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This is a collection of ideas from various authors gathered together by Professor John Lye for the use of his students. This document is copyright John Lye 1996, but may be freely used for non-proft purposes. If you have any suggestions for improvement, please mail me. I. General Principles 1. Meaning occurs through difference. Meaning is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system. For instance, the meaning of the words "woman" and "lady" are established by their relations to one another in a meaning-field. They both refer to a human female, but what constitutes "human" and what constitutes "female" are themselves established through difference, not identity with any essence, or ideal truth, or the like. 2. Relations among signs are of two sorts, contiguity and substitutability, the axes of combination and selection: hence the existence of all 'grammars', hence all substitutions, hence the ability to know something by something else, or by a part of it in some way -- hence metonymy and metaphor. The conception of combination and selection provides the basis for an analysis of 'literariness' or 'poeticality' in the use, repetition and variation of sound patterns and combinations. It also provides keys to the most fundamental elements of culture. 3. Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions (being/nothingness, hot/cold, culture/nature); these oppositions structure meaning, and one can describe fields of cultural thought, or topoi, by describing the binary sets which compose them. As an illustration, here is a binary set for the monstrous 4. Structuralism forms the basis for semiotics, the study of signs: a sign is a union of signifier and signified, and is anything that stands for anything else (or, as Umberto Eco put it, a sign is anything that can be used to lie).
5. Central too to semiotics is the idea of codes, which give signs context -- cultural codes, literary codes, etc. The study of semiotics and of codes opens up literary study to cultural study, and expands the resources of the critic in discussing the meaning of texts. Structuralism, says, Genette, "is a study of the cultural construction or identification of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-spectrum of the culture." 6. Some signs carry with them larger cultural meanings, usually very general; these are called, by Roland Barthes, "myths", or second-order signifiers. Anything can be a myth. For example, two-story pillars supporting the portico of a house are a mythic signifier of wealth and elegance. 7. Structuralism introduces the idea of the 'subject', as opposed to the idea of the individual as a stable indivisible ego. Toquote from Kaja Silverman in The Subject of Semiotics, The term 'subject' foregrounds the relationship between ethnology, psychoanalysis, and semiotics. It helps us to conceive of human reality as a construction, as the product of signifying activities which are both culturally specific and generally unconscious. The category of the subject thus calls into question the notions both of the private, and of a self synonymous with consciousness. It suggests that even desire is culturally instigated, and hence collective; and it de-centers consciousness, relegating it....to a purely receptive capacity. Finally, by drawing attention to the divisions which separate one area of psychic activity from another, the term 'subject' challenges the value of stability attributed to the individual. The value of the conception is that it allows us to 'open up', conceptually, the inner world of humans, to see the relation of human experience to cultural experience, to talk cogently of meaning as something that is structured into our 'selves'. There is no attempt here to challenge the meaningfulness of persons; there is an attempt to dethrone the ideology of the ego, the idea that the self is an eternal, indivisible essence, and an attempt to redefine what it is to be a
that is. a coherent connection among the conceptions of reality. the individual. then. then the structural method. structuralism leads us to see everything as 'textual'. then literature loses some aspects of its privileged status. ordered according to a pattern of relationships. that is. Structuralism enables us to approach texts historically or trans-culturally in a disciplined way. but gains in the strength and cogency of its relationship to other areas of signification. all working according to similar laws. and the grounds for the relationship . Both the self and the unconscious are cultural constructs. made up of signs and signifying practices.person. structured by and through conventions. in particular. will insist that the subject is de-centered. Whenever we have to look more objectively. popular writing has been opened up to serious study. There is. when we are transversing barriers of time. in structuralism. This is known as "the social construction of reality. Structuralism enables both the reading of texts and the reading of cultures: through semiotics. 9. coherence and meaning. like other things. become dominant. In the view of structuralism our knowledge of 'reality' is not only coded but also conventional. codes and conventions. impenetrable realm of private meaning but is constructed through the signsystems and through the repressions of the culture. hence were not literature but 'popular writing' or 'private writing' or 'history' and so forth. 2. the social. governed by conventions of meaning. say. Post-structuralism. 3. Hence literary study has expanded to the study of textuality. or of culture or interest. II. The conception of the constructed subject opens up the borders between the conscious and the unconscious. composed of signs. The unconscious itself is not some strange. 8." 10. culture and texts 1. the search for principles of order. This sort of study opens up for serious cultural analysis texts which had hitherto been closed to such study because they did not conform to the rules of literature. Structuralism. signified and culturally constructed. When the rules of literary meaning are seen as just another set of rules for a signifying arena of a culture. The self is. the unconscious: they are all composed of the same signs.
5. more compelling. 'human'. each discourse having its protocols for meaning and typical uses of language. 1. If the reader and the text are both cultural constructions. c.for instance." Although "discourse" is a term more prevalent in post-structuralist thinking. Consequently much greater attention is paid to the nature of language-use in culture. All of culture can be studied as text. rhetoric. In extending the range of the textual we have not decreased the complexity or meaning-power of literature but have in fact increased it. Structuralism and literature See my summary of Gerard Genette's "Structuralism and Literary Criticism" for more ideas. Belief-systems can be studied textually and their role in constructing the nature of the self understood. All documents can be studied as texts -. then everything can be spoken of as being textual. both in its textual and in its cultural meaningfulness. Anthropology.between the meaning-conventions of literature and the way in which a culture imagines reality have been set. As everything that can be known. can be known by virtue of its belonging to a signifying system. history or sociology can be analyzed the way literature can be. if the cultural is textual. 2. The thesis that what seems real to us is coded and conventional leads to a consideration of how 'reality' is . or 'every-day') meanings. among other fields. as they share meaningconstructs. III. qualitative rather than quantitative study becomes more and more the norm in many areas of social science. 4. then the meaningfulness of texts becomes more apparent. it is of its nature a structuralist development. Literature is a discourse in a world of discourses. then the culture's relation to the textuality of literature becomes more immediate. is revolutionized through ethnography. more pertinent. and we can speak more clearly of the relation of literary to cultural (or. a. Language-use relating to various social topics or areas of engagement has become known as "discourse. b. subject area and so forth.
