Structuralism,post-structuralism, and the
library: de Saussure and FoucaultGary P. Radford
Department of English, Communication, and Philosophy,Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, New Jersey, USA, and
Marie L. RadfordSchool of Communication, Information, and Library Studies,
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA
Purpose Explores the relevance of structuralism and post-structuralism to the field of library andinformation science (LIS).
Design/methodology/approach The paper is a literature-based conceptual analysis of the twophilosophical movements, structuralism and post-structuralism, as represented by the seminal figuresof Ferdinand de Saussure and Michel Foucault.
Findings The principles of structuralism and post-structuralism have significant implications forhow the role of the modern library can and should be viewed.
Originality/value Provides insights into LIS by drawing on philosophical perspectives that arebeyond the LIS literature.
Keywords Philosophy, Information science, Libraries
Paper type Conceptual paper
IntroductionStructure, structuralism, and post-structuralismThis paper seeks to provide a gateway to new avenues of inquiry and to provide freshinsights for investigating and conceptualizing the field of library and informationscience (LIS). It describes the principles of structuralism and post-structuralism,illustrating these descriptions with literary examples to clarify these models, anddiscusses their relevance to LIS. To begin, in looking at the origin of the termstructure, one finds that the term initially had an architectural meaning. It referred tothe action, practice, or process of building or construction and the way in which anedifice, machine, implement, etc. is made or put together (The Oxford EnglishDictionary, 1933, Vol. X, p. 1165). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the useof the term broadened and came to describe the ways in which the parts of a concretebeing are structured into a whole. This concept could apply to a variety of structures,including anatomical, geological, and mathematical. In biology, for example, structurewas used to describe the component parts of an animal and how these parts weremutually connected and interdependent on one another.
The application of the notion of structure to language and the social sciences ingeneral came from developments in the field of linguistics through the seminal Coursein General Linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1983), the founder of structural
The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Accepted 9 September 2004
Journal of DocumentationVol. 61 No. 1, 2005pp. 60-78q Emerald Group Publishing Limited0022-0418DOI 10.1108/00220410510578014
linguistics (see Dosse, 1997). The heart of de Saussures linguistics is the followingproposition:
A language is a system in which all the elements fit together, and in which the value of anyone element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others (de Saussure, 1983,p. 113).
Harris (1983, p. ix) writes that de Saussures connection of language and structureenabled the Course to occupy a place of unique importance in the history of Westernthinking and to become a key text not only within the development of linguistics butalso in the formation of that broader intellectual movement of the twentieth centuryknown as structuralism.
In the Course, de Saussure (1983) proposed a scientific model of language as a closedsystem of elements and rules that could be described quite independently from thepsychological subjectivity of any particular user of that language. For example, if deSaussure were to consider this paragraph of text, he would not be concerned with theparticular and unique thoughts the authors are attempting to commit to paper, or eventhe particular words that appear before the readers eyes. Rather, de Saussure wouldattempt to describe the language system that both authors and readers must hold incommon to make this particular example of communication possible and, in particular,the rules by which such a system is governed.
Post-structuralism not only questions, but also continues, the central project ofstructuralism the inquiry into the organizing principles of a language system.However, while structuralism posits that the language system can be described in anobjective and scientific manner, post-structuralism suggests that such descriptions arethemselves always highly contextual. Whereas de Saussures structuralism wasconfident that the principles by which language is organized can be fully determinedand described, post-structuralism calls into question all such assumptions andsuggests that such conclusions are always fragile and open to subversion.
In this discussion of the principles of structuralism and post-structuralism, twofigures are selected as representative of each approach: Ferdinand de Saussure andMichel Foucault. The principles of both theorists are described through extensive useof literary examples, including Jorge Luis Borges short story The Library of Babel,Ian Flemings novel Casino Royale, Sylvia Nasars biography of John Nash, and OliverSacks account of a man who regained his sight after 40 years of blindness. The articleends with a discussion of how these principles offer new intellectual tools forunderstanding the nature and place of the library in a postmodern world. We beginwith a discussion of de Saussures structuralism and, in particular, the emphasis placedon the creation of patterns.
