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Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Saussure And Structuralism

The Saussurean legacy in structuralism assumes two forms. The first is the study of the latent system that generates surface events such as speech in language. The second is the study of culture, language, and society as systems of signs that facilitate communication and the creation of meaning in human culture.

Saussure revolutionized the study of language. He shifted attention away from surface utterances, the everyday speech practices that make up spoken language, and focused it instead on the underlying system that allows those utterances to come into being. He distinguished between langue (language system) and parole (speech). Each speech utterance presupposes the simultaneous existence of the entire language system from which it arises, much as a leaf, when cut transversally, to use Saussure's example, reveals its entire invisible structure. Saussure also compared language to a game of chess, in which each move has meaning and is made possible by the rules of the game, all of which are implied in each move. In language, similarly, utterances can function as bearers of ideas or as names of things only if the entire system of language is implied in each utterance.

Saussure's most innovative contention was that words are signs that consist of a palpable sound image (signifier) and a mental concept (signifier). All signs exist in chains that connect them to all other signs in the language. Language works through the interrelationship and interaction of linguistic signs, not as the naming of objects by words. The relation between words and things, Saussure contended, is entirely arbitrary. Cat names a particular animal not because the sound image or signifier "cat" has a real connection or resemblance to the creature but because the signifier "cat" is different from other adjacent signifiers such as "rat" or "hat" in the particular chain of signifiers in which it exists. The slight difference in sound and spelling creates a difference of meaning. Those signifiers in turn function to name things or have meaning because they sound different and are spelled differently from other words. This is known as the diacritical principle. The identity of signifiers is determined by their differences from other signifiers. In language, according to Saussure, there are no identities, only differences. It is the relation between terms that allows signifiers to appear to possess an identity of their own. Language, in other words, is entirely conventional, a matter of form, not natural substance.

Each signifier has a value, a function within the system of language understood as a set of relations between differentially connected terms. A signifier has value as a noun or a verb or as the designator of a particular thing or as performing a particular grammatical function—that is, as a qualifier or pronoun. Saussure notes, for example, that the French mouton functions to name both the animal and the food; it has a double value, while English uses two different words with two different values to carry out this function—sheep and mutton. Each language assigns different values to signifiers, and it is the relation between signifiers that determines value.

Saussure also distinguished between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic dimensions of language. The syntagmatic names the linking together of parts of language in temporal chains such as a sentence. The paradigmatic is the spatial dimension of language that comprises the possible options that might fill any one space in a syntagmatic chain. For example, in an utterance requiring a verb in a particular position, the slot for "verb" might be filled by any number of possible actions from that particular paradigmatic set.

Influence of Saussure.

Saussure made the study of language more scientific by dividing the field into its component parts. He also specified the linguistic field as being concerned with the way language worked as a sign system with a particular structure and with specific rules of operation.

Two of Saussure's ideas proved of great use to thinkers in other fields such as philosophy, history, and sociology. The first was that language is a self-sufficient system of interconnected terms whose value derives entirely from their functions within the system, not from their relation to objects or ideas outside it. This insight allowed other thinkers to argue that human knowledge and human consciousness in social life occurs within language or discourse. Knowledge of reality is frequently more a matter of the interconnections among terms in the particular discourse (of economics, politics, or science, for example) than of the connection between the terms of the discourse and objects in the extra-discursive world. The second influential idea was that difference makes identity possible. There is no substance in language apart from the differential relations among the terms, none of which otherwise have an identity of their "own." All traditional notions of a natural substance in philosophy, social thinking, political theory, and other fields could now be rethought as effects of differential relations.

Saussure's discoveries influenced work in other fields directly and by analogy. In the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, both kinds of influence are evident. Lévi-Strauss noted, for example, that numerous different myths, when studied together, reveal a common structure. Myths are sign systems in which terms have different values in relation to one another. Those values often consist of oppositions between terms such as the raw and the cooked or nature and culture. Myths functioned to resolve contradictions in human culture by constructing stories in which opposed and contradictory possibilities are mediated and their opposition resolved in a way that provides a solution to some conceptual problem or conflict of values in that particular culture. The myth of Oedipus, for example, resolves the dilemma of human origins by positing a mediation between the supposed earthly origins of human life and the fact that all humans are the product of human sexual relations. The tale is a version of the opposition between nature and culture.

Many mythic stories revolve around the incest taboo, which forbids marriage between members of the same family. In his famous study of human kinship systems (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949), Lévi-Strauss noted that all human societies enjoin incest. If one studies kinship structurally as a system of relations between terms in which one element has meaning through its relation to all the other terms, then the incest taboo must be understood as a function of the larger kinship system. Kinship is like language in two respects. It is a system of communication among different tribal groups, and it is a language, in which value is determined by function. The value of the incest taboo is that it forbids marriage within a clan or family, but as a result, it has the function of obliging marriage between members of different clans, tribes, and family groups. The result is a form of communication through marriage that binds different people together. The larger function of this languagelike kinship system is to work to prevent conflict; strife is less likely between groups connected by marriage.

Lévi-Strauss's work had an impact on literary and cultural studies, psychoanalysis, and historiography. Roland Barthes argues in Mythologies (1957) that culture (in the form of movies, advertisements, commodities, books of photography, wrestling matches, travel guides, and so on) resembles language in that it operates through signs that create meaning. Barthes distinguishes between signifiers such as the photo of a black French colonial soldier on the cover of a magazine saluting the French flag and the signifieds such an image generates. Such signifieds have several levels, from the elementary—the image signifies the loyalty of the colonial subject—to the more complex and abstract—the idea of imperialness that is sanctioned and communicated by the image. In his later work in literary criticism, Barthes studies literature in a similar manner, noting how writers operate within systems of meaning that rely on the differences between terms to make signification possible.

The impact of Saussure is also evident in the work of literary critics Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov argues in The Poetics of Prose (1971) that fictional narratives can be understood in structuralist terms. A diverse set of short stories by the same writer can be interpreted as having a similar internal structure. The tales of Henry James, for example, all deal with an absence at the center of the tale. Kristeva in Semanalysis (1967) uses structural linguistics to argue that works of literature have different levels—the phenotext and the genotext—that resemble Saussure's distinction between langue and parole.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsStructuralism and Poststructuralism - Saussure And Structuralism, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, And Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida And Deconstruction