The Prison-House of Language
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The Prison-House of Language

A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism

Fredric Jameson

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The Prison-House of Language

A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism

Fredric Jameson

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Fredric Jameson's survey of Structuralism and Russian Formalism is, at the same time, a critique of their basic methodology. He lays bare the presuppositions of the two movements, clarifying the relationship between the synchronic methods of Saussurean linguistics and the realities of time and history.

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III

The Structuralist Projection

But what, then, is the meaning of these two words, “same” and “other”? Are they two new kinds other than the three [being, rest, and motion], and yet always of necessity intermingling with them, and are we to have five kinds instead of three; or when we speak of the same and other, are we unconsciously speaking of one of the first three kinds?
—Plato, The Sophist
FRENCH Structuralism is related to Russian Formalism, less as nephew to uncle, in Shklovsky’s phrase, than as crossed cousins within an endogamous kinship system. Both ultimately derive from Saussure’s foundational distinction between langue and parole (and, of course, from the distinction between synchrony and diachrony which lies behind it), but they exploit it in different ways. The Formalists were ultimately concerned with the way in which the individual work of art (or parole) was perceived differentially against the background of the literary system as a whole (or langue). The Structuralists, however, dissolving the individual unit back into the langue of which it is a partial articulation, set themselves the task of describing the organization of the total sign-system itself.
We may therefore understand the Structuralist enterprise as a study of superstructures, or, in a more limited way, of ideology. Its privileged object is thus seen as the unconscious value system or system of representations which orders social life at any of its levels, and against which the individual, conscious social acts and events take place and become comprehensible. Alternately, we may say that as a method, Structuralism may be considered one of the first consistent and self-conscious attempts to work out a philosophy of models (constructed on the analogy with language) : the presupposition here is that all conscious thought takes place within the limits of a given model and is in that sense determined by it. It is only fair to add that for the most part these terms are not what the Structuralists themselves would have chosen to describe their work, so that what follows must in one way or another justify them, as a putting in perspective which is at the same time an implicit judgement.1
1
1. In particular the words “superstructure” and “ideology” suggest a deliberate juxtaposition of Structuralist research with the traditional Marxist problematics. But it is worth noting that where Saussure seems to have had no particular awareness of Marx at all, where for the Formalists Marxism, in its Soviet form, constituted little more than a source of polemics and an ideological adversary, the French Structuralists are on the contrary the beneficiaries of a Marxist culture, if only in the sense that they are no longer free to ignore the theoretical problems raised by the Marxist tradition: indeed, they know Marx so well as to seem constantly on the point of translating him into something else (the same is true of Freud, as we shall see later on).
Thus in spite of the unsystematic and even erratic character of many of Lévi-Strauss’ theoretical asides, we must, I think, take him seriously when he declares that his work is designed “to contribute to that theory of superstructures which Marx barely sketched out.”2 It is certainly the case that for the most part Marxism itself has conceived of ideology only in the crudest fashion as a type of mystification or deliberate class distortion, and has failed to provide a really systematic exploration of superstructures. On the other hand, the constitutive feature of an apprehension of super-structures lies, as we have shown elsewhere,3 in the mental operation by which the apparently independent ideological phenomenon is forcibly linked back up with the infrastructure: by which the false autonomy of the superstructure is dispelled, and with it that instinctive idealism which characterizes the mind when it has to do with nothing but spiritual facts. Thus the very concept of the superstructure is designed to warn us of the secondary character of the object which it names. The term is designed to point beyond its reference towards that which it is not, towards that material and economic situation which is its ultimate reality. It would seem, therefore, that one cannot place a superstructure between parentheses for descriptive and analytical purposes and still remain true to the impulse behind the terminology; this is so even if, as Lévi-Strauss feels, the forms of linguistic organization which he has revealed are those which characterize the superstructure as a whole. Now it is the form of research which remains idealistic, in that optical illusion of the autonomy of the sphere of superstructures which it encourages by the complete isolation of the latter from any consideration of the base.4
