Thursday, May 14, 2009

White, Hayden. "The Aim of Interpretation is to Create Perplexity in the Face of the Real." HISTORY AND THEORY 48 (2009).

An Interview with Erlend Rogne. What structuralism taught me was that the situation is always structured. And like language, from the beginning it’s arbitrarily structured, or it is structured to the advantage of certain groups in the totality. The rules themselves are arbitrarily put in place. They also make communication possible. But one of the rules of language use and of social being is that humans not only can live by rules, but they can change rules, and can make a distinction between rule-governed activity and rule-changing activity. One comes to situations in which the press of the situation is to force you to come to one and only one conclusion about what you should do. But in reality you come trailing with all of these other obligations, so that you have to constantly think dialectically. I think structuralism ultimately is critical of highly structured societies. It tries to explain how social systems are possible, and how they function, but always behind it was the question of how social systems change. And that’s what poststructuralism dealt with: how does noise in the system build to the point where it explodes the system itself? That’s what Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan are all about. Post-structuralism is a necessary supplement, or complement, to structuralism. And it played itself out over a period of about thirty years, like all systems do. In came structuralism, in the period just before and during the Second World War, at a point in which capitalist society had reached a period of hyper-structuralization for purposes of war. A society shuts down any kind of individualism in times of war. It becomes a state of the exception, as Giorgio Agamben calls it. They say: “OK, once you had all of these freedoms and rights, but we can’t afford that now. The terrorists are about to attack us.” Just like President George W. Bush's perplexit y in the face of the real 67 is seeking to restrict the rights of Americans on the grounds that the terrorist threat requires that we can’t afford them, they’re luxuries. (Let me say that I don’t think they’re luxuries.) So structuralism, with Claude Lévi-Strauss and people of that ilk, and also like sociologists of Weber’s type before the War, really provides the solution to the question of how people like Adolf Eichmann, who thought they were just ordinary guys doing their job, could do what they did. How was it possible? They were so completely assimilated to the system that they’d lost all sense of there being an option to their performing these kinds of deeds. I think structuralism is really about the nature of advanced capitalist society, a society that becomes more and more structured and more and more determinative of the nature of the choices of the individual, while at the same time providing them with the sense that their choices are free! They say that it’s an open market, when in reality the advertising propaganda so condition the individual that there’s no choice involved! Structuralism explains how this terrible machine of advanced capitalist society, which is responsible for the destruction of the whole ecosphere, is possible. And post-structuralism explains how it is possible to oppose this machine. That’s the way I would put it. And by the way, I think that the French versions of structuralism and post-structuralism owe everything to Sartre and his attempt to combine existentialism and Marxist conceptions of history and society. Another person who really has had a profound influence on me is Roland Barthes. I think that Barthes was the most inventive writer and critic of the post-World War Two generation in France. It was under his inspiration that I turned not so much to linguistics as to discourse theory, and began to see history as discourse rather than as discipline. I would say that that was very liberating for me, as I know it has been liberating for others. Discourse has to do with the production of meaning through combination and through what Georg Lukács called composition. Research is a necessary part of the rules of the game of professional historiography—it sets restraints on what you can do—but still, the payoff is nothing if it doesn’t get distilled into a discourse. And the discourse can either be a narrative or it can be a structural work. But once you begin to see the human sciences, and the social sciences in general, as discourse, you see that these have their functions in the self-production of the human in response to different situations across time and space. . . . Read the rest here:

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