrete elements that, speaking very roughly and generally, signify through differential relations which subtend the conscious intentions of human subjects. While nuclear physics, chemistry, and biology counted among the sciences cited as exemplifying structural relations, it was by means of cybernetics, game theory, and information theory that structuralism finally reached the status of high modern social science.[11]

Jakobson’s programmatic 1956 treatment of linguistics, Fundamentals of Language, co-authored with a Latvian-born American linguist at MIT, Morris Halle, encapsulates key aspects of his structuralist approach. In particular, it showcases methods derived from his time in the interwar Prague Linguistic Circle and revised in light of postwar communication engineering following his emigration to the United States. The title hints at that perspective: language is no contingent accumulation of utterances for happenstance documentation, as Saussure’s historicist predecessors, the neo-neogrammarians (according to Jakobson) maintained, but is instead a rule-bound system. Language is, furthermore, organized by functions and equilibria whose overall purpose—communication—permits its reduction to logical functions (Jakobson 1978, 4-5). The means, differential sound patterns formed from phonemes, vary across languages but the fundaments endure.

A telling example of structural analysis comes as Jakobson and Halle paint the scene of a New York party guest introduced to one “Mr. Ditter.” The guest rapidly but non-consciously endeavors to identify the correct designation from a range of alternatives: bitter, dotter, digger, ditty, and so on. The process is oriented towards selection, combinatorics, and a good measure of probabilistic deduction, all of which relies on access to a cognitive repository of phonemic units and corresponding rules for their transformation. The correct answer, ditter, is comprised of four sequential units: /d/+/í/+/t/+/ə/, identified as much by elimination of unlikely combinations as positive pursuit of likely compositions (Jakobson and Halle 1956, 3).

According to the authors, this scene illuminates general rules for linguistic investigation: that each language has a more or less fixed ensemble of terms, defined by specific distinctive features relating to the articulation of its phonemic terms (e.g., vocalic/non-vocalic, consonantal/non-consonantal, compact/diffuse, and tense/lax), which may be reduced to a series of binary rules of selection, combination, and opposition [Figs. 5-6]. In a nod to Shannon’s theory of information, Jakobson and Halle (1956, 17) characterize these varied distinctions as “information-bearing elements”: that is, terms that generate information in their differential relations, with a greater number of distinctions generally corresponding to a higher quantity of information. From time to time, changes may emerge, such as the suppression of one set of binary distinctions or the emergence of a new one, as the pronunciation and acceptance of the speakers shift.

Jakobson argued that such shifts in the historical trajectory of a language, its diachronic dimension, were no mere isolated events but rather belong to a mutation that differentially reverberated across the synchronic organization of a total language system. This play between diachronic and synchronic change reflected the natural tendency of the language to adapt as a necessity for maintaining equilibrium and even economy (Jakobson 1990, 184-201). Structural linguistics focuses attention on these “structuring” relations and their enduring dynamics.

Figure 5: Graph devised by information theorist Colin Cherry and linguists Morris Halle and Roman Jakobson to reduce Russian phonemes to binary oppositions (coded as +/-) permitting measure of their value according to the mathematician Claude E. Shannon’s theory of information. Based on the total set of phonemes and the quantity of “selections” necessary to specify a selection, they determined each phoneme conveys at least 5.38 bits of information. Source: E. Colin Cherry, Morris Halle, and Roman Jakobson. “Toward the Logical Description of Languages in Their Phonemic Aspect.” Language 29, no. 1 (March 1953): 38.
Figure 6: Lévi-Strauss’s attempt to refine the Cherry/Halle/Jakobson measure of Russian phonemes, initially prepared and hand mailed to Jakobson but transposed into a cleaner version by the editors of the Jakobson/Lévi-Strauss correspondence. Source: Lévi-Strauss to Jakobson, 5 May 1952, in Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Correspondance 1942-1982. Edited by Emmanuelle Loyer and Patrice Maniglier. Librairie du XXIe siècle. [Paris]: Éditions du Seuil, 2018, p. 165.

The systematizing tendencies of the interwar linguistics of the Prague School, and Jakobson in particular, proved uncannily fit for cybernetic reframing. Their core principles, quite developed by the mid-1920s, emphasized a conception of language as an integrated system of differential terms, reducible to oppositions, constrained by serial patterning, given arbitrary representation, explainable in terms of teleology and a systematic tendency towards equilibrium. Jakobson’s updating of the Saussurean terms langue and parole to code and message in the course of the 1950s appeared more like refinement than reinvention; the exchange of structuralist “teleology” for cybernetic “teleology,” of “equilibrium” for “homeostasis,” appeared like improved precision, not least of all to Jakobson. Broad features of this analytic resonate with information theorists’ descriptions of communications in terms of a discrete set with stable statistical properties distributed across a system.

Such similarities are not strictly fortuitous, although a full accounting of their conditions exceeds the present essay; briefly and schematically, these changes in linguistics resonate with an interwar liberal intellectual strategy that surfaced in diverse intellectual quarters across Europe and North America, including logical positivism, BASIC English, and even some spheres of eugenics.[12] Features of this shared perspective included the search for basic economic units of communication, whose propagation could be more or less rationally and scientifically described to ensure reliable transmission in the face of cultural and historical difference. For liberal intellectuals facing a maelstrom of ethnic, economic, and linguistic strife, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, the appeal of rational communications as a neutral technical sphere for overcoming difference is not hard to see. Logical positivism imagined a repository of mathematics-like terms that resisted transformation despite translation across languages; BASIC English sketched elementary vocabulary purged of treacherous nuance with the aid of statistics; structuralism, by contrast, sketched a fundamental data-set of phonemes, operated on through combinatorics, with each isolated term in organic and stable relation to the system as a whole.

Structuralist Linguistics as Formalization of Cultural Antinomies

Jakobson’s orientation towards discrete units caught in webs of systemic transformation could be seen in fragmentary form in the work of Saussure. Perhaps more decisively, Saussure provided clues of the cultural antinomies later animating Jakobson’s analytics. The Swiss linguist once remarked that “there should be a science of sound that would treat articulatory movements like algebraic equations: a binary combination implies a certain number of mechanical and acoustical elements that mutually condition each other; the variation of one has a necessary and calculable repercussion on the others” (1959, 51). His students’ notes suggest Saussure provided illustrating charts and diagrams in which spoken language became networks of symbolic relations realizing mathematical transformations (Saussure 1989). This is no typical prison, but rather hints at a world of symbolic logic and combinatorics, a database of culture producing infinite transformations through opposition and difference.

With Saussure as their exemplary and prophetic precursor, structuralists would resemble the systems analysts of latter-day computing. By analyzing myth, madness, or poetics, structuralists disclosed the dynamic possibilities of the subjects of the data-series they inventoried.[13] Expressed in brief: under the sway of structuralism, the work of cultural analytics shifted from a kind of taxidermic mummification to simulation and cloning. Techniques of mere collection, classification, and documentation, such as might be undertaken by a nineteenth-century philologist or even colonial ethnographer, gave way to the supposedly rational tasks of symbolic documentation characteristic of the programmer, logician, or behavioral scientist.

A confrontation with cultural difference, including a certain notion of grand civilizational clashes, undergirds the structuralist shift from historicism to systems analysis. In his 1940s lectures in New York, Jakobson noted the “genetic perspective” of nineteenth-century neogrammarian linguists under whom Saussure trained, characterized by “a search for [linguistic] prototypes in earlier forms of each given language” (1978, 6). Such work intertwined scientism, orientalism, and nationalism. Consider the work of linguist and Orientalist Franz Bopp (1791-1867), which helped define the scientific specificity of European linguistic inquiry through the historical reconstruction of Sanskrit. In Bopp’s work, the discovery of combinatory principles in historical phonetics emerged through a reckoning with a paradoxically ahistorical other—an Orient which, as Edward Said argued, was “always the same unchanging, uniform, and radically peculiar object” (1994, 98).[14] At stake here is the emergence of an historical, modern European science through opposition to the supposedly ahistorical fragments of a timeless other. This confrontation with the Orientalist other, which was also a confrontation with an imperial antagonist (the Ottoman Empire), provided the contours of the combinatorial language system reworked by Saussure and his disciples in Prague.[15] This juxtaposition of cultural difference and scientism formed, in a sense, the kernel of what Derrida would term “the very modernity of linguistic science, that is, modernity as linguistic science, since so many other human sciences refer to linguistics as their titular model” (1986, 139). The scientific models of structuralism boded a coming methodology, by which the human sciences would inventory and shape cultural order, much as physics inventoried and shaped physical order (though the threat of those models enabling disorder and annihilation was, admittedly, never far from mind).

The recourse in structural linguistics to a kind of scientistic mediation of difference, which was also a particular tactic for sublimating conflict, would prove an enduring feature in some of its most prominent practitioners, including Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss. Here, we might again recall Saussure’s invocation of chess to explain the focus of structural linguistics on internal rules, focusing on the emphasis he laid on a system transposed from the Orient to the Occident: “The fact that the game [of chess] passed from Persia to Europe is external; against that, everything having to do with its system and rules is internal” (1959, 22). The passage offers a peculiarly structural justification of the historical situatedness of structural methods. From Bopp through Saussure, the appearance of linguistic science coincided with an assertion of European identity grounded, in part, on a distancing but supposed mastering of an Oriental other. The scientificity of that maneuver, as well as the integrity of the identities it produced, required disavowal of these operations as merely extrinsic and incidental—which, not coincidentally, establishes the formal integrity of a system suddenly rendered “internal” and intrinsic.

Why, then, acknowledge Persia (or Sanskrit, etc.) at all, when European linguistics might occupy itself with the intrinsic necessity of its principal objects’ autonomy? Because, in properly structural fashion, it is only through this epistemic difference that the specificity of European identities can be established. Acknowledging external difference is necessary for establishing an internal identity which must, nonetheless, hold itself apart from that difference. This dynamic animated Benveniste’s remarks on the American Northwest and Lévi-Strauss’s writing about the Nambikwara of Brazil. But its theoretically radicalized form took shape only when the violence and domination it confronted “came home to roost,” that is, when its leading practitioners turned their eyes upon European and Eurasian subjects victim to projects of cultural purification and opposition unleashed by “European” modernities. In this respect, Jakobson’s journeys from Revolutionary-Era Moscow to interwar Prague and wartime New York, before assuming a leading position in the Cold War anti-Soviet apparatus that took hold in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1950s, merit particular attention.

Moscow, Prague, and State Violence

The development of structural methods for resolving cultural difference on scientific terms was guided by shifting orientations of the state toward persons labeled minorities. Saussure himself had shifted to structural methods, and phonetics in particular, as the French state he served increasingly focused on linguistics as a science that could support national greatness. As a professor at Paris’s École Pratique des Hautes Études in the 1880s, Saussure spearheaded new methods in scientific linguistics while also training young teachers who would lead the national charge in driving out dialects in favor of a single dominant language system, that of High French (Brain 1998, 256).

This scientific straddling of modern and folk, national and regional difference, also marked Jakobson’s structural initiation: like the pre-structuralist Lévi-Strausses who dispatched photographs to Paris, Jakobson launched his linguistic career in the 1910s as a Muscovite university student documenting premodern folklore in Russian villages.[16] As if to dramatize this dynamic—the profoundly nationalist impulses underwriting preservation—and also, as if to throw its violent dynamics into inverted relief, Jakobson later reported narrowly escaping murder at the hands of local informants who mistook him for a German spy (Jakobson 1997, 31, 278 n.63). From that excursion, he returned to Moscow where he spent his nights in the company of the Russian Futurists, discussing Einstein, technology, revolution, and attending poetry readings at the Polytechnic Museum. From the timeless countryside, he came back to modernity, where he could calmly and patiently inventory the disappearing linguistic history of a culture whose time had already passed, without its speakers even realizing it.

The mark of the structuralist consciousness, however, was not so much to thematize this opposition as to internalize it. As a scientific method, it came into its own when its practitioners faced the prospect of their own cultural annihilation. As Foucault would put it, structuralism was “the awakened and troubled consciousness of modern thought” (2002, 226). Troubled, it would seem, by a confrontation with itself, as the violence exported around the world or wielded by center against periphery increasingly was turned back against its source. When the prospect of extinction fell upon the scientist, the city dweller, and the cosmopolitan intellectual, a new kind of archival impulse took shape—not merely museumification of what was lost, but an urge to save the distinguishing features of cultural difference for future animation.

Structuralism flourished in the wake of genocide and pogroms. When the prospects of such extinctions were visited upon national and ethnic cultures, when the inventorying violence of modernity redounded upon itself, the search for a new symbolic preservation appeared. This impulse went beyond the documentarian, historicist impulse, leaning instead towards the possibility of preserving dynamism in the face of decimation.

Two anecdotes convey the political urgency that infused Jakobson’s structural linguistics: First, after hiding out in the countryside after the arrest of his fellow student activists in the Constitutional Democratic Party, Jakobson emerged to find himself enlisted by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to help it define linguistic frontiers between Russia and the Ukraine, so that the former could authoritatively assert new territorial claims. Jakobson complied, asking in lieu of payment that they grant his parents passports to leave the country, that his sick father might be treated, a request which they honored (Jakobson 1997, 53-54).[17] Second, in 1922 the Russian formalist Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky, whose political persecution led him to take refuge in Finland, wrote to the celebrated Russian painter Ilya Repin for help returning safely to Russia. The latter replied: “You write, asking that I certify that you are not a Bolshevik, and you write the letter in the Bolshevik orthography. How can I possibly defend you?” (Jakobson 1997, 65).[18] Fearful of this tumultuous climate, in which quite a few of his academic and artistic friends would soon die of privation, political execution, or suicide, in 1920 the twenty-three-year-old Jakobson decamped with the Red Cross for interwar Prague, the multilingual cross-roads for Eastern, Western, and Central European speakers and cultures (Jakobson 1967).

In Prague, he fell in with a distinguished community of linguists, including his mentor in structural linguistics, the refugeed Russian Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, with whom he co-founded the Prague Linguistic Circle. Trubetzkoy was a proud Eurasianist, that is, a champion of Slavic and Eastern European cultures, skeptical of Western European cosmopolitanisms that systemically denigrated “the East,” disdainful of a Eurocentric chauvinism that viewed other cultures as “children” or “savages” (Moore 1997, 322). And yet, Trubetzkoy believed that (linguistic) science could beat back, or at least stave off, the violent conflicts that proceeded from this perspective. He was mistaken: after he assumed a professorship in Vienna, he perished of a heart attack, apparently brought on by the stress of his perilous anti-Hitler agitation following Austria’s annexation.

