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Mapping Romanian Structuralism at the Crossroads of Cultural Models Key-words: structuralism, linguistics, communism, literature-centrism, French influence
The globalization of structuralism from the end of the 1960s – a phenomenon of „staggering” proportions, which made it a practically worldwide „heuristic, political, and intercultural ferment of ideas”
– had a French epicenter, which overshadowed the fact that structuralism was theoretically and philosophically rooted in pre- and interwar Central-Eastern Europe. However, to a certain extent, French Theory merely built upon the German philosophical tradition, by engaging polemically with the Husserlian-phenomenological and Hegelian-Marxist frames of thought disseminated in French interwar universities. Even clearer is this rootedness in literary structuralism, where the French doctrine reframed ideas largely indebted to 19th century Russian poetics of folklore, and especially to the now-famous Russian Formalism and the Prague Linguistic Circle of the 1920-30s (whose ideas were brought to Paris by immigrant intellectuals fleeing Stalinism or Nazism, before and after the Second World War). Indeed Central-Eastern European intellectuals managed to tailor an intrinsic view upon literature, in purified theoretical terms, which is so the more impressive considering that the evolution occured in languages and literatures little known beyond their national borders; local theorists transgressed their national confines in their attempt to draft a universal stock of devices and items of „literariness” which could link literary texts at a level beyond contexts or particulars. François Cusset,
Why this „semantic basin” of theory coalesced in interwar Central-Eastern Europe is to this day a challenging question. In a 2004 essay
Common Knowledge, 2004, vol. 10, iss. 1, pp. 61-81.
As a matter of fact, despite the fact that theories „travel” internationally, as Edward Said famously stated
Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 436-452.
The routes of an imported theoretical model should be more linear, but also more complex in Central-Eastern Europe. More linear, because the cultures in the area related by centuries-old traditions to French and German cultural centers, following their lead consciously in their programs of modernisation. At the same time, the theoretical routes were more complex in Central-Eastern Europe, once state socialism forced Soviet sovereignity upon Moscow’s satellites, and, at least initially, doubled the political domination with a full-on cultural colonisation. In such circumstances, the Hungarian comparatist Stephen Tötösy de Zepetnek was right to argue that developments in Central-Eastern cultures were, until 1989 at least, determined by their „inbetween peripherality”
Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, „Configurations of Postcoloniality and National Identity: Inbetween Peripherality and Narratives of Change”, The Comparatist, vol. 23, May 1999, pp. 89-110.
I am tempted to call this kind of cognitive centrism by the oxymoronic term “peripherocentrism.” This refers not only to the periphery’s “primordial” cognitive centrism, which does not differ from that of metropolises or imperia, but also to the process in which peripheral discourses are becoming aware of their cultural position vis-à-vis the others and consequently attempt to come to terms with some geopolitically or culturally superior center in a special, ambivalent way, resisting its predominance with various strategies (e.g., by self-referential recourse to “domestic” traditions). (...) The periphery domesticates the semiotic material and perspective of the center by erasing traces of its alterity. (...) The adopted global or regional center of cultural power and the cognitive center of the peripheral cultural space are thus superposed
. Marko Juvan, „“Peripherocentrisms”: Geopolitics of Comparative Literatures between Ethnocentrism and Cosmopolitanism”,
To sum up things to this point, let’s consider Zepetnek’s „three main origins or centers of influence”: the Soviet center, the indigenous center, and the Western, French and/or German, center, whose intelocked action landmarked the theoretical circulation in Central-Eastern European cultures between 1948-1989. But to take the argument further, let us turn to another issue concerning the circulation of ideas in the region. In principle, the geopolitical similarities, and the linguistic affinities among certain Central-Eastern European cultures would support the formation of regional constellations
Major versus Minor? Languages and Literatures in a Globalized World, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2015. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, p. 204.
But as we very well know, up to this point, most of the numerous accounts (histories, theoretical overviews etc.) of structuralism highlight the Paris events, mostly owing to the world fame acquired by French intellectuals turned into the academic superstars, like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault or the ubiquitous Roland Barthes. Therefore, to consider structuralism „an essentially Hexagon phenomenon”, as the influential historian François Dosse
Histoire du structuralisme I. Le Champ du signe. 1945-1966, La Découverte, Paris,1992, p. 450.
