Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

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Mapping Romanian structuralism at the crossroads of cultural models

Adriana Stan

pp. 2

1The 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” Cusset 2008 pub-140281 287-288 – 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 all 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.

2Why this „semantic basin” of theory coalesced in interwar Central-Eastern Europe is to this day a challenging question. In a 2004 essay Tihanov 2004 pub-137618 , Galin Tihanov (born in Bulgaria, now a British academic) explains the emergence of theory in the area by the poliglossia and multiculturalism of Central-Eastern Europe, whose nations traditionally treasured literature, but lived under political domination and experienced the fertile intersection of several cultures, between which local intellectuals found it hard to choose. Besides being multilingual, Central-Eastern intellectuals also travelled a lot, to the point of (self)exile, both in the East and the West. Equally important in the area was the historical anteriority and theoretical precedence of German philosophy, assimilated here straight from its sources. However, after the First World War, idealist philosophy’s venerable edifice began to unravel, and, although it did not entirely crumble, part of it shifted to the smaller construction of literary theory. I cannot but agree with Professor Tihanov’s extremely convincing big picture, nevertheless, I should point out that he projects a rather optimistic view on the presumed cosmopolitanism of a region where nationalism had long been inscribed as a matrix of cultural products and of literary studies.

3As a matter of fact, despite the fact that theories „travel” internationally, as Edward Said famously stated Said 2000 436-452 pub-229436 , they ultimately land within national academic configurations, which are culturally shaped and assimilate differently methods and ideas from abroad. Structuralism makes this point obvious in two of its most famous cultural milieus: in French literary studies, where it entered mainly via Eastern-European theorists, structuralism triggered the shift from the positivist paradigm of Lansonian literary history to a formalist paradigm, based on intrinsic approaches of literariness; in opposition, American literary studies, where a formalist paradigm had already developed during New Criticism, used French Theory to dismantle the structures of literariness, in order to reveal the historical, political, biographical contexts that shaped those structures in the first place. Therefore, I consider more relevant to the present argument Said’s further distinction that, while certain „travelling theories” might lose some of the political force fuelling them in their home country, other theories could also enhance their problematic scope on their arrival in a new culture.

4The 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 were related by centuries-old traditions to French and German cultural centers and followed 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”. See Tötösy de Zepetnek 1999 89-110 pub-229438 However, the picture would be incomplete if we forgot that, besides a hegemonic (Western and/or Eastern) center, the cultures in the area also pursued from the 19th century their own ethnocentric national projects. Even more relevant is that nationalism reemerged in the post-Stalinist age to stimulate the construction of self-referential cultural identities. Slovenian researcher Marko Juvan elaborates upon this argument, by saying:

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. Juvan 2018 pub-229440

5 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 D’haen, Goerlandt & Sell 2015 pub-229441 , charting common routes of theoretical circulation, or common patterns of cultural valorisation. This commonality would define, for instance, Slavic, Balkan, or Baltic literatures, which, despite the particulars of their national struggles, shared political sovereigns, as well as large areas of artistic imaginary. However, this potential communality was challenged by several forces in the socialist period. The Soviet center, for instance, did not encourage mutual support and communication between its satellites, which were treated in a „conspiratorial cell-party” logic Emerson 2006 204 pub-229443 . As such, literary translations were restricted, with the Eastern-European languages-to-Russian translations rarely matched by translations among non-Russian languages themselves (e.g., from Latvian to Hungarian, or Romanian to Slovak). Moreover, even if postwar structuralism and semiotics enabled the foundation of a transnational academic network, it still had to follow Cold War-traced borders. Despite mastering a similar theoretical dialect, Eastern-European intellectuals remained confined to their local academic milieus and, more often than not, missed opportunities to enter the international homologation circuit accessed by French-American researchers. In conclusion, in order to account for the international circuit of structuralism, one needs to challenge entirely the customary narrative of the unidirectional West-to-East transfer, but also the traditional distribution of power poles, by considering instead the multiple centers of European structuralism, as well as the many barriers state socialism put up in the path of intellectual exchange.

6But 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 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 Dosse 1991 450 pub-113683 does, remains a ready-made idea. What it does, however, leave out, are entire branches and rhizomes of structuralism’s complex history and development, which spanned beyond Europe and stirred several waves during the 20th century.

7One can easily single out some of the reasons that underlie this „disregard typical for Western historians and commentators of structuralism” Doležel 1998 205 pub-229444 . The first and foremost is, of course, the recency of the French wave, which peaked in the middle of the 1960s and whose vogue, prolonged over the 1970s, was directly reflected in the standard reference literature. Another reason has to do with French culture’s prestige and its (still) widely circulating language. But in spite of 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 the said languages and cultures.