When the National Socialists invaded Czechoslovakia, the vocally anti-fascist and Jewish Jakobson, on a tip from a knowing friend, reduced his personal papers to “nine pails of ashes” and decamped for Denmark, followed by Norway and Sweden.[19] His wife recalled the ensuing years as a time of dislocations, intermittent storage, documentation, filing, stamping, signing, and code switching:

“Temporary apartments, clothes in suitcases, boxes in storages, losses during transportation from one country to another, looking for new apartments, visas, places on boats and trains, switching from one language to another, from one environment to another, and people, people, people of all countries, characters, professions, destinies; greeting and parting, lifting of anchors barely laid, the escape from Norway on foot with the Germans on our heels, arrested and killed friends there, tension in Sweden, which functioned as a safe haven for thousands, again a whole year of visits to consulates and embassies, acrobatic attempts to leave…”

svatava pírková-Jakobson, quoted in Toman (1995, 245).

In May 1941 Jakobson and his wife had boarded a passenger liner in Gothenburg, destined for New York. According to the memoir of fellow shipmate Toni Cassirer, the wife of Ernst, on their second day at sea German troops boarded and searched the passenger liner to check identity papers. As the Jakobsons were both undocumented, stateless persons, the soldiers hesitated—their decision to ultimately let them continue on their journey, as they were of Russian origin, is somewhat surprising (Jangfeldt 1997, 144). In fact, that was not the end of their troubles. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, redbaiting US anticommunists would turn their malevolent attention to Jakobson; apparently it was only through the intervention of President Dwight Eisenhower, an acquaintance from Columbia University in the 1940s, that the Un-American Activities Committee withdrew a subpoena for Jakobson to publicly testify (though declassified FBI records indicate he offered private, apparently confidential testimony).[20]

Statics, Dynamics, and Method

Structural linguistics did more than simply weather these threats. Its elaboration in Prague by a community of expatriates and refugees, its re-animation in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a new community of European refugees (including Thomas Sebeok, Halle, Lévi-Strauss, and André Martinet) permitted its reconstruction as an instrument of an American anti-fascist and anti-communist arsenal. These researchers’ prominence as anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet consultants during the 1940s and 1950s helps explain the great consequence with which they approached the science of communication. Theirs was a hard-won knowledge of the precariousness of their own situation and that of millions of their compatriots across Europe and Western Asia.

The methodological innovations of Jakobson bespoke this sense of urgency. Already in the fraught interwar years Jakobson had identified the move towards dynamic structural analysis, and the rejection of historicism, with the prospect of surviving modernity. In “The Generation that Squandered its Poets,” written to honor his recently suicided friend, the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Majakovskij, Jakobson declares their common membership in a “lost generation” that arrived at the Russian Revolution “not rigidified, still capable of adapting to experience and change, still capable of a dynamic rather than static understanding of our situation.” This phrasing recapitulates the opposition Jakobson frequently posited between neogrammarian methods, which he characterized as static, historical, and rooted in the past and structuralist methods, which he characterized as dynamic, perpetually generative, and oriented towards a future horizon of transformation. As “witnesses and participants in the great socialist, scientific, and other such cataclysms,” Futurist poetics and structuralist method straddle forces of progress that are coextensive with those of destruction. He adds: “All we had were compelling songs of the future; and suddenly these songs were transformed by the dynamics of the day into a historico-literary fact.” Though aligned with dynamic generativity, structuralism and futurism also carried, as it were, reactionary forces that could draw movement to a standstill, freezing their objects as historical fragments.

Which is to say, Jakobson’s structural methods—as well, certainly, as those advanced by Trubetzkoy, Lévi-Strauss, and probably even Benveniste—elicited the essential features of cultures precisely as they were threatened with liquidation. As Derrida, a generation younger than Lévi-Strauss, put it, structuralism possessed a “catastrophic consciousness, simultaneously destroyed and destructive” (1978, 5-6). In the presence of cataclysmic threat, structuralism took the measure of a culture, identifying essential systems and features, discarding excess baggage with the brutal efficiency summoned by the threat of imminent destruction. (Derrida knew a thing or two about political menace: much as the Jewish Lévi-Strauss took refuge in New York, Derrida spent much of World War II at home, due to the expulsion of Jews from schools in French Algeria; years later, back home in Algeria during its War of Independence, he would write to his mentor Louis Althusser of his crippling immobility in the face of “the daily assassinations, to which one becomes accustomed and talks about like bad weather.”[21])

Structural method confronted the reality of irreparable rupture but also embodied it within its own “internal” system dynamics. The axis of phonemes, divisible and combinable in an infinity of iterations, imposed radical constraints from one language to the next, but within these constraints opened onto a nearly limitless horizon. In this regard, the never fully resolved tension between diachrony (that is, the historical axis of linguistic change) and synchrony (that is, the systematicity of virtual totality defining a language at a given moment) refigured a modern contradiction in scientific form. Perhaps unique among the interwar structuralists, Jakobson did not shy away from this conflict but proposed in perhaps the most noted essay of the Prague school, “The Principles of Historical Phonology” (1990 [1931]) (alluded to above), that the disruptive forces of diachrony could, in fact, become a generative vehicle animating the lively, relational dynamics of synchrony in a language system. The unruliness of historical rupture ensured that the telos of langue towards equilibrium never devolved towards the ultimate stability, death, but instead kept the entire system in a state of mutual adaptation or dynamic stability. This paradigm of language prefigured cybernetician Ross Ashby’s celebrated homeostat, a chain of interconnected stability-seeking devices that continually adapted to one another to produce a stable current without human intervention, which Norbert Wiener labelled “one of the great philosophical contributions of the present day.”[22]

The ingenious synthesis of historicism and dynamism, which in langue (as in the homeostat) required no human intervention or consciousness to maintain itself, was not a prison. But neither was it liberatory. Jakobson’s invocations of atomic physics from the 1910s through the 1960s to explain the lively molecular relations among structural elements did not draw by chance upon the mechanism for the most powerful annihilation of human and inhuman matter; in physics’ power to break the world into a new set of relativistic interrelations, Jakobson recognized an engine for immense power that was identical with unfathomable destruction.

Atomic invocations complement Lévi-Strauss’s remark in Tristes Tropiques (1955), written following his embrace of structural linguistics and of cybernetics, that “‘Entropology’, not anthropology, should be the word for the discipline that devotes itself to the study of this process of disintegration in its most highly evolved forms” (1975, 397). Meant to capture the tragic disarray of an anthropologist facing the tragic conditions of tribal cultural forms reduced to a pale shadow by the violent impositions of colonialism, Lévi-Strauss’s neologism “entropology” also reflected a sense of irreparable loss attending his return after World War II to a France that seemed unlikely to regain its prewar grandeur and, in any case, had forever lost a certain imperial innocence after Vichy-era collaborations.

Notions of a cybernetic database offered not so much a resolution to these problems as their means of presentation: in cybernetics and information theory, entropy connoted both the breakdown of all organization of a system and, almost paradoxically, its maximum degree of complexity. It embodied a state of historical unwinding as well as the genesis of ever-greater complexity. From a cybernetic perspective, it is the lack of entropy that endows biology and natural language with the requisite redundancies to produce life and meaning. Yet, from the perspective of information theory and cryptography, entropy also coincides with maximum efficiency and maximum security; all human traces have been replaced with machine-generated randomness. The structuralist database took up this mission by inventorying as full a record of the distinguishing features organizing a cultural system as it could.

If this was in some sense a historical record, perhaps even the relics of a lapsed world, it nonetheless retained the dynamic potentials of cultural difference. But, unlike the dusty drawers of the museum of ethnography or the neogrammarians’ inventory of dead languages, when presented as a database defined by rule-bound interrelations, these historical traces also pointed towards a horizon of future iterations. Whether in language, kinship, or economy, the structuralist database was fundamentally a generative platform, a matrix for genesis and transformations. With the turn of Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss towards metalanguage in the 1960s, it would even provide the contours for the extraction of metadata, by which the broader map of meaning governing a culture could be illuminated.

The structuralist database did not, however, guarantee freedom, much less existence: it provided the basis for identifying the logical constraints bearing down on the individual. Like Wiener’s cybernetics, it found its origins in atomic physics before turning to computing, information, and communication as its definitive corollary. Its defining mood is not the loneliness of the prison but the despair of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of nine pails of ashes—the fire that consumes so brightly it annihilates order, producing infinite combinations from the reduced elements it leaves behind.[23]

Social Networking, Then and Now

“The world of the symbolic is the world of the machine,” Lacan once remarked. This is not exactly because he or his fellow structuralists were “influenced” by cybernetics, per se, but more precisely because they belonged to a moment in which machinery, records, filing systems, experiments, and, indeed, vast fields of science had undermined the solidity of bodies, cultures, and history itself. In the face of genocide and colonialism, museums and philology gave way to a greater interest in the dynamic systems of networks, data points, and exchanges disclosed by the rise of statistics, relativity, and systems engineering—not simply as an ideology of scientism, but also as an alternate strategy of preservation. As Heidegger, the onetime National Socialist apparatchik put it, quoting Hölderlin and perhaps explaining away his own collusion: “But where the danger lies, also grows the saving power” (1977, 28). Where structuralism’s predecessors traveled the world collecting traces of dead and dying cultures, the structuralists sought to reduce these records to a set of dynamic data points for informatic simulation.

What links might we draw between structuralism and subsequent digital technologies? Internalist histories of computing defined by serial inventions have often viewed social scientific contributions as inessential to the actual scientific and technical development of digital technologies. Yet the structuralist gambit occupies a privileged place in the archaeology of cultural analytics central to contemporary IT industries—which in turn invites a reassessment of the essence and origin of computing. Reuniting the history of computing with those of the human sciences and political violence, far from obscuring the history of technology, makes the larger course of its development intelligible.

In today’s social networks we find, in practice, a mapping of distinguishing features governing the genesis, exchange, and dynamism of communication such as Jakobson or Lévi-Strauss could only have dreamt of. The account of what a social network is, in one patent issued to Facebook, Inc. in 2019, even recalls the language of high structural anthropology circa 1953. “A social network,” Facebook lawyers explain for US patent office bureaucrats,

“is a social structure made up of entities, such as individuals or organizations, that are connected by one or more types of interdependency or relationships, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge, or prestige.”

Patent for applicant Facebook, Inc. of a work by inventors Michael Johnson, Michael Dudley, and Ryan Patterson. “Suggesting search results to users before receiving any search query from the users.” United States US10467239B2, filed June 8, 2018, and issued November 5, 2019.

“Network.” “Social structure.” Not an association of persons or things but “entities” defined not by qualities nor embodiments but “relationships,” such as “kinship,” “exchange,” or “beliefs” whose “interdependency” provides a model of future transformations. The diagrammatic account of how such relations take shape around nodes and edges—where the relevant inputs could be cousins, lovers, news items, or recommended vendors—is treated in some detail by Lévi-Strauss, and reflected on by Jakobson and other structuralists in varied forms [Fig. 7].

Figure 7: “[E]ach node may represent an entity, which may be human (e.g., user of the social-networking system) or non-human (e.g., location, event, action, business, object, message, post, image, web page, news feed, etc.),” Source: see preceding block quote.

In Facebook’s network diagram, as in Jakobson’s informational representation analysis of phonemes, Lévi-Strauss’s kinship diagrams, or his laboratory’s Human Area Research File (HARF), we have not so much a graphical assignment of empirical givens, but rather a paradigm of storage, correlation, and extrapolation, of database and metadata. To think for a moment in terms familiar to Lévi-Strauss, it schematizes the belonging of les données [data] to les dons [gifts], i.e., of “the given” to the structure which “gives.”

Yet as I hope this essay has suggested, structuralism is not only a formulation of generativity: it is also generative. It is itself a synthesis of political, technological, and economic turmoil that gave birth to our present. It is a modern answer to the problem of modern violence, an archive aimed at transcending the constraints of historicism and the archive. Grappling with these problems drove its theorists deep into thickets of social relations, networks, and exchange, emerging from them with new proposals for datafication against menace. This confrontation with modern problems would, under quite different circumstances, permit Harvard undergrads’ networked rating systems of potential mates to scale up, with the speculative resources of Silicon Valley, into the world’s most valued social network (by investors and markets, that is).

If the intersections and parallels between two generations of databasing are clear, these circumstances also point towards a vast epistemic and political gulf. In the case of the structuralists, their most utopian ambitions for vast symbolic inventories and extrapolations were motivated by the search for counter-agents to modern political violence. It was an exercise in databasing against the destructions that its protagonists witnessed. In the present-era of mass extinctions, viral exceptions, and the looming specter of untold climatic migrations, are there any imperatives besides monetization (and state surveillance) to rationalize the far more comprehensive databasing of Google, Facebook, and Twitter?

Works Cited

Brain, Robert. 1998. “Standards and Semiotics,” in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication, ed. Timothy Lenoir. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Force and Signification,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1986. “The Linguistic Circle of Geneva,” in The Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass. Brighton: The Harvester Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2002. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977. “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row.

Jakobson, Roman. 1967. “The Generation That Squandered Its Poets (Excerpts),” trans. Dale E. Peterson. Yale French Studies, no. 39 (January): 119–25.

Jakobson, Roman. 1978. Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1990. “Principles of Historical Phonology,” in On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1997. My Futurist Years, ed. Bengt Jangfeldt, trans. Stephen Rudy. New York: Marsilio Publishers.

Jakobson, Roman and Morris Halle. 1956. Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton.

Jameson, Fredric. 1974. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton Essays in Literature, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jangfeldt, Bengt. 1997. “Roman Jakobson in Sweden 1940-1941.” Cahiers de l’institut de linguistique et des sciences du langage de l’Université de Lausanne 9.

Lacan, Jacques. 2006. “A Theoretical Introduction to the Functions of Psychoanalysis in Criminology,” in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 102-122.

Lacan, Jacques. 2006. “Science and Truth,” in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 726-745.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1975. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Atheneum.

Loyer, Emmanuelle. 2018. Lévi-Strauss: A Biography, trans. Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff. Medford: Polity.

