One of the most challenging courses that I love teaching is Literary Theory and Criticism. Theories beautify our study of literature by gifting us different perspectives with which we can view a text. Indeed, it would be quite boring to always approach a text from a particular ideological lens day in, day out; year in year out. The opportunity provided us by theory to select our perspectives is what makes literature and its interpretation so interesting and exciting. It is this very reason that informed my decision to specialise in Literature rather than language, which was way easier for me. Again, I like challenges, and the challenging nature of literature endeared me to the subject, apart from its rich perspectivality. Mind you, to criticise is not always to condemn. Far from it. To criticise mostly implies to put in proper and objective perspective(s). Even when the criticism is subjective, balance in judgement is always the guide.

One of the challenging, but at the same time interesting, theories adapted for literary interpretation is Structuralism. An average student of criticism soon realises that most theories in literary studies were adapted from other fields – language, psychology, history and science. This way, the average literary critic usually has an interdisciplinary disposition or should have the ability to straddle other fields if they must advance successfully in their studies. Structuralism has an interesting history, its scope is dizzying and its texture epic. It began as a linguistic theory by the Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose technique or method of language analysis (synchronism) revolutionalised the study of language from the early 20th century till today.

Structuralism basically views language as a system of signs operating based on certain principles or rules to create meaning. One of the most important concepts in Structuralism is la langue and la parole, used to infer rules or principles and their manifestations, where la langue is the rule or principle, while la parole is its manifestation. Langue is also ideal while parole is real. Language is seen in the structuralist hermeneutics as rule-governed or based on a system of rules. Thus, utterances or expressions (parole) have to follow these rules in order for them to be acceptable or even intelligible. Each expression could be subjected to an analysis to uncover their rule (langue).

The beauty of structuralism is that it is not only a theory for describing language or interpreting literature, it is also, most importantly, a theory of life. In literature, structuralism teaches that what operates in a text is a system of meaning which informs the existence of other texts. Hence, we can study a given text to reveal these rules or systems so that we can view the text as an expression of the ideal principles of literature. Usually, it takes the study of several similar texts to uncover the rules of say a sonnet, an epic or a pastoral poem. However, once we know the rules operating in these genres, we can use them to study individual texts as representative of the genre.

Borrowing from structuralism, we can see life itself as language or even as a literary text. It has its own system of meaning which is rule-governed. To succeed in life, therefore, one has to find out what these rules are and follow them. If life is structured like language with its own system of rules, then nothing in life is by luck or chance. Everything has been carefully designed and hidden with a key (rules). It would be only those who have the key that can unlock the meaning of life. Have you ever thought about life from this perspective? Or do you just go about life thinking that one day your luck will shine?

The point that I am labouring to make here is that life, like language and literature, has its own set of rules and that it is only those who understand these rules who ever amounted to anything in it. Nothing happens by chance. Even if the world did not have its own natural principles which we all follow anyway (or if you choose not to follow, you live to rue your obstinacy), humans would have still created their own structures (of course, they have already created and we still live by them). What this means is that because we use language, we must be intentional in understanding how the world works like the language that we use to interact with one another every day. In other words, we must think structurally if we must succeed in life.

How do we think structurally? To think structurally begins by us admitting to ourselves that the world in which we live is governed by rules, which are mostly unspoken and unwritten. I mean we have many laws out there, some of which we can quote by heart. They are part of the structures of the world. But what if I tell you that most of the powerful systems and principles in life are hidden or out of sight? In other words, what if they are mostly unwritten? Some of these rules pass as social etiquette like greeting a stranger to feel safe and confident, respect for the elderly and returning gifts, favours and visits. These are the social codes that we live by and when well applied to our daily living, they could bring about unimaginable results. Imagine being rude to an elderly person on the street by telling him to get out of the way without knowing that he is the CEO of the company where you are hurrying to get interviewed for a job.

Apart from the foregoing, every rite or activity in the human world has its own principles or system of rules. Our duty as discerning beings is to discover these rules and operate by them in seeking what ever we want from life. This is what structuralism teaches us. For instance, if you are attending a job interview, you must be reminded that it has its own system of rules: you must prepare for the interview, dress formally, arrive the venue on time, face the panel confidently, present your credentials and make a good impression by answering the questions correctly, among other rules. Failure to abide by these rules could jeopardise your chances in getting the job.

Anything that has a system of rules is procedural and repetitive or repeatable in nature. This is when we can safely say that there is structuralism in the activity. Do you know that even your typical Sunday service is a highly structured ceremony? It operates on rules and principles that are procedural and repetitive or repeatable in nature. The actual performance (parole) might be different every given Sunday, but the rules remain the same if you check very well. Can you describe the structuralism of your church service? It might begin with an opening prayer, then praise and worship, followed by offertory, sermon and then benediction. Can you think of the structuralism of your typical day at work?

