Guide to Week 7: Thursday
In the web pages hyperlinked to today's reading in Levi-Strauss, I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that are crucial to understanding this critical theory and its interpretive methods. After you have read Levi-Strauss, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them. The first portion of our discussion will be a review of Levi-Strauss, and then we will look at some broader issues like those below. In brief, Saussure studied "phonemes" (syllable-units) that made up words, treating them as arbitrary "signifiers" that the language's deep structuring rules enabled us to interpret to generate meaning, "signifieds." Each phonetic chain must eventually conform to rules which govern parts of speech, the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. of a given language system. In our "baseball-as-structural-system" example, the nouns are the "players" (e.g., pitchers, batters, outfielders) and the verbs are the actions they are permitted to commit (e.g., throw a curve ball, bunt, drop to one knee to field a ground ball). Because the rules are obeyed unconsciously in most instances, structuralist interpretation can generate important discoveries. To test your awareness of those rules, learned so long ago that you have forgotten when and how you learned them, look at some of these strings of words and tell me why you know that they are, at least in structure, English sentences: English structuring rules--examples. To see the structuring rules of another dialect of English, like "Lolcat English," try reading some of the Lolcat Bible--there is a set of rules to "Learn Lolcat" on the main menu.
Levi-Strauss introduces the notion that the arbitrary differences Saussure noticed in languages also occur in folk narratives which contain, deep beneath the surface of their literal meanings, binary oppositions which aid expression of "mythemes," the story counterpart to the phonological "phoneme" from which words are constructed. By assembling the narrative's basic mythemes, short statements in which key character types do things to other things or other key character types, the Structural Anthropologist attempts to detect the deeply buried myth which all versions of the story tell. These binaries occur in pairs wherein one side is privileged or favored, and the other side is unprivileged or taboo. For instance, in some cultures, these are binary pairs in which the boldface element is privileged and the other is unprivileged: raw--cooked, naked--clothed, female--male, left-handed--right-handed, etc. Note that all these assignments of privilege are as arbitrary as the language's assignment of meaning to a sequence of phonemes. They could as easily be reversed, but in a particular cultural system, they are not. Structuralist narrative analysis moves a step away from the total arbitrariness of a language's signifier-signified relationship and toward the "motivated" relationships we saw in symbol systems, e.g., = poison, pirates, or you are approaching a Johnny Depp Crossing. Levi-Strauss assumes that a myth system, like the one about the House of Thebes (including Oedipus), is motivated by structuring rules which emerge in repeated roles (the nouns or "players") and actions (the verbs or legal moves players can make). For Levi-Strauss, "the myth" is the hidden system of rules, like Saussure's langue, which shows itself in each individual parole of the myth's telling.
The basic Structuralist concept of binary opposition has undoubted explanatory power even in the realm of natural science, where some physical properties of the universe are ruled by binaries (electron spin, electrical charge, etc.). True, mutually exclusive binary oppositions are rare, however, because when an ordinary opposition allows any compromise between its opposing poles, compromise positions appear to multiply rapidly. For instance, consider the number of medical conditions you have heard of which occur somewhere between fully alive and undeniably dead, or the variety of positions which modern society discovered between the medieval binaries of "noble" and "commoner." Nevertheless, even if binaries are not mutually exclusive, their opposition enables each pole to be understood in terms of the other. Until we get to Deconstruction, try to ignore the intermediary states between oppositions and concentrate on the X-ray-like clarity produced when you can cut the text's data down to only the oppositions themselves, and the rules that appear to structure them.
As Tyson says, Structuralism teaches that “the human mind perceives difference most readily in terms of opposites, which Structuralists call binary oppositions: two ideas, directly opposed, each of which we understand by means of its opposition to the other. For example, we understand up as the opposite of down, female as the opposite of male, good as the opposite of evil, black as the opposite of white, and so on” (202). This powerful way of seeing the world translates into textual power when it enables us to reduce the "clutter" of a text's evidence to deeply buried and repeating expressions of rules derived from binary oppositions. When you get to Selden's analysis of Miller's Death of a Salesman, note that he stops short after he has identified binaries that appear to structure the play's dialogue and action. The Structuralist critic ordinarily publishes the results of attempting to articulate a rule which explains how the author uses the binaries he has embedded in the text, creating a "deeper message" that communicates with its audience almost unconsciously by setting up and then resolving conflicts created by those binaries.
Naming the opposing terms in a system makes the Structuralist critic into a poet, trying to find the right words to capture the proper nature of the opposition in play within a particular text. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas' famous tale of false imprisonment, escape, and slow revenge, the most obvious opposition might seem to be "Free" versus "Imprisoned." As the novel develops this binary, however, it becomes clear that many characters who are not actually "imprisoned" are still not "free" because they are tied to psychological obsessions like greed for money or power, or the "free" characters get into trouble because nothing constrains their wild choices in life, whereas the "unfree" are saved from careless mistakes because their choices always are made with respect to old injuries for which they must seek revenge. The binaries "Free" vs. "Obsessed" or "Free" vs. "Unfree" offer distinctly different views of the novel's underlying structuring code. In the former, the structuring rule appears to be "Freedom consists in avoiding obsession with any one outcome and remaining unattached to any worldly event," whereas the second opposition might suggest that "Freedom is a dangerous lack of self-control and the safest way to live is to have but one objective which protects you from the allure of all other distractions."
If the insight offered by Structuralism depends upon the critic's naming of the binary, does this rob Structuralism of its claims to be scientific? Before we slam Structuralism for being "pseudoscience," we should remember that other sciences similarly depend upon the scholar's decision about what to name parts of structuring systems. Whether a physicist calls light a "particle" or a "wave" might be an example, since particles can be opposed by "anti-particles," and when the two meet, both are extinguished. But waves are opposed by other waves with amplitudes (peaks and valleys) which oppose the amplitude of the first wave--the opposing waves continue in some sense to "exist" though their physical effects cancel each other out. Perhaps a variety of naming options in analyzing literary binaries more truly describes the sheer variety of forces at work in a text?
After you have read Levi-Strauss's analysis of the Cadmus myths, take a look at Russell Peck's summary of Cinderella-type tales. He has summarized each tale in a paragraph, and in so doing, he has (intentionally or not) reduced it to Greimas' "actantial units" in which someone does something to something/someone, eventually resulting in a change of state or status. This establishes the functional roles (the persecuted daughter, the helper animal) and some privileged and unprivileged binary pairs (daughter<-->stepdaughter). Can you develop a structuring "myth" that Cinderella is telling its readers in all these superficially different forms? Click here to see the Snopes.com description of the variant versions of the urban legend usually known as "Penny Brown," which also exhibits some "slating" of specific details while retaining the fundamental deep structural roles of its "myth." Click here to see a list of typical Breton lai character types.
A more modern adaptation of this notion of Levy-Strauss's "slating," the tales' "drift" from one version to another is Paul Zumthor's "mouvance," a term he invented to describe how Medieval narratives vary from earlier to later versions. Modern architectural design can exhibit the same "drift" of mouvance to produce new artifacts from old designs. Modern architectural design can exhibit the same "drift" of mouvance to produce new artifacts from old designs. Robert Darnton, "In memoriam, Clifford Geertz," New York Review of Books. Geertz, a great anthropologist, was an important figure in the Structuralist movement. Darnton taught with him and tells some wonderful stories that illustrate what Structuralist methods could do with cultural evidence (including literature).