"Structuralism and Literary Criticism"

Prepared for his students in ENGL 4F70, "Contemporary Literary Theory" at Brock University by Professor John Lye, who takes full responsibility for any distortions he may have effected in the meanings of Genette's work.
The pagination in brackets refers to the text as republished in David Lodge, Modern Criticism and Theory.

1: The critic and the literary: Genette first introduces the good structuralist conception of the bricoleur as opposed to the engineer; it will turn out that a critic is a bricoleur , working with what is to hand. Genette turns the artist into the engineer, a rather literary-critical thing to do.

Genette then makes the point that as literary criticism uses language to speak of language use, it is in fact a metaliterature, a literature on a literature. Poststructuralists will challenge the distinction between the two, and Genette here refers to Barthes distinctions to suggest that some literary criticism may be literature.

He then defines literariness in a way much like a formalist would: literariness is language production in which the attention is addressed to spectacle rather than message -- something one supposes like Jakobson's poetic function, or meta-poetic; in fact to put it right into Jakobson's terms, the attention is on the poetic rather than on the referential function, on medium rather than on message. Genette will later in the essay insist that this does not degrade the meaning-function of the language.

Genette as well refers to that aspect of literature which is so close to the New Critical understanding of ambiguity, the 'halt', the attention to the constitution of meaning under a different aspect, that also characterizes the literary; so it is that there is only a literary function , no literariness in any essential or material sense. Genette's sense of the ambiguity of literature is similar to Jakobson's in "Linguistics and Poetics", in which essay he writes that "Ambiguity is an intrinsic, inalienable character of any self-focused message, briefly a corollary feature of poetry...Not only the message itself but the addresser and the addressee become ambiguous." (pp 49-50 in Lodge).

2: The role of the critic: The critic is secondary to the writer, a bricoleur to the writer's engineer, but in a position therefore to be primary in the analysis of culture. The critic treats as signs what the writer is creating as concept: the attitude, the disposition is different. The critic in reading literature as signs is reading it as a cultural production, constructed according to various preconceptions, routines, traditions and so forth of that culture. The critic does not ignore the meaning, but treats it as mediated by signs, not directly encountered. (65T) Where the post-structuralist will differ is in their denial that anything can be transparent: all concepts are themselves constructed of signs, there is no unmediated thought, all mediated thought is social thought, there is no attachment to anything beyond the sign.

3: Structuralism is more than a linguistic exercise. While structuralism historically (in Europe) is a linguistic phenomenon, and it would seem reasonable th at structuralist criticism would then be linguistic in its nature, this is too simple an assumption.

Genette writes on p. 67 of the idea of a table of concordance, variable in its details but constant in its function: it is the function, not the detail, that concerns structuralist thought. One of the elements of literature that Genette deals with later is genre, which segments experience in certain ways, and controls the attitudes towards it. What is the place of this individual work in the systems of representation? That is a key question.

4: Structuralism is about meaning, not just about form. Genette is at pains to point out that structuralism is not just about form, but about meaning, as linguistics is about meaning. It is a study of the cultural construction or identification of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-spectrum of the culture. (67 ft) When Jakobson writes of the centrality of tropes to imaginative writing, he places the categories of meaning at the heart of the structural method, as tropes, including metaphor and metonymy, are the way we say something by saying something else, figures of signification. Ambiguity, which is a meaning-function, is at the heart of the poetic function, as we saw in #1 above. Finally in this section, Genette looks forward to structural analysis at the more macro level of the text, of the analysis of narratives, for instance -- "an analysis that could distinguish in them [that is, larger units], by a play of superimpositions [and hence knowledge through difference], variabvle elements and constant functions, and to rediscover in them the bi-axial system, familiar to Saussureanlinguistics, of syntagmatic relations (real connections of functions in the continuity of a text) and paradigmatic relations (virtual relations between similar or oposed functions, form one text to another, in the whole of the corpus considered)>"[68t]

5: Structuralism is a general tendency of thought (Cassirer) Structuralism is, however, not necessarily an intrinsic fact of nature but rather is a way of thinking; [68] structures are"systems of latent relations, conceived rather than perceived, which analysis constructs as it uncovers them, and which it runs the risk of inventing while believing that it is discovering them" -- that is, structures are explanations of coherence and repetition, they appear in what they seek to explain, they in a sense provide the terms and the vehicle of explanation. as we can only now through knowledge frames. Structuralism is the explanation of texts or events in their own terms (as those terms are conceived), not in relation to external causes.

