What You Need to Know About Structuralism – Or, Learning to Read Again

His beard may be serious, but the costume is carnivalesqu.
His beard may be serious, but the costume is carnivalesque

The idea of reading is often explicated in terms of its utility, which for a skill that many of us possess and is generally considered a sign of one of the vague concepts like “civilization” is more than a little strange when you stop to think about it too long. You need to learn to learn to read, so the argument goes, in order to navigate the external world, constituted as it is through language. You need to know how to read a contract, a payslip, and those emails from your boss and the letters from your landlord in order to survive. Reading is thus an essential skill, foundational to just getting through the day.

Things, however, very quickly become more complex when fiction gets involved. Fiction, in all of its diversity becomes something of a problem especially if the way that you have been taught to read depends upon the deciphering of certain signs in order to extract the correct singular meaning.

Literature, in this way of seeing things, becomes more or less a hermeneutical puzzle box that is assigned by the teacher, and then has to be solved or “decoded.” The aim of reading is to find out what the text means. Fictional texts can be solved, as long as you manage to decipher the “right” meaning. In essence, this makes one see the world of literature in a very specific way; Books are questions, which it is the job of the reader to solve. This is, in itself, part of a broader tradition in literature that sees language as a series of interconnected structures – this approach, characterised by a scientific methodology is referred to as the field of semiotics, inspired by the work of Swiss academic and moustache pioneer Ferdinand de Saussure. We are, for the most part, all trained in this semiotic analysis from days in school – eager little structuralists desperate to solve the puzzle and move on to the next thing. Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is about her suicide, Wordsworth’s “I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud” is about loneliness and imagination and Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is about the dangers of science. If you are able to find the meaning of the text, then critical thought need go no further and the earnest undergraduate essays practically write themselves, (or at least they did in my case.)

The unforeseen and unintended consequence of this pedagogical method is that once education is no longer mandatory many people just won’t ever feel the need to look at these books and poems again. After all, why would they? If they believe that they have found the “correct” answer, the book is, quite literally, closed now. Reading again would be at best an indulgence and at worst a waste of intellectual time and effort.

In a neat piece of dialectical reversal, we who are sometimes aware of the dangers of this, find the right method of literary interpretation yet extend things too far in the direct opposite direction. Instead of a poem having just one meaning or message behind it, the meanings become infinite. We become trapped in an endless postmodern cycle of re-readings and reinterpretation that never seems to arrive at a fixed or stable understanding. As well intentioned as this critical approach undoubtedly is, it too comes with its negative consequences. If a text has no identifiable meaning, those who do not have to read it have no need to engage. “Yeah, but it could mean anything” is the cry of intellectual exhaustion and the clearest reason why this kind of teaching just does not work when applied to fictional texts.

The idea of structuralism in critical approaches hit a peak in the early part of the twentieth century, with the method of discovering the texts meaning emerging as a backlash against the often woolly thinking that seemed to dominate critical thinking at the time. Critics argued for a return to the text and attention to the details of language – a method to focus on what things meant rather than vagaries of ideology or speculative philosophy. The idea of what structuralists criticism might look like took two differing pathways centred on academics in America and academics in Russia. Whilst the American wave of structuralism has died out for the most part (almost precisely because of the issues above) Russian structuralism tends towards the more philosophical, rather than exegetical, and as such, those who still want to defend and implement a form of structuralist criticism would do well to start with the fascinating figure of Mikhail Bakhtin.

Bakhtin came to literature through philosophy, (Russian philosophy!) and his work retained a strong philosophical flavour throughout his career. After establishing his academic credentials with the complex and never completely recovered, “Towards a Philosophy of the Act” Bakhtin moved towards literature. His seminal work is “Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics: Polyphony and Unfinalizability” and it is quite probably the only way of salvaging the way that we all read. The book contains three important points, which might just be able to change the way you look at reading forever.

