Rereading Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique the other day, I was struck by the emphasis on methodological rigor. Linguistics was to offer the example of a true, “hard” science among the human sciences. Saussure casts out the diachrony of speech (la parole) and the longer-term diachrony of linguistic evolution in order to construct a synchronic “system of differences,” the structure of language (la langue) at a given moment. Saussure’s langue is not truly a synchronic cut in diachronic history; it is a model within which the internal temporality of language itself–that of the syntagm–is cut off from its normal prolongation in historical time. Aside from a few clichés, there are no sentences in la langue, only sentence-patterns, but the internal temporality of these patterns is not contiguous with the real time of human action.

The idea that all cultural systems, on the example of language, can be modeled by synchronic structures is what became known as “structuralism,” a term that now recalls a bygone era. Influenced more by the phonologist Nicolas Troubetzkoy than by Saussure himself, Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that all cultural practices from body-painting and village topography to myths and marriage-patterns could be derived from a highly schematic cultural unconscious that enjoyed far fewer degrees of freedom than we naively think we possess.

In today’s post-structuralist climate, it is hard to recapture the enthusiastic scientism of that era. If, at the time, a certain minimalism was the rage, today’s world thirsts for signs of difference. These cultural needs are reflected in our intellectual constructions in ways not always perceptible and never overtly present in the arguments used in their defense.

Even more radically than structuralism, GA is a minimalist way of thinking, but those who would tar it with the same brush fail to understand the connection between a minimal set of preconditions and a maximal freedom of evolution. The simpler the original model, the more freely it can develop. What is wrong with structuralism is not its minimalism; it is that it is not minimal enough. Instead of beginning from a single event and a single sign, the structuralist paradigm refuses to “begin” anywhere. Lévi-Strauss’s symbolic unconscious may be simple, but it remains multiple, and that synchronic multiplicity prevents it from having a history.

A system of “pure differences” has no point of origin. But in that case, the temporal, syntagmatic or narrative operations of the system itself, which Lévi-Strauss understands as working through social contradictions to restore an easily disturbed ethical equilibrium, can no longer be described. In order for the system to function in time, it must be subject to time. A synchronic model cannot capture, even as a first approximation, the operation of such a system. However universal the system and however local its instantiation, instantiation and system influence each other, just as a tiny planet has a measurable effect on the gravitational field of the star it orbits. To declare the star fixed with respect to the planet is an innocent operation, because it merely simplifies physical relationships; in contrast, to declare our culture fixed with respect to our historical problems makes it impossible to understand how our culture arises and evolves in response to these problems.

The familiar post-structuralist critique of Derridean deconstruction assimilates structuralism to Platonism as exemplary of “logocentrism,” a term that may best be translated as “the regime of the declarative sentence.” A structure is a synchronic system of differences, but difference is also, “at the same time,” deferral. The selection of one member of a paradigm cannot be understood synchronically because it implies the deferral / differentiation (différance) of the selected member from the others.

Deconstruction is de l’anthropologie qui s’ignore [anthropology unaware of itself]. The crucial object of différance is not meaning but mimetic violence. By putting the minimal human necessity of deferring this violence at the origin of the sign, we see that it is not the differential paradigm or “structure” but the sign itself that is always already an agent of deferral. The “present” of thelogos is deferral itself, the deferral of real action. This is an argument I have made most recently in Signs of Paradox (1997).

Is there a better scientific paradigm than that of structuralism? Let us assume for the purpose of argument that the deconstructive critique can be subsumed within that of generative anthropology, which proposes a minimal hypothesis for the genesis of “structure.” How then shall we answer the fundamental question of human science: is the construction of a scientific paradigm of the human possible? If not, what could be the status of the affirmation that human science is “impossible”? After all, “positive” social science departments are flourishing; it is rather the “deconstructive” humanities, and the intellectual life they foster, that are threatened with extenuation.

The intellectual and the scientist

There is no shortage of social scientists; it is the humanist intellectual that is in danger. A decade ago, Russell Jacoby lamented the passing of The Last [American] Intellectuals (Basic Books, 1987), who were never in any case more than pale imitations of the French. In a brilliant analysis of the phenomenon, Agonies of the Intellectual (Nebraska, 1992), Allan Stoekl of Pennsylvania State University traces the intellectual’s conflictive relationship with social science to the seminal figure of Emile Durkheim, the founder of modern social science as well as an influential public figure who conceived the “sociologist” as the secular priest of modern society.

