Structuralism

Defining ‘Structuralism’ in a brief statement is not less than a challenge. It is not only hard to define but also takes multiple forms of a common denominator as evidence. The ‘structures’ which many ‘ ‘structuralists’ used have acquired diverse significations.

Fortunately, upon comparing and analyzing various meanings of this discipline to define structuralism, this synthesis seems possible and feasible to understand. The approach has long been examined for its underlying principles and to achieve ideal intelligibility in all the domains. However, structuralism and its underlining principles entail a dynamic dichotomy in different domains.

To put it simply, the critical objectives of structuralism vary enormously for different structuralists. For a mathematician, structuralism is not about compartmentalization. The discipline counteracts itself by accomplishing unity via isomorphism.

For a linguist (until the nineteenth century), structuralism emerged as a way out to study linguistic and its components diachronically as isolated items. The idea prevailed throughout the nineteenth century. Later, it turned to a perspective that aims to investigate a synchronously functioning language system.

Moreover, for psychologists, structuralism is known for combating atomistic tendency that reduces a whole system to its prior elements. Similarly, the domain of philosophy finds structuralism a way to tackle functionalism and historicism, especially the theories associated with a human subject.

Analyzing structuralism negatively is not the only way to explore this diverse approach. To understand it, we need to view it in a broader spectrum, excluding its contradictions and diversifications. However, focusing on its positive contents is essential to explore its common aspects exist in all forms of structuralism.

Firstly it contains intrinsic intelligibility that emphasizes all the structures (in any domain) are self- sufficient. To learn or grasp them, there is no need for any referenceis generated from extraneous elements.

Secondly, it is essential to understand and believe that someone has made specific structures which are conspicuous in his theoretical employment. Despite the diversity of those structures, all of them have some common and necessary properties.

History And Transformation Of Structuralism

Critical theory first emerged after WW II. The theories comprised of multiple disciplines, such as psychoanalytical criticism, post-colonialism, linguistics, structuralism and literary criticism.

The theories received a great deal of retaliation and hostile treatment from liberal consensus, reining the criticism realm from the 1930s to 1950s. Structuralism, among all these overarching discourses, has been the most controversial. In 1950, this mind movement initiated in France and had its long-lasting impact on the literature and English studies until the late 1980s. The main concerns of this movement were philosophy and language, rather than the author or history.

Emerged as the latest trend that highlighted new thinking dimensions in the 1950s, structuralism became a challenge for New Criticism. Rejecting existentialism and human freedom approach of Sartre, the movement focused on determining human behavior by psychological, cultural and social structures. The main goal of Structuralism is to provide researchers with a kind of universal tool and approach that can be used in many scientific fields and in many domains of life.

Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes researched and used structuralist principles in different scientific fields, but particularly in literature. Similarly, Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst, studied psychology and used the structuralist underlying foundation together with theories of such researchers as Freud and Saussure. To examine the science of history and to study epistemological structures, Michel Foucault also adopted structuralist’s approach. Louis Althusser merged structuralism and Marxism and created a new perspective towards social analysis.

Many critics viewed structuralism as a ‘Mind Movement’ or a method. Illustrating how knowledge fragmentation ruled the world of intellectuals, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, critic elaborated the desires of modern thinkers to structuralize their empirical explorations in a coherent system. Structuralism, for many critics, was a unification of different disciplines into a new thought system. It necessitates ideas and beliefs of all sciences in a holistic view, emphasizing the significance of ‘whole.’

What Is Structuralism?

In a broader horizon, structuralism, as a new school of thoughts emerged from linguistics and language theories. Specifically, it analyzes the underlying principles and components of literature and culture to establish a relationship between them. With the help of this established connection, critics draw general conclusions about different works of an individual and the system/society which has produced that work.

Structuralists perceive this world in the form of structures. According to them, whatever we do practically can be expressed in language. Language has symbols not confined to just oral and written communication. The work of anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss or literary critic like Roland Barthes is the good examples of structuralism

According to them, structuralism scaffolds a belief that understanding things in isolation is difficult, they must be examined, studied or analyzed in the broader context of structures they have emerged from. Besides that, these broader contexts of structures come to the fore when we perceive the world in our way.

The structuralism in literature is a constant movement that does not allow interpretation of literary work in an isolated context for understanding larger structures, which hold them. For instance, the structuralist analysis of ‘Good Morrow’ –a Donne’s poem, emphasizes its pertinent genre (dawn song) which is a beautiful concept of love. It does not demand a critical analysis of all the formal elements used in the text.

What is Fundamental Belief of Structuralism

Structuralism relies upon a fundamental belief. According to it, human activities are not natural but constructed. The effects of this belief pervade all famous structuralists work. Some of the significant practitioners like Robert Scholes (author of Structuralism in Literature), Terence Hawkes (author of Structuralism and Semiotics), David Lodge, Colin MacCabe (creators of structuralist approaches in the book Working with Structuralism) have demonstrated structuralism’s fundamental belief in their literary works.

