Article Image

Note: this post is drawn from a larger project applying critical theory to data structures.

Every model is an interpretation, a simplification, a representation. In The Prison House of Language, Jameson discusses the way in which our choice of a model affects how we think through problems, and the effect on our understanding of the adoption of language as a model after Saussure. The history of structuralism and poststructuralism is the history of the linguistic model in both an initial, expansive phase, and later a critical, “deconstructive” phase. The main task of poststructuralism is to expose the power dynamics and dominance relations implicit in both structuralism and language itself. It is unsurprising then that poststructuralists like Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze not only held up the linguistic model to critique but also, in various ways, offered their own alternatives, both methodological and structural. In terms of methodology, Derrida’s deconstruction offered a means to analyze and expose the asymmetrical power relations inherent in structural analysis, while Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge sought to demonstrate that the long, smooth histories performed by structuralists (e.g. the Annales school) were in fact punctuated by breaks, disruptions, sudden changes of structure from one moment to another. These breaks are played down or erased by structuralist historiography in favour of an account of the long-term structural development. Alternative structures, rather than methodologies, were proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, where they offer up the “rhizome” as a model which might avoid the hierarchy and domination inherent in other kinds of structures. The poststructuralists were concerned by the oppressive or repressive effects of various kinds of authority/hierarchy within a structure. The domination of one side of a binary opposition over the other must be deconstructed; structures with origins, roots, privileged terms, must be countered by other structures. For Deleuze, the rhizome was opposed to the tree (in which a single node determines the leaves and branches) and the root-systems, in which an entire structure grows out of a single root. The rhizome, on the other hand, is undifferentiated, it is a network of relationships in all their chaotic multiplicity. The rhizome, Deleuze contends is not a model or an interpretation (a “tracing”) in which reality is simplified and distorted, but is (in some sense) reality itself, or at the very least a “map” of reality (“Whenever a multiplicity is taken up in a structure, its growth is offset by a reduction in its laws of combination”). In Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari take aim primarily at Freudian interpretation, in which the reality of the patient’s life and lived experience is simplified and reduced to the terms of the Oedipal model. But for Deleuze and Guattari, the issue is not simply with Freudianism, but with models in general. They stand against the reduction, simplification, and interpretation of reality and for (again, in some sense) reality itself, understood in all its multiplicity.

The urge to not limit or reduce the scope of action or of understanding was reflected, in Umberto Eco’s view, by a trend towards aleatoric, or open, works of art. The “open work” (opera aperta) is freed from the domination of the author’s will, intent, or model of reality.

It is instead the end product of an author’s effort to arrange a sequence of communicative effects in such a way that each individual addressee can refashion the original composition devised by the author. […] As he reacts to the play of stimuli and his own response to their patterning, the individual addressee is bound to supply his own existential credentials, the sense conditioning which is peculiarly his own, a defined culture, a set of tastes, personal inclinations, and prejudices. […] The work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood. (Eco, The Open Work, 3)

Not only is the author’s model no longer privileged, but there is no privileged interpretation - in fact, there is no interpretation at all: the response to the work of art is as multifaceted as reality itself.

Eco insists upon the difference between French avant-garde art, which took structuralism as its model, and the Italian which, he says

posits a universe which poetry does not set out to judge. Rather, the aim of poetry is to capture and fix it in all its disponibilité, its myriad connotations and equivocations, its potential Otherness, its implicit capacity to vouchsafe to the poet something not yet known to him. (Eco, The Open Work, 244)

In other words, despite his insistence on the fundamental difference between the French and Italian approaches, Eco’s view would not be out of place in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, in which multiplicity and openness of life, experience, reality, are fundamental, and any aesthetic or model which seeks to limit or circumvent these is seen as oppressive if not fundamentally corrupt.

In the French context, as Eco points out, the avant-garde “preferred to take structuralism as its operational model” and Eco mentions Roland Barthes in this regard. The importance of Barthes to this discussion comes from his concept of “readerly” (lisible) vs. “writable” (scriptible) texts. While most texts, according to Barthes, are readerly (in Eco’s view they are “closed”, their meaning is circumscribed), writerly texts are open, the reader (Eco’s “addressee”) is an active participant in the construction of meaning. In contrast to this opposition (i.e. in contrast to this model), Barthes offers a conception of the ideal text in which

the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable…’ the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language.(Barthes, S/Z, 5)

Compare this with the characterization of the rhizome:

Principle of multiplicity: it is only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, “multiplicity,” that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world. Multiplicities are rhizomatic, and expose arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide in the subject. There is not even the unity to abort in the object or “return” in the subject. A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows). Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet in other dimensions connected to the first. (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 8)

It should be clear that, no matter how “anti-interpretive” these structuralist and poststructuralist conceptions are, each posits its own hermeneutic which it is hoped will avoid the tyrannies of centre, origin, root, or power. For Jameson, “all of the original philosophical systems or positions in recent times”, including those which claimed an anti-interpretative stance, as well as those which offered a “neutral” concept of “immanent critique” (such as the New Criticism), “have in one way or another projected a hermeneutic which is specific to them”. For structuralism and poststructuralism the “master code” of the hermeneutic is language itself even when, as with Derrida and Deleuze, the hermeneutic itself is offered up to critical analysis.

