Philosophy of Form


Considered in its essence, structuralism advances a radical yet facile core idea. This idea is that language and representation consist of a “formal system of interrelated elements and the meaning resides not in the elements themselves, but in their relationships to one another” (Wilcken 145). Informing much of the twentieth century, structuralism extended or evolved into post-structuralism, and then into deconstruction, yet retained many core concepts, especially about how meaning is mediated. The often-cited originator of structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure, whose ideas added imagination to critical scrutiny and influenced Claude Levi-Strauss, John Cage, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Rosalind Krauss, among many others. These thinkers agree with Saussure’s description of necessitous systems as universal law, or attempt to expand upon the theory in interesting ways, or disagree with it by arguing against specific aspects. Aesthetics in relation to structuralism is part of this system of juxtaposition, within a range of associations, where creative invention elaborates an infinite variety of permutations constructed out of a limited set of elements. Even more recent postmodern thinkers, considering power determinants, invoke structuralism proclaiming “the apparatus itself is the network that can be established between elements” of discourses, institutions, laws and propositions (Agamben 2). In this model, thought promotes meaning through form, as abstractions designate actual qualities of experience. Presented as event appearances, the networks of interconnecting relationships are more important than the nodes of intersection.

It can be effectively argued that European Structuralism is the root foundation of modernism in aesthetics and art. Broadly applied, structuralism is an investigative approach that seeks to “uncover the hidden symmetries that underlay all culture” (Wilcken 3). This could easily include avant-garde visual network symmetries like the gird, because “structurally, logically, [and] axiomatically, the grid can only be repeated” (Krauss 9). Without pattern recognition, human cognition would forever roam in the sensible realm of chaotic meaning, unrecognizable and thus unpredictable. From this viewpoint, everything in the entire domain of human existence can become a subject of structural investigation. Cage applies structuralism to music, as “atonality is simply the maintenance of an ambiguous tonal state of affairs. It is the denial of harmony as a structural means. The problem of a composer in a musical world in this state is to supply another structural means” (63). This is supported by Levi-Strauss, whose intellectual reflex reduces vast amounts of information “to simple principles; that surface reality deceives, and that truth lies in an undergirding of abstraction” (Wilcken45). The human mind seeks structural interrelations, conceived as a function of abstraction.


The lifelong project of Levi-Strauss “was to descend to the next level of abstraction, into a clarifying world beyond description, a purer universe of simple imperative” (Wilcken 122). Saussure’s structural linguistics supported this endeavor as a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of language and its use. At the core of this analysis is the relationship of binary pairs that serve to frame underlying structures (Fig 1). From a dualistic point of view, Cage references the importance of binary linkage, because “each thing and each being is not seen: relationships are seen and interferences are seen. To avoid undesired interferences and to make one's intentions clear, a dualistic point of view requires a careful integration of the opposites” (37). Saussure’s framework pairs of Langue and Parole exemplify this organizational paradigm. Langue, or language, is the overall system itself, or all of which language is capable. Parole, or speech, is the system as it is currently in use at a particular time. Related to this concept, but not necessarily correlative, is the binary between synchronic and diachronic analysis (Saussure 91). Thus, linguistics can synchronically study language at one fixed point in time. In this pole, the relations between co-existing elements are independent of time, a state that is a whole of simultaneous interacting elements. On the other hand, linguistics can study language diachronically, as a developmental transition over time. In this pole, states of language dynamically change making evolution most relevant.

Fig 1


Stressing the creativity of verbal communication by identifying features of language as mental entities, perhaps Saussure’s most innovative contribution to the intertextual discourse is the linking of linguistics to the general study of signs (Fig 2). Humans communicate via symbols, and a sign is anything that tells us about something other than itself. Generalizing, Levi-Strauss expands the constant interplay of similarities and differences as emergent relationships in cultural comparisons. He insisted “that the way culture was organized was ultimately rooted in the workings of the brain” (Wilcken 11). Distinctive symbols/sound-units intersect nature and culture. Foucault expands this to a ubiquitous structure, the underlying network of power relations: “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations” (94). Nevertheless, “before making a structure by means of rhythm, it is necessary to decide what rhythm is’ (Cage 64). In the mind, words are linguistic signs, with the spoken word as the starting point, and every expressive act being individually unique. The emergence of ideas and words occur under a process of mutual influence. A key suggestion is that the linguistic sign does not link a name and a thing, but rather links a concept and a symbol in a message system (Saussure 65). And “if modernism’s domain of pleasure is the space of auto-referentiality, this pleasure dome is erected on the semiological possibility of the pictorial sign as nonrepresentational and nontransparent, so that the signified becomes the redundant condition of a reified signifier” (Krauss 10). In this system, the concept is a psychic entity, or the signified. The acoustic image, symbol, or signifier is a mental image representation that allows a language user to label the concept. The communities of speakers, who use the sign to communicate, share this mental entity. One problem resident here is if both linked components are comprised of mental entities, the sign process is detached from any connection outside the mind. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Kant’s free play of imagination, language is the endless play of signifiers (49).

