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-kebsen), 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 (much of this is adapted from Charles Bressler’s Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice – see General Resources below):
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).  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).

Further references:
• Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Trans. R. Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1972
• —. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
• —. The Pleasure of the Text.
• Caws, Peter. “What is Structuralism?” Partisan Review. Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter 1968, pp. 75-91.
• Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature . New York: Cornell UP, 1973.
• Eco, Umberto. Theory of Semiotics.
• Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
• Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.
• Jefferson, Anne and David Robey. Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction.  See chapter 4.
• Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language and Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art.
• Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism. See chapter 4.
• Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked.1964. Trans. John and Doreen Weighman. New York: Harper, 1975.
• —. Structural Anthropology. Trans. C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoeph. London: Allen Lane, 1968.
• Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry
• Peirce, Charles. Values in a Universe of Chance: Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce.
• Propp, Vladimir.The Morphology of the Folktale. 1928. Trans. Laurence Scott. Austin: U of Texas P, 1968.
• (de) Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. W. Baskin. London: Fontana/Collins, 1974.
• Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.
• Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics.
• Sebeok, Thomas. The Tell-Tale Sign: A Survey of Semiotics.
• Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.


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