When one turns to the internal dynamic of a text as an object, a field of meanings, and to the coherence of it as a text, rather than as biography or sociology, one reads structurally. Structuralist reading abandons pyschological, sociological, and such explanations. One can see New Criticism as a structural methodology, although it is not structuralism: in structural analysis of theme, for instance, theme would be seen in the context of the relations of themes, that is, of certain elements of filaments of the configuration, or network or matrix of, of social meanings, which meanings constitute culture.

6: Structuralism is however not merely intrinsic criticism, the criticism of the thing itself. Genette mentions the other form of intrinsic criticism, phenomenological criticism, in which one becomes in touch with the subjectivity of the creative voice of the work. Ricoeur refers to this, Genette writes, as the hermeneutic method: the intuitive convergence to two consciousnesses, the authors and the readers. This is a little confusing, because this is not hermeneutics properly speaking, but rather phenomenological hermeneutics. When there is hermeneutics, Genette says, when the text is available to us in that immediate a way, then structural reading fades; but whenever we have to look more objectively, when we are transversing barriers of time, say, or of culture or interest, then the structural method, the search for principles of order, coherence and meaning, becomes dominant -- literatures [71t] distant in place and time, children's literature, popular literature. Genette goes on to suggest that the difference between hermeneutic and structural reading is a matter of the critical position of the critic -- (between identity and distance, say). Structuralism is an intrinsic reading free from subjectivity, when we become the ethnomethodologists of our culture (71).

7: Structuralism ties the meaning of the work to the meanings of the culture. (72) Genette suggests that topics is an area of study that structuralism can bring us to -- the traditional subjects and forms of the culture (from the Greek topos, 'place'; I prefer to refer to culturally-constucted sites of meaning as topoi, to try to retain the full meaning of the idea). Topics, or topoi, are structural in that they underlie the way we talk and think about things in our culture. They are in a sense psychological, Genette says [72], but collectively so, not individually. Throughout, in writing of the cultural knowledge that structuralism provides, Genette has been suggesting that 'high' literature is not the only, perhaps not the primary, location for the study of cultural meanings: the serious study of popular culture has begun.

8: Structuralism opens the study of genre to new light. Different genres predispose the reader to different attitudes, different expectations [cf. the saying, attributed to Voltaire, that life is a comedy to he who thinks and a tragedy to he who feels, which saying suggests a way in which genres might look differently at experience]. Different genres lead to different expectations of types of situations and actions, and of psychological, moral, and esthetic values. Without conventional expectations we cannot have the difference, the surprise, the reversals which mark the more brilliant exercise of creativity. Hence creativity is in a sense structural, as it depends on our expectation, which it them plays upon.

9: Structuralism can be applied to the study of literature as a whole, as a meaning system. Structurally, literature is a whole; it functions as a system of meaning and reference no matter how many works there are, two or two thousand. Thus any work becomes the parole, the individual articulation, of a cultural langue, or system of signification. As literature is a system, no work of literature is an autonomous whole; similarly, literature itself is not autonomous but is part of the larger structures of signification of the culture.

10: Structuralism studies literature synchronically, but with diachronic awareness. Structuralism studies literature historically by studying it as it were in cross-section at different times, by seeing in what way literature divides up the traditional topics of the cultural imagination. Change is intrinsic to literature, as the Russian formalists thought; what the change registers is the alterations of the relations of meaning within the culture. Structuralism can then yield a fruitful approach to the history of literature, not as a series of great works, or of influences of one writer upon another, but more structurally, more systematically, as the way in which a culture's discourse with itself alters. The meaning of an individual work is ultimately and inevitably only the meaning within a larger frame of cultural meanings, and these meanings change in relation to one another across time and cultures. As well, the addition of other signifying systems, such as cinema, alter but do not disrupt the system of literature. A structural analysis of the construction of cultural meaning can thence replace the meaning of the individual instance, the particular work, while the meaning of the individual work is illumined and rendered more fully significant by being read in the context of its full systemic, cultural meaning.