Saturday, 24 February 2007

Structuralism, semiotics and narratology

Emerging in the late fifties in France and reaching its heyday in the mid sixties, structuralism is a school of scientific enthusiasm. Never before since the time of the Enlightenment had literary and cultural theorists been “lulled” this way by the promise of a rational, scientific ordering of their object: as J. Hillis Miller has described their mood, they all started from a sort of “happy positivism”. [1] These “Socratic, theoretical or canny” [2] scholars strongly believed that any cultural product was undeniably and equally liable to an investigation of its underlying patterns and values, and for that purpose they invented a “barbaric jargon” (as it was described by their opponents) which suited the scientific claims of their project.

Structuralism is in the first place a method of critical investigation, but at a deeper level of analysis it appears not only as a method, but also as a “general tendency of thought”, or an ideology, whose prerequisite is to “value structures at the expense of substances”, to use Gérard Genette’s words. [3] Indeed, the ambition of the structuralist proponents (similar to that of archeologists or geologists) was to dig out the codes, systems and structures which governed any cultural activity and its products. Language and all other discursive and symbolic systems is constituted from the immanent relations among their component elements, and the “grammar” of these relations is liable to being discovered and formulated. If meaning exists, it is made possible by the underlying system of distinctions and conventions, Jonathan Culler opined in Structuralist Poetics. “Wherever there are two posts one can kick a ball between them but one can score a goal only within a certain institutional framework”, he explains. [4]

Perception, thought, cultural products are constructed and not natural. STRUCTURE [5] (which is related to the concepts of value and system) is the basic principle of construction and it becomes the main object of investigation. The structuralist approach is anti-humanist par excellence, as the human subject is no more the source of, and the main point of reference for cultural enterprises: it is removed from the focus of inquiry, so that the system can be isolated and analyzed. Within this approach, structure is an abstract category, a center, or point of origin (e.g. the geometry of perspective in the Renaissance painting, the arrangement of the sequences in folk narratives, or even the array of garments for a ceremonial occasion), and it supersedes other centers, such as history or the human person. Every component element has a relational meaning and value, because it exists as a result of an option: therefore the meaning can be found out by defining the place of the element within the general structure, rather than by relating it to the world outside that structure. If the meaning resides exclusively in the types of relationships among the component parts (the elements being arranged mostly as binary oppositions), then the structuralist view of structure differs substantially from the previous ones, including Cleanth Brooks’s definition, which included interpretations and evaluations, that is to say the work’s moral and cultural significance.

How could we explain this obsession with such a theoretical notion as structure? The answer may lie, in our opinion, in the almost mystical fascination which abstract configurations have always aroused in the human mind, with their challengingly symmetrical, geometric complexity.

The term “structuralism” was first used by Roman Jakobson in 1929:

Were we to comprise the leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations, we could hardly find a more appropriate designation than structuralism. Any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole, and the basic task is to reveal the inner ... laws of the system.[6] /Emphasis added/

However, the remote roots of the structuralist movement, beyond the schools of Russian Formalism, the Prague Linguistic Circle and Polish Structuralism, can be found in Ferdinand de Saussure’s lectures, published in 1916, from students’ notes, as Cours de Linguistique Générale. Opposing the dominant historical perspective in the linguistics of his time, Saussure propounded a “scientific” study of language, which should start from the formal relations between its elements (relations of combination and contrast). Other premises of Saussure’s thought were the systematic nature of language, and the arbitrary nature of its elements. His epoch-making idea of the difference between the two manifestations of language - LANGUE (the language system) and PAROLE (speech acts) - is of a fundamental import for the development of structuralism. As Culler explains,

It is easy ... to confuse the system with its manifestations, to think of English as the set of English utterances. But to learn English is not to memorize a set of utterances; it is to master a system of rules and norms which make it possible to produce and understand utterances... The linguist’s task is not to study utterances for their own sake; they are of interest to him only in so far as they provide evidence about the nature of the underlying system, the English language.(SP 2)

When one deals with physical events, says Culler, laws can be formulated which are nothing other than “direct summaries of behavior”, but when social and cultural phenomena are studied, behavior often deviates considerably from the norm, a distance appears between them, and for the researcher “that gap is a space of potential meaning”. (SP 3)

According to Saussure, language, as a self-authenticated system, exists outside the individual, who cannot create or change it, and also outside the world of things. Therefore signification takes place not through the interaction of words and things, but through the association of the sound images (signifiers) with concepts (signifieds). And signifiers come into being through the relationships with other signifiers: these relationships can occur on the paradigmatic axis (the vertical column of possible substitute elements to be used at any given place) or on the syntagmatic axis (the series of individual terms combined in a contiguous chain to make up a meaningful utterance). Signifiers are arranged in pairs of binary oppositions, as Nikolay Troubetzkoy, [7] a leading member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, observed later (for instance voiced/ non-voiced, nasalized/ non-nasalized, tense/ lax phonemes).

