Structuralism, a set of developments in the humanities and social sciences in the mid-20th century, having in common the search for hidden patterns, implicit rules, and underlying dynamics that structure various areas of human activity. The term came into use in the late 1920s, in the work of the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson and linguists, literary analysts, and folklorists associated with him. It did not expand into popular awareness until the mid-1950s in France, with the work of the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s the French cultural avant-garde was already declaring the dawn of a post-structuralist age; but it was only at this time that structuralism entered into general public and scholarly awareness in countries outside France, including the English-speaking world, where its period of greatest dominance was the 1970s.
It is difficult to define structuralism precisely. It is misleading to describe it as a movement, given how few of its leading participants actually saw themselves as sharing common aims and methods. The break between structuralism and post-structuralism is not always clear, as there exist significant continuities, and important individuals who defy classification under either term. Moreover, within linguistics, the field credited with having originated it, the development of structuralism followed a markedly different path from the other fields to which it was applied.
|II||BEGINNINGS OF STRUCTURALISM|
A form of structuralism was discussed in psychological journals at the turn of the 20th century, but there is no link between this and the intellectual currents with which the term is now generally associated. Those currents, as noted above, first appeared in the work of Roman Jakobson, who began to drift away from Russian Formalism in the late 1910s under the inspiration of the teachings of the Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Eventually Saussure, who died in 1913 and never used the term “structuralism” himself, would come to be seen as its founder. His Course in General Linguistics (1916; trans. 1959), assembled posthumously from his students’ lecture notes, suggested an approach to language that broke away radically from the dominant paradigm of historical inquiry.
Saussure maintained that the language is a system of socially shared signs, each consisting of the conjunction of a sound pattern (or signifier) and a concept (or signified), the relationship between them being entirely arbitrary. The signified is not directly connected to the things in the world that we use words to designate. Rather, each language conceives of things in its own way, differently from how every other language does. Perhaps Saussure’s most original and modern view was that, in the language system, every element is connected to every other element, the value of each of them deriving purely from its difference from all the rest. Every element in the language system is thus dependent upon every other element. The meaning of the signified derives from the place it occupies within the total system of signifieds, and from nothing outside it. Thus the real existence of a sign is located in the space created by what all other signs are not—that is, in pure difference. “A language,” Saussure repeatedly stressed, “is a form and not a substance.” Thus Saussure locates the reality of language not in what can be heard or seen but at a deeper psychological level.
In the 1920s, as Jakobson’s evolving framework combined ideas derived from Saussure with Russian Formalist trends, linguistic structuralism informed approaches to literature, art, and folklore and absorbed influences in return. Probably the most famous work of Russian formalist-structuralist criticism of the period, Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928), examines 100 folktales and analyses their plots into 31 functions, which he claimed are universal and occur always in the same sequence. Their totality makes up a dimension of the human unconscious on a par with the language system as Saussure conceived it. What this suggests is that folktales, like languages themselves, are not the wilful creations of individuals, but proceed directly from the underlying structure of the human mind. Structuralist analysis thus has something in common with Freudian analysis, but whereas the latter is more concerned with how the unconscious of an individual author has been shaped by various early experiences, structuralism aims at something more universal, deriving from the architecture of the unconscious mind itself.
At the end of the 1920s Jakobson was authoring manifestos for presentation at various international linguistic and literary congresses outlining the structuralist approach and the justifications for it. In the 1930s he and N. S. Trubetskoy, in conjunction with members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, led the way in formulating and refining structural analyses of phonological and morphological systems, discourse structure, literary language, and poetic structure. Other structuralist routes were being pursued in Denmark, by Louis Hjelmslev, and in France by Gustave Guillaume and later André Martinet. The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 prompted Jakobson to flee the country and eventually to settle in the United States, bringing the first chapter of European structuralism to a close.
