Few texts can convey the crucial insights of structuralism while, at the same time, anticipating the reaction against it, loosely termed post-structuralism, and
defending structuralism against the charge that it is simply a more scientific formalism and, as such, just as apolitical. Roland Barthes’s ‘Myth Today’ (Reading 1.1
) meets these requirements so successfully that it is hard to accept 1957 as the publication date for Mythologies
, the book which collects a number of case studies of contemporary culture and rounds them off with such a stunning theoretical excursus.
In a Reader which seeks to update some of the theoretical debates of the past thirty-to-forty years, and in which all the Readings in Section 1 are departures from or, more accurately, departures from within structuralism, it is tempting to relegate the movement which so dominated intellectual life in the 1960s and 1970s to some kind of pre-history of what is now termed Critical Theory. It is as well, therefore, to devote extra space to structuralism and take a cue from Barthes who, early in ‘Myth Today’, defines the central concepts, ‘signifier’, ‘signified’ and ‘sign’, and summarises the vital contribution of Ferdinand de Saussure, while adding that ‘semiology has not yet come into being’ (Barthes, 1972b, p. 111). In Elements of Semiology, published in 1964, Barthes maintains that semiology can best prosecute its ambition to be a science of all signs by adopting the model of language, because linguistic signs have been more systematically examined than any other sign system. The particular system or discipline can then be investigated and its semiological functioning laid bare as never before, at the same time as a methodology is put in place which encourages interdisciplinary analysis, on the grounds that signification is what is common to different social and cultural activities. The tendency in Anglo-American intellectual life during the 1970s was to carry over structuralist advances primarily into literary theory because of literature’s patently linguistic character (it was precisely this notion of a lowest common denominator which provoked predictable responses from many literary critics). Consequently, the indiscriminate quality of Mythologies needs to be emphasised. For all its claims to facilitate close, system-specific analysis, structuralism crossed boundaries as much as it established them. In the 1960s Saussure’s model of language became paradigmatic for a number of important structuralist ventures which sought to analyse as systems of signs fashion, advertising, narrative and poetry, and whole cultures, as in Barthes’s Empire of Signs (1970). Evidence of how wide-ranging was the structuralist endeavour may be found in Jacques Ehrmann’s Structuralism (1970; first published as a special issue of Yale French Studies in 1966), a collection which rarely appears on reading lists now but was an interdisciplinary education to many readers.
In the Course in General Linguistics
(first published in 1916), reconstructed posthumously from lectures delivered between 1907 and 1911, Saussure emerges as one of the great modern systematisers, adamant that any field of enquiry requires a synchronic rather than a diachronic or developmental analysis. Although the move towards synchronicity, if instituted as a theoretical principle rather than treated as a methodological manoeuvre, stored up problems for later theorists, who were persuaded by structuralism’s insights but committed to historical/political projects, the benefits were none the less considerable, and can be appreciated in a few classics of structuralist analysis: Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The structural study of myth’ (1955); A.J. Greimas’s Sémantique structural
(1966); Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre
(1970); and Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse
Hayden White’s Metahistory: The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe (1973) is one of the most sophisticated American products of the structuralist revolution in thought. White pursues the disagreement between Lévi-Strauss and Jean-Paul Sartre over structure versus history by directing the linguistic and synchronic turn against historical explanation itself. He argues that the histories written by Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville and Burckhardt are narrative emplotments rather than records of facts. As linguistic and structural entities, these histories can be distinguished by tropological preferences; Barthes is more forthright still in The discourse of history’ (1967): ‘the fact can only have a linguistic existence, as a term in a discourse, and yet it is exactly as if this existence were merely the “copy”, purely and simply, of another existence situated in the extra-structural domain of the “real”‘(Barthes, 1981, p. 17). Hence the polemical intent of Barthes’s essay title, ‘Myth Today’, as a justification for his explanation of how it is that such cultural practices as wrestling matches, advertisements and menus signify each time they are enacted within a recognised system, which the proverbial visitor from Mars would have to learn ‘today’.
The usual stopping place for theorists who have worked off Saussure’s Course is this statement:
in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. (Saussure, 1974, p. 120)
Saussure’s insight leads off in a number of directions. The idea of a differential relationship between signs is an affront to a literary criticism and an aesthetics in general deriving from Romanticism, because it is at the root of the claim that there is an arbitrary relationship between the signifier (phonic or graphic) and the signified (the mental concept). Structuralism, as it developed out of Saussure’s work,
contested the assumption that there is a natural meaning inherent in a sign, or at least in certain signs sometimes designated poetic signs. For an indication of the challenge which the notion of the arbitrary sign posed for the hope or assumption that words could be reattached to things and to an original design, and that inauthenticity in language could be checked, Saussure can be put against the American Romantic Henry David Thoreau. For Saussure, arbitrariness went all the way down to the individual letter, as Jonathan Culler explains in his Introduction to Course in General Linguistics
: ‘one may write t
in numerous ways, so long as one preserves its differential value. There is no positive substance which defines it; the only requirement is that one keep it distinct from other letters with which it might be confused, such as l, f, b, i, k
’ (Saussure, 1974, p. xix). For Thoreau, however, writing about a thawing bank of sand in his book Walden
No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly…. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (‘… globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally, a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single-lobed or B, double-lobed), with the liquid/behind it pressing forward. (Thoreau, 1980, p. 204)
Saussurean structuralism instituted a gap between the world of signs and the world of objects or referents, though even to put it this way points to the tenacity of a referential model of signification (and to a hesitancy which post-structuralist thinkers exploited). The point, though, is that without a natural relationship between signifier and signified – to which Thoreau gives hyperbolic expression – the only way meaning can be explained is within the context of the system of language. It follows, then -and Saussure says as much in the statement above – that meanings, too (the sphere of the concept or signified), are relational. Before inspecting this conclusion, a second ramification of Saussure’s diacritical model should be looked at.