Moore, David Chioni. 1997. “Colonialism, Eurasianism, Orientalism: N. S. Trubetzkoy’s Russian Vision.” The Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 2 (July): 321-326.

Said, Edward W. 1994. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1959. Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1989. Cours de Linguistique Générale, Édition Critique, Tome 1, ed. Rudolf Engler Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Toman, Jindřich. 1995. The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


[1] I thank Alexander Galloway, Samuel Weber, and Erhard Schüttpelz for feedback and conversation that greatly enriched this essay, as well as Alison Hugill for her work copyediting the text. I am also grateful to editors John Tresch, Cameron Brinitzer, Gabriel Coren, Rosanna Dent, and Allegra Giovine for soliciting this essay and offering incisive comments for its improvement. In a time of pandemic my own kinship system provided an essential network of support. For that, I thank Lisa Åkervall. This essay is dedicated to Paul Kockelman, in whose work a few of the historico-literary facts reflected on here recover the dynamic, generative force the structuralists would have wished for them. In particular, this paper also offers an oblique attempt to answer, by slightly different means, his question “What does it take to automate, format, and network semiotic practices? What difference does this make for those who engage in such practices? And what are the stakes?” The Art of Interpretation in the Age of Computation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1.

[2] Compare with Jean Renoir (dir), The Rules of the Game, 1939, 110 min.

[3] While the texts above by Lévi-Strauss and Lacan capture more or less explicitly their encounters with state violence, in the case of Saussure, see also Robert Brain’s remarks on how the politics of the French state penetrated his activities in the seminal latter decades of the nineteenth century: “Standards and Semiotics,” in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication, ed. Timothy Lenoir (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 249–84 and 414–25.

[4] More generally, Jameson’s interpretation emerged from the late 1960s, when a new generation of renegade theorists was in ascent—famously identified with the “hermeneutics of suspicion” by Paul Ricœur and later dubbed post-structuralism in North America. Among the upstarts we may count French-Bulgarian literary theorist (and former assistant to Lévi-Strauss) Julia Kristeva, French philosopher Michel Foucault, French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida, and crypto-Lacanians such as Luce Irigaray and Félix Guattari. So stunning were these scholars’ intellectual inroads in the global humanities that a primary task of any twenty-first century study of structuralism is to chip away at the sedimented interpretations their movements imposed on it.

[5] This paper takes inspiration from recent, ethnographically informed reflections on infrastructure, albeit with a shifted emphasis on the infrastructure of ethnography itself. A few of the key works from this larger body of scholarship include Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 377–91; Geoffrey C. Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005); Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (2013): 327–43; Miyako Inoue, “Paper Democracy: The Installation of the Filing System in the Postwar Japanese Prosecutor’s Office,” unpublished; and Kockelman, The Art of Interpretation in the Age of Computation.

[6] I have focused on European structuralists, in part for their continuing prominence in present-day academic discourse, as opposed to Americans such as Leonard Bloomfield, or even the French Émile Benveniste or André Martinet, whose less prominent role in contemporary thought reflects, in my estimation, the less pronounced confrontation they had with political violence. The theorists I do consider embody, in an intensified condition, dynamics that I think could be generalized across structuralism, and which find less marked manifestation in theorists such as Bloomfield or Benveniste, whose confrontation with phenomena such as genocide, exile, and other forms of collective violence were less pronounced.

[7] I say “relatively” because, in fact, the openness of international foundations such as Rockefeller, Wenner-Gren and Ford, and more indirectly UNESCO, to funding cybernetic-affiliated work seems to have played a part in its embrace by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss. See Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 1 (2011): 96–126.

[8] For more on the possible relations of kinship and contemporary big data, see Nick Seaver, “Bastard Algebra!,” in Data, Now Bigger and Better (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2015), 27–46, and Ara Wilson, “Visual Kinship,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 42 (2018).

[9] With this phrasing I explicitly have in mind historian Rebecca Lemov’s characterization of contemporaneous initiatives at Harvard’s Institute of Social Relations (a center which tried, without success, to recruit Lévi-Strauss for a full professorship and occasionally consulted with Jakobson). See Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). My account of cultural analytics, including the politics of counting and computing, benefits from works including critical accounts of quantification in Jacqueline Wernimont, Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018) (and elaborations in her Twitter feed), the highly nuanced negotiation of “theoretical” literary analysis and computation in Katherine Bode, Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (London: Anthem Press, 2012), arguments for the contours of cultural analytics in Lev Manovich, Cultural Analytics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), and critical accounts of (structural/poststructural) “theory” as opposed to digital humanities or computational humanities as sketched in Franco Moretti, “‘Operationalizing’: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory,” New Left Review 84 (December 2013): 103–19 and in Andrew Piper, Can We Be Wrong? The Problem of Textual Evidence in a Time of Data Elements in Digital Literary Studies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020) (and elaborated in his Twitter feed).

[10] On Dreyfus in Brazil, see Ellen Spielmann, Das Verschwinden Dina Lévi-Strauss’ und der Transvestismus Mário de Andrades: Genealogische Rätsel in der Geschichte der Sozial- und Humanwissenschaften im modernen Brasilien (Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2003); and Luísa Valentini, Um Laboratório de Antropologia: O Encontro entre Mário de Andrade, Dina Dreyfus e Claude Lévi-Strauss (1935-1938) (São Paulo, SP: Alameda, 2013).

[11] See, for example, Roman Jakobson, “Current Issues of General Linguistics,” in On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 56–60; Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics in Relation to Other Sciences,” in On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 452–88; and Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Francois Jacob, et al., “‘Vivre et Parler’: Une discussion révolutionnaire,” Les Lettres Françaises, no. 1221 (February 14, 1968): 3–7. Lily Kay wrote brilliantly about the kinships tying molecular biology to Jakobson’s structural linguistics; media theorists Bernhard Siegert and Erhard Schüttpelz, as well as anthropologist Paul Kockelman, have likewise remarked on Jakobson’s adaptation of Claude Shannon’s schematic diagram of communications to a theory of poetics. See Lily Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Erhard Schüttpelz, “Quelle, Rauschen und Senke der Poesie. Roman Jakobsons Umschrift der shannonschen Kommunikation,” in Schnittstelle: Medien und Kommunikation, ed. Georg Stanitzek and Wiljelm Voßkamp (Cologne: DuMont, 2001), 187–206; Bernhard Siegert, “Die Geburt der Literatur aus dem Rauschen der Kanäle. Zur Poetik der Phatischen Funktion,” in Electric Laokoon: Zeichen und Medien, von der Lochkarte zur Grammatologie, ed. Michael Franz, Bernhard Siegert, and Robert Stockhammer (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007), 5–41; Paul Kockelman, “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise: How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20, no. 2 (2010): 406–21. See also work on the sources of some structuralist methods in cybernetics and information theory, including Mai Wegener, “An der Straßenkreuzung: Der Mathematiker Georges Theodule Guilbaud. Kybernetik und Strukturalismus,” Archiv für Mediengeschichte 4 (2004): 167–74; Céline Lafontaine, L’Empire Cybernétique: Des machines à penser à la Pensée machine (Paris: Seuil, 2004); Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory”; and Ronan Le Roux, Une Histoire de la Cybernétique en France (1948-1975) (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2018). Alexander Campolo likewise notes the close relations between Lévi-Strauss’s diagrams and a “computational understanding of graphics.” See Campolo, “Signs and Sight: Jacques Bertin and the Visual Language of Structuralism,” Grey Room 78 (February 1, 2020): 47.

[12] On logical positivism, see Peter Galison, “The Americanization of Unity,” Daedalus 127 (1998): 45–71; on genetics and eugenics, see Claude Elwood Shannon, “An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics,” in Claude Elwood Shannon: Collected Papers, ed. N. J. A. Sloane and A. D. Wyner (Piscataway, N.J.: IEEE Press, 1993), 891–920; and Axel Roch, “Mendels Message: Genetik und Informationstheorie,” in Versuchskaninchen–Bilder und andere Manipulationen (Zurich: Museum für Gestaltung, 1997), 27–33; on Basic English, see Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism: Making It New In New Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 127–58; and Liu, The Freudian Robot, 39–98.

[13] See, for example, Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 206–31; and an essay dedicated to the psychoanalyst and nephew of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss’s friend Raymond de Saussure: Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” in Structural Anthropology, 186–205.

[14] On the combinatory logic in Bopp, see Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 305–21.

[15] While not heavily invested in colonization, the Ottoman Empire figured prominently as an imperial rival in the Germanic lands.

[16] The relations between ostensibly “traditional” cultures and the state varies significantly, even in the face of some parallels. The Lévi-Strausses toured the Amazonian interior as emissaries of the Brazilian and French states that sponsored their mission. On an expedition to the Russian countryside with a professor of linguistics, Jakobson’s stance was more comparable to that of W. B. Yeats, for whom Irish folklore was a counter-force to the British colonial state. Yet all three excursions seemed motivated by the desire to document a spiritual culture that modernity threatened with annihilation.

[17] Regarding his refuge in the countryside, see remarks offered to the House Un-American Activities Committee, reported in f. 78, p. 281 Roman Jakobson, “Memoir,” in My Futurist Years, ed. Bengt Jangfeldt, trans. Stephen Rudy (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1997), 53–54.

[18] Jakobson reports that “When Shklovskij later returned to Moscow, he left it with me, and I gave it to the Slavic Library in Prague,” to which editors of the memoirs have added the parenthetical remark “Slovanska knihovna, the entire collection of which was seized by the Russians after the war.”

[19] Jakobson quoted in Stephen Rudy, “Introduction,” in My Futurist Years, x; Jindřich Toman, The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), 244.

[20] On Eisenhower’s intervention, see Jakobson, My Futurist Years, fn. 78, p 280-281. It is, in fact, possible that there is some confusion here between the subpoena and the private testimony. They may have been one and the same event, the report of Eisenhower squelching the subpoena may be mistaken, and Jakobson may have concealed the private testimony, leading to later confusion. In any case, reports of Jakobson’s private testimony to the committee in April 1953 are recorded in another meeting he had, this with the FBI Boston Field Office: “Dr. Roman Jakobson,” 10 December 1956, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston, Massachusetts, 105-706-27, p. 2—apparently held in the FBI’s Washington, DC archives. Furnished to Geoghegan by Freedom of Information Act request.

[21] Quoted in Nicola Tams, Geschriebene Freundschaft: Zu den Briefen Derridas (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2018), 107, fn. 9.

[22] Quote appears in Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 93.

[23] See also Wiener’s admonitions that cybernetics belonged to “the world of Belsen [concentration camp] and Hiroshima,” and that he labored “in the very slight hope” that cybernetics might counter rather than contribute to the concentration of power facilitated by modern science and engineering. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948), 38, 39.


The Place of Structuralism on the Hungarian Intellectual Scene: Late 1960s – Early 1970s

I am writing these notes from the perspective of a peripheral observer, having been a student of psychology and linguistics when structuralism reached Hungary. I was mainly a consumer of—if at times kitchen sink social participant in—the debates spurred by the arrival of structuralism. There was a great difference, for many of us, from what we saw on the French philosophical scene in the 1960s. The French history of structuralism has focused on structuralism as a comprehensive social theory that questioned the commitments of what were then traditionally left-leaning social power- and history-oriented social sciences and humanities in France. Seen from Hungary, however, structuralism appeared as a culmination of half a century of (what was assumed by many to be an almost) organic development: from Saussurian linguistics to universal structures of cognition and society. In Hungary, in addition, we had a political situation where the social implications of scientific theories could take the form of direct political intervention.

Structuralism hit many youngsters in Hungary coming from linguistics proper, and not from Foucault, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss. At the same time, the message of structuralism in the Hungarian context was the concentration on pure structure and form rather than history and content. It was in a way like the 1920s Russian and Czech formalism: the inspiration towards form was coming from linguistics and language-inspired poetics.

Status quo of Hungarian linguistics in the early 1960s

To understand the situation of modern linguistics in Hungary and the impact of a structural vision, a few basic background factors should be considered. Hungarian linguistics in the 1930s and 1940s saw a small but promising structuralist attempt in the work of Gyula Laziczius (1896–1957), a phonologist and general linguist who initiated the Prague School (Linguistic Circle) and inspired Karl Bühler’s vision of language structure. Laziczius conceived langue as a system of signs accommodated to states of affairs in actual speech, or parole, and characterized by three functions: the descriptive, the directive, and the expressive functions (Laziczius 1942, 1966). As a phonologist with an instrumental phonetic background, Laziczius concentrated especially on the expressive function in his studies of emphatic aspects of speech.[1] One aspect of this had particular relevance for the following generation: between 1938 and 1949, Laziczius built the first European department of structuralist general linguistics at the University of Budapest (Pázmány, later Eötvös). Amidst the communist reorganization of academic life, the department was shut down, which resulted in a 10-15 year cessation of structuralist activity in Hungarian linguistics and hindered intergenerational transmission of structuralist orientations.

In the early 1960s, there was an interesting triangularity, wherein both traditional linguistics and Marxist ideology were opposed to a structural study of language. Traditional linguistics, still clinging to the frozen metatheory of the late nineteenth century neogrammarians, claimed that the only scientific study of language was historical linguistics. This attitude harbored suspicions about the structuralist and form-based “static” analysis of the linguistic system. Formális nyelvészet, or “formal linguistics,” moved away from immediately-given folk categories in a language and instead towards a view of language as a system of signs. Not an easy move.  

There was another tension surrounding the introduction of a structuralist approach to language in Hungary. The Marxist social imaginary understood society to be the result of constant class conflict and struggle, and applied a radical historicism and historical relativism to its interpretation. Class interest and history permeated everything. The structuralist attitude—when extended from the proper domain of language, with its concentration on system rather than history—presented a significant challenge.[2]

Structural analysis and would-be Hungarian structuralists thus had to face two inbuilt ideological, scientific, and existential rivals in the 1960s. Structuralists were considered problematic because they both neglected meaning and treated language as an object rather than an internal essence of humans. The other criticism, which Marxists leveled at structuralists’ ahistorical treatment of language, was that their concentration on structure implied a vision of eternal human nature.

