Structuralist Activity / The Activity of Structuralism

Van Doesburg describes the fate for the "three most important stages of creative activity—imitation—description—formation (Imitation, Darstellung, Gestaltung)"… "Formation is always the goal… As soon as creative initiative sets in, the course is altered, and what began as reproduction shifts into the sphere of creativity. Reality grown into a kind of super-reality."1 For van Doesburg, this creative 'super-reality' consists in "the reduction of essential elements (Elementarisierung)," for Barthes, these essential forms are positioned differentially, and reconstructed in an "activity of structuralism."2

A harsh transition. Indeed, the abruptness of turning a page between articles—ought to bridge van Doesburg's manifesto and Barthes' 1963 essay 'L'activité structuraliste' translated for the first time as "The Activity of Structuralism." Before continuing with the article, there are important readings of this version of the title translated by Stephen Bann for Form, in difference to the widely anthologized version of the essay translated by Richard Howard as "The Structuralist Activity."3

Unlike 'The Structuralist Activity,' 'The Activity of Structuralism' endows Barthes' article with more authority, more manifesto-like power: this is the activity of structuralism; it promises to describe the activity (of structuralism) in its completeness. Moreover, "Structuralism" could be read as the acting element—as though Roland Barthes is going to explain the activity structuralism objectively carries out in the words to follow. By contrast, 'The Structuralist Activity' transmits an openness of possible 'structuralist activity,' inserting a person—the structuralist—engaged in an activity, offering an example of activity pursued by the structuralist in general or Roland Barthes in particular. The slight reordering of the title is nothing short of the difference between an exuberant scientism of 1964-1966 and a retrospective nuance from the vantage of 1972. These small differences in title reading compound word by word through motivated translation—"The Activity of Structuralism" appropriated by Form, and translated by an adventurous concrete poet as a structural-artistic manifesto bursting with excitement in 1966 is thus hugely different than "The Structuralist Activity" in Critical Essays (Howard, 1972), European Literary Theory & Practice (Gras, 1973), or monolithic contemporary omnibuses like Dictionary of Concepts in Literary Criticism and Theory (Harris, 1992) and Critical Theory Since Plato (Adams, 1992). But even as I mention this now, as though lingering on 'The Activity of Structuralism by Roland Barthes / Translated by Stephen Bann' in the upper left hand corner of the two page spread o the essay, before exploring Barthes' article below and without beginning to treat the issues of either structuralism or its activities, it is to attend, from the beginning, to the unavoidable and curious afterlife of Barthes' article in its multiple appearances from 1963 to 1966 to 1972 present. In a presentation on the surreal ethnographic magazine Documents at the recent Clip/Stamp/Fold symposium of little magazines, Spyros Papapetros pointed out Freud's maxim that the "periodical is always a reprint" of an original document, each time refigured in a "multiplicity of afterlives"—for Barthes' "L'activite structuraliste" we will proceed, looking at just one of these multifarious afterlives, tactically employed in Form.4

But this is all too sudden, almost presumptuous, perhaps I should start again—the transition from van Doesburg made less abrupt via an italicized editorial introduction in the marginal space immediately left of Barthes' essay:

This is a slightly shortened version of an article which M. Barthes wrote for 'Les Lettres Nouvelles' in 1963, and which was reprinted in his collection of 'Essais Critiques' (1964). It provides a new model for the relationship of the work, the artist and the world, which is relevant to much contemporary literature and art, as well as to the examples given. The poems of Pedro Xisto, featured elsewhere in this magazine, are a case in point.5

From its editorial onset, then, Barthes' essay is framed as a "new model for the relationship of the work, the artists and the world"—a schematic description of the "structuralism" Abraham Moles will apply to Vasarely's Op Art in Form, no. 9 (1969) as "the doctrine which has come to seem the distinctive philosophy of the modern world."6 New in every sense, and at hand (relevant) for application to the arts—the very activity of structuralism itself quite literally shifting the structural relationship of art, the artists, and the world. The program most visible here: the discussion about the relations between form and structure is for Form a discussion of the model structuralism supplies for contemporary literature and art.

