A useful approach that breaks down language and literature into words, meaning, and intention is called structuralism or formalism. I would not be surprised if you are quite comfortable with this theoretical approach (approach in terms of this class means how one looks at something). Many of you were taught largely through a structuralist method in school because you were encouraged to look at how the various plots of a literary work—plot, characterization, setting, and climax—story, novel, play, epic or pastoral poem, for example, helped you to create meaning or interpret in a unique way. I see the approach of structuralism useful in understanding texts that beguile me: If I am stumped, I can opt to analyze a character—why is she doing what she is doing; why does she say what she says, why does she see things the way she does, for example. I might also consider the series or steps in a plot and what that might mean or suggest. The beginning and ending of a story can surely explain quite a bit about an author’s intentions. Thus, a structuralist or formalist approach, in my opinion, is merely one way to understand a text, but as the nature of this course suggests, is not the only way.
We will begin by looking at a structuralist/formalist of high renown, Ferdinand De Saussure (1857-1913). Would you mind opening your NATC textbook to page 826? There is a picture or image (what we call the signified) of a tree there; in French it is called arbor (called the signifier). There is another image, another signified, that of a horse below it. That word indicating that particular image or signified is equos (French for horse). You might wonder where I’m going with all of this, but this idea of word and what it represents was and is often still, very fascinating for linguists and postmodern theorists. Psychoanalysts too are interested in word associations for what they might indicate or induce in one’s subconscious mind. We call this feature of duality, the idea that words mean one thing and representations of the words may mean the word or may/might actually refer to something else. The picture on the other side of the page showing the concept and the sound-image also is another way to look at the phenomenon of language, so it goes without saying that de Saussure believes that because language refers to something else altogether different than the actual word itself, that the study of language as a duality has emerged (Leitch 820-822).
It is important to note that Language poses an inner duality that is often explored through the study of semiotics. In our day and in past eras (times of living), language connects(ed) to everything we see, do, and understand. We speak in words; we watch television and hear words; we listen to music; we interpret our world through words; we gain an understanding of what people say through words; we even think of words when people give us “a look”. Ultimately, words convey emotions, thought, nuances, moods, feelings, aspects, organizational nuances, and on and on and on. Hence, the arbitrary nature of the sign is de Saussure’s renown moment in the theoretical universe, his signature contribution that has been extended through others (827). What de Saussure means by arbitrary is precisely this: when I see a tree, I know it is a tree; however, the word “tree” in all its meaning is nonetheless completely arbitrary or open to interpretation. We know what the word tree refers to through historical usage. We know what the word tree refers to because someone at some point in time decided that this word means one particularity over another. Someone came up with this word and applied it to that actual living entity outside. Even though we know that a concept signifies, and a word evokes a sound image, the sign or symbol for a tree and the word tree itself is completely arbitrary. The space between the actual object and the actual word is also arbitrary and the arbitrary space between these two key aspects of language are also significant in many ways and continue to be fascinating to us. The space of language and reality continues to evolve, going a long way to explain why we have new language (words) added to our dictionaries every year; why, for instance, a more recently added word in the dictionary such as “selfie” is understood by all of us. Why, as well, the dictionary on my computer, and yours too, if you are reading it with a word spellcheck file, has in fact come into existence. People playing around on their cellphones create new words because the arbitrary space of language allows them to do so. Language is a living thing so what words refer to and how they change or adapt to our reality or how it refers to actual ideas/objects is typically evolving as well. What holds all of this together? Our memories, naturally. De Saussure put the idea of sliding signification on the map because he was one of the first theorists to bring out that the space between the word and object, person, place, idea is arbitrary, open to interpretation and therefore open to change (Leitch 830-840). Found on pages 1222-1233 in NATC, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) studied myth and applied the study of semiotics as de Saussure presented them to his anthropological focus. Levi-Strauss lets us know the conversation of which he is participating: “Ancient philosophers reasoned about language the way we do about mythology. On the one hand, they did notice that in a given language certain