and what we mean by them.represented in art -. the signs which represent reality are 'naturalized'.or in another way of saying. We 'imitate' 'reality' by recording cultural codes. for instance. One convention of literature is that there is a persona who is articulating the text -. If we were to read it as part of a paragraph in Dickens they would make less sense. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world require certain conventions of reading. a specifically literary and artificial vraisemblance -"the series of constituent conventions which enable various sorts of works to be written. There are the conventions of genre. a. in fact codify culturally specific assumptions. This is achieved through 'vraisemblance'. that which is taken as the 'real' world -. the relations between most of these terms. Structuralist Poetics) are as follows. Things fall apart. There is the socially given text.what is taken for granted. character and significance from descriptions of action. in this case a dress code. c. "Jake put on his tuxedo and tennis shoes" will provide an interpretation of Jake or will look forward to an explanation of why he broke the cultural code. made to seem to be conforming to the laws of reality. or 'naturalization'. This is a textual phenomenon.) b. made to seem as if we could see reality through them -. The center cannot hold. truth-seeming. This is the level at which we interpret motive. attitude and so forth." The lines Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer. that is.what we get is a 'reality effect'. There is the general cultural text: shared knowledge which would be recognized by participants as part of culture and hence subject to correction or modification but which none the less serves as a kind of 'nature'. Genre is . Some elements of vraisemblance (from Culler. "Harry gazed for hours on the picture of Esmeralda" is a culturally coded statement: we read Harry's attitude. That we have minds and bodies. and so forth. dress. (Every term of "we have minds and bodies".that it comes from some organizing consciousness which can be commented on and described.
3. The narrator may claim that he is intentionally violating the conventions of a story. All surface incongruities register meaning at a level of the project of interpretation itself. Irony forces us to posit an alternate possibility or reality in the face of the reality-construction of the text. and so comment as it were on the relation between 'textual' and 'interpretive' reality. consequently our reading creates the meaning of that which we read.e. which will describe the way in which reality is apprehended or imagined. These conventions come in two 'layers': a. We read according to certain conventions. In short. the conventions of 'literature' (and of 'art' generally). but that the way he is doing it serves some higher or more substantial purpose -. construct) reality according to the conventions of representation of the time. "When a text cites or parodies the conventions of a genre one interprets it by moving to another level of interpretation where both terms of the opposition can be held together by the theme of literature itself.g. and b. when one exploits the particular conventions of a work or style or genre. d. a." -. so as to reinforce its own authority. which will include the general mimetic conventions of the art of the period. parody. The conventions of reading. to imitate reality is to represent codes which 'describe' (or. where the text explicitly cites and exposes vraisemblance of the kind directly above. the rule of significance whereby we raise the meaning of the text to its highest level of .the appeal is to a greater naturalness or a higher intelligibility. how we (culturally) think that reality is or should be represented in texts. There is what might be called the natural attitude to the artificial. e. that he knows that this is not the way it should be done according to the conventions. for instance. etc. for instance. There is the complex vraisemblance of specific intertextualities.another convention: each genre designates certain kinds of action as acceptable and excludes others.
Structuralism is oriented toward the reader insofar as it says that the reader constructs literature. Some post-structural theorists. 'symbols') will have a signifying relationship to one another on a level of meaning more complex than or 'higher' than the physical. that is. or of God). whereby we assume that all of the elements of the text contribute to the meaning of the text. these facts point to the existence of literary competence. b. at the heart of the poetic . through the conventions of reading of her interpretive community. The facts that some works are difficult to interpret.generalizability (a tree blasted by lightning might become a figure of the power of nature. 4. metaphors. the convention of figural coherence. One has in fact to learn how to read Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. such as The Waste Land. through which we assume that figures (metonyms. Spenser's The Faerie Queene. guided by a series of formal rules derived from one's experience of reading poetry. the convention of thematic unity. some are difficult to interpret for its contemporaries but not for later readers. In joining with formalism in the identification of literariness as the focus on the message itself as opposed to a focus on the addressee. c. the possession by the reader of protocols for reading. Fish for instance. Culler remarks that reading poetry is a rule-governed process of producing meanings. the addresser. These are all conventions of reading. When one reads modernist texts. and so forth. structuralism places ambiguity. some require that we learn how its contemporaries would have read them in order fully to understand them. hold that the reader constructs the text entirely. which both make possible invention and impose limits on it. or the referential function of the message. the poem offers a structure which must be filled up and one therefore attempts to invent something. one has to learn how to read them. as Genette points out. 6. reads the text with certain conventions and expectations in mind. 5.
it will be written under these codes (it can . "Different genres lead to different expectations of types of situations and actions. about conventions of reading for theme. of a cultural langue. Through structuralism. One gains an appreciation of literature as an institution. and so forth. b. 10.e. literature itself is not autonomous but is part of the larger structures of signification of the culture. the addresser and the addressee all in doubt. Structuralism underlines the importance of genre. for instance. as a coherent and related set of codes and practices. or system of signification. and so one sees also that reading is situated reading. but in the way it is read. because literariness and/or fictionality does not have to be shown to be inherent in the text.one can read a text for its 'literary' qualities or for its sociological or ideological qualities. that a number of its protocols for creation and for reading are in fact controlled by that institutional nature. Thus any work becomes the parole. Hence literary textuality is complexly meaningful. moral. as its self-referential nature puts the message. it is in a certain meaningdomain or set of codes. having to do with the idea that literature is a protocol of reading: a. As literature is a system. 9. it accommodates and explains differing readings of a text given differing reading protocols -. It explains. The idea that literature is an institution is another structuralist contribution. level of seriousness. why the same sentence can have a different meaning depending on the genre in which it appears. for instance. basic rules as to how subjects are approached. and esthetic values. the individual articulation. significance of language use. and read as complex a text in doing so.." (Genette) 8. that is.function. literature is seen as a whole: it functions as a system of meaning and reference no matter how many works there are. 7. no work of literature is an autonomous whole. two or two thousand. i. It follows that when literature is written. it explains how the boundaries of the literary can change from age to age. The following are some points based on Culler's ideas about the advantages of structuralism. and of psychological. similarly. Structuralism is a firmer starting-point for reading literature as literature than are other approaches.
