Bruno Bosteels on Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

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Brian Holmes:

"In a lecture delivered at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, the critical theorist Bruno Bosteels describes postwar French structuralism as a response to the rise of systems theory and cybernetics, which apply mathematical formalisms to human behavior. That might seem a bit strange: because structuralism, with its emphasis on the primary importance of linguistic coding, appears to do exactly the same. However, Bosteels remarks that the leading exponents of structuralism always focused not only on structure as a patterned regularity (and therefore as a determinant cause of behavior) but also on the way in which the every totalizing structure “seems to harbor within itself a form of inner excess that it cannot control.”5 The result of structuralist activity was therefore to bring code-based systems up to and beyond their limits, in a movement of traversal and overflow. The drive toward excess was clearly political. As the philosopher Étienne Balibar writes, in a text referenced by Bosteels, “it was impossible to formulate conditions for entering the field of structural or structuralist discourse without immediately looking for the way out.”

This paradoxical tendency within the disciplines of structuralism became the predominant concern of the post-structuralists after the “events” of 1968, which shook both philosophy and society to the core. People began massively looking for a way out. Sociologists of the time, such as Alain Touraine, spoke of the ‘68 movements as a refusal of “the programmed society.” As Touraine explains, “All the domains of social life – education, consumption, information, etc. – are being more and more integrated into what used to be called production factors.” That was the leading idea of Keynesian economics: the population’s effective demand is the key to the expansion of production. In other words, consumer desire is the feedback loop of industry, and the agenda of capitalism is to structuralize your most intimate existence.

The disruptive events of the Sixties can be read as social equivalents of the philosophical search for what makes the structure break down, for its perverse principle of dysfunction, its wild propensity to self-subversion. To seek this breakdown in socially generated events whose authors and causes are multiple and to some extent always enigmatic, is not to reinstate any privileged agent who could occupy a position of strategic remove and mastery. It is, instead, to focus on social multiplicity as an indeterminate potential. The great attraction to tactics over strategy – and therefore, to what is now called “tactical media” – has it origins here.8 And these destructuralizing events had their consequences in the lives of millions of people, not only in France but across the earth. In scattered sites all over the globe, ‘68 was the theater of an audacious but failed revolution. After it was all over the participants must surely have asked themselves: What pushed us to act as we did? What potentials did we reveal? What traps did we fall into? And how could we go further – when what’s done in the streets is done?"


More information

  • Étienne Balibar, “Structuralism: A Destitution of the Subject? ” in: differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14 :1 (2005), p. 3.