In film and literary theory and criticism, the term refers to a line of thought stemming from the structural linguistics usually identified with Ferdinand de Saussure. The generalization of linguistic models by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss inspired others to apply their versions of structuralist ideas to a wide range of subjects.
Levi-Strauss' views, naturally, also affected the social sciences from the 1960s on.
As with any cultural movement, the influences and developments are complex. Other linguists besides Saussure were important. Roman Jakobson, in particular, worked on specifically literary problems long before structuralism became a general trend. But for a description of structuralist principles, Levi-Strauss is a good enough representative of the approach; trained in both philosophy and social science, he states his views methodically. Also, the other major figures in structuralism have written a good deal of work in which other influences dominate. Both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have been called both structuralists and post-structuralists (see post-structuralism; Louis Althusser's chief concern was to enlarge Marxist theory.
(But Levi-Strauss was an anthropologist, a point to remember in searches for further information. He uses certain terms, including "structuralism," in the way his field uses them, even though they have other meanings elsewhere. He repeatedly contrasts structural anthropology with the work of "functionalists" while relying on two linguistic authorities, Roman Jakobson and Nicolas Troubetzkoy, who are functionalists as far as many linguists are concerned. Indeed, the purpose of calling them functionalists, along with other members of the Prague School, is to distinguish their work from structural linguistics of Saussure. Worse, the Prague School is occasionally referred to as "functional-structuralist", while there is a well-known position in the social sciences, deriving from Talcott Parsons, which is sometimes called "structural-functionalism." A Google search on any of these terms can be exasperating.)
Structural linguists make the influential argument that the elements of a language have no intrinsic character. They take on a character only in relation to each other.
Human beings can make a certain range of noises, for example, but the sound of "m" is not really the sound of "m" outside of a language that uses an "m." Within that language, a certain range of noises gets classified together as equivalent versions of the "m" sound, and there is no useful way to describe this classification except by referring to the language. The boundaries are imprecise--people who hear an "m" are not measuring waveforms and rejecting the ones beyond a certain cutoff point. Furthermore, there is change through time, local variation, and a good deal of overlap between the range of noises that can be classified as "m" and those that can be classified as something else. If there is an "m" sound that exists in the language, it must be thought of as something persisting through the welter of possible variations.
The phoneme has some essential character, apart from all its manifestations. Furthermore, the language defines this essential character partly by differentiating it from other phonemes. What makes an "m" is partly its distinction from "n." But what makes an "n" is partly its distinction from "m."
Continuing this line of analysis, it must be the case that the “m” sound in one language is not the same as the “m” sound in another, even if the same range of vocal noise is classified as “m” in each. The classification is being made by contrasts within two different systems.
Saussure believed that the meanings expressed in a language were determined by an analogous system of differences.
This way of thinking has several obvious characteristics.
It defines the boundaries of a language by reference to its internal structure.
It portrays the workings of a language solely in terms of the internal structure, rather than seeking a set of causes, functions, or patterns that could underlie several different structures. If generalized from phonetics to meaning, the approach obviously raises the possibility that what's expressed in one language cannot be expressed in any other.
Most pervasively, it depends on a notion of purely abstract structure underlying all the particular manifestations of a language. Language is not the sound, it is the classification of sounds; it is not the question, it is the comparison with other sentence types that define what a question is; it is not the idea, it is the set of underlying distinctions that make the idea possible.
This idealism, if that’s the term, has a somewhat surprising result. Sign and meaning tend to merge. A word means just what it means in the language that uses it, and only that word expresses it.
So, implicitly, languages are not translatable into each other. This is a possibility taken up by deconstructionism.
Levi-Strauss extends this form of linguistic analysis to all human culture. But he assumes that there is a knowable structure underlying all actions. All the operations of human consciousness and action are built on simple contrasts—the raw and the cooked, the wet and the dry, and so forth. In his view, these contrasts are changeless and universal.
In this respect, he is extending another aspect of linguistic research, the search for a universal grammar. Cultures cannot be explained without some reference to universals, located in a fundamental structure of the human mind, which must necessarily be expressed in every human act.
