Structuralist and Poststructuralist Criticism - Poetry Analysis

Structural linguistics: Saussure

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Structuralism is a method of investigation that gained popularity in the 1960’s in Paris and in the 1970’s in the United States through the writings of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, social historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, critic Roland Barthes, and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, among others. The diversity of the list is accounted for by the fact that structuralism grew out of structural linguistics, whose methods were considered applicable to several disciplines. Analysis is structuralist when the meaning of the object under consideration is seen to be based on the configuration of its parts, that is, on the way the elements are structured, contextually linked.

The linguistic theory grounding structuralism, and, by extension, literary criticism in the structuralist vein, is that of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Saussurian linguistics considers the basic unit in the production of meaning to be the sign, an entity conceived of as a relationship between two parts; the signified or mental, conceptual component, lies behind the signifier, or phonetic, acoustical component. The signifier is a material manifestation of what is signified, of a meaning. Any given sign will be conceived of spatially, inasmuch as it always occupies a particular semantic and phonetic territory whose boundaries mark the limits of that space, thus allowing meaning to “take place”; that is, allowing the sign to function. For example, the phonetic space within which “tap” remains operable is always relative to a limit beyond which it would no longer differ from “top” or “tape.” Likewise, its semantic space would be defined in terms of differentiation from other signs verging on “tap” semantically, such as “strike,” “knock,” “hit,” and “collide.” Thus, the value of the sign is neither essential nor self-contained but rather is contingent upon its situation in a field of differential relations, in the absence of which meaning would not arise.

Comparable to Frank’s attribution of spatial form to modern literature by virtue of its atemporality, Saussurian linguistics renders language spatial in promoting synchrony over diachrony as its procedural method. The synchronic study of language, whose basic working hypothesis is that there exists an underlying system structuring every linguistic event, would reconstruct language as a functional, systematic whole at a particular moment in time, in contrast to the diachronic method of nineteenth century linguists interested in etymologies, the evolution of language over...

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