Structuralist criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Structuralist criticism

Structuralist criticism: A type of literary criticism that derives from structuralism, a theory of humankind whose proponents believed that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as parts of a system of signs. Structuralist criticism was at first mainly a French phenomenon, centered in Paris, but then spread throughout Europe and the United States in the 1960s.

Structuralist critics, using the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory as a model and employing semiotic theory (the study of signs) more generally, posited the possibility of approaching and analyzing a text systematically, even scientifically. Structuralists believed that signification is arbitrary, not inherent; that all signs derive their meaning based on their differences from one another; and that sign systems must be understood in terms of binary oppositions. In analyzing myths and texts to find basic structures, they tended to find that opposite terms modulate until they are finally reconciled by an intermediary third term. They also typically believed that meaning(s) in a text, as well as the overall meaning of a text, could be determined by uncovering the system of signification — the “grammar” — that governed its production and that operates within it. Accordingly, they saw signification as both “determinable” (capable of being determined) and “determinate” (fixed and reliably correct) and argued that readers understand a text because they have mastered the set of literary codes and conventions that the structuralist critic sought to identify. Examples of structuralist literary criticism include Roland Barthes’s “Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits” (“Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”) (1966), which identified three levels of narrative (functions, actions, and narration); A. J. Greimas’s Sémantique structurale (Structural Semantics) (1966), which identified six “actants,” or narrative functions; and Tzvetan Todorov’s Grammaire du Décaméron (Grammar of the Decameron) (1969), which examined the structure of narrative in general through a study of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348—53).

Structuralist critics challenged several traditional tenets of literary criticism. First, they rejected the term work in favor of text to accentuate their point that all literature is subject to a set of codes. Second, they rejected the idea that a text is a representation of reality. Readers conceive of a text as realistic, they argued, only because they have unconsciously internalized certain (arbitrary) codes as norms. Third, structuralist critics drastically revised the traditional concept of the author as a unique figure who produces a unique opus, arguing that the author, too, has internalized a set of conventions and rules. Thus the reader, rather than the author, became the chief object of critical analysis, but readers were themselves denied the status of purposive individuals who creatively interpret texts. Instead, structuralist critics spoke of a process of reading whereby conventions and rules govern understanding.

At its inception, structuralist literary criticism was directed chiefly at the examination of prose works, but it was soon extended to poetic works and to the examination of poetics itself. For instance, in Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (1975), Jonathan Culler developed a theory of structuralist poetics in which he concentrated on the reader instead of the text, arguing that critics should illuminate the process by which readers interpret texts rather than that by which authors compose them. Interpretation, or “literary competence,” according to Culler, is regulated by literary conventions that can be identified, whereas one cannot identify the conventions followed by the author in composing the text.

Structuralist criticism also influenced narratology, whose practitioners view literary works as explicitly constructed systems and focus on analyzing the structural components of a narrative and the way in which those components interrelate. In addition, structuralist critical practices influenced the field of semiotics, which was revitalized in the second half of the twentieth century by literary critics including Barthes, Michael Riffaterre (Semiotics of Poetry [1978]), and Susan Sontag. Contemporary semioticians view literature and other social “texts” in terms of the codes and interpretive rules that cause a particular social group to view those texts as meaningful. They are especially indebted to Barthes, who in works such as “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”) (1967) and S/Z (1970) pronounced the death of the author; emphasized the role of the reader (or, more precisely, lecture, or reading); and differentiated the lisible (readerly) text (one that provides readers with a world replete with fixed meanings) from the more open, scriptible (writerly) text (one that invites readers to create meaning).

Structuralism and structuralist criticism began to wane in the late 1960s, when they came under vigorous attack by poststructuralists, who rejected the structuralist claim to scientific analysis and argued that meaning could not be definitively determined. Notably, poststructuralists maintained that all systems of signification endlessly defer meaning through a chain of signifiers — i.e., that each word evokes a number of possible significations, which in turn evoke other significations in an interminable sequence so that no single meaning can ever be positively identified as the true and correct one. In fact, some significations may even be contradictory, making an absolute determination of meaning impossible.