Two structuralist Hungarian linguists in the 1960s: Antal and Fónagy

In spite of these intellectual and political contexts, two short-lived attempts to build up a structural linguistics still took form in Hungary. One was that of László Antal (1930-1993), a dynamic young linguist who was exceptionally well-read for the rather intellectually-closed communist country at the time. Antal started a campaign for structuralism in 1958 with a short paper published in a widely-read journal, Magyar Nyelvőr.[3] There, he outlined the idea that structuralism could serve as a generic name for all approaches that considered language to be “a closed system of signs,” and proposed “that the value of a given sign or sign category is determined by its definite place in the entire system” (Antal 1958, 94). Antal (1959, 1961b) worked to apply the structuralist approach to long-debated and difficult issues of Hungarian descriptive morphology.[4] He also published a popular book on what he called formal linguistic analysis (1964). This book—the first linguistics book that I ever read—combined the ideas borrowed from Harris (1951) and from Shannon (1948) with Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) information theory.

Antal had started from the mentalistic frames of Saussure, but he gradually became committed to a strictly behavioral vision of language. Morphological boundaries in segmentation would correspond to changes in entropy. Antal “started from the problems of segmentation in agglutinative languages and proposed that over words, the usual tendency is decreasing entropy. By this he meant the number of possible continuations at any given point that correspond to lexical density and grammatical structure.”[5] Thus, Antal used Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) notion of entropy for equal probability outcomes, where entropy is a function of the number of possible outcomes.[6] It is important that Antal’s structural approach had a hidden existential component: his structuralism campaigned for the independence of linguistics (from psychology and logic) by arguing for the existence of self-sufficient linguistic structures. In this approach, there was a corollary between the independence of linguistic structure and the independence of general linguistics.    

Iván Fónagy (1920-2005), the other representative of structuralism in Hungary in the early 1960s, was the fundamental contrast to Antal. Instead of independence, he looked for interdependence. He was committed to combining the psychological (in fact, the psychoanalytic) and the literary approaches to language with a structural approach to the language system.

Fónagy had a pupil-mentor relationship with Laziczius and thus represented a sort of continuity with a Saussure-inspired mentalistic structuralism, which Fónagy embedded in his sophisticated approach to multiple functions of language and framed in the tradition of the Prague School (Jakobson 1960) and Karl Bühler (1934).

Fónagy mainly contributed to a structuralist approach in three ways. Unlike Antal, he was not interested in an internalist structural approach but rather its extension toward a comprehension of the total communicative situation (Kiefer 2005; Szende 2008; Pléh 2018).[7] A second novel contribution was his analysis of the functions of language, with special attention to emotional expression. Finally, he reinterpreted the arbitraire of linguistic signs. As Kiefer (2005) has pointed out, for Fónagy, arbitrary linguistic signs had been historically motivated, and in actual communicative acts they obtain a secondary iconic or indexical motivation.[8]

What happened to linguistic structuralism in Hungary?

As Ferenc Kiefer (1931-2020), a Hungarian linguist of the subsequent generation, recently chronicled, a sui generis, fully-fledged Hungarian linguistic structuralism never developed (Kiefer 2019). There were several reasons for this. The first was the reaction of official academia, which was dominated by traditional historical- and meaning-centered linguistics. In 1961, for example, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (an important intellectual compass in Budapest) organized a grand “debate” about structuralism, with a plenary talk by Zsigmond Telegdi (1909-1994), one of the most educated and influential linguists in Hungary at the time. Telegdi claimed that there was a proper place for formal analysis. He tried to ease the worries of traditionalists by suggesting that this place for structure should not reduce interest in historical linguistics. He also tried to relax the Marxists by claiming that, while formal analysis had its autonomy, in a comprehensive vision of language the study of meaning and society also had their places.

As Kiefer presents it, the debate resolved very little, if anything. Since that time, the duality of traditional historical linguistics, on the one hand, and more method-oriented theoretical linguistics, on the other, has remained prominent in Hungary. But two of Telegdi’s other rhetorical moves have proved to be very productive. First, he pointed out that in the Soviet Union discussions about structuralism led to an official academic resolution in 1960, in which a clear differentiation between structuralism as an idealist ideology and structuralism as a method was made (Telegdi 1961, 24). Second, he highlighted how older questions concerning linguistic structures were taken up by mathematicians in the Soviet Union, and applied to the new problems of machine translation and computerized language processing.[9]

As chair of the re-established Department of General Linguistics in Budapest, Telegdi helped create an educational curriculum for “general and applied linguists,” separate from both language-specific philology and traditional Hungarian linguistics.[10] The new linguistics, however, was much more than structural. Antal’s and Fónagy’s first attempts at a modern structuralism in Hungary were quickly displaced by generative grammar. Structures were soon supplemented or even replaced by rules all over the place.[11]

For my generation, which was trained by these early converts to generative grammar, the famous examples of separating grammaticality and meaning—for example, with sentences like Chomsky’s (1957) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”—introduced the idea that syntax and form had primacy in cognitive organization. This idea was also taken up in psychology through “a primary concentration on formal aspects both regarding representations and regarding models of cognition. Cognitive research in the 1960s repeated for general cognition what had been initiated by the early linguistic structuralism of the Russian formalists and the avant-garde artistic movements in the 1920s” (Pléh 2019, 405). A focus on form and sentences soon appeared in experimental cognitive psychology as well as in linguistic theory. This attitude has remained a persistent feature of Hungarian psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology ever since.

Addendum: What happened to other structuralisms in Hungary?

Structuralism first appeared in Hungary, albeit belatedly, in linguistics. Being trained as a psychologist and linguist, I viewed developments at the time in other fields mainly with the eye of a linguist. I was happy to see the methods and worldview of formal linguistics extended to other domains. As a consequence, at the time we felt a number of critical interventions to be threats to the entire “linguistic turn” (Bollobás 2019). Other fields, such as folklore, anthropology, and literary studies followed suit about a decade later. But because of the complex—sometimes joined, sometimes rivaled—interests of the Communist Party’s ideological leadership in traditional historical, sociological, and literary scholarship, structuralism’s entry into these fields created a much bigger splash.

In my naïve view, this was related to two factors. Anthropological structuralism questioned the historical relativity so cherished by mainstream Marxists. Literary structuralism, for its part, posed a challenge to many literary scholars for reasons of tradition. The dominant view at the time held that literary analysis should be centered on life history and sociological contextualization. For the Marxists, this contextualization should embed literature into the frames of class struggle and aesthetic realism. With its concentration on form and sometimes even quantitative methods, and with its choice of authors to be studied and researchers to do these studies, structuralism in these fields created a real uproar.

One could list many examples.[12] Elemér Hankiss (1928-2015), who was at the time a politically-compromised multilingual literary scholar, edited a double book of translations on structuralism (Hankiss, 1971) that was provocative for two reasons. First, it collated all modern literary studies under the banner of structuralism; and second, it avoided the question of whether structuralism was an ideology—an issue that was crucial even for soft-line party treatments of structuralism at the time (Kelemen, 1969). Hankiss (1969) also published a book of essays for a general audience, and it employed structural analysis to show how similar principles operate in phenomena as seemingly diverse as Hungarian folk songs and the writings of Samuel Beckett. Both the ahistoricity and the choice of works were provocations.[13]That was enough from a single intellectual. Hankiss had to leave Szeged University and later the entire literary scene. He became a noted sociologist, politologist, a liberal political figure, and the president of Hungarian National television after 1990.

Gábor Bezeczky (2006), a Hungarian literary scholar, also provides a detailed description of the multiple forms that Hungarian literary structuralism took in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Communist Party’s ideological reactions against it, ultimately resulting in a high-profile ideology session. These official reactions undermined foreign influences during the early 1970s. We were in the aftermath of the 1968 Prague Spring crackdown, and in the middle of what Kremlinologists have called a hardening of the Brezhnev party line and Soviet ideological control. All of the central party’s interventions felt threatening at the time. Structuralism—though a pseudo-official summary of the “debate” was still published in 1977 (Szerdahelyi 1977)—was practically stopped in literary and human sciences. Bezeczky (2006, 6) put it ironically: “The reason for alarm on the part of the party line literators was probably that they ran out of ideas. Within literary scholarship they were unable to juxtapose anything to what they called ‘formal’. Thus they reverted to a political stance”. Bollobás (2019) recently described the consequences ironically as well, noting how the new generation of students started a new chapter of post-structuralism. Thus, the late appearance of structuralism was fast followed by a strong post-structuralist movement in Hungarian literary theory. Does that mean that party hardliners won?  

One can see sad or instructive parallels in the fate of certain social and human sciences in Hungary. The politically-minded and tradition-oriented critics of modernity killed some trends, but much stronger and longer lasting ones appeared in their place. There was true human suffering and tragedy involved. The much-criticized linguistic structuralism was replaced by generative grammar. Literary structuralism was wiped out in the name of a strong post-structuralism and literary hermeneutics. And the party line critique of soft or revisionist Marxism led both to the death of Marxism in Hungary and the birth of a strong philosophy of language and mind.

Works Cited

Antal, László. 1958. A strukturalizmusról. [On structuralism]. Magyar Nyelvőr 82: 94–99.

Antal, László. 1959. Gondolatok a magyar főnév birtokos ragozásáról. [Thoughts on the possessive declination of Hungarian nouns]. Magyar Nyelv 55: 351–7.

Antal, László. 1961a. A magyar esetrendszer. [The Hungarian case system]. Budapest: Akademiai.

Antal, László 1961b. “On the Possessive Form of the Hungarian Noun.” General Linguistics 5: 39-46

Antal, László. 1964. A formális nyelvi elemzés. [Formal linguistic analysis]. Budapest: Gondolat.

Bernáth, Árpád. 2019. “Az irodalomelmélet 1956 után újra polgárjogot nyert Magyarországon.” [Literary theory has been licensed again after 1956 in Hungary]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 50-112.

Bezeczky, Gábor. 2006. “A strukturalizmus Magyarországon.” [Structuralism in Hungary.] 2000, 17.4: 64-76.

Bollobás, Enikő. 2019. “Az első nyelvi fordulat Magyarországon. A strukturalista szemlélet megjelenése az irodalomtudományban.” [The first linguistic turn in Hungary. The appearance of strcturalsist approach I literary scholarship]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 113-155.

Bollobás, Emikő, ed. 2019. Elméletek vonzásában. [Attracted by theories]. Budapest: Gondolat.

Brown, Roger. 1970. Psycholinguistics: Selected Papers. New York: Free Press.

Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Fischer. English edition: 1990. Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language. Translated by D. F. Goodwin. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. Hague: Mouton.

Fónagy, Iván. 1960. “A hang és a szó hírértéke a költői nyelvben.” [The information value of sound and word in poetic language]. Nyelvtudományi Közlemények 62: 73–100.

Fónagy, Iván. 1962. “Beszéd és valószínűség.” [Speech and probability]. Magyar Nyelvőr 86: 309–320.

Fónagy, Iván.  1963. “A stílus hírértéke.” [Information value of style]. Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok 1: 69–76.

Fónagy, Iván. 1971. “Double Coding in Speech.” Semiotica 3: 189–222.

Fónagy, Iván. 1990/91. “The Chances of Vocal Characterology.” Acta Lingustica Hungarica. 40: 285–313.

Fónagy, Iván. 2001. Languages within Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fónagy, Iván, and Fonagy, Peter. 1995. “Communication with Pretend Actions in Language, Literature and Psychoanalysis.” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 18: 363–418.

Harris, Zellig. 1951. Methods in Structural Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by T. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT Press, 350-377.

Kelemen, János. 1969. Mi a strukturalizmus? [What is structuralism?]. Budapest: Kossuth.

Kenesei, István. 2006. “Antal László igazgyöngyei és hamis ékszerei.” [The real pearls and hake jewelry of A.L.] In: Kálmán László (szerk.), KB 120 A titkos kötet Nyelvészeti tanulmányok Bánréti Zoltán és Komlósy András tiszteletére. Budapest: MTA Nyelvtudományi Intézet – Tinta Kiadó, 337–352.

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2005. “Fónagy Iván (1920-2005).” Magyar Tudomány 166: 1170–1172.

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2008. “Gyula Laziczius, a Hungarian structuralist.”  Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55: 121–130

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2019. “A hatvanas évek magyar nyelvtudománya. Az elméleti nyitás korszaka.” [Hungarian linguistics of the 1960s. The age of theoretical opening]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 19-49.

Laziczius, Gyula. 1942. Általános nyelvészet. Alapelvek és módszertani kérdések. [General linguistics: Basic principles and questions of method]. Budapest: MTA.

Laziczius, Julius. 1944/1961. Lehrbuch der Phonetik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Laziczius, Gyula. 1966. Selected Writings of Gyula Laziczius, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. The Hague: Mouton.

Hankiss, Elemér. 1969. A népdaltól az abszurd drámáig. [From folk song to absurd drama]. Budapest: Magvetó.

Hankiss, Elemér, ed. 1971a. Strukturalizmus. I–II. Budapest: Európa.

Hankiss, Elemer, ed. 1971b. Formateremtő elvek a költői műalkotásban. [Form creating principles in poetry.] Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Hankiss, Elemer, ed. 1971c. A novellaelemzés új módszerei. [New methods of short story analysis]. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Pléh, Csaba. 2019. “The Inspirational Role of Chomsky in the Cognitive Turn of Psychology.” Acta Linguistica Academica 66: 397–428.

Pléh, Csaba, Németh, Kornél, Varga, Dániel, Fazekas, Judit and Várhelyi, Klára. 2013. “Entropy measures and predictive recognition as mirrored in gating and lexical decision over multimorphemic Hungarian noun forms.”  Psihologija 46: 397–420.

Shannon, Claude. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27: 379–423.

Shannon, Claude, and Weaver, Warren. 1949. A Mathematical Model of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Szende, Tamás. 2008. “Ivan Fonagy (1920–2005): Leitmotifs in his Oeuvre.” Acta Linguistica Hungarica 51: 131–143.

Szerdahelyi, István, ed. 1977. A strukturalizmus-vita. I.-II. [The structuralism debate]. Budapest: Akademiai.

Telegdi, Zsigmond. 1961. “A nyelvtudomány újabb fejlődésének egyes kérdéseiről.” [On some questions of newer developments in linguistics]. MTA I. Oszt. Közl. 18: 11–27.


[1] Kiefer (2008) gives a detailed account of his life and oeuvre.

[2] This challenge was outlined in the local context, for example, by the booklet that claimed to put structuralism back in its proper place, by Kelemen (1969), a linguistically well-read and rather young (just 26 years old!) Marxist philosopher at the time.