Fig 2


We have seen that the sign is a link between a form that signifies and the concept that is signified. The signifier is linear, because it occurs in a sequence over time. In use, we cannot hear or see correlated signifiers simultaneously. The mind separates one sign from the next in the flow of speech and this is where meaning and value occurs. We cannot identify the links in the chain until we match meaning to their form. Consequently, a lack of form equates to no meaning.

The connection between the signifier and the signified linguistic sign is arbitrary (Saussure 67). It is determined by chance, randomly chosen, with no particular reason for preference. In other words, any sound could have been chosen for any concept. Cage responds to such arbitrariness, as his musical “structural units became different in actual time-length by use of a factor obtained by chance operations” (146). Nevertheless, once part of the lexicon, it is not arbitrary for users; otherwise, communication would be impossible. As Saussure puts it, “the arbitrary nature of the sign explains in turn why the social fact alone can create a linguistic system. The community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptance are to be set up; by himself the individual is incapable of fixing a single value (113). In this way, the linguistic sign is unchangeable by a specific user, and is thus permanent synchronically (Saussure 81). Its arbitrariness makes this possible, because if signs and their internal links were not arbitrary, there would only be one universal language. Diachronically the linguistic sign can change over time, even as in use language operates only synchronically. It is arbitrariness that makes this change possible (Saussure 140). Diachronic dynamics do not alter the system as system.


Language as a system is based completely on oppositions between its concrete units. Influenced by Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, Levi-Strauss identified a fundamental shift in twentieth-century thought—“the swing from meaning to form, the self to the system” (Wilcken 11). Meanwhile “Foucault stopped believing in meaning the day the “Levi-Strauss demonstrated—about societies—and Lacan demonstrated—about the unconscious—that meaning was probably only a sort of surface effect, a shimmer, a foam, and that what ran through us, underlay us, and was before us, what sustained us in time or space was the system” (Wilcken 337). Context and contrast create synchronic identity, with context being the background, or the words located before and after. Not inwardly impelled, linguistic value is determined entirely by propinquity (Fig 3). Agamben expands this concept by associating subjects as nodes and the apparatus as network linkages. He says, “I wish to propose to you nothing less than a general and massive partitioning of beings into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured” (13). Here we have a pervasive structural duality that regulates all culture as a hidden system. In this regard, Foucault does “not mean to say that the law fades into the background or that the institutions of justice tend to disappear, but rather that the law operates more and more as a norm, and that the judicial institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory” (144). Observable phenomena result from the action of general laws that acquire meaning only when integrated into a system built by the mind on the level of unconscious thought.

Fig 3


Levi-Strauss’ theoretical position was that “structural echoes could be found in many aspects of social and cultural life—art, metaphysics, social systems, even in the positioning of huts in a village. Again and again the human mind threw up similar relationships across domains that at first glance seemed completely unconnected” (213). Language provides a cultural foundation of structural elements. Meaning accrues from the form of an individual sign linkage, and between signs from the contrast relationship that constitutes linguistic value. However, a key refinement of structuralism was the idea of slippage at the signifier-to-signified link interface, and sign-to-sign link interfaces, affecting the chain of signification. How does this slippage occur? As Saussure tells us, “language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses” (112). By defining meaning as the gap between adjacent terms, blurry boundaries manifest.

For example, the process of analogy counterbalances phonetic change. This is a kind of inferring that presupposes a pattern that may or may not pertain. For example, if the past tense of rang is rung and sank is sunk, then the past tense of bring is brung. But even though structural patterns are not completely reliable, linguistic forms are contrastive, relative, and negative (based on differences), and any sign is at the center of a constellation of shifting associations. Sings compared determine each other’s meanings. The network becomes more significant than the nodes. Agamben tells us that “it is clear that ever since Homo sapiens [Latin: "wise person"] first appeared, there have been apparatuses; but we could say that today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not molded, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus” (15). If artists are to communicate meaning, ideas have to be exchanged for symbols, and symbols have to be exchanged for ideas. Only when you get to the end of the chain of signification are you positioned to understand the beginning.


European Structuralism, as a system, generalizes the link between symbol/code and idea/message and produces form based on distinction and opposition difference. As divulged by Roland Barthes, signs can be made up of constituent signs in an endless string of signification (113). In this process, combination and context are two faces of the same operation of equivalence and variation distinction. So that not only is the position of a language element relative to others in an equilibrium, deriving meaning from the simultaneous presence of other signs, but this position is also a temporal destabilization in that the present moment can only be analyzed by comparison to the past. The sign is eternally determined by what exists outside itself, as symbols for related ideas limit each other’s meaning by mutual contrast. In addition, this implies a “process of subjectification, that is to say, the [networks] must produce their subject” (Agamben 11). As relation determines value, language has the power to shape our own subjectivities. In this contingency (Fig 4), embrace the ambiguity of meaning, because the more freedom or play in the signification chain, the more room for individual interpretation of existence.

Fig 4

“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave!”
- Glenn Frey

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. What Is An Apparatus? Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. (1961)

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1, An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Vintage, 1990 (Reissue of Random House edition, 1978) (1976)

Kant, Immanuel, and Nicholas Walker. Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1985.

Saussure, Ferdinand . Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Print.

Wilcken, Patrick. Claude Levi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology. London: Penguin Press, 2010.