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M i c hael S tarenko A Reader’s Guide to Structuralist Criticism February 1981 “This ‘I’ which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or, more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost).” —Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970) In spite of—or because of—their intense mutual dependency, art critics and their readers, like couples in a Tom Stoppard play, derive a great deal of satisfaction from insulting each other. At the moment, the main source of their mutual irritation seems to be the issue of difficulty. Readers insult critics for being unreadable, or at least, for being too difficult to read. Detecting here a double standard, critics retort that written criticism must be just as difficult as its objects. They ask: if difficulty is the most desirable attribute of modern art (and what, they ask rhetorically, is modern art if not objectified difficulty?), why should readers expect criticism to be easy? Both sides, of course, are right—and wrong. Critics certainly have good reason to feel insulted when readers give up on their essays after the first page, claiming that the critics’ arguments are “inscrutable,” when, point of fact, the readers’ attention span is no more than one page to begin with. However, television, the usual scapegoat in discussions of the decline of “book” learning and general literacy, is not the only cause of this new illiteracy. Evidently, our system of education, particularly art education, appears to have done little to train people in 112   T h e E s s e n t i a l N ew A rt E xaminer the art of reading criticism. By the same token, art criticism is often unnecessarily difficult to read. In addition, the readers’ familiar complaint that critics write mainly to better other critics, or that they write about issues that only other critics could appreciate, is well-founded. In any event, a new critical method called, loosely, structuralism has made these genuine complaints seem relatively insignificant in comparison to its claims to self-reflexive difficulty. Why is it important that readers (and critics) understand structuralism ? To put it as simply as I can, structuralism, a human science based on a model provided by linguistics, shows why the relationship between reading and writing, which is always mediated by a “text,” is paradigmatic of the far more complex “intertextuality” of human life in general. What is more, since we commonly understand criticism as the “translation” of one text (a painting, a building, a photograph or a performance) into yet another text (writing or criticism), any new theory of language can be expected to have a significant impact on what we, as writers and readers, believe criticism should be all about. As for the contrary belief that all art, or the best work of certain artists, is ineffable—incapable of being expressed in words—that, of course, is the source of considerable and sometimes extreme animosity between writers and (anti-) readers. A demand for silence is the sharpest insult that anyone can hurl at a critic. Nevertheless, to the extent that an individual is a reader of criticism, he or she must consider even the finest art open to “translation.” There is, however, still a tacit assumption on the part of readers that the critic “won’t go too far—won’t try to explain it all.” To the uninitiated reader, structuralist criticism often seems to transgress this assumption. Moreover, the technical jargon of structuralism (e.g., “diachrony,” “index,” “metalanguage,” “simulacrum,” “syntagm”) has no doubt turned off a great many readers who might otherwise be interested in what structuralism has to offer. In the interests of the bemused but potentially sympathetic reader, I shall try to unpack some of the essential terminology of structuralist art criticism, and in doing I shall argue that structuralism does not so much explain away the “mystery ”‘ of art as raise the ante for what is at stake. And what, exactly, is at stake in all of this? Well, in a curious way, socalled objectivity is at stake. While we all think of art as fictional or highly imaginative in some sense, structuralist criticism argues that many of our most cherished beliefs about art are, in practice, expectations about its “real” character, about our belief that art somehow goes beyond mere M I C H A E L S T A R E N K O    A Reader’s Guide to Structural Criticism   113 appearances to real...


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