Friday, December 09, 2005

Home Page for E491

Welcome to English 491, History of Literary Criticism
Fall 2005 at California State University, Fullerton

This blog will offer posts on all of the authors on our syllabus. It contains two kinds of notes: general and page-by-page. Both kinds are optional reading. While the entries are not intended as exact replicas of my lecture notes (and in fact, they cannot include an important part of the class sessions since each student will offer a few in-class presentations), they should prove helpful in your engagement with the authors. They may also help you arrive at paper topics and prepare for the final exam. Unless otherwise noted, the edition used for our selections is Leitch, Vincent (ed.). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

A dedicated menu at my wiki site contains the necessary information for students enrolled in this course; when the semester has ended, this blog will remain online, and a copy of the syllabus will remain in the Archive menu.

Rationale for the course: while there is some literary criticism on our syllabus, many of our Norton Criticism and Theory authors write straightforward philosophy and social theory, not literary criticism. But that’s fine with me. This is not a course in “applied” criticism or theory. Instead, my goal is to help ground you in some of the thought that made 20th-century literary theory possible. Literature isn’t necessarily a central concern for authors such as Plato, Augustine, Kant, Marx, or Nietzsche, but their notions concerning truth, beauty, language, politics, etc. serve as enabling ideas for modern ways of discussing literature and art.

I don’t suppose this course will cause an immediate upsurge in your understanding of literature or “life in general.” I don’t know that reading Kant or Hegel will help anyone get a better grade on a paper about Milton (though it might, in some cases), much less run into the street and change the wicked ways of the world. This is difficult, contemplative stuff we’re studying, and much of it takes several readings over many years to pay its best intellectual dividends. It would be better to think of Kant, Hegel & Co. as “lifetime companions” rather than as schoolmasters who offer us discrete dollops of factuality. I’m 42, and only in recent years have I felt able to respond to such philosophers. Nowadays I try to “think along with” texts by these writers as if I were having a conversation with them. I don’t feel overwhelmed by the complexity of their ideas. I wasn’t able to read them that way at first, and at times I’ve found engaging with them frustrating. But if a reader will stick with the task and approach it with a cheerfully Nietzschean attitude (“Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!”), the material can inform the way he or she thinks about any number of things, including even those that touch upon practical concerns (politics, social issues, etc.) rather than “just literature.” Those who strain for immediate benefits in intellectual matters risk losing any benefit whatsoever. And as for changing the world’s wicked ways, even if reading philosophy and literature doesn’t let us do that in any tangible way, I still think there’s value in not being an utter dupe – the kind of person who imbibes notions wholesale from television, talk radio, official statements by politicians, print journalism, and so forth: if “do little harm and try to see things somewhat accurately” is the best I can attain as a citizen, I’ll settle for that and continue leading my perfectly useless “examined life.”

So here are a few practical suggestions: take good notes (even—and especially—on what sounds obscure or confusing), don’t miss too many classes (audio mp3 recordings of sessions are available online—see our E491 wiki menu at; the link to the audio files is under the E491 Resources sub-menu), and above all, don’t worry about it if not everything is immediately and 100% comprehensible the first time you read it! If you get the basics of, say, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic or Kantian aesthetics, you’re doing just fine. I’ve become fairly good at dealing with Kant, Hegel & Co. without “sounding like Kant and Hegel”—my aim is to be understood, not to impress people with my polysyllabic prating. I want students to finish the course with the feeling that they have obtained a good “first foundation” for learning still more later on. Below are some thoughts about four of our most important authors:

Plato – modern readers are both fascinated and repelled by Plato’s obsession with order and truth and by his distrust of art as a kind of lie. As we say today, Plato views art as ideological subversion or even outright madness. In modern times, the notion that art is socially and politically subversive, of course, actually appeals to some commentators. Others, like Plato himself, distrust it on the same grounds. Again and again, Plato’s powerful combination of mimetic (representational) and pragmatic (morality-centered) concerns finds its way into public discourse about art (and, in modified forms, literary theory itself) right on down to the present day.

