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Post-structuralism encompasses the intellectual developments of certain continental philosophers and sociologists who wrote within the tendencies of twentieth-century French philosophy. The movement is difficult to define or summarize, but may be broadly understood as a body of distinct responses to structuralism (hence the prefix "post"). Many contributors, most notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, either inverted structuralist principles or set out to reject them outright. In direct contrast to the structuralist claim of an independent signifier superior to the signified, post-structuralism generally views the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.[1] Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard merged traditional Marxian ideas relating to capitalist exchange value (e.g. commodity fetishism) with such novel principles, bringing into attention the relationship between consumerism and the realm of the sign. The movement is closely related to postmodernism. Anti-humanism, as a rejection of the enlightenment subject, is often a central tenet. Similarly, existential-phenomenology is of considerable influence. One could argue that the post-structuralists might just as accurately be called the "post-phenomenologists".[2]

Many so-called 'post-structuralist' theorists actively refused the label. Indeed, the term came into being pejoratively through Anglo-American academe as a means to distinguish those continental philosophers who rejected traditional analytic standards. Further controversy owes to the way in which these loosely-connected thinkers tended to dispel with theories claiming to have discovered absolute truths about the world.[3] Although such ideas generally relate only to the metaphysical; for instance, metanarratives of assumed historical progress (e.g. dialecticism), many commentators discredited the movement as relativist, nihilist, or simply indulgent, to the extreme. One must reiterate that as few have willingly accepted the post-structuralist label, there is no single, unified manifesto.[4] Certain contemporary movements, such as critical realism, may be viewed as attempts to reconcile the overarching skeptical conclusions of post-structuralism with scientific frames of enquiry.



Poststructuralism's origin in France

Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as an antinomian movement critiquing structuralism. The period was marked by political anxiety, as students and workers alike rebelled against the state in May 1968, nearly causing the downfall of the French government. At the same time, however, the support of the French Communist Party (PCF) for the oppressive policies of the USSR contributed to popular disillusionment with orthodox Marxism. As a result, there was increased interest in alternative radical philosophies, including feminism, western Marxism, phenomenology, and nihilism. These disparate perspectives, which Foucault later labeled "subjugated knowledges," were all linked by being critical of dominant Western philosophy and culture. Post-structuralism offered a means of justifying these criticisms, by exposing the underlying assumptions of many Western norms.

Two key figures in the early post-structuralist movement were Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. In a 1966 lecture "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science", Jacques Derrida presented a thesis on an apparent rupture in intellectual life. Derrida interpreted this event as a "decentering" of the former intellectual cosmos. Instead of progress or divergence from an identified centre, Derrida described this "event" as a kind of "play."

Although Barthes was originally a structuralist, during the 1960s he increasingly favored post-structuralist views. In 1968, Barthes published “The Death of the Author” in which he announced a metaphorical event: the "death" of the author as an authentic source of meaning for a given text. Barthes argued that any literary text has multiple meanings, and that the author was not the prime source of the work's semantic content. The "Death of the Author," Barthes maintained, was the "Birth of the Reader," as the source of the proliferation of meanings of the text.

In his 1976 lecture series, Michel Foucault briefly summarized the general impetus of the post-structuralist movement:

...For the last ten or fifteen years, the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something... beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.

Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976, tr. David Macey[5]


General practices

Post-structural practices generally operate on some basic assumptions:

Destabilized meaning

In the post-structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. This displacement is often referred to as the "destabilizing" or "decentering" of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself. Without a central fixation on the author, post-structuralists examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc.). These alternative sources are never authoritative, and promise no consistency.

In his essay "Signification and Sense," Emmanuel Lévinas remarked on this new field of semantic inquiry:

...language refers to the position of the listener and the speaker, that is, to the contingency of their story. To seize by inventory all the contexts of language and all possible positions of interlocutors is a senseless task. Every verbal signification lies at the confluence of countless semantic rivers. Experience, like language, no longer seems to be made of isolated elements lodged somehow in a Euclidean space... [Words] signify from the "world" and from the position of one who is looking.

Lévinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller[6]


A major theory associated with Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which human logic has given to text. Such binary pairs could include Enlightenment/Romantic, male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional, signifier/signified, symbolic/imaginary.

Post-structuralism rejects the notion of the essential quality of the dominant relation in the hierarchy, choosing rather to expose these relations and the dependency of the dominant term on its apparently subservient counterpart. The only way to properly understand these meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and knowledge systems which produce the illusion of singular meaning. This act of deconstruction illuminates how male can become female, how speech can become writing, and how rational can become emotional.

Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism

Structuralism was a fashionable movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s, that studied the underlying structures inherent in cultural products (such as texts), and used analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology and other fields to understand and interpret those structures. Although the structuralist movement fostered critical inquiry into these structures, it emphasized logical and scientific results. Many structuralists sought to integrate their work into pre-existing bodies of knowledge. This was observed in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology, and many early 20th-century psychologists.

The general assumptions of post-structuralism derive from critique of structuralist premises. Specifically, post-structuralism holds that the study of underlying structures is itself culturally conditioned and therefore subject to myriad biases and misinterpretations. To understand an object (e.g. one of the many meanings of a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself, and the systems of knowledge which were coordinated to produce the object. In this way, post-structuralism positions itself as a study of how knowledge is produced.

