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.