Highlights from Structuralism and Post-structuralism for Beginners

AND Introducing Semiotics


Every object is both a presence and an absence.  It is never fully “There” insofar as its being is determined by its relation to the whole system of which it is a part, a system that does not appear to us. 


Synchronic (ahistorical)  Structures stay the same.

Diachronic (historical)


Ferdinand de Suassure (1857-1913)

Saussure’s importance is seen when compared with the linguistic tradition started by Plato.


Plato argued that words do not name things in the world.  They can’t cause there are too many things in the world.   If words named things there would be as many names as there are things in the world.


Rather, words name concepts that designate essences. 

Plato says these essences are real.  More real than the dog.


Saussure says words name IDEAS not things.

What defines it is its relation to other words in the system. 

Language is not complete in any speaker, it exists perfectly only within a collectivity.

These relations are negative, not positive. 

Bat and Cat can be distinguished because they are different.


So if we use different words in different languages we have different thoughts.

There are more words for river in French.  River stream and something else.


Sign is a combination of the Signified (concept (any one of several types of cat) and Signifier (sound-image “cat”). 

The thing that makes these sounds usable is that they are different.  This becomes important when we do the binary thing in post structuralism.  That is because Derrida will accuse folks of privileging a part of the pair.


1st principal is that the sign is arbitrary.  Koreans say mo mo.  We say bow wow.


The language is the entire system .  The speech is the utterance.


A move can only be understood in terms of the rules of chess.  The primary rule off chess is that the pieces are different.  The queen is not the pawn.


Not like science.  There is not cause and effect.  It is more the structure that gives meaning.

So our culture isn’t better than others.  We all have different systems that we use to have a language. 


We have the Mount Rushmore monument, signed baseballs, Small replicas of the Eiffel tower we bring back from Paris, we put flowers on graves.


Other cultures have other systems of signifiers in which they work.

He is the inventor of this synchronic linguistics. 

He looks at the state of language in general.


Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914)

Peirce takes the signified and signifier duo of Saussure, and adds the mental representation.

So there is the sound, the thing it stands for AND the representation in our head.  He calls the “proper significate effect” the “interpretant”.


The interpretant can then become the signified.  This creates a regression. Now it needs a signifier and an interpretant .


Claude Levi-Strauss (1908)

The Hanunoo of the Philipines have 1800 categories for plants.  We know a comedy from a tragedy.


Kinship relations are like word relations

He said that the error of traditional anthropology and traditional linguistics was to consider the terms and not the relations between the terms:  “The value.”


Consciously we perceive things, but unconsciously we perceive relationships.


Studied a lot of tribes.  He did totem poles and saw what the symbols meant to the tribes people.


Communication among early humans was carried out by non-verbal means;  it was only later that language was co-opted for the verbal communicative function.


There was a developed capacity for language;  but this was unaccompanied by speech.  Language therefore evolved for the purposes of cognitive modeling rather than the purposes of communicative message – swapping.  As such, language can be understood as mental processing rather than as a tool for communicating with others.




Mythologies is about how myths are liberated from the necessity of dealing with external objects and therefore it can reflect its own laws of operation.  They are good to think.  They represent the way the mind works.  And our minds are based on nature.


ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

We give women roses. 

These become second level signifiers.

Now their not just roses they show consumption as a sign of love.

Each object reflects the total system, and the total system is in all of the parts. 

Not only does the sign contain a relation between a material substance (signifier) and a mental concept (signified), it also contains a relation between itself and systems of signs outside itself.


“Manifest destiny” conjures up many images.  But you must be aware of a network of ideas in order to understand it. 

The sign can said to have the power of connotation.  Like all signs, it can – potentially – invoke the action of existing sing-systems.


Barthes studied how they got the feeling of Romanness in Julius Cesar.  It doesn’t give you a lot of clues.  The hair is curled on the forehead.  This gives you the sense of the specific Roman mix of self-righteousness, virtue and conquest.

On TV a man tells you about the war.  He is not just a man, but authority.


He uses the example of wrestling.  There you have signs fighting.  There is good and bad and opposition.

He also examined spaghetti ads to see the symbols.


The “Myths” which suffuse our lives are insidious precisely because they appear so natural.  They call out for the detailed analysis which semiotics can deliver.


Examples are:

Cars are better than public transportation

Homosexuality is unnatural.

Meat makes you strong.

Supermarkets make life easier.

Surgery saves lives.


Barthes calls the ”literal denotation” the non-coded iconic message.

More problematic is the relationship between the two “iconic” messages: one “coded”/”connotative” and the other “non-coded”/”Denotative”.

Barthes discusses the connotative first because, as he argues, the process of connotation is so “natural” and so immediate when it is experienced that it is almost impossible to separate denotation and connotation.


The identification of denotation only takes place when connotation is theoretically deleted from the equation.


Identification of what signs depict happens so fast that we forget that it happened at all.

So there is a denotative signifier and signified and a connotative signifier and signified.


The products of human behavior – linguistic texts, cultures, social institutions – are not so much the result of an unfathomable creativity as of a series of limitations or choices of operation.


Every synchronic system has its own past and future as inseparable structural element of the system.


A culture is made up of conceptualizations of signs. 


