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00168—What is Structuralism? [Saussure]

Saussure sign

Structuralism is primarily concerned with the study of structures.  Here we study how things get their meaning.  It is also a philosophical approach.  The whole world has a set up.  Similarly the solar system has a structure with the sun at the centre.  Even an atom has its own structure which resembles our solar system.  Coming to the political set up, a democratic structure is the basis of our govt. [Indian govt.].  Communism has its own set up or structure.  Coming to an individual’s life a person has different names according to the nature of the structure.  A boy in a class room is a student.  At home he is a son.  In the cricket ground he is a player, and when he gets a job, he gets another name.

Another point Saussure discovered is that the meaning of a sign is arbitrary.  The same flower, say rose, has different names in different languages, but its qualities remain the same.  Saussure points out that a word assumes different meanings according to the particular structure in which it is a part.  When Yeats sings “Whenever green is found,” it means the Irish flag which is green in colour.  So the word ‘’green” represents patriotism.  In the phrase ‘green revolution’ the word green stands for agriculture.

Further Reading:

Structuralist Criticism= Almost all literary theorists since Aristotle have
emphasized the importance of structure, conceived in diverse ways, in analyzing
a work of literature. "Structuralist criticism," however, now designates the
practice of critics who analyze literature on the explicit model of structuralist
linguistics. The class includes a number of Russian formalists, especially
Roman Jakobson, but consists most prominently of a group of writers, with
their headquarters in Paris, who applied to literature the concepts and analytic
distinctions developed by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General
Linguistics (1915). This mode of criticism is part of a larger movement, French
structuralism, inaugurated in the 1950s by the cultural anthropologist
Claude Lévi-Strauss, who analyzed, on Saussure's linguistic model, such cultural
phenomena as mythology, kinship relations, and modes of preparing

In its early form, as manifested by Lévi-Strauss and other writers in the
1950s and 1960s, structuralism cuts across the traditional disciplinary areas of
the humanities and social sciences by undertaking to provide an objective account
of all social and cultural practices, in a range that includes mythical
narratives, literary texts, advertisements, fashions in clothes, and patterns of
social decorum. It views these practices as combinations of signs that have a
set significance for the members of a particular culture, and undertakes to
make explicit the rules and procedures by which the practices have achieved
their cultural significance, and to specify what that significance is, by reference
to an underlying system (analogous to Saussure's langue, the implicit system
of a particular language) of the relationships among signifying elements
and their rules of combination. The elementary cultural phenomena, like the
linguistic elements in Saussure's exposition, are not objective facts identifiable
by their inherent properties, but purely "relational" entities; that is, their
identity as signs are given to them by their relations of differences from, and
binary oppositions to, other elements within the cultural system. This system
of internal relationships, and of "codes" that determine significant combinations,
have been mastered by each person competent within a given culture,
although he or she remains largely unaware of its nature and operations. The
primary interest of the structuralist, like that of Saussure, is not in the cultural
parole but in the langue; that is, not in any particular cultural phenomenon or
event except as it provides access to the structure, features, and rules of the
general system that engenders its significance.

As applied in literary studies, structuralist criticism views literature as a
second-order signifying system that uses the first-order structural system of
language as its medium, and is itself to be analyzed primarily on the model of
linguistic theory. Structuralist critics often apply a variety of linguistic concepts
to the analysis of a literary text, such as the distinction between phonemic
and morphemic levels of organization, or between paradigmatic and
syntagmatic relationships; and some critics analyze the structure of a literary
text on the model of the syntax in a well-formed sentence. The undertaking of
a thoroughgoing literary structuralism, however, is to explain how it is that a
competent reader is able to make sense of a particular literary text by specifying
the underlying system of literary conventions and rules of combination
that has been unconsciously mastered by such a reader. The aim of classic literary
structuralism, accordingly, is not (as in New Criticism) to provide interpretations
of an individual text, but to make explicit, in a quasi-scientific way,
the tacit grammar (the system of rules and codes) that governs the forms and
meanings of all literary productions. As Jonathan Culler put it in his lucid exposition,
the aim of structuralist criticism is "to construct a poetics which
stands to literature as linguistics stands to language".


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