The “intellectual” is a paradoxical personage, half scientific truth-teller, half prophet. Unlike the ordinary political commentator or ideologue, he claims to found his socio-political recommendations on a privileged knowledge of the human, not to say of Being itself. Because Durkheim combined the scientist’s Enlightenment faith in reason with an optimistic vision of the amenability of the sacred to rational control, he was able to affirm the compatibility of both roles. Through analysis of the mechanisms of primitive religion, the sociologist learns the role of the sacred in the social order; he then applies that understanding to the creation of a secular religion in modern society. The paradox inherent in the attempt to control the sacred through rational means, to obtain an “ostensive” effect through the logic of the declarative, was not apparent to Durkheim, although the irrational forces of modern society were revealed to him in the horrors of World War I, in which he lost his son.

For Durkheim, religion is a dynamic expression of social solidarity; it is ambivalently and, ultimately, self-contradictorily both a declarative “constatation” and an ostensive revelation. Structuralism, in contrast, refuses to deal with sacrality as an ostensive phenomenon. Sacred myths do not reveal truths; they convert the system’s logical contradictions into narrative metamorphoses. From the structuralist’s atemporal perspective, the transformations wrought by mythical narratives are reversible; these narratives are understood as exchange systems, like the exchange of women in “elementary kinship structures.” No doubt this “misunderstands” the sacred, but it provides a model of it that is scientific in that it implies neither kinship with it nor an attempted application of it.

The structuralist has no agenda for the “good society”; he merely observes and models. His goal, as announced in various places by Lévi-Strauss, is to reduce the apparent complexity of social forms to its lowest terms, and his faith is that these terms are low indeed, that the number of parameters that determine the structures of human communication is very small.

Although it is never stated as such, the program implicit in such research is that of control. The structuralist seeks “objective” knowledge of the structures that determine human signifying practices in the implicit hope of controlling these practices. No doubt his thought-processes too are subject to these same structures; but his specialist’s knowledge of their “unconscious” influence allows him access to hidden resemblances among phenomena that appear different, and therefore to causal relations that escape the uninitiated. And since the structuralist’s notion of exchange is that of a closed system, he has no theory to explain how his own clearly valuable knowledge can be transmitted to–and discounted in–the larger society.

This quandary demonstrates the deficiency of structuralism. If there is indeed a finite, simple set of “structures” that explains all human phenomena, the system of significant differences we have constructed on the basis of our “misreading” of these structures cannot survive our knowledge of them. But the notion that any “true” model of the human cultural system can drastically reduce the information in it is absurd. We use these “false” differences to construct meanings; to know the structural underpinnings of the differences cannot reduce them to the underpinnings; it merely reveals that the underpinnings are not sufficient to explain the differences. One could make this point through a reading of Lévi-Strauss’s own analyses of myths in Mythologiques and elsewhere; but the illogic is inherent in structuralism itself, in its implication that the scientist can ultimately dictate “true” significations to the lay population.

This discussion confirms the legitimacy of the deconstructive position with respect to structuralism. Deconstruction’s critique is not scientific; it does not propose a new model to replace the structuralist model it “deconstructs.” But strucuralism is not simply an inaccurate model that can be superseded only by a more accurate one; it is an “infinitely” inaccurate model whose moral consequence if carried out as a program would be the breakdown of the system of differences that constitutes the social order.


Between the paradox of the intellectual and the sinister implications of the structuralist-scientist, there is a third position: that of minimal anthropology, or GA. GA is not “scientific” in the sense of providing a falsifiable empirical model. It does not attempt to reduce the complexity of human phenomena to a simple set of structures. No doubt every individual phenomenon of culture has “the same” structure because it is derived from the same source, the originary emergence of the sign as the means to “defer violence through representation.” But it cannot rely on its mere “structure” to be operative; each cultural phenomenon must reproduce not merely the structure but the effect of the originary sign in generating meaning anew.

As we observe the generation of meaning and learn how it is structured, we become needy of a new generation for the next time. The understanding of the mechanisms of culture is incrementally, not radically reductive. Our conceptualization of the mechanisms of human interaction that have been represented (shown, not told) in the cultural work is part of the overall cultural movement that drives innovation. But even when it is in the vanguard of this movement, to “understand” culture is not to learn to manipulate its procedures of creation; it is rather to consume it and thereby to encourage the creation of new products that we cannot yet understand.

The exchange system that subtends the model of GA is the open-ended system of the free market rather than the closed one of structuralism. Georges Bataille’s idea of “general” exchange that gets such play today among intellectuals was based on a disastrously romantic notion of the sacrificial as unrecuperated dépense [expense]. The entre-deux-guerres fascination with renewing the sacrificial was purged along with Nazism, which showed us what the modern sacrificial is really like. Yet Bataille’s underlying intuition is worthy of retention. Culture operates not with a restrained but with an open, “general” exchange system even if, surprise of surprises, it is not human sacrifice or the potlatch but the despised capitalist marketplace that maximally realizes this openness. When the intellectual class has become able to assimilate this fact, it will be able to appreciate the claims and achievements of GA.