Historical vs. descriptive view

Post-structuralists generally assert that post-structuralism is historical, and classify structuralism as descriptive. This terminology relates to Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the views of historical (diachronic) and descriptive (synchronic) reading. From this basic distinction, post-structuralist studies often emphasize history to analyze descriptive concepts. By studying how cultural concepts have changed over time, post-structuralists seek to understand how those same concepts are understood by readers in the present. For example, Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization is both a history and an inspection of cultural attitudes about madness. The theme of history in modern Continental thought can be linked to such influences as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time.

Structuralists also seek to understand the historical interpretation of cultural concepts, but focus their efforts on understanding how those concepts were understood by the author in his or her own time, rather than how they may be understood by the reader in the present.

Scholars between both movements

The uncertain distance between structuralism and post-structuralism is further blurred by the fact that scholars generally do not label themselves as post-structuralists. In some cases (e.g. Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes), scholars associated with structuralism became noteworthy in post-structuralism as well. Along with Lévi-Strauss, three of the most prominent post-structuralists were first counted among the so-called "Gang of Four" of structuralism par excellence: Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. The works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva are also counted as prominent examples of post-structuralism.

Basically, many who began by stating that texts could be interpreted based solely on the cultural and social circumstances of the author came to believe that the reader's culture and society shared an equal part in the interpretation of a piece. If the reader sees it in one way, how do we know that that is the way the author intended? We don't. Therefore, critical reading seeks to find the contradictions that an author inevitably includes in any given work. Those inconsistencies are used to show that the interpretation and criticism of any literature is in the hands of the individual reader and will necessarily include that reader's own cultural biases and assumptions. While many structuralists first thought that they could tease out an author's intention by close scrutiny, they soon found so many disconnections, that it was obvious that their own experiences lent a view that was unique to them.

Major works and concepts

Eco and the open text

When The Open Work was written by Umberto Eco (1962) it was in many (or all) senses post-structuralist. The influence of this work is, however, complex: Eco worked closely with Barthes, and in the second Preface to the book (1967), Eco explicitly states his post-structuralist position and the assonance with his friend's position. The entire book is a critique of a certain concept of "structure" and "form," giving to the reader a strong power in understanding the text.[citation needed]

Barthes and the need for metalanguage

Although many may have felt the necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this ought to occur. Much of the study of post-structuralism is based on the common critiques of structuralism. Roland Barthes is of great significance with respect to post-structuralist theory. In his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), he advanced the concept of the "metalanguage". A metalanguage is a systematized way of talking about concepts like meaning and grammar beyond the constraints of a traditional (first-order) language; in a metalanguage, symbols replace words and phrases. Insofar as one metalanguage is required for one explanation of first-order language, another may be required, so metalanguages may actually replace first-order languages. Barthes exposes how this structuralist system is regressive; orders of language rely upon a metalanguage by which it is explained, and therefore deconstruction itself is in danger of becoming a metalanguage, thus exposing all languages and discourse to scrutiny. Barthes' other works contributed deconstructive theories about texts.

Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins

The occasional designation of post-structuralism as a movement can be tied to the fact that mounting criticism of structuralism became evident at approximately the same time that structuralism became a topic of interest in universities in the United States. This interest led to a 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University that invited scholars who were thought to be prominent post-structuralists, including Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan. Derrida's lecture at that conference, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences," often appears in collections as a manifesto against structuralism. Derrida's essay was one of the earliest to propose some theoretical limitations to structuralism, and to attempt to theorize on terms that were clearly no longer structuralist.

The element of "play" in the title of Derrida's essay is often erroneously taken to be "play" in a linguistic sense, based on a general tendency towards puns and humour, while social constructionism as developed in the later work of Michel Foucault is said to create a sense of strategic agency by laying bare the levers of historical change. The importance of Foucault's work is seen by many to be in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operations of power (see governmentality).

Post-structuralism as Post-modernism

Academics often incorrectly assume that post-structuralists are also more or less post-modernists, but of the philosophers associated with post-structuralism, none have ever identified with post-modernism. Unlike post-modernism, there does not appear to be a core of knowledge which can be labeled as "post-structuralist." Authors who study post-modernism, such as Jean-François Lyotard, describe post-modernism as a condition of the present state of culture, social structure, and self (the Marxist subject or Lacanian I). Thus, where post-modernism exists as a distinct subject of study (describing, for instance, a period or a style), post-structuralism remains unidentifiable.

Other authors

In addition to those discussed above, the following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:

See also


  1. ^ Soper, Kate; 1986; Humanism and Anti-Humanism; Hutchinson and Co, London. p13
  2. ^ Davis, Colin; "Levinas: An Introduction"; p8; 2006; Continuum, London.
  3. ^ Derrida, Jacques; 1983; "Letter to a Japanese Friend"; pp271-276 in Derrida, Jacques; Kamuf, Peggy (ed.); 1991; A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds; Harverster Wheatsheaf; Hemel Hempstead; ISBN 0-7450-0991-3
  4. ^ Harrison, Paul; 20016; "Post-structuralist Theories"; pp122-135 in Aitken, S. and Valentine, G. (eds); 2006; Approaches to Human Geography; Sage, London
  5. ^ Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended. (Trans. David Macey). Bertani, Mauro & Fontana, Alessandro (eds.). Picador, NY 2003.
  6. ^ Lévinas, Emmanuel. Humanism of the Other. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. p. 11-12.

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