Tag Archives: structuralism

Notes on Structuralism

Anxiety

– Structuralism is no longer limited to a linguistic theory or even a general theory of language, as is often supposed. Rather, it has become a general metaphysical system.

– Structuralist linguistics, which is based on the idea of fundamental dichotomies or oppositions, was combined with Kantianism and Neo-Kantianism for form a metaphysics based on two central principles: 1. anthropocentrism, and 2. the centrality of trauma.

– Recent thinkers to consider: Saussure, Natorp, Cassirer, Rickert, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou, Žižek.

– Historical thinkers adopted by this tradition: Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel.

– At its most basic, structuralism is a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real. This is done through the construction of meaning.

– See for instance Cassirer on the construction of symbolic meaning, Lévi-Strauss on culture and Lacan on the Symbolic.

– Structuralism is a philosophy obsessed with order. To psychoanalyze structuralism is to stumble upon theoretical OCD; the structuralist fears any sign or semblance of chaos, of disorder, of the Real. Yet while they consciously desire to keep out the creeping chaos outside of the Symbolic Order, they unconsciously rely on its creativity, productivity and energy. More than this however, such thinkers rely on the opposition of order and chaos, presupposing that the latter has existence-for-itself, while the latter is but a network dependent on the mutual opposition of its myriad members.

– Meaning is only seen then as a human function, serving essentially therapeutic purposes. Both Cassirer and Rickert assert that meaning and value are distanced from things like life and are purely rational. This is in opposition to Dilthey, Nietzsche, Bergson and Uexküll who insist that meaning is deeper than humanity and extends to all life. We should follow Peirce, Deleuze and Serres who go even further than this and insist that meaning is a constitutive part of existence, that all things structure reality in meaningful ways.

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Nature and its Discontents

Walden 2.0

Ben has some thoughts up on Zizek’s “Unbehangen in der Natur.” I was talking about this for Jockey Club on Friday so I thought I’d just make a couple of comments. Like Ben, I have some serious problems with Zizek’s piece as well as his conception of nature. For Ben this seems to be the imposition of a transcendental subjectivity but for me it is the concepts of alienation and rupture.

There is a clear connection between this piece and Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“Civilization and its Discontents”, uneasiness in culture). It is not the case that fro Freud most of us socialize normally but some people “don’t quite make it” and so must be normalized. It is rather that culture as such, in order to appear normal, ordered, etc., involves a whole series of distortions, manipulations, and pathologies. We are then “uneasy” in culture as such. One of the goals of Zizek’s work on ecology is to show this as true for nature as well, that we are uneasy, homesick, in nature itself.

This is the alienation of subjectivity, which is essential to Lacanianism. The subject only exists as alienated, through alienation. But is it the case that the human being is fundamentally alienated from nature-as-such? Part of Zizek’s structuralist narrative that he inherits from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau, etc., is the dichotomy of nature and culture, that there was some sort of transcendental rupture in reality when human beings developed the capacity for language and suddenly we went from being apes to human beings. In this process we began instantly to supplant nature with culture, imposing ourselves on the chaos of nature, ordering it. Is this the case? Isn’t it rather that the human being, and human culture, developed slowly out of nature? Zizek wants us to believe that either there is a radical break with culture or we are New Age obscurantists who want to naively go “back to nature.” There is surely a middle ground to this ridiculous dichotomy, one that will say that culture is thoroughly “natural,” while still being (clearly) different, in the same way that both animals and minerals are natural but different.

Where does this supposed alienation from nature come from? Zizek doesn’t tell us. He wants us to think that nature is terrifying and horrible, and certainly it can be though isn’t always, that we are fundamentally afraid of it. Now, I didn’t grow up in an industrial centre or a big city; I grew up in the woods of south eastern New Brunswick, we had deer and wolves and bears in the area, sometimes in our backyard. As a child, I was never “alienated” from my surroundings, I was at home. I’m reminded of Erazim Kohak’s Embers and the Stars, one of the few works of phenomenology that I really truly like. Kohak abandons his life in Boston to live in the woods and essentially writes a phenomenology of nature. He doesn’t feel alienated either, but at home in the wilderness. Of course, he isn’t living in a cave or anything, he builds a cabin, but still. He lives with the rhythms of nature, he feels a kinship to a family of porcupines who live down river. Nature is not terrifying.

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