Structuralism and its critics

Lucia Allais

This course revisits structuralism as an analytical tradition since the turn of the 20th century, emphasizing its impact on the study of architecture, visual culture, technical media, and the built environment. 

The word “structure” has made a forceful return in English-language public discourse in the last few years, with demands for “structural change” becoming mainstream in cultural production and political action alike.  

To understand the radical promise and the troubling problems of thinking structurally, we will look at structuralism’s critical legacy, in two senses of the term. First, by looking at how structuralist paradigms emerged as powerful critiques of other models of explanation, from functionalism in sociology to iconography in art history. At the same time, we will attend to the equally powerful critiques to which structuralism was subjected by post-formalist, post-structuralist, and post-colonial thinkers. Challenging timeless notions of structuration, they instead leveraged concepts such as difference and arbitrariness in new ways, to uncover historical discourses of power, agency, and ideology. 

The course proceeds thematically. We will read landmark texts and interpretations of structuralist thought, along with the work of authors who adapted those methods to the study of non-textual cultural artefacts. Our aim will be to render strange again concepts that have continued familiarity in the social sciences and the humanities: “structure,” but also “code”, “signifier”, “episteme”, “habitus,” “myth,” and so on. 

Graduate students from all disciplines are welcome and should contact the instructor if interested.