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Structuralism and Semiotics

Structuralism

Structuralism is a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the perceptions and description of structures. At its simplest, structuralism claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and in fact is determined by all the other elements involved in that situation. The full significance of any entity cannot be perceived unless and until it is integrated into the structure of which it forms a part (Hawkes, p. 11). Structuralists believe that all human activity is constructed, not natural or "essential." Consequently, it is the systems of organization that are important (what we do is always a matter of selection within a given construct). By this formulation, "any activity, from the actions of a narrative to not eating one's peas with a knife, takes place within a system of differences and has meaning only in its relation to other possible activities within that system, not to some meaning that emanates from nature or the divine" (Childers & Hentzi, p. 286.). Major figures include Claude Lévi-Strauss (LAY-vee-strows), A. J. Greimas (GREE-mahs), Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes (bart), Ferdinand de Saussure (soh-SURR or soh-ZHOR), Roman Jakobson (YAH-keb-sen), Vladimir Propp, and Terence Hawkes.

Semiology

Semiotics, simply put, is the science of signs. Semiology proposes that a great diversity of our human action and productions--our bodily postures and gestures, the the social rituals we perform, the clothes we wear, the meals we serve, the buildings we inhabit--all convey "shared" meanings to members of a particular culture, and so can be analyzed as signs which function in diverse kinds of signifying systems. Linguistics (the study of verbal signs and structures) is only one branch of semiotics but supplies the basic methods and terms which are used in the study of all other social sign systems (Abrams, p. 170). Major figures include Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault (fou-KOH), Umberto Eco, Gérard Genette, and Roland Barthes (bart).

Key Terms (much of this is adapted from Charles Bressler's Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice - see General Resourcesbelow):

Binary Opposition - "pairs of mutually-exclusive signifiers in a paradigm set representing categories which are logically opposed and which together define a complete universe of discourse (relevant ontological domain), e.g. alive/not-alive. In such oppositions each term necessarily implies its opposite and there is no middle term" (Daniel Chandler).

Mythemes - a term developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss--mythemes are the smallest component parts of a myth. By breaking up myths into mythemes, those structures (mythemes) may be studied chronologically (~ diacrhonically) or synchronically/relationally.

Sign vs. Symbol - According to Saussure, "words are not symbols which correspond to referents, but rather are 'signs' which are made up of two parts (like two sides of a sheet of paper): a mark,either written or spoken, called a 'signifier,' and a concept (what is 'thought' when the mark is made), called a 'signified'" (Selden and Widdowson 104 - see General Resources below). The distinction is important because Saussure contended that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the only way we can distinguish meaning is by difference (one sign or word differs from another).

Structuralism Structuralism is a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the( Daniel Chandler ) . Mythemes - a term developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss--mythemes are the smallest component parts of a myth. By breaking up myths into mythemes, those structures (mythemes) may be studied chronologically (~ diacrhonically) or synchronically/relationally. Sign vs. Symbol - According to Saussure, "words are not symbols which correspond to referents, but rather are 'signs' which are made up of two parts (like two sides of a sheet of paper): a mark,either written or spoken, called a 'signifier,' and a concept (what is 'thought' when the mark is made), called a 'signified'" (Selden and Widdowson 104 - see General Resources below). The distinction is important because Saussure contended that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the only way we can distinguish meaning is by difference (one sign or word differs from another). The relational nature of language implied by Saussure's system rejects the concept that a word/symbol corresponds to an outside object/referent. Instead, meaning--the interpretation of a sign--can exist only in relationship with other signs. Selden and Widdowson use the sign system of traffic lights as an example. The color red , in that system, signifies "stop," even though "there is no natural bond " id="pdf-obj-0-35" src="pdf-obj-0-35.jpg">

The relational nature of language implied by Saussure's system rejects the concept that a word/symbol corresponds to an outside object/referent. Instead, meaning--the interpretation of a sign--can exist only in relationship with other signs. Selden and Widdowson use the sign system of traffic lights as an example. The color red, in that system, signifies "stop," even though "there is no natural bond

between red and stop" (105). Meaning is derived entirely through difference, "a system of opposites and contrasts," e.g., referring back to the traffic lights' example, red's meaning depends on the fact that it is not green and not amber (105).

Structuralist narratology - "a form of structuralism espoused by Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, and Gerard Genette that illustrates how a story's meaning develops from its overall structure (its langue) rather than from each individual story's isolated theme. To ascertain a text's meaning, narratologists emphasize grammatical elements such as verb tenses and the relationships and configurations of figures of speech within the story" (Bressler 275 - see General Resources below).

Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days is applauded the world over for its linguistic ingenuity. There is no doubt that

Sara has used language to achieve a diversity of stylistic, even poetic effects. But what is regarded to be

‘style’ in literature is so infused with a subjective and emotional element in language that, any analysis of

that language is regarded to be injurious to it. Besides, it is believed to be elusive element in that analysis

will ‘defuse’ what is essentially a work of ‘synthesis’ and ‘fusion.’

Linguists, however, disagree and believe that whatever literary ‘effect’ and ‘vision’ is reconstructed in a

poem or piece of fiction, it is constructed through language and should be subject to linguistic analysis like

any non-literary language.

Applications of Structuralism on literary texts involves following 4 major aspects:

Literary Structuralism

Sara Suleri’s “excellent things in women” can be analysed according to various structuralists’ theories:

Northrop Frye’s Theory of Mythos:

The text of Excellent Things in women comes under the category of theory of Meythos of Summer,

because Northrop said that all those texts which mock at the farility of human beings and show the

inability of human beings to cope with the environment which is all the time against the characters, those

kind of writings fall under the heading of mythos of summer. In the story there are various characters

presented who are mocked by the writer due to their certain peculiar habits. For example the character of

Dadi is significant here. She is mocked by the writer due to her habit of being grumpy, over assertative

and her traditional behavior towards religion as she keeps her religious rituals’ things away from other

persons at home. The incident of goat’s slaughter is also mocked with tinge of human follies that how

Dadi being a stubborn and overly aggressive character is bent upon performing her ritualistic duties. The

text of Excellent Things in Women also shows that human beings are also prone to the situations around

them. They try to control those situations or mould those situations but at the end they fail. They turn out

to be escapists. The excellent examples here is that of the mother of the writer. The mother of the writer

was in the beginning belonging to European ideology but due to the prevailing conditions there she finally

turned out to be a purely eastern character. She became silent and remorse. In fact she lost her identity

and she tried to keep herself indulged in gardening or in her professional career. Here again story falls in

the category of Mythos of summer, because the conditions of different characters are being mocked in

satirical manner.

Even the very title of the story is also ironical. In the beginning (in the very first paragraph of the story)

writer tells that living in New Haven she ahs missed the company of women which she had while living in

Pakistan. But in the very last paragraph of the story that after the death of Dadi and mother finally there

were no women at all. All the women were gone. Rather in the east no women exist. Because east is a

place where true identity of females is completely diminished and they are caged into their home having

no separate individuality at all. Hence these examples from the text show that the text falls in mythos of

summer as per Frye’s theory of mythos.

Scholes Theory of Structuralism:

Scholes presented his theory that the underlying structure of a text falls in one of the five catagories.

Most of the characters in Excellent Things in Women are presented as inferior in degree to men and their

environment. Like Dadi is presented in the like manner, and then there is also the mother of the writer,

these characters do not have any command over the environment. They are even inferior to men

presented in the story. Dadi and mother of the writer are inferior to father at home who is the commander-

in-chief. Except for the writer herself who falls in the third category as devised by Scholes. She is equal to

men in degree and her environment. She tries to get rid of the environment of the east which she does

very successfully after settling in the west, her New Haven. In New Haven she feels herself very happy

and liberated from the eastern chains. But still there are marks of eastern consciousness on her. She is

not completely liberated from the eastern social consciousness. She describes this when she suggests

that while trying to select the syllabus of eastern writers, she cannot put eastern women at their proper

places.

Greimas Theory of Structuiralism

Sender-Receiver or Helper-Opponent relationship. This story of Excellent Things in women falls under the

category of Subject-Object relationship. Because Greimas says that such stories in which there is

quest/desire for a person, state of being, or things those stories have subject-object relationship. In this

stories almost all the characters are driven by their particular desires. They have their special quests. For

example writer wants to get liberated from eastern society and settle down in western New Haven where

she as a female can formulate and look for her identity. Dadi is driven by the desire of being accepted by

her son. When her son sits in the afternoon with his family for a refreshing tea. She comes up to the

window of the room and after that she stays and listens and quietly goes away. This shows her desire to

win her son again. The mother becomes quiet but in her silence are hidden many desires of freedom ,

attention and happiness. Hence there is subject-object relationship presented in this story.

Gennet’s theory of Narrative Structure:

This is a narrative which seems to have chaotic tense i.e. the order of events ranges from present to past

and past to present. However in this narrative the duration is spent more on the delineation of personality

traits of various characters especially Dadi, mother, and writer herself. However we frequently come back

to Dadi. Though there is continuous involvement of the writer in the story. According to Gennet’s theory,

with the involvement of the writer there is more distance between the reader and the narrative. This is

also the case with Excellent Things in Women. However, the perspective through which we come to know

about different characters and the story we are told is that of the writer, who seems to be dissatisfied with

whatever is going on at home. There is stron voice of the writer which resounds powerfully all over the

story. Yet writer tries her best to justify the mood of the story by being as honest as possible in description

of various characters. However, she cannot completely detach herself from the mood.

Structural Linguistics

Structural linguistics was developed by Ferdinand de Saussure between 1913 and 1915s. Before

Saussure language was studied in terms of history of changes in individual words over time or

diachronically, and it was assumed that words somehow immitatedthe objects of which they

stood.Saussure realized that we need to understand language, not as a collection of individual words with

individual histories but as a structural system of relationships among words as they are uswed at a given

point in time,

According to structuralism, the human mind perceives difference most readily in term of opposites each of

which bewe understand by means of its opposition to the other. There are many binary oppositions

presented im the story which depict it particular structure. For example there is binary opposition between

east and the west. East is signified by the character of mother of writer and west if signified by the

concept of New Haven. It throught these binary oppositions that we come to understand the true and

underlying meanings of the text. There is also binary opposition between life and death, old and new age,

and males and females. Sassure also argued that words do not sim[ple refere to object in the world for

which they stand instead a word is a linguistic sign consisting two inseparable parts signifie and signified.

as mentioned earlier killing of goat is a signifier that signifies the eastern muslim ritual.