In The Political Unconscious, Jameson is concerned to show that “Marxism subsumes other interpretive modes or systems” like existentialism or the various structuralisms.

To put it in methodological terms, [their limits] can always be overcome, and their more positive findings retained, by a radical historicizing of their mental operations, such that not only the content of the analysis, but the very method itself, along with the analyst, then comes to be reckoned into the “text” or phenomenon to be explained. (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 57)

The key to Jameson’s project can be found, ironically enough, in Derrida’s dictum “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is no outside-the-text). While this has been sometimes understood as stating that critique can and should only ever be immanent (“there is nothing beyond the words of the text”), Derrida can also be understood as saying that text and context are one, are unified in a totality of interpretation. If this reading of Derrida is correct, then in fact he and Jameson are fundamentally in agreement. For Marxists, the concept of “totality” is a difficult and dangerous one, easily equated as it is with “totalitarianism” and this with the myth of communist facelessness, the erasure of the individual, and the gulag. For Marxist critics, totality has often been seen as a vulgar, lazy interpretation of cause and effect, in which the economic and social totality creates concrete effects within a work of art (the epitome of this view of course is socialist realism). For Jameson, all hermeneutics can be understood in terms of their relation of the work of art to the totality: is the critique immanent or transcendent?

Rightly or wrongly, a totalizing criticism has been felt to be transcendent in the bad sense, or in other words to make appeal, for its interpretive content to spheres and levels outside the text proper. (Political Unconscious, 57)

But Marxist criticism, due to its dialectical and historicizing nature, is able to widen the scope of an interpretation in order to draw both the work and the interpretation into the total social relations at a given historical moment.

Thus, it can be argued that [the Marxist type] of interpretation, while containing a transcendent moment, foresees that moment as merely provisionally extrinsic, and requires for its completion a movement to the point at which that apparently external content (political attitudes, ideological materials, juridical categories, the raw materials of history, the economic processes) is then at length drawn back within the process of reading.(Political Unconscious, 57)

There has been much discussion recently about the supposed “neutrality” of algorithms (most recently, Matthew Reidsma’s “Algorithmis Bias in Library Discovery Systems”). The logic of some algorithms have been held up as examples of ways in which supposedly neutral technologies (and technologists) in fact promote, normalize, and reproduce existing ideological structures of dominance and inequality. In fact, the algorithms (or at least their effects, their symptoms) are being read as texts, are being interpreted, are being subject to more-or-less conscious and rigorous hermeneutics. This is not the first time that seemingly neutral elements of data or information have been subjected to ideological interpretation. Hope Olson, for example, has written about the effect of patriarchal ideologies on knowledge organization, and in 2002 wrote The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries, in which she deconstructs subject classification to demonstrate that certain terms of class, race, gender, etc., are privileged and others marginalized and excluded. Olson’s description of controlled vocabularies (“librarians’ tools for naming subjects”) follow the linguistic tree model that Deleuze and Guattari critique in A Thousand Plateaus. The structure of controlled vocabularies support and reproduce linguistic dominance (“the power to name”) by limiting, structuring, modeling descriptive data:

[A] controlled vocabulary is a language universally applicable within the context of a library catalogue or index […] It is the only set of terms or notations that may be used within that system. The exclusivity of a controlled vocabulary requires it to be complete at any given time for the naming of a given universe of information. […] [T]he selection of concepts to be named defines the limits of the system, its inclusions and exclusions. The selection of terms for these concepts often introduces blatant biasses or, more commonly, subtle, insidious marginalizations.(Olson, The Power to Name, 6)

One of the principles of semantic, or linked, data, is the open-world principle, which suggests that whatever is represented within a given structure, we can always assume there is more that is unsaid. Combined with the AAA principle (“anyone can say anything about any topic”), linked data seems to offer a way out of the domination and repression offered up by other data models (including the data models that underlie traditional bibliographic description). It seemed to me that, given the supposed neutrality of data structures and models, as well as the way in which the semantic graph seems to approach the ideal of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome (their equivalent of Barthes ideal text), that it might be useful to attempt to apply Jameson’s method to the question of semantic data. That project is still underway.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview