Unsafe structure

1 Jul

We’ve had our disagreements, structuralism and I.

Years ago, wrestling with an undergraduate dissertation on Raymond Chandler, I wanted to make something of the fact that, though the majority of Marlowe’s California can be traced on a map, radiating faithfully out from Wilshire Boulevard, there is one significant place that can’t be found: Bay City. Plonked down somewhere on the coast, it is both uncharted and the wrongest of what Auden calls the Great Wrong Places that the American crime novel inhabits: throughout Chandler’s series of books, Marlowe never once manages to leave there without getting physically beaten up.

That imaginary dystopia somewhere off the known track of the coastal highway, that interplay between reality and fiction, fascinated me. But when I talked to my supervisor about it, he wouldn’t have any of it. A rigid structuralist, he would not allow that most of the city was “real” and that Bay City was, uniquely, “fictional”: instead, the whole of Chandler’s Los Angeles was no more or less than what could be divined from the system of signifiers and images used in the book. External reference was not permitted: to a structuralist, the only evidence for the nature of a character or a place is contained within the work; characters, events and locations are defined solely by their function in the structure of the book. “Los Angeles”, for the purposes of the novel and the dissertation, was no more real than Bay City was. My map of California could not be unfolded; the question could not even be raised.

That was my first encounter with structuralist criticism, and I was simultaneously startled and infuriated. Analysing a book in terms solely of motifs, images, parallels and metaphors was both revelatory and stifling: in a magic realist novel, for example, you could track the appearances and disappearances of  a unicorn in a barrio and discover patterns of extraordinary complexity and significance. But you couldn’t comment on the largest and boldest artistic effect of all: the fact that there was, magically, a unicorn in the barrio in the first place. Structuralism revealed beauty in poetry that it hadn’t even occurred to me to look for, but rendered romans à clef and allegories meaningless. It was simultaneously soaring and restrictive, grandiose and rigid.

But it was better than what came after.

Because when the revolt began against the increasingly grand claims made for  structuralism (culminating in the superbly hubristic assertion that language was only being held back by the limits of human experience – that “culture is the prison-house of language”), it went not for the overambitious critical superstructure, but for the linguistic foundations on which it was built. Deconstructionists demolished the idea of a glorious system of signifiers not by dismantling the system, but by dismantling the signifiers themselves. Words were not solid bricks in the architecture of  a language, but untrustworthy and crumbling – weakened and discoloured by ambiguity, creating distracting and unpredictable patterns for the audience, making writing a hugely uncertain proposition and reading a solitary effort of interpretation that never produced quite the same effect from one imagination to another.

But that cogent and undeniable point – necessary, perhaps, to prick the pomposity of an out-of-control critical movement – created a whole critical movement of its own: one that didn’t so much read as despair of reading. Post-structuralist and deconstructionist academics came to glory in the impossibility of successful communication, wrote and then struck through words in their own essays to dissociate themselves from the “freight” they carried, relished the “condition of interpretive uncertainty”, celebrated the “death of the author”. Where generations of critics had found moving and delicate achievements of romance, humour, intrigue and surprise in the literary canon, deconstructionists found only dissonance, ambiguity and failure – over and over and over again.

Work after work, genre after genre, was left devastated and denuded of meaning by exactly the same method, for exactly the same reason, as though visited by locusts. And ultimately the effect – after the initial shock and disruption to traditional critical viewpoints – became repetitive and pointless. As my Shakespeare teacher at college put it in one of his books:

‘After the umpteenth exposition of the scandalous arbitrariness of the signifier and the endless deferral of meaning in yet another Shakespeare play, one begins to see the force of the complaint that deconstructionism, when confronted with a text, ‘can only endlessly rediscover its own first principles’, and to concur with Stephen Greenblatt’s opinion that ‘deconstructionist readings lead too readily and predictably into the void’.”

In the end, in a buzzing environment full of young dons positing alternative viewpoints – from New Critics to unreconstructed Freudians – it was easy, and a relief, to leave postmodernism behind and rally to a different flag. But you don’t encounter that combination of nihilism and condescension, even briefly, without it leaving a mark. And when I became a sub-editor, and first encountered descriptivist linguistics, all those old memories came rushing back.

I have no linguistics background: although so much of structuralist and post-structuralist criticism is derived from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and those who later opposed him, I know it only from its literary manifestations. And I understand that descriptivism, based as it is on the observation of language in the wild, is ostensibly democratic and non-judgmental, founded only on the unarguable truth that language changes. I know. I grasp the arguments.

And yet… when “enormity” is shown to have slid back and forth throughout history between its two very different meanings, I sense, not the democratic spirit ushering in a wider and more popular understanding, but a delight in confusion, a restless relish for change. When “literally” is demonstrated also to mean its paradoxical opposite, the achievement, as always, seems an uncomfortably deconstructionist one: ambiguity has been preferred to clarity; the signifier has been destabilised. What you thought was safe ground is not safe after all. What you thought was communication was misunderstanding. What you thought was success was failure.

In a sense, the structuralists and the post-structuralists are both right. Language is both our greatest cultural achievement and our most alarmingly fragile one. It’s pointless to deny that the bridges we build with it are shaky: they may even be slightly unsafe. Writers and editors need to bear that in mind always: but that’s because we are the ones who are trying to build the bridges, with the only materials we have to hand. Of all people, we should be the ones to keep believing that we can cross the gulf and reach someone on the other side. It seems strange for us to be the ones pulling violently at the foundations to see how much we can make the bridges shake – to be the ones trying to send the travellers on them tumbling, all too readily and predictably, into the void.

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2 Responses to “Unsafe structure”

  1. Garrett Wollman July 7, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    I was reminded, for some reason, when reading this post of the quotations from an interview with Hisham Matar found here: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hisham_Matar (the only ones on that page), particularly the middle one:

    I noticed that my problems occur when I try to dominate the text, when I try to ask it to be something, or to ask it to fit into some sort of structure, or when I ask it to compliment my ego, or all of these things. That’s really where all my problems start from. Where it’s going very well, is where I have sort of surrendered to it, you know, where I am behind the text, and I am watching, like a dancer who’s following another dancer, and just watching where it might go next. All I want to be is, I want to be as ready and as available as possible for it. That seems to me all I really need to do.

    • edlatham July 7, 2013 at 9:56 am #

      Those are very interesting quotes on the Wikipedia page. I suppose the advantage of writing “behind the book” is that, if it’s going well, it feels as though it’s writing itself. It’s also the point some critics use to justify literary criticism itself: the reasoning goes that art isn’t architecture or engineering, but a process, as Hisham Matar says, that can be mysterious and at least semi-subconscious, so that authors themselves may not be fully cognisant of the resonances of their work.

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