Having recently debated the purported value of post-structuralism
- with a valued friend of mine - I decided it was time
(if not badly overdue) to set onto the public record the
theoretical basis of my complete rejection of the essential
underpinnings of that particular school of thought...as,
otherwise, mine venom might too easily be construed as
(yet) another rearguard action by an old-school Humanities-type...sans
Sorry to point this out, but its YOU lot that
are sans critical rigour - having completely failed
to interrogate the groundbase of your worldview - to
judge by the (many) postgrads/faculty I once (futilely)
attempted to engage in debate upon this very issue...
Lets get down to tin tacks...as it were.
Structuralism - as a school of thought - is essentially
based upon Saussures insight that
language can be subdivided into two forms. One is parole
- the living expression of language users in all its
informal diversity. The other is langue
- language as a formalizable system of infinite inter-reference,
governed by strict principles of usage - and hence treatable
as a self-contained formal system which can be codified
via the methodologies accepted by (most) nineteenth-century
scientists...but, not Charles Darwin, interestingly
enough - which, I suppose, makes him some kind 19th
C. postmodernist (for those who are naive enough to
accept such dodgy labels). Of course, to most in the
contemporary Humanities, facts dont
enter into it...so, hes still one of their favourite
To be sure...there are dissidents, such as Eco, who
prefer Pierce as a model - but their practice isnt
that markedly different. They still ignore context -
except where convenient - which makes a mockery of any
attempt to justify this stuff as cutting-edge science...or
even any science at all, come to think of it. Traditional
(reductionist) science specializes in systematic attempts
to minimize the effect of context, whilst studying same
in detail is, in some ways, the hallmark of complexity
work - but...ignoring it, apart where convenient, simply
doesnt make the grade, by any standard.
However, this - actually - doesnt (at all) go
to the heart of the problem...the langue/parole distinction
itself. Put bluntly, langue DOESNT EXIST.
It has no identifiable location - except in dictionaries/grammar
books (a dubious qualification, given that
few read the former & the latter are mostly consulted
during Scrabble) - and all attempts by Chomsky &
his disciples to codify the purely formal relation between
this construct & real language use have invariably
failed. Ifn you doubt this - try reading Randy
Allen Harris The Linguistics Wars (OUP: 1993)...and
marvel at the way Chomskys (explictly post-Saussurean)
agenda has narrowed over the last few decades, w/nary
a genuine victory in sight.
Of course, we in the mainstream Humanities
- as presently configured - are spared this, as we are
NEVER encouraged to study - or even read - linguistics.
No...were merely given to understand that structuralism/semiotics
was securely based upon genuine linguistic scholarship
- and that all critique of same was (properly) the province
of a handful of French masters, whose pronouncements
were handed-down from on high...
The first/best/only truly-valuable critique of semiotics/structuralism
- in its originally developed form (Russian Formalism)
- was developed by Mikhail Bakhtin & co...who spotted
what the later generation of post-structuralists didnt...that
parole (not the fictitious formalism of
langue) was the best general basis for the
study of linguistic (and cultural) forms - of all kinds
- and that the whole question needed to be re-thought
from the ground up, with the context/diversity of language/culture
made the core...instead of being mostly ignored.
Now...I can hear the complaints already. Sure, Post-structuralism
makes a fetish of diversity - albeit it (seemingly)
can never be bothered to properly investigate context
(too much like hard work?) - but, I ask you...is a fetish
what diversity actually is?
No...diversity is bloody-well natural - as any biologist/let
alone any comparative historian could tell you - and
it needs to be built in to any truly VIABLE theory from
the ground up...not merely generated as
the result of some self-enclosed critique
of a theoretically totalizing system such as structuralism/semiotics...
Think about it...because this is the crux of the argument,
and a damn good reason for rejecting this model in toto.
As a vernacular saying has it...nonsense stood
on its head is still nonsense - and, thats
exactly my response to all of the current versions of
poststructuralism that Ive run into. All, seemingly,
are obsessed with the SYSTEM that langue
spuriously generated - and, as well, the certainty
that Descartes attempted to invest philosophy with.
A good sign of this is that causuistry and
rhetoric are still dirty words - although
they only mean case-based reasoning, and the serious
study of argumentation & its contexts...
If post-structuralism was actually a genuine intellectual
revolution - instead of obfuscatory language/inverted
formalism/intellectual empire building - it would have
fully acknowledged its (superior) predecessors by now,
reformed its rhetoric, and dumped its obsession w/system
in favour of genuinely learning from what we humans
get up to in general, and how we might be able to (modestly)
theorize this. Instead - and this should be noticeable
to even the staunchest supporter - it has markedly narrowed
Lacan - supposedly a psychotherapist - is basically
off the map except in certain areas of the visual/film
arts. Derrida, who barely addressed literature per se
in his heyday, is now mostly read by a dwindling
litcrit bunch. Althusser isnt even read at all.
