Structuralism and Semiotics
What is Structuralism?
Structuralism is the name that is given to a wide range of discourses that study underlying structures of signification. Signification occurs wherever there is a meaningful event or in the practise of some meaningful action. Hence the phrase, "signifying practices." A meaningful event might include any of following: writing or reading a text; getting married; having a discussion over a cup of coffee; a battle. Most (if not all) meaningful events involve either a document or an exchange that can be documented. This would be called a "text." Texts might include any of the following: a news broadcast; an advertisement; an edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear; the manual for my new washing machine; the wedding vows; a feature film. From the point of view of structuralism all texts, all meaningful events and all signifying practices can be analysed for their underlying structures. Such an analysis would reveal the patterns that characterise the system that makes such texts and practices possible. We cannot see a structure or a system per se. In fact it would be very awkward for us if we were aware at all times of the structures that make our signifying practices possible. Rather they remain unconscious but necessary aspects of our whole way of being what we are. Structuralism therefore promises to offer insights into what makes us the way we are. Where does structuralism come from?
Structuralism first comes to prominence as a specific discourse with the work of a Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who developed a branch of linguistics called "Structural Linguistics." Saussure died before he was able to publish his material but we have the meticulously recorded notes of several of his students made during the 2nd course of 1908-1909. The theory was still at a developmental stage then--and has remained in a developmental stage ever after. There is nothing authoritative about Saussure’s theory and even now it is open to debate and controversy. Yet there has been an extraordinarily diverse and fecund range of work, including a number of schools of thought in Eastern Europe, the United States, and thriving today in Japan, based upon readings of his initial insights as documented by his students. The reconstruction of his lecture courses can be found in The Course in General Linguistics. This is an essential read for anyone who seriously wants to understand the basis of structuralism and semiotics. For those who don’t have the time, my summary of basic points follows. Bear in mind that I am reading with hindsight and have probably added some insights that are in debt to Saussure’s critical heritage. The Course in General Linguistics
Saussure’s demand for a general linguistics is what leads to his most startling insights. Previously there had been many explanations of language but there had always been something missing and, thus, the absence of a ground to explain all of language. An empiricist like John Locke, for instance, would have explained language by claiming that words were used to refer to things or to mental images of things. All the discrete objects in the world (trees, dogs, cats and men and women) each has a word in the vocabulary that pertains to them. Some words are general (dog) and some particular (Fido). The problem with this theory is that there are some words that refer to nothing empirical in the world (virtue and crime) and some words that refer to nothing that really exists in the world (unicorns and Hamlet). Where then do words for fictional objects and transcendental concepts come from? Saussure’s explanation of language, as we’ll see, is quite adequate for discussing real things in the world as well as fictional objects and abstract concepts--indeed Saussure would explain everything that language can do. The Sign
The sign is, for Saussure, the basic element of language. Meaning has always been explained in terms of the relationship...
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