Michael Riffaterre and the Unfinished Project of Structuralism

By Rabate, Jean-Michel | The Romanic Review, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview

Michael Riffaterre and the Unfinished Project of Structuralism


Rabate, Jean-Michel, The Romanic Review


Habermas read the first version of his essay "Modernity--an Unfinished Project in September 1980. This was his official discourse of thanks when receiving the Adorno Prize in Frankfurt. Ironically, Derrida received the same prize recently, in fact twenty-one years later, to be precise in September 2001, a distinction that seems however to clash with Habermas's sense of priorities. I say "ironically", because the impetus behind Habermas's first piece was a critique of the "then" irresistible success of French "neo-Structuralism." Twenty one years should be the right time to come of age, especially when the movement at issue is called "neo-Structuralism," a term that German critics tend to prefer to the Anglo-Saxon coining of "post-Structuralism," in short a dangerous movement in which, for Habermas, Derrida figures among the main suspects.

My general thesis is that we can apply Habermas's phrase not to the whole project of rationality deriving from the Enlightenment and its aborted or distorted project of rationalization in progress, but to what appears now, in retrospect, as France's main philosophical movement in the last century with the possible exception of Existentialism, although I would be ready to argue that Existentialism has been more "a fashion, a morality, a passion"--to quote Baudelaire on the transient half needed to make modernity modern--than a proper philosophy; I mean structuralism.

In order to make my claim, I need Riffaterre's work in all its depth, variety and cogency; indeed, from Essais de Stylistique structurale (1973) to Fictional Truth (1990) via La Production du texte (1979) one can describe Riffaterre as one of the most steadfast advocates of a style of thinking that has been too often reduced to bureaucratic scientism underpinned by a misguided fascination with linguistics. It is my contention that this broad mode of approaching texts and society has not died out in the seventies. I will try to show that Structuralism should be reappraised and presented in a more global context uniting various discourses, from anthropology to semiotics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, history, that all come under the heading of the "human sciences"--in fact, the whole spectrum of what Giambattista Vico had in mind when he spoke of a "New Science" defined as the science of man's arts in contradistinction with Cartesian truths and certainties. I will also suggest that the evolution of Riffaterre's positions proves that he has remained faithful to this "unfinished project" of an expanded and revised structuralism that knew how to dialectize structures, codes and systems dynamically by taking into account a history of mentalities and the whole array of phenomenological interactions with the reader, finally by acknowledging the fundamental role played by the Unconscious.

The "Soldiers of Baltimore," or how Structuralism arrived to the U.S.

1966 marked a high tide in the dissemination of Structuralism in France with the publication of two books that surprisingly turned out to be best-sellers, Lacan's Ecrits and Foucault's The Order of Things, following hard after the success of Althusser's For Marx a year earlier. I will focus on the conference of the same year, when French theory was launched in America under the name of Structuralism, in order to highlight Riffaterre's role as a mediator between two traditions, and describe a unique moment of condensation and translation.

The Baltimore meeting of October 1966 in which Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Goldmann, Vernant and Todorov were active participants, was organized from the French side by Jean Hyppolite. The two successive volumes published from these proceedings commemorate this debt by dedicating the contents to Hyppolite as "scholar, teacher and friend of scholars." (1) In his presentation, Hyppolite sketches the problematic he had developed in Logic and Existence, showing how Hegel's legacy was double, on the one hand an analysis of ordinary language starting from a phenomenology of perception, and on the other hand an investigation of the structure and architecture of all languages with the Logic. …

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