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Structuralism and its Application to Literary Theory

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 at literarism@in.com.

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 person. The self is, like other things, signified and culturally constructed. Post-structuralism, in particular, will insist that the subject is de-centered.

8. The conception of the constructed subject opens up the borders between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious itself is not some strange, impenetrable realm of private meaning but is constructed through the sign-systems and through the repressions of the culture. Both the self and the unconscious are cultural constructs.

9. In the view of structuralism our knowledge of ‘reality’ is not only coded but also conventional, that is, structured by and through conventions, made up of signs and signifying practices. This is known as “the social construction of reality.”

10. There is, then, in structuralism, a coherent connection among the conceptions of reality, the social, the individual, the unconscious: they are all composed of the same signs, codes and conventions, all working according to similar laws.

II. Structuralism, culture and texts
  1.  Structuralism enables both the reading of texts and the reading of cultures: through semiotics, structuralism leads us to see everything as ‘textual’, that is, composed of signs, governed by conventions of meaning, ordered according to a pattern of relationships.
  2. Structuralism enables us to approach texts historically or trans-culturally in a disciplined way. Whenever we have to look more objectively, when we are transversing barriers of time, say, or of culture or interest, then the structural method, the search for principles of order, coherence and meaning, become dominant.
  3. 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, hence were not literature but ‘popular writing’ or ‘private writing’ or ‘history’ and so forth. When the rules of literary meaning are seen as just another set of rules for a signifying arena of a culture, then literature loses some aspects of its privileged status, but gains in the strength and cogency of its relationship to other areas of signification. Hence literary study has expanded to the study of textuality, popular writing has been opened up to serious study, and the grounds for the relationship between the meaning-conventions of literature and the way in which a culture imagines reality have been set, and we can speak more clearly of the relation of literary to cultural (or, ‘human’, or ‘every-day’) meanings.
  4. As everything that can be known, can be known by virtue of its belonging to a signifying system, then everything can be spoken of as being textual.
All documents can be studied as texts — for instance, history or sociology can be analyzed the way literature can be. All of culture can be studied as text. Anthropology, among other fields, is revolutionized through ethnography; qualitative rather than quantitative study becomes more and more the norm in many areas of social science. Belief-systems can be studied textually and their role in constructing the nature of the self understood. Consequently much greater attention is paid to the nature of language-use in culture. Language-use relating to various social topics or areas of engagement has become known as “discourse.” Although “discourse” is a term more prevalent in post-structuralist thinking, it is of its nature a structuralist development.

III. Structuralism and literature
See my summary of Gerard Genette’s “Structuralism and Literary Criticism” for more ideas.
  1. In extending the range of the textual we have not decreased the complexity or meaning-power of literature but have in fact increased it, both in its textual and in its cultural meaningfulness. If the reader and the text are both cultural constructions, then the meaningfulness of texts becomes more apparent, as they share meaning-constructs; if the cultural is textual, then the culture’s relation to the textuality of literature becomes more immediate, more pertinent, more compelling. Literature is a discourse in a world of discourses, each discourse having its protocols for meaning and typical uses of language, rhetoric, subject area and so forth.
  2. The thesis that what seems real to us is coded and conventional leads to a consideration of how ‘reality’ is represented in art — what we get is a ‘reality effect’; the signs which represent reality are ‘naturalized’, that is, made to seem as if we could see reality through them — or in another way of saying, made to seem to be conforming to the laws of reality. This is achieved through ‘vraisemblance’, truth-seeming, or ‘naturalization’. Some elements of vraisemblance (from Culler, Structuralist Poetics) are as follows.

There is the socially given text, that which is taken as the ‘real’ world — what is taken for granted. That we have minds and bodies, for instance. This is a textual phenomenon. (Every term of “we have minds and bodies”, the relations between most of these terms, and what we mean by them, in fact codify culturally specific assumptions.) 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’. This is the level at which we interpret motive, character and significance from descriptions of action, dress, attitude and so forth. “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, in this case a dress code. “Harry gazed for hours on the picture of Esmeralda” is a culturally coded statement: we read Harry’s attitude, and so forth. We ‘imitate’ ‘reality’ by recording cultural codes.

There are the conventions of genre, a specifically literary and artificial vraisemblance — “the series of constituent conventions which enable various sorts of works to be written.” The lines

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; The center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

require certain conventions of reading. If we were to read it as part of a paragraph in Dickens they would make less sense. One convention of literature is that there is a persona who is articulating the text — that it comes from some organizing consciousness which can be commented on and described. Genre is another convention: each genre designates certain kinds of action as acceptable and excludes others.

There is what might be called the natural attitude to the artificial, where the text explicitly cites and exposes vraisemblance of the kind directly above, so as to reinforce its own authority. The narrator may claim that he is intentionally violating the conventions of a story, for instance, that he knows that this is not the way it should be done according to the conventions, but that the way he is doing it serves some higher or more substantial purpose — the appeal is to a greater naturalness or a higher intelligibility.

