Grey Room

Signs and Sight: Jacques Bertin and the Visual Language of Structuralism

Alexander Campolo

Laboratoire de cartographie, École pratique des hautes études. Diagram of “Social Structure and Marriage Rules of the Aranda Type,” in Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966).


The preface of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind marks the crest of the structuralist wave that swept through French intellectual life during the 1960s. In just two pages Lévi-Strauss surveys the postwar traditions, from phenomenology to existentialism, whose humanist foundations were beginning to shake. The preface concludes with a brief note of gratitude addressed to the designer who gave The Savage Mind its distinctive visual style: “I would like to express my warm thanks to my colleague, Jacques Bertin, professor at the École des Hautes Études who was kind enough to make some of the diagrams for me in his laboratory.” The inclusion of Bertin, a geographer and graphic theorist, is a small detail given the ambitious scope of the larger work. But the structuralist period would be difficult to imagine without his signature diagrams, a visual language of signs whose combinatorics constitute culture. A seemingly minor technical acknowledgment opens onto structuralism’s most important philosophical stakes.