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The English word “structure” comes from structum, the past participle of the Latin struere, meaning “put in order. ” There are two kinds of structuralism: structuralism as a mode of thinking, a general tendency of thought, or a philosophical view, and the narrower definition relating it to a method of inquiry, deriving chiefly from linguistics. Structuralism as a way of thinking can be traced back at least to Aristotle, whose Poetica is an interpretation of literary structure.
G. Vico’s The New Science may also be a modern structuralist work. The contemporary structuralists, in both senses of the term, include the French Claude Levi-Strauss, Gerard Genette, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Jean Piaget, Roland Barthes, Algirdas J. Greimas, the Russian Roman Jacobson, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, and the American C. S. Peirce, Edward Sapir, and Noam Chomsky.
All of them share the belief that “the reality of the objects of the human or social sciences is relational rather than substantial,” and practice a critical method that “consists of inquiring into and specifying the sets of relations (or structures) that constitute these objects or into which they enter, and of identifying and analyzing groups of such objects whose members are structural transformations of one another”. Structuralist linguistics was a more recent development.
Until the turn of the twentieth century, language study was “philology,” i. e. , the comparative study of language in its historical development, especially its actual use. Language in this study was taken to be the product of thinking, and language study, essentially the collection of empirical language data, was comparatively simple, transparent, and closed. Then a fundamental change took place: language, from the philosophical perspective, concerns the nature of meaning, and preconditions the way people think.
This conceptual revolution was initiated by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. At 15 he wrote an “Essay on Languages” trying to derive linguistic universals from the phonetic patterns of the few languages he knew, but was denounced as “presumptuous. ” Though his structuralist tendency was more apparent in the “Dissertation on the primitive vowel-system in Indo-European Languages” concerning “a system for all vowels” published at 21, Saussure never published anything substantial thereafter.
In 1916, three years after his death, two of his students published, in his name, the Course in General Linguistics, based on the notes taken by the students in his lectures, which, in spite of its dubious authorship, remains “the best introduction there is to the principles on which Structuralism rests”. The core concept of the Course is that of langue/ parole. While individual utterance is “parole,” the language regulated by linguistic “rules” or conventions to be observed by every member of the community is “langue”: “parole generates a message and langue understands or interprets it.
For a science of signs, Saussure had to “bracket” the idiosyncratic parole so that he may directly confront the ideational object, the more stable system of langue. What distinguishes langue from parole is its arbitrary, relational and systematic nature. Before Saussure, language was generally taken to be a “naming process,” i. e. , linguistic phenomena were the mechanical reflection of the material world, whose change pre-determined the change of language.
The first distinction Saussure made was that of the signifier (the linguistic sign), signified (concept or sound-image aroused by the signifier), and referent (related material world). To emphasize the non-referentiality of signification, its process is understood to be the relationship of the signifier and the signified leaving no room for the referent. Since this relationship is arbitrary, the meaning of language does not relate to the external world, and its generation is the result of the interaction of linguistic elements occupying different positions within language, signification is essentially “an absence or lack that is marked.
It is “difference,” a crucial concept in the Saussurean linguistics, that creates order out of chaos, an order out of which come language and clear thinking. The word “structure” did not appear in Saussure’s lectures, and he used “opposition” in its place. The first important structuralist after Saussure in Europe to use the concept of binary opposition is Roman Jacobson, the “great structuralist pioneer” in the era of the linguistic turn.
Jacobson “embodied the history of structuralism in the twentieth century”, as he was the vice president of the Prague Linguistic Circle from 1927 to 1938, introduced Levi-Strauss to structuralism in the 1940s, and taught in various US universities till 1970s. One of the contributions of Jacobson is his discussion of literary genre in terms of the binary opposition. He believes, based on the Saussurean concept of the syntagmatic and the associative, that human behavior is governed by an abstract formal principle, namely the metaphoric/ metonymic poles.
The former is the selection of linguistic signs (similarity) and the latter the combination of the signs selected (continuity). In this sense, romanticism and symbolism (or poetry) are characterized by the metaphoric pole while the metonymic pole is more apparent in realism (or prose). Although the early structuralist discussions focused largely on language and literature, Saussure believes that by studying language, the prototype of all semiotics, structuralism may be applicable to all social sciences and humanities. The French anthropologist Levi-Strauss is the first important structuralist in this respect.
