"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
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.
- First of all, literary language is language used to certain ends, having a certain function and therefore featuring the qualities of linguistic production and the relationships of sounds and meaning in a particular way. The ends then are important. As he writes on page 66, structuralist method as such is constituted at the very moment when one rediscovers the message in the code, uncovered by an analysis of the immanent structures and not imposed from the outside by ideological prejudices. (Poststructuralists will deny that anything can be innocent of ideology.)
- Second, there is a homology, a structural relationship,
between the way language cuts up the world of meaning, and the way
literature and literary genres do. There is an analogy between literature
and linguistics not only because they are both involved in language but
because both deal with:
- the relation between forms and meanings,
- the way reality is culturally defined by the segmentation and identification of experience,
- the cultural perception of reality, and
- the systemic relationships of signs which underlie those cultural perceptions.
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;  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 , 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
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,