Real is Subjective!

The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte, 1928/29

With the reading theme of the week being ???structuralism???, let us begin our theory review with the question of what structuralism is. According to the Wikipedia, structuralism seeks to discover the inter-relationship (i.e. structures) through which meaning is produced within a culture. Under structural theory, meaning within a culture is produced and reproduced though various practices, phenomena and activities which serve as systems of signification. This can be seen in how Claude Levi-Strauss analyzed cultural phenomena such as mythology, kinship and food preparation. Next, I find it useful to understand the goal of structuralism. From the readings, I seem to discover that structuralism is essentially meant to reveal the underlying workings of life. Like a mechanic working on an automobile, we can better understand things we encounter in life by breaking it down to its components. As I chronologically go from reading to reading, you will start to see how major philosophers have produced and refined models on how people construct meanings by looking at the structure of their relationships.

The origin of structuralism could be handed off to Saussure as he authored the ???Nature of the Linguistic Sign??? (1959) which spoke of the general idea of semiology. As he was interested in linguistics, he examined the elements of language as they relate to one another in the present. As such, he was not interested in the use of spoken use of language, but the underlying system of language of which any utterance was an expression. Furthermore, he dived deeper into language by proposing that linguistics signs composed of two parts, namely the ???signifier??? and the ???signified??? (pg. 66). This perspective can be confusing to many, since by tradition, we are used to thinking of language as the relationship between words and their physically designed things in this world. To appreciate Saussure, think of signifier as the verbal communication (e.g. sound of a word), while the signified as the image that comes to mind when hearing a word (e.g. concept of word). As Saussure wanted to better analyze the anatomy and structure of language, he had to free himself of the colossal burden of seeing how words are related to real-world things so that he could focus on the internal relationship of signs instead.

Claude Levi-Strauss was professionally known as a famous French anthropologist for this compelling ethnographic work done in Brazil on the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest during the 1930s. He later became one of 20th century???s greatest intellectuals by developing structuralism as a method of understanding human society and culture. In his work entitled ???The Structural Study of Myth??? (1986), Levi-Strauss honored Saussure and other structural linguists by stating that they were the ones who established the following principles for Structuralism (pg. 808)

  • One should study the unconscious infrastructure of linguistic phenomenon rather than the conscious structure
  • Terms are not independent entities and should be studied by their relations
  • One should establish the concept of system, then reveal the structure of systems
  • One should seek out the general laws of structure

By applying the same linguistic structural principles to the study of myths, Levi-Strauss was able to answer some question regarding myths. In his conclusion, he stated that the reason why myths are often replication of the same sequences was because the purpose of myths was to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction, which was seen in the slated structure he discovered about myths (pg. 821).

Eco???s take on structuralism came in the form of an analysis of cult movies in his work entitled ???Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage??? (1986). In this piece, Eco spoke about the phenomenon of cult movies and the elements that made a particular movie a cult favorite. He discovered that by studying the internal structure of movies, he could see how cult movies predominant featured an intertextual structure. He illustrated this by citing different movies which had scenes which paid homage to other prominent movies. One such relationship can be seen in the movies ???E.T.??? and ???Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back??? where both featured aliens of rather similar likeness, namely E.T. and Master Yoda (pg. 210). He said that no one would enjoy the scene if the movie fan did not share the elements of intertexutal competence, namely 1) where both E.T. and Master Yoda come from (Spielberg citing Lucas), 2) know something about the relationship between the directors, and 3) know that both creatures were designed by Rambaldi.

Finally, Bourdieu produced his structural work on ???Social Space and Symbolic Space??? (1998) by trying to reveal the principle construction of social space. He illustrated this by charting the space of social positions as compared to the space of lifestyles. He did this by analyzing the relationships between the lifestyle of social classes. According to the Wikipedia, Bourdieu stated that the position an individual is located at in the social space is defined not by class, but by the amount of capital across all kinds of capital, and by the relative amounts social, economic and cultural capital account for. This can be seen in how despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts in France, people’s artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with the position in the social space. He also highlighted how subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style (i.e. cultural capital) are a major factor in social mobility (e.g. getting a higher paid, higher status job) (pg. 4).

While structuralism as a school of though was innovative yet useful, it was the movements it inspired which were more important than the theory itself. These included theories that superseded it such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. Structuralism in a way died as a theory because it was criticized as ignoring history and being deterministic. Nevertheless, I see structuralism as a step forward in which we can better understand the otherwise inhumanly complex and intangible world we live in.

Saussure, F. (1959). Nature of the linguistic sign. Immutability and mutability of the sign. A course in general linguistics (pp. 65-78). New York: Philosophical Library.

L??vi-Strauss, C. (1986). The Structural study of myth. In H. Adams & L Searle (Eds.), Critical theory since 1965 (pp. 808-822). (Orig. 1955.)

Eco, U. (1986). A photograph. Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage. Travels in hyperreality (pp. 197-217). W. Weaver, trans. San Diego: HBJ.

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Social space and symbolic space. Practical reason: On the theory of action (pp. 1-13). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

One thought on “Real is Subjective!

  1. An interesting overview. I found myself disagreeing slightly with your conclusion. While there was certainly a rise in the popularity of post-structuralism and deconstruction, these are falling increasingly into disfavor. It may be that the most interesting perspectives are reached by resolving a post-structural crititque of structuralism, but I’m not quite sure what that would look like. I have the feeling that the structuralist perspective, which remains at least somewhat workable from a postmodern perspective, may yet have some life in it.

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