Structuralism and Semiotics

 

Structuralism
Structuralism is a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the perceptions and description of structures. At its simplest, structuralism claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and in fact is determined by all the other elements involved in that situation. The full significance of any entity cannot be perceived unless and until it is integrated into the structure of which it forms a part (Hawkes, p. 11). Structuralists believe that all human activity is constructed, not natural or "essential." Consequently, it is the systems of organization that are important (what we do is always a matter of selection within a given construct). By this formulation, "any activity, from the actions of a narrative to not eating one's peas with a knife, takes place within a system of differences and has meaning only in its relation to other possible activities within that system, not to some meaning that emanates from nature or the divine" (Childers & Hentzi, p. 286.). Major figures include Claude Lévi-Strauss (LAY-vee-strows), A. J. Greimas (GREE-mahs), Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes (bart), Ferdinand de Saussure (soh-SURR or soh-ZHOR), Roman Jakobson (YAH-keb-sen), Vladimir Propp, and Terence Hawkes.

Semiology
Semiotics, simply put, is the science of signs. Semiology proposes that a great diversity of our human action and productions--our bodily postures and gestures, the the social rituals we perform, the clothes we wear, the meals we serve, the buildings we inhabit--all convey "shared" meanings to members of a particular culture, and so can be analyzed as signs which function in diverse kinds of signifying systems. Linguistics (the study of verbal signs and structures) is only one branch of semiotics but supplies the basic methods and terms which are used in the study of all other social sign systems (Abrams, p. 170). Major figures include Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault (fou-KOH), Umberto Eco, Gérard Genette, and Roland Barthes (bart).

 

Key Terms:

·      Binary Opposition - "pairs of mutually-exclusive signifiers in a paradigm set representing categories which are logically opposed and which together define a complete universe of discourse (relevant ontological domain), e.g. alive/not-alive. In such oppositions each term necessarily implies its opposite and there is no middle term" (Daniel Chandler).

·      Mythemes - a term developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss--mythemes are the smallest component parts of a myth. By breaking up myths into mythemes, those structures (mythemes) may be studied chronologically (~ diacrhonically) or synchronically/relationally.

·      Sign vs. Symbol - According to Saussure, "words are not symbols which correspond to referents, but rather are 'signs' which are made up of two parts (like two sides of a sheet of paper): a mark,either written or spoken, called a 'signifier,' and a concept (what is 'thought' when the mark is made), called a 'signified'" (Selden and Widdowson 104 - see General Resources below). The distinction is important because Saussure contended that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the only way we can distinguish meaning is by difference (one sign or word differs from another).

http://www.kristisiegel.com/sign.jpg

The relational nature of language implied by Saussure's system rejects the concept that a word/symbol corresponds to an outside object/referent. Instead, meaning--the interpretation of a sign--can exist only in relationship with other signs. Selden and Widdowson use the sign system of traffic lights as an example. The color red, in that system, signifies "stop," even though "there is no natural bond between red and stop" (105). Meaning is derived entirely through difference, "a system of opposites and contrasts," e.g., referring back to the traffic lights' example, red's meaning depends on the fact that it is not green and not amber (105).

·      Structuralist narratology - "a form of structuralism espoused by Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, and Gerard Genette that illustrates how a story's meaning develops from its overall structure (its langue) rather than from each individual story's isolated theme. To ascertain a text's meaning, narratologists emphasize grammatical elements such as verb tenses and the relationships and configurations of figures of speech within the story" (Bressler 275 - see General Resources below).

Structuralists believe that things cannot be understood in isolation – they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of. Thus to understand a work of literature you have to situate it in the larger context of its genre, its theme, etc.

 

These structures are imposed by our way of perceiving the world rather than objective entities already existing in the external world.

 

Structuralism is not a set of beliefs, but two complementary practices: analysis and synthesis.  The structuralist analyzes the products of human making into their smallest significant component parts, then tries to discover the principles of their articulation – how the parts fit together and function.

 

Two developments into analyzing systems of symbols lead to Structuralism:

·      Charles Pierce’s Semiotics, analyzing the sign system into iconic signs, indexes and true symbols

·      Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory stating that language systems are based on differences and distinctions:

◦      Langue (system of language) vs. parole (instances of speech). A linguist infers a language’s langue by analyzing many instances of parole.

◦      synchronic (study of language at a specific time) vs. diachronic (study of changes within language). Saussure introduced the synchronic without neglecting the diachronic.

◦      paradigmata (relation of items within the same category) vs. syntagmata (relation of items from different categories in a meaningful structure)

◦      emes or basic units (locating the individual units of meaning within a system of differences): phonemes (smallest sound in language; like the p in pin), and morphemes (the smallest part that has lexical or grammatical meaning; like in painter, paint is the lexical morpheme, er is the grammatical morpheme)

 

Roman Jakobson: six factors defining the six functions of communication: A sender (emotive function), having made contact (phatic function) with a receiver (conative function), sends a message (poetic function) about some external context (referential function) using a code (metalinguistic function).

 

Claude Lévi-Strauss used language-data to verify social rules, thus he was interested in mythology as the richest source of symbols, seeing myths as the way the savage mind (the untamed mind within all of us) gives order to the world.

