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The term structuralism is used in many contexts in different disciplines in
the 20th century. Structuralism proposes the idea that many phenomena do not
occur in isolation, but instead occur in relation to each other, and that
all related phenomena are part of a whole with a definite, but not
necessarily defined, structure. Structuralists, in any area of knowledge,
attempt to perceive that structure and the changes that it may undergo with
the goal of furthering the development of that system of phenomena or ideas.
In film and literary theory and criticism, the term refers to a line of
thought stemming from the structural linguistics usually identified with
Ferdinand de Saussure. The generalization of linguistic models by the French
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss inspired others to apply their versions
of structuralist ideas to a wide range of subjects. Thus, Levi-Strauss'
views affected the social sciences from the 1960s and onward.
As with any cultural movement, the influences and developments are complex;
other linguists besides Saussure were important. Roman Jakobson, in
particular, worked on specifically literary problems long before
structuralism became a general trend. For a description of structuralist
principles, Levi-Strauss is an adequate representative of the approach;
trained in both philosophy and social science, he states his views methodically.
Also, other major figures in structuralism have written a good deal of work
in which other influences dominate. Both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault
have been called both structuralists and post-structuralists. Louis
Althusser's chief concern was to enlarge Marxist theory. In America, the
work of Leonard Bloomfield, who was inspired by Saussure, represents a more
specific sense of structuralism, which is now thought to be too restrictive.
In the fifties, Noam Chomsky rigorously criticized many aspects of
structuralism, while at the same time he contributed to it as it is perceived today.
(But Levi-Strauss was an anthropologist, a point to remember in searches for
further information. He uses certain terms, including "structuralism," in
the way his field uses them, even though they have other meanings elsewhere.
He repeatedly contrasts structural anthropology with the work of
"functionalists" while relying on two linguistic authorities, Roman Jakobson
and Nicolas Troubetzkoy, who are functionalists as far as many linguists are
concerned. Indeed, the purpose of calling them functionalists, along with
other members of the Prague School, is to distinguish their work from the
structural linguistics of Saussure. Even more confusingly, the Prague School
is occasionally referred to as "functional-structuralist", while there is a
well-known position in the social sciences, deriving from Talcott Parsons,
which is sometimes called "structural functionalism." A Google search on any
of these terms can be exasperating.)
Structuralism in Linguistics
Structural linguists make the influential argument that the elements of a
language have no intrinsic character. They take on a character only in
relation to each other.
For example, human beings can make a certain range of noises, but the sound
of "m" is not really the sound of "m" outside of a language that uses an
"m." Within that language, a certain range of noises gets classified
together as equivalent versions of the "m" sound, and there is no useful way
to describe this classification except by referring to the language. The
boundaries are imprecise--people who hear an "m" are not measuring waveforms
and rejecting the ones beyond a certain cutoff point. Furthermore, there is
change through time, local variation, and a good deal of overlap between the
range of noises that can be classified as "m" and those that can be
classified as something else. If there is an "m" sound that exists in the
language, it must be thought of as something persisting through the welter
of possible variations.
The phoneme has some essential character, apart from all its manifestations.
Furthermore, the language defines this essential character partly by
differentiating it from other phonemes. What makes an "m" is partly its
distinction from "n." But what makes an "n" is partly its distinction from "m."
Continuing this line of analysis, it must be the case that the ?m? sound in
one language is not the same as the ?m? sound in another, even if the same
range of vocal noise is classified as ?m? in each. The classification is
being made by contrasts within two different systems.
Saussure believed that the meanings expressed in a language were determined
by an analogous system of differences.
This way of thinking has several obvious characteristics.
It defines the boundaries of a language by reference to its internal structure.
It portrays the workings of a language solely in terms of the internal
structure, rather than seeking a set of causes, functions, or patterns that
could underlie several different structures. If generalized from phonetics
to meaning, the approach obviously raises the possibility that what's
expressed in one language cannot be expressed in any other.
Most pervasively, it depends on a notion of purely abstract structure
underlying all the particular manifestations of a language. Language is not
the sound, it is the classification of sounds; it is not the question, it is
the comparison with other sentence types that define what a question is; it
is not the idea, it is the set of underlying distinctions that make the idea
This idealism, if that is the term, has a somewhat surprising result. Sign
and meaning tend to merge. A word means just what it means in the language
that uses it, and only that word expresses it.
So, implicitly, languages are not translatable into each other. This is a
possibility taken up by deconstructionism.
Structuralism in Psychology
In psychology, structuralism refers mainly to the work of Wilhelm Wundt and
Edward B. Titchener, who investigated the mind by directing subjects to
introspect and recording the subjects' reports.
Structuralism in General Human Culture
Levi-Strauss extends this form of linguistic analysis to all human culture.
But he assumes that there is a knowable structure underlying all actions.
