Gerard Genette: Structuralism and Literary Criticism What is structuralism? How is it applied to the study of literature?
Structuralism (Structuralist Criticism):
It is the offshoot of certain developments in linguistics and anthropology. Saussure’s mode of the synchronic study of language was an attempt to formulate the grammar of a language from a study of parole. Using the Saussurian linguistic model, Claude Levi-Strauss examined the customs and conventions of some cultures with a view of arriving at the grammar of those cultures. Structuralist criticism aims at forming a poetics or the science of literature from a study of literary works. It takes for granted ‘the death of the author’; hence it looks upon works as self-organized linguistic structures. The best work in structuralist poetics has been done in the field of narrative. In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure. For example, a literary critic applying a structuralist literary theory might say that the authors of West Side Story did not write anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and conflict is resolved by their death.
The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make the same claim about a story of two friendly families ("Boy's Family + Girl's Family") that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each other ("Boy - Girl") and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged marriage; the justification is that the second story's structure is an 'inversion' of the first story's structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed.
Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the "novelty value of a literary text" can lie only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in which that structure is expressed.
Gerard Genette and Structuralistic Criticism
Gerard Genette writes at the outset in his essay ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’ that methods developed for the study of one discipline could be satisfactorily applied to the study of other discipline as well. This is what he calls “intellectual bricolage ’, borrowing a term from Claude Levi-Strauss. This is precisely so, so far as structuralism is concerned. Structuralism is the name given to Saussure’s approach to language as a system of relationship. But it is applied also to the study of philosophy, literature and other sciences of humanity.
Structuralism as a method is peculiarly imitable to literary criticism which is a discourse upon a discourse . Literary criticism in that it is meta-linguistic in character and comes into being / existence as metaliterature. In his words: “it can therefore be metaliterature, that is to say, ‘a literature of which literature is the imposed object’.” That is, it is literature written to explain literature and language used in it to explain the role of language in literature.
In Genette’s words, ‘if the writer questions the universe, the critic questions literature, that is to say, the universe of signs. But what was a sign for the writer (the work) becomes meaning for the critic (since it is the object of the critical discourse), and in another way what was meaning for the writer (his view of the world) becomes a sign for the critic, as the theme and symbol of a certain literary nature’. Now this being so, there is certain room for reader’s interpretation. Levi-Strauss is quite right when he says that the critic always puts something of himself into the works he read.
The Structuralist method of criticism:
Literature, being primarily a work of language, and structuralism in its part, being preeminently a linguistic method, the most probable encounter should obviously take place on the terrain of linguistic material. Sound, forms, words and sentences constitute the common object of the linguist and the philologist to much an extent that it was possible, in the early Russian Formalist movement, to define literature as a mere dialect, and to envisage its study as an annex of general dialectology.
Traditional criticism regards criticism as a message without code; Russian Formalism regards literature as code without message. Structuralism by structural analysis makes it possible to uncover the connection that exists between a system of forms and a system of meanings, by replacing the search for term by term analysis with one for over all homologies (likeness, similarity)”. Meaning is yielded by the structural relationship within a given work. It is not introduced from outside. Genette believed that the structural study of ‘poetic language’ and of the forms of literary expression cannot reject the analysis of the relations between code and message. The ambition of structuralism is not confined to counting feet and to observe the repetition of phonemes: it must also study semantic (word meaning) phenomena which constitute the essence of poetic language. It is in this reference that Genette writes: “one of the newest and most fruitful directions that are now opening up for literary research ought to be the structural study of the ‘large unities’ of discourse, beyond the framework – which linguistics in the strict sense cannot cross – of the sentence.” One would thus study systems from a much higher level of generality, such as narrative, description and the other major forms of literary expression. There would be linguistics of discourse that was a translinguistics.
Genette empathetically defines Structuralism as a method is based on the study of structures wherever they occur. He further adds, “But to begin with, structures are not directly encountered objects – far from it; they are systems of latent relations, conceived rather than perceived, which analysis constructs as it uncovers them, and which it runs the risk of inventing while believing that it is discovering them.” Furthermore, structuralism is not a method; it is also what Ernst Cassirer calls a ‘general tendency of thought’ or as others would say (more crudely) an ideology, the prejudice of which is precisely to value structures at the expense of substances.
Genette is of the view that any analysis that confines itself to a work without considering its sources or motives would be implicitly structuralist, and the structural method ought to intervene in order to give this immanent study a sort of rationality of understanding that would replace the rationality of explanation abandoned with the search of causes. Unlike Russian Formalist, Structuralists like Genette gave importance to thematic study also. “Thematic analysis”, writes Genette, “would tend spontaneously to culminate and to be tested in a structural synthesis in which the different themes are grouped in networks, in order to extract their full meaning from their place and function in the system of the work.” Thus, structuralism would appear to be a refuge for all immanent criticism against the danger of fragmentation that threatens thematic analysis.
Genette believes that structural criticism is untainted by any of the transcendent reductions of psychoanalysis or Marxist explanation. He further writes, “It exerts, in its own way, a sort of internal reduction, traversing the substance of the work in order to reach its bone-structure: certainly not a superficial examination, but a sort of radioscopic penetration, and all the more external in that it is more penetrating.”
Genette observes relationship between structuralism and hermeneutics also. He writes: “thus the relation that binds structuralism and hermeneutics together might not be one of mechanical separation and exclusion, but of complementarity: on the subject of the same work, hermeneutic criticism might speak the language of the assumption of meaning and of internal recreation, and structural criticism that of distant speech and intelligible reconstruction.” They would, thus, bring out complementary significations, and their dialogue would be all the more fruitful.
Thus to conclude we may say, the structuralist idea is to follow literature in its overall evolution, while making synchronic cuts at various stages and comparing the tables one with another. Literary evolution then appears in all its richness, which derives from the fact that the system survives while constantly altering. In this sense literary history becomes the history of a system: it is the evolution of the functions that is significant, not that of the elements, and knowledge of the synchronic relations necessarily precedes that of the processes.