|III||FRENCH STRUCTURALISM IN THE 1950S|
In 1942 Jakobson gave two courses at the École Libre des Hautes Études, which had been organized in New York by fellow academic refugees. One of those present, Lévi-Strauss, was inspired to make his own first foray into structuralism in a 1945 paper on structural analysis in linguistics and anthropology (L’analyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie). It began: “Linguistics is not just one social science among others, but the one which, by far, has accomplished the greatest progress; the only one, without a doubt, which can lay claim to the name of science and which has succeeded in formulating a positive method and in understanding the nature of the facts submitted to its analysis.” All the other social sciences, beginning with anthropology, should try to imitate it, Lévi-Strauss asserted, and as an example he offered his own analysis of kinship systems on the analogy of structuralist accounts of phonological systems. By the early 1950s his approach had attracted great attention among French social scientists, and when his 1955 book Tristes tropiques became a best-seller, structuralism as a more general mode of intellectual analysis became the mainstream of French thought.
Saussure’s Course had called for the founding of semiology, a general science of signs applying to every area of human activity. At the centre of the attempts to found such a science in France in this period was Roland Barthes, whose work drew together the various structuralist strands pursued by Jakobson, Propp, Lévi-Strauss, Hjelmslev, Georges Mounin, and others, and used them in analysing literature and other cultural phenomena. Propp’s work on the structure of anonymous folktales had been controversial enough, but when Barthes proposed a reading of the plays of France’s greatest classical dramatist, Racine, as the product not so much of conscious authorship as of unconscious linguistic and cultural systems, the literary-critical establishment reacted with outrage—thus guaranteeing the status of structuralism as the big new thing that no one could ignore. Possibly Barthes’ most enduring legacy was his role in establishing a general area of cultural studies devoted to discovering the semiological systems of everyday life and understanding their ideological underpinnings. Simultaneously, structuralist methods were being developed in psychoanalysis (by Jacques Lacan), phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), semantics (A. J. Greimas), poetics (Tzvetan Todorov, Julia Kristeva, Gérard Genette, with important contributions by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss), film (Christian Metz), and music (Nicholas Ruwet, Jean-Jacques Nattiez). Louis Althusser’s reformulations of Marxist theory were received as a key contribution to structuralist thought, though Althusser denied strongly that he had anything to do with structuralism.
With Michel Foucault, the structuralist ideology itself became an object of investigation. The belief, central to structuralism, that a truth can be discovered which consists of a matching of ideas to things, and of things to words, is treated by Foucault as part of one particular “discursive practice”. Foucault pursues the logic of structuralism to its ultimate end: that structures themselves do not have any transcendent or natural existence any more than the human subject does. They too are historical products. This makes the attempt to understand human history or culture in terms of supposedly universal categories appear paradoxical, because the categories themselves will always open up as objects of historical and cultural enquiry in a never-ending cycle.
|IV||CONTINUITY WITH POST-STRUCTURALISM AND AMERICAN STRUCTURALISM/GENERATIVISM|
A fair amount of consensus exists in seeing Foucault as the last structuralist and Jacques Derrida as the first post-structuralist, despite a number of significant overlaps in their perspectives. There is clear continuity between structuralism and the works by Derrida that signalled the start of the post-structuralist era, not least because two of the primary targets of his critiques were Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, and his method is to show how their work “deconstructs” through tensions inherent in them. Also, as mentioned at the outset, the fact that structuralism as a general intellectual trend was being picked up on by the rest of the world at the same time as the French were beginning to abandon it led to a situation in which English-speaking audiences tended to confuse what was structuralist and what was “post”, a confusion that continues to the present day.
Within linguistics, the confusion was heightened by the use of the term “structuralist” to describe the modes of analysis developed in the United States principally by Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield, neither of whom conceived of the language system as sharing most of the essential features that the European structuralists saw it as having. Bloomfield was particularly far removed from their view, being committed to a behaviourist outlook that refused to give any scientific status to anything that, like the systems Jakobson and others believed in, could not be observed directly, but only inferred. When Noam Chomsky burst onto the scene in the early 1960s, his generative linguistics was widely viewed as a revolutionary undoing of the structuralism that it replaced—yet, ironically, Chomskyan generativism had much more in common with European structuralism than did Bloomfield’s type of analysis (for which distributionalism is the most appropriate label).
John E. Joseph
Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.