8The 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” Emerson 2011 82 pub-229447 .

9Although 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 Sériot 1999 Structure et totalité pub-101476 , scientific paradigms don’t come to life by pure acrobatics of the mind, and don’t float in a vacuum, but are nurtured by local epistemes and by national cultures’ climate of ideas.

10Its 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 strengthen 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 See Martin 2002 pub-229449 . Thus, the postwar resurgence of the national idea in Romanian culture altered the theoretical ideas imported from France, sometimes to the point of distortion, but most often to an extent that challenges the customary balance of cultural power between center and periphery.

11But before further exploring this context, let me point out that Romania is hardly to be found on the European map of structuralism,1 more exactly, in the secondary literature on the topic. This happens in spite of the international acknowledgement of several Romanian critics and theorists linked to structuralism, who published studies in the specialty journals of the 1970s (Mihai Pop, Solomon Marcus, Sorin Alexandrescu, Toma Pavel, Sanda Golopenția), and in spite of the fact that Romanian-born comparatist Thomas Pavel wrote himself a remarkable (and devastating) account of French structuralism (Le mirage linguistique, 1988).

12From 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 the iconoclast, subversive program of Western structuralism that was 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 emerged here in the postwar period as a brand-new and mainly import-based product.

13In 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.

14Viewed as such, the terms of the French import in postwar Romanian criticism look predictably unidirectional. As we very well know, the socialist context strongly limited academic mobility and 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” Pop 1979 2 pub-229450 and facing the French prestigious counterpart might have exposed him to an „anxiety of presence”.

15Indeed, 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 that enabled 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.2 Likewise, French theory’s epistemological speculations were whittled down to the goals of text analysis, and to the standards of an essentialist, un-self-reflexive type of criticism. Romanian universities, librarires, literary press abunded in books and comments upon structuralism, yet the theory was still met publicly with a constant rhetoric of mistrust and divergence. Even French theory’s few assumed critical partisans felt obliged to express doubts and moderate their enthusiasm. Although a full-fledged domain of literary theory did emerge in Romania through French theory’s input, the mainstream critical discourse asserted itself thorugh a long-inscribed, and apparently not contested „resistance to theory”. Favouring, for instance, the moderate Genette, instead of the radical Barthes, was rather an argument for the fact that Romanian critics succesfully avoided the hard core of French structuralism.

16All 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.

17As I extensively argued in my 2017 book 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. At 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.

18Several 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.

19As many historians have 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 the formalist-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.

20Such 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, however, remains the only historian to point out that Roman Jakobson’s structuralism (never transplanted as such in Western theory) designated an „epistemological world” Sériot 1999 291 pub-101476 extremely different from Saussure’s. Jakobson’s world projected by his linguistic and literary theories did not rely upon mechanical relations, but upon organic wholes, it was characterized by symmetry, homogeneity, periodicity, and the correspondence of all elements. What informed those theories was a substantialist thinking, which supplemented the scientific rationality with metaphysical representations, remnants of the Byzantine world’s neoplatonism or the 19th century organicism. A similar „world” was projected by pro-structuralist critic Sorin Alexandrescu when he advocated the text’s „organic” cohesion of elements Alexandrescu 1965 136-145 pub-229453 , or by comparatist Virgil Nemoianu in his theoretical frame of Central-Eastern Europe’s „tamed” Romanticism Nemoianu 1984 pub-229398 . One can indeed feel an air of the place ("air du lieu" – more than an air of the time ("air du temps") that would be measured by the Western clock – in the metaphors of the „organism” frequently used by Romanian structuralists, in their synthetic perception of text structures’ vital interplay, in their plea for a critical method able to „naturally” fit the text. Through such intellectual attitudes, Romania was affiliated with its neighbouring countries, although, in many other respects, they remained foreign. Contrary to the Russian, Polish or Czech case, Romanian structuralism was a postwar, import product, with no local antecedents. But the shape it assumed and the literary market it sustained stood for a regional brand – of structuralism, at least – among the 1960-1989 socialist cultures from Central-Eastern Europe.


  • 1 Not even on its more confined Slavic map: in Bojtár 1985 Slavic Structuralism pub-137624 , there is no mention of Romania.
  • 2 See Alexandru Matei’s excellent Matei 2017 Roland Barthes, mitologii românești pub-229451 , for the similarities that Romanian critics of the 1960s force between the structuralist Roland Barthes and the impressionistic interwar critic G. Călinescu.


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Publication details

Published in:

Apostolescu Iulian (2021) Romanian Structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 3.

Pages: 2

Full citation:

Stan Adriana (2021) „Mapping Romanian structuralism at the crossroads of cultural models“. Acta Structuralica 3, 2.