Sunday, January 7, 2018

Structuralism: Levi-Strauss and Barthes

Claude Levi-Strauss contended that  “if there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined. Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, only part of it; language in myth exhibits specific properties. Those properties are only to be found above the ordinary linguistic level, that is, they exhibit more complex features than those which are to be found in any other kind of linguistic expression.” That is, their unique ‘structural properties’, the way their constituent elements relate functionally to establish at  ‘world view’ or pattern of thinking that ‘explains’ in an actionable sense the present and the past as well as the future.

Myths, in Levi-Strauss’s view, seem much like what I.A. Richards called attitudes or belief feelings, paradigms of mental structure which give  ‘order’ to everyday life. Its not so much a belief in the gods themselves as representations of fate, but the peculiarly functional ways the gods and men interact that forms the system of thinking and feeling we call myth, which is analogous to a literary genre. That is,for example, the characters and situations in a ‘mystery’ novels come in great variety but those novels have similar systems of expression by comparison to  romance, science fiction or urban fantasy  novels.

In contemporary politic, for example, ‘myths’ or paradigmatic mental structures ( attitudes and belief-feelings) about the function of the Presidency largely determine our response to the actions (speech or otherwise) of a particular president almost independent of what that president or any president can actually do like ‘mend the economy’ or ‘guarantee international order’, and other unyielding abstract matters

“Prevalent attempts to explain alleged differences between the so-called primitive mind and scientific thought have resorted to qualitative differences between the working processes of the mind in both cases, while assuming that the entities which they were studying remained very much the same [that is, either  primitive or scientific]. If our interpretation is correct, we are led forward to a completely different view – namely, that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and that the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied.  This is well in agreement with the situation known to prevail in the field of technology [ and affirms Marx’s view that the ‘means of production’ drive social reproduction.] We may be able to show that the same logical processes operate in myth as in science, and that man has always been thinking equally well; the improvement lies, not in the alleged progress of man’s mind, but in the discovery of new areas to which it may apply its unchanged or unchanging powers.”

In The Structuralist Activity Roland Barthes first identifies ‘structuralism’ more or less phenomenologically: “It is probably the serious recourse to the nomenclature  of signification which we must ultimately take as structuralisms spoken sign: watch who uses signifier and signified, synchronic and diachronic, and you will know where the structuralist vision is constituted.”

For Barthes ‘structure’ represents a distinctive experience which ought to 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: an activity, a controlled succession of a certain [or perhaps uncertain] number of mental operations which create ‘a simulacrum of the object’, an interested simulacrum, which makes something appear which would otherwise be invisible. It is an ‘intellectualization’ of the object, a response to the resistance which nature offers to his mind  which constitutes man himself- his history, his situation, his freedom. . . “Structure ‘ is the work of art that man wrests from chance.

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