Augustine – Saint Augustine gives us a good instance of early Christianity’s theory of signification. Reading him is vital because 19th-century romanticism, a key movement in western literature, is suffused with Christian hopes and anxieties that it overtly rejects. Romantics such as Shelley seem to have carried forward an elegiac conception of “fallen” language as incommensurate with divine truth, incommensurate with the expression of spirit and emotion. Romanticism, with its emphasis on the power of the symbol, also carries forward a certain faith that the gap between God and man, between the letter and the spirit, can be bridged.

Marx – Some might say that Marx the “economic determinist” marginalizes art since he places it as part of an ideological superstructure subservient to economics proper (the engine of history and its characteristic class struggles). But that would be an oversimplification – art and literature, according to Marxists and those who borrow from them, often serve the dominant class as a means of articulating and defending its power. Those disciplines might also provide a space for contesting the ideological foundations of the ruling order – so again, we find some critics pointing towards the subversive potential in works of art.

Nietzsche – this philosopher-as-literary-man distrusts his idealist German predecessors’ penchant for systems and certainty, and has been enlisted as a supporter by those who would tear down the traditional privilege of literature over criticism and theory, of the creative artist over the critical expositor. One might, of course, also suggest that the same authors exalt literary and artistic thought as the master discipline. Nietzsche prefers to treat “big ideas” about truth, being, and meaning with the light and playful touch of a true stylist, so he is sometimes called the father of 20th-century theory (deconstruction in particular) for this reason. Always resourceful in the face of philosophy’s insoluble problems, he celebrates language and creativity even as he points out that humanity’s faith in time-honored “truths” about itself and world stems from deep misunderstanding. A fair amount of modern literary theory takes its cue from this resourceful stylist in its dislike of systemic claims about literature, society, politics, or anything else.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Week 16, Nietzsche and de Saussure

Friedrich Nietzsche and Ferdinand de Saussure. Nietzsche's “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (870-884). De Saussure's “Introduction” to Course in General Linguistics and Part One, Chapter I (956-77).

Page-by Page Notes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (870-884).

874-75. It makes sense to attend to Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy. He begins with a question: given our dissimulative, self-important ways, where does anything like a “truth drive” come from? But as we might have guessed, Nietzsche’s goal isn’t simply to hand us “the truth about truth,” and by 878 he has more or less finished with that question. He’s interested in something anterior and more fundamental about us, something more unsettling and yet also, perhaps, more worthwhile—something that he will explain most fully at the bottom of 881 and onwards.

876-77. At the top of page 876, we are told that the process whereby the conceptual twins “truth/lie” are born begins with “the Social Contract.” As Nietzsche explains, “necessity and boredom” ( a need for peace and for community) lead to the tacit invocation and acceptance of this contract. Afterwards, “that which is to count as ‘truth’ . . . becomes fixed, i.e. a way of designating things is invented which has the same validity and force everywhere, and the legislation of language also produces the first laws of truth….” This development doesn’t in itself account for the acquisition of an interior drive towards “truth,” but it’s the beginning of the process. People desire “the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth,” and whatever doesn’t produce such consequences is designated by common consent as untruth. At 876 middle, Nietzsche raises one of modern philosophy’s most basic questions: regarding linguistic conventions, “Is language the full and adequate expression of all realities” To put this question another way, are words and the material world commensurate, or are they completely different orders? In a sense, the question is unanswerable since, after all, we would have to know exactly what “the world” is in order to say whether or not language can describe it fully. Even so, Nietzsche’s analysis of the movement from sensory perception to speech is compelling and comes close to a firm “No.”

