The impetus for the first important mode of postmodern thought was given by the fateful encounter of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and linguist-poetician Roman Jakobson at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1942. The meeting of these two European Jewish exiles led to the extension of Saussurean structural linguistics to the human and humanistic sciences that is known as structuralism. This first stage of what has been referred to as the “linguistic turn” placed the distinctive feature of humanity in our use of semiotic systems, each element of which acquires its signifying function within the system from its difference from all the others. Beginning with Tristes tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss applied this Saussurean principle to such ethnological data as village configurations, patterns of tattoos, legal and kinship systems, and above all to myths–although the tension between the chronological, narrative structure of the latter and the inherent synchrony of sign-systems makes the extensive analyses of Mythologiques (1964-71) better examples of creative disequilibrium than of rigorous exposition. Roland Barthes is often spoken of as a structuralist on the basis of the semiotic analyses of Mythologies (1957), Système de la mode (1967), and S/Z (1970). Perhaps the most serious application of structuralism to cultural texts was that of A. J. Greimas (Sémantique structurale, 1966), who analyzed narratives in terms of movement within a semantic field. The relative obscurity of Greimas and his disciples today suggests the limitations of structuralist methods for understanding narrativity.
In reaction to structuralism’s ontological neutrality, which lent itself to the accusation of ethical complacency, a post-structuralist mode of thought arose among France’s “generation of 1968,” whose most prominent and brilliant proponent was Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s early works critique structuralism as just another variety of the metaphysics it purported to be replacing. The synchronic sign-structures, linguistic or modeled on language, that structuralism deemed the defining trait of the human could function only if they were present to the individual all at once. This anomaly provided Derrida with the means for debunking the notion of presence itself, which he traced back to the Platonic origins of metaphysics. Synchronic systems of differences are inhabited by différance, the temporal deferral that is required in order to bring to mind the paradigm of differences from which meaning is generated. To differ is to defer, as the French translation of both words as différer suggests. The language-user’s choice of a member of a paradigm is not made instantaneously in the voiced self-presence of the speaker; it is rather a act of self-absenting, the best model for which is not a spoken word but an inscription. Metaphysical discourse presents itself as the direct or derived word of God, of Being present to itself; Derrida’s procedure of deconstruction reveals the arbitrariness of this unitary construction by demonstrating that it depends on hidden assertions of an arbitrary authority, both political and semantic, presented as inherent in reality. Deconstruction extends the familiar but crude Marxist critique of ideology to the totality of cultural discourse. This vision of human time obeys the contours of the Heideggerian history of metaphysics as the fall of Being; it is noteworthy that Derrida’s philosophical deconstructions begin with Plato, not with the pre-Socratics in whom the Master saw the last true guardians of Being.
The post-structuralists were certainly correct that structuralism shares the chief presuppositions of the metaphysics it claims to liberate us from. This becomes all the clearer if we understand metaphysics as the mode of thought that takes the declarative sentence or proposition as the fundamental form of language. The Saussurean reduction of meaning to pure difference is the reductio ad absurdum of Platonic idealism, not its transcendence. Plato’s Ideas–the Good, the Beautiful, the True, the Holy–are reified predicates, components of propositions. By bracketing these words’ extralinguistic referents, structuralism only makes explicit the failure of metaphysics to situate language–more specifically, the origin of language–in human history. Structuralism is wedded to the metaphysics of the declarative sentence, the linguistic form that makes language a “map” of reality. Post-structuralism rejects this atemporal formalism, but has no thought of putting a human temporality in its place. Because deconstruction remains wholly tributary to the philosophical-metaphysical tradition, its practitioner cannot see that the deconstruction of metaphysics is not simply a moment in a resentful oscillation with the inevitable but untenable proposition, but that it points to a core of language more fundamental than the declarative sentence.
It is only with generative anthropology, the third generation of the linguistic turn, that the anthropological reality of language is taken into account. In Hegelian terms, if structuralism is the thesis, and post-structuralism, its antithesis, generative anthropology is the synthesis of these two positions, replacing the metaphysical reliance on always-already-constituted structure by an originary anthropology of language. Every term in Derrida’s ever-changing terminology of deconstruction, from différance to pharmakon and beyond, can be associated with a moment of the originary event. Before différance can refer to the deferral inherent in actualizing the paradigm from which an individual element of language is taken, it describes the originary deferral that presides over the birth of the sign: the deferral of violence through representation.
