Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



Previous Chapter  Contents  Next Chapter



Structuralism is a method of enquiry, which takes as its object of investigation a system, ie. the reciprocal relation among a set of facts, rather than particular facts considered in isolation. It considers totality, self-regulation and transformation. The structuralists, in general, are concerned to know the human world, to uncover it through detailed observational analysis and to map it out under extended explicatory grids. However, it should be added here that their position is still mainly like that of the traditional position of objectivity and their aim is to explore the traditional scientific goal of seeking truth. To put the concept of structuralism in a lucid way one example may be cited: There are variations in accent and presentation of Hindi, Bengali or such other languages spoken over a vast area. Structuralists will stress to find the elements common in variations of a language forming a general structure of Bengali or Hindi or so on. Going against empiricism and positivism, structuralism wants to hold the focus on relations between the units or elements invisible to human observation. Basically started as structural linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure (and also by Emaile Durkheim, in sociological analysis) structuralism has been used by Levi Strauss in anthropology, Rolland Barthes in the field of semiotics, some eminent critics in the fields of art and literature, and even by persons claiming Marxist persuasion like Louis Althusser. When structural analysis is applied to the study of literature, the structure of a poem or a story or a novel, the relations of various elements in the structure become the question of the study. It is not the concern of the structuralist to study the normative or value-based aspect in the structure. The understanding of the deterministic structure-based fixed-meaning is the subject of enquiry. Althusser rejected the humanist and Hegelian themes in Marxism, paying little or no attention to historical changes. Some people claiming themselves Marxists went to an extreme point of structuralism by concluding that "There is no real objective ‘history’; the notion that there is a real history is the product of empiricism."[Barry Hindess and Paul Q. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Boston, 1975, p.3117] Althusser brought in the concept of theoretical practice and insisted that reality is irreducibly complex and manifold, subject to multiple causation. He coined the word over-determination for such multiple causative factors. The causality is also structural. The Althusserian system, with all its apparent emphasis on materialist science, downplays the role of human beings as authors of historical development reducing them to the status of supports or effects of structures and relations of the social formation. It shows its idealism by cloistering knowledge within a wholly circular, self-validating conceptual realism, detached from direct access to what is given as reality. The web of over-determination ultimately leads to a labyrinthine lane in the realm of praxis.

Structuralism was also a reaction especially against existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre. In his early work Satre focused on the individual, particularly individual freedom, adhering to the view that what people do is determined by them and not by social laws or larger social structures. However in his later life Satre came closer to Marxian theory with his stress on "free individual" "situated in a massive and oppressive social structure which limits and alienates his activities."[Ian Craib, Essentialism and Sociology: A study of Jean-Paul Satre, Cambridge University Press, 1976, p.9]

Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, (1857-1913) stood against positive physical facts as actual evidence, and argued that physical facts are not sufficient to account for language as language, the language of social groups, as signifying and bearing information. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics and ultimately structuralism in various fields, differentiated between langue and parole, the former being the formal, grammatical system of language whose relationships of phonic elements are determined, he believed, by determinate laws. Parole is actual speech. Langue can be viewed as a system of signs — a structure — and the meaning of each sign is produced by the relationship among signs within the system. What was important in Saussure’s view was a system of signs, a structure, and the meaning of each sign is produced by the relationship among signs within the system. Here comes the importance of relations of difference, including binary oppositions, as the meaning of the word ‘dark’ comes not from some intrinsic properties of the world, but from the word’s binary opposition to the word ‘light’. When this view is applied to the social world, the meanings, the mind, and ultimately the social world itself are shaped by the structure of language. Thus, structural linguistics does not focus on the existential world of people shaping their surroundings; instead all aspects of the social world are shaped by the structure of language. The Sassurian notion of sign systems were further taken to the field of semiotic, encompassing not only language but also other sign and symbol systems like body language, literary texts and all sorts of communication. It is evident that Saussure who became the inspirational source for post-modernism did not reject the societal aspect and stressed that the role of the signifier as word is to impart meaning to the signified, a thing or living being, etc. In the structuralist linguistic system the relation between the signifier and the signified, expressed by language, is not historical but depends on every moment of utterance. Saussure referred to the concept of dichotomy in understanding a single colour. To understand black the contrasting colour of yellow, to understand dog the difference is made with some other animals. Thus the words should be placed considering the differences of the signifieds maintaining proximity. Similarly, there is the dichotomous inter-relationship between colour and sound, colour and sound with form, and so on. Such a network of relations, Saussure thought, makes a structure. And to comprehend any structure such binarity is considered. He asserted, "in the linguistic system there are only differences". With all this Saussurean concepts of structure, structuralism was born.

In the Durkhemian line, with the advent of Levi Strauss in the 1960s, the analogy between the unity of society and the unity of the thinking of an individual mind is superseded. The members of a tribe are considered to be bonded together by a perpetual weave and shuttle of back-and-forth transactions. In Levi Struass the unity is no longer linked to centralization. He views kinship exchange as a system of communication and dismisses the biological unit in favour of a larger exchange unit. Thus in the view of Strauss, marriage binds together not just a man and a woman, but a man who gives a woman and another man who receives her. Here too culture predominates over nature. The same structuralist view is found in the writings of Louis Dumont who, in his huge work on the Indian caste system, promises to bring forth the ultimate economic basis, but shuns it altogether in favour of the predominating role of Brahminical ideology as a central core of this evil system. This cultural aspect over economics was stretched out further in the post-modernist frame.

Roman Jacobson (born in 1896 and died in 1982), the one time leader of Russian formalism, made a fusion of formalism and structuralism. Formalism pronounced relative detachment from theory emphasizing "scientificity of literature". Formalists stated that "there is a difference between theory and conviction" and "the vitality of science is not measured by its establishing truths but by its overcoming errors". They also simultaneously stress that new forms build up new contents. So formalism in reality is a form-based scheme. There was criticism that formalists were heading towards fixing various contents in various forms, virtually rejecting the literary content. This form-based literature gave birth to a formalistic mechanical method. Jan Mukarovsky kept his faith in formalism up to 1930 and then discovered its limitation. He accepted structural analysis without the rejection of history. Mukarovsky distanced himself from other structuralists emphasizing social consciousness. Roman Jacobson who introduced the word structuralism in the field of linguistics way back in 1929 declared, "I do not believe in things, I believe only in their relationships". Jacobson, who is often referred to by post-modernists, however, believed that the development of language is teleological because it follows its rules. He, in his later life, criticised Sassurian concepts of langue/parole or synchrony/diachrony and emphasized the semiotic character of language and its relation with various semiotic fields. But he stuck to the ultimate structural relation between the signifier and the signified. But post-structuralists went beyond all this by simply removing this deterministic relation altogether.

"The problem of structural linguistics is," in the words of Richard Hartland, "that, once they have started explaining language hermetically, they find no reason to stop. There is no clearly visible limit where their kind of explanation cuts off. So an original methodological decision to exclude the outside world... gradually turns into a general philosophical principle of unlimited scope."[Richard Hartland;Superstructuralism, p.91]

The same criticism is also applicable in case of post-structuralism/post-modernism as we progress forward.


Previous Chapter  Contents  Next Chapter





Home  |  Current Issue Archives  |  Revolutionary Publications  |  Links  |  Subscription