One can easily single out some of the reasons that underlie this „disregard typical for Western historians and commentators of structuralism”
Poetica occidentală. Tradiţie şi progres, traducere de Ariadna Ştefănescu, București, Editura Univers, 1998, p. 205. French Theory’s fame, whose post-1966 transatlantic export took it to another level, Paris intellectuals did not, so to speak, discover America themselves. The major importance of other European variants of structuralism, from Russian Formalism to Czech functionalism or Danish glossematics, whose influence can be traced all over French structuralism, hasn’t got enough emphasis and the critical attention it deserves, a fact which can be partly blamed on the peripherality of said languages and cultures.
The geographical map of 20th century structuralism is only matched in its complexity by its historical shifts. The formalist-structuralist waves that emerged in interwar Europe (in Central and Eastern Europe, but not in France) did not coagulate in a unitary movement, but were rather confined to particular disciplines (like linguistics or psychology), and evolved within national intellectual movements (in Russia, in Prague). Some of these theoretical nuclei would be reclaimed by French structuralism, but also lose some of their original characteristics while being annexed to the genealogy of the Paris brand. Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan helped disseminate, but also translate or abbreviate Saussure, Jakobson, Hjelmslev, based on a selective integration which ressembled, in a way, „the discovery of Pompeii”:
„Literary theory of the 1920s has a ghastly cohesion to it. It did not mature; it was cut off. Perhaps for that reason, its rediscovery in the 1960s and 70s, by Russia and by the world, had the freshness of Pompeii about it. Methodologies frozen in midlife could be excavated, resuscitated, and reinvigorated from well-preserved traces”
A History of Russian Literary Theory and Criticism. Soviet Age and Beyond, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011, p. 82.
Although it helped popularizing previously ignored innovators, French structuralism was still only partly aware of a major time-lag and a major divide. While the late Vladimir Propp’s 40-year old studies were met with raves in 1960s Paris, the equally innovative, and obviously very much alive then, Iuri Lotman was hardly known outside Soviet scientific-literary circles. Regrettably, such disregard concerned not just the new, and presumably sealed Soviet empire, but other waves of structuralism also, which emerged in postwar Europe, in Italy, in Eastern (like Poland or Czechoslovakia), or Northern countries (like Denmark). In most cases, these theoretical developments were autonomous, with little, if any, intercultural flow of ideas, and, most importantly, they lacked proper exposure in the scientific literature upon structuralism. Moreover, none of the postwar structuralist movements listed above developed from the French model, but were based instead on local paradigms of research. After all, as Patrick Sériot argued in his brilliant book
Structure et totalité. Les origines intellectuelles du structuralisme en Europe centrale et orientale, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1999.
Its particular geopolitical situation — a neo-Latin culture, isolated in a preponderantly Slavic territory, historically included in the German expansion to the East, but strongly leaning towards French culture from the eve of its 19th century modernity — makes Romania a compelling case within the Central-Eastern European region, and shapes a context one needs to consider when exploring Romanian structuralism. There are several differences in this respect to the already mentioned cases of the Soviet Union, Poland or Czechoslovakia: compared to them, Romania lacked clear-cut interwar formalist movements, and had much stronger cultural affinities for France, which would only enhance after the local regime’s post-Stalinist emancipation from Moscow. The post-Stalinist context is, in fact, wholly determinant in Romania’s case, as the country’s post-1960 political and cultural emancipation from the Soviet Union strenghtens the national pole and triggers an ethnocentric project whose cultural consequences were, at first, overwhelmingly positive
Revista 22, 2002, 23 Sept.
But before further exploring this context, let me point out that Romania can hardly be found on the European map of structuralism
Slavic Structuralism, translated by Helen Thomas, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1985, there is no mention of Romania. Le mirage linguistique, 1988).
From the 1960s onwards, Romanian literary studies were indeed influenced by French structuralism, along the lines of a century-old intellectual francophilia. But what makes things interesting is that postwar Romanian structuralism actually developed in ways that were similar to other communist neighbouring countries. Thus, contrary to Western structuralism’s iconoclast, subversive program, meant to challenge the intellectual establishment and the monumental image of literature, postwar structuralism developed in Romania, but also in Poland or Czechoslovakia, with the view of protecting the academic establishment of humanities and the specific nature of literariness, by blatantly avoiding research into the social, historical, ideological context. In Central-Eastern European socialist countries, postwar structuralism was equally confined to linguistic and literary studies. Its scenarios of evolution varied, however, depending on these countries’ previous paradigms of reasearch. Postwar structuralism in Czechoslovakia and Poland built upon interwar literary-linguistic formalist movements, which determined a more coherent, organic theoretical development, sealed from the influence of French structuralism of the 1960s. Romania, on the other hand, lacked such a theoretical heritage, so structuralism emerging here in the postwar period was a brand-new and mainly import-based product.
