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Clarke LITS3304 Notes 03C
ROLAND BARTHES “THE STRUCTURALIST ACTIVITY” (1963) Barthes, Roland. "The Structuralist Activity." Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 1128-1130. Barthes begins by asking: “What is structuralism?” (1128). He contends that it is “not a school, nor even a movement (at least, not yet)” (1128) because most of those accused of being Structuralists are “unaware of being united by any solidarity of doctrine or commitment” (1128). Moreover, it is not a “vocabulary” (1128) in that ‘structure’ is already an “old word (of anatomical and grammatical provenance)” (1128) used widely in the social sciences. Terms like “functions, forms, signs, and significations” (1128) are not peculiar to Structuralism for they are nowadays commonly used words “from which one asks (and obtains) whatever one wants, notably the camouflage of the old determinist schema of cause and product” (1128). In other words, they are terms used by a variety of schools of thought and not just Structuralism. Barthes’ approach is, rather, to argue that we must doubtless go back to pairings like those of significans/ significatum [signifier/signified] and synchronic/ diachronic in order to approach what distinguishes structuralism from other modes of thought: the first because it refers to the linguistic model as originated by Saussure, and because along with economics, linguistics is, in the present state of affairs, the true science of structure; the second, more decisively, because it seems to imply a certain revision of the notion of history, insofar as the notion of the synchronic (although in Saussure this is a pre-eminently operational concept) accredits a certain immobilization of time, and insofar as that of the diachronic tends to represent the historical process as a pure succession of forms. This second pairing is all the more distinctive in that the chief resistance to structuralism today seems to be of Marxist origin and that it focuses on the notion of history (and not of structure). (1128) Barthes claims that it is probably the use of the “nomenclature of signification (and not . . . the word [structuralism] itself, which is, paradoxically, not at all distinctive) which we must ultimately take as structuralism’s spoken sign: watch who uses signifier and signified, synchronic and diachronic, and you will know whether the structuralist vision is constituted” (1128). In a nutshell, then, Structuralism is distinguished by a particular set of concepts. Barthes contends that there is no reason to “reduce” (1128) Structuralism “a priori . . . to the activity of philosophers” (1128) and that it would be better to try and find its “broadest description (if not its definition) on another level than that of reflexive language” (1128). That is, Structuralism is not an activity in which philosophers per se engage. There exist, rather, “certain writers, painters, musicians, in whose eyes a certain exercise of structure (and not only its thought) represents a distinctive experience” (1128). Moreover, “both analysts and creators must be placed under the common sign of what we might call structural man, defined not by his ideas or his languages, but by his imagination – in other words, by the way in which he mentally experiences structure” (1128). In other words, both artists and critics may be described as structuralist in outlook. Hence, Barthes stresses that Structuralism is “essentially an activity, i.e., the controlled succession of a certain number of mental operations” (1128), analogous to other movements like Surrealism which, Barthes, arguably evinced a structuralist view of literature avant la lettre. The goal of all Structuralist activity, “whether reflexive or poetic” (1128), is to “reconstruct an ‘object’ in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of
Barthes argues. the ‘mytheme’ in Lévi-Strauss. which is why there is little difference between structuralism as an intellectual activity on the one hand and literature in particular and art in general on the other: “both derive from a mimesis. When Troubetskoy “reconstructs the phonetic object as a system of variations” (1128). or when Lévi-Strauss “discovers the homologic functioning of the totemic imagination” (1129). his history. This is why. here. All these various units “have no significant existence except by their frontiers: those which separate them from other . a composition – by the controlled manifestation of certain units and certain associations of these units” (1129). or Granger the “formal rules of economic thought” (1129). decomposes it. so to speak. It matters little whether the initial object liable to the simulacrum activity is given by the world in an already assembled fashion (in the case of the structural analysis made of a constituted language or society or work) or is still scattered (in the case of the structural ‘composition’). or if one prefers. of structuralist activity.’ Barthes contends that the Structuralist activity involves “two typical operations: dissection and articulation” (1129). or when Propp “constructs a folk tale resulting by structuration from all the Slavic tales he has previously decomposed (1129). the ‘theme’ in certain literary criticism” (1129). precisely. but a veritable fabrication of a world which resembles the first one. or the two tenses. Between the “two objects. an original ‘impression’ of the world. Hence one might say that structuralism is “essentially an activity of imitation” (1128). a series by Pousseur. and what is new is nothing less than the generally intelligible: the simulacrum is intellect added to object” (1128). interested simulacrum. then recomposes it” (1128). not in order to copy it but to render it intelligible” (1128). there occurs something new. and this addition has an “anthropological value” (1128): the addition consists in “man himself. It is not the nature of the copied object which defines an art (though this is a tenacious prejudice in all realism). Boulez or Butor are doing when they articulate a certain object – what will be called. or when Dumézil “elaborates a functional mythology” (1128). his freedom and the very resistance which nature offers to his mind” (1128). but a directed. the phoneme in the work of the phonologists. but on the analogy of functions (what Lévi-Strauss calls homology)” (1128). and it is. Structure is therefore actually not only a “simulacrum of the object. Structural man “takes the real. This is why we must speak of the Structuralist ‘activity’ per se rather than the Structuralist work. a versicle of Butor’s Mobile. whether this initial object is drawn from a social reality or an imaginary reality. These include a “square by Mondrian.Richard L. is to “find in it certain mobile fragments whose differential situation engenders a certain meaning. his situation. the one which is given to the simulacrum activity. unintelligible in the natural object” (1128). or when Richard “decomposes a poem by Mallarmé into its distinctive vibrations” (1129) – they are all doing “nothing different from what Mondrian. To dissect the first object. W. one must speak of a structuralist activity per se: “creation or reflection are not. the fragment has no meaning in itself. it is the fact that man adds to it in reconstructing it: technique is the very being of all creation. since the imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible. but it is nonetheless such that the slightest variation wrought in its configuration produces a change in the whole” (1129). (1129) Accordingly. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 03C 2 functioning (the ‘functions’) of this object” (1128). the way that makes the work” (1129). or Gardin the “pertinent features of prehistoric bronzes” (1129). the goals of Structuralist activity are “indissolubly linked to a certain technique” (1129) for which reason Structuralism exists in a “distinctive fashion in relation to the modes of analysis or creation: we recompose the object in order to make certain functions appear. based not on the analogy of substances (as in socalled realist art).
is much less important than their stability” (1129). Ultimately.e. Once the units are “posited” (1129). which succeeds the summoning [dissecting?] activity” (1129). and seemingly “fortuitous” (1129) and. The notion of ‘paradigm’ is crucial in this regard to the Structuralist vision: the paradigm is a group. thereby “joining a whole scientific complex which is being developed around information theory and research” (1130). of course. but the units of the structure are not all “anarchic” (1129): “before being distributed and fixed in the continuity of the composition. i. the episodes of the Oedipus myth (in Lévi-Strauss’ analysis) must be both identical and varied – in order that all these languages. For what is happening. because the world has never stopped “looking for the meaning of what is given it and of what it produces” (1130). In short. subject to a sovereign motor principle: that of the smallest difference” (1129).. “useless to those who discern in them no form” (1129).Richard L. Linguistics terms these “rules of combination forms” (1129). at this second stage of the “simulacrum-activity” (1129). It also “highlights the strictly human process by which men give meaning to things” (1130). one might say that the “object of . these works may be intelligible. The “syntax of the arts and of discourse” (1129) varies widely but “what we discover in every work of structural enterprise is the submission to regular constraints whose formalism. This is nothing new. ‘structural man’ must “discover in them or establish for them certain rules of association: this is the activity of articulation. endowed with meaning” (1129). improperly indicted. (1129) The “dissection operation” (1129) thus produces an “initial dispersed state of the simulacrum” (1129). vis-à-vis other objects of its class. