Structuralism: A theory of humankind whose proponents attempted to show systematically, even scientifically, that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as parts of a system of signs. In Structuralism in Literature (1974), American critic Robert Scholes described structuralism as a reaction to “’modernist’ alienation and despair.” Modernism, a movement that encompassed all of the creative arts, arose in the wake of the physically devastating and psychologically disillusioning experience of World War I; works associated with the movement expressed and reflected the pervasive sense of loss, decay, and disillusionment engendered by the Great War. Although the end of World War II, with its shocking experience of mass destruction and genocide, similarly evoked tremendous disillusionment in the West, many were eager to embrace systems of thought that emphasized comprehensibility and significance, rather than absurdity and meaninglessness. Structuralism, which arose in France in the 1950s, was just such a system. Before being critiqued and, to a great extent, superseded by poststructuralist thought, it influenced a number of disciplines ranging from anthropology to literary criticism.
European structuralists such as Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes (before his shift toward poststructuralism) attempted to develop a semiology, or semiotics (science of signs). For structuralists, anything that people do or use to communicate information (of any type) to others involves a sign or signs. Thus, everything from Braille to handshakes to traffic signals falls under the broad umbrella of structuralist concern. Barthes, among others, sought to recover literature and even language from the isolation in which they had been studied by showing that all social practices (such as those involving clothes and dressing, food and eating) involve systems of signification that function like a language and are, as such, interpretable by those familiar with their “grammar” and “syntax.”
According to structuralists, the signs that govern all human communication are arbitrary. In other words, there is no inherent reason why a handshake should be used as a means of meeting or greeting, no inherent reason why a green light should mean “go.” Furthermore, since these signs have no inherent or “natural” meaning, signification derives from the differences among signs. A green light means what it does both because a red light and a handshake mean something else. However arbitrary a sign may be, it does have a meaning that is understood by reference to a set of conventions and codes. Structuralists thus view signification as both “determinable” (capable of being determined) and “determinate” (fixed and reliably correct); they posit the possibility of approaching a text or other signifying system systematically, even scientifically, and of revealing the “grammar” behind its form and meaning.
Structuralism was heavily influenced by linguistics, especially the pioneering work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as set forth in the Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics), published posthumously in 1916 and based on student notes of his lectures. Particularly useful to structuralists were Saussure’s concept of the phoneme (the smallest basic speech sound or unit of pronunciation, such as k or th) and his idea that phonemes exist in two kinds of relationships: diachronic and synchronic. A phoneme has a diachronic, or “horizontal,” relationship with those phonemes that precede and follow it in a particular usage, utterance, or narrative — what Saussure called parole (French for “word”). A phoneme has a synchronic, or “vertical,” relationship with the entire system of language within which individual usages, utterances, or narratives have meaning — what Saussure called langue (French for “tongue,” as in “native tongue,” meaning language). An means what it means in English because those of us who speak the language are plugged into the same system (think of it as a computer network where different individuals can access the same information in the same way at a given time).
Following Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, studied hundreds of myths, breaking them into their smallest meaningful units, which he called “mythemes” in “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955). Removing each from its diachronic relations with other mythemes in a single myth (such as the story of Oedipus and his mother), he vertically aligned those mythemes that he found to be homologous (structurally correspondent). He then studied the relationships within as well as between vertically aligned columns, in an attempt to understand scientifically, through ratios and proportions, those thoughts and processes that humankind has shared, both at one particular time and across time. Whether Lévi-Strauss was studying the structure of myths or the structure of villages, he looked for recurring, common elements that transcended the differences within and among cultures.
Structuralists followed Saussure in preferring to think about the overriding langue, or language, of myth, in which each mytheme and mytheme-constituted myth fits meaningfully, rather than about isolated individual paroles, or narratives. Structuralists also followed Saussure’s lead in believing that sign systems must be understood in terms of binary oppositions. In analyzing myths and texts to find basic structures, structuralists found that opposite terms modulate until they are finally resolved or reconciled by some intermediary third term. Thus, a structuralist reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) might show that the war between God and the rebellious angels becomes a rift between God and sinful, fallen man, a rift that is healed by the Son of God, the mediating third term.
Although structuralism was largely a European phenomenon in its origin and development, it was influenced by American thinkers as well. Linguist Noam Chomsky, for instance, who powerfully influenced structuralism through works such as Reflections on Language (1975), identified and distinguished between “surface structures” and “deep structures.” According to Chomsky, deep structure, the primary and elementary structure of language, controls the meaning of an utterance, whose surface structure is made up of some combination of words and sounds. The surface structure of an utterance may vary but still have the same essential meaning. For instance, the sentences “Harry kissed Sally” and “Sally was kissed by Harry” have different surface structures but the same deep structure. By contrast (to use Chomsky’s example), the sentences “John is eager to please” and “John is easy to please” are similar in terms of surface structure but very different in terms of deep structure.
Beginning in the late 1960s, structuralism came under increasing attack, especially from poststructuralist critics. Opponents of structuralism reject its claim to objective, systematic, and even scientific analysis. Poststructuralists in particular also reject the structuralist claim that meanings are both determinable and determinate to those who understand the rules that governed the text’s production. They believe that signification is an intricate and interminable web of denotations and connotations, continually deferring the determinate assessment of meaning. Twentieth-century French theorist Jacques Derrida used the word dissemination — punning on the Greek roots of the words seed (seme) and sign (sem) — to refer to the scattering of semantic possibilities that takes place as soon as any statement is made, the resulting multiplication of interpretive possibilities, and the subsequent impossibility of choosing one meaning (among myriad possible meanings) as the true or correct one.