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With its comprehensive scientific categorization, the fundamental belief refers to an interrelationship between “rules” (a way to assemble units) and “units” (important surface phenomena). When it comes to applying it into language, rules become grammatical structures/forms and units become words. Both grammar forms and words vary from language to language, but the structure remains the same. In other words, a structure makes the meaning.

Many examples in the literature illustrate this phenomenon. For instance, recall fairy tales like Sleeping beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White in which all the protagonists are the units. Price, princess, God fairy, etc., and antagonists like stepmother or evil witches are rules. In these narratives, princesses are innocent and victimized, and the prince married them in the end.

Both rules and units may differ, however; the underlying structure of the plots is the same in all the fairy tales. This part is where the structuralists’ fundamental belief comes into the picture. It explains that it is a human mind that generates a core structure which is responsible for organizing units and rules into a comprehensive, meaningful system. It further states that there is no room for sense perception when it comes to generating structures.

Another reason why structuralism bloomed in nineteenth-century is its attempt to decrease the complexities of individual experiences to some underlying structures. Most of these human experiences are universal and have its roots in Aristotle classicism beliefs. Structuralists, in this regard, defined structures as a conceptual system with three main properties that includes,

  • Wholeness –   refers to a holistic function of a system
  • Transformation – refers to the evolution of a system as it must not be static
  • Self -regulation – refers to the constancy of basic structure

Experiences and Patterns of Structuralism

There is no denying that structuralism completely changed the perspective of analyzing literary work. Structuralists presented language as a dynamic entity that plays a vital role in constituting meanings in the context. Many of them asserted that language has specific patterns, which incorporate various elements common to human experiences.

Moreover, Structuralists also argued that these experiences are easy to observe if we try to follow those patterns. They make it clear with an example of buildings that American built in 1850 during industrialization and have the same architectural features. Although many buildings have distant physical structures, the construction follows the same underlying principles. They exhibit a unique composition or artistic form that exemplifies mechanical construction of American urban style of the eighteenth century.

Structuralists believe that if you can identify this distinct composition, you are analyzing things with the structuralist lens. Even if you assess the structure of a building to analyze or discover its composition or structural system, it is a structuralist activity.

Relationship of Literary Theory and Structuralism

As mentioned earlier, structuralism dramatically influences literature and the way critics used to perceive and criticize the literary texts. Literary theory employs a structuralist approach to examine the underlying principles of text composition. Analyzing the principles of plot progression, or how author placed or presented the characters is also a structuralist activity.

Plus, if you can relate, predict or describe the literary work’s structure to demonstrate its composition and principles of the structural system, it is a structuralist activity.

Precisely, Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic, employed a different structuralism approach as he compartmentalized genres of literature into four mythoi.

  • Historical criticism or modes theory (thematic, tragic and comic)
  • Archetypal criticism or myths theory (tragedy, comedy, satire, and romance)
  • Ethical criticism or Symbols theory (mythical, anagogic, literal, descriptive and formal)
  • Rhetorical criticism or genres theory (epos, drama, lyric, epos)

Semiotic and Structuralism

Saussure is one of the well-known figures who introduced ‘Semiotics’ into structuralism. Another theorist Charles Sanders presented semiotics theories to expand the horizon of structuralism. The ideas of semiotics help structuralists analyze the sign systems that define human experiences. The theorists incorporated three critical ideas into structuralism.

  • Iconic Signs,  in which both signified thing and signifier resemble each other, for example, tags of ‘ Men and Women’ on washroom doors
  • Indexes, in which the signifier’s job is indicating the signified, such as smoke and fire
  • True symbols, it refers to the conventional and arbitrary relation between signifier and signified a thing.

These ideas have a significant influence on semiotic theories that employs the sign system.

The Role of Sign System

There is no doubt that the domain of semiotic has significant contribution in formulating a structuralist theory. Semioticians employ structuralist insights for studying sign systems. Semiotic theories focus on non-linguistic behavior or objects to analyze them as language. To put it simply, the semiotics aims to examine how non-linguistic behaviors and objects communicate or tell something.

For instance, the image of a woman with blonde hair and skin-tight velvet attire on the billboard of a product like a whiskey persuades us (or tells us) to drink it if we (especially men) want to be attractive to a gorgeous woman. The combination of semiotics and structuralism help critics understands the numerous signs and structure of a literary work. Many semiotic examples lead structuralism to the startling insights of the text. According to Saussure, signs are the most crucial element in any language, which help people deduce the meanings of anything.

With the pragmatic approach of semiotics, structuralist or linguists can conveniently examine language without having to analyze its referents like abstractions or fictions. Semiotics has been helpful for the critics to investigate how meanings are created and communicated. With the semiotics definition, understanding a complex set of conventions and cultural messages have become easy to interpret.

Bottom Line

Overall, structuralism is one of the impactful and controversial approaches that set its aim to determine underlying structures of literary texts. It can also be applied to study any meaningful event like discussion, marriage or coffee cup. Using semiotics, structuralism analyzes the signs, function, and impact of any event. Thus, the broad approach offers insights into what makes people the way they are.