“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, 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 structural—or structuralist—thought to reduce or suspect.”
Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1978, 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 , 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, 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), 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, 278-279).
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
of a poem
is another poem
the center of the center
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).
Lorraine Daston, “Science Studies and the History of Science” (2009, 813).
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. “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. 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. 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.