Structuralism and Formalism - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Structuralism and Formalism
The Rise of Literary Theory

Though Structuralism and Formalism are highly differentiated theoretical fields, they share a dedication to the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course in General Linguistics (1916) outlined a theory of the sign that transformed not only linguistics, but nearly every branch of the humanities and the social sciences. To some degree the relation between Formalism and Structuralism is historical, for it is possible to discern a progression from formalist studies of language to structuralist studies of society and culture. Though structuralist and formalist thought has been criticized for its inflexibility, especially by those who take the Saussurean paradigm in a rigid and doctrinaire fashion, the notions of form and structure are actually quite elastic and capable of myriad formulations, including social and historical ones.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century linguistics had concentrated on the study of grammar and philology, which emphasized logic and historical development, while comparative linguistics focused on analogy and homology. Saussure believed that language was more complex. For him, “[l]anguage has an individual aspect and a social aspect. One is not conceivable without the other.” Also, language “involves an established system and an evolution. At any given time it is an institution in the present and a product of the past” (9). Saussure differentiated language as such (langage), the human ability to communicate with signs, from language as a system (langue) and both of these from individual instances of speech (parole). His work is mainly concerned with the difference between langue and parole, a difference, he argues, that enables us to distinguish “what is social from what is individual and … what is essential from what is ancillary and more or less accidental.” Langue constitutes a system separate from the individual, “the product passively registered” without “premeditation” and without any reflection (except, of course, that of the linguist) (13-14). Most important of all, langue is “a series of phonetic differences matched with a series of conceptual differences.” The “function of language as an institution is precisely to maintain these series of differences in parallel” (118-19). By contrast, parole “is an individual act of the will and the intelligence” (14). It is also “the sum total of what people say,” comprising “individual combinations of words” and “acts of phonation”: it is merely “an aggregate of particular cases” (19).

For Saussure, the social element of language, indeed of all sign-making practices, constitutes the field of semiology, which he defined as “a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life” (15). Though the terms SEMIOLOGY and SEMIOTICS are often used interchangeably, there are some significant differences. Semiotics refers to the general science of signs pioneered in the 1880s by Charles Sanders Peirce; in Peircean semiotics the focus is on the sign as a mark of reference to or representation of an object. Semiology is the theory of linguistic sign systems that Saussure investigates and is less interested in reference than in DIFFERENCE. In Saussurean semiology, the SIGN does not designate a link between a word and an object. Rather, it is a complex unity of a concept in the mind and a sound pattern that corresponds with it. The latter is not simply the vocalization of the concept. “A sound pattern is the hearer's psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses” (66). Saussure calls the sound pattern a signal (or SIGNIFIER) and the concept a signification (or SIGNIFIED), reserving the term sign for the combination of the two. saussure has famously noted that the linguistic sign is arbitrary “in relation to its signification, with which it has no natural connexion in reality” (69). This is not to say that it is unfixed or free-floating or that the link between signal and signification is the “free choice” of the individual speaker, for “the individual has no power to alter a sign in any respect once it has become established in a linguistic community” (68). What can be said of the individual can also be said of the community, for the “complex mechanism” of a language prevents the community from changing it. By the same token, the fact that language is “something in which everyone participates all the time” means that “it is open to the influence of all.” It is finally the community's “natural inertia” that guarantees a conservative influence and makes it impossible for a “linguistic revolution” to take place (73-4). From this conservative principle of language a second principle follows, that the signifier itself has a temporal aspect and produces a diachronic signifying chain. DIACHRONY refers to the linear and sequential relation of words in an utterance, while SYNCHRONY refers to a systematic whole existing at a given time. The combinations derived from relations of sequential interdependence Saussure called SYNTAGMATIC (“[a]lmost all linguistic units depend either on what precedes or follows in the spoken sequence” [126]), while the relations within the system as a whole he called PARADIGMATIC (i.e., “flexional paradigms” [133], the system of inflections, declensions, synonyms, and so on that are both inferred and displaced by words in syntagmatic combinations). This picture of language as at once systematic and individual - existing as a whole entity of relations but also as linear and sequential differences - revolutionized linguistics and became the basis for structuralist theories of semiotics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, narrative, and a host of other fields.