Let’s look at how this movement occurs: “What is a word? The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds,” writes Nietzsche. As he describes this “copying” process, “The stimulation of a nerve is first translated into an image: first metaphor! The image is then imitated by a sound: second metaphor! And each time there is a complete leap from one sphere into the heart of another, new sphere….We believe that when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities.” So whether or not language can correspond to the material realm, the empirical facts of perception show that it doesn’t. Well, we’ve all been told not to mix our metaphors – only Shakespeare was supposed get a free pass there, right? It turns out that we’re all sinners against the light in that regard: we can’t perceive and describe anything without performing what Nietzsche classifies as a fundamentally creative double-metaphorizing operation. What we call perception and experience are, to borrow a phrase, “always already” (immer wieder, toujours déjà, and all that jazz) The point he makes on 877 has some affinity to what romantic philosophers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Sage of Highgate, say: all perception is active, creative. The empiricists’ claim that we are passive recipients of the sensory perceptions that then (in their scheme, at least) become the basis of our knowledge-systems is a pure fabrication, and really quite an admirable one in its way. And what’s in a concept? Why, nothing. Nietzsche’s explanation here is incisive: “Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent.” Just as it is certain that no leaf is ever exactly the same as any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept ‘leaf’ is formed by dropping those individual differences arbitrarily, by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another, so that the concept then gives rise to the notion that something other than leaves exists in nature, something which would be ‘leaf,’ a primal form, say, from which all leaves were woven.” But that’s crazy Cloud-Cuckooland talk straight from the Thinkery of Aristophanes’ Plato: there is no LEAF-of-which-all-individual-leaves-are-copies. In nature, as Nietzsche reminds us on 878, there are no species, forms, or types—therefore, the individual entity in the usual sense arises from a distinction we cannot prove to be legitimate. And much as we love Dr. Johnson, we really can’t be with him on his character Rasselas’ demand that artists shouldn’t streak their tulips. Johnson’s neoclassical “general idea” of a tulip, which is supposed to “recall the original to every mind,” does no such thing. It is a useful abstraction, a “concept,” that makes us suppose we’ve comprehended something universal and orderly about nature when in fact we haven’t. Nietzsche’s point isn’t that our metaphoric translation of stimuli into images into sounds is unnecessary; it’s that it has nothing to do with TRUTH.

All sorts of fine things can be done with substantive lies (i.e. nouns)—above all, they serve as false but compelling “causes” for natural actions, as in Nietzsche’s famous deconstruction of causality in The Genealogy of Morals: I say “lightning flashes,” and think I’ve explained something about nature. But really what I’ve done is invent an abstraction, a noun (a substantive, a substance, an essential thing), to account for “flashing” or “flashes.” What I’ve done is produce, ex post facto, a tautological expression that explains precisely nothing. Language isn’t caused by the external world, at least not directly. The same remarkable fiction governs statements connecting “doers” as the source and cause of their “deeds.” The “I” who is said to do the deed is just as much a fiction as “leaf” or “lightning.” (All honor to Lord Krishna in The Baghavad-Gita, who says much the same thing about the illusion of selfhood. Of course, Nietzsche doesn’t believe in Krishna, who attributes all actions to himself as “Doer in Chief.”) Again, none of this has anything to do with truth. It’s much closer to everybody’s favorite right-wing parodist Steven Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.” “I,” “leaf,” the “general tulip,” and “lightning” are truthy—they’re useful and they make us feel good.

