The following post is taken from my book A Beginner’s Guide to Modern Critical Theory
Structuralism has its origin in the science of linguistics. In 1915 ferdinand de Sassure of France published Cours de Lingustique Generale, from which the basis of linguistics was established. From this point of evolution, the movement under the label of Structuralism started in the field of language and literary theory, which is concerned with ‘language’ in a most general sense (not just the language of utterance in speech and writing).
Structuralism considers everything, from the point of view of codes of communication. Any way Sassure made a number of important original contributions:
- The concept of language as a sign system: According to Sassure, language is a ‘sign system’ or structure whose individual components can be understood only in relation to each other and to the system as a whole
Code: Though ‘code’ generally means a collection or digest of laws or a system of rules etc., in structuralism it is rather specific – it denotes a culture’s system of signification through which reality is mediated. The theory of structuralism is that all cultural phenomena are products of codes or code.
Everything in the theory of structuralism, is a product of a system of signification or code. The relationship between the elements of the code give it signification . codes are arbitary (as all signs are arbitary).
- Distinction between “langue”and “parole”: “Langue” and “parole” are the terms which Sassure introduced as fundamental to structuralism. Their English equivalents are “language” and “speech”. “Langue” denotes the system or totality of language shared by the ‘collective unconsciousness’ . Thus ‘langue’ means the whole system of language with its elements like rules for combination (grammar, syntax etc.). ‘Parole’ is the use which individuals make of the resources of language, which the system produces or combines, in speech or writing or utterance. ‘Langue’ is what people use in thinking and “parole” is what they use in speaking or writing. So the former is abstract where as the later is concrete. Sassure hence defined distinguistic study as the study of system which underlies any particular human signifying human practice, not the individual utterance.. thus “langue” represents the language as a whole (e.g. French, English etc.) and “parole” representing utterance, a particular use of individual units of language.
- Distinction between “Diachronic” and “Synchronic”: sassure coined these two terms in 1913. A diachronic approach to a study of language involves an examination of its origin, development, history and change. In contrast synchronic approach entails a study of the linguistic system in a particular state without reference to time. The importance of the Synchronic approach is that, Sassure theorized each sign as with out any properties other than the specific relational ones which defines it with in its own system.
- Distinction between “Signifier” and “Signified”: In Cours de Linguistique Generale (1915) sassure describes language system as a ‘series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas’. He coined two terms “Signifier” and “Signified”. According to him , each sign in language is an union of signifier (i.e. sound image or its graphic equivalent) and a signified (i.e. the concept referred to). The letter of h-o-u-s-e, form a signifierwhich evoke the signified ‘house’. The association of signifier and signified has no natural link. And each sign in a linguistic system possesses ‘meaning’ by virtue of the fact that it is different from any other sign rather than because of any linguistic reason why this should be so. ‘House’ is different from ‘louse’ or ‘mouse’. Thus a word can be identified because of how it is related to, and different from other words in that linguistic system. As Sassure puts it: “in language there are only differences without positive terms”. Sassure’s works have been fundamental to all developments in structuralism and post-structuralism and hence have also influenced psychoanalytical criticism as developed by for instance Jacques Lacan.
Structuralism during this period was being influenced by three movements (and which were also labeled under it):
- C. S. Peirce’s “Semiotics”
- Geneva School of “Phenomenology”
- Prague Linguistic Circle (Russian formalism)
Strauss’ Myth criticism and Narratology
Then structuralism was furthered by Claude Levi-Strauss, who developed a structural theory (later known as Narratology) in a consideration of myth, ritual and kinship, especially in his classic work Anthropologie Structurale (1958). He sees social structure as kind of model and shows that the behaviour patterns of kinship and the existence of institutions depend on methods of communication that are all characteristics of how the human mind works. Thus he analyses modes of thoughts as well as modes of action, looking for the system of differences which underline practice, rather than their origins and causes. This developed into “Narratology” – a further aspect of structuralism.]
Narratology or the “Structuralist Analysis of Narratives” was begun by Strauss in 1958. He believes that the totality (i.e. all myths that are available) have some constant, basic and universal structures, through which all myths can be explained.
He sees myth as language system, which can be broken into smaller individual units called ‘mythemes’ – by analogy with phonemes. Myths can be read in relation to each other rather than as reflecting a particular version. Hence the concept of a kind of ‘grammar’ or ‘set of relations’ under the surface of the narrative. Later this theory was developed into a major part of critical theory.
After 1966 onwards two new views in context with structuralism came to front:
I. Deconstruction theory
Both of these provided complement to structuralism.
In 1966, Jaquous Derrida published an essay titled : Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences which was later followed by his book Of Grammatology (1967). In these two works Derrida argued the following:
- A text can be read as something quite different from what it appears to be saying. In short a text may possess so many different meanings that it can not have a meaning (i.e. there is no guaranteed essential meaning to a text).
