Introduction In this essay I will give a brief introduction of two significant schools of literary theory: structuralism and feminism, explore the influence structuralism has on feminism, then evaluate the importance of two schools from literary criticism aspect.
Structuralism Before Structuralism came into being in 20th century, criticism was said to be “a sorry unscientific mess that needed to be smartly tidied up” (Eagleton, 1999). Canadian Northrop Frye provides a plausible solution to systemise criticism and banish all biased judgement and gossip in his Anatomy of Criticism, believing that there were certain objective laws working within literary works of different genres, forming the basic structure of modes, archetypes, myths and genres. Aside from Frye, the most significant theory came from Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern structural linguistics, who views language as a system of sign: the signifier and the signified. Word is regarded as the signifier and the meaning is the signified. The relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. There are no pre-existing entities to words. Literary structuralism is an attempt to apply this theory to literature, focusing on the internal relation of signs, how they combine and form meaning. Meaning changes when the use of language is structurally shifted. Meaning is created by internal relationship, meaning is not stable, predetermined entity.
Structuralism views literature as aesthetic object in a more systematic and scientific way, (Eagleton, 1999) analyse with linguistic approach. (Chinade, 2012), so that an objective literary system could be established. It should be closed, uninfluenced by external values, and materials. To maintain the discipline of this objective system, subjective value judgement should be avoided. Nothing supports the meaning other than the literary text itself. The system should involve no history other than literary history, no author or social background. The idea of structuralist literary analysis is grounded on textual evidence. This have backed some theorist that positioned the author is dead and the reader should be dismissed. No single structuralism is alone as a literary theory, but “there is a range of theoretical positions and arguments, all in support of the idea that the literary text as a product of language remains the final arbiter rather than the author or the social circumstances surrounding the production of the cultural product.” (Chinade, 2012) It gave rise to post-structuralism. The movement from structuralism to post-structuralism is marked by Roland Barthes’s famous essay and literary theory “The Death of Author”. Structuralism helped promote the notion of the death of man. Traditional enlightenment believes that man is the centre of cultural process- a creature that can exert domination over it environment through the exercise of reason. Whereas the death of man is the realization that man is not by its own will; we are controlled by systems. (Appignanesi 2001: 75) 3. Feminism Feminism is a social and political theory, what distinguishes it from other theories is its unrivalled view of traditional ideology. It involves a critique of sexism, a postulation of phallocentric and male superiority. (Beasley, 1999) Before feminism, the entire western mainstream philosophy and history are based on masculine point of view, while feminine point of view- be it writer or reader- was largely absent. Different periods of feminist movement are addressed as waves.
The first-wave feminism is a political movement started from 19th century, aiming to reform legal inequalities, mainly for woman gaining the right to vote. That is what feminism was at the very beginning: woman’s right movement. Later, the proposition expended, and theories develop around it. What happens between theoretical text and literature is not just one-sidedly applying theory to an abject text to demonstrate theory’s intricacy but a discourse transacts between the two. (Rooney, 2006) As social movement, feminism uncover many cases of gender inequality and help making the public aware of this issue. As a literary criticism, feminism is used to access gender perspective. (Rooney, 2006) Originally the premise of feminist literary studies is that women read, and their reading would bring new perspective into centuries-long phallocentric society and academic field. Feminist literary theory maintains that women’s reading is momentous, intellectually, politically, poetically; women’s readings signify. The historical background that originate this idea is the time when women’s reading was of no significance and women reading was opposed and considered as social hazard. The rise of the English novel, in the eighteenth century, “was accompanied by a stream of diatribes opposed to women’s reading” (Rooney, 2006), fearing that it would upset domestic order, and novel might have an impact on women’s virtues of chastity and their docility toward patriarchal authority. Nevertheless that time when women was scarcely educated, not to mention to have their voice be heard in the public was long gone, now feminism as criticism of literary works is no longer gender exclusive. And even the concept of gender has been deconstructed during post-structuralism, which will be discussed later in this essay. Feminism after structuralism found itself in serious dilemma when it tried to deconstruct itself, which shook the very foundation of feminism. Any attempt on “what is woman”, whether from the aspect of biology, society or culture, fell into the sexist concept of generic woman being an object to be passively defined.
The subjectivity of woman was undefined and indefinable. (Beasley, 1999) These woman’s right activists and feminists are taking gender as a position from which to act politically, yet gender is not natural, biological, universal, ahistorical, nor essential. Any generalization in their statement, either about women themselves or address and accusation toward the other party/sex easily leads to controversy, not only because generalization is often subjective but also because this crime of generalization, this judgemental pointing finger toward a specific group of people, is exactly what women strive to resist within the structure of patriarchal society. Just as women should not be defined as weak and as oftentimes victims of crimes, nor all men should be accused of being potential rapists. Nonetheless, certain phenomenon is in truth relevant to gender. As the result, feminists need to explore the possibility of a theory of the gendered subject that does not slide into essentialism. In Linda Alcoff’s dissertation Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory in 1988, she resolved that “positionality” was the new way feminist could make a stand. From an experiential viewpoint, “the very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position.” (Alcoff, 1988) Their values are interpreted and constructed from their positional perspective. And “identity of women is the product of her own interpretation and reconstruction of her history, as mediated through the cultural discursive context to which she has access.” By adopting an empirical perspective, feminist can avoid generalization of themselves yet still articulate their needs and experiences of difficulties. Strikingly, this dissertation from 30 years ago perfectly grasps the essence of dilemma feminists find themselves in nowadays, and the reasons behind endless debates at online social medias. At the end of her dissertation, she then set the future course of feminism based on her findings and stated: The demands of millions of women for child care, reproductive control, and safety from sexual assault can reinvoke the cultural assumption that these are exclusively feminine issue and can reinforce the right-wing’s reification of gender difference unless and until we can formulate a political program that can articulate these demands in a way that challenges rather than utilizes sexist discourse. Nowadays, feminism thrive for diversity, multiplicity (as opposed to ) and gender equality which is not only for woman but for man as well. In second wave French feminist Luce Irigary’s renown book This Sex Which Is Not One, she asserted that “if their aim were simply to reverse the order of things, even supposing this to be possible, history would repeat itself in the long run, would revert to sameness: to phallocratism.” (1977) 4. Conclusion Following the rise of New Criticism, the age of 20th century is a prominent time in which many literary theories flourished. The appearance of structuralism was needed as the society grew more industrialized and scientific. It allowed a broader, more structural view when examining literature, moreover, not as an aesthetic object but as a social practice. (Eagleton, 1996)