but this is still a function of the codes). and often produces what might be called a grammar of narrative. creates the familiarity of reality by quoting from a large assortment of social texts which mediate and organize cultural knowledge of reality -. proairetic -. repetitions and so forth toward closure. and his promulgation of five codes of narrative. given briefly here. Structural Analysis As structuralism is so broad a theory with such extensive ramifications. This gives rise to such things as Barthes division of incidents into nuclei and catalyzers. reference -. binaries which. This is known generally as narratology. as adapted from Cohen and Shires: 1. Consequently one can be more open to challenges to and alterations of literary conventions. including the ways in which the story suspends closure. 2. and one can read readings of literature -. recognizable actions and their effects. .reading can become a more self-reflexive process. c. the binaries which the culture uses/enacts to create its meanings. 4. and which make it work.refers to various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society.marks out meaning as difference. symbolic -. that which enables meaning to happen. 1. Todorov and others investigated what the components and relations of narrative are. Greimas. IV.things (events) in their sequence. The study of the basic codes which make narrative possible.the code of narrative suspense.break or alter the codes to create effects. semic -. In a general sense.medicine.but disunite and join. 3. Barthes. structures parallels. there will be different ways of doing structural analysis. 5. of course.the field where signifiers point to other signifiers to produce a chain of recognizable connotations. hermeneutic -. d. Here are some possible approaches. Once one sees that reading and writing are both coded and based on conventions one can read 'against the grain' in a disciplined way.
through repetitions with difference. 5. becomes i) the study of naturalization. ii) the study of conventions of meaning in texts. philosophy. 4. 6. The study of the construction of meaning in texts. Thus structuralist readings ignore the specificity of actual texts and treat them as if they were like the patterns produced by iron filings moved by magnetic force--the result of some impersonal force or power. morality. diegetic (C&S's addition) -. Disclaimer Brock University Main Page . as for instance through tropes. not the result of human effort.html Last updated on November 24. The study of mimesis. that is. Hayden White analyzes the structure of Western historical narrative through a theory of tropes. Lodge shows how metaphor and metonymy can be seen to form the bases respectively of symbolic and realist texts.the narration. psychology." actual usage is abandoned in favor of studying the structure of a system in the abstract. Texts are also analyzed for their structures of opposition. plus all the clichs and proverbs of popular culture. of the way in which reality effects are created and the way in which we create a sense of reality and meaning from texts. the text's encoding of narrative conventions that signify how it means as a telling. particularly binary oppositions.law. to the realm of literary studies (which have often been criticized as purely subjective/impressionistic). Texts can be analyzed as they represent the codes and conventions of the culture -.1999 by Professor John Lye Structuralism/Poststructuralism Structuralism is appealing to some critics because it adds a certain objectivity. Return to the ENGL 4F70 Main Page URL of this page: http://www.we can read the texts as ways of understanding the meaning-structures of the cultures and sub-cultures out of which they are written and which they represent.ca/english/courses/4F70/struct.brocku. 2. a SCIENTIFIC objectivity. as informing structures and as representing the central concerns and imaginative structures of the society. religion. of the representation of reality. This scientific objectivity is achieved by subordinating "parole" to "langue. 3.
that structures are universal. meaning that we determine what we say. or any signifying system. that language thus expresses the essence of our individual beings (and that there is such a thing as an essential unique individual "self").) That language is a product of the individual writer's mind or free will. in how literary forms may have changed over time." By focusing on the system itself. The Romantic humanist model holds that the author is the origin of the text. the individual text. We don't originate language. and every sentence we speak or write. structuralists cancel out history. the author is canceled out.) That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real world. has no origin. we inhabit a structure that enables us to speak. but only in the structures that shape it. Hence every text.In structuralism. Hence the idea that "language speaks us. 2. by saying I. In this way of looking at narratives. Some structuralists (and a related school of critics. In erasing the author. Most insist." rather than that we speak language. which is the subject of a sentence--or the individual (or the mind or the free will) is the center of all meaning and truth. Structuralists can't account for change or development. The HUMANIST model presupposed: 1. The STRUCTURALIST model argues . systems. structuralism represented a major challenge to what we now call the "liberal humanist" tradition in literary criticism. Structuralism argues that any piece of writing.) the SELF--also known as the "subject. and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing structures (langue) that enable them to make any particular sentence (or story)--any parole. therefore timeless. and structures. not of an individual. what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of some of the elements in the pre-existing system. they are uninterested. in a synchronic analysis. words mean what I say they mean. its creator. and history. as Levi-Strauss does. the individuality of the text disappears in favor of looking at patterns. called the Russian Formalists) propose that ALL narratives can be charted as variations on certain basic universal narrative patterns. and what we mean when we say it. and hence is the starting point or progenitor of the text. 4. since the text is a function of a system. 3.) That there is a real world out there that we can understand with our rational minds. and truth is what I perceive as truth.. for example." since that's how we represent the idea of a self in language. They are not interested in a text's production or reception/consumption. is made up of the "already written. the reader. I create my own sentences out of my own individual experiences and need for individual expression.
