Thursday, April 14, 2005

2, Two, II

Comments are now working. Huzzah. No more invisibleness, no more erasing.

I'm going to hold off on posting my comments on gay marriage; I'd rather not have find this site, and then find myself accused of plagerizing from myself. Instead, I'll write an introduction to the ideas I think are important. This first post is mostly history.

When Marx was writing in the 19th century, he was fairly revolutionary. The prevailing philsophy at the time was written by Hegel, who believed history was pure progress. All of history was the story of reason becoming sharper and more dominant; Hegel believed history would end when absolute reason was attained. Everything about human life - politics, economics, everything - was in service to this absolute reason - aka God - working itself out. Reason was the driving force of human history for Hegel.

Marx worked from the opposite direction - the driving force of history was economics. Mainly, the means of production - how things were produced. You all know this. The ideas came afterwards, for Marx. Everything that people thought and believed was guided by their place in the structure of economic production. In effect, ideology is created by the current economic system. Eventually, the capitalist system would give way to a world in which there was no ideology, no structure - just workers living together.

Skip about a century. The 1960s are sputtering out. In North America, the liberal leaders of the various rights movements - civil rights, labour, feminists - have either been assasinated or stonewalled. Richard Nixon comes to power, and the Republican revolution begins. In Europe, powerful revolutionary movements fall apart; in France, the Communist party actually holds the conservative De Gaulle government together, protecting it from student protests. At the end of it all, t-shirts manufactured in sweat shops bearing pictures of communist revolutionary Che Guevara are available in malls across the world. Anything can be bought and sold, and the 60s movements finally realized this.

What happened? There were cultural changes, of course, but the 60s movements hoped for so much more. While the basic Marxism I have described had long since been abandoned in the face of Stalinism, another form of thought appeared - structuralism.

The structuralists decided that, far from expecting a future without ideology, there was nothing but ideology (as a side note, "structuralist" is a sticky term; like "post-modernist," few writers actually accept the term). Everything that is intelligible, everything that is understand, is so because it is part of a structure. The meaning of everything from words to ideas derives from place in a structure.

Think of it like this number sequence: (0, 1, 2, 3). What is the meaning of 2? It comes after 1, and before 3. Clear, yes? "2" does not have any meaning by itself. It is just marks on a paper or pixels on a computer screen. I could just as easily write (zero, one, two, three) or (0, I, II, III).

Each of these marks - 2, two, II - are signs. They signify something - a place in a structure. These signs are placeholders.

The important thing is, signs have no meaning when they are just hanging by themselves. They need to fit into a structure. It's the same way with anything. Think of a pawn from a chess set. If the game of chess did not exist, then a piece of wood cut to look like a pawn would be just that - a piece of wood. Everything needs a structure in order to make sense.

There are social structures, too. Think of a doctor's office. It is a definate structure - he wears his lab coat, stethoscope, and sits behind his huge desk. These are the signifiers he surrounds himself with; he is in a particular postion in that structure, and so are you, the patient.

What the old 60s radicals learned was that social structures cannot be changed over night. They are deeply embedded, so embedded that they pass for "normal" and "natural."

Next time I'll talk about a particular type of structure: discourse. That will be a good set up for posting my answer to the exam questions mentioned in the post below.

1 comment:

Andrea Coutu >> Become a Consultant Blog said...

Hmmm. Perhaps that's why my doctor wears regular clothes, keeps the stethoscope in a drawer, sits beside me in a room with no desk and shows me her notes as she goes along. And perhaps why I like her so much.