The primacy of patternsCreating patterns at the Casino RoyaleThe key to understanding de Saussures structuralism is the idea that meaning is madepossible by patterns rather than by some correspondence between a name and athing (de Saussure, 1983, p. 66). To demonstrate this idea, we turn to one of the mostfamous students of patterns in modern popular culture: Ian Flemings character ofJames Bond 007. In his novel Casino Royale, Fleming (1953, p. 58) describes Bondstanding at the roulette table at the Royale-les-Eaux casino:
de Saussure andFoucault
Bond . . . studied the run of the ball since the session had started at three oclock thatafternoon. He always did this although he knew that each turn of the wheel, each fall of theball into a numbered slot, has absolutely no connection with its predecessor. He accepted thatthe game begins afresh each time the croupier picks up the ivory ball with his right hand,gives one of the four spokes of the wheel a controlled twist clockwise with the same hand and,with a third motion, also with the right hand, flicks the ball round the outer rim of the wheelanti-clockwise, against its spin.
The European roulette wheel consists of 36 numbers (18 red and 18 black) and one zero(the American roulette wheel adds the double-zero). The players bet on which of thesenumbers will hit when the ivory ball falls into a numbered slot. So how does Bondchoose the numbers for his bets? Ironically, he looks to the very connections he knowsnot to exist; the wheels history of previous spins. As Fleming (1953, p. 58) describes:
It was obvious that all this ritual and all the mechanical minutiae of the wheel, of thenumbered slots and the cylinder, had been devised and perfected over the years so thatneither the skill of the croupier or any bias in the wheel could affect the fall of the ball. Andyet it is a convention among roulette players, and Bond rigidly adhered to it, to take carefulnote of the past history of each session and to be guided by any peculiarities in the run of thewheel.
Bond uses his knowledge of the history of the session to see the sequence of numbersand thus to derive some sense of which numbers are due to hit. For example, Bondmight observe that five red numbers have hit in the five previous spins. He may askhimself: What are the chances of that streak extending to six? Or seven? Bond mightreason that the next spin must surely be a black number even though he knewperfectly well that this type of reasoning was illusionary. In true structuralist style,Bond knows there is no value in the result of any particular spin. The value of anynumber can only be given to it after it has occurred by some observer creating thosepatterns. Every new number certainly adds to the pattern, but it cannot determine anynumber that follows.
Despite this knowledge, all the players at the roulette table demonstrate a profoundbelief in the patterns they see, even James Bond, whose roulette practice was always toplay with the wheel, and only to turn against its previous pattern and start on a newtack after a zero had turned up (Fleming, 1953, p. 59). One cannot ignore the pull of thehistory of the previous spins because those patterns contained within it are real. Therereally are patterns within the numbers. There really were five red numbers in the lastfive spins. However, the crucial insight provided by Bond and, as we shall see, bystructuralism, is that these patterns are illusions because they are built on occurrencesthat are themselves completely random. No matter how complex or perfect the patternthat is created and observed within the numbers, the result of the next spin of the wheelremains perpetually out of reach, even for James Bond.
To see and not see: making patterns in perceptionPattern-making is a fundamental component of human experience. This claim isvividly demonstrated in an example from the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks (1995)who recounts the case of Virgil, a 50-year-old man who had been virtually blind sinceearly childhood. Following two operations to remove the cataracts from his eyes, Virgilregained the ability to see after almost 40 years of blindness. Sacks (1995, p. 109)asks:
What would vision be like in such a patient? Would it be normal from the moment visionwas restored? This is what one might think at first. This is the commonsensical notion thatthe eyes will be opened, the scales will fall from them, and (in the words of the NewTestament) the blind man will receive sight.
