March 12, 2007

Structuralism and Literature: A Presentation on Jonathan Culler

First of all, I must say that this entry is going to be a great length and great detail, so if you do not read, it will be difficult to follow my presentation. With that said, here is the presentation on Jonathan Culler's "Structuralism and Literature."

Culler, ''Structuralism and Literature'' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Considering how this specific theory is very applicable, not only toward reading literature, but rather teaching literature, I find it very relevant to my field of study. This essay is very appropriate toward those who are trying to learn criticisms in general because in order to teach, one must have obtained the skills necessary to complete his or her job fully.

"I shall assume that studying literature and teaching literature involve the development and master of special operations and procedures which are required for the reading of literature..." (Keesey 289).

While I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, I find extreme difficulty in mastering any operations that require as much depth and intellect behind the conventions of structuralism. This is a "mixed bag" of criticisms associated with each other, and for many, more and more questions become asked because of the difficulty behind a structuralist argument. Jonathan Culler asks this question, which really sets up his theory on intextual criticism. He asks:

"First, then, what is structuralism?" (Keesey 289).

Culler focuses on mixing both a social and semiotic structure between pieces of literature. He suggests two possible methods to understanding the linguistic methods behind structuralism. The first concerns using the language itself as a ladder to climb in order to understand a meaning behind a text. The second method is concerned with grasping a social or cultural meaning associated with the language in the piece of literature.

Now that we understand the meaning behind structuralism, the next step to take is actually analyzing the structure behind a piece of literature. Culler explains that there needs to be conventions (my favorite literary term) which help the reader or critic grasp a cultural meaning behind the language used. The importance of the conventions of poetry and literature is best described in a situation to which a person knows English vaguely.

I am going to take it one step further for one to understand. Imagine that you are taking German, and you understand what words mean, and some sentences to help you speak a little bit, but when you read the literature, how well can you really understand it? It is difficult enough for us to grasp our own language, rather than someone else's. What Culler is trying to say is that literature has its own language, its own conventions that seem to follow different rules of engagement for its readers.

A great example of this is many of the French African Literature that has been written. Ferdinand Oyono's Houseboy and
Camara Laye's The Dark Child are extremely difficult to understand the cultural struggle when you are spending your time trying to comprehend the words, rather than the meaning. The worst part is that Americans focus on words rather than the meaning all the time.

I really enjoyed the example that Culler used on page 290, concerning the emphasis of the word "Yesterday"

Yesterday I
Went into town and bought
A lamp (Keesey 290).

Because of the structure of this poem, we see a different emphasis. Rather than focusing on going into town, or buying a specific item, we see that the importance is more focused on when the action happened and what specifically was purchased. The main details have shifted, and Culler points that out effectively in his argument.

I believe that the main point of the entire argument is stated on page 291. Culler writes:

"Structuralism leads us to think of the poem not as a self-contained organism but as a sequence which has meaning only in relation to a literary system, or rather, to the 'institution' of literature which guides the reader. The sense of a poem's completeness is a function of the totality of the interpretive process, the result of the way we have been taught to read poems" (Keesey 291).

Structuralism is a process; it is a multi-faceted group of thoughts associated on two main common goals: a) to direct emphasis on a truly meaningful part of poetry or literature, and b) to create a connection between a specific time period to either the same or a past time period because of the importance of the cultural background associated with the two. Think about the conversation the class had in the first week about tradition, and how one group breaks away from the tradition. There needs to be a tradition of structure and cultural ideas mixed so that the next group can either grow off of that, or take their own separate way away from the first group. When he chooses a different situation, he understands that the first situation was already present, thus really creating the basis behind an intertextual criticism. The intertextual criticism focuses on literary competence and understanding between two pieces of influential texts.

"And because literary competence is the result of an interpersonal experience of reading and discussion, any account of it will doubtless cover much common ground" (Keesey 292).

Another key point to Culler's essay was the idea of "naturalizing" and "vraisemblance." The reader or critic is actually the one that creates a realism (yes, mimetic to an extent) behind trying to associate an idea they might not understand to an idea that they have grasped before. The reader actually tries to completely alter the meaning to something that they can understand, because that seems to be more true and more realistic than anything else. One issue with this is that we tend to naturalize way too fast, and we make a different meaning off of our own thoughts, rather than something previously interpreted.

