When I first read Klages’ chapter on structuralism, it made my head hurt. I understood the very basic idea behind it: structuralism seeks to find the underlying skeleton or elements (structure) of various systems. But once Klages got into the specifics of Saussure and Levi-Strauss, I felt hopelessly lost. Luckily, after today’s lecture and re-reading Klages’ chapter, I feel a little more confident about both Saussure and Levi-Strauss (although these theories still make my head hurt). Rereading Klages’ chapter, I discovered that both Saussure and Levi-Strauss have a lot of terms that describe similar things or build off similar ideas. I think this accounts for the headache I got while originally reading. So here is my new-found understanding of Saussure and Levi-Strauss in just a few paragraphs.
As far as I understand it, Saussure’s ideas basically say that a sign (a linguistic unit) is made up of a signifier (a sound image, which is the psychological imprint of a sound, like when you hear yourself talking in your head; basically a word) and a signified (a concept, or the thing that is represented). The bond between signifier and signified is always arbitrary. The signifier and signified are different, but always together (this is where the idea of the front and back of a piece of paper comes in – they can be very different, but they can never be separated).
Because of the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and signified, meaning only arises in a social context. You can make up your own code, but you can’t communicate with anyone unless they agree to your code. Saussure then split meaning into two: signification and value. Signification refers to the relationship between the two parts of the sign (signifier and signified), while value refers to the relationship of one sign to all the other signs in the system. This is that idea that “cat” is not “bat” or “rat.”
Levi-Strauss took Saussure’s ideas and applied them to human kinship systems and myths. He had the idea of binary opposites, and how they form the basis of human systems. A binary opposite is a pair of things that are different from each other, like male/female. One of the terms is valued more than the other in such a pairing. Levi-Strauss also distinguished myths as a distinct system from human language.
I hope this quick explanation will keep other people from feeling lost in Klages’ structuralism chapter!
One response to “Structralism in a Few Paragraphs”
Thank you for simplifying such complex ideas! I know I appreciate it, and I’m sure there are others…