[3] The journal has no official English name but can be translated as, Hungarian Language Guardian. The meaning of guardian is as a safeguard of proper language use. It could, in fact, be translated almost as a “watchdog.”

[4] For example, he started to apply morphemic analysis in the style of Bloomfield and Harris (1951) for the Hungarian possessive nominal forms and the status of the plural possessed markers (ház-a-i-m-ban ‘house-Poss-Plau-Mine-IN’) that had already created plenty of discussion. In the same vein he published a much influential book on the Hungarian nominal case system showing how distributional analysis and the concept of allomorphy was helping to decide the status of certain endings if they are case markers and the status of linking vowels without a recourse to meaning intuitions (Antal 1961a).

[5] To take an English example, the string boo can continue as boot, book, boor, boom etc., having high uncertainty, while prog can only continue as progr, having no uncertainty at that point.

[6] This point is first made and elaborated in (Pléh et al. 2013, 398).

[7] The first extension had a starting point similar to Antal. Fónagy (1960, 1962, 1963) also wanted to extend the recently emerging information theory to the analysis of language. But while for Antal entropy was an issue related to language segmentation, for Fónagy who was using information theory to consider issues of parole, uncertainties of prediction were related to some language-external factors to be found in the Sender, to be analyzed as a symptom mature for psychoanalytic interpretation.

[8] This is the essential element of his ideas about double coding (Fónagy 1971, 2001). There are two coding processes on all levels of language. There is a primary code, where the grammar is manipulating arbitrary signs to arrive to a propositionally articulated message. The secondary coding introduces a Distorter in the communicative chain that reshapes, recodes, distorts and transforms the arbitrary signs of primary code into messages referring to unconscious underlying processes as well. The two layers are never separated, they constantly “interplay”. The secondary code is “parasitic”: it builds upon the primary code, there is no secondary code without an elaborated primary code. As Szende (2008, 135) his student and follower in Hungarian phonetics put it, the notional, propositional component “on its way to implementation undergoes another encoding operation by way of which the linguistic form eventually uttered becomes a full-fledged utterance. That operation of expressing emotions or the speaker’s attitude towards the entity or included in the statement changes the utterance mimetically and/or articulatorily. This can be most immediately recognized in the use of emphatic forms. It is in that sense, thus, that speech is ’doubly encoded’”.

[9] Kiefer also describes in detail how similar initiatives were implemented in Hungary among, for example, mathematicians involved in information theory and cybernetics in both Szeged and Budapest. The Academy’s Institute for Computer Science opened an entire section of mathematical linguistics and a machine translation section for a new generation of linguists—Kiefer included. Parallel developments took shape in Debrecen as well with the guidance of Ferenc Pap.

[10] The department also issued a successful yearbook series Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok (Studies of General Linguistics). The scientific training was assisted substantially through co-teaching by members of the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Research Institute of Linguistics as well.

[11] The cultivation of a new generation of linguists dedicated to generative grammar was also facilitated by American Ford Foundation scholarships in the mid-1960s to the would-be teachers of the next generation.

[12] Here, I merely draw a few from the excellent surveys of Bernáth (2019) and Bollobás (2019).

[13] The same provocations held for his selective collections of modern poetry and short stories, which were analyzed by a select group of mainly structuralist and psychoanalytic experts (Hankiss 1971b, 1971c).

Structures of Contagion and Forms of the Social Environment

The genealogies of structuralism have established that its intellectual roots should be found not in mathematics, as Jean Piaget or Michel Serres once indicated, but in biology (Descombes 1979). In many aspects, “structure” in the twentieth-century human sciences replaces the nineteenth-century notion of “organization”. Both notions aim at solving political crises by displaying the elementary conditions of social life: the French Revolution for the notion of organization, the Second World War for the notion of structure. But while organizations rely on laws of development and progress, structures rely on models to anticipate future disasters.

In his famous 1952 article on “the notion of structure in ethnology”, Lévi-Strauss (1958, 333, 342, 343) quotes three times from Kurt Goldstein’s book, Der Aufbau des Organismus (1934), which had just come out in French under the title La structure de l’organisme. In this book, Goldstein presented his diagnostic on patients suffering from aphasia—the loss of speech—to show that new forms of living can be invented after a traumatic shock such as the First World War. This book was a major source for Georges Canguilhem’s philosophy of normativity as well as for Roman Jakobson’s structural linguistics. By contrast with nineteenth-century anatomy, which relied on divine models of organization, Goldstein showed that a structure is a form of re-organization after a shock which shows that life doesn’t have a substantial basis. While organization is grounded on a center that is politically expressed in institutions, structure is decentered because it is grounded on void entities, which are politically expressed in transformations.

How can we think the biological meaning of structure at a time of pandemics, after half of the global population has been locked down by an emerging virus and recommended to wear masks covering their noses and mouths? How will life be re-organized after this collective aphasia? While the question of normativity has been forgotten in the reception of structural anthropology, this question allows one to connect the Foucaldian approach of norms and forms—an expression I borrow from Paul Rabinow (1989)—and the more Marxist approach to transformations—a notion Lévi-Strauss borrows from morphogenetics and which has recently been reappraised by Philippe Descola (2016). I want to argue that viruses are void entities whose circulation and transformation produce normativity in a way that can be described through structural analysis.

Dan Sperber has strongly suggested replacing structural anthropology with an “epidemiology of representations”. The problems with the notions of structure and symbol, in Sperber’s view, come from the fact that they rely on a strong confidence in the anthropologist’s brain as a model for what happens in the brains of other human beings.  Sperber proposes to study the cognitive mechanisms that lead humans to transmit some ideas rather than others, despite their sometimes counter-intuitive contents, for instance, in religious rituals or mythical narratives. Social representations are thus compared by Sperber to viruses invading human populations, but little is said about how representations affect human bodies. When Sperber (1996, 83) writes, “what pathology is to the epidemiology of diseases, psychology should be to the epidemiology of representations,” he leaves aside, in this analogical formula, what pathology should be for an epidemiology of representations.

How to account for the fact that social representations also make brains and bodies sick? When French citizens wear surgical masks in the public space after complaining about the lack of stockpiled masks and the failure of the State’s pandemic preparedness, this can be considered as a structural transformation of the “Muslim scarf controversy,” which took place in France in 2003-2004 and was concurrent with the time when Asian societies began to wear masks en masse in the wake of the SARS crisis (Keck 2020b). We cannot say that the practice of wearing masks or facial coverings was simply mimicked in Europe as a circulation of ideas from Asia, but rather that the experience of viral epidemics and respiratory diseases led French citizens to relate in their own new way to the use of masks in the public space. Masks are normative: they orient the way citizen perceive their bodies in the public space.

Sperber (1996, 9) borrows his concept of “epidemiology of representations” from Gabriel Tarde, a magistrate and sociologist who studied flows of imitation and innovation at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, sociology used statistics to describe the social distribution of facts about contagion that had been previously thought of as caused by environmental factors such as miasma (Wald 2007). The debate between Emile Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde turned precisely on how social facts can act as causalities that are different from biological causes. Durkheim famously showed that collective representations have a causality of their own, that is, they have their own mode of contagion and virulence which differs from natural contagion, since it can counter-act natural contagion. Institutions have a life of their own because they are separated from ordinary life and appear through the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Durkheim (1916, 325) writes that collective representations are “in a sense delirious”: they affect the bodies of individuals in such a way that they can lead them to kill themselves or to live with an enhanced form of life.

Lévi-Strauss formalizes this aspect of Durkheim’s conception of the social. From Robertson Smith, Durkheim had borrowed the idea of a site within the social where the sacred is produced and symbolic representations are made, the crucial difference being that Durkheim replaced Smith’s holy shrine with a tribunal, or the State as operator of justice through social categories (Keck 2019). After meeting Roman Jakobson, who turns him into a resolute structuralist thinker, Lévi-Strauss talks about a symbolic function, which combines the signifier and the signified in various societies. Lévi-Strauss replaces the idea, common to both Robertson Smith and Durkheim, that “the sacred is contagious” with Jakobson’s observation that associations in language are much more metaphoric than metonymic: much more ruled by displacement than by contact.   

This shift may have been due to the influence of Franz Boas. It has often been argued that Lévi-Strauss borrowed Boas’s model of cultural relativism, which separated cultural from natural determinisms in the context of the debate on racism in the United States. But Boas was also trained in the German school of biological anthropology, which, under the leadership of Rudolf Virchow, stressed the unity of living forms, particularly when looking at human and animal diseases—so much that Virchow is considered as a founder of the “One Health” approach connecting humans, animals and the environment (Bresalier, Cassiday and Woods 2015). Boas is regarded as advocating a diffusionist approach in American anthropology, which, rather than looking for the origins of a cultural trait and describing its development in stages of evolution, follows its transformations as it mutates from one society to another. What Lévi-Strauss borrows from Boas—through complex discussions on the distinction between form and structure through human history (Lévi-Strauss 1958, 15-24)—is the idea that social forms can be studied over geographical processes of transformation. To this idea he adds the Marxian notion of dialectic as a movement through which structure unfolds itself by critical reflexivity.

Today, as we follow the mutations of pandemic viruses across species barriers and political frontiers (Keck 2020a), we may still use the Lévi-Straussian notion of transformation to think about how social forms of contagion reveal changing relations between humans and their environments. Mathematical models are not used to map the diversity of structures of the human mind within kinship systems, but to simulate the mutations of viruses and prepare for the next pandemic, or to predict the degrees of global warming and mitigate its effects. A structuralist account of contagion may be used to describe how mythical narratives about the origins of viruses are transformed when pathogens circulate globally. The “way of the masks” is now a story of stockpiling emergency goods and scarce resources to mitigate the consequences of environmental disasters. The criticisms that are addressed to nation states when they fail to stockpile masks or vaccines must be integrated into this story, as it is told differently in the environments in which viruses are tracked, collected, attenuated and stored. Preparing for pandemics has transformed the imaginary through which we relate to each other in a potentially contagious environment.


Works Cited

Bresalier, Michael, Angela Cassidy, Abigail Woods. 2015. “One Health in History.” In One Health: The Theory and Practice of Integrated Health Approaches, edited by Jakob Zinsstag, et al., 1-15. Wallingsford: CABI.

Descola, Philippe. 2016. “Transformation transformed.“ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 33-44.

Descombes, Vincent. 1979. Le même et l’autre. Quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française (1933-1978). Paris: Minuit.

Durkheim, Émile. 1998 (1916). Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Paris: PUF.

Keck, Frédéric. 2019. “A Genealogy of Animal Diseases and Social Anthropology (1870–2000)”, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 33 (1): 24-41.

Keck, Frédéric. 2020a. Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts. Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Keck, Frédéric. 2020b. “Wearing a Mask in France Would Be a Revolution.” The Hedgehog Review Blog, April 17 2020.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2016. We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York, Columbia University Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1989. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sperber, Dan. 1968. Le structuralisme en anthropologie. Paris: Seuil.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. La contagion des idées. Théorie naturaliste de la culture. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Wald, Priscilla. 2007. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zimmerman, Andrew. 2010. Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Structures and Relations: Seeing the Entwined Lives of Concepts in an Exercise of Conceptual Flocculation

In asking about the lives of “structure” and “relation,” I do not take a head on approach. Rather, I sidle up to the concepts. John Dewey, whose early twentieth-century method in these matters I admire, called it “a flank approach” when he took on the concept of “The State” in his 1927 The Public and its Problems (Dewey, 1927). Such a military metaphor is not for me. I prefer to imagine a child on a playground asking, “Can I play with you?” Thus, I begin by playing a game with other concepts: “assemblage” and “polity.” I could propose this game by analogy to mathematical method, imagining it as a peculiar wordy calculus involving differentiation and provisional (re)integration. But I prefer analogy to chemistry. Telling it as the chemical method of flocculation, I take the anthropologically entwined pair of concepts, “structure” and “relation,” lyse them so that they float apart and, in reacting with other concepts as little wordy stubs, change their form, and rise to the top in a process of analytic flocculation. In subsequently being skimmed off, these novel concepts become useful in catalyzing divergences.

Around ten years ago, I claimed that it is useful to think of collective method in knowledge and culture work as a complex form of assemblage. In developing this proposition, I worked with two quite disparate exemplars of such work: a nineteenth-century British scientific expedition and a twenty-first-century Indigenous Australian digitization project. Attributing a precise meaning to the commonplace term, assemblage, one that went on from the STS sense of sociotechnical bricolage, but also quite different than post-structuralist “assemblage theory,” my 2009 concept of assemblage envisioned complex material-semiotic entwining of two distinct moments of generalizing—a one-to-many, inductive form, and a whole-to-parts abductive form of generalizing. In this Field Note on the concepts “structure” and “relation,” I pick up that proposition, this time focusing on the work that concepts do to mediate relations in the workings of these complex processes of structuring assemblage.

Whereas ten years ago, I used two rather modest exemplars of what knowledge and culture work generates—a novel botanical taxonomic scheme and a local intervention in identity politics around Australian Indigeneity—here my exemplar is a much grander project. I point to a polity as generated in infinite complex happenings in collective knowledge and culture work, imagining an overall process of assemblage understood as the entwining of the dual generalizing moments of assemblage. In beginning on foregrounding the concepts, “structure” and “relation,” I retell my account of assemblage through telling the workings of a polity.

Before I plunge into that, let me say something about the idea of studying the lives of concepts, which is what I see myself as discussing here. I take the phrase “studying the lives of concepts” from Henning Schmidgen (2014), who uses it to sum up the work of Georges Canguilhem, a twentieth-century French historian of science.

Georges Canguilhem only rarely expressed himself programmatically on the history of science. When he did so, he left scarcely any doubt that to him the history of science was above all a history of concepts. In 1963 […] he wrote: “History of science cannot be a simple collection of biographies and even less a chronological chart decorated by anecdotes. It also has to be a history of the formation, deformation and rectification of scientific concepts”.[1]

However, there is a big difference between what I do in studying the lives of concepts and what Canguilhem did. I study how concepts participate in knowledge and culture work in the wild. The ways concepts participate in scientific texts and theories is of interest, but this is just one aspect of the study of the lives of concepts as I see it, and rather a minor one at that. For many years I have focused on the work of concepts in the wild through telling ethnographic stories.