Beginning with van Doesburg's idealistic formalism in "Film as Pure Form," the magazine first reveals it's bearing in the discussion of the relation of these two elements. Perhaps the most interesting contemporary exploration of the relations of formalism and structuralism in the work of art is Yves-Alain Bois' introductory essay "Formalism and Structuralism" for the tag-team tome Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism.7 Curiously, Bois begins in 1971 with Barthes' seminar in the history of semiology—the seminar itself made strange by Barthes' autobiographic emphasis of Bertolt Brecht's influence on his first semiological work: Mythologies (as opposed to beginning with Saussure, as he does in 1957). The strangeness, it turns out, is important: Bois recalls Barthes' distinction between Brecht's "extreme attention to the form of Nazi texts, [the seamless flow of their rhetoric] which he followed word for word in order to elaborate a counterdiscourse" to Lukács' "fetishization" of realist novels—a "restricted" formalism that "remains at the superficial level of form-as-shape," much like the New Critical autotelic text seen by Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Clement Greenburg.8 Brecht's formalism—hand in hand with the self-reflexivity and anti-illusionism of modernism—demonstrated that "language was not a neutral vehicle… but had a materiality of its own and that this materiality was always charged with significations."9 Importantly, for Brecht, Barthes, and many writers and artists to follow, the anti-neutrality of language led to an emphasis of artifice (for Brecht, the lights, set, and material of the theatre, for later Barthes, the Text) always charged with political significations (against the woozy seamless instrumentality of Nazi rhetoric, for example).10 From this Brechtian formalism, we can derive Barthes' famous dictum: "a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it."11 Bois correctly points out that this distinction of the two "formalisms"—Lukács' "restricted" morphological formalism, versus Brecht's formalism of historical-structural signification—is "essential to a retrieval of formalism (as structuralism)."12 This is exactly the (p)retrieval Form makes in 1966.

Form, like Bois, constructs a reading of Barthes that re-emphasizes "the historical link between modernism and the awareness that language is a structure of signs" in part of a movement to situate structuralism within the "broader formalist current in twentieth century thought."13 Form's desire for a formalist / modernist / structuralist conversation can quickly be read into the choice to select "L'activite structuraliste"—an essay Barthes wrote to establish the absence of difference "between the structuralism of the scholar on one hand, and, on the other, literature in particular and art in general"—as the paradigmatic essay for understanding structuralist theory.14 It is not surprising then, that Bois also employs Barthes' essay in his ingenious structuralist staging of Picasso's Cubism—blurring together Formalist development, Saussurian linguistics, and Roland Barthes' "structuralist activity"—for Bois, "structuralist activity" is used to retroactively declare the "structuralism" of Picasso' Cubism. This argument begins with a discussion of Picasso's Bull's Head as a structuralist exploration of Jakobson's linguistic distinctions for metaphor (here, the likeness of the bull's head) and metonymy (the conjunction of bicycle parts). A double activity, Bois claims that the piece was not only structurally engineered, but that it also performed a structural analysis if the figurative tradition of Western art through its very mode of construction. From this point in 1944, Bois jumps back to 1912, when the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso's Guitar (explained as a differential transformation of space into sculptural material) through a sort of decomposed ostranenie helped "the first literary critics who can be called structuralists—the Russian Formalists…develop their theories…before they even heard of Saussure, [or] what the Swiss scholar had called the 'arbitrary nature of the sign.'"15 Through a system of functional oppositions, Picasso's Guitar, transforms a void into a sign for the skin of the guitar and a paper cylinder into a sign for its hole, entering space—now infrathin between spectator and artwork—into a profound questioning of the artistic experience, opening totally new and unexpected dimensions of the spectator space: the only interpretation appropriate to Picasso's work (and indeed the methodology constituted by Cubism), Bois argues, is the activity of structuralism.

