11. Structuralism and Binary Opposition

I believe that understanding the basic methods of structuralist study would be quite helpful in tracking down the ideas that have determined the direction of the contemporary arts.

Explaining the difference between semiotics and structuralism can be challenging since these two fields are extensively interrelated. I will try a smooth transition from semiotics and communications, the topics of the previous sections, into structuralism with an example:

Let’s say that I want to praise someone or something and I am looking for some adjectives to use. I go through the clusters of paradigms sitting in my memory and I run into a group: high, exalted, upright, elevated. I keep looking and find another group: grand, monumental, gigantic, immense. I see yet another one: boundless, far-reaching, vast, endless, unlimited. Then I choose some of these adjectives, combine them with other words, line them all up and deliver.

The structuralist looks at my process and asks “Why are there such paradigms?” Or, to be a bit more technical, “What is the most fundamental, indispensable construct under these conceptual structures?” Or, less formally, “What is the ‘-ness’ under these word clusters?” And, s/he may conclude that the first one is based on “highness-lowness,” the second one on “bigness-smallness,” and the third one on “farness-nearness.” The structuralist calls these pairs “binary opposites” and says that they form the “distinctive features” of these structures. It is possible for this person to write an article on the effects of verticality, horizontality and volume in physical spaces on the formation of adjectives in language, because “… for the structuralist the task is to uncover the conceptual structures by which various cultures organize their perception and understanding of the world. … Structuralism’s enterprise is to discover how people make sense of the world, not what the world is.” (Fiske, 115; general concept: Jakobson (1979), 122-176)

Terms such as “deep structures,” “underlying structures,” “organizing principles” (in the roots of culture) are used to identify the level of study aimed at by structuralists. What is the benefit to be achieved from structuralist analyses?

Let me make up another example: Some people eat lamb meat, some eat cow, some horse, some pork and some others eat snails and bugs. As a result of the processes described in semiotics, societies develop conventions, codes, associations and connotations and, for instance, at some point, those who eat the meat of the strong, useful, noble horse may begin to look down on snail eaters and may even want to pick a fight. The structuralist finds the “whose meat is better than whose” argument nonsensical and says “Why don’t you look for the common denominator among these meats? They are all protein.” Focusing on the protein-ness of meat represents a way out of superficiality, shallowness and nonsense. There is a big difference between asking “Why do they eat snails?” and “Why do they satisfy their need for protein by eating snails?”

When we look from this point of view, we can see that both semiotics and structuralism are part of a two-hundred-year-old, wide-ranging “opposition to myths” movement. Cardinal J. Ratzinger (day before he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005) considered this movement to be the reason for the “derailment” of the world and bundled all things belonging to it under the word “relativism,” which, I believe, was not too illogical.*

*   *   *

One of the leading minds in structuralist criticism was Roman Jakobson, who has left behind very crucial ideas and findings. Here is a summary of the basics of his approach to languages to give a hint about structuralist methodology:

When studying the system of a language, Jakobson proposes to detect and start from the smallest units of the system, the phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest sound units in a language, each with its own distinct sound, that trigger “sense discrimination” (not the letters of the alphabet but the sounds most of which are symbolized by the letters). 

The vast majority of phonemes mean nothing by themselves: “… its sole semiotic content is its dissimilarity from all the other phonemes of the given system.” (Jakobson (1981), 63, 66-67) A phoneme’s main function is to appear as a unique unit, to be positioned among other phonemes to build up morphemes (smallest meaningful units) and words.

After we identify the phonemes of a language, we can ask “Why are these sounds used in this language?” Why isn’t there the sound of English “W” in Turkish and why isn’t there the Turkish sound represented by the letter dotted u (“Ü”) in English? An etymological study of these phonemes that shows their roots and historical developments would not provide the answers to these questions and would have no practical contribution to the study and understanding of the system.

Jakobson concentrates on the function of the phonemes within the system and explains that their existence and use are determined by Saussure’s principle of differentiation: one phoneme’s existence (therefore, value) is defined by the fact that it is not the other phonemes. 

… the important thing as far as phonemes are concerned is not at all each phoneme’s individual phonic quality considered in isolation and existing in its own right. What matters is their reciprocal oppositions within a phonological system. Each phoneme presupposes a network of oppositions with the other phonemes of the system. (Jakobson (1981), 76)

Jakobson takes another step and bases the “difference” on “binary oppositions.” Binary opposites travel together, “they are interrelated in a quite specific way: if one of them is present, the mind deduces the other. … the appearance of one of them inevitably elicits the other” – to make sense (Jakobson (1981), 76). The opposite of white is black, of beautiful is ugly, of big is small, of closed is open, of expensive is cheap. The binary opposites constitute the fundamental structure of production of meaning.

[A perfect demonstration of Jakobson’s approach to languages is his study of the vowel-harmony system of Turkish, which happens to be my mother tongue. Thinking that non-Turkish speakers may find the information too technical and complex, I will place my summary of his analysis at the end of this article.]

Jakobson’s analytical approach is not limited to linguistics. Let us think of music: When we speak, our brains quickly execute some extremely complex processes in accordance with many intricate rules, most of the time unwittingly. This is true for any language. Speech is not like but is the performance of a very complicated song. Singing may be seen as the reduction of speech operation to a more traceable level. Speech involves all elements of organized nonverbal sound. 

To elaborate: Intensive developments took place in European classical music around the second half of the eighteenth century. Systematization and elaboration of tonal harmony formed a major part of these developments. The ecstatic and mesmerizing effects of the grand symphonic works of the romantic period were mostly explained with the composer’s command of harmony. In the West, music was seen as a system consisting of melody, rhythm and harmony and the notes of the temporal system (A, A#, B, C, etc.) were considered to be the smallest building blocks.