sometimes it's the unconscious.) That language speaks us. Derrida says speech gets privileged . Sometimes it's God. the first term is always valued over the second. and evil is subordinated to good. Derrida looks particularly at the opposition speech/writing. This is also where deconstruction starts to come in. The leading figure in deconstruction. and that all systems or structures have a CENTER. Language in particular is the center of self and meaning. 2. rather than at individual concrete practices. in Western culture. Jacques Derrida. Hence in the binary pair good/evil. In his most famous work. Of Grammatology. Meaning doesn't come from individuals. right/left. the mind. hence my identity is the product of the linguistic system I occupy. but from the system that governs what any individual can do within it. First is that we're still going to look at systems or structures. the signs and grammars that govern language. Derrida argues that all binary pairs work this way--light/dark. depending on what philosophical system (or set of beliefs) one is talking about. masculine/feminine. Second is that all systems or structures are created of binary pairs or oppositions.) Rather than seeing the individual as the center of meaning. looks at philosophy (Western metaphysics) to see that any system necessarily posits a CENTER. but the sets of oppositions and operations. the point of origin. I can only say "I" because I inhabit a system of language in which the position of subject is marked by the first personal pronoun. structuralism places THE STRUCTURE at the center--it's the structure that originates or produces meaning. that the source of meaning is not an individual's experience or being. This may not be as self-evident as the example of good/evil. that one term is "marked" as positive and the other as negative. of two terms placed in some sort of relation to each. not the individual self. a point from which everything comes. and therefore our perceptions of reality are all framed by and determined by the structure of language. where speech is posited as the first or primary form of language. and writing is just the transcription of speech. 3.) that the structure of language itself produces "reality"--that we can think only through language. Derrida says that such systems are always built of the basic units structuralism analyzes--the binary opposition or pair--and that within these systems one part of that binary pair is always more important than the other. and to which everything refers or returns. good is what Western philosophy values. sometimes it's the human self. saying that speech is always seen as more important than writing. but it's true in terms of linguistic theories. the thing that created the system in the first place.1. There are two key points to the idea of deconstruction.
" or fundamental opposing ideas. and which guarantees its meaning--this center guarantees being as presence. a place from which the whole system comes. of an "I". a lot of what these guys are talking about has roots in philosophic and linguistic traditions that predate modern technology-so that Derrida is responding to an opposition (speech/writing) that Plato set up. Remember. speech is favored over writing (and. reason/madness. that Derrida is concerned with in Western philosophy. Speech gets associated with presence. These binary pairs are the "structures. think. It's because of this favoring of presence over absence that every system (I'm referring here mostly to philosophical systems. whereas the female genitals are defined as absence). as we'll see with Freud. and that God is present (because speech=presence). this privileging of speech and presence is what Derrida calls LOGOCENTRISM. or presence. No. but the idea works for signifying systems as well) posits a CENTER. Think of your entire self as a kind of system--everything you do. word/silence. from Plato through Descartes (up to Derrida himself). long before there were tape recorders. he'd have to have "punch cards and an IBM machine. and both are favored over writing and absence. At the core or center of your mental and physical life is a notion of SELF. culture/nature. like that there's a real self that is the origin of what's being said." when all he'd need now is a home computer. in which presence is always favored over absence. including being/nothingness. Anyway. Just like poor old Levi-Strauss talks about how. mind/body. the idea of being. Presence is part of a binary opposition presence/absence. of an identity that is stable and unified . Each term has meaning only in reference to the other (light is what is not dark. in order to map all the dimensions of a myth. Derrida calls this idea of the self that has to be there to speak part of the metaphysics of PRESENCE. just as. etc. is central to all systems of Western philosophy. and vice-versa). he doesn't take into account tape recordings and things like that. the idea is that the spoken word guarantees the existence of somebody doing the speaking--thus it reinforces all those great humanist ideas. the present God is the origin of all things (because God creates the world by speaking). Because of the favoring of presence over absence. in Saussure's view. is part of that system. masculine is favored over feminine because the penis is defined as a presence. You might also think about other binary oppositions or pairs. The statement insures that there is a God (the thing doing the speaking). You might think here about the Biblical phrase "Let there be light" as an example. and what God creates is binary oppositions (starting with light/dark). signifiers only have meaning--or negative value--in relation to other signifiers.because speech is associated with presence--for there to be spoken language. somebody has to be there to be speaking. feel.
as we see with the terms nature and culture in Derrida's essay. not governed by the rules of the system. a equals not-b). is actually part of it. nor do you destroy the old system--rather. unconscious over consciousness. etc. Jim Powell Poststructuralism Poststructuralism as Theory and Practice in the English Classroom . the part of you that knows who you mean when you say "I". feminine over masculine. you can't tell which is which. Here's the basic method of deconstruction: find a binary opposition. the "langue" of your being. This method is called "Deconstruction" because it is a combination of construction/destruction--the idea is that you don't simply construct new system of binaries. essence. He points out that a binary opposition is algebraic (a=~b. and it guarantees the idea of your presence. Suggestions for Further Information: • • • Derrida for Beginners. and it's also something beyond the system. and every other part of you (each individual act) is part of the "parole". man. or is put into "play" (more on this in the next lecture). truth. your being. and of the philosophical systems he refers to--functions within a system. consciousness. This is what he talks about as a "scandal" discovered by Levi-Strauss in Levi-Strauss's thoughts about kinship systems.and coherent. hence to show that the values and order implied by the opposition are also not rigid. He doesn't seek to reverse the hierarchies implied in binary pairs--to make evil favored over good. Show how each term. What Derrida tells us is that each of these terms designating the center of a system serves two purposes: it's the thing that created the system. Western thought has a whole bunch of terms that serve as centers to systems --being. What Derrida does is to look at how a binary opposition--the fundamental unit of the structures or systems we've been looking at. substance. god. rather than being polar opposite of its paired term. (This will be covered in detail in the next lecture). The "I" is the origin of all you say and do. Then the structure or opposition which kept them apart collapses. goodness the absence of evil. This core self or "I" is thus the CENTER of the "system". and the idea of binary opposites loses meaning. deconstruction wants to erase the boundaries (the slash) between oppositions. with the previously subordinated term on top. you deconstruct the old system by showing how its basic units of structuration (binary pairs and the rules for their combination) contradict their own logic. Rather. that originated it and guarantees that all the parts of the system interrelate. form. etc. and that two terms can't exist without reference to the other--light (as presence) is defined as the absence of darkness. Ultimately.
