Introduction to Literature
Structuralism is concerned not so much with
what things mean, but how they mean; it is a science designed
to show that all elements of human culture, including literature,
are understandable as parts of a system of signs. This science
of signs is called "semiotics" or "semiology."
The goal is to discover the codes, structures, and processes involved
in the production of meaning. "Structuralism claims that
human culture itself is fundamentally a language, a complex system
of signifieds (concepts) and signifiers. These signifiers can
be verbal (like language itself or literature) or nonverbal (like
face painting, advertising, or fashion)" (Biddle 80). Thus,
linguistics is to language as structuralism is to literature.
Structuralists often would break myths into
their smallest units, and realign corresponding ones. Opposite
terms modulate until resolved or reconciled by an intermediary third
Structuralism was a reaction to modern alienation
and despair; it sought to recover literature from the isolation
in which it had been studied, since laws governing it govern all
sign systems -- clothing, food, body 'language,' etc.
What quickly became apparent, though, was that
signs and words don't have meaning in and of themselves, only
in relations to other signs and entire systems. Hence,
Post-structuralism contests and subverts structuralism
and formalism. Structuralists are convinced that systematic knowledge
is possible; post-structuralists claim to know only the impossibility
of this knowledge. They counter the possibility of knowing systematically
a text by revealing the "grammar" behind its form and
meaning. Texts contradict not only the structuralist accounts
of them, but also themselves. All signifieds are also signifiers
(a car symbolizes achievement).
Deconstructive criticism posits an undecidability
of meaning for all texts. The text has intertwined and contradictory
discourses, gaps, and incoherencies, since language itself is
unstable and arbitrary. The critic doesn't undermine the text;
the text already dismantles itself. Its rhetoric subverts or undermines
its ostensible meaning.
Jacques Derrida opposed the "metaphysics
of presence, . . . the claim in literature or philosophy that
we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or prior to language
itself." The hierarchy of binaries on which this assertion
rests is untenable. Privileging speech over writing = logocentrism;
spoken or written words have meaning only by "differance"
from other words. Deconstructive critics focus on the text like
the formalists, but direct attention to the opposite of the New
Critical "unities." Instead, they view the
of texts and point out incompatabilities, rhetorical grain-against-grain
contradictions, undecidability within texts. There is often a
playfulness to deconstruction, but it can be daunting to read
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading, Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.
Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman, 1998.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.