The structuralism of everything gets more interesting when applied to politics and leadership studies. Successful leaders are those who think structurally and strategically when seeking solutions to societal problems. This is one of the reasons we must, going forward, aim to elect mostly educated and well-informed leaders to occupy the structures of governance in society. Societies can remain under-developed for centuries if it is not blessed with leaders gifted in structural and strategic thinking. Take for instance, if you want to lift people out of poverty. Good leaders would do this structurally and strategically. Others would take the primitive and palliative route. The structural transformation of society usually affects everyone across a given spectrum and lasts for a long time. Take again for instance, the concept of local government autonomy. That is structurally transforming if effectively executed because it transfers more power to the local spaces for their leaders to effectively touch the lives of their people in ways that only they, the people, know and appreciate.

When you realise that structural actions could make or mar the destiny of society, then you will be scared to be a leader, the one looked up to for these actions. It is only in our clime that people rush to the front to pick up leadership titles. Most of them could not have studied long enough to have the strategic mindset required in leadership. They just want the titles and the benefits that accrue to the title. Some even kill or destroy others in order to take their positions. The fact that leadership goes with responsibility means that the leaders are saddled, first of all, with the responsibility of thinking strategically for the group, the organisation or the nation. They often do this while others sleep. While the students sleep or play, the teacher is thinking and strategising on how to deliver the lesson, structure the notes and organise the exercises in ways that would leave permanent impact and inspiration in the lives of the learners.  

Unfortunately, in our society though most of our leaders are blessed with strategic thinking, they usually deploy it to evil ends. They are constantly plotting on how to hold on to power infinitely and indefinitely, or corner all the wealth for themselves and their offspring. I once told someone that all our leaders think about is how to win the next elections. And they are very good at strategising for these elections. Some of our politicians might not have gone far educationally, but you must never underrate their intelligence. Some of them pay huge amount of money to be taught security and strategy courses, public speaking and other forms of public knowledge. Then they deploy these ideas only in sustaining themselves in power at all cost.

The 2023 elections have proved that even the citizens need to be well-versed in strategic thinking and actions in order to defeat these groups of politicians who are bent on keeping the country backward. They know the laws and the loopholes in the laws and they usually strategise to take advantage of these loopholes. In fact, they even could be the ones who cause these loopholes in the laws for their own selfish interests. The world is rule-governed and only those who know the rules and abide by them get to win at the end of the day. Again, the citizens have to up their game in this regard because these politicians are known for taking only strategic actions long before the citizens wake up to realise the effects.

As a student of literature, I study history and this has opened my mind to human nature and how society works. It is a system whereby a group of very powerful people dictate for the populace. The populace are powerful but they usually do not know their power or are easily manipulated by the elite. The masses never understand this, which explains the ambivalent relationship that exists between them and their leaders. This is a subject for another discourse entirely. But it should be stated that the enemies of Nigeria, though small in number, are very powerful. They also think structurally or systematically. They take seemingly innocent actions but they know exactly what they are doing. For instance, the appointment of the INEC chairman was a strategic action, but most of the populace did not know. It is now only being understood. The appointment of security chiefs is always a strategic action and must be watched carefully by all. However, except for a few people who complained initially, others did not care. Now we do not have any security information on how the election turned out the way it did. Or we are jut getting to know. It is a tightened and closed-circuit system.

If Nigerians are going to rescue the country from the grip of these powerful mafia, Nigerians must be structural and strategic in their thinking. If Nigerians are going to reclaim their mandate from these sinister cabals, they must learn to be less emotional and start being structural and strategic in their thinking and actions.

Another aspect of structuralism that I find interesting is the absolutism in the binarisation of reality; the existence of the pairs good versus evil, God versus Satan, light versus darkness and white versus black. Though deconstruction has disrupted the strictures in these binary absolutes, people usually find themselves on either side of the binary scale at one point or another in their lives. And as far as the 2023 election narratives are concerned, we should know who occupies either side of the binary scales. However, it is instructive to always remember that the powerful categories are the ones who usually think structurally and strategically, no matter which side of the scale they are located.  

As for me, I study everyday so as not to be one of the masses (that is if by the masses we mean a group of people who are easily deceived and manipulated by the elite of society) even though I am always in the midst of the masses. I take a critical distance, I stand back and watch. I birth visions of which in their early stages I could be lynched by the same masses who will realise years after that I was right. But once they realise it, I had already moved on to other things. Most times we keep quiet not because we do not know what to say, but because we know that we will not be understood. We also refuse to use our knowledge against the masses. But will the masses ever be wise on their own and know what they want and how to get it? Will they ever learn critical and strategic thinking? Can the subaltern think, speak and act?  

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