When Virgils bandages were removed, Sacks (1995, pp. 113-14) was able to offer tofollowing answer:
Finally, in mid-September, the day of surgery came. Virgils right eye had its cataractremoved, and a new lens implant was inserted; then the eye was bandaged, as is customary,for twenty-four hours of recovery. The following day, the bandage was removed, and Virgilseye was finally exposed, without cover, to the world. The moment of truth had finally come.
Or had it? The truth of the matter . . . was infinitely stranger. The dramatic moment stayedvacant, grew longer, sagged. No cry (I can see!) burst from Virgils lips. He seemed to bestaring blankly, bewildered, without focusing, at the surgeon, who stood before him, stillholding the bandages. Only when the surgeon spoke saying Well? did a look ofrecognition cross Virgils face.
Virgil told me later that in this first moment he had no idea what he was seeing. There waslight, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out ofthe blur came a voice that said, Well? Then, and only then, he said, did he finally realize thatthis chaos of light and shadow was a face and, indeed, the face of his surgeon.
It is very difficult to imagine what Virgil saw in those first few moments. Themechanics of Virgils eyes enabled him to see, but what he saw had no coherence, nopattern. His retina and optic nerve were active and transmitting impulses, but his braincould make no sense of them because it had no experience in seeing the patterns thatdetermined how each of these discrete and particular sensations fit together in acoherent way. Sacks tells the story of how Virgil subsequently had to learn to see, ofhow perceptions had to be understood in the context of other perceptions. For example,Virgil was able to pick up details quite quickly. He could see an angle, an edge, a color,or a movement. But he lacked the ability to form a complex perception at a glance.Sacks (1995, p. 123) writes:
This was one reason the cat, visually, was so puzzling: he would see a paw, the nose, the tail,an ear, but could not see all of them together, to see the cat as a whole.
Virgils experience can be likened to the experience of being able to recognize eachdiscrete word in this paragraph and then being unable to combine them in anycoherent way. Virgils experience demonstrates that the world a person sees andexperiences is one that is created by the relation of stimuli to other stimuli and notsome pure perception of the world as it really is.
A beautiful mind: when patterns become pathologicalOne group of people who put considerable effort and ingenuity into creating patternsare mathematicians. Number theory, for example, investigates the mutualrelationships of common whole numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. Like the rouletteplayer decoding the patterns in the history of the wheels previous spins, themathematician seeks patterns and relationships within number systems to seek themost elegant theorems and complex proofs which are all perfectly coherent within thesymbolic and number systems from which they were derived.
de Saussure andFoucault
However, problems can arise when one confuses the patterns within the numbers tobe indicative of some real pattern out in the world. This confusion is represented in RonHowards (Howard and Grazer, 2002) movie version of Sylvia Nasars (1998) ABeautiful Mind, the biography of John Nash, the Princeton mathematician and 1994Nobel Prize winner. Nash is a mathematical genius who is able to identify andarticulate patterns and relationships within number systems that others simply cannotsee. Nasar (1998, p. 12) writes that:
Nashs genius was of that mysterious variety more often associated with music and art thanwith the oldest of all sciences. It wasnt merely that his mind worked faster, that his memorywas more retentive, or that his power of concentration was greater. The flashes of intuitionwere non-rational . . . Nash saw the vision first, constructing the laborious proofs longafterward. But even after hed try to explain some astonishing result, the actual route he hadtaken remained a mystery to others who tried to follow his reasoning.
However, Nash took his ability to find patterns to pathological extremes. Nasar (1998,p. 167) writes that:
All through his childhood, adolescence, and brilliant student career, Nash had seemed largelyto live inside his own head, immune to the emotional forces that bind people together. Hisoverriding interest was in patterns, not people, and his greatest need was making sense of thechaos within and without by employing, to the largest possible extent, the resources of hisown powerful, fearless, fertile mind.
As suggested by Nasar and depi...