As I tell it, concepts, as knowers’ companions, participate in happenings of knowledge and culture work. In much the same way cats, as totems of witches, are said to be the companions of witches, so concepts are the companions of analysts. In witch stories, cats participate in magic happenings as extensions of witches, in the same way concepts extend the epistemic and cultural agency of analysts. To put this in the context of this Special Focus Section, it is participations of “structure” and “relation” as conceptual companions of analysts that I attend to here.

I propose that in knowledge and culture work in the wild, and in anthropological theories, “structure” and “relation” are inseparable from each other. My proposition about the lives of “structure” and “relation,” as they participate in knowledge and culture work, is that structure implicates relations and relations embroil structure; the concepts’ lives are deeply intertwined.

Lysing the Clotted Conceptual Assemblage of “Polity” to Disentangle (and Re-entangle) Structure and Relation

In offering a glimpse of the workings of “structure” and “relation,” the analytic story of the concept of polity as assemblage, which follows, disaggregates and disassembles. The exercise interrupts the bond between the conceptual companions of “structure” and “relation.” I am seeking to flush their entanglements out into the open. It is a way of reciprocally naming the relation between the two concepts, and this is the preliminary work we need to do in order to get a clear view of these concepts at work in analysis. I ask what is inside the concept “polity” and conclude by briefly considering what more is packed inside the concept of “democratic polity.” This analytic story of polity as assemblage introduces a complexifying modification of both “structure” and “relation” as concepts. In this first step, the more complicated reciprocal concepts of “structural relationality” and “relational structurality” come into view. This analytic story of the concept “polity” is a serial lysing into the “ana-,” the entities inside polity, which collective practices of doing a polity clot. In discussing the clotted entity of “polity”, I bring “structure” and “relation” into the foreground and show the forms in which they participate in the conceptual assemblage “polity.”

We can conceptualize a polity as embedding two core entities: the citizen and the sovereign. “Citizen” and “sovereign” are the structural concepts of polity. So, what is their relation? The sovereign rules many citizens, and to know those citizens, a census might be carried out. In the logic of the practices of a census, a series of concepts are invoked: child/family/a household/a quarter/a city, and so on. Through a series of enumerative practices, a precisely defined one—the individual embodied human—becomes a precisely definable many—a generalized unit, the sovereign (these days usually a nation state rather than a monarch). All children, families, households, and so on are the same in precisely being children, families, and households. They are some of the structures of a polity. Of course, within those samenesses many interesting differences can empirically be found—between children, between families, and between households—and much anthropological work has been, and remains, dedicated to articulating those differences. In the end, such differences are interesting to the extent that they will not go away; they cannot be explained away by reifying the structural concepts. In knowing a polity through a census, structural concepts, or the samenesses, are carried to the fore, and the reasoning process is induction. Structure and relation mediate a one-to-many form.

But, there is another way of knowing a polity where relational concepts and differences are foregrounded and the reasoning process is abduction. If instead of considering citizens, we look at what a sovereign must accomplish in order to stay a sovereign, the polity becomes evident as a vague whole thing to be (re)accomplished from many parts. Many different functional entities (re)generate citizens as many different governable entities: territories, militaries, tax-collecting organizations, order-keeping groups, hospitals. The conceptualized functional units differ, all work with particular practices, although there are enough samenesses between the groups to connect them as functional units of a particular polity, even if it is only that the officers of these functional entities wear the same token embroidered onto their sleeves. This sameness, explicitly made within difference, announces a relation. Again, much anthropological work details the working of such functional units of this or that sort of polity as well as the generation of their relations. What is usually of interest here is how myriad sorts of sameness might be contrived. Here “relation” and “structure” as concepts mediate a parts-to-vague-whole form.

Polity, then, is a conceptual assemblage that embeds a precise unified concept of sovereign, where citizens are inside the sovereign, along with a vague emergent concept of sovereign as a whole, where citizens are variously accomplished as the sovereign’s outside. If, with this understanding of polity, we wish to go on to define a parliamentary democratic polity, we might imagine precise sovereignty and vague sovereignty as set within the structural relation between the electorate and the political parties of a parliament, the voter citizens and the voted-for political parties. I could adumbrate the relational structurality and the structural relationality of the concepts “electorate” and “parliament,” in just the same way that I have for polity with its “citizen” and “sovereign,” but will refrain from doing that. You get the idea.

My account of a polity as a relational processual entity is far from original, yet my adumbrating it here is not with the intent to make a claim in political philosophy. Before me, Rancière, Dewey, Hobbes, and Aristotle have explained what a polity is in these terms. My point in telling this story about polity as assemblage is to show what is inside the concept assemblage. I foreground dual relational concepts, “relational structurality” and “structural relationality,” each one being completed in their entanglement in polity’s assemblage.

Pausing for a moment here, I feel I need to make a couple of comments on this process that I’ve glossed as conceptual lysing. First, let me comment on the relation of these two derivative concepts. We might be tempted to think of the relation between these concepts as one being the inverse of the other, but that is a misnomer signalling misunderstanding. The core of the concept of inverse is transposition—like sewing the left sleeve of a blouse into the right armhole. These two concepts (relational structurality and structural relationality) are reciprocals. Each can be everted into the other. Relational structurality is inside structural relationality and vice-versa; imagine lava and volcanic mountains, or more precisely, mobius strips.

Next, noting the proliferation of metaphors, I offer an aside about the complicated grammatical acrobatics I have deployed here in naming these two concepts. How is “a relationality” different from “a relation”? Or “a structurality” different from “a structure”? Starting with the noun “relation,” a fragment of an old word is added. Relation plus –al (from an old Latin word meaning “pertaining to”) turns the naming term “relation” into a qualifying adjective—something can be said to be relational; a shared mode of existence of two entities is commented on. 

Then, in a second complicating grammatical step, -ity (a short form of a Latin word used to express a state or condition) is added; relational becomes relationality, naming the condition, or form of being that all relational things have in common. To give an example by discussing fingers: we might talk about a finger on one of our hands as having a particular relation to each of our other fingers (usually nine others). So, we can say that each and every finger is relational. Thus, relationality is a condition that all fingers share, although, as we know, every finger is different from every other finger. Albeit semantically complicated, relationality is just “a thing” that is proposed as being or existing in the world; a relationality is an entity just like each finger is an entity. As a thing, in English, relationality is said to be “abstract” because, unlike a finger, you cannot actually suck it.

Doing Things With Such Contrived Concepts

In my peculiar exercise in playing with words I have written about concepts—polities, assemblages, fingers, and grammar—and I have recklessly mixed my metaphors along the way. In a process I named conceptual flocculation, two derived concepts have floated to the top: relational structurality and structural relationality. In introducing conceptual flocculation, I suggested that the purpose and value of this analytic process lies in capacities that the derived concepts have for catalyzing divergences: not divergences from anything, but rather divergences valued for the reason that they (might) make a difference.

So now, in concluding my Field Note, I ask about using the conceptual tools that have come out of my odd little exercise in opening up the possibility of divergences in the entangled lives of structure and relation in anthropology. If this text were to become something more than a Field Note, then with the rather oddly paired concepts of “relational structurality” and “structural relationality” as my companions, I could make a reading of current anthropological theory.

What if, say, I took the work of Marilyn Strathern (linking her theory back to Radcliffe-Brown) and that of Philippe Descola (pursuing his connections back to Lévi-Strauss)? I would propose that since Strathern foregrounds relational structurality and backgrounds structural relationality, she is a relationist; Descola reverses this foregrounding/backgrounding relation, so he is a structuralist. When it comes to their epistemic practices, these anthropology theorists are very different. Of course, pointing to that is not news, albeit that there is a certain elegance to seeing the one as the reciprocal of the other. We might contrast the methodologies in this way: Strathernian theory enacts empirical relationism in contrast to Descolian theory, which performs empirical structuralism. We can accept that each in its own way is constructivist, yet also recognize the effect of the differing metaphysical commitments of these analysts: the former to a metaphysical dualism; the latter to monism.

But, to compare and contrast Strathernian and Descolian theory is not all I want to achieve with this exercise. My main purpose is to ask what an anthropology that abstained from backgrounding and foregrounding relational structurality and structural relationality would look like. Can we imagine an anthropology that is neither and both empirical relationism and empirical structuralism? Here we are feeling our way towards an analytic that has learned to keep both these derived concepts in the foreground, in generative tension. When we can do that, I propose that the name of the process would be relational experientialism. But why would we want to diverge towards epistemic practices that might properly be called relational experientialism?

As anthropological theories, Strathernianism and Descolianism offer readings of the past, with one emphasizing emergent relations and the other emergent structures. Both offer possibilities to imagine futures different than pasts. The problem with that, however, is that we are currently marooned in a regime of historicity that has rendered such imagining redundant. As French historian François Hartog (2015) points out, both futuring the present and historicizing it are currently beset with uncertainty. The world now seems lodged between two impossibilities: the impossible past and an impossible future. He proposes this aporia as a pause or a gap in time.[2] What we need today is an a-theoretical anthropology of the present that might offer a basis to intervene in a knowingful doing of the present.

Here is Adam Tooze, a political historian, on our present.

Since its inception, neoliberalism has sought not to demolish the state but to create an international order strong enough to override democracy in the service of private property…

… As long as it remains at the level of abstract gestures…the impulse of resistance mirrors what it opposes. We are still not engaging with the actual mechanisms…What we need to revive is the impulse to know. The will to intervene. The freedom to choose not privately but as a political body…

…[We must address ourselves to what the world order of neoliberalism] seeks to obscure: namely the engines both large and small through which social and economic reality is made and remade, its tools of power and knowledge ranging from cost-of-living indicators, to carbon budgets, diesel emission tests and school evaluations. It is here that we meet real, actually existing neoliberalism—and perhaps may hope to counter it.

(Tooze, 2018)

“Cost-of-living indicators,” “carbon budgets,” “diesel emission tests,” and “school evaluations” are “tools of knowledge and power” that are expressions of diverse, instituted epistemics. They name “clotted” sets of meaningful physical arrangements and routines that effect certain conditions on-the-ground. As expressions of epistemics, these “tools” are among the myriad objects of contemporary governance—concepts. They act both as mediators and intermediates in the purposeful work of contemporary governance. They govern partially as themselves as they simultaneously, and partially, transmit the intentions of a polity in conducting the conduct of a polity’s collective life—shifted today to the benefit of capital. To engage Tooze’s diagnosis, we need an anthropology of the present.

Relational experientialism, as I imagine it, is an analytic platform supporting ethnographic research and analysis of collective knowledge-making-and-doing in the wild. Knowledge generated with the support of this platform offers partial insight into and possibilities for analytically telling, the happening of a “here-and-now” as knowingful doing. Research projects mobilizing relational experientialism can be imagined as applications inquiring into various aspects of collective action in the present. Happenings of times and places in ethnographic research, understood as knowingful doing in going-on together, are researched as collective epistemics, with the aim of designing careful interventions. Of course, doing this with certain concepts as our familiar companions can be done in better rather than worse ways, so knowing how to discern and agree on the criteria for worse and better, is a crucial aspect of this work.


Works Cited

Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Henry Holt, 1927.

Canguilhem, Georges. Etudes d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences. 7th edition, 2nd printing. Paris: Vrin, 2002. Pages 226-273.

Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time. Translated by Saskia Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schmidgen, Henning. 2014. “Concepts have a life of their own: Biophilosophy, History and Structure in Georges Canguilhem.” Inflexions 7, “Animating Biophilosophy” 62-97.

Tooze, Adam. 2018. “Neoliberalism’s World Order.” Dissent Magazine, Summer 2018.

[1] Schmidgen cites Canguilhem (2002), specifically the chapter entitled “La constitution de la physiologie comme science,” pp. 226-273.

Introduction to the New English Edition of “Twenty Days with Claude Lévi-Strauss in Korea”

Editors’ note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. The following is a new introduction written by Kang Shin-pyo. Both selected excerpts and the full seminar transcript with appendices are also available.


This book is the record of a remarkable conversation between Claude Lévi-Strauss, the leading proponent of structural anthropology in the twentieth century, and a group of South Korean scholars invited as leaders in their respective disciplines. It took place in Seongnam, in the context of a seminar that was conceived as an encounter not only between scholarly generations but also between East and West and North and South. The conversation filled five days in October 1981, interrupted for eleven days while Lévi-Strauss traveled in the South Korean countryside to explore aspects of the country’s cultural traditions.

The seminar was initiated by Kang Shin-pyo, then Chairman of the Department of Socio-Cultural Research at the Academy of Korean Studies. Kang had begun to apply a structuralist approach to the analysis of East Asian cultures in the course of his doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii and became acquainted with Lévi-Strauss’s work during academic sojourns in London and Paris. In this respect he was typical of a generation of South Korean humanities scholars who by the mid-1970s were internationally mobile and alert to developments in European and American theory and methodology. The 1981 seminar provided an opportunity for them to engage with Western scholars on their home ground; although Lévi-Strauss and his ideas were the focus of the seminar, other North American and European anthropologists took part by invitation: David Eyde, David Wu, Bob Scholte and Henry Lewis.

The institutional context in which these scholars came together was the work of the Academy of Korean Studies, which was sponsoring a project on the theme of Symbol and Society in Traditional Korea. The Academy had been created in 1978 by the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology under the government of President Park Chung-hee. Park had established a military dictatorship in 1963 and sealed its authoritarian character with the Yushin constitution in 1972. Under his leadership the country underwent a process of rapid forced modernization sustained by a combination of police repression and the mobilization of popular consent. The creation of the Academy was part of a strategy of “balancing” the effects of technological and economic change through the promotion of cultural or spiritual values; its name was literally Research Institute of Korean Spiritual Culture. Under the dictatorship its function was to legitimate the regime at the level of culture as well as to provide materials for the construction and dissemination of a nationalist historical narrative. Accordingly, the “Korean Studies” that it looked to develop was not an area studies of the kind that were developing in the West at the same time (although, like the Western version, it was multi-disciplinary), but rather a program of research and development directed inwards with national consciousness as its object. 

Appendix 2, Figure 3: Seminar Participants at Academy of Korean Studies.