Lévi-Strauss has, however, an answer to this objection, in the form of a quotation from Engels himself: “To work out this parallel between the Germans of Tacitus and the American redskins, I made modest extracts from the first volume of your Bancroft. The resemblance is all the more striking in that the mode of production is so utterly different—here a hunting and fishing culture without stock-breeding or agriculture, there nomadic pastoralism passing into field cultivation. Which shows precisely just how much less decisive the mode of production is at this stage than the relative breakdown of the older kinship system and of the tribe’s initial distribution of women. . . ,”5 Thus Lévi-Strauss’ method would seem to be justified by the peculiarity of his privileged object of study, for in a sense the groups whose superstructures he examines do not really possess an infrastructure in the sense of modern economics. At the very least, it would seem that in societies in which the division between material production and other activities has not yet taken place, the very notion of a separate superstructure becomes problematical. And so does that of an infrastructure as well: how ultimately is one to distinguish between the material and spiritual dimensions of a technique of planting which is at one and the same time a religious ritual?
What has happened here is that Structuralism has tended to replace the older mind/body opposition which continues to inform the classical distinction between superstructure and infrastructure (the one involving material goods and physical need, the other mental operations and cultural products) with a new kind. We have tried to show how the Saussurean revolution corresponded to a historic shift in the subject-matter of the sciences in general, where the visible, physical independence of a given object (the organism of animals, the characteristics of chemical elements ) no longer seems a useful way of distinguishing the appropriate units of study; where the first task of a science henceforth seems the establishment of a method, or a model, such that the basic conceptual units are given from the outset and organize the data (the atom, the phoneme). This gradual shift in the sciences from perception to models corresponds to a transformation of social life itself, where with the monopolistic period of capitalism, the distinction between primary and secondary industry, becomes blurred, as does that between products that satisfy genuine needs and luxury items whose consumption is henceforth stimulated artificially by advertising.
At this point, therefore, the mind/body opposition is transformed into a structural or conceptual distinction between significance on the one hand, and the meaningless physical substratum or hylé by which that significance is invested. Henceforth, what was an external line of cleavage, in that it separated spiritual or cultural phenomena from material ones, becomes an internal distinction, implying that every phenomenon carries within itself both superstructure and infrastructure, both culture and nature, both meaning and raw material. At this point, then, the problem of superstructures becomes, if anything, more complex than Lévi-Strauss suggests.
2. Yet there is another sense in which Structuralism finds itself condemned to the study of ideology, not by choice, but out of a kind of internal necessity. For the principal conceptual instrument of Saussurean linguistics was, as we recall, the sign, the originality of which was to have distinguished not two, but three, elements in the process of speech: not only the word and its referent in the real world, but also, within the individual word or sign, a relationship between the signifier (or acoustic image) and the signified (or concept). The emphasis on this relationship tended, as we have shown, to exclude any consideration of the thing itself, of the object of reference in the “real world.” This declaration of independence of linguistics from any purely semantic concerns we compared to Husserl’s technique of bracketting in phenomenology. It was this linguistic “epoche” also which enabled the Russian Formalists to operate their critical revolution as well, reversing the priorities such that henceforth everything—meaning, world view, the author’s life—exists in order to permit the work itself to come into being.
In the framework of the Structuralist enterprise this principle has the effect of reinforcing idealistic tendencies which are already at work within the material itself, of encouraging the insulation of the superstructure from reality. This is not merely an external judgment, but a contradiction within Structuralism as well: for its concept of the sign forbids any research into the reality beyond it, at the same time that it keeps alive the notion of such a reality by considering the signified as a concept of something.
