Cambridge Classics


Grand theory: A Mini-guide to Structuralism and Hermeneutics

Structuralism could be defined as the project of giving literary criticism the theoretical rigour of a science of language: the attempt 'to rethink everything through once again in terms of linguistics' (Frederick Jameson, The Prison-House of Language, 4). Its historical origins are in Russian Formalist criticism (Viktor Shklovsky, Jan Mukarovsky, N.S. Troubetzkoy) and the linguistics of Saussure. In contrast with the psychological approach of the Anglo-American 'new critics' T.S. Eliot ('Notes Towards the Definition of Culture', 1948), I.A. Richards (Science and Poetry, 1926), W.K. Wimsatt (The Verbal Icon, 1958), Cleanth Brooks (The Well-Wrought Urn, 1949), who concentrated on the reader's response to a text, structuralist critics analysed the text as an object whose meaning can be interpreted in terms of its symbolic patterns.

Some landmark publications

(titles are given in English, but dates are of first publication, in the original language)

 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics,1916
This text (assembled from his students' lecture notes) represents the first comprehensively systematic study of language, analysing words as linguistic signs, which Saussure insisted were arbitrary, and could be understood only within a system. Rather than exploring the nature of mental concepts, the method defined ideas in terms of the language they are expressed in. Much of the power of the approach is derived from the method of analysing by division: the Saussurean dichotomies or binary oppositions. The most relevant to literary criticism are
1. language as abstract system (langue), or actual speech (parole)
2. the word or linguistic sign as sound or written shape (the signifier), or the concept which it denotes, (the signified)
3. a division of the mental process of constructing sentences, into selection (of a word) and combination (of words into sentences), and visualising these as two geometrical axes of language.

 The dichotomy most important to literary study is the second: the word as binary sign, signifier and signified. While Saussure himself was not a relativist, his method of enquiry led him to the relativistic declaration that 'in the language itself there are only differences, and no positive terms' (Course, p166). Later Structuralist and Poststructuralist theory may be seen as an elaboration of this attitude.

 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929), Rabelais and His World (1940) emphasised the use of language (parole) in literature, which he saw as fundamentally dialogic. He described 'polyphonic' works which realise the freedom of individual dramatic voices as 'carnival literature'. Bakhtin's approach was more dynamic than structural: 'Dialogic relations ... do not reside in the system of language.'

 Roman Jakobson, 'Linguistics and Poetics' (1958) extended the Structuralist analysis of language from form to function. He analysed language as a message in which any of six different functions may be foregrounded (a term derived from Mukarovsky's aktuelisace). He also identified Saussure's two axes of language (the third dichotomy noted above: the word-world relation and the relation between signifiers) with the tropes of metaphor and metonymy. This seemed to open poetic language to systematic linguistic analysis. Jakobson was second only to Saussure in his importance as a linguist, and was the power-house behind the application of linguistic theory to other disciplines.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (1958): analysed culture as a language, and kinship terms as models for other categories of binary opposition (most famously, the raw and the cooked). The oppositions always express a positive/negative or 'us/them' value system. The influence of structuralism in anthropology has been enduring, and particularly strong in Classical criticism.

 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957): the application of the anthropological method to cultural criticism (of the observer's society), and the further extension of signs beyond the linguistic, to semiotics, a general science of signs which had been proposed by Saussure (and independently by Charles Peirce).

 Narratology: the view that 'a text is like a clause' (M.A.K. Halliday), and narrative structure mirrors sentence structure. This approach derives from the work of Victor Propp (The Morphology of the Folktale, 1928, which analysed fictional characters in terms of plot function). Later proponents included: Gérard Genette (Narrative Discourse, 1972: the application of linguistic terms to the study of narrative and discourse), A.J. Greimas (Structural Semantics, 1966: actantial grammar, where characters have semantic roles, rather like nouns), and Tzvetan Todorov (The Poetics of Prose, 1971: figuration, the principle that patterns are observable in a text which appear to exist independently of the author). Propp's analysis identified seven spheres of action, corresponding to seven archetypal characters. This has given rise to speculation that there might be only a limited number of archetypal narratives.

 Jacques Lacan, 'The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious', (1957) proposed that 'the unconscious is structured like a language'. A psychological interpretation of Structuralist binary oppositions: Lacan's primary opposition is between the Subject and the Other (everything else, including the unconscious, language, and parents). This is a developmental stage, before which an infant is an non-differentiated 'hommelette', seeing the world simply as a mirror.

Structuralism in Classical literature

Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece (1973): a very influential cultural study combining anthropological, economic, and intellectual analysis.

Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization (1981): a Structuralist interpretation of Sophocles, centred on the contrast between civilization and barbarism. A structural analysis seems particularly appropriate to Sophoclean themes.

Hermeneutics and Poststructuralism

The interpretation of texts may generally be termed hermeneutic. The term also designates a critical approach which concentrates on the process of reading rather than the text as object. It involves the recovery of linguistic meaning, so is a semantic methodology, perhaps more sensitive than the blunt knife of Structuralist dichotomy. Like more traditional criticism, it operates at the interface between reader and text, rather than simply studying texts. It takes a philosophical rather than a purely literary view of the experience of reading.

