Dear Students of MA English,
This is a follow-up, top-up, or supplement to what we discussed in class this past week. I request that you get for yourself a copy of Terence Hawkes' wonderful primer on Structuralism and start reading rightaway!
Excerpted from Terence Hawkes on ‘Structuralism’
Here we go…
Structuralism is fundamentally a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the perception and description of structures. The ‘new’ perception involved the realization that despite appearances to the contrary the world does not consist of independently existing objects. In fact, every perceiver’s method of perceiving can be shown to contain an inherent bias which affects what is perceived to a significant degree. [Any observer is bound to create something of what he observes]. In consequence, the true nature of things may be said to lie not in things themselves, but in the relationships which we construct, and then perceive, between them.
This new concept, that the world is made up of relationships rather than things, constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking which can properly be called ‘structuralist’. At its simplest, it claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and in fact is determined by its relationship to all the other elements involved in that situation. In short, the full significance of any entity or experience cannot be perceived unless and until it is integrated into the structure of which it forms a part.
Saussure’s revolutionary contribution to the study of Language lies in his rejection of that ‘substantive’ view of the subject in favour of a ‘relational’ one, a change of perspective closely in accord with the larger shift in perception mentioned above.
What is natural to mankind is not oral speech but the faculty of constructing a language, i.e. a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas.
If all aspects of the language are thus ‘based on relations’ two dimensions of these relationships must assume particular importance. Saussure presents these as the linguistic sign’s syntagmatic (or ‘horizontal’) relations, and its simultaneous associative (or ‘vertical’) relations.
The 'Cours' presents the argument that language should be studied, not only in terms of its individual parts, and not only diachronically, but also in terms of the relationship between those parts, and synchronically: that is, in terms of its current adequacy.
Saussure’s insistence on the importance of the synchronic as distinct from the diachronic study of language was momentous because it involved recognition of language’s current structural properties as well as its historical dimensions.
It has been pointed out that the mode of language is fundamentally one of sequential movement through time. It follows from this that each word will have a linear or ‘horizontal’ relationship with the words that precede and succeed it, and a good deal of its capacity to ‘mean’ various things derives from this pattern of positioning.
This constitutes language’s syntagmatic aspect, and it could also be thought of as its ‘diachronic’ aspect because of its commitment to the passage of time.
from Structuralism and Semiotics by Terence Hawkes