Maria Tanner – Becoming Ghosts?
Structuralism to Post Structuralism a vital and vivid fragment in history
We are standing on the edge of an abyss that had long been invisible: the being of language only appears for itself with the disappearance of the subject. How can we gain access to this strange relation? 1 Michel Foucault.
The origins of this problematique stem from an interminable bifurcation birthed in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. In the wake of post structuralist theories of language, Western culture has assumed palpable proximity to what is most distant; the deep incompatibility between ‘essential recognitions of ‘I’, the self in its identity, and the appearing of language in its being’ 2.
Western traditions deepest self criticism of the last five decades, has pierced to the very heart of the history of meaning. Since the post-structuralist instituted recognition of the insubordinate relation of language to sovereign author(ity), something previously unimaginable happened. The great dualisms of western philosophy – ‘reality and appearance, pure radiance and diffused reflection, mind and body, intellectual rigour and sensual sloppiness, orderly semiotics and rambling semiosis’ 3 could no longer persuade us of their ineffable structure. We need only look back over our shoulder, to a most recent history of Modernism, in order to identify a Structuralist cult of precision that reduced language to a pure system, of binary oppositions, of abstract codes and symbolic logic that is now the victim of its own philosophical proofs.
The development of an alternative conception of philosophy and theory according to which, its true function is not to exact the ideal but to explain the real, has brought us face to face with post- structuralist radicalisations of language. Opening out on this modus, contemporary writer, essayist and poet Susan Howe states that her ‘writing has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts, a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it- is this brokenness that interests.’ 4 Vietnamese-American, artist and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha, In ‘Commitment from the Mirror -Writing Box’, (1989), wrote, ‘To write is to become. Not to become a writer or a poet, but to become intransitively.’ 5 Postmodern writing in its infinite variations and vicissitudes comes to resemble a sublime suicide, a freefall of choice, from the edifice of a Western history of metaphors and metonymy. Yet try as we might to assemble the new and annul our relation to an overburdened history of meaning, we are yet ‘bound by the form of a relation, between the history of metaphysics and the destruction of the history of metaphysics.’ 6 The paradox is – the metaphysical critique of the sign and system itself requires the very opposition it is reducing. This paradoxical almost duplicitous vein of reasoning runs throughout written history. In the work of this text however, I not will set about weaving intricate chronologies which belongs to classic accounts of history, rather I will engage an excavation of vital and vivid fragments, axial moments in the development of this history. Instances from time and knowledge which speak about thought and paradox, the hermetic of continuity and discontinuity of lineage and revolt embedded in our contemporary philosophical relation to language.
Some historical Fragments
Circa 300 BC, it was Plato who arguably did most to initiate the problems and concerns of the western intellectual tradition. Plato’s earliest investigations into the subject of language as dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, set about establishing mathematics of ontology. An ontology that pursued the self-contradictoriness of the world in its totality and through formulations of paradoxical reason, Plato, sought to ‘elevate language to the medium of total power and the total transformation of society’ 7. Grown from the seed bed of antiquity, a concept of totalising thought in this regard, grew in depth and complexity through the philosophical writings of Plato’s predecessors, Heraclitus, Hegel and Marx. Born then, out of the dialectical logic of Hegelianism, Marxist dialectical materialism and Marxist communism, as such, is generally understood to have unfolded as a modern form Platonism in practice. But beyond general established lineage, Marxism, as it evolved should be understood, as a complex system of thought which enables the interpretation and generation of a multiplicity of narratives and dialectical distinctions, rather than a total imperative universe. Other such distinctions can be made between Marx as a founding figure and those who later formalized his thought as movements.
Beginning with the French Revolution of 1848 and the experience of the Paris commune in 1871 the spread of Marxist thought continued into the 20th century, in the Bolshevik take over of (1917) to the Stalinist turn of (1945). These Formalisation of Marxism transformed whole of 20th century world politics and philosophy.
Challenged Ideals, the Stalinist turn
Operating on a strict frontier between the political and the social, ‘the Soviet Union understood itself literally as a state governed by philosophy alone’. 8 The evolution of this philosophy required ‘decades of intense and intellectually rigorous debate in order to arrive at those almost perfectly paradoxical formulations, brought together in Stalinist orthodoxy’ 9. It was Under Stalin, as such, that the totality of the Soviet political field was brought into sharp relief. Post- WWII, Stalin’s almost immediate consolidation of soviet policy of the Eastern Bloc, was defined by the militantly of its programmatic movement. Strategically established through rigged elections, Pro-Soviet Communist Parties were quickly set up throughout the soviet satellite states, these parties were then termed peoples democracies .These “independent” nations, then became one-party Communist States who’s General Secretary had to be approved by the Kremlin. The Soviet Union’s role in establishing communist regimes and the continued subordination of those regimes to Soviet imperatives, essentially subverted efforts by Eastern European governments in acquiring legitimacy and respect amongst their people. The un-sublated administration of this level of compliance and contradiction within the communist political system, simply served to exemplify where ‘paradox should not merely provide the basis for ruling, it should also exercise the rule’ 10 In a political climate pervaded by imposed communized adherence , the paradoxical opening out of philosophical reason, in real and material terms began to designate its antithesis as closure, where the ‘state administration automatised, tautologised and trivialized’ 11 those subjected to the sedimentations of the process. Absorbing all conceivable contradiction into a unity of its own unquestionable thinking, the tragedy of totalitarian formalisation, was, that it essentially led to the antrophication of the egalitarian ideals of the Marxist canon.