How we read fictional characters depends crucially upon how we view and understand individuals. If we see people in the same way as we’re trained to read the immediate temptation is to find out the correct answer, the right interpretation of someone and move on. In contrast to this Bakhtin thought that the self is never finished, or known completely – try as we might we never reach the point of understanding someone completely. What this means in fiction is that the creative process is never something we come to the end of. Perhaps the best way to look at this is in how groups tend to respond to their favourite textual characters. At the reveal of a major story arc in ongoing media like comics or TV fans will often say things like “I don’t believe this character would act this way.” The problem comes from expecting generic or formal realism to extend to creations who come into being and are determined through language, a form which requires constant (re)interpretation. Whilst you might agree this applies to fictional characters perhaps you’d take issue with thinking this applies to real people. We can know people, that’s true but only up to a certain point. No matter how close you might think you are, no matter how well you think you know someone, their subjectivity is always (in part at least) inaccessible to you. Bakhtin thought of individual subjectivity as containing a potentially limitless quality. We change, we grow and we alter ourselves thanks to the shifting nature of our own lives. In narrative terms our own characters are never finished, always in the process of being told.

This notion of the unfinished self takes on new importance when you take into account that we are fundementally social creatures. We exist, whether we like it or not, within a complex and multi-faceted network of other people. And if there’s one thing that being close to other people require it’s communication. As what we think, what we say and what we feel are so closely tied in in so many layers of relationship, from the familial, to the social, our language is necessarily affected. We pick up language and ways of speaking from everyone all around us. From literature, to TV shows, to advertising slogans and even text speak and memes our language is utterly intertextual – bound up with every text that has fed into our modern way of speaking. In Bahktin’s words “one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole” (New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993) – we cannot step outside ourselves, even if we wanted to. We’re enmeshed in the webs of language and signs that constitute our social and cultural worlds. As wholly textual creations how much more so are characters trapped within the strands of language and linguistic codes which constitute their very being.

Finally, within Dostoyevsky’s work Bakhtin argued for the concept of polyphony – or ‘many voices,’ an important concept that represents one of Bakhtin’s lasting contributions to literary criticism. He argued that within the works of certain authors (particularly his favourite Dostoyevsky although this isn’t exclusive to just him) these insights about the nature of the self and of language were put into practise. Each character in Dostoyevsky represents a voice that speaks for a single character, their speech patterns and vocabularies are distinct yet, impressively the narrative never looses it’s coherence. Impressively his novels exist as a singular whole despite creating clear and identifiable characters who seem to speak outside of any connection to the narrative voice. Seen through this perspective the idea of reading to examine what texts “mean” collapses upon itself. In the complex interplay of distinct yet connected voices Bahktin identified the moment of what he calls “carnival”– the place where genuine dialogue can begin and we, as readers, can get past the endless and depressing quest of trying to just solve what a work means.

To read as an exercise in extracting a singular meaning is shown in Bahktin’s work to be not merely deeply unsatisfying for readers, but also does a great disservice to the texts in question. The value of Bakhtin’s work lies in the radical openness his theoretical model provides for. Through Bakhtin’s notion of the many voiced text the reader is allowed to see beyond the mechanistic and utilitarian understanding that a literary text can be analysed for its use and then closed, with the final word of interpretation, meaning and application extracted from it. Rather than say that a text can mean one thing (or in the other extreme anything,) it is time to return to the text. Polyphony serves as a means of encouraging not just a theoretical return but a practical one – re-reading in this model of structuralism doesn’t mean wasting your time and energy to come to the same solution as last time but a means of analysing and understanding the diversity and multiplicity of voices within, not just fictional, but all texts. Learn to read again and you will be amazed at what you might have missed first time around.

Image by the fantastic Gareth Southwell. Gareth is an artist, writer and philosopher. You can see more of his work at Woodpig.co.uk, follow him on Twitter (Twitter.com/GarethSouthwell), and support him on Patreon.com/Woodpig

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One thought on “What You Need to Know About Structuralism – Or, Learning to Read Again

  1. Fantastic post. I love the idea of Bakhtin as this intermediary between viewing texts as open to just one single interpretation and ALL OF THE INTERPRETATIONS on the other hand. I skimmed through his ideas on heteroglossia back in those bygone days of my undergrad but haven’t had cause to encounter him since, so it was interesting to get educated! I think my favourite position on this topic is the comment made by Umberto Eco (I think somewhere in the Limits of Interpretation (?)) where he says that all interpretations are possible up to a point. He describes a doorway in the wall ahead–it may be a real doorway that you can travel through or it may be painted on, but when you hit your nose up against it then you know for sure. It’s ALL OF THE INTERPRETATIONS with caveats.

    Also, a thumbs up for: “Swiss academic and moustache pioneer Ferdinand de Saussure.”

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