Like Picasso's Guitar, the structuralist activity of Form involves the oppositional function of absence, space, and omission. Returning to the editorial note "This is a slightly shortened version," a reading of "The Activity of Structuralism" demands investigation into how, exactly, the essay way decomposed for its "slightly shortened version." At first, it seems, this shortening is aesthetic: the essay fits neatly into Form's four standard columns of text per page, exactly filling a two page spread; the only two page spread of the magazine without image, disruption, or extended marginal commentary—Barthes' text stands for itself. To get this clean effect, first, the space between paragraphs had to be removed, the essay runs on as eight long streams of words, each left-justified and of equal height. But the space, for Barthes, signifies: its absence, signifies—"The Activity of Structuralism" has no internal edges, is fluid text, a single element in the structure of Form—its garment gapes only at the edges of the pages, abutting the rest of Form.

In the original article and "The Structuralist Activity," this is not the case. The structure of the essay includes an introductory section, distinct from the body of the essay: this first section, often quoted, begins "What is structuralism? Not a school, nor even a movement (at least, not yet), for most of the authors ordinarily labeled with this word are unaware of being united by any solidarity of doctrine or commitment."16 It proceeds to discuss Saussure with his signifier/signified and synchronic/diachronic pairings—the "spoken signs" constituting the "structuralist vision"—and concludes with the introduction of a 'common sign' of the 'structural man' (l'homme structural) defined by "his imagination"—"in other words, by the way in which he mentally experiences structure."17 This recourse to the structural man is part of Barthes desire find structuralism's "broadest description (if not its definition)," not to reduce structuralism a priori since it was, at that time (1964) "neither a school nor a movement."18 In English, this "broadest description" has often come to equate the definition of structuralism, in the essay's unending pedagogical circulation. This definition is built upon the space that punctuates the distance between the introduction of this structural man and the main body of the articles, which is concerned with an activity—defined by Barthes as "the controlled succession of a certain number of mental operations" within the imagination of the structural man.19

Form's 'slightly shortened version' takes up the essay here: excising the first section, the beginning of the main body, and all reference to "structural man"—which is instead uniformly translated as "the structuralist." Thus, the "activity," becomes much broader than the mental operations in a figurative structural man—ideal for literal artistic incorporation of Barthes' remarks. This shortening also removes all mention of Saussure and recognition of the 'spoken signs' of structuralist activity, and though these spoken signs naturally recur throughout the article, this version produces a structuralism with a linguistic vocabulary, but the heritage of this language relegated to background noise. Further, the opening question, its denial of a 'movement' and reasons for this broadest of structuralist definitions are not part of Bann's article.

Instead, "The Activity of Structuralism" begins manifesto-like: "The aims of all structuralist activity, in the fields of both thought and poetry is to reconstitute an 'object', and, by this process, to make known the rules of functioning, or 'functions', of this object."20 Boldly, this statement imports the argument of the entire essay—for the expansion of structuralist activity into the field of literature and the arts—into the opening line. The translation "thought and poetry" for "réflexive ou poétique" is a far cry from Howards more accurate "reflexive or poetic"—Barthes, here, still considering the goals of "a certain number of mental operations."21 One could continue a productive word-by-word differential reading of these minute differences between these translations of Barthes essay, but skipping forward, the argument of Form is most clearly defined in its particular opposition to the articulation of agencement. Where this essential word, most often defined as 'layout' or 'organization' is strangely translated in "The Structuralist Activity" as 'articulation,' Form chooses 'arrangement.' This occurs after Barthes has written of the absence of either technical (technique: "the very essence of creation": a "recomposition in order that the functions may become apparent…the process that constitutes the work") or compositional differences between structuralists like Lévi-Strauss, J-P. Richard, and Troubetskoy and artists like Mondrian, Boulez, and Butor.22 From this he begins to articulate the two typical operations of structuralist activity: "dissection and arrangement" (découpage et agencement).23 While both translations agree on dissection, Form's intention is alignment with compositional artistic practice, while Howard is cleverly embodying the word with (in this instance) the less precise speech-based character of structuralist composition (as utterance) in addition to retaining the joining of small connecting articles (as in joints and articles, from Latin articulus 'small connecting part'). Agencement, translated by Bann as arrangement, instead, closely ties the word to layout and organization, to the history of newspapers and magazines—to the technical art of arrangement, a structuralist tactics of printing.