878. But if we really want to know where the drive to truth comes from, explains Nietzsche, we must bear in mind that we aren’t even aware that we perform the above-described metaphoric and creative translations to produce language and conceptual systems. Like Colbert, we love truthiness, but unlike him, we perceivers and speakers are always on the air, deadpan, completely ensconced in our rock-solid Colbert-World. If it feels right, believe it, we might say. At 878 middle we find the heart of Nietzsche’s explanation of where that mysterious “truth-drive” comes from: “[people] lie unconsciously in the way we have described, and in accordance with centuries-old habits—and precisely because of this unconsciousness, precisely because of this forgetting, they arrive at the feeling of truth. The feeling that one is obliged to describe one thing as red, another as cold, and a third as dumb, prompts a moral impulse which pertains to truth…. As creatures of reason, human beings now make their actions subject to the rule of abstractions; they no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions….” There you have it: forgetting makes important things happen—a theme Nietzsche returns to again and again in his texts: “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions….” Underlying grand illusions like truth, good/evil, civilization, science, the autonomous individual self, event, causality, god, and so forth is this capacity to forget how such concepts were first articulated. We’re all “salespeople” for such illusions, and, as an old friend of mine likes to say, “In the end, salespeople are the biggest suckers for the sale.” Why? Because, to borrow a line from Hamlet, “they [do] make love to this employment”; they’re enamored of the idea of the sale far more than the goods to be sold. If lying centers and grounds us, how can we be expected to give up such a fruitful occupation? As Nietzsche says, “Everything which distinguishes human beings from animals depends on this ability to sublimate sensuous metaphors into a schema, in other words, to dissolve an image into a concept” (878). And what accompanies this “humanity” of ours? Why, “the construction of a pyramidal order based on castes and degrees, the creation of a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, definitions and borders, which now confronts the other, sensuously perceived world as something firmer, more general, more familiar, more human, and hence as something regulatory and imperative” (878 bottom). In a few words, the allied principles of rank and regularity. In sum, we acquire a taste for truth, an inner need for it; an unconscious manner of “lying” leads to a “feeling for truth.”

879. Paul de Man generally defines “ideology” as the confounding of words and the world. We seem to do this inevitably, and are most confounded of all when we think we are most certain of ourselves and our world. At 879 bottom, Nietzsche says much the same thing: our whole web of understanding is a product of anthropomorphization; “forgetting that the original metaphors of perception were indeed metaphors, he takes them for the things themselves.” Notice his near-simultaneous comic buildup and takedown of this process: first he says man is to be “admired” as a “mighty architectural genius who succeeds in erecting the infinitely complicated cathedral of concepts on moving foundations, or even, one might say, on flowing water.” Shades of “Kubla Khan,” no? And then he says of these concepts we reasoning creatures have spun out of ourselves, “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about….” In Civilization and Its Discontents (1939), Freud would later poke fun of scientific endeavor (as Nietzsche does in the present essay’s Section 2) in similar terms, comparing its great discoveries to a man sticking his leg out from the covers on a chilly evening so he can feel warm and comforted when he puts the leg under the covers again. Marx’s great line comes to mind in this regard, too, although the context is different: “Mankind . . . inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” (“Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).

880-84. By now, the question about the origin of the truth-drive has come to sound a bit too truth-driven. Nietzsche is interested in leading us to consider a more fundamental “drive.” At 881 bottom, he writes, “That drive to form metaphors, that fundamental human drive which cannot be left out of consideration for even a second without also leaving out human beings themselves, is in truth not defeated, indeed hardly even tamed, by the process whereby a regular and rigid new world is built from its own sublimated products—concepts—in order to imprison it in a fortress. The drive seeks out a channel and a new area for its activity, and finds it in myth and in art generally.” In so far as we want to keep using terms like “humanity” and distinguishing ourselves from “the animals,” it is this drive—something which really does (unlike the truth-drive, which is acquired and derivative, a necessary bad habit) appear to be primordial and innate. We don’t pick up or learn how to perform the multi-step metaphoric translations previously discussed; we just do it. That other kind of dull-making creativity—the building of a stable sense of self and society—indeed builds upon this metaphoric drive as that which is to be “forgotten.” But what is forgotten, in Nietzsche’s scheme, doesn’t simply go away; the metaphoric drive is no more eradicated than Freud’s later “libidinal energy” disappears when it is repressed. In Nietzsche’s perceptual-instinctive economy and in Freud’s psychic one, what is repressed will return. And here, the return takes the form of artistic process, a process that seems to delight in making a break from the prison-house of concepts and staying close to the chaos and instability of raw perception. It isn’t that the artist returns to a time when “people saw things as they really were”: that is a ridiculous formulation because there never was such a time. No, art is a kind of “pretence” that seems most proper to “the intellect” (882 bottom paragraph) and gives the pretence-maker a sense of mastery.

