Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lecture 5: Structuralism

10 Principles of 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. For instance, the meaning of the words "woman" and "lady" are established by their relations to one another in a meaning-field. They both refer to a human female, but what constitutes "human" and what constitutes "female" are themselves established through difference, not identity with any essence, or ideal truth, or the like.
  2. Relations among signs are of two sorts, contiguity and substitutability, the axes of combination and selection: hence the existence of all 'grammars', hence all substitutions, hence the ability to know something by something else, or by a part of it in some way -- hence metonymy and metaphor. The conception of combination and selection provides the basis for an analysis of 'literariness' or 'poeticality' in the use, repetition and variation of sound patterns and combinations. It also provides keys to the most fundamental elements of culture.
  3. Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions (being/nothingness, hot/cold, culture/nature); these oppositions structure meaning, and one can describe fields of cultural thought, or topoi, by describing the binary sets which compose them. As an illustration, here is a binary set for the monstrous
  4. Structuralism forms the basis for semiotics, the study of signs: a sign is a union of signifier and signified, and is anything that stands for anything else (or, as Umberto Eco put it, a sign is anything that can be used to lie).
  5. Central too to semiotics is the idea of codes, which give signs context -- cultural codes, literary codes, etc. The study of semiotics and of codes opens up literary study to cultural study, and expands the resources of the critic in discussing the meaning of texts. Structuralism, says, Genette, "is a study of the cultural construction or identification of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-spectrum of the culture."
  6. Some signs carry with them larger cultural meanings, usually very general; these are called, by Roland Barthes, "myths", or second-order signifiers. Anything can be a myth. For example, two-story pillars supporting the portico of a house are a mythic signifier of wealth and elegance.
  7. Structuralism introduces the idea of the 'subject', as opposed to the idea of the individual as a stable indivisible ego. Toquote from Kaja Silverman in The Subject of Semiotics,
    The term 'subject' foregrounds the relationship between ethnology, psychoanalysis, and semiotics. It helps us to conceive of human reality as a construction, as the product of signifying activities which are both culturally specific and generally unconscious. The category of the subject thus calls into question the notions both of the private, and of a self synonymous with consciousness. It suggests that even desire is culturally instigated, and hence collective; and it de-centers consciousness, relegating it....to a purely receptive capacity. Finally, by drawing attention to the divisions which separate one area of psychic activity from another, the term 'subject' challenges the value of stability attributed to the individual.The value of the conception is that it allows us to 'open up', conceptually, the inner world of humans, to see the relation of human experience to cultural experience, to talk cogently of meaning as something that is structured into our 'selves'.
    There is no attempt here to challenge the meaningfulness of persons; there is an attempt to dethrone the ideology of the ego, the idea that the self is an eternal, indivisible essence, and an attempt to redefine what it is to be a person. The self is, like other things, signified and culturally constructed. Post-structuralism, in particular, will insist that the subject is de-centered.
  8. The conception of the constructed subject opens up the borders between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious itself is not some strange, impenetrable realm of private meaning but is constructed through the sign-systems and through the repressions of the culture. Both the self and the unconscious are cultural constructs.
  9. In the view of structuralism our knowledge of 'reality' is not only coded but also conventional, that is, structured by and through conventions, made up of signs and signifying practices. This is known as "the social construction of reality."
  10. There is, then, in structuralism, a coherent connection among the conceptions of reality, the social, the individual, the unconscious: they are all composed of the same signs, codes and conventions, all working according to similar laws.

Source: Professor John Lye

Barthes Narrative Codes
proairetic -- things (events) in their sequence; recognizable actions and their effects.

semic -- the field where signifiers point to other signifiers to produce a chain of recognizable connotations. In a general sense, that which enables meaning to happen.

hermeneutic -- the code of narrative suspense, including the ways in which the story suspends closure, structures parallels, repetitions and so forth toward closure.

symbolic -- marks out meaning as difference; the binaries which the culture uses/enacts to create its meanings; binaries which, of course,but disunite and join.

reference -- refers to various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society; creates the familiarity of reality by quoting from a large assortment of social texts which mediate and organize cultural knowledge of reality -- medicine, law, morality, psychology, philosophy, religion, plus all the clichs and proverbs of popular culture.

Source: Professor John Lye

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