And Foucault - who took the entire human sciences
as his playground, is now mostly touted by cultural
This is NOT the profile of a viable reformation of
anything, let alone the study of humanity in general...
Back to the main game, however...as I (unlike those
that fetishize critique) rapidly get tired
of shooting fish in barrels.
What I havent pointed out here, is just where
the obsession w/language (and culture) as one big system
invariably leads - and this is, perhaps, the most damning
point of all...
Systemic thinking can be useful...to be sure. It encourages
us to define our terms, to build strong hypotheses,
and to test them against recalcitrant reality. But,
that ONLY applies if the system is small enough to allow
this kind of testing. Really big systems - especially
those conceived as self-contained (read: closed) arent
amenable to this type of work, as Chomsky found out...although
hes yet to admit it.
No...genuinely huge closed systems - now...remember
how we were all encouraged to downgrade reference
(read: context) - do generate internal critiques, but
only of the game-playing sort; those that undermine
systemic coherence by taking its own internal relationships,
and pushing them to some (absurd) limit. But that absurdity
isnt evident from within...its only clear
from an external perspective; one that game-players
are (systematically) trained to downgrade.
All of these, without exception (it seems to me) overly
rely upon the workings of the presumed system
- and the undoubted fact that, to those who study such
workings in depth, all linkages (eventually) appear
equally critical. But...the end result of this track
of thought is pure equivalence: all meanings are equally
significant, all power equally tainted, sanity is merely/totally
a social construct...to cite only the most obvious (and
Try reading Foucaults engaged political
writings (mostly interviews) in depth - as I once did
- and youll find that his theory of
power cannot even justify his own political leanings...let
alone anyone else's. The ONLY way out of this bind is
to scrap the entire project of critique from within
structuralism...and accept the v.messy task of constructing
something genuinely useful from without.
This has been my task for many years now, and this
website is the (belated) first fruit of same...but,
your task is (probably) much easier. Most of you thatve
plowed through to this point have certain special areas
of study - unlike myself, these days... Now, Id
hoped, by this stage, to have delivered a swathe of
book reviews for you - of the material Ive cherry-picked
over the years - but a v.severe bout of influenza (and
depression following) has derailed this, for the moment...although
I am seemingly now (Feb 2004) back on track, at least
for the present.
But: the new humanities aims to be a resource for intellectual
dissidents in that beleaguered discipline, so - please
email me w/your needs as to specific theoretical problems,
at <email@example.com> and Ill do my very
best to help...
Be warned, though...genuine theoretical pluralism,
un-domesticated by an over-arching perspective, such
as that provided by poststructuralism, is difficult
work. Most/all problems ramify into multiple disciplinary
areas, and the reading can seem pretty prohibitive at
first. On the other hand, the work I recommend is all
well/clearly written - and provides genuine (albeit
limited) insight into real questions - both of which
should come as some relief.
How you then combine these limited insights - honestly
- will then depend upon your detailed knowledge of the
evidence bearing upon your problem...and the extent
to which you can be bothered to read (and seriously
think about) the whole bunch of diverse work which is
relevant. This is casuistry, and...it's all we (really)
can do - anything else is merely a sophisticated form
of lying to oneself...
Back to langue/parole, if briefly...in
order to wind this one up.
The study of langue has - increasingly
- yielded diminishing returns, both in linguistics,
and in the humanities...We ought to accept this - whatever
our extant theoretical biases - as the simple fact that
it is, and start looking to alternatives. Once we junk
the systemic bias, it is clear that there are regularities
in both language & culture - but that they stem
from an almost bewildering variety of sources...all
of which have generated substantial work divorced from
any totalizing explanatory system.
Get out of the ghetto, I say - and face up to the genuine
theoretical pluralism that is all around you...if you
can be bothered to truly engage with it...
And...finally: perhaps we make a mistake in blaming
Saussure - and Pierce(?) - for our current woes. Pierce
was the son of a leading mathematician...and he did
not have the insights of 20th C. maths into all the
weaknesses of formal systems (particularly re self-analysis)
to temper his optimism. And Saussure was responding
to the (very real) weakness of linguistics in the area
of formal analysis...in his day. Im fairly sure
that both wouldve been horrified by the way their
(very distant) offspring has systematically ruined much
of the analysis of culture in the Humanities
today - and would welcome this counter-attack, however
John Henry Calvinist