The first to apply Saussure's ideas about language were the Russian Formalists, especially Roman Jakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky, and others associated with the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Jakobson outlined the stages of formalist research: “(1) analysis of the sound aspects of a literary work; (2) problems of meaning within the framework of poetics; (3) integration of sound and meaning into an inseparable whole” (“Dominant” 82). The formalist study of poetics exists within the more general study of language, which Jakobson characterized in terms of its functions. The chief elements of this functional system are the addresser (emotive function) and addressee (conative function); falling in between are a complex set of determinants that include context (referential function), message, contact (phatic function: “a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and addressee”), and a code (metalingual function) known to both addresser and addressee (“Closing Statement” 353-57). Jakobson emphasized the poetic function of language, the “focus on the message for its own sake.” However, it is an oversimplification to reduce poetry to a poetic function. “Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent” (“Closing Statement” 356). Jakobson defines the dominant as the “focusing component of a work of art,” which can include such things as rhyme, syllabic scheme, or metrical structure; it “guarantees the integrity of the structure” (“Dominant” 82). His distinction between metaphoric and metonymic poles of language evolved out of Saussure's theory of synchronic (or paradigmatic) and diachronic (or syntagmatic) aspects of language systems and his own work with aphasia. In the latter, he discovered two axes or levels of meaning upon which poetry draws: the metaphoric and selective (or substitutive), which operates synchronically, and the metonymic and combinative, which operates diachronically. “The poetic function projects the

principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination” (“Closing Statement” 358). By this Jakobson means that in poetry, selections made on the level of metaphor are “superinduced” onto the level of metonymy where they are combined with other words to create poetic effects. Thus, if I write “my daughter blossoms,” I am substituting “blossom” for a similar concept (grows, develops) and then combining it with “daughter” to suggest a flower-like opening up of young beauty. This form of projection “imparts to poetry its thoroughgoing symbolic, multiplex, polysemantic essence” (“Closing Statement” 370). Though the poetic function tends to draw out the latent metonymic quality of metaphor (and vice versa), the metaphoric pole tends to characterize poetry of a certain kind (e.g., Romantic and symbolist trends), while metonymy tends to characterize realistic forms (Fundamentals 90ff).

Viktor Shklovsky's work on prose as a formal device mirrors some of the innovations offered by Jakobson, his friend and colleague. His Theory of Prose (1925), which offered a systematic account of the way prose functioned, was to have a profound effect not only on Formalism but on the theory of the novel. Shklovsky held that the artistic work of art is autonomous, free from contingent social forces, and that prose is essentially form driven by artistic “devices.” Though he believed in the AUTONOMY of art, he thought that the art work exhibited something of the struggle against social “automatization,” which breeds alienation and fear. One way of combating alienation is “defamiliarization” (ostranenie, or estrangement), an artistic “device” that calls into question the alienating effect of things most familiar to us and indeed raises the question whether reality is not itself purely an effect. Another device that defamiliarizes the objects of representation is the “laying bare” of the author's techniques. Shklovsky's famous example is Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, a novel that self-consciously addresses the reader and exposes the devices by which the author creates his effects.

Though not often regarded today as a formalist, M. M. Bakhtin was an influential figure in the Russian formalist movement. His Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), and the materialist Formalism that it showcases, was well regarded and his own Circle flourished in Belarus and Leningrad throughout the 1920s. His essays of the 1930s and '40s, published in 1981 under the title Dialogic Imagination, went well beyond the limits of Formalism and postulated a new vocabulary for novelistic narrative. The convergence in his work of structural linguistics, poetics, and

ideology critique challenged formalist assumptions about the autonomy of the work of the art. His interest in language was attuned to the subtle shifts and differences between dialects, jargons, and so-called standard speech as they were used in narrative representations of daily life. He was particularly interested in the polyphony that he discerned in novelists like Dickens and Dostoevsky: “A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” (Problems 6). For Bakhtin, the object of formalist analysis is to identify the plurality of “authoritative ideological positions” (Problems 18) represented in the novel through narration (especially skaz or the oral idiom of the narrator), dialogue, parody, and other strategies. Bakhtin is not interested in language in the abstract, formal sense studied by linguists but rather in DISCOURSE, language understood “in its concrete living totality” (Problems 181). Like others in the Bakhtin Circle in the 1920s, Bakhtin was interested in the political ramifications of language and discourse; if he can properly be called a formalist, he is a materialist formalist, interested in the way material conditions, typically mediated by language, affect the perception and representation of forms. V. N. Voloshinov, for example, insisted that “[e]very sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation (i.e., whether it is true, false, correct, fair, good, etc.). The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs… . Everything ideological possesses semiotic value(Marxism 10). This perspective on the function of the sign accords with Bakhtinian DIALOGISM, the dynamic totality of linguistic possibilities that conditions individual utterances. For Bakhtin, discourse has a dialogic and “double-voiced” character, which lies outside the scope of conventional Marxist and formalist analysis. Double-voiced discourse is orientated in two different directions: to the “referential object of speech” and to “another’s discourse, toward someone else's speech’’ (Problems 185). Bakhtin described two predominant forms of double-voiced discourse: stylization, in which another's discourse is appropriated to serve new ends, and parody, in which a similar appropriation takes place: “but, in contrast to stylization parody introduces into that discourse a semantic intention that is directly opposed to the original one” (Problems 193). The study of language must be conducted within its dialogic context “where discourse lives an authentic life” (Problems 202). Baktin's term for this context is DIALOGIZED HETEROGLOSSIA, “[t]he authentic environment of an utterance, the environment in which it lives and takes shape” (Dialogic 272). This environment is characterized by multiple and overlapping historical, cultural, and geographical “ideolects” that stratify and HYBRIDIZE linguistic expression.

