n      f signifiers.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

From oppositions to difference.


Claude Levi-Strauss and Structuralism


n       Characteristics of structuralism:

n        Difference between surface reality and underlying reality; the most important  meanings may be unconscious.

n         Meaning occurs through difference. Meaning is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system

n        Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions (being/nothingness, hot/cold, culture/nature).

n        Levi-Strauss was strongly influenced by structural linguistics, and a linguistic model of thought.


The Basics: De Saussere and Structural Linguistics

n            First distinction: langue and parole.

n            Second distinction:

n         Signifier: the sound or written text signifying something.

n         Signified: the concept to which it refers.

n         Totality is the sign: like a piece of paper with two sides.

n         Example of ‘dog’ in different languages: The fact that signifiers are different in different languages shows that:

n        Signifiers are arbitrary, public, and based on a linguistic community.

n        They are known partly by what they are NOT; I.e. dog is not god is not dot, etc.



From Language to Mythology

     Surface Structure and Deep Structure, the latter is often unconscious.


     Myths structured by underlying relations of:

  Binary oppositions

  Similarities or analogies.


Mode of Analysis

n            Break down the myth into its sentences.

n            Write each sentence on a card.

n            Each card has a subject doing something.This is called a relation.

n            Relations that express similar themes are called bundles of relations.

n            Grouped into bundles, they are now recognized on a synchronic or thematic level.  Each bundle focuses on a single thematic opposition, e.g. residence, marriage, economics, politics, cosmology, etc.


The Myth of Asdiwal

n            Setting: Tsimshian society inhabiting the Nass and Skeena River Valleys in B.C.

n            Asdiwal is born from the union of a widow and a stranger bird of good omen.  His father, the stranger bird, gives him magical hunting tools.  Asdiwal attempts several marriages, ones that do not follow the matrilineal descent and patrilocal residence ideal.  None work. Finally, he forgets his snowshoes one day while hunting and turns to stone on a mountain.



n            Bundles in the Myth:

n         ***Descent (Matrilineal) and Residence (Patrilocal).

n         Hunting and Subsistence.

n         Cosmology.

n            Movements in the Myth:

n         o       Patrilocal residence is first negated by death, leading to neolocality.

n         o       Matrilocal experiment between stranger and dau fails, but it does lead to a son, Asdiwal.

n         o       Then several directly matrilocal experiments between Asdiwal, the dau of the son, and Asdiwal and the sisters of 4 brothers, are tried.  They also fail.

n         o       He moves to a new village, neolocal residence, leading to oppositions with the group.

n         o       Asdiwal’s wife then joins him in neutral territory (neolocal residence).

n         o       Basically, all attempts at doing something different with the matrilineal, first patrilocal and then matrilocal residence patterns fail.  Everything has been tried.

n         o       Hence, the best possible solution is the one that already exists in reality.


What This Means

n            Major contradiction in the story and in Tsimshian society is between matrilineal inheritance and patrilocal residence and the problems this causes for the ‘father’.

n            Progression from strong oppositions, tensions and contradictions in society.

n            Attempts to resolve the opposition through mediation.

n            2 opposites are replaced by similar, though less strong oppositions.

n            Myth proceeds by substituting ever weaker terms in the opposition.

n            However, the opposition, since it is a real one, can never be resolved; hence failure of the attempts at marriage.

n            Therefore, the best possible solution is the one that already exists.


Post-structuralism:Oppositions and their Undoing

n      Remember de Saussere: language is a system of differences….each signifier is defined through a relation with another signifier.

n      Derrida: Language IS a system of differences, but that is ALL it is.

n      Rejects the signified/signifier relation: this reflects de Saussere’s phonocentrism.

n      Phonocentrism assumes a privileged relation between the signifier and signified, which does not exist.

n      No fixed relation between signifiers and signifieds exists; e.g. look up a signifier in any dictionary, and you find only another signifier, not a signified.


Reversing Hierarchies of Oppositions

n      In any traditional philosophy, there is a logos, the key idea upon which it rests.

n      However, this implies that the key idea rejects and displaces its opposite.

n      Hence, there is always a hierarchy of oppositions

n      The goal of deconstruction is to ‘reverse the hierarchy’, at any particular moment.

n      Examples: logocentrism and phonocentrism.

Language, Differance, and Difference

n      Language constitutes a continual play of relations of difference.

n      Beyond language, there is ‘experience’, or differance.

n      Language works up and constitutes differences, transforming differance into difference.

n      Goal is to find the gap which language marginalizes, and then to unravel the hierarchy.

n      E.g. gender relations: other of man was woman, other of ‘woman’ was colonized woman, with each term reversing the previous hierarchy.

n      Sensitive to the multiple subjectivities that we all inhabit. No single subjectivity is considered final; there is no end point, but only a continual play of signifiers.