Many -isms

Following the good advice of some remarkable ladies I put my act together and did my seminar yesterday. This time it was a little differnt from the “usual” sessions, because the topic led me into some personal reflections. I simply do not cope with the concept of structuralism – if I understood it the right way.

Basically all “structuralists” agree that it dates back to Saussure. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a swiss linguist, came to early fame in the 1880ties. After his death students of him edited scripts of his lectures from 1907-1911 as Cours de linguistique générale – they did not attend themselves. In the inter-war-time the french ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2004) and his friend Jakobson formed, based on Saussure’s ideas the modern structuralism. Characteristic for the 20th century is to think in groups: Levi-Strauss seemed not to be too happy with the idea of a “structuralist group” – after all it is a later construction, hence the quotation marks on “structuralists”. The thing real took off after WWII when in Paris a new generation started to study with people like Foucault, Derrida and a lot of others. Those two are just exampels – they stand for a generation of philosophers, sociologists, cultural scientists that formed the science, the university, the cultural environment in postwar France and to some extent the whole West up to this date. And in the end of the 60ties, when they mostley were in their end-thirties the books started to appear. They reached positions, became alimented and thought – structuralism, poststructuralism, later what others called postmodernism followed.
For this latest twist into the nonsensical see my post about Sokal’s hoax.

The idea of structuralism is to reveal, to find the structure of cultural phenomena. Derrida and others took the linguistic method and used in on other subjects as society, history and what-not following the example of Levi-Strauss, who tried to find and explain the structure of myth (Mythos): not of one single myth people in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil were telling each other (in this area he did field studies) but of THE myth in general, no matter whether it is the saied brazilian or the ancient greek or an other myth somewhere in the world.

I found a nice example in a lecture by Prof. Behrens of Ruhr Universität Bochum he used to explain the different ways of looking to phenomena. If you imagine a carpet hanging at the wall showing some picture, like one of these things one finds in castles or like the famous from Bayeux, the hermeneutic would look at the picture, try to identify the figures, look in the literature and with new insight look again at the carpet, following the hermeneutic circle, until he reached a point when he can say that he “explained” or understood the image on this carpet.
The structuralist would analyse forms and colours, put them in a kind of matrix or categorize them, use his saied “exact” methods and finally try to see a structure.
The poststructuralist would look for even smaller pieces of information, shake them through and through – in the end he would come to something like a structure assuming that it basically could be something totally different.
The de-constructivist would look on the backside of the carpet and try to understand how it is woven, how it is made so that just this image can appear and try to find out whether there is another possible message, whose existence he assumes.

I am basically an historian. And I can not leave this hermeneutic position I “grew up with” in the science. So the question in the seminar session was what we want to recognize or distinguish, what the sense and justification, the reason for our scientific doing is. I talked a lot, avoiding the worst rabbit trails, and hopefully made them think about themselves.


Catch me …

Time for a new “catch of the week”.
A very useful tool, this “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”. When you ask for “death” more than 400 hits are shown.


Has every reader an idea in her/his head, about what I am trying to write? Fine, I hope so, but do these ideas fit together? Baroque can be architecture, for example residences of the 18th century. German-speaking baroque literature in middle Europe starts roughly around 1630. Baroque personalities are saied to be found nowadays too.

I write about culture in its widest meaning in western Europe with the emphasis on the Reich. It is always difficult to put up or draw demarcation lines in the steady stream of cultural history, but the year 1555 is seen as a mark – something changed here. As all “looking at history” is a look into the past, a look back, there is always the possibility that a perspective is choosen, that does not right or even harm to the studied subject. Developments that from a present perspective can be seen as starting from a certain point, can be percieved by the contemporaries in a totally different way: Something totally clear and logical from our perspective can be muddled and un-forseeable for a contemporary.
Consent in the historians guild is reached that the century between 1555 and the end of the 30-years-war 1648 puts a final end to the middle ages, that something new begins: We talk about the early modern time (Frühe Neuzeit).

We see a new kind of literature coming up, heavily influenced by the humanists, by the (counter-)reformations – I remember that J.A.Moscherosch (1601-1669) was once called the first german-speaking writer, that earned money from his writing – but I may be wrong here. We see a new science – the natural sciences slowly but steadily start to evolve from the older alchemistic traditions. We see a new idea of the state to be thought, the absolute state. We see new art, manierismo, new architecture as well. Within this 100 years the base for the enlightenment of the 18th century is laied, with the instrumentum pacis (peace treaty is not enough) from 1648 the Reich gets a constitution that will last until 1803, the Reich’s end.

So what’s baroque about it?
An historian of art, whose name I sadly forgot, answered the question “Was ist Gotik?” (“What is Gothik?”) with the word: “Zuerst ist es der Wille zum Stil.” (“First it is the will for the style.”) I do not know whether he is “right” or not. Baroque is a style that makes facades swing. That creates abundant, joyful writing. It is a state of mind that makes people joyfully think, that creates and enables revolutionary thinking. It’s pure lust of life in the middle of the 30-years-war’s battlefields. Religious inwardness and depth next to the most wordly.
Baroque is adventure. For the people that lived their lifes in these unquiet times and for the contemporary historians and interested folks that watch them, because it is so strange. But the people in their human condition are as we are and the trace of the new, the modern, that what will become all more familiar through the coming centuries, the idea of modern Europe and “our world” is in it and recognizable.

Technical miracle

I am not an enemy of technics – in fact without technic mankind would not survive. I do use computers, I drive a car, I use elevators – but I do not understand why a machine works in which way: The internal processes are absolutly unknown to me. Chemistry, physics, technical engeneering – sorry. I belong to the other fraction.
I use a phone that was given to me by a friend when he moved to an other town. It fits and meets the technical requirements and it is easy to use. There is a display and the menue is as simple as can be, so that fortysomething magos can use it. It works for some years now.
Why did it change one menue-point and told me this evening that it would send incoming phonecalls to a service-number I do not know? That is what I read on the display when I came back home here ’round midnight. I checked the menue and found all points for sending calls to an phone-box marked as “yes”. I never used this, I do not want to use this, I do not know this given number. If Telekom or whoever wants me to use some unwanted “service” they should at least find the friendlyness to tell me that they will change something – and not “just do it”.
Anyway, I do not care about such things. Let them machines do what they want – as long as a human can pull the plug …