How did the linguistic theory of Saussure become a model for anthropologists, sociologists, and analysts of pop culture? Jonathan Culler suggests that this move rests on "two fundamental insights: first, that social and cultural phenomena are not simply material objects or events but objects or events iwth meaning, and hence signs; and second, that they do not have essences but are defined by a network of relations, both internal and external." These two insights are inseparable because "in studying signs one must investigate the system of relations that enables meaning to be produced and, reciprocally, one can only determine what are the pertinent relations among items by considering them as signs."
An observer ignorant of football can give an objective description of a game - describing movements, the size of the ball and length of a run, and so on. But he would not be able to discern the meaning of those actions without a knowledge of the rules of the game. He would not be able to see a particular sequence of actions as a touchdown run outside the context of a signifying system. The meaning of an event of a football game is determined by the whole set of conventions and rules that constitute the game as a game. These rules, Culler notes, do not for a structuralist "regulate behavior so much as create the possibility of particular forms of behavior. The rules of English enable sequences of sound to have meaning; they make it possible to utter grammatica and ungrammatical sentences. And analogously, various social rules make it possible to marry, to score a goal, to write a poem, to be impolite. It is in this sense that a culture is composed of a set of symbolic systems."
The object of study in "human sciences" is not the physical phenomena as such, but the events-as-something, events endowed with meaning, and this meaning is possible only within the symolic system. Thus the object of study is itself "structured and is defined by its place in the structure of the system, whence the tendency to speak of 'structuralism.'"
So defined, structuralism avoids a couple of aporia, some of which are highlighted by post-structuralists, and some other problems. It does not recognize, first, the undecidable circle of system and event. And it does not suffiently acknowledge the inherent physical limitations on signifying systems. Signifying systems are flexible, but not infinitely so. Greeting gestures vary, but greeting gestures reflect physical realities of proximity and touch. A culture whose members greeted each other with a quick knife thrust to the abdomen would not survive long, and we'd be reluctant to acknowledge the thrust as a greeting gesture at all. That is to say, the meaning of cultural signs, like the meaning of linguistic signs, is not merely a product of difference.
Finally, structuralism tends to be so enamoured of synchronic relations that it effaces diachronicity. Time introduces a fundamental dimension to the issue of meaning; when we consider language as a historical phenomenon, it becomes nonsensical to say that using of the sound "rain" to describe rain is arbitrary. It is not arbitrary; it's the only thing an English speaker can do. Emphasizing the temporal aspect of signification further undercuts the notion that all meaning is the effect of difference within the structure. Meaning is also a function of difference - and sameness - across time.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, February 27, 2006 at 03:29 PM
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