You are welcome to quote this lecture. or to link it to another site. is made by using the units according to the rules. Structuralists are interested in the interrelationship between UNITS. the 31 . whatever it's analyzing: looks at the units of a system. see Citing Electronic Sources Last revision: September 13. actually. Associate Professor of English. In language. A structuralist analysis of tinkertoys wouldn't look at what you made (a building. without regard for any specific content. Dr." and RULES. An example is Tinkertoys. with proper citation and attribution. the various kinds of connectors and wheels and attachments.All materials on this site are written by. send mail to Mary Klages Return to English 2010 Home Page Structuralism and Saussure Ferdinand de Saussure Let's start by talking about structuralism in general as a philosophical stance or worldview.) but would look only at the structure governing every possible combination of tinkertoy elements. which are the ways that units can be put together. for instance. etc. structuralists (like Saussure) the units are words (or. Mary Klages. 2004 For comments. and remain the property of. whatever that may be. a race car. That's what structuralist analysis does. For more information. University of Colorado at Boulder. That's the structure of tinkertoys: everything you can make out of tinkertoys. also called "surface phenomena. The "units" in a tinkertoy set are all the parts in the box: the various colored rods of different lengths. a windmill. and the rules that make that system work. And that structure is that rods go into holes. the "rules" of tinkertoy construction is that rods go into holes.
for structuralists. these randomly chosen parts of speech made a very silly narrative-. and works to uncover all the structures that underlie all the things that humans do. Now you tell me the story. The "units" here are the characters. Many of you said "Cinderella. linguistics. and prince. Whatever details or added elements you supply. This is important. princesses are victims. . An example of this idea of structure can be found in the game of "Mad Libs." In class I read an example. any noun can replace any other noun and not change the grammatical structure: the sentence "My pencil ate my PT Cruiser" might not make any rational sense. From a structuralist point of view. proper names. verbs. and exclamations. Structuralists believe that the underlying structures which organize units and rules into meaningful systems are generated by the human mind itself. but it's recognizable as a sentence because the parts of speech are all in the right places. to name just a few disciplines that use structuralist analyses. In different languages the grammar rules are different. and not by sense perception. adjectives. and princes and princesses have to marry. the order that we perceive in the world is not inherent in the world. So structuralism sees itself as a science of humankind. psychology. as are the words. the mind is itself a structuring mechanism which looks through units and files them according to rules. and feel--in mathematics. Here's an example of this using literature. religion. but the structure is still the same in all languages: words are put together within a grammatical system to make meaning. and literature. etc. and verbs where verbs go. perceive. but is a product of our minds. stepmother. biology. and the "rules" are: stepmothers are evil. which asked for various nouns. but rather that there is too much "reality" (too many units of too many kinds) to be perceived coherently without some kind of "grammar" or system to organize and limit them. As such. It's not that there is no "reality out there. When plugged into a story." and others came up with other story titles. I'll give you three characters: princess.phonemes which make all the sounds of words in English) and the rules are the forms of grammar which order words. And that's exactly what structuralist analyses of literature (or myth or other forms of narrative) are analyzing." beyond human perception.but one which was recognizable as a narrative because the parts of speech were appropriately placed: nouns went where nouns go. Cinderella is the same story as Snow White and as lots of other Disney stories and fairy tales: a princess is persecuted by a stepmother and rescued (and married) by a prince. because it means that. think. the basic structure of this story is always the same. In a sentence.
This means that the system functions as a whole. With tinkertoys. according to structuralist analyses. (Stay tuned. I can substitute a blue wheel for a yellow one. we start . "to office. New units can enter the system." and we know what it means because the structure it fits into hasn't changed. With the tinkertoys. but rods still go into holes in order to create something. poststructuralist theories will challenge this point). but you can't change the basic structure of the system no matter what you add to it. Self-Regulation. With the tinkertoy set. but a Kinko's commercial has made it a verb. We can add things to the tinkertoy set and never alter the fundamental rule that rods go into holes. All of these organizations are governed. you could add any rods (of the right diameter) and any holes (ditto) and the system still works. with all the rods and holes. it's hard to play with just the individual items. in order to make stuff at all. Why are we studying Saussure. This means that the system is not static. This is related to the idea of transformation. and the rules they follow. in a literature class? When we discard the assumptions of liberal humanism. every human culture has some sort of langauge. or an orange rod for a purple one. as in "a new way to office. but capable of change. which has the basic structure of all language: words/phonemes are combined according to a grammar of rules to produce meaning. For a more formal definition: a structure is any conceptual system that has the following three properties: Wholeness. you need the whole set. but when they do they're governed by the rules of the system. by structures which are universal. The transformations of a system never lead to anything outside the system. though. Another example is the word "office"--normally it's a noun. For instance. a linguistic theorist. who is provides us with a structuralist analysis of language as a signifying system. Every human culture similarly has some sort of social organization (like a kind of government)." The commercial creates a new word. On to Saussure. not just as a collection of independent parts.Structuralist analysis posits these systems as universal: every human mind in every culture at every point in history has used some sort of structuring principle to organize and understand cultural phenomena. Transformation. Now then. and some sort of system for exchanging goods (usually referred to as an economic system). some sort of system for who can marry whom (usually referred to as a kinship system). You can add elements to the system.