In Romania, the gate towards structuralism opened at the end of the 1950s, in linguistics, whose standardized-grammar agenda, meant to serve the policy of mass literacy, could acommodate certain structuralist concepts. As the cultural seclusion imposed by the Soviet-inspired socialist realism of the 1950s neared its end, Romanian culture gradually changed course towards France, with an eagerness enhanced by the 15 years long blocade. At the time of this reconnection, Paris was witnessing an absolutely spectacular and prolific age of theory. The massive amount of French criticism translated into Romanian after 1964 mirrored France’s renewed symbolic hegemony. But besides translations, the input of French criticism and theory to Romanian criticism could also be measured by the numerous commentaries or metacritical accounts that appeared in all Romanian literary journals. Many important Romanian critics also travelled to France for research internships, which were understandably helpful in enriching their critical language. However, the Romanian import favoured the critical directions of structuralism, narratology and phenomenological thematism, all of which built a theoretical sediment or interface of unprecedented scope in Romanian criticism. Since its end of 19th century inception by Titu Maiorescu under the principle of aesthetic autonomy, Romanian criticism traditionally refrained from importing whole theoretical domains, favouring instead one-to-one dialogues with prestigious critics; such was the case of G. Călinescu, who resorted to Benedetto Croce, or of Eugen Lovinescu, who often referred to Emile Faguet. Referencing one foreign homologue would remain customary in post-1964 Romanian criticism, as illustrated by Eugen Simion, Ion Pop or Mircea Martin’s close ties with the more individualized critics of the Geneva School. However, since quality often builds on quantity, the massive input of French theory in post-1964 Romanian criticism infused the language of analytic criticism and thus updated the discourse of many Romanian critics. Moreover, it generated an entire academic sector of literary theory, which was critically unspectacular, stale, and often a scissors-and-paste job, but which hosted an impressive amount of researchers and, most significantly, whose emergence in Romania was wholly due to French Theory.
Viewed as such, the terms of the French import in postwar Romanian criticism look predictably unidirectional. As we very well know, the socialist context limited strongly the academic mobility and the critical dialogue, thus reducing Romanian reasearchers’ exposure and their potential output to the international debate of structuralism. Romanian culture’s closure took a turn for the worse after Ceausescu’s 1971 switch to heightened nationalism. Romanian critic’s Ion Pop interviews with French artists and intellectuals, collected in his 1976 „French Hours” are an unfortunate display of France’s meagre information about Romania: even globe-trotting Rene Etiemble, an otherwise polyglot comparatist, well-versed in several literatures, admits he knows very little about contemporary Romania’s literature and criticism. The second part of Ceausescu’s regime assumed an ethnocentric, anti-European stance, in which circumstances even literary ideas found it hard to travel from Bucharest to Paris. From a different perspective, this imposed distance might still have been a critical opportunity for a peripheric culture. Almost every Romanian intellectual „carried with him a France of his own”
Ore franceze, București, Editura Univers, 1979, p. 2.
Indeed, Romanian culture’s increasing isolation after 1971, which followed a 1964-1971 interval of cultural openness towards the West, might just be the basic factor enabling Romanian critics’ emancipation from French structuralism, whose technical language was already widely circulating by 1970. A basic liberation strategy was to domesticate the center’s perspective by minimising its alterity. As a consequence of that, many French theorists were assimilated, to the point of confusion, within Romanian critical traditions
Roland Barthes, mitologii românești, București, Art, 2017, for the similarities that Romanian critics of the 1960s force between the structuralist Roland Barthes and the impressionistic interwar critic G. Călinescu.
All these reception strategies actually reduced French theory’s foreigness. Therefore, the Romanian structuralism shaped through the French model’s alteration, proves that influence does not always colonize the subaltern, as the classic cultural hegemony framework advocates. On the contrary, even if the balance of cultural power remains unchallenged in its basic terms, the influence may be incorporated in a highly selective and creative manner. The fact that the influence is oriented rather from the receiving side is made abundantly clear by Romanian critics’ enthusiastic reception of the Swiss critical school. Although historically linked to
La Nouvelle Critique, and often perceived along the lines of the entire French theory, Swiss critics’ phenomenological thematism remained a rear guard critical movement, not only because of its French extrateritoriality, but especially because of its soft-core theorization. However, the still traditional Romanian criticism resonated with Geneva School’s insistence upon practical criticism, and found its tender attitude towards the text and the interpreter reassuringly familiar. Interestingly enough, French structuralism’s most spectacular Romanian consequences would not occur in criticism, but in the experimental literature of the 1980s. Read straight from its theoretical sources, without Romanian criticism’s domesticating interface, French structuralism pervaded the imaginary of the young Romanian writers who attended university during the theoretical vogue of the 1970s. Turned to a creative matrix, and an unmediated trigger for fiction, structuralism inspired, as in the case of Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco, or Anthony Burgess, the emergence of postmodern metafiction in Romanian literature, a postmodernism developed even without the conceptual tools and the epistemological frame of Western postmodernity.