- The priority since the time of Plato was given to speech over writing, as it was believed that there is a gap in writing, which speech does not possess. But Derrida’s theory argued that both speech and writing are lacking in ‘presence’. In short previously the meaning conveyed by (or signified by) speech was considered as instable and writing having a fix stable meaning. But Derrida’s theory that a text can’t have a meaning, stressed that writing is equally unstable.
- Derrida’s theory suggested that there can’t be ‘binary opposition’ in a language system or any code. As Derrida believed that a text does not have a single meaning of any kind and as there is only the text and no meaning, then it can not have a centre, to which there can exist a binary opposition. Hence, he discarded presence of any binary opposition in a text. Moreover, he has mentioned that in the place of binary opposition there exist ‘disseminations’ (i.e. diffusement of meaning) . the various meanings spread over one another and hence betray any center.
- Derrida proposed the theory of “Differance”, which he used to oppose “logo centrism”. In French language “differer” means to “postpone, to delay” and also it means “to differ or be different from”. Derrida uses “differance” in pushing Sassure’s theory to its logical conclusion and argues that to differ or differentiate is also to defer, postpone or withheld. The word itself illustrates Derrida’s point that writing doesn’t copy speech; the distinction between the two different forms “differance” and “difference” doesn’t correspond to any distinction in their spoken form. Thus meaning is continuously and endlessly postponed as each word leads us on to yet another word in the system of signification. So, Derrida sees a text as an endless sequence of signifiers, which has no ultimate signifier.
Barthe’s Poststructuralism –The Death of Author
In 1967 Ronald Barthe published Elements of Semiology (1967), which stands as a temporal marker of post-structuralism. Hence he proposed that structuralism is capable of an explanation of any sign system of any culture (i.e. all system of signification). But he also perceives that such an explanation necessitates a theology of meaning or explanation. This gave rise to the idea of “Meta Language”, which in fact “beyond language” or “Second order language” which is used to describe, explain or interprete a “First order language”. Each order of language implicitly relies on a metalanguage by which it is explained. Regarding metalanguage Barthes says that when one language is interpreted there comes the indefinite regression or “Aporia”. Thus the result will be that all metalanguages will be vanished in interpreting one another. This Barthes used to defend structuralism , which stress on binary opposition and on its idea that text has a meaning (which is opposed by Deconstruction). He believed thus the signifying meanings of a text can be fixed and are need not to be diffuse or disseminated as proposed by Derrida.This theory even puts Deconstruction in a place (against its principles and design) where deconstruction acts like a meta language.
But as we see, discourse upon discourse in regression – which is one aspect of Barthe’s post structuralist thinking – is fundamentally, deconstructive. Barthe’s later theories includes his concepts of
Readerly / writerly:
Barthes proposed this theory in his book S/Z (1970). A readerly text means a book to which areader’s response is more or less passive (e.g. any realistic novel). Writerly text makes demands on the reader to work things out (e.g. Ulysses by James Joyce). Here reader is no longer a consumer but a producer of the text.
Death of Author concept of Barthes can be seen in reference to his concept of ‘writerly’ text. He believed that the reader must be free of the concept the author associated with the text. Because, the author if remains a suppressing force, then the reader sees what the author wants to project, thus he is unable to see the plurality of text. In a ‘writerly’ text the reader, is more independent to see the plurality of text.
Krestivan poststructuralism – foundation to Feminstic Criticism
Further important contributions to Post structural theory was made by Julia Krestiva of France. In 1974, she published Le Revolution du Language Poetique . in this she discusses the relationship between “orderly/rational” and “hetrogenious/irrational” and also between the “conscious” and “unconscious” . she suggests that Semiotic material is irrational and illogical, the material of impulse and rhythm ; while reason creates logic, syntax and coherence and brings about the symbolic element. There are implied antimonies such as feelings/ thoughts ; heart/ brain and to reverse the sequence in the binary opposition.
She stresses that the “semiotic element” is linked with the concept of “infant” – a word which is “speechless” – and is opposed to “symbolic order”, hence sees it as a means of undermining the symbolic order. It is at its pre-oedipal (or infant) stage is opposed to strict meaning, a static condition. Rather it is at this time fluid and it is there fore opposed to any binary opposition, such as masculine/ feminine.
Though of course there is sometimes more than a hint of binary opposition. Hence semiotic writing is bi-sexual. For instance James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are semiotic writers, using a fluid disseminated ‘writerly’ mode and style. Such kind of structural thinkings of Julia Krestiva, raised the possibility of “Feminstic Criticism” – a theory of the idea of “é criture feminine”
In 1987, Richard Harland coined the term “Superstructuralism” in his treatise Superstructuralism: the Philosophy of structuralism and Post structuralism (1987)
He uses it to cover the whole field of structuralism, post structuralism, semiotics etc.
He also suggests that the term can be read as “Superstructure – alism”, and elaborates the idea that “superstructuralists” invert our ordinary base and superstructure models until what we used to think of as super structure takes precedence over what we used to think of as basic.
A Beginner’s Guide to Modern Critical Theory published by Prakash Book Depot, bareilly, UP (India), 2005, ISBN:81-7977-147-4: This is a book for Post Graduation level students (in English Literature)of Indian Universities.
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