Structuralism’s First Century 1916-2016: A Round-Table Prospectus


“Structuralism’s First Century, 1916-2016: A Round-Table Prospectus,” the first in a projected series of events, took place on May 21st, 2013. The round-table attracted a standing-room crowd at The University of Chicago’s Franke Institute, and was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Communication and Society. The lively panelists were Lenore Grenoble (Slavics and Linguistics), John D. Kelly (Anthropology), Thomas Pavel (Romance and Comparative Literature, Social Thought), Marshall Sahlins (Anthropology), Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature, East Asian, Social Thought). (Lawrence Zbikowski, Music, promised future participation.) Spanning a number of the humanities and social sciences, these speakers illustrated the living history of structuralism in the study of society, language, literature and the arts.

In opening statements, the panelists focused on structuralist ideas as intellectual forces. Grenoble spoke of the quiet assimilation of structural analysis into the discipline of Linguistics to the point of virtual invisibility. Kelly and Saussy each touched on the way structuralism became a solution to the problem of mere contingency in cultural forms. As Kelly termed it, structuralism offers one road out of the dilemma articulated long ago by Kant: whether it is reason or “the dismal reign of chance” that drives human history. Pavel interrogated the loss of aesthetics in the adoption of structuralism in the analysis of literary meaning. The subject of Sahlins’ presentation was Lévi-Strauss—the figure who provided a model for many such adaptations across disciplines. Sahlins argued for the continuing relevance of structural analysis for sociocultural anthropology. The stimulating presentations and the discussion that followed pointed up the multiple relations between teleologies of, in, and for structuralism, and the reflexive moment that structuralist thought in effect has created.