Study Guide

Structuralism Critics

  • Ferdinand de Saussure

    "But what is language [langue]? It is not to be confused with human speech…Taken as a whole, speech is many-sided and heterogeneous; straddling several areas simultaneously - physical, physiological and psychological—it belongs both to the individual and to society; we cannot put it into any category of human facts, for we cannot discover its unity.

    Language, on the contrary, is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. As soon as we give language first place among the facts of speech, we introduce a natural order into a mass that lends itself to no other classification."

    Language (langue) is not the same thing as speech (parole). Speech is very varied. 1,000 different individuals can say 1,000 different things. One person talks about going to the movies and another about his idol Ferdinand de Saussure. Two folks say "pop," but one is talking about soda and the other is calling her dad. These speech acts are are all different, so on the surface we can't find unity between them.

    Language, on the other hand, is a logical system that we can use to classify speech. It underlies all speech. Even though those 1,000 things sound different on the surface, they are all governed by language rules that are logical and consistent. If we focus on langue, we can find the order and logic that governs that mass of different speech acts.

    Let's look at it another way. When we say "I like pop," that's an utterance, a "parole." There can be any number of variations of this parole: "we played table tennis," "I prefer Mission Impossible," "I study structuralism." But even though all these paroles are different, beneath every one is the same grammatical structure: subject-verb-object. The grammatical structure that underlies all of these sentences is the "langue," whereas the various utterances are "paroles."

    The paroles may be different, but the structure beneath them is the same. The same goes for other grammatical structures, but the point is that various forms of parole, no matter what aspect of a person's life or cultural surroundings they're referring to, are based in the same set of linguistic rules.

    Basically, Saussure is making a distinction that is central to structuralism: On the surface of language, there are differences. But beneath those superficial differences there is a common structure. Sound familiar?

    "[I]n language there are only differences…Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it."

    It's the differences between words, between sounds, and between meanings that count in language. It's not the words, sounds or meanings in themselves that matter. 

    In other words: A is A because it's not B. We understand concepts, just like letters, based on what they're not. We understand the word "loud" because we understand its opposite, "quiet." Just like we understand what "human" means because we know that that's different from "machine." Language makes sense only through the differences and contrasts (binary oppositions) that it sets up. These differences and contrasts are the structure out of which meanings are made.

    Now this is another very important idea of Saussure's that was big for later structuralists, especially the ones who adopted these theories in other disciplines. It's a pretty radical idea because it suggests that meaning doesn't exist before differences. That is, without contrasts and binary oppositions in language, we wouldn't have meanings.

    "A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable….I shall call it semiology (from Greek semeion, 'sign'). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has a right to existence, a place started out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology."

    There goes Saussure, making up parallel universes again. But semiology actually did become a whole new field of science, even though at this point it hadn't been officially invented yet.

    According to Saussure's daydreams, that new scientific field would take the study of signs as its subject. He didn't just mean linguistic signs here (letters and words), but really any kind of sign. How do the clothes we choose to wear signal to others? How does body language work? Traffic lights? All these different sign systems would form part of the science of semiology, or the science of the study of signs. Linguistics would be just one branch of this science.

    Saussure is imagining a whole new science by suggesting that structuralist ideas can be applied beyond the field of linguistics. Other scholars and theorists followed up on Saussure's fantasies and applied a structuralist perspective to phenomena in all sorts of cultural and social fields.

    The fact that Saussure is claiming that language and signs can be studied scientifically is also pretty clutch here. For the first time, someone's saying that social and cultural aspects of life can be studied with the same rigor and objectivity as that of scientists who examine natural phenomena. Watch out, physics, biology and chemistry. Semiology is about to break into reality!

  • Claude Lévi-Strauss

    "What I would say is that the greatness and the superiority of scientific explanation lies not only in the practical and intellectual achievement of science, but in the fact, which we are witnessing more and more, that science is becoming able to explain not only its own validity but also what was to some extent valid in mythological thinking."

    Science rocks. It explains lots of stuff in the world. And evidence of the fact that scientific inquiry is superior to other forms of inquiry is the fact that science is now enabling us to understand not only natural elements but also cultural elements, like myth.

    Here, we see Lévi-Strauss arguing that the study of culture is a scientific endeavor. Picking up where Saussure left off, he's elevating the structuralist method to the status of a science.

    Saussure's plot for world domination via semiology is making strides. Lévi-Strauss, coming from the field of anthropology, was making that point that universal laws and binary oppositions were just as responsible for the princesses, dragons, and morals in myths all over the world as they were for things like chemical reactions.

    "Probably there is nothing more than that in the structuralist approach; it is the quest for the invariant, or for the invariant elements among superficial differences."

    You have a red dress, a blue t-shirt, and floral short-shorts. Hmmm…all different, right? Yes and no. Superficially, the clothes are different—you wouldn't wear the shorts to a wedding. But when we look at the tags, lo and behold: they're all 100% cotton! In this case, cotton is the "invariant," or common element, that unites these various fashionable items despite their superficial differences.

    Lévi-Strauss' explanation here is useful for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's saying what's most central to the structuralist approach—oh joy! It also highlights the way that contrast is of the utmost importance to structuralists. That's the idea that on the surface there are always "superficial differences," but beneath those details there is always some kind of common structure. Saussure made this distinction in relation to language. Here, Lévi-Strauss generalizes the concept for the structuralist approach as a whole. This distinction is not just about language anymore: it's a distinction that applies to everything.

    "[T]he 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. The problem can therefore be formulated as follows: Although they belong to another order of reality, kinship phenomena are of the same type as linguistic phenomena."