The red card is an argument.  Beyond words, even lights (red, green, yellow) and whistles (Basketball) are signs


The middle Ages were characterized by semiotic abundance.  Every object has the otential of semiosis and meaning is everywhere.  Nothing is insignificant.


The enlightenment on the other hand, is characterized by a belief in reason and the rational eschewing of all artifice.  The “natural” is valued over the “cultural”





Now                          v.                                           Then (Dark Ages)

Power: Strength            Power: Almighty sense of battle over self and the mighty majesty of god.


Time:  Numbers            Time:  Death.  Time is an enemy and used for transformation of the soul before time runs out.


Sex:  Physical                                                   Sex: Sin evil finishing god’s command mortal soul in peril.


Poetry (despite words meaning) has an aesthetic feel  which is a sign in and of itself.

Other relations include:

The multilayered structures of semiosis

The relation of (aesthetic) texts to institutionally sustained norms and values

The relation of (aesthetic)texts to value beyond the aesthetic realm.

The role of context in the meaning of texts.

The role of the reader in actualizing texts.


Every form of communication (E.G. every ad, every pack carries more informational baggage than any of its originators realize….and this excess content is cultural.


There come metaphors.  Achilles was a lion in battle.


JACQUES LACAN  (1901 – 1981)

A signifier (sound) can be a displaced subconscious signified (concept).

Like Freud, a car can represent the attention of the mother.

This creates instability in the system.

For Lacan, subjectivity is not a thing; rather it is a set of relationships that are activated by entry into a semiological system. 


He identifies himself in language, but only by losing himself in it like an object.

How can you say I think therefore I am without language? 


Between o6 and 18 months babies have a mirror stage.  Here the child identifies itself with the image in the mirror. 

The child who strikes another says that he has been struck early on.  A child who sees another fall cries.


Language is what allows us to distinguish between ourselves and others. 

We then go into the symbolic stage.  A whole set of signs you must relate to.

He uses The Oedipus play differently. 

There is a desire for staying undifferentiated from the mother.  But you have the distant father and he represents language.  He uses it as though you were separate.  Come here.  Get your mother.  Since dawn the father has been identified with the law.

The signifier generates a whole symbolic world of prohibition, repression, alienation and impossible desire, for the sign has “murdered the thing” .  This murder creates what is great in human culture.

We don’t know the real it is like Kant’s thing in itself.  We only know what it means to us and our desires.


Lets get personal:  The tree and the word tree seldom get questioned.  They seem to be just the same thing.  But everyone in English speaking places uses “I” to refer to themselves.  We are not the same person.  I is an arbitrary sound.  I therefore is not me; to use I is simply to subscribe to a system of signifying which exists outside oneself, to use terms from a communally owned store. 


But I doesn’t refer to the real me. 

In order to become a subject and be able to refer to him/herself in the social world, the human must enter into and acquire the pre-existing means of signification.


What we have here is not just a picture of the entry of the human being into language.  It is in fact the entry of the human into the very stuff of subjectivity.  And what does that subjectivity consist of?  Being enmeshed in the endless web of signification.


I is simply a linguistic category; it doesn’t look like me.  It doesn’t walk like me, it doesn’t register how thirsty I am.  In short, it can never capture the fullness of me. 


There may be a parole where we say, I like bananas”  I in that instance of parole that likes bananas is not the same as the person who utters the parole (who also likes other things).


The relation  between signified and signifier is so entrenched and second nature that it seems to the language user that s/he is very close to language.


But, in fact, the linguistic system is outside the human subject.

What the system enables the language user to express is a long way from what she actually feels.


We’re divorced from this means of representation and, at the same time, constituted as a subject by that means of representation.


Little s represents the inner world that cannot be expressed through signification.

Big S is the world of the culture and signification.

Separating them is an impenetrable bar.  

The little s is hardly graspable. 


It seems the combination of s/S have always existed with meaning, but infact it has been constructed from without.


What Lacan demonstrates about the subject as a “product” of signification, is irksome for those that believe in the rationality of humans acting independently outside of the signifying system, operating it in a voluntaristic way.


Can you think outside of the word or outside of precreated signifiers?


We use centralized words to anchor our meanings.




Structuralist semiology had basically treated the subject as the “bearer” of structures.  Far from being the locus of agency, the human was understood as dominated by kinship norms, narrative processes, myths, gender relations or whatever structure was under discussion.


Saussure has people able to say whatever whenever.  

One reason that post-structuralism took of was that during the 1968 uprising in Paris, the professors were structuralists.


Saussure is most interested in the idea that the flow of difference can be halted – especially in spoken signs – and there can be acces to a stable concept which the signifier designates.


Difference  and defferance.


Ten green bottles standing on a wall.  The meaning changes as we get farther and farther into the sentence.  The meaning is differed until we get to the end (but we never do).




Pure synchrony is an illusion.  Evolution happens.  Languages change.


Marx had already argued that language was “ideology” which worked in the service of socio-economic power base.  It was power disguised.


Foucault said that there is no power base independent of language.  Rather discourse is already “desire and power” in action.


For example in a court system there are inclusive and exclusive rules that determine what can and cannot be said and who can and cannot say it.


He does a history of ideas following Nietzsche.  In foucauldian history discontinuities are emphasized.  Not the continuity that other historians emphasize.


Foucault’s discourses set up the parameters for aspects of human subjectivity.