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 03C 3 actual units of the discourse (but this is a problem of articulation) and also those which distinguish them from other virtual units. Form is “what keeps the contiguity of units from appearing as a pure effect of chance: the work of art is what man wrests from chance” (1129). what characterizes the paradigmatic object is that it is. W. the object or unit one wishes to endow with an actual meaning. Structuralism “manifests a new category of the object. “human thought being established not on the analogy of copies and models but with the regularity of assemblages” (1129). by an act of citation. in a certain relation of affinity and dissimilarity: two units of the same paradigm must resemble each other somewhat in order that the difference which separates them be indeed evident: s and z must have both a common feature (dentality) and a distinctive feature (presence or absence of sonority) so that we cannot. at what cost and by what means” (1130). This explains why “so-called nonfigurative works” (1129) are both carefully organised works of art. attribute the same meaning to poisson and poison. Rather. yet they must differ each time by both their make and color. each one forms with its own virtual group or reservoir an intelligent organism. in French. a reservoir – as limited as possible – of objects (of units) from which one summons. which is neither the real nor the rational. the simulacrum constructed in this way does not represent the world “as it has found it” (1130). Mondrian’s squares must have both certain affinities by their shape as squares and certain dissimilarities by their proportion and color. with which they form a certain class (which linguistics calls a paradigm)” (1129). However. what is new is a “mode of thought (or a ‘poetics’)” (1130) which “seeks less to assign completed meanings to the objects it discovers than to know how meaning is possible. but the functional” (1130). the American automobiles (in Butor’s Mobile) must be constantly regarded in the same way. thus. is a kind of “battle against chance” (1129): it is by the “regular return of the units and of the associations of units that the work appears constructed.
the “artist” (1130). Barthes concludes by wondering how structural man responds to the “accusation of unreality which is sometimes flung at him” (1130). “recreates the course taken by meaning” (1130): his “function . their present being is their past act: they are having-been-mades” (1130). a new language which speaks him in turn. which is quite simply culture” (1130): he too listens for the natural in culture. too. Literature is also a “mantic activity that is both intelligible and interrogating. A “serial composition or an analysis by Levi-Strauss are not objects insofar as they have been made. historical and contingent variables. he perceived in the vegetal or cosmic order a tremendous shudder of meaning. Since then. (1130) This “fabrication of meanings” (1130) is more important than the “meanings themselves” (1130). like the ancient soothsayer. to which he gave the name of a god: Pan” (1130). is a manteia [Greek for the process of divining or interpreting the will of the gods]. Just as he “experiences his validity (but not his truth) in his power to speak the old languages of the world in a new way. Precisely because “all thought about the historically intelligible is also a participation in that intelligibility” (1130). but man fabricating meanings” (1130). finite. which will change with the world” (1130). springs. has become social: everything that is given to man is already human. forests. he knows that structuralism. so he knows that it will suffice that a new language rise out of history. are produced” (1130). questioned the meaning of mountains. Literature is an “answer to the man who consumes it yet always a question to nature. Barthes attributes to the “new man of structural inquiry” (1130) the Latin term “[h]omo significans” (1130). he speaks the locus of meaning but does not name it” (1130). without which it would no longer be human. structural man is “scarcely concerned to last. an answer which questions and a question which answers” (1130). Barthes points out that the ancient Greeks were “amazed by the natural in nature” (1130): “he constantly listened to it. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 03C 4 structuralism is not man endowed with meanings. he asks. for his task to be done” (1130). The response of “structural man” (1130) is “no different from the ancient Greek” (1130) when “confronted with this social nature. . Without “knowing what all these objects were telling him by name. “Are not forms in the world” (1130). down to the forest and the river which we cross when we travel” (1130). is a certain form of the world. . speaking and silent. . . storms” (1130). . Structuralism is not synonymous with the “content of meanings” (1130) which exhausts the “semantic goals of humanity” (1130) but with the “act by which these meanings. Similarly. but disengaged from the contingent meanings which the world elaborates” (1130). and constantly perceives in it not so much stable.Richard L. like the “analyst” (1130). but also certain forms. Barthes suggests that Structuralism “does not withdraw history from the world: it seeks to link to history not only certain contents . not only the ideological but also the aesthetic” (1130). . . W. engaged in the world by the course of meaning which it remakes with the world. not only the material but also the intelligible. “nature . ‘true’ meanings as the shudder of an enormous machine which is humanity tirelessly undertaking to create meaning.
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