As a body of work structuralism assumes that social life and meaning are organized by a set of deep structures that frame understanding and perceptions of reality. Social meaning is the product of systematic conceptual structures through which we apprehend reality. Structuralism traces its existence to the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who set out his principles on language in his Course in general linguistics (published 1959, after his death). Saussure’s interest was in the study of language as a system, and he made a distinction between langue (the formal structures of language) and parole (the way language is employed in varied and individuated ways in actual speech). His argument was that while the individual instances of use (parole) may vary, underlying all of them is a formal set of consistent codes and conventions of language.
Structuralism In Visual Communication
Structuralism, of the kind influenced by Saussure, emphasized signifying systems, taking the production of meaning to be central to social life. Structuralism therefore puts communication at the center of society and is concerned with the identification of systems that generate meaning. While its central theoretical influences were in linguistics, the general emphasis on signification has allowed the extension and application of Saussure’s theories to the language of cultural signs in general. Thus cultural artifacts, objects, and practices, including visual modes of communication in their varied forms (art, television, film, cartoons, etc.) have all been analyzed using the structuralist approach.
As a body of work structuralism shares a formalist approach to language and cultural practices, emphasizing the laws, codes, formulae, and conventions that structure systems of meaning creation. Because they sideline issues of aesthetic worth or value and concentrate more on the underlying rules and conventions determining meaning, semiotics and structuralism have afforded visual critics rigorous and systematic tools for engaging in the visual analysis of various media, including film and television. Saussure’s ideas have been explored by film scholars and theorists of images, including Roland Barthes, to understand the nature of visual systems of representation. Film scholars have adapted Saussure’s methods to analyze films as constructed medium, created through an underlying set of codes and conventions that shape their meanings. Thus semiotics and structuralism have helped open up the inner workings of various visual media (Andrew 1984).
Main Tenets Of Structural Analysis
Structuralism as a method of cultural analysis entails two important steps adopted from Saussure’s work. The first is a concern with revealing the underlying grammar or conventions that structure the meaning of a cultural text, and the second is the idea that meanings are dialectically constructed around a set of binary opposites.
Thus one of the principal tasks in engaging in structuralist analysis is to identify the formal structures, the system of hidden codes and conventions (langue), that shape the various instances of cultural practices and texts (parole). For example, Vladimir Propp (1968) identified the formal set of structural features that underlie Russian folklore tales. While each folklore story may seem different in its individual manifestation (parole), the stories’ meanings derive from a common set of characters (the hero, princess, helper) and their functions. Umberto Eco (1976) similarly identified the common structure of plot moves and characters (and their functions) – the girl, foreign villain, supportive second agent – that underlie all the James Bond novels, no matter how much the details of the stories change. Christian Metz (1974) applies structuralism to cinematic studies, identifying the language-like system of cinematic codes that help create meaning in film.
Turning to the second important step identified above, according to Saussure, all languages and the meanings they structure work paradigmatically (i.e., by selecting from a group of conceptually related signs) and syntagmatically (i.e., by combining the selections of signs according to a set of socially conceived rules that determine their combination). For structuralists the paradigmatic organization and selection of signs is paramount to meaning-making. Cultural elements or signs do not mean by themselves; their meanings are produced by their difference from other elements within a paradigmatic system. Thus, Lévi-Strauss, who famously applied structural approaches to the study of culture, argued that the fundamental way in which we make sense is through a system of binary oppositions. As Seiter writes, “characteristically, structuralist analysis proposes binary oppositions such as individual/community, male/female, nature/culture, or mind/ matter and argues that every element within the system derives its meaning from its relationship to these categories” (1992, 50).
Examples Of Structuralist Studies In Visual Communication
There are numerous examples that illustrate the use of structuralism in visual analysis. In his application of the structuralist perspective to the analysis of the film musical Top Hat (1935, featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), Rick Altman (1989) draws attention to the unconscious processes at work in engendering cultural meanings, by revealing the latent structure of the conventions of Hollywood musicals lurking beneath the film text. He also argues that the film’s meanings are organized around binary oppositions. For example, he explores how the dually opposed concepts of restraining social conventions (manifest in the European, stuffy old ways of Rogers) versus its opposing notion of freedom (made manifest in the American, new-world attitudes of Astaire) undergird meanings throughout the film, with meanings resolved in the direction of the superiority of Astaire’s American freedom attitudes.
In their applications of semiotics and structural methods to the television cartoon Fangface, Hodge and Tripp (1986) also find that the abstract binary axis of nature/culture, and their more concrete manifestations as animals/humans, inform much of the meaning in the cartoon. Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of myths and other cultural practices found the binary trope of nature/culture to be a highly significant structure that informed meanings at very abstract and unconscious levels.