Importantly, this alignment can be read into the structural composition of the magazine itself: Form is every bit as precise in "the orderly display of certain units and certain associations of units," as Butor or Boulez. Form's aims (this editorial use of 'aim' in its brief opening manifesto itself echoing Bann's version of Barthes' opening) of relating form to structure exactly mirror the structuralist activity that "seeks to relate to history not simply contents (a thing which has been done a thousand times), but also forms, not simply the material, but also the intelligible, not simply the ideological but also the aesthetic."24 As for Barthes, these new structuralist relations are essentially "concerned less with assigning full meanings to the objects which it discovers, than with knowing how meaning is possible"—the provocation of a dialogue of the conditions for form and structure.25

The final strange dissection Form performs on "L'ativite structuraliste" is the extraction of a single line, towards the end of the essay—in fact the concluding line in the main body, immediately before Barthes' introduces Hegel, the frisson of meaning, and the 'mantic' character of literary activity—one of Barthes' most famous lines, a paratactic conclusion: "Homo significans: such would be the new man of structural activity."26 As before, Form here arranges a radicalized mimetic performance of Barthes' (in general, the structuralist's) elimination of the subject—even from Barthes' essay, Form is intent on removing l'homme from the composition of its pages. Through the thoroughly structuralist activity of this editing it could certainly be said that Form is "not magazine, possessor of particular meanings, but magazine the fabricator of meanings" (substituting magazine for man, as Form might).27

This argument established, it is more important than ever to plug Barthes' essay back into the composition of Form to explore some of its inter-magazine microcosmic functions. As a "case in point" of the contemporary relevance of this structuralist model for literature and art, the editorial voice points the reader to the poems of Pedro Xisto, featured at the end of the magazine. Flipping past "Experimental Aesthetics," the Léger piece, "Computers and Design," and the Secession section.

From these three poems, the structuralist analogy is immediate and necessary. Xisto magnifies the simplest formal elements of language: each letter is magnified or repeated to unavoidable materiality. This denaturalization, an extreme ostranenie, finds meaning only through a play with the functions of each letter, full in a complex system of spatial, acoustic, and semantic forms—necessarily demanding new relations of the reader to the functionality of language: it questions the conditions through which meaning is possible, at what price and through what channels. All three foreground the signifier to explore multiple potential readings and meaning making functions: the first, a differential sheaf of meanings we could imagine as "yarn" woven into the word "yearn," which we so yearn to read in a meaningful form, even though it is always already broken into/formed out of yarn, year, yea, ye, or the simply present letter 'y' itself—in contrast to the absence of a single "e" destroying the word's bold cohesion.28

The second presents the reversibility of words—"star" can always betray itself as "rats," which, with the small addition of an "o" can multiply the letters of 'star' into 'astro,' which itself can be revealed as "ostra" (Portuguese for oyster)—again foregrounding the spatial shape of the letters itself, the 'o' could well be a pearl in the oyster, the differential kernal locked in the cohesion of a word. Babel, finally, returns to Form's attack on the subjective "able" voice: the breath (abel) lost in a babbling rush of permutations of the letters 'b,' 'a,' 'b,' 'e,' 'l' which in turn present the simulacra of order, a precise grid equaling "b a b e l :"—babel is to ____ , where ____ is all possible lettristic permutations—ironically concluding babel : : babel, as though mathematic, "quod erat demonstrandum."