    You know how we find marriage in every culture? Incest taboos? Father and mother figures? Well, this suggests that there are universal "family rules" that exist all over the world. Yeah, just like those "grammar rules" that govern all acts of speech. So family is like language. On the surface, families seem different, but if we dig deeper we can discover the "grammar" that governs all family relationships, even if your family has dinner an hour later than your next door neighbor, and you both have different food from a family on the other side of the globe.

    Lévi-Strauss makes a daring leap from linguistic structures to social structures. He's basically saying: you know what, all of human society is structured like a language. This is an important moment in structuralism because it opens the door for other theorists to look at everything in society and culture in terms of linguistic structures, not just language.

  • Vladimir Propp

    "Functions of character serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.

    The number of functions known to a fairy tale is limited."

    Characters take certain actions in tales (folktales, fairy tales, you name it). A bad guy, for instance, will deceive a good guy. A prince will rescue a princess. These actions or functions will recur again and again in fairy tales, regardless of which character takes them. The good guy can also deceive the bad guy (and win in the end!). Or a princess can rescue a prince (in a feminist fairy tale). Even if the characters who take these actions change, the actions themselves don't change from tale to tale.

    The number of functions that appear in fairy tales, according to the calculations of Mr. Propp, is precisely 31.

    Propp's study of folktales was pretty revolutionary because it was the first time that someone tried to analyze the structure of narratives that seemed totally different on the surface. It was also the first time that someone tried applying structuralist ideas to literature.

  • Roland Barthes

    "[I]t is normal that structuralism in the early stages, should have made narrative a primary concern. For is it not one of structuralism's main preoccupations to control the infinite variety of speech acts by attempting to describe the language or langue from which they originate, and from which they can be derived? Faced with an infinite number of narratives and the many standpoints from which they can be considered….the analyst is roughly in the same situation as Saussure, who was faced with desultory fragments of language, seeking to extract, from the apparent anarchy of messages, a classifying principle and a central vantage point for his description."

    Barthes was one of the first literary theorists to explicitly outline the parallels between structural linguistics and literary criticism. A literary critic who studies literature, Barthes says, is in a very similar position to Saussure, the father of structuralism. Saussure saw a whole bunch of messy sentences, utterances, and speech acts, none of which seemed to have anything to do with one another. His task was to find the logic governing this messy bunch of unrelated phrases and sentences. In a similar way, a literary critic faces with an endless number of narratives—from novels to plays to short stories to poems. The critic's task, like Saussure's, is to find and understand the deep structure from which these narratives emerge, despite the fact that they all have different plots, structures, main characters, and happy or unhappy endings.

    Conclusion: literary criticism has a lot in common with structural linguistics.

    "[I]t is obvious that discourse itself (as an arrangement of sentences) is organized, and that, through this organization, it is perceived as the message of another "language," functioning at a higher level than the language of linguistics: discourse has its units, its rules, its "grammar." Because it lies beyond the sentence, and though consisting of nothing but sentences, discourse must naturally be the object of a second linguistics….although discourse constitutes an autonomous object of study, it must be studied from the vantage point of linguistics….it is most reasonable to postulate a homologous relation between sentence and discourse…Discourse would then be a large "sentence"…in the same way that a sentence, allowing for certain specifications, is a small "discourse."

    A discourse is made up of a whole bunch of texts. A literary discourse, for example, is made up of fairy tales and novels and plays and poetry and short stories. Each of these texts is made up of sentences. Just as a sentence is governed by grammar rules, so a discourse is also governed by rules. In other words a discourse is like a very big, very long, very complicated sentence. So it follows that we literary critics should approach a discourse in the same way that a linguist approaches a sentence: We should aim to identify and understand its rules and structure. In this sense, we literary critics are "linguists" too, because we're trying to do what a linguist does. The difference is we're doing all that in relation to narratives, not sentences.

    Once again, here we see Barthes outlining the parallels between literary criticism and linguistics. He's making a jump from the study of small units of narrative (sentences) to the study of large units of narrative (novels, plays, poetry etc.). The task of the critic is to treat a discourse like a sentence: find its grammar.

  • Tzvetan Todorov

    "The nature of structural analysis will be essentially theoretical and non-descriptive; in other words, the aim of such a study will never be the description of a concrete work. The work will be considered as the manifestation of an abstract structure, merely one of its possible realizations; an understanding of that structure will be the real goal of structural analysis."

    A structural literary critic isn't interested in describing a work of literature. Heaven forbid! What he or she is interested in is understanding how that work reflects a deep, underlying structure. So we only care about the characteristics of a specific text insofar as they tell us something about that deep structure, which should be applicable to all literature, everywhere. Other texts will also reflect that deep structure, but maybe in other ways. The critic's job is to find how each work reflects that deep structure.

    Todorov is clarifying the goal of a structural literary critic: to identify and analyze the deep structure of a literary work. Let's say we're studying a novel, for example. We can describe what the novel's about: a woman goes on a "quest" to find her missing children during a war. Well, says Todorov, that description is useless. There's no point if it doesn't tell us anything about how novels, as a group of narratives, are structured. If we say what the novel is about, on the other hand, and then point out that the "quest" plot of the novel is one that can be found in lots of other novels, then we're doing our job as literary theorists.

    What's important about this is that Todorov is tossing a whole bunch of conventional ideas that had dominated literary criticism up to that point into the trash bin. Describing a work—what it's about, what it means, how it gets that meaning across—was exactly what the New Critics before the structuralists aimed to do, for instance. They weren't interested in how the structure of one work was reflected in other works; they just cared about how one text created its meaning. But Todorov rebutted that treating a text in this way was a limited form of analysis. We can't actually understand a text unless we understand what it's telling us beyond itself, and that means getting at a structure that is not only inside the text but outside it as well.