The interest of the “linguistic turn” that made language a model for human culture and behavior is that it is essentially unwilled. Since Marx, thinkers had attributed to human beings a false consciousness of their most significant modes of interaction. But Marx thought that the praxis of the proletariat provided the wherewithal for a true consciousness of the production-relations that he saw as the foundation of the human order, just as Freud derived the unconscious determinants of human behavior from the subject’s repressed but ultimately recoverable experience. In contrast, structuralism denies that such a consciousness can ever be made available within a given culture; its underlying patterns are formal, not experiential. No revelation of unconscious experience along the lines of the Freudian model can free the structuralist psyche from servitude; even if one can be made aware of the patterns characteristic of one’s own society, one has no way of getting beyond them. Structuralism even goes beyond the Whorfian notion that specific languages inflect perception of the world, that, for example, the members of different cultures who use different color-words may be said to see colors according to these words. For Lévi-Strauss, the patterns that structure language and thought lie below the level of the formulation of perceptions in words.
As the first postmodern philosophical mode, structuralism undermines the authority of centralized consciousness. Although it would be stretching a point to call structuralism a victimary mode of thought, the effect of its devaluation of human will is to deny the applicability of the traditional scenic center-periphery model to human culture. In its refutation of structuralism’s confident assertion that formalism can supplant metaphysics, the post-structuralist critique insists that a center is always implicit in the centerless structural grid. It is this implicit, hidden center that is the object of deconstruction. In post-structuralism, the devaluation of the center gives way to the denunciation of the center, and to victimary thinking proper.
In contrast to these postmodern modes of thought, generative anthropology takes language as a model for human behavior within its originary anthropological context. If language is at the center of human exchange from the outset, then the syntactic structures of mature language, all-important in making language an instrument of efficient communication, cannot be essential to the fulfillment of its originary function. Before a system of Saussurean differences could have evolved, the first difference must have separated off the significant or sacred object designated by the sign from the rest of the universe and made this referent the mediator of a new fundamental mode of relation: the reciprocal exchange of the sign. Reciprocal linguistic exchange provides the model for the moral reciprocity that permitted humanity to come into being; only subsequently could the structure of linguistic differences become a template for the organization of tribal spaces and myths.
If structuralism is already a postmodern mode and post-structuralism is self-consciously so, GA is beyond postmodernity. Originary thinking is incompatible with victimary thinking; it is affirmative, not nihilistic. I have called GA’s new cultural disposition post-millennial in order to connect its rejection of postmodern white guilt to the defining event of the new millennium that occurred on September 11, 2001. No doubt the emptiness of the “post” designation is itself a trait of postmodernism; yet it seems appropriate for an era that has hardly begun and whose historical shape we cannot begin to anticipate. We are “after” the millennium in the sense that we must dispense with millenarianism, the awaiting of the final apocalypse.
It is no exaggeration to say that our Western/global civilization is by no means assured of survival in confrontation with the self-confident fanaticism of a cult of resentment. This is not a matter of regional chauvinism, a fear that a Japanese or Chinese or Indian version of the market system is in the process of superseding its original Western form. Islamism is antithetical to both the political and the economic components of the liberal-democratic market system that sustains the current world population, including that of the “third-world” nations that appear to benefit from it only marginally. In tacit alliance with Islamism, the more extreme forms of Western victimary thinking are merely more sophisticated condemnations of the sociopolitical system in which they were nourished, prolongations of white guilt into self-denying nihilism.
In contrast, originary thinking, the realization that language is founded on the ostensive creation of significance rather than the play of equivalent differences, is conducive to respect for Being rather than its demonization. What is essential to the human is the center itself, not its “oppression” of the periphery. The solution to the inequities of the exchange system is to add new degrees of freedom to the system, not to be complicit in its destruction.
Rightly understood, the postwar “linguistic turn” is not a turning-away from human desires and intentions toward an impenetrable formalism, and even less the deconstructive delegitimization of these desires and intentions. The human and its institutions are indeed founded on the reciprocal exchange of representations. Our confidence in language as the fundamental institution that underlies and explains all the others is not misplaced, provided that we situate language first of all not in a formal-semiotic or even a neurological context, but in the anthropological context of human interaction. Only thus can the “linguistic turn” serve the intellectual defense of market democracy and its civilization.