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.

François Dosse: contributions /
Cameron Brinitzer: contributions / / Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
John Tresch: contributions / website / / Warburg Institute, University of London