sequences of sounds were associated with definite meanings, and they earnestly aimed at discovering a reason for the linkage between those sounds and that meaning. Their attempt, however, was thwarted from the very beginning by the fact that the same sounds were equally present in other languages although the meaning they conveyed was entirely different. The contradiction was surmounted only by the discovery that it is the combination as sounds, not the sounds themselves, which provides the significant data” (Taken from The Structural Study of Myth, Richter 861). What Levi-Strauss is getting at here is that the arbitrary space of language (between what is signified and the signifier) allows for contradictions in words to actually help create new nuances in language and actually new meanings in the words themselves. This increased space that new meanings impart on words and language therefore create even new tensions, contradictions, and even more space for new options in words and language. Open up any dictionary and one will find many meanings for most words. If you have the opportunity to check out the OED, please do so. The Oxford English Dictionary will trace historical accounting of word use in the written form. Levi-Strauss, however, is not merely intent on reiterating the idea of space exploration in language. He is interested in how the study or interpretation of myth operates in the exact same way, as a vehicle for movement. Why? Because of the space of myth as filled with tension, containing arbitrary signs and symbols (that the space of myth allows for growth and change) precisely as language itself, in part, because of the tensions that inhere in language. Just as the tensions and contradictions create new meaning in language, the very same thing occurs in cultural myths and stories. This aspect of myth, Levis- Strauss maintains, is even more susceptible to change and evolution than language. It is because “myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech. In order to preserve its specificity, we must be able to show that it is both the same thing as language, and also something different from it (Richter 861). Levi-Strauss stresses that language creates the sustenance of myth because of its reliance on oral language but further, when patterns of behavior or intent were not located in an existing myth, changes were made to sustain the myths; all easily achieved because of the space that inheres in language itself. Where Levi-Strauss is going with his sliding signification of myth theory is towards the idea of myth and its variants, its new understandings, a new relevance that connects to contemporary civilizations as well as more ancient ones. Levi-Strauss brings forth the infamous “Oedipus myth, which is well-known to everyone” with respect to the taboo that it embellishes upon (one cannot marry close relatives like mother/son, daughter/father). In this instance and others, he makes use of connecting, sliding signifying words like connotation (more figurative or symbolic interpretation of a word) show the space that myth uses to evolve with respect to its meaning. How myths evolve or grow in their interpretation, according to Strauss, is through their repetition; “the function of repetition is to render the structure of the myth apparent” (Richter 867). Not only does the myth reinforce the values of the old culture to the more modern one, the new system of values of the current one also becomes included in the interpretation of the ancient myth. As Levi-Strauss puts it, “Thus, a myth exhibits a ‘slated’ structure, which comes to the surface, so to speak, through the process of repetition” (867). Every single version of a myth that is retold and reinterpreted becomes the very space that allows for the myth to grow in its interpretive structure, its sliding signification. This might be why Freud saw fit to use Sophocles Oedipus Rex, for example, as a vehicle for his theories on repression and trauma, and for the important reiteration in modern day culture, NO, it is still not okay to marry close relatives but may one’s cousins? Myth is popular in all societies because it seeks to answer questions that aren’t really solvable but does in fact attempt to order the reality that exists. A theorist who began his exceptional career as a structuralist, evolved into a deconstructionist of wide renown, and ended as a post-structuralist, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) (in his theories) explores the dynamic nature of “objects in disguise” in his short piece “Striptease” (See Module Six-869). Barthes loved looking at the real of objects, in this case, the dance called the striptease, decomposes it, then recomposes it through re-contextualizing the context of the object (the dance) itself. In the process, one finds an altogether new interpretation of the object, something is constructed as new. As Barthes puts it, “Striptease here is made to rejoin the world of the public is made familiar and bourgeois, as if the French, unlike the American public, following an irresistible tendency of their social status, could not conceive eroticism except as a household property, sanctioned by the alibi of a weekly sport much more than by that of a magical spectacle: and this is how, in France, striptease is nationalized” (Module Six-870). Through its reliance on ritual gestures, the striptease hides nudity while promising nudity, a dance that has been seen “a thousand times” (Module