Structuralist and Poststructuralist Criticism - Poetry Analysis

Structural linguistics: Saussure

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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Deconstruction and poststructuralism

The tendency in literary criticism of the 1970’s to examine the unquestioned assumptions of structuralism came to be called deconstruction, or poststructuralism. It is largely influenced by the writings of Jacques Derrida, whose examination of the Western concept of representation (of language as referential, mimetic) is responsible in large part for the highly philosophical bent of poststructuralist criticism.

Poststructuralism does not offer an alternate comprehensive system of textual analysis as a replacement for structuralist methodology; rather, it supplements tenets of structuralism. It is not a system, but rather a particular use of language that recognizes the involvement of any discourse, itself included, in paradoxes that might be repressed but cannot be resolved. Whereas structuralism tends to view textual space in the final analysis as the configuration of a unified and stable semantic space—a system actualized by its structure in which every detail is functional—for the poststructuralist a fully coherent and adequate system is impossible. The system in which all coheres depends on exclusion: the repression of elements that will not fit. For example, in the analysis of “Infant Sorrow” on the basis of grammatical categories, Jakobson is able to ignore the pronoun “I” in his discussion of animate and inanimate nouns. Taken into account, “I” alters Jakobson’s numeric scheme, undermining the specific nature of the parallel structures claimed to function in the poem.

When textual space is made to function systematically, it is only by the synthesis or exclusion of elements otherwise disruptive of the system. Such unified totality and closure are illusory from a poststructuralist point of view, which sees textual space effecting a meaning that is always at least double, marked by unresolvable tension between what a discourse would appear to assert and the implications of the terms in which the assertions are couched. Inscription, the writing per se, is thereby not seen as a neutral form at the service of meaning, but a signifying force threatening the determination of signification. In its attention to the graphic force of a word, its “letteral” meaning, poststructuralism would not pass off writing as mere transcription of the spoken word. In some sense dealing with any discourse as if it were concrete poetry, it recognizes the participation of the medium—the letter, the word as plastic form—in its...

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Difference = Différance

Différance is a neologism whose graphic play (in French) combines the meaning of “différance” (difference), with which it is exactly equivalent phonetically, and “deferring.” It articulates meaning as a complex configuration incorporating both a passive state of differences and the activity of differing and deferring that produces those differences. Différance is consequently inconceivable in terms of binary opposition: Like motion, it is neither simply absent nor present, neither spatial (differing in space) nor temporal (deferring in time). “Espacement” (spacing), a comparable Derridean term, indicates both the passive condition of a particular configuration or disposition of elements, and the gesture effecting the configuration, of distributing the elements in a pattern.

Like the Einsteinian concept of space-time, différance and spacing (articulated along the bar of binary opposition that would separate space and time, active and passive) disrupt the comfort of thinking within a purely oppositional mode. Derrida demonstrates such lack of guarantees in his reading of “hymen” in the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé. An undecidable signifier whose meaning cannot be mastered, “hymen” is both marriage as well as the vaginal membrane. Whereas hymen as virginity is hymen without hymen/marriage, hymen as marriage is hymen without hymen/virginity. Hymen, then, articulates both difference (between the interior and exterior of a virgin, between desire and its consummation), and, at the same time, the abolition of difference...

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Image and Différance

A recapitualization of Pound’s theory of the image as a generative and dislocating force in Joseph Riddel’s “Decentering the Image” is a useful gloss on différance. Like spacing, which is both configuration and the gesture effecting that configuration, Pound’s image is both a visual representation (form) and a displacement or trope (force); it is a cluster of figures in a space of relational differences and a transformative machine articulating movement across the differential field. The image is not an idea, not the mere signifier of a signified, but rather a constellation of radical differences, a vortex whose form as radiating force resists the synthesis and collapse of differences into oneness and unity. Whereas formalist, archetypal, and structuralist criticism tends to privilege implicitly master structures, assuring a totalization of the poem’s fragments, Pound’s vortex would disrupt the assurance of an originating signified in its refusal to be resolved into the unity of presence, to be fully present at a given moment. As the signifying trace is always already split at its origin, constituted in a present moment/space by absence, so too is Pound’s vortex always already an image; that is, a field of relations, originally a text, the reinscription of a past into a present text, a vector, a force always already multiple and temporalizing.

There is, then, no continuity between origin and image as there is with symbol and the conventional sign. A poem is not recuperable in synthesizing totality and must be read somewhat in the manner of a rebus, whose play of signifiers annuls/refuses a simple reading, provoking, instead, reinterpretations and reopenings.

Poststructuralism vs. structuralism

The poststructuralist critique of the frame that structuralism would draw around poetic discourse provokes reinterpretation of structuralist discourse. Because the principle of difference provides for theoretically unlimited play of the sign within the textual space, what prevents that movement from exceeding its borders, that force from spilling out of its form? How can one unproblematically draw borders around different language functions, keeping the play of the poetic—that introverted self-referential “focus on the message for its own sake”—framed off from the mimetic referential space of common linguistic usage?

The controversy between structuralism and poststructuralism indicated by such questioning is not...

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Bloom, Harold, et al. Deconstruction and Criticism. 1979. Reprint. New York: Continuum, 2005. Five essays by leading postmodern theorists, including Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. When it first appeared in 1975, this book introduced the concept of approaching a literary work by analyzing its structure. In a preface written for this edition, Culler defends his ideas against subsequent criticism.

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary...

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