On the other hand, music was being composed and performed in the Ottoman court as well but there was no harmony in that “modal” system, all instruments played the same notes in unison. The Ottoman classical music focused on melody and rhythm only and it had a complex melodic system called “makam” which included the micro-tones that were excluded from the Western tonal system.

Yet, the responses of the listeners of the Ottoman music were not any different from those of the Europeans: they listened to it joyfully or ecstatically or sadly or thoughtfully, following the choices of the composer. 

There were certain musical systems developed in Southern Asia too. The timbres of the Indian art music and its compositional concepts, forms, and instruments could not even be imagined and considered musical by the Europeans and the Ottomans. Yet, their listeners listened to that music just like any other listener of music anywhere else in the world.

Where I am trying to get to should be pretty clear by now: When a society doesn’t have information about the others, it considers that its own conventionalized values are universally valid. The idea of music without harmony could have been completely inconceivable for a composer in early nineteenth century Europe, until s/he had a chance to hear the music at the Ottoman court and observe its effects on the listeners. On the other hand, the equal tempered system of the West must have sounded unbearably cacophonic to the Ottoman and Indian musicians who eventually got familiar with and used to it. In other words, if we were still travelling on horseback, none of the concepts and arguments I mention in these notes would exist. We must admit that relativity owes a lot to the train, automobile, ship and airplane.

As a result of the comparative information, the European, who considered music to consist of melody, rhythm and harmony, realized that that was not the case. Some asserted, to no effect, that harmony is actually inherent in all types of music since every sound consists of multitudes of harmonics, etc. From the structuralist’s point of view, such approaches are nothing but superficial speculations at the “superstructural” level, which is not the level to detect the lowest common denominator among all types of music. When the structuralist digs down to reach the foundation and the most indispensable elements, s/he finds the phenomenon of “sound” at the core of music and begins his/her study from there.

We know how sound physically comes into being: Sound waves created by vibrating objects travel in a conductive medium and, when they hit the human ear, they get registered as “sound” in the brain. Sound, in general, is a phenomenon that defies taxonomy and classification. Yet, when we ask “What makes a sound a sound?”, we see that every sound consists of four components. There can be no sound if all four of these components are not simultaneously present:

1. Pitch

2. Duration

3. Volume

4. Timbre

Each of the first three of these components is identified by binary oppositions within itself:

1. Pitch: lowness-highness

2. Duration: shortness-longness

3. Volume: loudness-softness

In this respect, we can say that every sound bears distinctive features defined by binary oppositions. The reason for a sound to be perceived as high-pitched is not being low-pitched, the reason for shortness is not being long, etc. 

Due to the molecular structure of the vibrating objects, the differing volumes of the harmonics and the uncountable number of sound-producing objects, it is impossible to base the timbre on binary opposites. Yet, we identify the timbre (sound of wood, bell, organ, car, child, etc.) by its differentiality as well, by what other sounds it is not.

Playing an instrument is essentially the manipulation of the binary oppositions of the pitch, duration, volume and (to a certain extent) timbre. The guitar player, for example, makes use of all oppositions at the same time: while pressing the strings against different frets for changes in pitch, s/he simultaneously controls the duration, the volume and the timbre. We perform the same, if not a more complicated procedure when we speak: we adjust the pitch, duration and volume of the phonemes we utter simultaneously.

In short, structuralist analysis of music begins with the notion that all types of music, fundamentally and absolutely, are “sound.” This broad and radically inclusive approach constitutes one of the major developments in the first half of the past century that have paved the way for the extraordinary achievements in music and the arts in general. For example, Isadora Duncan’s declaration that dance is bodily movement that surrenders to or defies gravity can be seen as the statement that brought forth the “movement-ness” of dance, based on a pair of most essential binary opposites.


* From the homily of Cardinal J. Ratzinger, Vatican Basilica,18 April 2005:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. … Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.


Analysis of Turkish vowel harmony
(Jakobson (1981), 69-87)

Turkish vowels consist of eight phonemes:

a (arch), o (obese), u (oozy), ı (closest: dollar, oven)

e (edit), ö (urn), ü (French: bureau, futur), i (each)

When we study their vocalizations (“act of phonation”), we see that they bear oppositional features based on: 

1. open-closed (shape of mouth)

2. back-front (location of resonance in the mouth)

3. flat-round (shape of lips)

Then we realize that the Turkish language system groups and utilizes the eight phonemes according to the above oppositional pairs:

1. open (a, o, u, ı) – closed (e, ö, ü, i) (also called “low-high pitched”)

2. back (a, o, ö, e) – front (ı, u, ü, i)

3. flat (a, ı, e, i) – round (o, u, ö, ü)

Roman Jakobson calls these oppositional characteristics which identify the phonemes “distinctive features.”  “The  oppositions of such differential qualities are real binary oppositions … each of the terms of the opposition necessarily implies its opposite.” (Jakobson, 81) For example, existence of the phoneme “a” can be explained by its distinctive features: it is open, in the back and flat, as opposed to being closed, in the front and round. In that respect, a phoneme is defined as a “bundle of distinctive features.” (Jakobson, 82)

To give a concrete example to the use of “vowel harmony” in Turkish: 

There are four simple past tense suffix options: -di, -dı, -dü, -du. “Sil” means “erase,” “sildi” means “[s/he] erased”: we pick the option with the same letter (i) in the root of the word. But if the word is “gel” (come), we don’t have the “-de” suffix, so we use the closest option “-di”: “geldi.” Why does “-di” become the closest option? Because “e” in “gel” is closed+back+flat and “i” in “-di” is closed+front+flat – there are two common features between the two whereas the vowels in the other suffix options have only one common feature.