With this exuberant praise of the artist, the person of intuition, we come to that all-important Nietzschean issue of attitude or style. What happens when we consistently admit to what Nietzsche has confronted us with about our sense of self and our security in language and the world’s truth? What attitude shall we strike up? Do we make like the Stoic who, “If a veritable storm-cloud empties itself on his head . . . wraps himself in his cloak and slowly walks away from under it” (884)? Do we engage in what Nietzsche calls Christianity’s “denial of life,” insisting to the bitter end on moral observance, on renunciation, from each believer and yet demanding an endlessly deferred, otherworldly security and justice because none is really to be had in this “valley of the shadow of death”? (Nietzsche interprets Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as part of the denial of life since the offer of redemption makes human suffering unnecessary: there’s a clear path out of the woods, so to speak, and no inherent need to get lost in them, unless it be from willful perversity.) It seems that Nietzsche instead urges us to be more like the ancient Greeks, who (at least before that decadent character Plato got hold of them) did not believe they could demand that the cosmos or universe yield them justice, security, or peace. As in their great tragedies, suffering is shown to be necessary, and we dare not demand that the gods be just. They are what they are. At 883 first paragraph, Nietzsche describes the “liberated intellect’s way of thinking and living: “The vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions.” He goes on to suggest that Greek culture established “the rule of art over life” where humanity’s “neediness” was persistently denied and where “the radiance of metaphorical visions” prevailed over reason. The Greeks had a tragic vision of life, then, and they were open to suffering, open to experience without the props of intelligibility. Consider Sappho’s fragment on love: “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain / Shaking ancient oaks.” She wouldn’t be open to erotic experience if she weren’t strong enough, like the rooted oak braving the wind, to withstand the sway of her own passions (which the ancients figure as a god, an external force not unlike a great wind or storm). Ultimately, I think that’s Nietzsche’s vision of life, too: openness to experience, staying “true” not to “the Truth” but rather to the intuitive and metaphoric quality in human perception and thought. There is, again, no question of a return to truth; there is only the possibility of awakening to a sense of deception’s heady immediacy rather than moving ever farther away from it. Both the society-building “distortion” and the artist’s “pretence” and deceptiveness are, at base, creative—the first is creative in a constructive, comforting way, while the second is creative in a destructive, challenging way. Perhaps these two modes of creativity, like Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus in another early text of his, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, are so intimately sourced and related that we can’t “think” them rightly in isolation from each other; perhaps they both need each other.

