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  • Structuralism’s Fortunate Fall
  • David Herman
François Dosse, History of Structuralism, Vols. I (The Rising Sign, 1945–1966) and II (The Sign Sets, 1967-Present). Translated by Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Believe it or not, this two-volume, 975-page history of French structuralism, originally published in French in 1991–1992 and based on interviews with some 123 French academics and intellectuals, reads like a good novel. Once you pick it up, it is hard to put Dosse’s History down. From the beginning, structuralism makes for an ideal protagonist, fighting against impossible odds and winning our sympathies throughout all its difficulties and vicissitudes. Indeed, in Dosse’s account the early structuralists come across as heroic revolutionaries, underdogs opposed by powerful reactionary forces visibly operative at the Sorbonne, but deeply entrenched in French academe at large (I: 191–201). In these postpoststructuralist times, it is easy to forget that the structuralists were in fact the Young Turks of their day. They were articulate champions of avant-garde literature and art (II: 154–55, 200–206), formidable analysts of specifically sociopolitical structures (I: 142–57, 309–15; II: 247–59), tireless promoters of intellectual revitalization, ingenious methodological innovators (I: 202–22), and fearless breakers-down of accepted disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, Dosse engrossingly emplots the structuralist adventure in France as a particular kind of rise and fall: after revolutionizing philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary theory and the social sciences, structuralism died a spectacular death, and no disciplinary tradition will ever be the same. This overarching plot allows the author to attach localized episodes to his ongoing historical narrative. Thus, whereas the structuralist dissolution of the subject proved untenable and was ultimately abandoned, it forced a rethinking of the kind of subjectivity that underwrote prestructuralist humanism (II: 324–63). The same goes for the banishment of history from the domain of structuralist analysis (I: 181–83; II: 364–375, 427–36); history is back, but it is not the same as it used to be. What is more, Dosse’s character vignettes make such reversals (or perhaps zigzags) of fortune come palpably alive. The two volumes are studded with portraits of major and minor figures who lived the structuralist revolution and its aftermath—from Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Dumézil, Algirdas Julien Greimas, Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Oswald Ducrot, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, to Gaston Berger, Jean-Marie Auzias, Louis Hay, Joseph Sumpf and Jean-Marie Benoist, among many others.

Here emerges a second assumption at the basis of Dosse’s account: that the history of structuralist thought reduces, at one level of analysis, to a collocation of the biographies of its proponents, fellow-travellers, and detractors. This is therefore a history that takes shape through an encyclopedic assemblage of highly memorable images: Lévi-Strauss being dazzled in the early 1940s by Roman Jakobson’s classes on sound and meaning at the New School for Social Research, while both men were in exile from Europe (I: 12, 21–24); Barthes finding his way to Greimas in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1949 and undergoing his fateful semiological conversion, like a Saint Paul converted on the way to Damascus (I: 68, 74); Lacan implementing his principle of “scansion,” or pointed break, by cutting short his sessions and thus multiplying the number of patients he could see and charge (I: 95–97); Foucault brilliantly defending his thesis on the history of madness in 1961, amazing a thesis committee that included Georges Canguilhem and Jean Hyppolite (I: 150); André Martinet lecturing to classes of six hundred students during the height of linguistics’ popularity as a “pilot science” for structuralist theorizing (I: 192); Nicolas Ruwet reading a text on generative grammar on the train from Liège to Paris and embracing the Chomskyean model by the time he arrived (II: 4); Derrida opposing Lacan’s candidacy to become head of the department of psychoanalysis being founded in the late 1960s at the then-experimental university at Vincennes (II: 148); Tzvetan Todorov being profoundly transformed, shifting from formalist to more broadly socioideological concerns, as a result of his 1981...

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