He was directly influenced by Jacobson, and regarded anthropology as inherently structural in that any anthropological fact, to become intelligible, is already an interpretation and, hence, structural: “the truly natural is by definition unintelligible, but the cultural…is intelligible and thus capable of being integrated within some systematic explanation. ” He saw a strong connection between anthropology and language: “like phonemes, kinship terms are elements of meaning; like phonemes, they acquire meaning only if they are integrated into systems. kinship systems,’ like ‘phonetic systems,’ are built by the mind on the level of unconscious thought.
Finally, the recurrence of kinship patterns, marriage rules, similar prescribed attitudes between certain types of relatives, and so forth, in scattered regions of the globe and in fundamentally different societies, leads us to believe that, in the case of kinship as well as linguistics, the observable phenomena result from the action of laws which are general but implicit”. One of such famous “phonemic” kinship patterns is to be found in his analysis of the Greek myth of Oedipus.
Levi-Strauss found eleven mythemes from the three Greek tales and arranged them into four columns, thus forming two groups of binary opposites. The conclusion is: the myth deals with the origin of man’s birth. Though critics believe that this analysis reveals the mentality of the ancient people in creating the myth, they may have doubt about the relevance of the “deep structure” Levi-Strauss found since he turns away entirely from the historical context of the myth of Oedipus.
A more critical view is that Levi-Strauss never tells us whether the mind he has revealed is the mind of the primitive people or that of his wn. Jacobson’s effort at a structuralist redefinition of literature is a revival of some earlier, less-structuralist attempts, and one of such attempts was made by another Russian formalist. Vladimir Propp is not a formal member of the Opoyaz, but his Morphology of the Folktale (1928) is a brilliant structuralist analysis of folktales: “in botany, morphology comprises the study of the component parts of plants, and of their relations one to another and to the whole; in other words, the study of the structure of a plant”.
The morphology or the structural identification Propp derived from the 100 Russian Folktales is based on the “functions,” or the actions of the characters. There are thirty-one such functions (a family member leaves home, the villain gets to know the victim, etc. ) performed by seven types of characters (the villain, the helper, and so on). Though Propp does not, as the later structuralists do, arrive at a universal structure of folktales, he does reveal a stable “morphology” of a literary genre.
Propp’s work was translated into English in 1958, and similar attempts followed. The morphology of the folktale in the case of Tzvetan Todorov, for instance, becomes narratology. The structure of the narrative comprises, in terms of linguistics, of three parts: the verbal (language), the semantic (content) and the syntactic (plot). These can then be further divided. The syntactic, for instance, may start with “phrases” (adjective, verbs, etc. ) and move towards “sentences” and “paragraphs,” all corresponding to different plot formations in the novel.
The early Roland Barthes was also believed to be largely structuralism-orientated. However, while saying that linguistics “is the true science of structure,” Barthes always seems to go beyond mere linguistics. In “The Structuralist Activity” published at a time when formalism was giving way to structuralism, for instance, he seems to be trying to redefine the formalist literariness in terms of structuralism: structuralism is seen to be the “technique” of all creation, and it “speaks the old language of the world in a new way”.
As a leading exponent of structuralism, Barthes develops a close connection with Levi-Strauss and Michel Foucault, and his structuralism is best illustrated in the famous S/Z (1970), where literary texts are “structured” by the five major codes: the hermeneutic, the semic, the symbolic, the proairetic, and the cultural, which correspond in a complexity of reference to the textual unit of the novel Sarrasine. But Barthes differs from other structuralists in that his codes are not the ideal, transcendental model or the grammar of literary texts, but are “instances of parole which have no ultimate langue”.
Structuralism is one of the humanistic thoughts that have great impact on the twentieth century. It is true that structuralism is “firmly embedded in the tradition of Western thought and science…to find ways of ‘understanding’ phenomena through models of explanation that offer coherent pictures of the order of things”. However, the start and the culmination of structuralism coincide with the two political crises in the West: the First World War and the violent leftist movement of the 60s; stable rules of a conflict-free, ultra-reliable system in contexts like these are what was most needed to counter-balance chaotic historical change.
As modernism and scientism represented by the linguistic turn were found to be more and more unable to respond to human interest and social concerns, literary structuralism was soon regarded as the “most provocative and unpopular,” and was quickly replaced by a humanistic turn, effected by a revolution within structuralism itself. However, the influence of structuralism, just as that of formalism, lingers on. The conservative backlash of the 80s and 90s is a clear indication that structuralist thinking is still there, and pretty strong.