To conclude with a thought about philosophy and “theory” after Nietzsche, that grand concept humanity itself is just the sort of conceptual sham whose deconstruction (since Nietzsche’s way of handling his subjects is fairly labeled proto-deconstructive) such an attitude or style is meant to embrace, isn’t it? It, too, is a product of the distortional truth-drive Nietzsche has been examining. We don’t simply propagate ideology in the everyday sense—we are ideological constructions. Other modern authors have taken up an attitude, so to speak, about this great deflation of human puffery and certainty. Michel Foucault writes with antihumanist brio in The Order of Things (in French, differently titled Words and Things—Les mots et les choses), “it is comforting . . . and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form” (xxiii). Martin Heidegger is also instructive regarding the gist of Nietzsche’s deconstructive and antihumanist efforts. In his “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger suggests that humanists have reduced thought itself to a kind of techne or instrument, one which entails a permanent split between subject and object. Mind comes to know “world” through the instrumentality of thought, thereby shoring up its own firmness at the expense of authenticity. This kind of “thought” has surely stepped away from all that is proper and worthy of “thinking.” Much of Heidegger’s project involves the destruction of this humanistic, philosophical imposition upon thinking. De Man, while in dialogue with Heidegger’s texts, counsels something like perpetual vigilance when it comes to the question of ideology. Jacques Derrida, as a thinker and stylist, has a strong affinity with Nietzsche, insisting as he does on rigorous, yet somehow cheerful, deconstruction of anything that appears likely to set itself up (and of course without acknowledging what it’s doing) as the newest latest metaphysical grounding of certainty. In Derrida’s view, structuralism—of which the notes of Ferdinand de Saussure the linguist and, later, the published work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, serve as prime examples—is just such a back-door metaphysical center, the unquestioned principle of intelligibility of what might as well acknowledge itself as a new version of a systemic philosophy, with its drive either to dismiss the world outright (some have said de Saussure’s emphasis on the synchronic dimension of language does that because he dismisses the troubled word-world connection issue out of hand) or to account for it altogether, as, say, the sophisticated Idealism of Hegel or the thoroughgoing materialism of Marx might be said to attempt. In a strong sense, both Nietzsche and Derrida and others who think along the same lines reject the notion (so pervasive here in America, by the way, with our move-it-along-now logical positivist tradition) that we can either simply accept or simply dismiss the ontological and epistemological concerns of traditional western philosophy. As I mentioned regarding de Man earlier, just when we have made a clean break with the past and its concerns, that’s when they have the most power to script and dominate what we do in the present. The one who thinks he or she has dismissed ideology (or Dame Philosophy) with a contemptuous wave of the hand is almost surely the biggest dupe of all. So when structuralism develops into the robust semiological adventure it becomes in the 1950’s and 1960’s (mostly in Europe; it never fully caught on here in the States), when what Derrida himself calls “the hyperinflation of the signifier” takes hold and everyone tries to explain everything after the manner of the structural linguist’s mode of analysis, it is then that the unexamined principle of “structure” should disturb us most of all. As the French saying goes about love relationships, “ni sans toi ni avec toi”: to paraphrase, “I can’t live without the other but I can’t live with the other, either.” I can’t even really decide the issue one way or the other, because if I do, it’s nearly certain that the troubles I’ve repressed will come back to haunt me when I least expect them to. Well, structuralism proper isn’t exactly in vogue nowadays, but such observations never really go out of style since they apply with equal force to anything that comes along (cultural studies, feminism, neo-formalism, whatever) and becomes the fashion in academic fields. Given that it is difficult today to distinguish between “literary theory,” philosophy, social theory, and so forth, it’s good to keep in mind this complex of concerns as you move forwards to a consideration of contemporary theory.

General Notes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (884-95).

Here the focus is on a genre (tragedy) from an ancient culture (the Greeks) that both produces and unsettles the Apollo/Dionysus split. Apollo is the god of light, reason, the lovely dream of order, justifying life’s tribulations in a purely aesthetic way. Dionysus is the god of wine, intoxication, and surrender of the calm, self-contained ego to forces both within and beyond that ego. But both gods are necessary to each other and cannot be kept separate. If tragedy can lead us to this insight, art is very significant, and in no way inferior to philosophy or theology.

At base, Greek tragedy offers a way to embrace one’s fate as a human being; it justifies suffering by creating beauty from it that does not simply disown the process of generation (of that beauty). End note for 894—together, Apollo and Dionysus account for the acceptance of life, amor fati, as opposed to Christianity’s supposed “denial of life.”

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch.
New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

General Notes on Ferdinand de Saussure's “Introduction” to A Course in General Linguistics and Part One, Chapter I (956-77).

