Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

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.


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