Balibar on structuralism from Radical Philosophy, no 165

NB. Reading this excellent dense text made me realise that I sadly miss and lack people to discuss such topics with…

Étienne Balibar, Structure. Method or subversion of the social sciences? In: Radical Philosophy, no. 165, 2010, p. 17-22

 „the answer to this question … is doubly negative“ 17

 „we figure that the question of identifying the exact content of the enterprise of intellectual adventure called ‘structuralism’ is still largely open to discussion and full of enigmas.“ 17

 „I don’t believe it is necessary to emphasize here before all else the primacy of the question of the sign and structures of signification“

 more important: the search for an answer „to the methodological dilemma that was constitutive of the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries“ 17

 „This dilemma presents itself as a conflict between an ‘explicative’ and a ‘comprehensive’ method, a ‘nomothetic’ and an ‘idiographic’ method, or a traditon that is naturalist, deterministic, and so on, and one that is hermeneutic. Ultimately, the structuralist programme coalesces around the project of overcoming the alternative between ‘individualistic’ analytical reductionism and ‘holistic’ organicism.“ 18

 Jean-Claude Passeron, Le raisonnement sociologique, Paris 1991

 „The conception of historical materialism proposed by Althusser around a notion of structural causality that was specifically based on a distancing from both ‘mechanical causality’ and ‘expressive causality’ was in fact one of the driving elements of the structuralist movement as such“ 18

 „’Structure’, ‘system’ (words whose specific sense, if it could even be determined, is hardly important) are terms that are essential here in order to designate the mode of thought (and knowledge) of the totality that structuralism sought beyond these dilemmas. (…) postulation that the function and identification of the terms are entirely determined by the nature of the relations.“ 18

 new ontological dilemma: „either the support is a singular existence constituted by the action of the structure – which determines all of its features, in other words, generates it – or, on the contrary (in the manner of the Lacanian ‘Real’), the support is an undetermined limit, whose singularity by definition exceeds all logical determination.“ 19

 this dilemma is „exactly parallel to the one that opposes the syntactic-semantic orientation to the pragmatic orientation in contemporary logic.“ 19

 „the structuralist project, which is essentially anti-reductionist, tends to give substance to an ideal of science as being immanent to the domain of relations forming its ‘object’. As such, it is just as irreducible to an application or importation of concepts from physics or biology as it is to the transcendence of the mind. For this immanence to be so, it is necessary to establish a ‘natural’ correspondence between the domain (what Althusser had called the ‘continent’), the concepts whose specificity gives rise to a ‘problematic’ (or a mode of determined ‘constitution’), and ultimately the procedures of verification and demonstration.“ 19

 „main ‘points of heresy’ or dilemmas of structuralism: (…) constitution of the subject (…) removing this notion from its transcendental indetermination. (…) All the structuralists in this sense consider the subject to be ‘produced’, or rather, that there exist modes of production for the subjectivity effect.“ 19 f.

 „French structuralism drew the formulation of its problems essentially from the set of questions bequeathed and suggested by the work of Mauss, Lévi-Strauss’s presentation of which … truly constitutes the key moment of ‘crystallization’ for the programme as a whole.“ 20

 Mauss „discovered in the constitution of the symbolic body (at once symbolizing and symbolized) the very point of indistinction between the individual and the set, between individual initiative and the transindividual unconscious.“ 20

 Bruno Karsenti, Marcel Mauss, Paris 1994 & L’Homme total, Paris 1997

 „relation of subjectivation to individuation, … leads to the confrontation between a concption of the individual subject that makes of it the ‘synthesis of structural determinations’, interiorized in a corporeal habitus or in a determined ideological position, and a conception of a subject that makes of it a lack, the ‘void’ abstractly common to all structures and consequently on the underside of determined forms of individuality, testifying to the impossibility of there being any subject that ever conincids perfectly with itself.“ (Bourdieu vs. Lacan) 20

 second dilemma: „from the moment that the subject is precisely no longer constitutent, but must be thought rather as an ‘effect’. How will its reinscription in the field of knowledge … be effected?“ 20 f.

 Balibar considers Foucault irrelevant to this questions because „The Order of Things“ is basically a meta-discourse, rather than constituting „a problematic for the human sciences“. What can be compared, though, is Althusser’s ‘epistemological break’ and Lévi-Strauss’ ‘view from afar’.

 „From the perspective of the epistemological break, this alterity is provided by the very development of the concept. It is thus essentially intellectual, even if it is later revealed to be the tributary of historical conditions that are much more material (…) From the perspective of the view from afar … this alterity is provided by the cultural decentring of the observer, redoubled in his ‘self-consciousness’, wherein it takes the form of a conflict between two orientations that are both necessary.“ 21

 third ‘point of heresy’:

 ‘the most interesting effect of its [structuralism’s] anthropological engagement is precisely that it brings about multiple theoretical possibilities in this regard, all of which concern the search for an elaboration of the concrete status of the universal as the correlate of the idea of the human race“ 21

 „one of the possibilities leads not so much towards the biological naturalization of universals as towards a cognitivst program, that is, an interpretation of different ‘perceptions’ of the human as differing learning processes inscribed in the very constitution of the brain. The other possibility … seeks to think the universal not so much as power or plasticity realized in differential learning experiences, but as the system itself, constituted by the double diversity of ‘cultures’ and individual ‘characters’“ 21 f.

 „Three points of heresy then, but, as is immediately clear, three prospects as well, for the opening and renewal of the debates that have lost nothing of their actuality.“ 22

 „the importance of structuralism does not come so much from its having provided a ‘method’ for the social sciences or what in it allows us to ‘subvert’ their epistemological status, as from the manner in which it has reinscribed its problems in philosophy, contributing once again to the latter’s regeneration out of its other.“ 22

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