Operating from a different model of history than the East, Western Marxism hybridised from ‘a blockage of revolutionary hope in the west’ 12. Having arrived on the wave of victory over fascism by the Soviet Union in WWII, the spread of internationalist doctrine, with its promise of universal human emancipation, began to incite Western ideas of Cultural Revolution across Europe. But in contrast to the East of Europe, Western Marxism developed its vogue through a ‘formal shift away from economics and history towards philosophy and aesthetics.’ 13 Beginning in the Cold War, Communist movements particularly in France and Italy began to occupy a large portion of the political terrain. Induced by the same shifting cultural climate, Jean Paul Sartre began the serious task of interweaving existentialism with Marxism. While structuralist philosophers Louis Althusser, Alexandre Kojeve, Claude Levi Strauss and Henri Lefebvre, we key figures who actively fuelled the Marxist entry into French debate. By 1962, a time of growing Marxist cultural centrality, the French Marxist Guy Debord, leading spokes person of the artistic movement ‘Situationist’s International (SI)’ 14 began increased collaboration with the revolutionary ‘Socialisme ou barbarie group’ 15.Debord sought redefine the central role of Situationists International, declaring that ‘art should not be recognised as a separate activity with its own legitimate specificity, but must be dissolved into a unitary revolutionary praxis.’ 16Other culturally orientated forms of Western Marxism found expression in the French cinematic movement and criticisms of Nouvelle Vague and cashiers du cinema 1958-64, who explicitly extolled support of the (PCF) French communist party and assumed the banner of Soviet cinematic avant garde. However, the bloody invasion of Hungary of 1956 and the subsequent impact of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by soviet force’s in August of 1968, made a deep and lasting impression on the French left both communist and non communist. The seed of disillusionment was deeply and terminally set.
An Intellectual shift
In 1956 in response to the invasion of Hungry, Sartre openly denounced the soviet intervention and the further submission of the French communist party to the dictates of Moscow. Inasmuch as the tactical methods developed by the Situationists international were highly influential in the lead up to the eruption of the leftist student revolt, which succeeded in shaking the foundations of Gaullism during May 1968, this point in history also marked the beginning of the Situationist’s rapid decline. In this respect ‘if the Situationists International was seen as a summation of the historic avant garde we can equally see it as the summation of western Marxism.’ 17 During 1968, amidst an atmosphere thick with disillusionment in the vangaurdist approaches to social justice, writing at the time, Alain Badiou stated, ‘our time will be representable as the time in which these events, in thought, took place.’ 18 A time in thought that essentially heralded the imminent decline structuralism and the consequent rise and influence of post structuralism in continental philosophy, also marking the beginning of the New Left.
The French intellectual milieu of 1960’s post structuralism, namely Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze; though, divergent in nuance and specifics of their engagement, led sustained and penetrating attacks on the premises and presuppositions of modernism. The post structuralist philosophy radically rejected the self sufficiency of structures put forward by Structuralist’s and pursued interrogation of the binary oppositions that constituted those structures. The critiques into the paradoxical interior of western norms and practices converged into a self referentially that is embraced through the imminence and obscurity of paradox in all their writing. For Foucault in particular the task remained in ‘bringing to light the authorless, subjectless, anonymous systems of thought present within the language of an epoch.’ 19 Post Structuralism as such, defined itself by the claim of knowing only one thing, which is the impossibility of knowing. In a perpetual detour through the monumental and quotidian, the post structural use of language unravels into plurality without finality, a paradigm of action based on the possibility of ceaselessly releasing a profusion of lost struggles. Sketching new and unforseen topographies of difference, the subject itself becomes an unchartered reconnaissance within the open and divided field of language, gathered and dispersed by the compulsive extensions of language, fluid obliqueness and relentless acuity rends the subject open. Within contemporary ‘Political discourse, similarly every individual political praxis must be understood in such a way that it contradicts itself, that it cannot guarantee its own identity, that it becomes lost in paradox and ambivalence, that it deconstructs itself. Only then does the discursive political field become radically heterogeneous and incapable of closure in principal.’ 20 The Post structuralist’s radical diffusion of form, relation and configuration, and the shattering of a totality of interdependencies, signified an unreserved distance from what literary critic Jean-Pierre Richards called the ‘interrogative and totalitarian’ 21 structural perspective. Nonetheless, beyond the perception of modernist enclosure, narrow horizons and binary oppositions; structural formalization, in the end still claims the unifying power behind the century’s initiatives.