Bakhtin's theories of language and discourse introduced an element of socio-historical embeddedness and pluralism that was missing from Formalism. Similar qualities can be found in the functional structuralism of the Prague Linguistic Circle, which was influenced by Jakobson, one of the founding members and vice-chairman. Functional structuralism, unlike Formalism, is primarily concerned with language as it is manifested in social contexts. it moves beyond the positivist orientation of Formalism, with its reliance on linguistic concepts and methodologies, and emphasizes instead a semiotics of social codes. “The semiotic concept of the literary work,” writes Peter Steiner, “rendered it a social fact (i.e., a sign understood by the members of a given collectivity) and enabled the structuralists to relate the developmental changes in literary history to all other aspects of human culture.” Steiner also points to the movement in Prague structuralism from poetics to aesthetics, a shift “from a concern with verbal art alone to a concern with all the arts and with extra-artistic esthetics as well” (177). This shift underscored the difference between the two movements with regard to the norms and values attached to language. For the formalist, all that matters are the facts of language, while for the structuralist “function (as crucial a concept as that of the sign) was inseparable from norms and values” (204).

The shift in emphasis among many European intellectuals from Formalism to Structuralism paved the way for structuralist approaches across the human and social sciences. Claude Levi-Strauss, in his groundbreaking Structural Anthropology (1958), sums up the principles of structural linguistics: “First structural linguistics shifts from the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure; second, it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis the relations between terms; third, it introduces the concept of system … ; finally, structural linguistics aims at discovering general laws, either by induction ’or … by logical deduction, which would give them an absolute character' ” (33; Levi-Strauss quotes Nikolai Trubetzkoi) . More than any other theorist, Levi-Strauss demonstrated how structural linguistics could play a “renovating role” in the humanities and social sciences by providing a principled scientific method of analyzing literary and cultural texts. For, Levi-Strauss, structure is “a model meeting with several requirements”: first, it exhibits the charac teristics of a system” in which no single element “can undergo a change without effecting changes in all the other elements.” Second, “for any given model there should be a possibility of ordering a series of transformations resulting in a group of models of the same type.” Third, “the above properties make it possible to predict how the model will react if one or more of its elements are submitted to certain modifications.” Fourth, “the model should be constituted so as to make immediately intelligible all the observed facts” (279). Levi-Strauss’s study of kinship systems and mythology illuminates the specific ways that Structuralism can be applied to symbolic social systems. Using Structuralism in this way underscores one of Saussure’s primary precepts, that context and precedence determine powerfully the place of the linguistic sign within a system. “The arbitrary character of the linguistic sign is thus only provisional,” writes Levi-Strauss. “Once a SIGN has been created its function becomes explicit, as related, on the one hand, to the biological structure of the brain and, on the other, to the aggregate of other signs - that is, to the linguistic universe, which always tends to be systematic” (94). Structuralism is especially useful in studying mythology, where meaning inheres not in isolated elements but in the way they are combined. The structure of myth is the organization of mythemes, the “gross constituent units” that make up the whole myth and that correspond to the phonemes, morphemes, and sememes found in linguistics. Unlike these linguistic units, however, which operate on the level of the word or the sound, mythemes operate on the level of the sentence. To understand the structure of a myth, the critic must “break[] down its story into the shortest possible sentences” (211) and then determine the function of each sentence and its relation to other sentences. Though myths function like languages, the language of myth “exhibits specific properties” and belongs to a “higher and more complex order” (210-11).

Levi-Strauss’s work had a profound effect on intellectual trends in the 1960s, especially in France. It stands behind such diverse developments as Louis Althusser’s structuralist Marxism, Jacque Lacan's structuralist psychoanalysis, and Northrop Frye’s rhetorical Formalism. One of the most prominent structuralists, certainly the most influential for literary theory, was Roland Barthes. Barthes’ first major work, Mythologies (1957), approached cultural myths from a semiological perspective in which myth is regarded as a form of semiology, that “postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified” (Mythologies 111-12).

