At the same moment as structuralism bracketed off the real object, it bracketted off the human subject. Indeed it is this double movement which defines the structuralist project. The work neither refers to an object, nor is the expression of an individual subject; both of these are blocked out, and what is left hanging in the air between them is a system of rules. This system has its own independent life, and will not stoop to the beck and call of individual intentions. To say that structuralism has a problem with the individual subject is to put it mildly: that subject was effectively liquidated, reduced to the function of an impersonal structure. To put it another way: the new subject was really the system itself, which seemed equipped with all the attributes (autonomy, self correction, unity and so on) of the traditional individual. Structuralism is ‘anti-humanist’, which means not that its devotees rob children of their sweets but that they reject the myth that meaning begins and ends in the individual’s ‘experience’. For the humanist tradition, meaning is something that I create, or that we create together; but how could we create meaning unless the rules which govern it were already there? However far we push, however much we hunt for the origin of meaning, we will always find a structure already in place. This structure could not have been simply the result of speech, for how were we able to speak coherently in the first place without it? We could never discover the ‘first sign’ from which it all began, because, as Saussure makes clear, one sign pressupposes another from which it differs, and that another. If language was ever ‘born’, Lévi-Strauss speculates, it must have been born ‘at a stroke’. Roman Jakobson’s communicative model, the reader will remember, starts from an addresser who is the source of the transmitted message; but where did this addresser come from? To be able to transmit a message at all, he or she must already be caught up in and constituted by language. In the beginning was the Word.
Literary Theory: An Introduction (Structuralism and Semiotics)