You can also think of a word as a signifier and the thing it represents as a signified (though technically these are called sign and referent. French. A more common way to define a linguistic SIGN is that a SIGN is the combination of a SIGNIFIER and a SIGNIFIED.our new conceptions of how literature operates by noting that. computer languages--and to anything we can call a "signifying system" (more on what this is later). Saussure. he's not interested in the details of what fills up the structure. Those two parts Saussure names the "concept" and the "sound image". His ideas apply to any language--English. as one part will instantly conjure the other. is interested in language as a system or structure." Meanings can (and do) vary widely. (More on this as we go on). 1. There is nothing in either the thing or the word that makes the two go together. Saussure says this is a pretty naive or elementary view of language. An illustration of this is talking to yourself-you don't make a sound. literature is made of language. has two main characteristics. the sound image for tree in that language will automatically conjure up the concept "tree. no natural. An example of this is the fact that there are different words. the impression it makes. The linguistic SIGN (a key word) is made of the union of a concept and a sound image. but you have an impression of what you're saying. Farsi. Like all structuralists. in . Saussure's example is the concept "tree" and the various words for tree in different languages. The sound image is not the physical sound (what your mouth makes and your ear hears) but rather the psychological imprint of the sound. He describes the structures within any language which make meaning possible. When you are a speaker of a certain language. the specifics of speech or writing. we must therefore have some ideas about how language itself works. but only those meanings which are agreed upon and sanctioned within a particular language will appear to name reality. as union of a SIGNIFIER and a SIGNIFIED. but only in the design of the structure itself. SECTION I: THE NATURE OF THE LINGUISTIC SIGN Language is based on a NAMING process. because it gets across the idea that the basic linguistic unit has two parts. by which things get associated with a word or name. as a structuralist. but he's not interested in what particular meanings get created. Saussure says the sound image is the SIGNIFIER and the concept the SIGNIFIED. The bond between the SIGNIFIER (SFR) and SIGNIFIED (SFD) is ARBITRARY. The union is a close one. but a useful one. The SIGN. first and foremost. or logical relation between a particular sound image and a concept. respectively). intrinsic. to understand how literature works." The MEANING of any SIGN is found in the association created between the sound image and the concept: hence the sounds "tree" in English mean the thing "tree.
of football referee signals. Any time you make up a secret code or set of signals you are making your own signifying system. in French one says "Aie!" (Curse words work the same way." like the word "semiotic. Think. Pantomime. seems to imitate the action of chopping. or vice-versa. which makes AMBIGUITY and MULTIPLICITY OF MEANING possible." comes from the Greek word for "sign"). Any system of signs. are called DIACHRONIC). While all roosters crow pretty much the same way. (This makes possible the idea of a single signifier which could be associated with more than one signified. Like all structuralists. The tomahawk chop used by Atlanta Braves fans. astrological signs. for example. without regard to what its past history is. such as the use of scales for the idea of justice. agreed-upon approximations of certain sounds.different languages. or what its future may be. Admittedly. In English one says "ouch!" when one bangs one's finger with a hammer. or based on community agreement. It makes it possible to separate the signifier and signified. baseball signs. gestures (what are often called "natural signs") seem to have a logical relation to what they represent. sign language. and decides that these too are arbitrary. for the same thing. Dog is "dog" in English. made up of signifiers and signifieds. (Analyses which do take time into account. or to change the relation between them. and look at the history of changes within a structure. meaning that he examines it only in the present moment. not because it has some intrinsic meaning. he focuses on a SYNCHRONIC analysis of language as a system or structure. the tomahawk chop only has meaning because a community has agreed upon what the gesture signifies." Interjections also differ. Saussure is not very interested in how communities agree on fixing or changing the relationships between signifiers and signifieds. There may be some kinds of signs that seem less arbitrary than others. is a semiotic or SIGNIFYING SYSTEM. Think. for example.) Language is only one type of semiological system (the word "semiological. . like "pop" or "buzz") as still conventional. about the sounds attributed to animals. for example. Come up with your own examples). are innate or arbitrary. Saussure discusses whether symbols. He also dismisses onomatopoeia (words that sound like what they mean. But Saussure insists that ALL SIGNS ARE ARBITRARY. "Hund" in German. and thus would be the most "natural" way to designate the idea of chopping. "chien" in French. "perro" in Spanish. that sound is transcribed in English as "cock-adoodle-do" and in Spanish as "cocorico. This principle dominates all ideas about the STRUCTURE of language.
and because of that they are all connected to each other. which is only ordered by language. anyway) operates as a linear sequence. SECTION II: LINGUISTIC VALUE According to Saussure's picture (p. in Beginning Theory. The arbitrary nature of the sign explains why language as a system (LANGUE) can only arise in social relations. One of the questions philosophers have puzzled over for centuries is whether ideas can exist at all without language. for example. a substance. language itself gives shape to ideas and makes them expressible. and individual literary texts as examples of PAROLE). (Think. Structuralist linguistics is more interested in the LANGUE than in any PAROLE. You can't say two words at one time. It takes a community to set up the relations between any particular sound image and any particular concept (to form specific PAROLES). and any individual unit within that system (such as a word) as a PAROLE. Sounds then serve as signifiers for the ideas which are their signifieds. are both material/physical (like sound) and intellectual (like ideas). An individual can't fix VALUE for any signifier/signified combination. in this view. though sounds can be distinguished from each other. from Saussure's point of view. Signs. about Helen Keller before she learned language--did she think?) Saussure says no ideas preexist language. meaning the spoken word or auditory signifier) exists in TIME. a structure. thought is a shapeless mass. (The same is true for written language: you have to write one word at a time (though you can write over an already written word) and you generally write the words in a straight line). (Peter Barry. in a linear fashion. Sound is no more fixed than thought. and hence associated with ideas. Saussure (and other structuralist and post-structuralist theorists) talk about the system of language as a whole as LANGUE (from the French word for language). you have to say one and then the next. but you can't separate them. His image is that thought and sound are like the front and back of a piece of paper (and the paper is the linguistic sign). one after the other. The second characteristic of the SIGN is that the signifier (here. This is important to Saussure because he wants to insist that language is not a thing. a system. 649a). and that all the elements of a particular sequence form a chain. thought cannot exist without language. More on this later). you can distinguish between the two. This idea is important because it shows that language (spoken language. like genre categories. as a form of LANGUE. In other words. You could make up your own private . The easiest example of this is a sentence. which is that language shapes all our conceptions of ourselves and our reality.2. (This leads to an important structuralist and post-structuralist idea. talks about literary systems. where the words come one at a time and in a line. and that time can be measured as LINEAR. but a form.
