Structuralism part I from Tyson 2.0

last revised 2/25/09


One thing to keep in mind when reading about structuralism is that these theorists seem to espouse three things (and then three things within those three things):

  1. That there is an elegant, structural theory for everything narrative (not unlike some physicist's dreams about string theory being the theory of everything)
  2. That these structures reflect the structures of the human mind
  3. That it is important for humans to limit the possible chaos of infinite combinations and meanings

Like (and unlike) Marxist theory which focuses on a structure of "false" superstructure vs. "real" base, structuralists are looking for the underlying principles of a group of literary works vs. the surface phenomenon the individual works that can be endless. Underlying principles help limit the chaos.

Logos, or the rules of the English Language specifically ("the most fundamental structure of humankind") are the underlying rules (subject-verb-object) that limit the chaos of potentially overwhelming combinations. There are, for instance, 31 phonemes (units of sound), and there are the rules for their combinations (that we have unconsciously internalized, but that we have also created because the mind seeks to limit chaos).

As Tyson lays it out (212):

Surface Pheonomenon (words; parole) dogs run happily

(underlying) Structure

(parts of speech)

noun verb descriptor

(rules of combination/syntax)

(langue, or smallest universals)

subject + predicate (verb + object)

...and isn't this grammr the most basic unit of the hero's journey? Subject/protagonist does something to the object/antagonist?



Ferdinand de Saussure and Structural Linguistics

We've already mentioned Saussure's move from previous linguistic scholars to focus on the sign having two inseparable parts: signifiers and signifieds (instead of the third term object or referent). He suggested that the relations of sound image (signifier) and concept (signified) were arbitrary (compare different languages).

Saussure's main focus was to look at langue or the structure of language (vs. parole or surface phenomenon of individual utterances) synchronically, or as relations among word systems at a given moment (213), rather than focusing on the etymology or origins of meanings (a diachronic reading that doesn't necessarily focus on large, underlying structures).

The human mind shapes and is shaped by different social/cultural linguistic conventions or constructs (Eskimos and snow, for instance, or Estar vs. Ser in Spanish). The human mind also (supposedly) percieves things in terms of "difference" (213) by being able to differentiate between one thing and another thing. Difference is perceived most readily via binary oppositions (always already hierarchical and ideological). This idea would be an example of langue (that we see in terms of binaries). The following binaries would be examples of parole:

Langue, however, would say that our meaning systems come in the way our minds form these binaries. "Patriot" doesn't mean without it's supposed opposite "traitor," and visa versa. But Saussure would have said that we don't just think in terms of one set of binaries but in terms of groups of binaries, groups of signs/meanings. So a group of binaries involving "patriot/traitor" might also involve "hero/coward," and of course "good/evil" (A. J. Greimas created a "semiotic square" based on oppositions like life/death, but expanded the binary to also include not life/not death).

In his Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics (1910), Saussure's student's notes say he compared linguistics to rituals: "Let us go back to the language considered as a product of society at work: it is a set of signs fixed by agreement between the members of that society; these signs evoke ideas, but in that respect it's rather like rituals, for instance." This idea certainly leads to Levi-Strauss, Campbell, and others.


Claude Levi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology (the structural study of myth influenced by Saussure)

Human cultures have codified practices (often based on mythical thought) that have similar, underlying principles (215). Levi-Strauss stated that "that mythical thought always works from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation" (see Dundes), mediation meaning the locating of underlying principles (langue). The differences of, say, the initiation into adulthood amongst cultures are like parole, but the underlying similarities are like langue. Some codified practices:

There are an enormous amount of myths, but there are limited myth fundamentals (or common features), or what Levi-Strauss calls mythemes (the smallest units of a myth; likely to have a subject-verb-object structure; 216). In other words, there are a limited amount of mythical/narrative possibilities (that can be seen between cultures, thus suggesting an underlying structure generalizable to all):

Literature is basically a continuous re-telling (of these mythemes). Literature, or mythology, is the telling, mytheme is getting meta about the structure of the telling (see Michael Bryson's quick overview).


Northrop Frye: Mythoi--Theory of (Myths) and Literary Genres (and master plots)...see link.


SEMIOTICS! And Roland Barthes

The study of sign systems, often non-verbal or unwritten sign systems like ads, movies, clothing, photos (semioticians suggest that everything is language, is text, or can be "read" as text, so verbal and non-verbal distinctions are not necessarily that significant; but the narratologists are also called semioticians and they mainly study language or narrative). Sign systems are symbolic/meaning codes that generalize to all signs of that type/class or genre (like mythemes are the myth codes that generalize to all myths of that type). Though Roland Barthes is also considered a narratologist in some of his work (trying to find a grammar of narrative), he was also greatly affected by Deconstruction theory that critiqued structuralism for it's need to have an underlying, or what is more accurately a transedent structure, and this affected some of Barthes later semiotic works.

Semioticians are often known for stydying the underlying principles of genres of popular culture. But isn't that LOW culture! We don't study that in the English Department! Semiotics says everything is a text (as I mentioned above, or that non-linguistic artifacts can have their own kind of grammar/structure that is not unlike the structure of language), And if everything is a text (with an underlying structure) that can be studied, then everything is potentially worthy of study for a scholar interested in structures, and thus the binary of high vs. low culture is put under erasure.

Another way to think about this is that semiotics focuses on the class of signs called symbols where the relationship between signifier and signified is most arbitrary (as opposed to the class "index"--smoke signifies fire--or the class "icon" where signifier physically resembles signified, supposedly--pictures of Jesus "resemble" Jesus--but why not also include pictures of Gretta Garbo that"resemble" Garbo, but her symbolism is more arbitrary?)

Semioticians study symbolic sign systems (216) often within popular culture genres (genre would be a synchronic way of looking at things, vs. tracing some historical evolution, or a diachronic way of looking at things)--these can be analyzed (as if) they were specialized languages. I tell my composition students that these specialized languages are genre codes. So, take a certain pop culture (low) genre--wrestling or hollywood iconography--and find out how it might be structured in similar ways to "high culture" artifacts.

Barthes suggests, for instance, that The World of Wrestling has the structure of Greek theater. Here is some footage. Here are things about Greek theater. And Mighty Aphrodite...and then the next scene...and the next scene...

Barthes also suggests that even a face can be read as a sign system. The Face of Garbo is a good example (look at her multiple images, the similarities of the meanings they give--or don't give, the things they say about Hollywood and women at that time). Images of Garbo. Audrey Hepburn has a different effect (though Lee would argue there is still a sense of similarity, of traditional Hollywood iconography in Garbo and Hepburn's head shots).

See also Chandler's "Semiotics for Beginners" for more on the hard core structuralist aspects of semiotics. Also see Signo for a rather broad definition of semiotics.