15 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics

Another book I picked up years ago, Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics, published in 1975 is still apparently worth reading. It's a bit of a snapshot I suppose, but from what I've read so far it does a decent job of summarising some of the theories and criticising them quite assertively. So I'll write it up here as I go through it, which means I have a bit of catching up to do.

The first chapter, "The Linguistic Foundation", is about the development of structuralism in linguistics, referencing Saussure of course, and the others who developed the system of signs. Culler is quite clear that structuralism and semiotics are the same thing. I don't think I've seen that identification made so baldly. He makes more reference to Chomsky than is usual. I think the point is to stress that linguistics and poetics (in a wide sense) aren't coterminous: there is an overlap but each activity has its own area of speciality.

This leads to the second chapter, "The Development of a Method: Two Examples", which looks in turn at Barthes' Systeme de la Mode and Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques as attempts to apply a linguistic model to the understand of fashion any mythology respectively.

In Systeme de la Mode Barthes analyses a year's fashion press, trying to create from the captions of photos the code of what different types of clothes signify. For Culler, the big weakness is that the analysis is synchronic - ie it is based on only one year's fashion, whereas fashion is inherently diachronic; you can't ignore the difference between this year and previous years, which largely defines fashion.

With Levi-Strauss there's a different problem. He sought to identify certain features in world mythology that crop up across different cultures, but which have the same meaning. But the analysis doesn't have anything of the exactness of language.
The discussion of 'sun' and 'moon' is a case in point. Lévi-Strauss sees this opposition as a powerful mythological operator with great semantic potential: 'so long as it remains an opposition, the contrast between the sun and the moon can signify almost anything'.
So it is necessary to know something more than the structure to understand the myths. The chapter concludes that both these attempts have failed, but asks if literature might be more amenable to linguistic-based analysis, and so we move on to Roman "Jakobson's Poetic Analyses".

When I wrote about Jakobson earlier, I had doubts. Culler takes these further (showing why he's a professor and I'm not). He closely examines Jakobson's analysis of one of Baudelaire's "Spleen" poems. Jakobson tried to demonstrate the structure of the poem by looking for particular linguistic features, and showing that they formed a symmetry around the central stanza. Culler argues that by choosing different linguistic features you can show entirely different structures. It seems to me a complete demolition, not only of this analysis of this poem, but of this method of analysis entirely. The choice of linguistic features is arbitrary, with Jakobson's choice having no greater inherent worth than anyone else's. This seems close to Derrida's attack on Levi-Strauss: because the structuralist analysis doesn't have - can't have - a "centre" where the structure and the object of analysis coincide, any assumed starting point is as good as any other.

That might be the end of the book. Of course it isn't, and Culler suggests that Jakobson was looking for the wrong thing. Linguistic analysis precisely does not tell us what sentences mean - we already know that.
If one assumes that linguistics provides a method for the discovery of poetic patterns, then one is likely to blind oneself to the ways in which grammatical patterns actually operate in poetic texts, for the simple reason that poems contain, by virtue of the fact that they are read as poems, structures other than the grammatical, and the resulting interplay may give the grammatical structures a function which is not at all what the linguist expected. (p 73)

More to come.

1 comment:

Saba Alkhteeb said...

Plz where the rest of the article?