Structures of Contagion and Forms of the Social Environment

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

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

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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.

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