The 1981 seminar thus took place at the heart of a significant moment in South Korea’s political economy, but the character of that moment and the paradoxes it implied for the mission of a humanities project with “traditional culture” at its center are largely absent from the conversation. When Lévi-Strauss, at his own insistence, went in search of tradition in the provinces, his attention was directed to the restored manor houses of the provincial service (양반 yangban) elite and the folk villages (민속마을 minsokmaeul) maintained as showpieces by local and regional governments. These preserved the traces of a historical way of life whose disappearance was being accelerated by forced development in the countryside; the icon of rural modernization under the banner of the New Village (새마을 saemaeul) Movement launched in 1970 was the replacement of wood and thatch roofs with corrugated iron. The author of Tristes tropiques recognized this tension when, in his concluding remarks, he expressed the “hope that Asia comes up with a solution to the problem of how to live with the free market and industrialization without the destruction of interpersonal relationships and the destruction of meaning.” And the problem of reconciling “industrialization” and tradition—the Academy’s underlying agenda—was certainly part of the conversation here, acknowledged and embraced in particular by David Eyde.

It is notable, though, that the forces challenging “tradition” appear in these conversations as impersonal and global. Eyde in particular falls easily into the language of Westernization, Americanization and (Western) imperialism. The particular circumstances of South Korea’s modernization, in which Park’s illiberal state in partnership with big corporations controlled the market and enforced low wages and poor working conditions by manipulating and criminalizing the labor movement, are unspoken here. In effect the Korean and Western speakers are talking about different things, and it is not clear how far the visitors are aware of it. Similarly striking is the candor with which Bob Scholte articulates his (generational) challenge to the authority of anthropological knowledge in “neo-Marxist” terms (along with the exchange about Lévi-Strauss’s comparison of South Asian Buddhism to Marxism). In 1981, a new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, was consolidating his position following the brutal suppression of democracy movements precipitated by Park’s 1979 assassination, and the seminar participants’ presumption of open intellectual exchange contrasts sharply with the repression of the left which was part of everyday life on South Korean campuses at the time.

These contradictions, however, reflect the inherent ambivalence of the Korean Studies project. The developmental dictatorship’s interest in state-building coincided with the intellectual ambitions of a generation of scholars who were equally committed to identifying the elements of a post-colonial national identity “from the bottom up.” The fact that most of them had completed their doctoral studies abroad is itself a marker of that post-colonial moment, and one of their shared concerns was to explore the cultural and intellectual foundations for building strong, independent and locally rooted scholarship and scholarly institutions. In this sense, Korean Studies was a declaration of independence—from Western culture, but also from a well-established East Asian Studies which originated in Europe and in which Korean traditions were overwritten by Japanese and Chinese culture—and a quest in its own terms for a counter-balancing authenticity. Accordingly (as the list of participants indicates), with the notable exception of a number of scholars of French literature, most of the Koreans who attended the seminar were already engaged in the study of Korea’s historical culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. And they were facing a complex task: first, to introduce cosmopolitan discourses while negotiating the exit from post-colonial tutelage, and then to position themselves safely (and with intellectual integrity) between the nationalist dictatorship and the people, both generally symbolized by men in uniform.

Appendix 2, Figure 5: (top) Claude Lévi-Strauss commenting on the structuralist elements in Ancient Chinese Philosophy; (bottom) Claude Lévi-Strauss having conversations with Koh Byong-ik (President, Academy of Korean Studies) and other scholars of Korean Studies.

In the light of this wider picture, what we can observe in this seminar is the Academy—in spite of the intentions of its state founders—offering a safe space for intellectual interchange. (The proceedings were published in full in Korean at the time.) The outcomes of these conversations can be seen in the ways in which the seminar participants contributed to the development of public life and the critical academy in South Korea following democratization after 1987. A few examples: Lee Gwang-Gyu and Choi Hyup were among those who contributed to establishing a research base for the institutionalized national project. They laid the foundations for research on the Korean diaspora based on Lévi-Straussian approaches to family structure, and Lee was later appointed as the first president of the Overseas Korean Foundation. Kang Shin-pyo himself became a leading voice in an ongoing debate about whether it would be possible to generate forms of social theory that were distinctly Korean, derived from the characteristic elements of Korean culture. Yu Jung Ho can stand for the literary scholars who would introduce post-structural theory to the debates, through translation and original work; he was also active in movements for civic empowerment and in discussions about the politics and ethics of engaged scholarship. Cho Hae Jung and Cho Ok La, who did their research on women in Korean society, founded the organization Alternative Culture (또 하나의 문화 Tto Hanaui Munhwa), which was the cradle of cultural feminism in the 1990s.

As the present text makes clear, the seminar was carried on mainly in English, with occasional interjections in French. The transcript is presented here in English for the first time. The Korean version was published by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1983 under the title Anthropology of Lévi-Strauss and Korean Studies (레비스트로스의 人類學과 韓國學 Lebiseuteuroseu eui Illyuhak kwa hangukak). That edition included documentation on the planning of the seminar and short reflective essays by Lee Gwang-Gyu, as well as the photographs included here. The 1981 transcription was done by Bernard Olivier, and the present edition was prepared from the original typescripts by Cheong Hee Yun (Sogang University) and Eve Rosenhaft (Sogang and Liverpool Universities).   

Selected Excerpts from October 14, 1981, “Kinship and Social Organization”

Editors note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. These are excerpts from the seminar’s first day. The full seminar transcript with appendices is also available.


Appendix 2, Figure 4: Seminar Kinship and Social Organization (October 14, 1981).

Kang, Shin-pyo: Now it’s my honor to introduce Professor Lévi-Strauss. Surely you all know that Professor Lévi-Strauss escaped from philosophy to anthropology, that his most extensive field research was with Brazilian Indians during the period 1935 to 1939 when he was professor of sociology at São Paolo University, and that after a wartime period in New York he returned to Paris, where since 1960 he has been Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France. Surely you all also know that in the course of his career, Professor Lévi-Strauss has written a series of books and articles, perhaps most notably Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, Anthropologie structurale, Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, La Pensée sauvage and Mythologiques, which have shown him to be one of the eminent minds not just of 20th– century anthropology, but of the intellectual life of the 20th century.

His structural anthropological approach to kinship and marriage, totemism, primitive classification, myths, and a variety of other topics has brought new perspectives and stimulated creative debates not only amongst anthropologists but throughout the social sciences and the humanities everywhere. The movement called structuralism which traces its ancestry largely to the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, even though he might well disavow some of its manifestations, is one of only a small handful of intellectual currents in the latter half of the 20th century which have generated new insights and creativity. Much of Lévi-Strauss’ thought reflects a deep awareness of process as an ongoing interplay between opposed and complementary poles. His structuralism at its most basic levels has a fundamental compatibility with traditional Asian world views. It’s therefore highly appropriate that his work with us leads off our research project on Symbol and Society in Korea.

In the interplay between data and theory, between structuralism and practical reason, between East and West, between North and South, we may hope and expect that there will be created new perspectives and insights into Korean culture, Asian culture, and human culture.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I cannot start this presentation without first of all expressing my wife’s and my own feelings of gratitude to the Academy of Korean Studies, to President Koh, and to Professor Kang, for having made our trip possible and for the marvelous welcome they have given us. And listening a moment ago to President Koh’s words, I was also a little bit confused and ashamed that you should expect me to bring you anything new in the matter of social anthropology.

For it seems to me it’s a very old tradition in Korea to be interested in this kind of studies and even older perhaps than in the Western world. I’ve been told that Korean scholars consider that anthropological studies about Korean people and culture go back to the 18th century, when a group of people, belonging to the school of Silhak if I am not mistaken, published books on rural life, folk customs, and agricultural technology. And it so happens that, by a piece of luck, last night I was given the opportunity of reading a French student’s master thesis which is an annotated French translation of an 18th-century Korean book, which I don’t dare to pronounce, Kyongdo Chapchi, and I was really amazed at the details of ethnographical information, the precision of the details it’s possible to find in your old literature. And at the same time I was wondering if the tradition of anthropological studies in Korea doesn’t go back even earlier. When I read your great book, the Samguk Yusa, I noticed that in the seventh century King Munmu wished to appoint his half brother Prime Minister and that the latter accepted on the condition that he first be allowed to travel incognito throughout the country to observe the living conditions of the people, their labor and leisure, that is, doing anthropological fieldwork.

He said that at that time, each family of informants gave him a very pretty concubine to spend the night with, something which does not very often happen to contemporary anthropologists. But I noticed too that (also in the seventh century) a monk called Wonhyo had a son, very intelligent, who, it is said, composed books on folk customs and the place names of China and Silla. This son was considered one of the sages of Silla, which really puts anthropological research on a very high level.

And I have another reason to be confused and a little bit ashamed because we have to carry out our exchange in a language which, except for a few distinguished colleagues from the USA and Canada, is not our native tongue, and as you may have noticed already, my English is rather poor and I have a very strong French accent which makes it even more difficult for you to understand. Besides, when I try to express myself in English, I feel exhausted pretty soon, so I shall ask you as a favor not to hesitate to interrupt me if you don’t understand what I say, to ask me to repeat it, and if you disagree with what I am saying, to object. Really this will be a great help to me, because it will give me some relief when I’m trying to speak to all of you.

Today we are expected to discuss problems of kinship and social organization, and it’s not particularly, or it’s not exclusively, about my own work that I wish to talk, but about the kind of research which is being carried on nowadays in France, not only by me, but also by my associates and some younger colleagues. But since this research is always in the line of structural analysis, it is perhaps suitable that I should first of all begin by explaining what I understand, what I mean, by structure. The main distinction to be made in this respect would be between two notions: system and structure. What is a system? It is a grouping of elements and relations between those elements which fit together and which brings about a certain result. Let’s say for instance that an automobile engine is a system, so that if any element is modified or breaks down, the engine will not function anymore.

Structure is something rather different, or I would say it’s a special case of a system. It is made up of elements and relations like a system but also of the whole group of their transformations. By this I mean that in a structure, if an element or relation is changed, another change or several other changes will occur in the other elements or relations, while certain propositions will remain true about the structure.

It seems to me that this idea of a structure should be very easily grasped by people like you who have been brought up in the tradition of Confucian thought, because, really, I couldn’t find a better example of structural thought than ancient Chinese tradition. In that tradition, there are different systems. There is a cosmological system which is ruled, so to speak, by the Yin-Yang opposition. But this opposition can be transformed into many other oppositions, so that it can be said that Yang is to Yin as light is to darkness, as male is to female, as sky is to Earth, as the emperor is to his subjects, as ancestors are to the living, as a father is to a son, a husband to a wife, a master to a disciple or to the servants, and so on.

So we have different systems: cosmological, sociological, political, religious, but there is a close correspondence between all these systems, and when we shift from one to the others, there is a basic relationship or several basic relationships which remain the same. And what appears to me to be a characteristic of traditional Chinese thought is also a characteristic of many other kinds of thought all over the world; for instance, in ancient Greece, we find practically the same way of thinking. It has also struck me quite often that the reason, or one of the reasons why anthropological structuralism (which contrary to what is usually believed, did not really originate in France, but was first of all expressed in the Netherlands through the work of men like Russell, Van Wouden, Josselin de Jong and several others some years before we tried to do the same in France) developed among our Dutch colleagues first is that they were studying Indonesia and that Indonesian thought is itself structural. Really, structuralism is not a creation of the Western world, impressed with technology, pseudo-scientific minds, etc. It’s a kind of thought which we received from the people whom we study. When we try to make structural analyses, what we are actually doing is to borrow the thought of the people we study, either in the distant past or in the present, and use it in order to better understand them, as if in this kind of thought, there was a kind of common denominator, a kind of common ground which extends to all mankind including ancient thinkers and contemporary native thinkers, but a real mode of thought which is best able to help us translate one way of thinking into another way of thinking.

Appendix 2, Figure 6: At National Museum of Korea; Claude Lévi-Strauss with his wife [Monique Roman] at Sungkyunkwan University.

Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

Table of Contents

New Release from BEROSE – Seymour on Du Bois

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article in English on Cora Du Bois by her biographer, Susan Seymour.

Seymour, Susan C., 2021. “A 20th Century American Anthropologist and ‘First Woman’: The Life and Work of Cora Du Bois,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Cora Du Bois (1903-1991) was an American anthropologist whose life spanned much of the twentieth century and whose professional career reflects major developments in the history of that discipline. In addition, Du Bois was a twentieth-century “first woman,” one of the few women of her generation to succeed in having a career that included both university teaching and research but also government service. During World War II, Du Bois served as a high-ranking intelligence officer and then as a Southeast Asia specialist in the State Department in Washington, D.C. Her prominence as an anthropologist was established during the 1930s when she did groundbreaking research in culture and personality. In 1954, Du Bois was appointed the Zemurray-Stone Radcliffe professor of anthropology and social relations at Harvard University, the university’s first tenured woman in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In this seminal article by Du Bois’s biographer, Seymour concludes that Du Bois’s “intense intellect, curiosity, and formidable character had propelled her through a series of unprecedented accomplishments in both government service and academe,” as she moved from “salvage” anthropology to pioneering research in culture and personality, and then to a new form of research on a complex society through time, using an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach.

New Professional Opportunities with Hawaiian and Pacific Collections at the Bishop Museum

The Bernice P. Bishop Museum is launching a transformative new program with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that builds internal curatorial capacity at the Museum in preparation for designing and implementing a training program in Indigenous curatorial practice for the next generation of museum curators. Building a Pacific Pipeline: Bishop Museum & The Te Rangi Hīroa Pacific Curators and Caretakers Program aims to diversify the pipeline of future cultural heritage professionals, increase the number of historically underrepresented Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the museum field, and demonstrate how museums can change their practices and positively impact their communities.  

The first phase of Building a Pacific Pipeline will increase staffing in the Bishop Museum’s Cultural Resources Division by hiring a team that includes two curators, a collections manager, and a collections technician to steward a collection that represents more than half of the world’s primary source material of Hawai‘i and the Pacific. The Bishop Museum is an ideal learning laboratory for examining how Oceania collections are understood, interpreted, and cared for.  

All those interested in these job opportunities should visit the “Careers” section of the Bishop Museum website, where they can also find information on how to submit applications for these positions. This is part of a major Andrew W. Mellon-funded project at the Bishop Museum to prioritize and support indigenous knowledge, values and practice in the custodial care and scholarship of these collections going forward. 

New Release from BEROSE – Sansone on Melville and Frances Herskovits in Brazil

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article in English on the Brazilian experience of Melville and Frances Herskovits.

