Gabriella Romani on Barthes, "Structuralist Activity"

A literary structuralist analysis is related to the Saussurian methodology, developed for the study of language. Indifferent to subjective and cultural values, structuralism ignores content and "highlights the strictly human processby which men give meaning to things"(1198). Put simply, a structuralist literary critic is more interested in the 'how' rather in the 'what' of literature.

The literary text, as well as any other intellectual activity (1197), says Barthes, unfolds its meaning through a process of 'dissection' and 'articulation' which allows the 'structuralist man' to determine the paradigm of the text, or object, and, thus, discover the rules of relation between its various functions. It is through this reconstruction of the object --that is,the analysis of the relations between the fuctions-- that the work can reveal itself. The role of the 'structuralist man' , therefore, becomes necessarely related to the objects itself. At this regard, Barthes points out that structuralism is not a method, but rather an activity, which decentralizes the authority of the author --who is not anymore 'the' source of meaning-- and creates a 'literary space' where both the writer, the reader and the text itself construct the meaning of the object. While the emphasys on the role of the critic/reader in the structuralist activity seemengly highlights the importance of the participation of the reader in the construction of meaning (historicizing it), the constrains of the focus on the formal aspect of literature limit the scope of the literary investigation, bracketing off the social, cultural or sexual implications inherent in the production and use of language. (Who, for example, is the structuralist 'man'? The ambiguity of the word cannot but raise some questions on the universality implied in the model provided by the structuralist method.)

Central to the thought of Gramsci and Althusser is the notion that hegemony is established not oly through coercion, but on other levels as well. One of the most basic other levels for the operation of this dynamic would certainly be that of linguistic production and literature.

Finally, when Barthes speaks of the "strictly human process by which men gives meaning to things," he seems to refer to an undefined universal human mind which transcends the subject and yet speaks for him/her. The risk here is that literature, rather that being a means of expression of human ideas and emotions, becomes a mere exercise of formal linguistic elements.