As Saussure says on p. (Coins are also good examples of the arbitrary nature of signs. A signifier. when considered alone. the relation that creates VALUE. such as a coin or a word. Other theorists of language.language. In both cases (coin or word). for example. VALUE is the product of a system or structure (LANGUE). One signifier has meaning within a system. to the connections between sfrs and sfds. however. is the idea of DIFFERENCE. is the relation between various SIGNS within the signifying system. A dime is a signifier connected to a signified of 10 cents of something. A dime is worth 10 cents because we all agree that it is. but because it is NOT any of the other signifiers in the system. it is the system itself which creates value. when considered as part of a system. The VALUE of a sign is determined. (And again. VALUE. and the second is that similar things can be compared and exchanged. but because that word is not "hat" or "bat" or "car" or "cut. A good example of this is money. not because of the animal it's associated with. SIGNIFICATION is what we commonly think of as "meaning. two or more people have to agree on what signifiers go with what signifieds." VALUE is always composed of two kinds of comparisons among elements in a system. not the result of individual sfr-sfd relations (PAROLE). Saussure distinguishes between VALUE and SIGNIFICATION. a synonym--or for something dissimilar--an idea. The VALUE of a dime is established because it can be exchanged for something dissimilar--a piece of gum--or something similar--ten pennies. VALUE is thus defined as the collective meaning assigned to signs. The most important relation between signifiers in a system. has only a limited relation to its own signified. Saussure as a structuralist is not really interested in how this happens. and sets up the ways that exchanges can be made. not because it's connected to a particular signified. The word "cat" has meaning. a signifier has multiple relations to other signifiers in the system. not because the materials in the coin have some absolute value of 10 cents). but rather by the whole system of signs used within a community. not by what signifiers get linked to what particular signifieds. by contrast. focus on how these agreements come about). A word can be "exchanged" for something similar--another word. but no one else would understand it. such as 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau." . Words work the same way. 650b: "Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others. The first is that dissimilar things can be compared and exchanged. to communicate." the relationship established between a signifier and a signified.
a sign has positive value in and of itself because of the connection of its two parts. word order governs meaning." Because the connection between sound and concept.You might think about the letters of the alphabet in this context. To find out what a word or sign is not. a LINEAR relation. is ARBITRARY. in English. (Saussure uses the example of Nacht and N[[questiondown]] [[questiondown]]chte. pairs of two. such as "D" or "%". 653). The system of linguistic units depends thus on the idea of DIFFERENCE. hence always forming binary pairs. you compare it to some other word or sign. SYNTAGMATIC AND ASSOCIATIVE RELATIONS In this section. what makes each word distinct is its difference from the other word. which consist of two switch positions. (Positive value. is established in the sfr/sfd connection. and 1 has meaning because it is not 0. operates. the difference is the "s". "T" has meaning because it is NOT "A" or "B" or "X." Saussure calls this a negative value. on the other hand. In spoken or written language. These relations. p. as we've already noted. Saussure says more about how he thinks the structure of language. it forms a chain. The most important kind of relation between units in a signifying system. words come out one by one (see above. An example of this is the fact that. or signifier and signified. This means. or of any signifying system. the second characteristic of the linguistic sign). O has meaning because it is not 1. (The sentences also differ in meaning because "mat" and "cat" are not the same words within the system). that sound "t-t-t-t" could just as easily be represented by another symbol. As the computer example shows. by which one unit is linked to the next. you can only do this comparison one word at a time. In this section Saussure talks more about the rules that may connect units together. within the alphabet. one unit has VALUE within the system because it is not some other unit within the system.) A binary pair shows the idea of difference as what gives any word value: in the pair cat/cats. Because language is linear. wherein something has meaning or value because it is NOT something else within a system. this idea of DIFFERENCE depends upon the idea of BINARY OPPOSITES. . is a SYNTAGMATIC relation. basically. (And because language exists in time and space. or O and 1. The sound "t-t-t-t". off and on. but has negative value within a signifying system). Another good example of this is the digital languages recognized by computers. "The cat sat on the mat" means something different than "The mat sat on the cat" because word order--the position of a word in a chain of signification--contributes to meaning. according to Saussure. Everything in the system is based on the RELATIONS that can occur between the units in the system. is represented in English with the symbol "T. made with the tip of the tongue against the teeth. consist mainly of relations of DIFFERENCE. Further.
word order doesn't matter. The idea of ASSOCIATIVE groups or linkages makes me think of pigeonholes. computer games. may get linked. not to verbs and adjectives. ablative. psychoanalysis (things I like)." for example (now used in a Kinko's . what they're connected to. ASSOCIATIVE relations are only in your head. lend me your ears. expensive. and syntactical meaning are important. SYNTAGMATIC relations are most crucial in written and spoken language. relation. not by its place in the sentence. teacher. linearity. or structural. that sentence might be "The adjective noun auxiliary verbed the direct object adverbially main verb. Signs are stored in your memory. what they support. when I pull out that word or idea.English word order has a particular structure: subject-verb-object." In Latin. in German. association." In French it might be "The noun adjective verbed adverbially the direct object . or whatever. rockets. Again. The columns form syntagmatic. Think of the columns of a building (or the rods in a Tinker-Toy "building"). Each term IS something because it is NOT something else in the sequence. baseball. syntagmatic relations are important because they allow for new words--neologisms--to arise and be recognized and accepted into a linguistic community. and what pigeonholes I put certain words or ideas in.) Combinations or relations formed by position within a chain (like where a word is in a sentence) are called SYNTAGMS. The terms within a syntagm acquire VALUE only because they stand in opposition to everything before or after them. in DISCOURSE. think of coins: a dime is a dime because it's not a quarter or a nickel or a penny or a $100 bill. for example. textbook. There are other kinds of relations that exist outside of discourse. etc. by the way. whereas SYNTAGMATIC relations are a product of linguistic structure. where the ideas of time. but by its cases (nominative. but in ASSOCIATIVE groups. deification. not in syntagmatic links or sentences. "To office. The word "education". Examples of SYNTAGMS can be any phrase or sentence that makes a linear relation between two or more units: under-achiever. college. You may store the word education" with other words that have similar associations: education. when in the course of human events. since the meaning of the word is determined. The columns form associative relations when you think of what else the columns make you think of: phallic symbols. but to other words that end in "-tion":education." Other languages have other structures. for example. Or you may store words in what looks like a completely random set of linkages: education. all the other things in that pigeonhole come tumbling out with it. not in the structure of language itself. popsicles. Think of this sentence: "The adjectival noun verbed the direct object adverbially. relation when you think about where in the building the columns are.