Saussure realized that the study of sign-systems initiated by him led to the creation of a new discipline, which he called semiology: in the following decades of the 20th century it developed as a parallel discipline, so closely connected with structuralism that sometimes the two terms were used interchangeably. In the second part of this chapter we will deal in a detailed manner with semiology (or “semiotics”) and with its implication for literary studies.

In the activity of Roman Jakobson, one of the fathers of structuralism, linguistics and semiotics merged with literary studies. His career may be said to impersonate both the pre-history and the history of this trend of thought in the 20th century.

The position he adopted concerning the object of literary studies while he was a member of the Prague School differed from the one he had held as a formalist belonging to the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Now it was the relational nature of meaning that mattered, rather than the isolated content of the literary work, as it had been with the formalists. Instead of an analysis of “literariness” which should exclude anything extraliterary from its scope, after 1933 Jakobson emphasized poeticity and insisted that this was only one aspect of poetry; the poetic function appeared therefore as a relational, not an absolute aspect.

Jakobson’s 1958 manifesto “Linguistics and Poetics” paved the way for further linguistic-semiotic analyses of texts, establishing the basic terms of investigation. He described six factors contributing to verbal communication: the addresser (or encoder) and the addressee (or decoder); the message; the code (usually a language); the context (or referent); the contact (or medium: live speech, writing, and so on). There is a function of communication corresponding to each of these, respectively the emotive, conative, poetic, metalingual, referential, phatic functions. It is very rarely that only one function is fulfilled: in reality there is a diversity of them, one usually being predominant. On the other hand the poetic function, for instance, does not appear only in poetry, but also in many other types of verbal messages, including advertisements, and so forth. We will refer in detail to the poetic function later in this chapter.

Relying on Saussure’s description of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes, Jakobson formulated a new theory based on the opposition between SELECTION and COMBINATION in the acquisition and the use of language. In “Two Aspects of Language”, a study combining linguistics and psychopathology, first published in 1956, he analyzed the manifestations of aphasic disturbance with mental patients: each form of aphasia consists in some impairment of the faculty for either selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. [8] The relation of similarity (typical of metaphor) is suppressed in one case, while that of contiguity (typical of metonymy) is absent in the other one. So Jakobson implies that the two linguistic operations can be understood in terms of the corresponding rhetorical figures.

The alternation METAPHOR / METONYMY can be considered to underlie all forms of verbal art, and not only these, Jakobson insists. In Russian lyrical songs the former predominates, while in heroic epics it is the other one which does. This opposition can be extended to describe various literary schools: romanticism and symbolism are dominated by metaphorical patterns, while the realistic trend is mainly metonymic:

The realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic

[1] J. Hillis Miller, “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure”, Part II, in Georgia Review, 30, 1976; 335-36, quoted in Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 23.

[2] “For the most part these critics share the Socratic penchant, what Nietzsche defined as ‘the unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of logic, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being’. ... The inheritors ... of the Socratic faith would believe in the possibility of a structuralist-inspired criticism as a rational and rationalizable activity, with agreed-upon rules of procedure, given facts, and measurable results.” Miller distinguishes between these critics and those coming after them, such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, who could be described as “Apollonian/ Dionysian, tragic, or uncanny”.(J. H. Miller, 336; 335).

[3] G. Genette, “Structuralism and Literary Criticism” in David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (London and New York: Longman, 1988), 68.

[4] In the introduction (“The Linguistic Foundation”) to Structuralist Poetics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 1. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text, as SP.

[5] From Lat. structus (heaped up, built).

[6] R. Jakobson, “Romantic Panslavism - New Slavic Studies” (originally published in 1929), in Selected Writings, vol. 2 (New York: Mouton, 1971), 711

[7] Troubetzkoy is also the linguist who first distinguished between phonetics (the discipline that studies actual speech sounds) and phonology the study of the phoneme structure).

[8] R. Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language” in Rivkin and Ryan, Literary Theory ..., 91. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[9] Synecdoche is regarded here as a form of metonymy.

[10] David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), 228.

[11] R. Jakobson and C. Lévi-Strauss, “Les Chats de Charles Baudelaire”, L’Homme, 2 (1962), 5-21.

[12] C. Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”, in Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Myth: A Symposium (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 89. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[13] Cf. Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1970), 40.

[14] Cf. Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957), Le Degré Zéro de l’écriture et Eléments de Sémiologie (Paris: Seuil, 1964), Système de la Mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973).

[15] R. Barthes, “Textual Analysis of Poe’s ‘Valdemar’”, in Robert Young (ed.), Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (Boston, London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 135.

[16] R. Barthes, S/Z (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974, trans. R. Miller), 5. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[17] . Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 10.

[18] Michael Ryan, Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 29.