Monday, 19 April 2010


Structuralism is an area of social & cultural theory that focused on and analysed the structures found in human society. It was very important in the early & middle C.20th and is still a very useful perspective even though there have been several more recent developments (such as Post-Structuralism & Deconstruction).

Structuralism emerged from the realisation of certain linguistic & literary theorist and anthropologist that all human societies and cultures possessed shared elements. Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, noticed the universal prevalence of incest-taboos and binary oppositions in narratives (e.g. good/bad, man/women, young/old).

Most structural theory of narrative isn’t that immediately useful to us but three things certainly are;

The Death of the Author

The ‘equilibrium’ theory of Todorov

The ‘narrative codes’ of Roland Barthes

The Death of the Author - This is the title of an essay by Barthes on why authors are unimportant in the understanding of a text and which draws its inspiration from the remarkable finding of structuralist anthropology and literary theory that all stories contained the same or similar elements regardless of the society and/or culture they originated from. All human stories were made up from the same narrative elements (see Propp, The Brothers Grimm, the aforementioned Levi-Strauss, Todorov & Barthes (see below) and so all an ‘author’ really does it reform those existing elements into a specific (not even necessarily new) pattern. If the creators of texts are not their ‘authors’, in the sense of the originating force, then we should only think of them as writers and relegate them to the background of analysis.

The ‘equilibrium’ theory of Todorov - Todorov established that most narratives could be shown to conform to one narrative pattern and that this pattern was indicative of a conservative ideology. Equilibrium - Todorov suggests that a narrative pattern based on equilibrium - disruption - return to equilibrium - new (or re-established) equilibrium. By which we mean that this narrative pattern would present itself in a text as some form of social stability (family life, a peaceful setting, daily life, political stability) which is disrupted (murder, revolution, the return of a prodigal family member, the appearance of a super villain) this disruption needs to be worked through (by investigating the crime, the superhero struggling for good, the family mending itself, society repairing itself or being repaired) so that a new or re-establish social stability is in place for the conclusion of the text (the hero defeats the villain and his evil plan, the murderer is apprehended, the family is at peace with itself, the safety of the old order is repaired). Todorov did not contend that all narratives conformed to this pattern but that a majority of them did and that they did so for ideological reasons. Todorov shows this pattern to be an ideological tool that acts against change and in favour of the status quo.

The ‘narrative codes’ of Barthes - Barthes extended the structural analysis of narrative by suggesting that all narratives where built up from five interweaving codes. These codes, the hermeneutic (based on enigma), the proairetic (based on action), the ‘semantic’ (based on connotation), the ‘symbolic’ code (based on antithesis), and the ‘cultural’ code (based on shared knowledge & intertextuality), are mixed in different ways throughout different texts. For our purposes (A-level media studies) the first two codes, the hermeneutic (enigma) and the proairetic (action) are the most important because they are the most obvious. We can see them at work whenever there is a mystery to be solved or when action is needed to resolve a situation (they are very commonly seen in crime & thriller fiction) and they both have a strong interpellative effect in that they draw us in to the text. This is useful because we can see how narrative elements are used ideologically.

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