Analyzing the Western film The Searchers, Fiske (1990) demonstrates how the opening sequence of the film constructs a structure of binary oppositions that undergirds the whole narrative (and for that matter the genre of Western films). The opening shots, which visually juxtapose and oppose the environment of homestead and the wild landscape, “is quickly established as a concrete transformation of the more abstract oppositions between the developed East and the ‘raw’ West, between whites and Indians, between law-and-order and anarchy, between humanity and cruelty, and, more problematically, between femininity and masculinity, between society and the individual” (1990, 124). All of these oppositions are seen as deriving from a much deeper and more abstract, structured opposition between culture and nature. The deeper set of abstract opposites is concretized in specific events and objects in narratives, which are then naturalized through their relationship with the underlying structure of abstract concepts that inform them.
Laura Mulvey’s (1975) pioneering work, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” which has been very influential in the area of feminist studies and visual analysis, adopts a structuralist perspective in revealing how cinematic conventions structure gendered perceptions of reality. In discussing how these conventions structure cinematic action and gaze, she argues that, invariably, the male is constructed as active with the female as passive. Similarly, the cinematic gaze is constructed as male, while the female becomes the object of the gaze.
Criticism Of Structuralism
The vocabulary and special procedures of semiotics and structuralism “have allowed us to describe the workings of cultural communication with greater accuracy and enlarged our recognition of the conventions that characterize our culture” (Seiter 1992, 32). However, structuralism has been criticized for prescribing dominant and absolute meanings, for abolishing the reader from processes of meaning creation, and for being ahistorical. The tendency of structuralism to reduce cultural practices to basic formal elements causes the analyst to lose sight of other complex factors that may be shaping meanings. Because they derive their influences from Saussurean linguistics, which is a synchronic model for the study of language, semiotics and structuralism study sign systems at a given moment in time, and tend to ignore change over time.
Structuralism as a theoretical perspective and method of analysis has given way to the more popular notions of poststructuralism. While accepting the notion of language as fundamental to social life and meaning-making, poststructuralism critiques structuralism for emphasizing structure at the expense of other elements that do not fit neatly into its formulae or conventions. Poststructuralism rejects the idea of an underlying, stable structure that creates fixed meaning through binary oppositions.
Today, structuralism is still useful as a method of opening up cultural forms, including visual artifacts, for interpretation, but it is seen as more useful if it takes into account poststructuralist critiques and is combined with other approaches. A good illustration of the application of poststructuralist approaches and other methods in visual analysis can be found in Yvonne Tasker’s work on action movies. In Spectacular bodies: Gender, genre and action cinema (1993), Tasker draws on structuralism to identify the generic codes (in films such as Die Hard, the Rocky series, and Lethal Weapon) that characterized Hollywood action movies in the 1980s. But, she also draws on feminist and other theories to show that, rather than the series of action films simply reproducing dominant ideologies of masculinity constructed around fixed binary structures, the films play with such categories, allowing for multiple and contradictory meanings that challenge dominant meanings (Johnson et al. 2004). Rather than being created around fixed oppositions, meanings are constantly deferred.
Roland Barthes’s essay on the Eiffel Tower, in The Eiffel Tower and other mythologies (1982), provides us with the application of a structuralist perspective tinged with a measure of poststructuralism. The essay, concerned with the experience of “seeing” Paris from the Eiffel Tower, provides us with an understanding of the structuralist aesthetic of seeing. Barthes contends that “Every visitor to the Tower makes structuralism without knowing it . . . Paris offers itself to him an object virtually prepared, exposed to the intelligence, but which he must himself construct by a final activity of the mind: nothing less passive than the overall view the power gives to Paris” (1982, 9–10). The meanings visually afforded the viewer are constructed around a set of binary opposites, which are revealed in the analysis – Paris is constructed as man-made landscape (artificial), one that is opposed to a natural landscape (nature); the vision afforded the viewer from the tower is a “bird’s-eye view” (one that permits a “transcendental sensation”), as opposed to an eye-level view (which thrusts one intimately into the midst of sensation); and the observer becomes a “reader” of rather than a dweller in the city. In a move reminiscent of poststructuralism, Barthes goes beyond the synchronous structural analysis of the bipolar opposites structuring the view to acknowledge the diachronic – the four major historical epochs of Parisian history and development that have shaped and characterize the various sites that face the observer from the Eiffel Tower.
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- Andrew, D. (1984). Concepts in film theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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- Seiter, E. (1992). Semiotics, structuralism, and television. In Robert C. Allen (ed.), Channels of discourse, reassembled: Television and contemporary criticism. Chapel Hill, NC, and London: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 31–66.
- Tasker, Y. (1993). Spectacular bodies: Gender, genre and action cinema. London: Routledge.