By adopting a difference rather than reference model of language, Saussure – less dramatically than Darwin, Marx and Freud – undermines a consciousness-centred philosophy. To transfer attention from causal and originating explanations for meaning to structural explanations reveals that any sign is intelligible not by virtue of a self-conscious intender but through its differential relations with other signs in the linguistic system. The identity of an element in the linguistic system is arrived at negatively, according to how it differs from other elements in the system. This diacritical form of explanation provokes the radical idea that nothing is complete in itself. Secure limits and boundaries get transgressed: where does the self begin and end if, as Emile Benveniste insists in Problems in General Linguistics (1966), the personal pronoun T cannot be defined outside the linguistic reality in which it manifests itself?
Not surprisingly, given the large-scale reaction against phenomenology and existentialism under way in France since the 1960s, certain pronouncements were
trumpeted as the clarion call of the structuralist (and then post-structuralist) revolution. Barthes’s expression ‘the death of the author’, or Derrida’s ‘the ends of man’, were taken out of context and, in the furore, the valuable journeyman dimension of structuralism (particularly the work of Genette, Greimas and Todorov) received less credit than it deserved. More importantly, in context, the anti-humanism of the Saussurean model can be seen as potentially richer in intellectual content than transcendental views of the self because, arguably, it is not anti-humanist at all. Take, as an instance of the kind of statement which has been regularly misunderstood, Foucault’s announcement in The Order of Things
It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new frame. (Foucault, 1970, p. xxiii)
Foucault is setting aside the transcendental, even theological, self dating back to the late eighteenth century as precisely that – a historical concept which is no longer an adequate explanatory principle for the ‘systems of regularities’ which his archaeological approach reveals:
If there is one approach that I do reject, however, it is that (one might call it, broadly speaking, the phenomenological approach) which gives absolute priority to the observing subject, which attributes a constituent role to an act, which places its own point of view at the origin of all historicity – which, in short, leads to a transcendental consciousness. It seems to me that the historical analysis of scientific discourse should, in the last resort, be subject, not to a theory of the knowing subject but rather to a theory of discursive practice. (Foucault, 1970, p. xiv)
The problem is not with the death of theological ‘man’ because – quite conceivably – that figure has impeded understanding of the human world, at least during the past century, when it has lagged behind intellectual and technological developments. The problem is with the lack in structuralism and some unguarded versions of post-structuralism, of a theory of agency and a way of talking about change over time. After all, looking at the workings of a modern society with a suitable scepticism about the more extreme formulations of the ideology of the sovereign self, of individualism, one can arrive at the quite sensible conclusion that the system is simply that which gives meaning to the individuals within it; it is the water that fish swim in. It is – in Foucault’s terms when he writes about epistemes – that which allows sense to be made. And this, after all, is the key structuralist insight into intelligibility, though Foucault protests against any structuralist affiliations even as he memorably describes the conditions of knowledge without making reference to a transcendental knower. Once the relationship between structuralism and post-structuralism has been clarified, the question of agency and historical change calls for some further discussion, since it reappears in all the other Sections of this Reader.
In tension with Saussure’s aim of marking out an area for study – in his case, the system of language – is the potential for instability in the notion of difference, which does not respect boundaries and undermines the self-sufficiency of any entity. It is this tension which partly explains the sense in which structuralism is inhabited by its supposed successor, post-structuralism. The chronology of the two movements also warns against any strict separation. Derrida’s ‘Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences’ was delivered as a conference paper in 1966 and reprinted in Writing and Difference
in 1967, the year of publication for Speech and Phenomena
and Of Grammatology
, which contains his deconstruction of Saussure’s theory of the sign. Foucault came to prominence with The Order of Things
, published in the heyday of structuralism, while Jacques Lacan’s route to a version of post-structuralism has its starting point in the 1930s controversies within the psychoanalytic profession. What is apparent, though, especially in Derrida and Foucault, is the way in which certain aspects of structuralism are accentuated to striking effect. First, Derrida – bearing in mind, of course, that his position is developed and refined in relation to other figures and movements besides Saussure and structuralism; notably, from the modern period, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, and Husserlian phenomenology. Derrida’s relations with structuralism are particularly acute, however, because structuralism, far from advancing any kind of metaphysical simple (the self, reality, truth, God, history), seems to mark the break from such thinking. Yet the first sentence of ‘Structure, sign, and play’, the essay which brought Derrida wide attention, produces a tremor in the structuralist project:
Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’, if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural – or structuralist – thought to reduce or suspect. (Derrida, 1978, p. 278)
Derrida’s hesitation over the word ‘event’ is a reminder that in his concern to complicate the concept of structure, he remains equally sceptical about the other side of the debate between structure and history, as is noticeable in the extract from ‘Positions’ (Reading 1.2
). In ‘Structure, sign, and play’, howev...