Jonathan Culler: Structuralism shouldn’t search for new interpretations of texts but rather investigate how interpretation takes place. He states that structuralism should analyze the literary langue rather than investigate the parole.

 

1) Structuralism:

          a. It is an intellectual movement which began in France in the 1950s.

          b. It was first seen in the work of the anthropologist Claude Levis Strauss and the literary

 critic Ronald Brathes.

2) The structuralists:

          a. Saussure:

1. He classified the linguistic structures to three pronouncements which are: that the meaning of the words is arbitrary, relational and the language constitutes our world.

2. He used the terms 'langue' and 'parole' to signify respectively language as a system on the one hand and any given utterance in that language on the other.

          b. Claude Levi Strauss suggested that:

                   1. Saussure linguistic model is called 'langue'.

                   2. The study of instance of speech or writing is called 'parole'.

          c. Roland Brathes:

                   1. He wrote a book (s/z) that identified five codes which are:

          A. The proairetic code.            B. The hermeneutic code.                  C. The cultural

 code.          D. The semic code.                            E. The symbolic code.

3) Semiotics:

          A. Jonathan Culler suggested that:

                   1. The term semiotic is denoting the formal doctrine of signs.

                   2. It is established by the American pragmatist Charles Pierce in the 19th century.

                   3. The methods and objects of semiotics and structuralism are similar.

                   4. Semiotics does not only deal with language system as a sign but also gestures,

icons, and symbols are considered part of it.

                   5. Semiotic analysis of literary texts by Culler had two main insights:

                             A. social and cultural

                             B. network of relations.

                        7. Semiotics as a technique of meaning.

                   6. The two assumptions of semiotics are:

                             A. treating literature.

                             B. identifying the effects.

                   7. The objection to the first assumption:

                           that it insist on the importance of attempting to separate the work itself from

 interpretations of it.

          B. Yury M. Lotman suggested that:

                   1. There are two main different points of view from which one may differentiate

 between works of literature.

                             A. The differentiation in term of function.

                             B. The differentiation in term of internal organization of the text.

                   2. The aesthetic function is:

                             A. The reaction between function and organization of the text.

                             B. Two principles take place differently in each type of culture.

 

Structuralism and other fields

Psychology:

Wilhelm Wundt : 

conscious mental life can be broken down into fundamental elements which then form more complex mental structures.

Linguistics:

Ferdinand de Saussure book Course in General Linguistics.

Focused not on the use of language (parole, or talk), but rather on the underlying system of language and called his theory semiotics

The idea of the Signifier (the sound pattern of a word) and the Signifed ((the concept or meaning of the word). 

Anthropology:

Claude Lévi-Strauss

In the 1950s, analyzed cultural phenomena including mythology, kinship, and food preparation.

Levi-Strauss was inspired by information theory and mathematics.

 

Binary Oppositions

 

General Principles on Structuralism

 

1. Meaning occurs through difference. Meaning is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system.

 

2. Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions which structure meaning.

 

3. Structuralism forms the basis for semiotics (the study of signs)  which say that the sign is a union between the signifier and the signified.

 

4. Central too to semiotics is the idea of codes, which give signs context -- cultural codes, literary codes, etc.

 

Structuralists believe that things cannot be understood in isolation – they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of. Thus to understand a work of literature you have to situate it in the larger context of its genre, its theme, etc.

 

These structures are imposed by our way of perceiving the world rather than objective entities already existing in the external world.

 

Structuralism is not a set of beliefs, but two complementary practices: analysis and synthesis.  The structuralist analyzes the products of human making into their smallest significant component parts, then tries to discover the principles of their articulation – how the parts fit together and function.

 

Two developments into analyzing systems of symbols lead to Structuralism:

Charles Pierce’s Semiotics, analyzing the sign system into iconic signs, indexes and true symbols

Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory stating that language systems are based on differences and distinctions:

Langue (system of language) vs. parole (instances of speech). A linguist infers a language’s langue by analyzing many instances of parole.

synchronic (study of language at a specific time) vs. diachronic (study of changes within language). Saussure introduced the synchronic without neglecting the diachronic.

paradigmata (relation of items within the same category) vs. syntagmata (relation of items from different categories in a meaningful structure)

emes or basic units (locating the individual units of meaning within a system of differences): phonemes (smallest sound in language; like the p in pin), and morphemes (the smallest part that has lexical or grammatical meaning; like in painter, paint is the lexical morpheme, er is the grammatical morpheme)

 

Roman Jakobson: six factors defining the six functions of communication:

A sender (emotive function), having made contact (phatic function) with a receiver (conative function), sends a message (poetic function) about some external context (referential function) using a code (metalinguistic function).

 

Claude Lévi-Strauss used language-data to verify social rules, thus he was interested in mythology as the richest source of symbols, seeing myths as the way the savage mind (the untamed mind within all of us) gives order to the world.

 

Jonathan Culler: Structuralism shouldn’t search for new interpretations of texts but rather investigate how interpretation takes place.  He states that structuralism should analyze the literary langue rather than investigate the parole.