All the operations of human consciousness and action are built on simple
contrasts-the raw and the cooked, the wet and the dry, and so forth. In his
view, these contrasts are changeless and universal.
In this respect, he is extending another aspect of linguistic research, the
search for a universal grammar. Cultures cannot be explained without some
reference to universals, located in a fundamental structure of the human
mind, which must necessarily be expressed in every human act.
One implication of this view is that the same structures will operate in
both the actions being studied and the scholar's interpretation of them.
Freud may completely misread a folktale's meaning, in the sense of giving a
bad description of the psychological tensions that its tellers had in them
to express. But his response to the tale nevertheless arises from the same
basis as theirs. It is at least relevant to a good description of what the
tale means. Levi-Strauss explored this sort of ambiguity in his later
Now, a brief illustration of structuralist analysis. In 1977, Levi-Strauss
recorded an informal series of talks for the Canadian Broadcasting Company,
presenting his views in layman's terms. The talks were published in 1979 as
MYTH AND MEANING. At one point, Levi-Strauss commented on the puzzling
recurrence of a musical theme in Wagner's Ring Cycle. The analysis is a good
example because it is quick and entirely verbal (where thorough structural
presentation often requires charts and tables and ad hoc borrowings of
In the Rheingold, the character Alberich renounces all human love in order
to receive a treasure of gold, and the theme is played. Later his wealth
allows him to seduce a woman who later bears his son.
The theme is played again in the Valkyrie at a puzzling moment. Siegmund
embarks on an incestuous relationship with his sister, after extracting a
sword that is embedded in a tree. The scene is unlike the first one--instead
of renouncing love, a man is embarking on it. His sister will later give
birth to Siegfried.
The music plays again later in the Valkyrie as the king of the gods consigns
his daughter Brunhilde to an enchanted sleep in a ring of fire.
What Levi-Strauss notices is that in each scene there is a protected or
obstructed treasure-- the gold at the bottom of the Rhine, the sword held in
a tree, the woman held in a ring of fire. The repetition of the music
responds to this similarity.
In fact, says Levi-Strauss, the three objects merge. The gold is a way to a
position of power which eventuates in a son, the extraction of the sword
opens the way to a sexual conquest that also produces a son, and each of the
sons will eventually possess Brunhilde, the woman in the fire. And she, of
all the characters in this multi-generational story, will in the end return
the gold to the river.
Thus, by considering a structural element common to three situations,
Levi-Strauss finds a sense in which the situations are related, outside the
cause-and-effect of plot. This analysis has two properties characteristic of
structuralism. The structuralist comparison runs somewhat at odds with the
plot sense of the scenes--the same music occurs at a moment of renunciation
and a moment of love. And the analysis allows a certain shifting of use or
meaning among the analogous elements. The gold and the sword are buried
treasures that become instruments of conquest, while the woman is more like
the object of conquest, and the music is linked to her in a scene where she
the treasure is being confined rather than extracted. She returns the gold
to the Rhine partly because she is identified with it, but in this action
the nature of the identification becomes ambiguous--does she return the
gold, or is the gold acting through her?
Now, these meanings are simple, used only to illustrate method. An opera
lover might perceive them (or correct them) without any set critical
Where structuralism becomes useful is in organizing large bodies of
material, such as the kinship systems that Levi-Strauss initially studied or
the mythologies that occupied him later. Applied to criticism, it takes the
form of considering many texts, many films.
To be blunt, this approach strains the abilities of many writers. It
requires a meticulous examination of the material, and its ambition is to
find the patterns that underlie just about everything. So its use as a
general outlook on art and society is somewhat questionable, compared to the
influential work it has produced in specialized fields. In Hellenistic
studies, for example, the understanding of the myths and rites of sacrifice
requires a grasp of the basic oppositions that generate all Hellenistic
ideas of sacrifice: god vs. man, animal vs. man, heaven vs. earth. But one
must also understand how the myrrh tree, which produces a perfume used in
some rites, is defined in an entire body of knowledge about plants. Myrrh
was also used as a sexual perfume, so the relation of the plant world to
marriage customs is part of the same story.
For the essayist at large, structuralist methods can blend easily into the
practice of attending only to the facts that support a preconception. The
persistent criticism of structuralist work has been just that. Historical
influences, local meanings, plot structure and other conscious work--in a
word, context--provide one way of interpreting the details of a text. When
structural analysis is not carried through methodically, specific
interpretations can be dismissed with nothing to replace them but arbitrary claims.
Several aspects of structuralism open the way for the revision known as
deconstruction. As mentioned, the Saussurean linguistic theory strongly
implies that meanings cannot be translated. If the original author and the
commentator are playing variations on the same structure whether the
interpretation can be judged right or not, then variations may be seen as
having value in themselves. And if the Western tradition of historical and
critical thinking only exists within a framework of continuing mythical
thought, then attention may turn to exposing how this framework is concealed.