Some Thoughts About the Motives and Beliefs of Structuralists, New Critics, and Post-Structuralists, Including Deconstructionists
The rapid pace of 215's survey of critical methods may obscure the dramatic cultural struggles which gave each of these methods a reason to be practiced. Each has an offensive and a defensive function, striking out at previous, incorrect methods which it thought were based on unsound theoretical assumptions, and shoring up its own practices with a story about the metaphysical nature of the text, the reader, the world, and the critic. Here are three observations about Structuralism's attempt to improve upon New Criticism, and Deconstruction's attack on both.
Structuralism tries to explain the secret (deep structure) work of cultures, and of authors as agents of culture, by rendering visible the text's (or cultural phenomenon's [Barthes]) binary oppositions in clusters that express the fundamental relations that make meaning from the chaos of cultures'/works' surface features. In effect, they treat the text as an attempt by the culture/author to explain the culture/author to itself in terms that satisfy its needs and placate its anxieties. I treat cultures as authors and authors as cultures in that sentence because each could be said to create the other--authors arise from and represent cultures, and authors manipulate and alter cultures. The search for deep structures typically brings the critic to make observations about the way the world works when viewed through the interpretive "lens" created by the binaries' clusters. Like an anthropologist, the structuralist critic asserts s/he has discovered the tribal way of knowing which created the slave's poem praising her captivity, the soldier's fictive memory of his failure to marry Luz, the wall-hating poet's argument with his wall-loving neighbor, etc. Each work can only arise if there pre-exists (or if the artist manufactures) a matrix of slave-free, married-single, wall/wall-less values from which they can arise and which they attempt to explain. The "truth" of a structuralist reading is grounded in the belief that the associated binary bundles are a kind of psychic "fingerprint" of their creator(s).
New Criticism, as we learned, sought to discover in literature the features of a work which enabled art to make better sense of the world than history or religion or science. The Structuralists thought they had improved upon NC because NC spent so much time on the ephemeral surface features of the poem, and treated each poem as an unique object rather than as one of a vast field of objects. NCs thought the poet's use of irony, ambiguity, paradox, and poetic figures of speech (metaphor, simile) created themes that captured the transcendent truth about human existence, not just a battle between cultural conventions or an ideological hammerlock on appearances. The two systems opposed each other because their methods were at odds, and because their theories made quite different assumptions about reality and poems. Nevertheless, you can see Structuralism's roots in the mental habits of NC. Like structuralist binaries, the ironies, ambiguities, and paradoxes twined two incompatible concepts together in "tensions," but unlike the Structuralists, the New Critics thought the tensions were resolved by themes which the artist used to bring the work into an organic unity. Could those themes and the unity they produce be the precursors to the Structuralists' cultural "messages" which run underneath the text? Perhaps, but the Structuralists were free to go outside the text, itself, to compare others' structures and to incorporate additional cultural context. The New Critics, in a sense, worshiped the text-in-itself as an automomous meaning-generating device.
Deconstruction attacked both New Critical and Structuralist claims to know stable truths or structures in texts by discovering the hidden cultural power relationships which NCs ignored as universally accepted as true, or too undignified for gentlemen to talk about, and Structuralists took for granted as uninteresting data. When a binary's privileged member was exposed as an agent of an ideology (Christianity, Capitalism, the Patriarchy, etc.), its privilege no longer was "natural" but a cultural product that will shift as culture changes. This puts all the signifiers into a state of play, which provides signifieds contrary to the apparent intentions of the author/culture. The arbitrary nature of the signifier, which was proclaimed by the Structuralists since Sassure, no longer can be called truly arbitrary, since the signifier is implicated in the maintenance of elites in power and the suppression of their supposed inferiors. This gave Post-Structuralist Feminist, Marxist, and Psychoanalytic critics tools with which to expose the repressive cultural work being done by texts. They also took advantage of the liberating potential of texts' deconstructive momentum by showing how a supposed "foundation" text (the Bible, the Constitution, laws, scholarship by other critics) actually could be shown to speak against itself. What fun!
Did this clarify things, or did it create new dilemmas? Questions asked will be answered here.