There is the complex vraisemblance of specific intertextualities. “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.” — e.g. parody, when one exploits the particular conventions of a work or style or genre, etc. Irony forces us to posit an alternate possibility or reality in the face of the reality-construction of the text. All surface incongruities register meaning at a level of the project of interpretation itself, and so comment as it were on the relation between ‘textual’ and ‘interpretive’ reality.
In short, to imitate reality is to represent codes which ‘describe’ (or, construct) reality according to the conventions of representation of the time. The conventions of reading. We read according to certain conventions; consequently our reading creates the meaning of that which we read. These conventions come in two ‘layers’: (1). how we (culturally) think that reality is or should be represented in texts, which will include the general mimetic conventions of the art of the period, which will describe the way in which reality is apprehended or imagined, and  (2) the conventions of ‘literature’ (and of ‘art’ generally), for instance,

1. the rule of significance whereby we raise the meaning of the text to its highest level of generalizability (a tree blasted by lightning might become a figure of the power of nature, or of God);

2. the convention of figural coherence, through which we assume that figures (metonyms, metaphors, ‘symbols’) will have a signifying relationship to one another on a level of meaning more complex than or ‘higher’ than the physical;

3. the convention of thematic unity, whereby we assume that all of the elements of the text contribute to the meaning of the text. These are all conventions of reading.

4. The facts that some works are difficult to interpret, some are difficult to interpret for its contemporaries but not for later readers, some require that we learn how its contemporaries would have read them in order fully to understand them, these facts point to the existence of literary competence, the possession by the reader of protocols for reading. When one reads modernist texts, such as The Waste Land, one has to learn how to read them. One has in fact to learn how to read Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and so forth. Culler remarks that

reading poetry is a rule-governed process of producing meanings; the poem offers a structure which must be filled up and one therefore attempts to invent something, guided by a series of formal rules derived from one’s experience of reading poetry, which both make possible invention and impose limits on it.

5. Structuralism is oriented toward the reader insofar as it says that the reader constructs literature, that is, reads the text with certain conventions and expectations in mind. Some post-structural theorists, Fish for instance, hold that the reader constructs the text entirely, through the conventions of reading of her interpretive community.

6. In joining with formalism in the identification of literariness as the focus on the message itself as opposed to a focus on the addressee, the addresser, or the referential function of the message, structuralism places ambiguity, as Genette points out, at the heart of the poetic function, as its self-referential nature puts the message, the addresser and the addressee all in doubt. Hence literary textuality is complexly meaningful.

7. Structuralism underlines the importance of genre, i.e., basic rules as to how subjects are approached, about conventions of reading for theme, level of seriousness, significance of language use, and so forth. “Different genres lead to different expectations of types of situations and actions, and of psychological, moral, and esthetic values.” (Genette)

8. The idea that literature is an institution is another structuralist contribution; that a number of its protocols for creation and for reading are in fact controlled by that institutional nature.

9. Through structuralism, literature is seen as a whole: it functions as a system of meaning and reference no matter how many works there are, two or two thousand. Thus any work becomes the parole, the individual articulation, of a cultural langue, or system of signification. As literature is a system, no work of literature is an autonomous whole; similarly, literature itself is not autonomous but is part of the larger structures of signification of the culture.

10. The following are some points based on Culler’s ideas about the advantages of structuralism, having to do with the idea that literature is a protocol of reading:

Structuralism is a firmer starting-point for reading literature as literature than are other approaches, because literariness and/or fictionality does not have to be shown to be inherent in the text, but in the way it is read. It explains, for instance, why the same sentence can have a different meaning depending on the genre in which it appears, it explains how the boundaries of the literary can change from age to age, it accommodates and explains differing readings of a text given differing reading protocols — one can read a text for its ‘literary’ qualities or for its sociological or ideological qualities, for instance, and read as complex a text in doing so.

One gains an appreciation of literature as an institution, as a coherent and related set of codes and practices, and so one sees also that reading is situated reading, that is, it is in a certain meaning-domain or set of codes. It follows that when literature is written, it will be written under these codes (it can break or alter the codes to create effects, but this is still a function of the codes).

Consequently one can be more open to challenges to and alterations of literary conventions.

Once one sees that reading and writing are both coded and based on conventions one can read ‘against the grain’ in a disciplined way, and one can read readings of literature — reading can become a more self-reflexive process.

IV. Structural Analysis
As structuralism is so broad a theory with such extensive ramifications, there will be different ways of doing structural analysis. Here are some possible approaches.

The study of the basic codes which make narrative possible, and which make it work. This is known generally as narratology, and often produces what might be called a grammar of narrative. Greimas, Barthes, Todorov and others investigated what the components and relations of narrative are. This gives rise to such things as Barthes division of incidents into nuclei and catalyzers, and his promulgation of five codes of narrative, given briefly here, as adapted from Cohen and Shires:

1. proairetic — things (events) in their sequence; recognizable actions and their effects.

2. semic — the field where signifiers point to other signifiers to produce a chain of recognizable connotations. In a general sense, that which enables meaning to happen.

3. hermeneutic — the code of narrative suspense, including the ways in which the story suspends closure, structures parallels, repetitions and so forth toward closure.

4. symbolic — marks out meaning as difference; the binaries which the culture uses/enacts to create its meanings; binaries which, of course,but disunite and join.

5. reference — refers to various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society; creates the familiarity of reality by quoting from a large assortment of social texts which mediate and organize cultural knowledge of reality — medicine, law, morality, psychology, philosophy, religion, plus all the clichs and proverbs of popular culture.

6. diegetic (C&S’s addition) — the narration, the text’s encoding of narrative conventions that signify how it means as a telling.

The study of the construction of meaning in texts, as for instance through tropes, through repetitions with difference. 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 study of mimesis, that is, of the representation of reality, becomes i) the study of naturalization, of the way in which reality effects are created and the way in which we create a sense of reality and meaning from texts; ii) the study of conventions of meaning in texts.

Texts are also analyzed for their structures of opposition, particularly binary oppositions, as informing structures and as representing the central concerns and imaginative structures of the society.

Texts can be analyzed as they represent the codes and conventions of the culture — 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.

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