Suggestions for Further Reading: Richard and Fernande de George. eds. Roy Harris. 2001 For comments.commercial) has meaning because the noun "office" can be moved to the position of verb. In the 1960's.. 1986. The Structuralists from Marx to Levi-Strauss. Structuralism. Mary Klages.. send mail to The Course Email List Return to English 2010 Home Page Post Structuralism By the mid 20th century there were a number of structural theories of human existence. 1987 Terrence Gordon. Some of the ideas about structuralism in this lecture were inspired by Lois Tyson. In the study of language. All page references in this lecture refer to Ferdinand de Saussure's "Course in General Linguistics" in Adams and Searle. University of Colorado at Boulder. the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) suggested that meaning was to be found within the structure of a whole language rather than in the analysis of individual words. . and take on a new syntagmatic position and relation to other words. 1996. psychological and linguistic structures over which he/she has no control. All materials on this site are written by. based in France. Psychoanalysts attempted to describe the structure of the psyche in terms of an unconscious. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc. the structuralist movement. 197-200. Critical Theory Since 1965. ed. John Sturrock.. 1999) pp. the truth of human existence could be understood by an analysis of economic structures. Reading Saussure. Associative relations are important because they break patterns established in strictly grammatical/linear (syntagmatic) relations and allow for metaphoric expressions. For the structuralist the individual is shaped by sociological. attempted to synthesise the ideas of Marx. see Citing Electronic Sources Last revision: September 6. For more information on citing electronic sources. Associate Professor of English. You are welcome to quote from this essay. and remain the property of. Freud and Saussure. Saussure for Beginners. 1972. with proper citation and attribution. Dr. or to link this page to your own site. but which could be uncovered by using their methods of investigation. They disagreed with the existentialists' claim that each man is what he makes himself. For Marxists.
Foucault sought to show how the development of knowledge was intertwined with the mechanisms of (political) power. In his latter work. Michel Foucault: Genealogy of Knowledge. gone are the underlying certainties that reason promised. but he disagreed with the structuralists on two counts. Post-modernism does not exhibit this confidence. Reason itself is now seen as a particular historical form. morality. He claimed that he was attempting to do an 'archaeology' of knowledge. Rather than analyse these discursive practices in terms of their truth. empirical and objective terms. Derrida suggests that all text has ambiguity and because of this the possibility of a final and complete interpretation is impossible. He agreed that language and society were shaped by rule governed systems. The postmodern subject has no rational way to evaluate a preference in relation to judgements of truth. a way of obtaining answers to the question posed by the human condition. Post-modernism Post-structuralism and deconstruction can be seen as the theoretical formulations of the post-modern condition. as parochial in its own way as the ancient explanations of the universe in terms of Gods. he borrowed from Nietzsche the 'genealogical' approach and from Marx his analyses of ideology. . Jacques Derrida (1930.) developed deconstruction as a technique for uncovering the multiple interpretation of texts. which began intellectually with the Enlightenment. to show the history of truth claims. Unlike Marx. aesthetic experience or objectivity. interbreed and grow is this clearing is for the future to decide.Originally labelled a structuralist. the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault came to be seen as the most important representative of the post-structuralist movement. Foucault had no underlying belief in a deep underlying truth or structure: there was no objective viewpoint from which one could analyse discourse or society. attempted to describe the world in rational. he did not think that there were definite underlying structures that could explain the human condition and secondly he thought that it was impossible to step outside of discourse and survey the situation objectively. a new clearing is formed on the frontiers of understanding: quite what hybrids of thought will metamorphose. It assumed that there was a truth to be uncovered. Modernity. he analyses them in terms of their history or genesis. Foucault attempted to analyse the 'discursive practices' or serious speech acts that lay claim to revealing knowledge. As the old hierarchies of thought are torn down. Firstly. Influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche.
One consequence of deconstruction is that certainty in textual analyses becomes impossible. For Derrida all text s exhibit 'differance': they allow multiple interpretations. The search for knowledge does not simply uncover pre-existing 'objects'. and its assumptions began to seep into the discourse of the everyday. These oppositions are defined hierarchically: the second term is seen as a corruption of the first. Derrida thinks that language shapes us: texts create a clearing that we understand as reality. This discourse became accepted as the dominant explanation. Derrida sees the history of western thought as based on opposition: good vs. but there is no uninterpreted way one could assess the validity of these competing interpretations. language or 'texts' are not a natural reflection of the world. Textuality always gives us a surplus of possibilities. these texts could be re-interpreted with an awareness of the hierarchies implicit in language. For Foucault there is no ultimate answer waiting to be uncovered. The 'discursive practices' of knowledge are not independent of the objects that are studied. Foucault does not offer any all-embracing theory of human nature. Derrida thought that all text contained a legacy of these assumptions. Following Heidegger. and as a result of this. writing. instinctual and mysterious. yet we cannot stand outside of textuality in an attempt to find objectivity. speech vs. matter. woman. man vs. Derrida does not think that we can reach an end point of interpretation. In his 'History of Sexuality' he argued that the rise of medical and psychiatric science has created a discourse of sexuality as deep. the deconstructionist turns the settled bedrock of rationalism into the shifting sands of a multiplicity of interpretations. . Text structures our interpretation of the world. it actively shapes and creates them. There may be competing interpretations. Meaning is diffuse. not settled. and must be understood in their social and political context. He was critical of 'meta-theory': beliefs that claimed to give an exclusive objective explanation of reality. In this way the human subjects's experience of their own sexuality is shaped and controlled by the discourses that purport to explain it. Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction For Derrida. evil mind vs. a truth. the terms are not equal opposites.Foucault focused on the way that knowledge and the increase of the power of the state over the individual has developed in the modern era. Rather than basing our philosophical understanding on undeniable truths.
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