From Structure to Rhizome: Transdisciplinarity in French Thought 1945-Present (Part 1: Peter Osborne and Etienne Balibar)

April 19, 2010

The conference is set, appropriately enough, in the ruins of the Institut Francais (currently undergoing a refurbishment to commemorate their centenary). I must begin with a criticism, I’m afraid – no coffee was allowed in the auditorium. What kind of philosophy conference does not allow coffee in the auditorium?!
Peter Osborne opened the conference with an explanation of the more mysterious half of the conference title, ‘Transdisciplinarity in French Thought 1945-Present’. The key references were noted to be post-’68 French thought (for Eric Alliez) and the German critical tradition (for Osborne himself), and these references have a twofold structure: the ‘bad’ concept of transdisciplinarity (in its policy-bureaucratic incarnation) and the ‘good’ concept of anti-disciplinarity, the political-theoretical, engagement. So far, still quite mysterious, but it’s interesting to track how the different speakers incorporate the concept into their papers.
The first speaker is Etienne Balibar on Structure. His understanding of the threads between structuralism and transdisciplinarity is that they are a result of the undermining, delegitimizing impulse of structuralism and transdisciplinarity (and that, in some way, structuralism is always already post-strcutural). As transgender deconstructs the gender, so transdisciplinarity deconstructs the discipline. His talk is to be organized around what he terms ‘points of heresy’, to borrow Foucault’s terminology from Mots et Choses. He tips his hat to Jean-Claude Milner’s Le Structuraliste Methode et Subversion des Sciences Sociale for proposing this subversive, autodestructive conception of structuralism.
Structuralism is considered historically as the concept that allowed a ‘third way’ out of dichotomies, e.g. reductionism vs hermeneutics, or subjectivism vs objectivism. This stems from a primacy of object over method, of formations always-already considered as relational, allowing for an immanent theorizing. Structure is, then, the formal structure of a concrete system (functioning if not entirely functional).
The background to the development of structuralism were advances in mathematics (Hilbert) as can be seen in the heir to structuralism’s ontological and epistemological problems, Alain Badiou. The mode of inheritance of these problems revolves around whether the terms (or individuals) can be considered as concretion of structures, or should they be considered with a residual element (Badiou) or a line of escape (Deleuze) taken into account as disruptive element.
This anti-reductionism is inspired by previous epistemological breaks – for instance natural/human; a species of thought that can cross these boundaries. Galileo is the classic example of a theory. It also includes a ‘literalisation’ – primacy of the letter. The typical program of structuralism is to find a necessary explanation, in the form of an enlarged calculus.
Balibar insists that none of these characteristics could be carried on harmoniously – permanent splitting, dilemmas. It recognizes that there are at least two competing ways of realizing, and endless internal division.
Regading structures and subjectivation, the fundamental shift is from a constitutive to a constituted subject, and from there from subjection to subjectivation (a relative autonomy).
Is this movement disruptive? In Deleuze’s 1967 essay, How Do We Recognise Structuralism? we are urged us to look at the lack or defect of structures rather than looking on them as complete. They are both real and inconsistent, and no longer to be associated with the Kantian empirical-transcendental schematization. The key point of break is in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, where the subject ceases to be inhabited by the universal.
Two forms of structuralism were Althusser, with his epistemological break, and Levi-Strauss with his view from afar – both a distantiation from the obvious and a disruption of the hermeneutic circle. Alterity becomes a prerequisite of knowing (in the mode of conflict from Althusser, and decentring of the observer for Levi-Strauss). Structuralism deals with how to speak from the place of the other (and the symbolic violence this entails). Balibar at this point tips his hat to Patrice Maniglier’s writing in Les Temps Modernes about Levi-Strauss.
Balibar understands structuralism as (1) a movement, in the sense of an adventure – deconstructing its own prerequisites, and (2) a new ‘French’ episode in controvery of content of philosophical anthropology, and in this a move away from the Kantian background of Heidegger and Cassirer.
In being a philosophy it is an anti-philosophy, which is to say it considers its problems immanently (the plane of immanence, consciousness appearing as a surface effect); ‘there’s no such thing as a meta-language’ and ‘theory will disappear in its effects’.
Balibar’s next contention is that there’s no such thing as poststructuralism, as structuralism always-already contained a post-structural move, and the structuralist question continues under other names. Structuralism is concerned with the limit idea of what deconstructs it – the line of flight, the point of impossibility, points where it becomes a disjunction rather than a conjunction, oscillating between lack and excess.
Levi-Strauss and Althusser are named by Balibar as the key figures of two kinds of structuralism (L-S as formalisation, Althusser as a heroic attempt of crossing border into a scientific but not quite positivist nondialectical theory of production).
Balibar considers the events of ’68 to be evidence of a ‘death drive’ of structuralism, pushing the subjectivities of the protagonists of structuralism towards the abyss. This is evident in Lacan’s descent into strings of puns towards his final collapse.
Structuralism contains a latent ontology which makes language (as sign) into the ultimate fabric of the real.
To return to Milner, certain constitution of disciplines is a given. This is because certain academic structures are the only possible structures for the development of science. Against this, Balibar insists that tendencies and countertendencies which are intrinsically division demonstrated hyperbolic extension always already implied in arbitrary disciplinary boundaries. The only discipline that corresponds to the structuralist view is critical anthropology.
[in response to a question] Structure is, precisely, not a representation. Structure is real (and thus incomplete).

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