Six-870). The skilled practice of the dancers shows something more than lust, than sensuality, though remember the idea of sliding signification here, the dance shows so much and embodies so many meanings precisely because so many people frequent the halls to see the spectacle of the play of dance. Perhaps you do not buy Barthes’ interpretation of the striptease as multi-faceted spectacle that embodies the French collective rather playfully, but you might buy the idea of the spectacle of football on televisions all across America on Sunday nights. Barthes’ ideas truly transformed the critical landscape so I simply must continue with this lecture. For Barthes, words always convey double meanings because they were once stated and then written. The arbitrary nature of language is extended to mean not just the oral word or the written word but the play of the two. Barthes calls “text” a “multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (1270). Text is always a multidimensional space because the writer always predicates his ideas and words on those of others before him. Truth in the written form, but especially in all forms, is relative because it is drawn from “innumerable centers of culture” (1270). Barthes believed that many texts are given a “secret” meaning not because they actually contain them but because of humankind’s need to ascribe “truth” even where truth, a secret or not so secret meaning cannot be truly found. What regulates text, Barthes points out, “is not comprehensive (define ‘what the work means’) but metonymic; the activity of associations, contiguities, carryings over coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy (lacking it, man would die); the work—in the best of cases—is moderately symbolic (its symbolic runs out, comes to a halt; the Text is radically symbolic; a work conceived, perceived and received in its integrally symbolic nature is a text” (1270). Barthes would be quite happy to know that I allow my students to write whatever they like about a painting, a poem, a story, or even a lark, for that matter, as long as the evidence, the words they garner to describe what they are pointing out, contain a semblance of meaning for me and for what is being interpreted. Barthes ideas have changed the ways that many teachers teach because they know that students have the wherewithal to interpret or read an array of signs or texts, whether or not actual language is involved, in their own way and fashion. Barthes has brought forward the ideas of de Saussure and Levi-Strauss into a greater sense of freedom for all people in that the idea of text can refer to anything, any object, word, play, play, photo, or imitation can be interpreted according to words, phrases, centers (dominant center) and peripheries (on the edge) of culture. Often, I tell my composition students they too are texts that can be interpreted according to space and definition, do you see why?
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) holds huge celebrity for the usefulness of his theories that show how we are culturally imprisoned by the institutions that surround our lives and for his ideas on how we construct our image of self through what and how we write. As a theorist Foucault is considered both a structuralist and a deconstructionist in that he because famous for deciphering the structures endemic to language and culture that make up who we are and where we are situated in place and time, but also for the sense of agency that can still be possible through strategy (goals) and the practice of usurping conventions (strategies). My formal experience with Foucault is as follows: I read/studied his renowned The Archaelology of Knowledge (1969) and his Three Volumes of The History of Sexuality (1976, 1986), and Power/Knowledge (1980). When I teach Composition 110 at FSU, I teach my students about Foucault’s notion of discourse as shaping identity and culture. I assign a writing project that allows students to write about one of their key discourse communities, one that shapes who they are and one that allows them to express their unique sense of individuality within the society in which they live. When I teach most literature courses, I employ the Foucault’s theory of knowledge as discourse so as to help students see that literature and all art, really, are shaped by a prevailing attitude of an author, one that the singles out a prevailing cultural idea that is really an exploration of how knowledge works as a source of power and not merely as an expression of personal feeling. Going with Leitch’s selection in our textbook, I thought Foucault’s “What is an Author,” (1394) and some of his ideas that can be linked to Roland Barthe’s “The Death of an Author.” It is apparent that both critics are undercutting the idea of writing as personal expression that many people continue to uphold. What the two have in common is the idea of writing as absence rather than as fullness. Remember Barthe likened all writing to the cultural ideas that pervade in an author’s psyche even though authors think they are thinking or writing with originality (ideas are always promoted through language, hence there is really little originality). For Barthe and Foucault, writing or language persist as an ongoing collection of the past and present (remember sliding signification and Saussure). Writing is not a fullness of personal expression: For example, I express my feelings no matter what is happening. Rather, feelings