Guide to Week 7: Tuesday
In the web pages hyperlinked to this week's reading in Tyson and Saussure, I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that are crucial to understanding this critical theory and its interpretive methods. After you have read Tyson and Saussure, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them. The first portion of our discussion will be a review of Tyson and Saussure, and then we will look at some broader issues like those below.
Structuralism is like New Criticism in its insistence upon strict adherence to a common set of theoretical assumptions and a standard method of analysis. Unlike New Criticism, it was unafraid to claim it was a science with clear origins in linguistics, anthropology, and other social sciences. The brief excerpt from Saussure's "Nature of the Linguistic Sign" and "Static and Evolutionary Linguistics" introduces two key concepts with numerous examples from several different languages. The polyglot (multi-lingual) evidence is essential to Saussure's claim of scientific authority, since one of science's main claims to social power arises from its ability to predict outcomes in new systems based on laws it infers from observations taken in previously known systems. Therefore, laws about linguistic structures based in Germanic or Romance languages like English or French should be capable of generalization to languages from other Germanic or Romance languages. Saussure takes this one step further, claiming to have discovered structuring concepts that are fundamental to the way all natural (vs. computer code) languages work. To what degree are his conclusions still logically valid and historically true descriptions of the way language works? What sciences other than linguistics study language use? Have they added anything new to Saussure's basic claims about how language works in the human mind?
The great advantages of scientific interpretive methods would be easy to see. Researchers in any nation, in any language, would be able to share the results of a properly conducted interpretation. Conclusions justified by scientific experiment would not be subject to dismissal by readers who could claim "everyone has his/her own opinion and that conclusion is only an opinion." One cannot reasonably say "everyone has her/his own opinion about gravity" or "about flatworms," at least not when gravity or flatworms are the subject of conclusions arising from properly conducted scientific studies. Some opinions might be generated by scientists looking at the data and methodology, but as long as the interpreters followed The Rules of Science, those opinions would be limited to issues like the elegance or efficiency of the experimental design, or the possibilities for a next stage in the research. What are the limitations of the search for scientific interpretive methods for literature? What kinds of literary phenomena would be likely to resist or even completely elude those methods?
Now that we are all Structuralists, you may well ask yourself, "how did we get here?" It all began with a French linguist, Ferdinand Saussure, who lectured on linguistics at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. After Saussure's death, his students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, assembled their collected notes on his lectures and published them in his name in 1916 as Cours de linguistique générale (A General Course in Linguistics). Saussure proposed a novel way of understanding languages as "sign systems." Rather than studying individual languages' histories and operations ("philology"), Saussure proposed the study of language, itself, as a phenomenon, drawing evidence from all existing languages to find their common features. His first key insight was that the relationship between the "signifier" (the spoken "phonemes" or written characters which make up the word, "tree," for instance), and the "signified" (the OED definition of "tree") was entirely arbitrary but impossible to alter intentionally. His second insight was that the signifier-signified relationship changes over time in a fashion that is imperceptible to speakers of the language and similarly beyond their control. A third insight was to separate instances of the parole, any individual use of the language, like this sentence, from the view of the langue (the language understood as a sign system at any one moment of its existence). The langue gives language users deep structuring rules for combining the constitutive units of language. In English, the consonant pair "tr" can be used to make "tree" or "truth" or "trouble" or "trumpet"; in Czech, the consonant pair "tr" can be used to make "trkat" [butt] or "trknuty" [butted] or "trmaceni" [to plod, toil, trek]), all three of which would be illegal letter combinations under current (and past!) English word-constuction rules. Similar structuring rules govern the operation of parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, etc.) and their use to make sentences, as well as the conventions of their interpretation by competent listeners/readers. All of those combinatory rules constitute the langue which enables individual instances of parole and all of those rules are, says Saussure,
Because almost any socially constructed set of conventions can be understood as being "like a language" (the displays on car dealers' lots; NFL football games; Barbie doll packages), anthropologists were attracted to Saussure's methodology as a way of studying cultures. One of them, Claude Lévi-Strauss, proposed studying mythic narratives in all existing cultures by examining their basic components and combinatory rules as sign systems. In place of the verbal sign's "phonemes" (the "tr" and "ee" of "tree"), Lévi-Strauss proposed the existence of "mythemes," small constituent units of narrative, that could be recombined to make narratives like phonemes can be recombined to make words: "the hero leaves home; the hero is tested; the hero acquires an aid from a donor; the hero returns home." Suddenly, literary critics saw a new way to interpret literature by seeking its deep structuring rules for the roles that could be played and the rules for roles' interaction.