1) What was the aim of structuralism as a developing movement that really got going after the eclipse of Sartre’s humanistic existentialism in the 1950’s and 1960’s? Well, the goal was that “structure” could serve as a single unifying principle; the structuralist method would unify the human sciences. Discarding all that old philosophical nonsense about “meaning” and “essence,” structuralists would go forth and discover the “how” of things -- how they fit together, how they work, what allows them to mean anything in the first place — rather than fixating on the question of “what things mean.” Structuralism is what one might call an “upbeat,” scientific view of language. It takes the kind of potentially Nietzschean insight into the “arbitrariness” of language and turns it into something positive rather than destructive: they are a little like Kant, at least by analogy: okay, so we can’t get at “meaning” or “things themselves.” But so what? What we can render intelligible is how things work, and that’s a fine thing to understand.

2) What does this movement try to replace? It replaces humanist conceptions of the mind and of language. Some general assumptions would be something like this:

a) We humans are the central force and meaning of a world that we can rationally apprehend. Remember the ancient Greek saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” Kantian Idealism is a sophisticated example of this view in its attempt to show each individual mind’s power to render the phenomenal world intelligible. Our world is intelligible and we can live in it, maybe even achieve mastery over it. Earlier theories had more simply posited a “real world out there,” but they struggled mightily also to establish that individual consciousness, individual reason, is king.

b) Our various languages can describe or relate to the world around us correctly -- at least once we build up a system of concepts sophisticated enough to describe complex phenomena accurately. There are many views on how this can happen; here’s one:

C17 authors like Bacon and Locke said (along with Aristotle) that words are the signs of ideas, and ideas are the signs of things. This makes language rather dangerous in that it might lead us away from the truth about things themselves. But still, there seems to be an equally powerful insistence that we can strip away layers of error from our language and make it more accurately correspond to our ideas, and thus indirectly to things.

c) Language is linked to our consciousness, our intentions, our meanings. Man, both individually and collectively, is a meaning-making animal: we use language as free-acting individuals, building up a social environment around us or shaping it around the words given us by God. For example, Aristotle sees language as linked to our mental states; they are symptomatic of a state of consciousness.

It’s worth remarking right here that such theories always insist upon the primacy of the spoken word over the written -- that’s because the written word is seen as merely a derivative or even “bad” copy of the spoken word. The further we go from our speech, the notion goes, the further we move from truth, self-presence, full consciousness. You don’t even need to be present for what you have written to be read. You can find this idea in Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, and (according to our decon-men) any other western philosopher you’d care to mention. Consciousness and the spoken word is king.

3) Back to the basic claims of structuralism. What does it replace humanistic principles with?

a) We, as individuals and in groups, are not the measure of all things. Instead, STRUCTURE produces the effect of meaning or intelligibility. The structural operations governing whatever we are investigating give rise to the effect of meaning or intelligibility. One studies things as diverse as so-called primitive cultures and modern fashion with the same methodology. De Saussure is not talking in these specific philosophical terms, but later authors involved with structuralism sponsor such claims.

b) Language does not designate an external reality. It is the structure of language that we must focus on first and foremost rather than trying to link it to external reality.

c) Language speaks man, to hijack a phrase from Heidegger’s anti-scientific philosophy to describe a more pro-scientific one. The speaking “I” does not author meaning by manipulating language; instead, the “I” or consciousness is an effect of linguistic structure. Meaning doesn’t arise from an individual’s experience or intentions but rather from the oppositions and workings, the “grammar” or “rules” of the systems in question. The system makes meaning, not us, and we ourselves are creatures of the linguistic and social systems we think we have created.

A language is a system of signs that consists of signifiers (an acoustic image, an internal impression of a physical sound as opposed to the physical sound itself) and signifieds (a concept, say “horse”). Internally, I “speak to myself” the word horse, or cheval, or equus, and the word is associated with the concept “horse” -- an image or definition of a graminiferous quadruped, runs better when shod, etc.” There is in Saussure some idea about external reality -- the “referent,” but the point is that there isn’t a vital link between sign and referent. The effect we call meaning arises only because of the differences and similarities between linguistic units within an overall linguistic structure. Functionalism in its fullest definition says that the meaning of a unit is the function it performs within a signifying system.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.