Structuralism/Structuralisms?: A Good Question About Part 1 of the "Working With Structuralism" Paper

From: Confused, Student
Posted At: Monday, March 24, 2003 11:54 PM
Posted To: English 215 Sanders
Conversation: a little bit confused... :)
Subject: a little bit confused... :)

I just finished reading Selden's take on structuralism, and am trying to digest the new information... what I'm confused (or curious?) about is how much of this information, from Tyson, Saussure, Levi-Strauss (isn't he the guy who invented blue jeans? :p), and Selden we are supposed to incorporate into our working with paper.  Should we begin our analysis by using Levi-Strauss's diagram with the synchronic and diachronic spreadsheet chart to help us find the patterns?  Should each of those entries be representative of a binary opposition?  In the Part I of our paper, how much of the linguistic terminology (i.e. Saussure) and how many of the numerous examples Tyson gave of people who have used structuralism (i.e. the mythos of winter/summer, etc etc etc) is necessary?
I think I feel like I've done *so much* reading on Structuralism that I'm not sure how to pare it down for a short essay.  then again, maybe I'm just having one of those weeks ;)

Hi Student,

    Your point is well-taken.  That sense of (initial) confusion comes with every new scholar's first journey into the territory of literary theory.  The field did not develop in a neat and orderly fashion.  Scholars in several nations, sometimes working decades apart but responding to the same basic insights, created a series of "Structuralisms" in the early Twentieth Century (Saussure in linguistics, Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Propp in narratology, etc.).   After New Criticism's loss of control of "critical orthodoxy" (remember their emphasis on literature as a secular "faith" and the critic as its priest?), the Dissenters sprang up on every side, starting with a resurgence of new Anglo-European Structuralists like Todorov, Greimas, and Culler.  As is usual when Dissent rears its ugly head, the Dissenters failed to agree upon their principals, often for very good reasons.  So what you have in the case of the Structuralists is the invention of "Structuralisms" rather than a new orthodoxy, though I admit I presented it in something of that light in at least one web page (something about "a grand theory that tries to Explain Everything").  We have basic principles and a way to apply them drawn from the first generation of Structuralism (Saussure, Levi-Strauss), and we have further applications of Structuralist methods in the late-Twentieth-Century Structuralists summarized by Tyson and demonstrated by Selden.  In the "Working With" assignment, we are trying to synthesize the best of their thinking into a useable compound of theory and method that works for you.  You cannot ignore the basic founding principles, but when applying them you need to choose the methods that seem most sensible and defensible.  The same thing will happen when we hit Deconstruction(s) (a very "Decon" use of parens), and Feminisms (no need for parens there!), and Reader-Response Theorists, and New Historicists and Cultural Critics.  Your basic description of your plan for how to apply the method to Hemingway's story sounded good, but Part One will require some nice judgment to summarize what we have read. 
    "Gah!," I hear you cry.  "How am I to deal with multiple 'Structuralisms' in only a page or two, even single-spaced, without descending to the use of teeny-tiny type fonts that will make Arnie blind?"  Here's the trick: describe these various articulations of Structuralist theory in terms of what they all tend to share in common.  So as a start, you could name some things that strikingly differentiate all of them from the New Critics, in particular, and you could name some things they share in common with each other, as a result.  One big difference, humongous, if I can get MS-Word not to "red-squiggle" that nonce word, is the difference between the scientific Structuralists who (like Levi-Strauss and Saussure) work with very, very big data sets that enable them to claim scientific precision for their conclusions (on the one hand), and literary Structuralists like Culler and Tyson and Selden, who work with single works to discover the "language-like" rules that make their deep structures work (noun vs. anti-noun and verb vs. anti-verb binaries, mostly).  The latter group is the one you're most likely to be joining unless you plan to unleash your PC on the entire corpus of In Our Time  to search for Levi-Strauss "mythemes" that tell "the fundamental myth" Hemingway is telling us there, and finish it between now and Thursday.  Please don't try that!
    Does that help?  I could go further, but doing that "meta-analysis" of the various Structuralisms is part of the fun.  Literary critics tend to operate somewhat like farmers, who solve every problem that comes their way by re-imagining uses for the tools and materials they have on hand, and something like blue jays or magpies, attracted to bright shiny theories in other disciplines (like Linguistics or Anthropology or Political Science or Psychology) that they steal and bring back to their academic nests in order to stack them in dazzling arrays that other critics will envy and emulate and steal from, themselves.  Sometimes we get honest advantages from the process, and other times we look back on it and think "what were we smoking?"  (Sometimes literally--Structuralism was the heady product of the late '60s and '70s, and all that seeking after cosmic structures and the hidden codes in the universe goes well with gurus and sitar music and bell-bottom pants.)  Basically, Part One asks you to choose which tools you will use to take apart the apparatus known as "A Very Short Story" and it asks you to tell the reader from whence you got those tools, what their use presupposes about the way deep structures make literary works function for their readers, and what end or goal your interpretation must reach if it is to succeed.  Part Two applies your personalized Structuralism to the story.  I can see reasons why some students might want to try Part Two first, just to make sure they have a Structuralist method that produces insightful results, and then write Part One to explain the theory and methods in general.  Be sure to let me know if you want further assistance.  This is a tough theory and method to master, even given two weeks to do it.