With a weight of modernism as a backdrop to our present cultural moment, the nature of language appears uncertain, partial and dangerous. Our post modern relationship to history can only be arrived at through the philosophical language that is used to define it, one that is fugitive, paradoxical and erratic, duplicitous, eccentric, liminal, and elusive, opposite and opposed to structure and yet continuous. Where new critical formations within system itself are reliant on the very opposition they are reducing. ‘In the war of formalization against interpretation, The war of idea against reality […]of event against status quo, of truth against opinions, of equality against equity, of rebellion against acceptance, of eternity against history […] of art against culture […]’ 22 we are beset by imperatives of a language in crisis. But it is though this crisis of definition that deconstruction opens out its operation, not in errant generality devoid of responsibility but as an act of concerted self reflexive resistance from within language itself. As Derrida writes in reference to philosophical history ‘I do not believe in decisive ruptures, in an unequivocal, epistemological break […] breaks are always and fatally reinscribed in the old cloth that must continually, interminably be undone. This interminability is not an accident or a contingency: it is essential, systematic and theoretical.’ 23 Divesting totality of its force requires diffusion of the power which surges through conventions of language. Foucault writes about a process that ‘must be directed not towards any inner confirmation […] but towards an outer bound were it must continually contest itself. When language arrives at its own edge, what it finds in not a positivity that contradicts, but the void that will efface it. Into that void it must go, consenting to come undone’ 24
The historical mutation from structuralism to post structuralism, the seismic shift from a Modernist paradigm to Post Modern one, corresponds with what Michel Certeau defines as the ‘virtually immemorial effort to place the social and or individual body under the law of writing.’ 25 ‘What is at steak, he tells us, is the relation between the law and the body – a body is itself defined, delimited and articulated by what writes it.’ 26 Without structure, striation, the pure logic of theory to formalize or axiomatize a coherent framework for discourse, who then and into what, are becoming? Opening on the book of questions, we shatter into the fragments within an anonymous text. How then should one transfer from present into past? And back? If no present has kept watch over the trace? ‘How does one observe on the obverse side’ 27 when a light of dying light cannot be trusted to illuminate without obscuring? ‘Is there an out there, beyond, within repetition, but eluding us here?’ 28 How can we know the expanse of disappearance ‘without the risk of vanishing in the process? Becoming ghosts’ 29? Perhaps the ultimate paradox is formulated. ‘Only he, who doubts everything, including his own existence, knows that he exists’ 30.
1 Foucault, Blanchot, ,Maurice Blanchot :The thoughts from the outside, translated by Brian Massumi, Zone Books New York,1990 p15
2 Ibid p15
3 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope ,Penguin Books,1999,p133
4 Peter Nicholls, Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira B. Nadelh Copyright © 1999 by Cambridge University Press p1-2
5 Joshua Fausty, Trinh T.Minh – ha, Essaying Ethics ,Afterall 2010, Journal of Art Context and Enquiry ,Edited by Charles Esche and Mark Lewis p99
6 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference translated Alan Bass, Routledge, London and New York, 2006 p347
7 Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, translated, Thomas. H. Ford, Verso ,London ,2009 p10
9 Ibid p49
10 Ibid P35
12 Peter Wollen, Raiding The Ice Box, Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, Verso London. New York ,2008 p127
14 Situationists international was founded in 1957,at Cosio d’Arroscia in Northern Italy, principally out of the union of two prior avant-garde groups, the movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus(MUBI)and the letterists International (LI),Situationists Internationals ideas were based in Marxism, The group was instrumental in establishing a series of developmental fields of study ,namely the ideas of Unitary urbanism, Psychogeography ,derive(drift)and detournement (diversion, or semantic shift).
15 Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism)a French-based radical libertarian socialist group of the post-World War II period
16 Ibid p122
17 Ibid p124
18Peter Hallward, Badiou, A Subject to Truth ,University Minnesota Press,2003,p246
19 Stanley J Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, Williams B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,Michigan/Cambridge,1995 P 121
20 Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, translated, Thomas. H. Ford, Verso ,London ,p91
21 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, Routledge, London and New York, 2001, p4
22 Peter Hallward, Badiou, A Subject to Truth ,University Minnesota Press,2003,p248
23 Oswald Hanfling,Philosophical Aesthetics , an Introduction ,Blackwell publishing ,Open University, 1992,p430
24 Foucault, Blanchot, Maurice Blanchot: The thoughts from the outside, translated by Brian Massumi, Zone Books New York,1990,p21-22
25Michel de Certeau , The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall, University of California Press,1998 p139
26 Ibid p139
27 Suzan howe,Frame structures,early poems 1974-1979,New Direction Books,New York 1996 p3
28 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, Routledge, London and New York, 2001, p378
29 Suzan howe,Frame structures,early poems 1974-1979,New Direction Books,New York 1996 p4
30 Boris Groys, ‘Stalins Paradox’ The Communist Postscript, translated, Thomas. H. Ford, Verso ,London ,p34