The message of myth lies in the significance of formal signifying relations. Barthes confesses to being impatient “at the sight of the ’naturalness' with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history” (Mythologies 11). His provocative analyses of magazine covers, Latin grammar, detergent, toys, ornamental cookery, Gretta Garbo, plastic, and a variety of other “everyday” objects and themes reveal both the historical determinants of myths and the historical meanings generated by them. Both determination and meaning are made possible by the way the signifier functions in linguistic and mythic systems. A mythic signifier is formed by appropriating the linguistic SIGN (the unit composed of the SIGNIFIER and SIGNIFIED) and using it as a signifier for an entirely new signified. The original meaning of the linguistic sign, a meaning derived from historical embeddedness as well as from linguistic structure, undergoes a dialectical process of deformation when it is appropriated for mythic signification. The meaning of the linguistic sign is emptied of its history in order to provide a shallow, easily-filled form (a Latin sentence, a “Negro” soldier saluting on the cover of Paris- Match). This new form will in its turn be given new content, in the form of concepts that carry within them the kind of social and historical charge that had been leached out of the original sign: “this history which drains out of the form will be wholly absorbed by the concept… . unlike the form, the concept is in no way abstract: it is filled with a situation. Through the concept, it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth” (Mythologies 119). And while the creation of the mythic concept entails distortion of the original linguistic function, “this distortion is not an obliteration”: “The concept, literally, deforms, but does not abolish the meaning; a word can perfectly render this contradiction: it alienates it” (Mythologies 122-23).

Though structural linguistics played a leading role in the development of semiology and semiotics, the latter are concerned with more than just language, as we have seen in Barthes' Mythologies. indeed, semiotics in the 1960s and '70s was undergoing a transformation in the work of Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, and A. J. Greimas who redefined the object of semiotic analysis and, in the process, developed new semiotic systems. These developments pushed the field closer to structural linguistics and structuralist narratology. For example, Greimas developed a theory of structural semantics that emphasized the role of narrative in analysis. Every text contains a discursive level of enunciation (or enon- ciation) and a narrative level of utterance (or enonce). (On these terms, see pp. 158-9, 176.) These correspond to the Saussurean terms langue and parole. Greimas and Joseph Courtes posit a deep level of narrative functioning which they call “narrativity”: “the very organizing principle of all discourse, whether narrative (identified, in the first instance, as figurative discourse) or non-narrative” (209). Structuralist narratologists like Gerard Genette and, later, Gerald Prince, made similar claims about language and “narrativity.” in his “introduction to the structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966), which was influential in the development of narratology, Barthes investigates the “functional syntax” of narrative structures, using a James Bond film to illustrate his points. Echoing Levi- strauss's theory of myths, he argues that narrative is structured like a sentence and that the relations between the various parts of a narrative have a syntactical form and value. “structurally, narrative shares the characteristics of the sentence without ever being reducible to the simple sum of its sentences: a narrative is a long sentence, just as every consta- tive sentence is in a way the rough outline of a short narrative” (Image 84). Narrative discourse functions on three levels: on one level, narrative units are organized and distributed; on another, character functions as an index within a sequence; on still another, narration and reading take place. “These three levels are bound together according to a mode of progressive integration” (Image 88).

Though Barthes' structuralist theories are highly complex and employ a technical vocabulary, he does not commit the formalist mistake of ignoring context. indeed, the structuralist emphasis on systems is, inevitably, an emphasis on systems in the world. Levi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology is grounded on this fact, and Barthes' Structuralism is always aware of its historical moment: “structuralism does not withdraw history from the world” (Critical Essays 219). The fact that narrative does not function MIMETICALLY - nothing takes place “from the referential (reality) point of view” (Image 124) - does not mean that it does not acknowledge and make use of reality. When Barthes claims that “[i]t may be that men ceaselessly re-inject into narrative what they have known, what they have experienced” (Image 124), he reaffirms one of saussure's principal points about language: that it is historically embedded. “Language,” saussure reminds us, “has an individual aspect and a social aspect. one is not conceivable without the other” (9).

Contrary to popular misconceptions, structuralism does not believe in an otherworldly realm of pure structure, but rather in the tendency of systems (natural and social) to exhibit structural relations. Structuralism is the study of these relations and the knowledge that they afford of the system itself. It is always the study of human being(s) in the world.

Note. For more on Propp, Barthes, and structuralist narratology, see Narrative Theory; on Kristeva, Eco, and semiotics, see Poststructuralism; on Althusser, see Marxist Theory; on Lacan, see Psychoanalysis and Poststructuralism.


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---- and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. 1956. 4th ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1980.

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