too, are constructed because of the experience(s) that have occurred in culture. We are taught to feel in the same way we are taught to think, through shared experiences. Barthe emphasizes that there is really no personal “I,” rather it is an absent “I” because the “I” is totally shaped by one’s environment. Foucualt brings out an extension of Barthe in his notion of writing as absence. The “I” actually writes to express the counter idea that writing moves toward what is no longer presence, what Foucault terms writer reduction or “the writing subject constantly disappears”: Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality . As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing” (1395,6). The writer simply disappears not merely because his thoughts and feelings are shaped by society but primarily because he goes beyond the rules that bind any one person. The author goes beyond the cycles of life experience to show what is possible, what is impossible, what is probable and what is improbable. It is an account of writing as expression that is neither realistic or surrealistic for the construction of imagination requires that we construct an image of self that is too based on what is possible, impossible, probable, and improbable. When the author is removed, then, the writing itself becomes a sign or symbol for something else. Most of you have read Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so I’m hoping you can follow my train of thinking here. What do we think about the speaker at all, the individual who wrote this short story? Not in the least. We think about how a person can be suffocated by the real circumstances they find themselves situated well within because they have problems thinking or acting their way out of them. The Yellow Wallpaper becomes a sign of imprisonment, not a vehicle for the author to express their individuality through the speaker of the story. Kate Chopin’s “The Story of An Hour,” might be read or interpreted in much the same way. The woman who thought her husband had died experienced real freedom because it was only by his death at which time she truly feel free. When he walked through that door, she collapsed and died. Chopin’s story becomes a sign of the possibility of individual freedom.
Foucault also goes into his idea of discourse as knowledge. Most of you have been introduced already to the notion of discourse as how knowledge is promoted in culture through the ideas that exist and the language that is used to promote a particular way of looking or seeing how things operate. Foucault uses his ideas of discourse to also promote the idea that an author is not an individual, rather a purveyor of a particular knowledge that exists in culture. So far in this class, you have been exposed to several types of theoretical fonts that exist as knowledge: classical, enlightenment, Black thought, Modern, Marxism, Structuralism, and beginning today, deconstruction. Freud, too, as the creator of psychoanalysis, is considered the primary force behind the knowledge or discipline we call psychoanalytic criticism. The ideas of these varying structures are applies to art, to life, to culture, to societies so as to interpret or “read” them. I am fond of studying subjectivity (how we know what we know) in literature and film so I often employ psychoanalytic aspects to my interpretive lens. When we apply an approach (a knowledge in Foucault’s understanding), we ask particular kinds of questions. In an Marxist approach, we ask questions like “how is one employed?” or “how is one privileged, or not, by how one lives?” Questions will always shape the understanding of the interpretation rather than the material itself, even though the relationship between the material and the questions is symbiotic and inter-dependent. We know what types of questions to ask because of the approach, but we also know how to make the questions relative by using the substantive matter of the art or literature in the questions. Asking questions about Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, shows that the interpretation is always about discourse not the story itself. The question, “what kind of woman is Edna Pontellier?” shows a structuralist approach, and “Why does Edna Pontellier move out of her husband’s home into her own bird house?” shows a feminist approach. Both approaches indicate that the approach of deconstruction (pulling apart) is going on, but elements that are brought to the forefront of the discussion will be different because of the variances of the particular aspects under question.
For this week’s discussion board, I’d first like you to tell me simply what you think about these French fellows. You may comment on anything you like, but I’d like you to speak to something you found interesting or relative to your thinking or interpretive stance.
Secondly, how do you interpret your life? Do you see yourself in a sea of competing cultures with opportunity abounding or do you believe you are limited in what is possible because of what you experience? What are your strategies and tactics to get what you want in life? Do you make the most of your possibilities because of your circumstances or in spite of them? I would also like you to write about one discourse community you belong to and write about how is continues to shape who you are? A discourse community can be where you work, go to school, where you live, where you go with others to share a common purpose or hobby.