Its origins are in the biblical hermeneutics of 17th century German theology, and in later methodologies in which the reader attempts to re-experience the state of mind of the author. This is associated in literary criticism with Friedrich Schleiermacher (early 19th century), and in historical studies with Wilhelm Dilthey. A more systematic theoretical base was provided by the phenomenological approach to experience which ignores or 'brackets' the Cartesian problem of ontology ('how do I know that anything outside me exists?'), so we can concentrate on the sure knowledge of our experience of external things - that is, phenomena. Bracketting and intentionality were concepts developed by Edmund Husserl (Cartesian Meditations, 1931) in a purely logical framework of meaning. Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, 1926) developed the notion of interpretation as a real-world process, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945) extended the methodology to artistic theory.

 The definition of conscious thought as 'intentional': that is, directed towards some phenomenon, is important in linguistics, as it enables us to give linguistic meaning a 'common-sense' criterion: what people 'mean' (i.e. intend: Paul Grice, 'Meaning', 1957). Literary theorists working within a phenomenological framework include Roman Ingarden (The Literary Work of Art, 1973), Wolfgang Iser (The Act of Reading, 1978), Hans-Georg Gadamer (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 1977), and Paul Ricoeur (The Rule of Metaphor, 1975).

 Reception theory is a hermeneutic approach which holds that meaning is created by the reader, so is specific to each reading or textual 'performance'. Barthes is influential here too, with The Pleasure of the Text (1975). Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class?, 1980) and Umberto Eco (The Role of the Reader, 1979) are other entertaining theorists. The notion that meaning is a collaborative enterprise, determined by the reader as much as the writer, is an attempt to marry the formalism of the structuralist and semiotic approaches with more traditional criticism.

 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, 1967, developed a hybrid of Structuralism from a phenomenological perspective: poststructuralism. He 'deconstructed' the Saussurean binary sign, by pointing out that every concept (signified) must itself be defined in words, so all definition is inter-dependent, the signifier 'floats free', and the world becomes text. Reading becomes a metaphor for philosophical relativism, because words can refer only to other words. This 'intertextuality' is hard to refute, yet possibly rather sterile in its relentless assertion of equal meaning(lessness). It still provokes more bad temper than any other critical approach. Poststructuralist literary critics include Barthes, (Sarrasine, S/Z 1970) and Geoffrey Hartman (Deconstruction and Criticism, 1979).

 Building on the work of Lacan (cited above), links were also made between poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory, notably by the Yale critic Paul de Man (Blindness and Insight, 1971). Harold Bloom (The Anxiety of Influence, 1975) used psychoanalytic theory to argue for a return to a more traditional criticism, reading literary tradition as a dialectic of poetic individualism, rather than a purely formal network of intertextually-created meaning.

 Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (1986), applied some poststructuralist ideas to tragedy, interpreting texts as destabilizing and 'problematizing' social norms and concepts, and even the meaning of language (it should be noted that Goldhill's approach combined poststructuralist and historical analysis).

Poststructuralist approaches have proved quite appropriate to the experimental playfulness evident in many Greek texts, but emphasise intellect at the expense of emotion, so may be less successful in addressing the tragic in tragedy, and they have contributed little to the study of textual transmission. One might perhaps identify the effect of poststructuralist theory on literary criticism as a stimulant, in the same way that Socrates (Plato, Apology 30e1ff) compared himself to a gadfly (muops) sent to rouse the city from sluggishness.

Recent developments

Structuralism and hermeneutics have been so influential that a minimal appreciation is essential to an understanding of modern literary criticism. It may, however, be noted that most of the texts cited above were written in the 1970's. Grand theory is at the moment in decline, and the New Historicists' approach of studying texts in their social context is in the ascendant. In Classical studies, this is evident in a renewed interest in early religion, especially the Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults.

 In the 1980's, work in the structuralist tradition adopted a more technically linguistic approach, as in the studies of narratology by Gerald Prince (Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative, 1982). Functional linguists now tend to concentrate on pragmatic aspects of literary meaning, developing the approaches of John Austin (speech acts, in How to Do Things with Words, 1962), John Searle (illocutionary acts, in Speech Acts, 1969, and later publications), Paul Grice (implicatures, in Logic and Conversation, 1967), and Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (relevance theory, in Relevance: Communication and Cognition, 1986).

Summary, and the future

Positive features of grand theory criticism include the positioning of literature as central to intellectual activity, and the creation of interesting links with other academic disciplines (particularly linguistics and philosophy). Weaknesses may be a disinclination to look at primary texts except through particular theoretical filters, a dislocation of texts from their cultural and linguistic contexts, and a baroque intellectualism which risks ignoring value and emotion. Structuralist criticism is perhaps particularly suited to some literary works and genres: its suitability to Sophoclean themes has been noted above, while the work of Todorov reflects the style of Henry James (his term 'figuration' derives from the title of James's story The Figure in the Carpet), and the criticism of Barthes and Eco concentrated on popular forms of literature.

 The poststructuralist model of meaning generation through a 'boot-strapping' process of mutual stimulation may be seen as analogous to the workings of the Internet. It may be that critical theories will increasingly involve a cognitive approach to meaning, evident in the pragmatic models cited above. Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, 1991, 231) notes that theoretical linguistics has concentrated exclusively on the interpretation rather than the production of meaning, yet until the latter is understood, interpretation can be only partial. Dennett's own 'pandemonic' theory is one attempt to suggest how linguistic meaning might be generated.