4 Functionalists and
De Saussure's structural linguistics
Early in the century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's innovative course at Geneva overturned the orthodox
views of German philology and laid the basis for a new approach
not just to linguistics, but to anthropology and sociology as
well. De Saussure had been a part of that movement that launched
the investigation of the Asiatic origins of European languages.
The quest for the original Ur-language that united European
languages with ancient Greek and Sanskrit was one that had
gripped the imagination of German philologists like Adam Muller.
However, this programme, rich as it was, was also replete with
political motivations that called its objectivity into question.
The model of linguistic dissemination implied a hierarchy of
races, with an Aryan superiority. The contest for national
proximity to the Ur-language was a one for authenticity that
diverged from a purely scientific investigation.
De Saussure's Course does not reject outright the
investigations of the philologists - much of these were real
advances. What he does is to challenge some of the suspect
methodological assumptions. So for example the idea that
languages that are closer to the original are in any way superior
is rejected by him as unscientific. Furthermore, he demonstrates,
linguistic similarities do not necessarily arise from direct
borrowing. Languages may be similar in structure of syntax and
yet share no common origin of even influence.
But most pointedly de Saussure rejects the positivist conception of
language as one of simple correspondence to the physical world.
Words, he says exist primarily in relation to one another, before
they exist in relation to an object. It is the relation of sign
to the code of signification that accords it meaning, rather than
a simple correspondence with an external object. Again de
Saussure shows through looking at linguistic variation and
innovation that distinctions within the language have a knock on
effect upon other terms, tenses, prefixes and so on, that means
that any singular innovation necessarily impacts upon the whole
code of language, or its structure (hence his linguistics are
sometimes called structural). Here de Saussure was taking
language out of the realm of logic, to look at language and its
grammar as an object of study in its own right.
De Saussure's approach was taken up, but also criticised and
reformulated by the school of thinkers around MM Bakhtin in the Soviet Union, such as VN Volosinov and PN Medvedev. De Saussure's attention to the social
interaction in language was attractive to Bakhtin and his
followers, but they felt that he gave too much credence to the
formalised code - and hence the grammar of proper usage - and too
little to the fluidity of the vernacular dialogue. Volosinov
directly criticises de Saussure for his ignorance of the reality
of utterance over the dead codes of proper usage. The vernacular
for Volosinov is 'directly social', without the mediation of
written rules, and a part of the ebb and flow of ordinary
language (contemporary support for the vernacular in education
owes much to Volsinov).
Bakhtin, too, is interested in the fluidity of language, or
what he calls its dialogic character. Bakhtin takes de Saussure's
emphasis upon the incompleteness of language and makes it the
defining characteristic. Meaning, for Bakhtin is never fixed or
exhausted in a single interpretation, because the language is
dialogical, with heteroglot meanings reacting upon one another.
Bakhtin's linguistic and literary work was later popularised
outside the Soviet Union by Roman Jakobson.
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss saw
parallels between de
Saussure's findings in linguistics and
recent developments in anthropology. The concept of culture as
something that is disseminated from the master races down to the
latter was already irksome to anthropologists working in the
field. Trying to fulfil idealised justifications of white
supremacy was not a motivation that took anthropologists very
far. Already, the sociology of Emile Durkheim had suggested
an alternative approach. A 'functionalist' approach, taken from
Durkheim meant that it was now possible to look at the rituals,
taboos, and mores of primitive societies without trying seeing
them judgementally. Instead it was possible to look at such
institutions from the standpoint of their functionality to those
societies. Durkheim's nephew, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss pioneered the functionalist analysis in his study of
the role of symbolic gifts amongst Native Americans (these
ostentatious shows of gift-making performed the function of
disposing of a potentially disruptive surplus produce, Mauss
explained in his Essai sur le don). This less judgmental
and more objective approach was already being taken up by
American anthropologists like Boas and his students.
Levi-Strauss realised that de Saussure's approach meant
that it was possible to go further than Durkheim's functionalism. Not just language, but culture itself
could be looked upon as a code of meaning in de Saussure's sense.
The functionalist approach meant isolating particular
institutions and trying to find parallels between those and
modern institutions (so Azande Witchcraft is 'their version' of
medicine). But this meant that other cultures were still seen
simply as version of our own. By looking at the entire cultural
code of a culture, the way that its different mores and taboos
interact and support each other, Levi-Strauss was able to develop
a fuller understanding.
The structuralist approach to anthropology was
so productive that its influence was not restricted to
anthropologists. Not that Levi-Strauss's influence upon
that discipline was not profound. From the New School in New York
after the war, and from France in the 1950s Levi-Strauss
influenced anthropologists like EE Evans-Pritchard in England
and Pierre Bourdieu in Algeria. Beyond his colleagues, though, Strauss's
highly readable work impacted upon students of popular culture
and society more widely. The literary critic Roland Barthes extended the analysis of codes of signification to
analyse popular culture. Barthes was interested in escaping the
obligation to committed writing, and structuralism seemed like an
alternative. In his hands, de Saussure and Strauss's
structuralism became a full blown 'science of signs' or
semiology. Meanwhile the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser utilised the structuralist approach to distance himself
from the Hegelian methodology he so resented in Marx's work.
For both Barthes and Althusser, structuralism was an alternative to traditional,
liberal concepts of the subject. In Barthes case it was the
'intentional fallacy' of authorship that was to be overthrown.
Barthes reversed the commonsense view that authors wrote texts to
argue - cryptically - that texts 'wrote' authors. What he meant
was that specific genres of literature pre-existed the authors
that contributed to them, so, for example, the detective story
comes before Hammett. Fulfilling the code of the genre, the
author is an effect of the discourse, not its originator. The
slogan of semiotics became 'The death of the author'.
For Althusser, too, the subject was overthrown as a category of social science. His analysis of ideologies sought to show how these 'interpellated' the subject - meaning to say that the illusion of personal agency was an effect of the ideology. As if trying to fulfil the Cold War caricature of Marxism as an impersonal, objectivist science, Althusser gleefully excised any hint of subjectivity from the social sciences, in favour of an analysis of the ideological structures that generated 'the subject'. The slogan of Althusserian structuralism was 'The death of the subject'.