What’s in Your Pipe?: Notes on Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism begins from an attempt to understand the arbitrary “structures” that give signs meaning. Ferdinand de Saussure, who was a linguist and semiotician, broke signs down into the signifier and the signified. This simple deconstruction of what constitutes a sign describes the basic semiotic relation we deploy intuitively every day. For example, I can pick up a pen and say “this is a pen” and everything is right with the world. The signifier is that which points and the signified is that which is pointed to; the signifier is the word “pen” and what is signified is an ink-based writing instrument. But then, why is a “pen” called a pen? If we think about it, there is no material relationship between the word “pen” and the object it describes. This becomes all the more apparent when we ask people who speak different languages what they call a pen. They’re all going to have their own word for it. What Saussure argues, then, is that we understand very intuitively that that relationship between signifier and signified only works because the pen-as-sign is captured within this sprawling informative structure we have called language. And that’s it. That’s all there is. In this sense, a “pen” doesn’t just signify an object in itself but its entire web of relations. A pen isn’t just called a pen so you can identify pens but so you can distinguish pens from paper and paper from desks and desks from rooms and rooms from houses, etc. etc. etc. 

It’s one of those things that seems very, very obvious but actually has very complex implications. For the structuralists, this affects our understanding of language — and society more broadly — quite utterly. This is not, for instance, a materialist analysis of language, because there is no material relation that explains why a pen is called a pen. The naming of a pen is totally arbitrary. Language is structural, then, in that it explains itself. We use words to explain words. There’s no hidden substrate that gets us back to some sort of foundational truth. We are beings trapped in language.

This has an impact on a lot of philosophy in the 20th century. Jacques Derrida, very famously, doesn’t just reconstruct language systems but deconstructs them. Michel Foucault does something very similar, albeit with history. Whilst there is nothing outside the text, or outside of language, we can find interesting trajectories of thought when we consider how language is constructed over time. And, in so doing, we may be able to get back to some material foundation, which explains, if not the word themselves, then the opposing relations that demanded new terms be constructed. Through such a process, we can also deconstruct language to produce new meanings within it as well. Jacques Lacan takes a similar approach and applies it to psychoanalysis. He “gets out” of language and the baggage of its arbitrariness, so to speak, by turning to mathematics.  

For Deleuze and Guattari, however, the arbitrariness of naming allows them to have a lot more fun with language. If language is without material foundation, it is essentially a house of cards. But, for Deleuze, this doesn’t necessarily make the structure of language fragile. In his book Logic of Sense he explores how “nonsense” still has a function within the structure of language despite structuralists’ attempts to rationalise it, and explains how its application doesn’t undermine sense but instead expands its possibilities. It is in this (non)sense that Alice in Wonderland becomes its own sort of philosophical text. It’s as if Carroll’s is a kind of non-Euclidean linguistics that may not follow the standard rules of language and its structures of grammar but which still expresses truths and meanings. And wrapping our heads around that leads us to some strange and interesting places.

We see a similar sort of process occurring in the “Geology of Morals” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus. From the very beginning, it is clearly a promiscuous text that uses various sorts of language interchangeably, shifting from the fictional to the philosophical to the geological to the structuralist. Indeed, through its narrative framing device of a kind of post-Conan Doyle fiction, we see sense and nonsense become entwined. Professor Challenger, a character lifted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s various tales, wholly embodies his own name. He is there to challenge and oppose the neatly structured relations that otherwise provide consistent meaning. He, as the man who made the world scream, is not interested in reconstructing histories or stratas. He wants to take on the world on its own terms, in its totality, and he engages with language in much the same way. He places the convivial and the technical side by side. What happens here, in this post-structuralist play, is that the signifier and the signified can no longer be wrestled apart. Theory and fiction are no longer split between that which points and that which is pointed to, but instead become reconstituted as a singular sign, as a part of language, as a multiple that, when added up, becomes One; becomes its own thing. This is how the Earth becomes a body without organs. When we explore its depths, we have to organise all the dirt we dig up, perhaps for our own sanity, but in so doing we undermine the process itself. 

It is why this chapter is such a dizzying reading experience. If we were to approach it like diligent little readers, breaking down its references and movements, we would love work in its totality. We would lose its own movement and the force of its presentation. This is to say that, in our attempts to render it more legible, by annotating and footnoting every aspect that is not immediately clear to the average reader, we would likely render it even more illegible. This is the double bind that Deleuze and Guattari speak of. To analyse its content, we lose the power of its expression. But in embracing the power of its expression, we must sacrifice the lucidity of its content. 

This observation is scalable. We can apply it to theory-fiction on the one hand, as that awkwardly-named cleft concept, which cannot be understood either as a composite or a singular entity without losing the true meaning of its gesture, but we can also apply it to the earth itself. Who does the earth think it is? That is, what is the earth beyond the limits of our knowledge? And what influence does this unknown entity have on our own attempts to “stratify” it?


This is Magritte’s 1929 painting The Treachery of Images. “This is not a pipe”, he says, and he’s right. It’s not an actual pipe but we understand that a painting of a pipe signifies a pipe all the same.

What his painting does is highlight that semiotic relation and make us laugh because we get caught up in the slippage that results from the signified — a pipe — being impossibly torn away from its signifier — a painting of a pipe. But there is also a further tearing that results from this, whereby the word “pipe”, which is also present, is made just as ridiculous as the picture and its object.

So Magritte effectively deploys two signifiers for a pipe in order to tell us that the signifier is not the signified, and yet, whereas we might expect this paradoxical presentation to make the whole world crumble, nothing changes. We can both appreciate the painting’s content — its cascading mess of asignifying relations and deterritorialization — and its expression: the aesthetic qualities of the painting as a painting, as a world within its own frame. 

Here we have a feedback loop, maybe — what Deleuze and Guattari call the plane of consistency. What allows us to appreciate the relationship between content and expression is precisely their innate distinction from one another, that is nonetheless dependent on the friction that disturbs us. In geological terms, we can say that Magritte’s painting erodes the meaning associated with each signifier, but the painting itself provides space for sedimentation to occur again. We can laugh at the utter crisis of meaning on display — the content, which Deleuze and Guattari describe as the “abstract machine” — because it is contained by the boundaries of the painting — the expression, or the plane of consistency. Here, again, we have the double bind — and we might note that it is similar to a process we discussed in the first episode of this podcast, on the body without organs; what Spinoza calls “nature naturing”. 

If we are struggling to follow the twists and turns, I always fall back on an observation that is, at once, superficial, but may help us to anchor ourselves in the process we are trying to better understand. To what extent is this text, “The Geology of Morals”, doing rather than explaining what it hopes to describe? How is it demonstrating its thesis through the very explication of its thesis? 

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