One implication of this view is that the same structures will operate in both the actions being studied and the scholar's interpretation of them. Freud may completely misread a folktale's meaning, in the sense of giving a bad description of the psychological tensions that its tellers had in them to express. But his response to the tale nevertheless arises from the same basis as theirs. It is at least relevant to a good description of what the tale means. Levi-Strauss explored this sort of ambiguity in his later MYTHOLOGIES.
Now, a brief illustration of structuralist analysis. In 1977, Levi-Strauss recorded an informal series of talks for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, presenting his views in layman's terms. The talks were published in 1979 as MYTH AND MEANING. At one point, Levi-Strauss commented on the puzzling recurrence of a musical theme in Wagner's Ring Cycle. The analysis is a good example because it is quick and entirely verbal (where thorough structural presentation often requires charts and tables and ad hoc borrowings of algebraic notation).
In the Rheingold, the character Alberich renounces all human love in order to receive a treasure of gold, and the theme is played. Later his wealth allows him to seduce a woman who later bears his son.
The theme is played again in the Valkyrie at a puzzling moment. Siegmund embarks on an incestuous relationship with his sister, after extracting a sword that is embedded in a tree. The scene is unlike the first one--instead of renouncing love, a man is embarking on it. His sister will later give birth to Siegfried.
The music plays again later in the Valkyrie as the king of the gods consigns his daughter Brunhilde to an enchanted sleep in a ring of fire.
What Levi-Strauss notices is that in each scene there is a protected or obstructed treasure-- the gold at the bottom of the Rhine, the sword held in a tree, the woman held in a ring of fire. The repetition of the music responds to this similarity.
In fact, says Levi-Strauss, the three objects merge. The gold is a way to a position of power which eventuates in a son, the extraction of the sword opens the way to a sexual conquest that also produces a son, and each of the sons will eventually possess Brunhilde, the woman in the fire. And she, of all the characters in this multi-generational story, will in the end return the gold to the river.
Thus, by considering a structural element common to three situations, Levi-Strauss finds a sense in which the situations are related, outside the cause-and-effect of plot. This analysis has two properties characteristic of structuralism. The structuralist comparison runs somewhat at odds with the plot sense of the scenes--the same music occurs at a moment of renunciation and a moment of love. And the analysis allows a certain shifting of use or meaning among the analogous elements. The gold and the sword are buried treasures that become instruments of conquest, while the woman is more the like object of conquest, and the music is linked to her in a scene where she the treasure is being confined rather than extracted. She returns the gold to the Rhine partly because she is identified with it, but in this action the nature of the identification becomes ambiguous--does she return the gold, or is the gold acting through her?
Now, these meanings are simple, used only to illustrate method. An opera lover might perceive them (or correct them) without any set critical approach.
Where structuralism becomes useful is in organizing large bodies of material, such as the kinship systems that Levi-Strauss initially studied or the mythologies that occupied him later. Applied to criticism, it takes the form of considering many texts, many films.
To be blunt, this approach strains the abilities of many writers. It requires a meticulous examination of the material and its ambition is to find the patterns that underlie just about everything. So its use as a general outlook on art and society is somewhat questionable, compared to the influential work it has produced in specialized fields. In Hellenistic studies, for example, the understanding of the myths and rites of sacrifice requires a grasp of the basic oppositions that generate all Hellenistic ideas of sacrifice: god vs. man, animal vs. man, heaven vs. earth. But one must also understand how the myrrh tree, which produces a perfume used in some rites, is defined in an entire body of knowledge about plants. Myrrh was also used as a sexual perfume, so the relation of the plant world to marriage customs is part of the same story.
For the essayist at large, structuralist methods can blend easily into the practice of attending only to the facts that support a preconception. The persistent criticism of structuralist work has been just that. Historical influences, local meanings, plot structure and other conscious work--in a word, context--provide one way of interpreting the details of a text. When structural analysis is not carried through methodically, specific interpretations can be dismissed with nothing to replace them but arbitrary claims.
Several aspects of structuralism open the way for the revision known as deconstructionism. As mentioned, the Saussurean linguistic theory strongly implies that meanings cannot be translated. If the original author and the commentator are playing variations on the same structure whether the interpretation can be judged right or not, then variations may be seen as having value in themselves. And if the Western tradition of historical and critical thinking only exists within a framework of continuing mythical thought, then attention may turn to exposing how this framework is concealed.