Cameron Brinitzer

University of Pennsylvania, History & Sociology of Science

‘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.

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.

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

The Savage Within

Kuklick, Henrika. The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


Henrika Kuklick’s The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945 charts the professionalization and academic institutionalization of British anthropology across three “stages,” “generations,” or “schools”—evolutionist, diffusionist, and functionalist—by reading anthropological texts as cultural products which illuminate changes in British political mores and social life. Kuklick claims that “whatever their views on technical problems, anthropologists [of each generation] were, above all, creatures of their historical moments” (250). Taking anthropologists’ “analyses of remote societies” as “vehicles for projective fantasy” (244), and “interpretive differences” among each school as “products of observers’ social circumstances” (3), Kuklick evaluates the “significance of anthropological ideas on the basis of their social consequences” (242) in order to “contextualize anthropology within the national culture” of Britain (278). Thus, she explains evolutionist theories of linear historical progression in terms of their ability to justify educational reforms at home and colonial rule abroad, as well as the growing popularity of meritocratic ideals among the British middle-class. She explains diffusionist contentions that cultural variation was a product of differences in social organization, as opposed to unequal natural endowments of humans, by reference to World War I and a concomitant sense among the British that “individuals’ fortunes could be altered by the circumstances in which they were placed” (181). Finally, she explains functionalists’ “triumph” during the interwar years as a result of their successful appeals for patronage, hinging on claims about the superiority of professional fieldwork and anthropological expertise relative to the practices of rural colonial administrators. 

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Special Focus: Canguilhem’s Milieu Today

Canguilhem’s historical epistemology continues to inspire historians and anthropologists to attend to how current and former human practices of science shape our conceptualizations and engagement with natural and experimental environments, non-human beings, and human life. Now, with the publication of a translation of La connaissance de la vie ([1965] 2008), which contains many of Canguilhem’s key works, “The Living and Milieu” speaks with new urgency.[ In the spirit of the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s call for multidisciplinary exploration of novel topographies for the history of anthropology, this Special Focus Section gathers five insightful considerations of reversals and collapses in relations between organism and environment for the history of human and life sciences since their seminal characterization in “The Living and Its Milieu.

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Editors’ Introduction: As Adventurous as Life

Amidst ongoing shifts to our environments and biologies, the traditional anthropological and biological objects—human being and life, anthropos and bios—are today twined together in unprecedented ways. Witness the bourgeoning interest from bioscientists in cultural and human affairs, and the even longer standing interest from anthropologists in things biological, as former disciplinary norms are upended and new relations, forms, and understandings of life emerge.

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