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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


A theory of literature that focuses on the codes and conventions that undergird all discourse and on the system of language as a functioning totality. This system Ferdinand de Saussure calls langue, "the whole set of linguistic habits which allow an individual to understand and to be understood." Anticausal and antiphilological, structuralism deliberately ignores the historical origins of the various elements of language, the external context of linguistic acts, the agents who use language, and the individual speech acts themselves (parole). Structuralism sees language as a system of differences without any positive terms, embraces the arbitrariness and conventionality of the sign, brackets any consideration of the referent, and generates a vocabulary of oppositions, all of which are more or less synonymous: langue and parole, synchrony and diachrony, system and event, signifier and signified, code and message, metaphor and metonymy, paradigm and syntagm, selection and combination, substitution and context, similarity and contiguity. In each case the first term is privileged.

Although Saussurian linguistics is its paradigm, what is of interest is how structuralism analogically extends Saussure's terms into the analysis of literature. Roland Barthes provides a good example. "Literature" Barthes writes, "is simply a language, a system of signs. Its being [être] is not in its message, but in this 'system.' Similarly, it is not for criticism to reconstitute the message of a work, but only its system, exactly as the linguist does not decipher the meaning of a sentence, but establishes the formal structure which allows the meaning to be conveyed." Rather than interpreting the meaning or value of a work, the critic examines the structures that produce meaning. The intentionality of the author is thereby disregarded; language and structures -- not the consciousness of an author or the willed verbal acts that eminate from it -- generate meaning.

As a consequence, the subject is dissolved into a series of systems, deprived of its role as a source of meaning, and thereby decentered. The self is an intersubjective construct, a place where codes and conventions interact. In addition, the reader is privileged at the expense of the author, for, as Jonathan Culler points out, "the text is a kind of formless space whose shape is imposed by structured modes of reading." The operative concept is intertextuality. "We now know," Barthes writes, "that the text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological meaning' (the 'message' of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture." Nevertheless, he goes on to say, "there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed . . . . A text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination." Codes, according to Barthes, equal the already read [déjà lu]; the reader is the place where the various codes are located. (See also Linguistics and literary theory, Semiotics.)

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997