As I extensively argued in my book, 2017’s
The Linguistic Bastion. A Comparative History of Structuralism in Romania, the Romanian reception of structuralism was characterized by a discourse of dissatisfaction and even disdain. Party doctrinaires and reputed literary critics alike pointed out the many faults of structuralism, dismantled the theory from the premises of triumphant, teleological socialism, measured it unfairly against the evaluative goals of practical criticism, or against the prestige of a still-important interpreter. Structuralism resembled a foreign body, which landed out of nowhere in Romania around 1960, in an unwelcoming environment where it lacked theoretical roots and actual predecessors. But despite the obvious adversity with which it was met, despite the lack of clear local filliations in Romania, structuralism’s technical language spread from linguistics to literary studies, and by the 1980s it became an academic master narrative and a main affluent of analytical criticism. To a deeper level, structuralism fused, in fact, with the then paradigms of Romanian culture. From an ideological point of view, structuralism’s normative character and its abstract bias, meant to dispel empirical speculations, made it secretly compatible with the communist cultural policy that encouraged algorithmized patterns of thinking. From a literary-critical perspective, structuralism was essentially compatible with aestheticism and the self-referentiality-valuing modernism. This latter match was most compelling, though by no means unpredictable.
Several disagreements can be found between standard structuralism and traditional criticism: the interpreter’s role, the primacy of value, the credit given to literary singularity (author, text etc.). However, all forms of literary structuralism attempt to isolate the basic items of literariness by foregoing any context. This makes structuralism resonant with an aesthetic-oriented criticism, like the one produced within the typically literature-centric socialist cultures. Therefore, regardless of the many disagreements expressed, Romanian postwar criticism could (partially) work with structuralism precisely because both strived to confine the ireducible literary core that survived time, history, ideology.
As many historians pointed out, literature-centrism was a feature shared by all the otherwise atomised socialist cultures from Central-Eastern Europe. Postwar Romanian culture made no exception, resembling in this respect the neighbouring countries, even though its Romance language and traditional francophilia might have seemed to place it on a different cultural track. But literature-centrism and structuralism joined here in a curious, self-strenghtening match. All throughout Central-Eastern Europe under socialist rule, in Romania, as well as in Poland or Czechoslovakia, postwar structuralism (even reshaped as „semiotics”, a new term which changed little of the content within) extended past its Western expiration date, avoided the poststructuralist implosion, and assumed a strikingly conservative stance. This rightfully „Oriental” type of structuralism reinforced the strengths of literature, by grounding its values in strictly linguistic, ideology-free structures. Romania was absent from theformalist-structuralist movements that flourished in interwar Central-Eastern Europe, but it joined the stream of postwar Eastern structuralism, once the country became entangled in the same historical development as the other Soviet bloc countries. Romania’s ambivalent cultural position -located within the Soviet influence, but leaning traditionally towards the French cultural pole - did not change the terms of this cultural metabolism. Therefore, the shape taken by structuralism here was influenced less by the French imported theories themselves, than by the political spectre equally hovering at the time upon Central-Eastern Europe.
Such cultural analogies that can emerge without direct influences or actual exchange of ideas, make a compelling case for a comparative history of ideas. In postwar Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, structuralism was channelled in linguistics and literary studies, where it avoided hard theorization, and assumed a conservative form (meant to protect the „collective memory”, as Iuri Lotman argued, or the „literary value”, as Romanian stylisticians did). These shared cultural features prove that literary influence is never indifferent to culturally localized epistemes. Patrick Sériot was, however, the only historian to point out that Roman Jakobson’s structuralism (never transplanted as such in Western theory) designated an „epistemological world”
work cited, p. 291. Viața românească, 1965, nr. 12, pp. 136-145. The Taming of Romanticism: European Literature and the Age of Biedermeier, Harvard University Press, 1984.
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