The writer who has dealt the most consequentially with this dilemma is one who approaches it, paradoxically, from the standpoint of orthodox dialectical materialism, and whose work may therefore be taken as a kind of reconciliation between the Lenin of Materialism and Empiriocriticism and the Saussurean heritage. The originality of Althusser is to have reversed the terms of the older materialistic epistemology, for which reality is “outside the mind” and truth a kind of adequation with reality which it would seem rather difficult to verify. For Althusser, in a sense, we never really get outside our own minds: both ideology and genuine philosophical investigation, or what he calls “theoretical praxis,” run their course in the sealed chamber of the mind; materialism is thus preserved by an insistence on the essentially idealistic character of all thinking. Indeed, it would seem that on one level ideology is distinguished from theory in that the latter recognizes its own idealistic (or simply ideational) character while the former attempts to pass itself off as reality. On another level, ideology would seem to be that grillwork of form, convention, and belief which orders our actions, and theory the quite different conscious production of knowledge. Thus, even in a socialist society ideology will retain a function.6
There are therefore two types of concrete phenomena: concrete reality and concrete thought. “The process which produces a concrete object on the level of knowledge takes place entirely within the realm of theoretical practice: it has to do, of course, with the concrete object on the level of reality, but this concrete reality ’subsists after as before in its independence, on the outside of the mind’ ( Marx), without ever being able to be assimilated to that other type of ’concrete object’ which is knowledge of it.”7 Thus, if properly seized, theory is also a kind of production: it works with tangible objects which have already been produced (the earlier theories or concrete thoughts) and transforms them into new objects, as in the production of the material world. Althusser’s object of study is primarily the history of science (including Marx’s discoveries), and within such limits, it is not difficult to see why he understands the production of knowledge as being essentially work on a preexisting idea: the latter, ideology or inadequate conceptualization (he calls it Generality I), is transformed into precise scientific knowledge (Generality III), by the operation of theoretical praxis (Generality II). (We will see later on what this scheme of knowing as the preparation of a product which is the “concrete-in-thought” becomes when the Tel Quel group transfers it to the area of literary creation or the “production of the text.”)
If we ask what relationship can be established between the sphere of purely ideational production and that of material reality, then it would seem that Althusser has two kinds of solutions: one on the side of the object of thought, the other on the side of the thinker. The first, which we will deal with later in more detail, reveals an intermediary object between thought and reality, and that is the “problématique,” or hierarchical structure of problems, and which transmits the shifts in external, historical reality to the theoretician at work within the mind, for it is nothing more or less than “the objective problems posed for ideology by the historical moment itself.”8 From the point of view of the thinker, however, only the distinction between a theoretical and a political praxis would seem to provide the possibility for acting on a real, even though indirectly knowable, world. Umberto Eco has suggested that Althusser’s ultimate point of reference in this dilemma is Spinoza himself: “Marxist philosophy would thus be able to act on the world because —ultimately—ordo et connexio idearum idem est ac ordo et connexio rerum.”9 In any case, since for Althusser real historical time is only indirectly accessible to us, action for him would seem to be a kind of blindfolded operation, a manipulation at distance, in which we could at best watch our own performance indirectly, as though in a mirror, reading it back from the various readjustments of consciousness which result from the alteration in the external situation itself.
Whatever the merits of this intricate solution, the basic terms of the problem have now become recognizable: it is essentially a replay of the Kantian dilemma of the unknow-ability of the thing-in-itself. Lévi-Strauss, in discussing the nature of superstructure, deliberately adopts a Kantian terminology: “We believe that between praxis and custom [pratiques] a mediator is always interposed which is the conceptual schema through whose operation a matter and a form both of which lack independent existence are able to come into being as structures. . . . The dialectic of superstructures, like that of language, consists in po...

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Citation styles for The Prison-House of Language
APA 6 Citation
Jameson, F. (2020). The Prison-House of Language ([edition unavailable]). Princeton University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1433100/the-prisonhouse-of-language-a-critical-account-of-structuralism-and-russian-formalism-pdf (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Jameson, Fredric. (2020) 2020. The Prison-House of Language. [Edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1433100/the-prisonhouse-of-language-a-critical-account-of-structuralism-and-russian-formalism-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Jameson, F. (2020) The Prison-House of Language. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1433100/the-prisonhouse-of-language-a-critical-account-of-structuralism-and-russian-formalism-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Jameson, Fredric. The Prison-House of Language. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.