Sansone, Livio, 2021. “‘No Sun Helmets!’ Melville & Frances Herskovits in Brazil,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Among the representatives of culturalism, Melville Herskovits (1895-1963) stands out for his pronounced inclination to African studies, bringing Africa and the Americas closer together around cultural issues, without neglecting the challenges of the historical framework of slavery. From the 1920s, he was active in several African-American and African research contexts. 

Between 1935 and 1943, the city of Salvador, Bahia in Brazil received different degrees of attention from a large number of foreign scholars and intellectuals, all of them impressed—if not seduced—by the “magic” of this city, largely the result of its Black popular culture. Among them were Frances Shapiro Herskovits (1897-1975) and her husband Melville Jean Herskovits. In this article, Sansone explores the manifold reasons for the lasting success of Melville and Frances’s fieldwork in Brazil, in spite of the fact that they never published the book they had planned. Their painstaking, detailed, and focused fieldwork in Brazil benefited from the experience, reputation, images, and recordings they had built up elsewhere in the Americas and Africa. The notion of African survivals or Africanism was in those days politically convenient and fitted with the priorities of the local modernist elites. Moreover, their presence and interest was convenient to the candomblé community, and the cult houses used the Herskovitses as leverage for local political support. Sansone concludes that Frances and Melville Herskovits were “the right people, with the right ideas, at the right time and place.” 

New Release from BEROSE – Pinho on Hasenbalg

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article in Portuguese on Argentinian/Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Hasenbalg. 

Pinho, Osmundo, 2021. “Sociologia crítica do racismo à brasileira: um retrato intelectual e político de Carlos Hasenbalg” [Transl.: “Critical Sociology of Racism in Brazil: an Intellectual and Political Portrait of Carlos Hasenbalg”], in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Born in Buenos Aires, sociologist Carlos Hasenbalg (1942-2014) pursued his academic career abroad, following the Argentine military coup of 1966. From Chile, where he studied for two years, he moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he worked until his retirement. In the early 1970s, he did his doctoral studies in Berkeley in the United States, under the guidance of American sociologist Robert Blauner. His book Discriminação e Desigualdades Raciais no Brasil (Discrimination and Racial Inequalities in Brazil), from 1979, posits that the development of capitalism, the industrialization of the economy and the modernization of social relations do not guarantee an end to racism, its structural foundations, and its consequences. In this revealing article, Pinho argues that Carlos Hasenbalg’s place in the history of Brazilian anthropology, sociology, and social sciences in general is at the epicenter of a vast Brazilian and international debate marked by sociological discussions on race, class, and racial stratification. Hasenbalg’s work was a decisive influence on later studies of race relations.

New Release from BEROSE – Peatrik on Kenyatta

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: a fascinating article, in English, on Jomo Kenyatta, the famous Kenyan disciple of Malinowski. 

Peatrik, Anne–Marie, 2021. “Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya and its Rival Ethnographies: The Kikuyu in the Mirror of Colonial Anthropology,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Born around 1895 in southern Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (c. 1895-1978) or Kamau wa Ngengi (his name from his youth) was a Kenyan pan-African activist and politician. As a representative of an association defending the land interests of the Kikuyu dispossessed by the white settlers, he went to London in 1929, and remained in Europe until 1946, meeting more and more with the English-speaking and anti-colonial intelligentsia. A hero of Kenyan decolonization, he became the first president of the newly independent country from 1964 until his death in 1978. Jomo Kenyatta was also an anthropologist. In 1938, he published Facing Mount Kenya, The Traditional Life of the Gikuyu, a book based on a master’s degree in anthropology under the supervision of Bronislaw Malinowski. It was the first academic anthropological monograph to be written by an African about his people. In this challenging article, Peatrik unveils the tumultuous trajectory of Jomo Kenyatta’s monograph, which was ignored, disparaged, and celebrated in turn. Particularly from the 1930s until the period following the Second World War, other writers engaged in relations of anthropological rivalry with Kenyatta, clashing over the legitimate representation or anthropological truth of the Kikuyu. By unravelling the ways in which these competing versions affected the status of Facing Mount Kenya, Peatrik eventually reveals the hidden or forgotten story of a major work in the history of anthropology. 

Culture, Community, and Collaboration on the National Mall: A Review of ‘Curatorial Conversations’

Olivia Cadaval, Sojin Kim, and Diana Baird N’Diaye. Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 304 (hardcover) or 360 (paperback) pp., 71 b&w illus., ref., index. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Curatorial Conversations explores the legacy of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (SFF) by bringing together scholars with decades of experience as curators, researchers, and participants. This collection of essays is not so much a history of the festival as it is an attempt to trace the evolution of what it means to be a SFF curator and a reflection upon how relationships with cultural communities—whether Cajun fiddlers, Tibetan expatriates, or NASA engineers—have been refined and strengthened since the festival’s 1967 debut. My intention here is to provide a brief overview of the anthology and highlight three themes I found particularly salient, before concluding with some questions concerning the future of the festival.

Continue reading

New Release from BEROSE – Aranzadi, López and Sánchez on Spanish colonial ethnography in Africa

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: two articles (in Spanish) on Spanish colonial ethnography in Africa.

Aranzadi, Juan, 2021. “Estereotipos étnicos de los indígenas en los primeros estudios coloniales sobre la Guinea española (1900-1936)” [Transl: “Ethnic stereotypes of indigenous people in early colonial studies of Spanish Guinea (1900-1936)”], in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

López Sanz, Hasan G. & Nicolás Sánchez Durá, 2021. “Imaginación colonial y formas de aproximación gráfica de las poblaciones negro africanas. El caso de la Guinea española (1880-1968)” [Transl: “Colonial imagination and graphic representations of Black African populations. The case of Spanish Guinea (1880-1968)”], in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Often overlooked in the historiography of anthropology, Spanish colonialism in Africa is the subject of these two interconnected articles. The Instituto de Estudios Africanos, founded in 1945 after Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), promoted ethnological studies on the populations of Spanish Guinea. Despite their “scientific” pretensions and uneven quality, they are imbued with the national-Catholic ideology of the Franco regime and inherit the ethnic stereotypes of Guinean indigenous peoples elaborated in early colonial publications (1900-1936). These earlier sources are analyzed in the first article, by Aranzadi, including missionary writings on the island of Fernando Po, where the Claretian Fathers of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary arrived in 1883. The second article, by López and Sánchez, is dedicated to some forms of popular iconographic representation of Black African populations, especially the little-known case of Spanish Guinea, now Equatorial Guinea. This lavishly illustrated article results from the exhibition “Let’s Bring Blacks Home! Colonial Imagination and Graphic Representations of Africans (1880-1968),” which was held in 2020 at the Cultural Center La Nau of the University of Valencia (Spain), illustrating different aspects of anthropological investigation through objects, photographs, popular periodicals, books, documentaries, and fragments of fictional films.

New Release from BEROSE – Oliveira on Ramos

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article (in English) on Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos, a leading figure of Afro-Brazilian studies during the first half of the twentieth century.

Oliveira, Amurabi, “Afro-Brazilian Studies From Psychoanalysis to Cultural Anthropology: An Intellectual Portrait of Arthur Ramos,” in BEROSE  International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Arthur Ramos (1903-1949) was one of the most prominent Brazilian anthropologists of the first half of the twentieth century, specializing in Afro-Brazilian populations. In his intellectual portrait of this paramount figure in the history of Brazilian anthropology, Oliveira retraces his path from racialized psychoanalysis to cultural anthropology. From 1935 on, Ramos had fruitful exchanges with Melville J. Herskovits and maintained his connections with U.S. anthropology in various ways – including his polemical critique of Ruth Landes’s “fantastic conclusions about a matriarchal cult and male ritual homosexuality among Black Brazilians.” Oliveira reveals that Ramos insisted on the importance of comparing Afro-American to African models to avoid “distorting” views. As Professor of anthropology and ethnography at the Universidade do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro beginning in 1939 and founder of the Brazilian Society of Anthropology and Ethnology in 1941, Ramos also had a relevant role in the institutionalization of anthropology in Brazil. He became the first head of the Department of Social Sciences at UNESCO in 1949, but he held this position for only a short time, as he died a few months after his arrival in Paris. Although his legacy for Brazilian anthropology and his influence over generations of Brazilian anthropologists are particularly significant, his place in disciplinary history is gaining wider international recognition within the world anthropologies paradigm.

Free registration for EASA “Anthropological Pathways and Crossings” conference, July 21 and 22, 2021

The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) is offering free registration for its upcoming digital conference, “Anthropological Pathways and Crossings: Knowledge Production and Transfer in and Beyond Europe” until July 19, 2021. (After that date, registration will close completely.) The conference will take place on July 21 and 22, and is being organized jointly by EASA’s EuroNet group and the History of Anthropology Network (HOAN).

No knowledge, and particularly anthropological knowledge, is contingent upon a single tradition but is instead composed of multiple practices and contexts. Next to “major” European anthropological traditions, “minor” or “marginal” traditions in and beyond Europe bloomed and supported intellectual interactions at different points in time, and dynamically produced and disseminated anthropological knowledge. Based on these premises, the conference organizers aim to challenge the narrative of major, self-standing European traditions. Presenters will investigate the complexities and the embeddedness of anthropological knowledge transfer in and beyond European(ist) research, especially emphasizing the work at/between the “margins” — both geographic and conceptual — in past and present times.

Please visit the conference website to register and to read the full event program.

Reminder: History of Anthropology Working Group, “Visualization,” June 2, 2021

The next meeting of the History of Anthropology Working Group, hosted by the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, will be held on Wednesday, June 2, 2021 at 12:00 p.m. ET. The topic for the discussion will be “Visualization.” This meeting was rescheduled from April 7, 2021.

The discussion will be led by Abigail Nieves Delgado and Iris Clever, and will take a broad view of visualization from the 18th to 20th centuries across a range of traditions. It will focus on the following readings:

  • Keevak, Michael. 2011. “Taxonomies of Yellow: Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and the Making of a ‘Mongolian’ Race in the Eighteenth Century.” In Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. Princeton University Press.
  • Qureshi, Sadiah. 2012. “Peopling the landscape: Showmen, displayed peoples and travel illustration in nineteenth-century Britain.” Early Popular Visual Culture 10(1): 23-36.
  • Evans, Andrew. 2020. “‘Most Unusual’ Beauty Contests: Nordic Photographic Competitions and the Construction of a Public for German Race Science, 1926–1935,” Isis 111(2): 289-309.
  • Stinson, Catherine. 2020. “Algorithms Associating Appearance and Criminality Have a Dark Past.” Aeon, May 15, 2020. https://aeon.co/ideas/algorithms-associating-appearance-and-criminality-….

The readings are available for download via the Working Group home page. Additional details about the group and information on how to attend may also be found on the site.

Upcoming Event: Debate on the Legacy of Jean Cuisenier

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

May 25th, 2021, 4:30 p.m. (CET)

A session will take place at the Musée du Quai Branly (Paris) on the 25th of May, 2021 at 4:30 p.m., during which Laurent Le Gall (Université de Bretagne Occidentale) and Frédéric Fruteau de Laclos (Université Paris 1/Panthéon Sorbonne) will comment on texts resulting from a colloquium dedicated to anthropologist Jean Cuisenier and published by BEROSE in a topical dossier organized by Martine Segalen (Université Paris-Nanterre) and Nicolas Adell (Université Jean-Jaurès, Toulouse). Please note, this is an in-person event.

French anthropologist Jean Cuisenier (1927-2017) was head of the polemical Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires beginning in 1968. Considered both a continuator and innovator of Lévi-Strauss’s legacy, this less known but fundamental figure in the history of the French school of anthropology promoted an anthropology freed from its ties to backward-looking “folklore,” and open to the study of contemporary French and European societies. When institutional difficulties and a hot public debate led to the closure of his museum of folk arts and traditions in 2005, Jean Cuisenier continued to develop his reflections on issues of folk art and ritual.

Among other recently released articles and other resources, the topical dossier published within BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology includes this biography of Jean Cuisenier by Martine Segalen:

Segalen, Martine, 2020. “Un ethnologue européaniste au défi d’un musée : biographie de Jean Cuisenier,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Learn more about how to attend this event. Because of space constraints, interestested participants are invited to register by sending an email to martine.segalen@gmail.com and to nicolas.adell@univ-tlse2.fr.

Enclosures and Extraction: MOVE and the Penn Museum

This essay is the last of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

I am writing as someone who sits in one of the oldest anthropology departments in the United States, which sits in one of the oldest ethnographic museums in the country, and the world. Our department played a key role in the elaboration of scientific racism in the 19th century, as scholars applied the insights of Darwinian evolutionary theory to develop racist ideas about human origins and culture. Daniel Brinton, for example, was the first professor of anthropology at Penn. Though he was trained as a medical doctor, Brinton was hired in 1886 as a Professor of Archaeology and Linguistics, having previously held the position of Professor of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He was also the president of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) during the last years of the 19th century before he died in 1899, and an avid segregationist. In 1896, while president of the AAAS, Brinton argued in Popular Science Monthly that “the black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white…that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts.”[1] Brinton publicly advocated theories of scientific racism across several scientific institutions in Philadelphia. He believed that acquired “traits” developed within particular environments were passed down from generation to generation, and this laid the basis for later proponents of the “culture of poverty” paradigm.

Continue reading

New Release from BEROSE – Link on the Center for the Study of Man

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article on the Smithsonian’s Center for the Study of Man, by Adrianna Link.

Link, Adrianna, 2021. “(Re)inventing Urgency: The Case of the Smithsonian’s Center for the Study of Man, 1968-1976,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

The Center for the Study of Man was established at the Smithsonian Institution in 1968 to develop international research programs focused on the interrelationship between humans and their physical, biological, and cultural environments. Major projects initiated under its auspices included a program in “urgent anthropology”; the 1978 revision of the Handbook of North American Indians; the development of the National Anthropological Film Center (now the Human Studies Film Archives); the establishment of a Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies (RIIES); and planning for a Museum of Man. Other partially-conceived initiatives included a bibliographic and computerization program; a conference and publication series on topics such as population growth, human fertility, and drug and alcohol use; and a community-based American Indian program. In this thorough study, Link explains that the Center remained an independent research unit at the Smithsonian until 1976, at which point its major programs were discontinued or reassigned elsewhere within the Institution.

Older posts Newer posts