But who is to say that's wrong? Having our own meaning is what helped us understand structuralism and literature in the first place, so I think that Culler's argument is actually flawed in this sense. I do not believe that there is a "premature naturalization" (Keesey 293), because all meanings are based off of what one (reader, author, etc...) can make a relation to. Although, the idea that readers tend to look in a different direction does limit them to understanding something different in the text itself.

Culler goes back to focusing on tradition and semiotics together and how difficult it is to grasp a lyrical code because of the complexity of the social associations made to the those semiotic codes.

"We quickly learn that there is a set of semantic oppositions, such as life and death, simplicity and complexity, harmony and strife, reality and appearance..." (Keesey 293)

There were more relations, but the overall point is that the tradition of understanding structure can possibly sway the perception of an individual based off of another semiotic code, or basically another piece of literature already read that has had some meaning to that individual. The issue is that one looks for an answer, instead of grasping complex thoughts as a possibility that becomes more and more useful to use. Basically, this type of argument is more logical and actually mathematical (say it ain't so!) rather than artistic, although there is some beautiful artistry behind the poetry and literature. The interpretations made off of the structure is more focuse on guessing based off of a similar genre or structure of literature, rather than just a simple appreciation.

Culler finishes very strongly in his theory by saying that "In its resolute artificiality, literature challenges the limits we set to the self as an agent of order and allows us to accede, painfully or joyfully, to an expansion of the self" (Keesey 297).

Isn't that the point of Literary Criticism? To take us away from boundaries and to stretch ourselves into taking difficult chances that might not make sense at first, but really help us grasp meaning in, behind, or between multiple pieces of literature and poetry. Trying to grasp the meaning a piece of literature is very easy; it is finding a specific and influential meaning that creates a complexity in the search. But it is what helps us become more enriched with the literature, no matter whether it is the structure, the history, the culture, or the nature of the literature. We gain so much from trying to expand ourselves, rather than creating the same argument over and over again. The importance for myself is this: as a teacher, the challenges of stretching a new meaning or relation into a text will help others gain a knowledge that they never thought they could ever gain. If that is not enriching, then I will never truly know what is.

Posted by The Gentle Giant at March 12, 2007 11:35 PM

I like your closing commentary, but I also think it is important to stress the importance of being reasonable when stretching for the meaning in literature. I agree that the risk-takers gain the most from any literary experience, however, I think all risk must be taken with some regard for preservation. If the risk leads you down a path of total ignorance, you have gained nothing. That said, I will continue to take calculated risks when applying literary criticism to our readings.

Posted by: Dave Moio at March 14, 2007 8:36 AM

I agree that when you are writing that you need to hold yourself in some sort of preservation, but preservation can only take you so far in life. If no one ever took risks in society then society wouldn't advance. The same is true for literature. I like when you say that "the challenges of stretching a new meaning or realtion into a text will help others gain knowledge" because it is so true. It has been said many times over in our class that in order to become a good critic you need to find something that no one has ever commented on before ever. I think that this is the easiest with the time that we live in today because with new works coming out every day new connections are able to be drawn much easier than they were in the past.

Just something to think about.

Posted by: Tiffany at March 14, 2007 7:28 PM

I will echo David on this one: calculated risks is all we truly can afford to take in class. While, yes, a classroom is a safe(r) environment in which to practice this sort of exploration of meaning and literature, etc., it's still not ideal since the ideas are being judged (either by classmates or teachers) and the outcome of the course for an individual is determined on the validity and quality of the ideas generated.

It's a great idea to really toss these ideas around now, Jay, while you as a teacher are able to consider what students go through in trying to comprehend new terms and concepts and make them "their own."

Looking forward to your presentation, pardn'r. :)

Posted by: Karissa at March 14, 2007 10:46 PM

I cannot wait for this discussion in class. I think that this is a very interesting topic.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at April 4, 2007 10:10 PM
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