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Post-structuralism encompasses the intellectual developments of continental
philosophers and critical theorists who wrote with tendencies of twentieth-
century French philosophy. The prefix quot;postquot; refers to the fact that many
contributors, such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and
Julia Kristeva, rejected structuralism and became quite critical of it. In direct
contrast to structuralism's claims of an independent signifier, superior to the
signified, post-structuralism views the signifier and signified as inseparable but
not united. The Post-structuralist movement is closely related to
postmodernism--but the two concepts are not synonymous.
While post-structuralism is difficult to define or summarize, it can be broadly
understood as a body of distinct reactions to structuralism. There are two main
reasons for this difficulty. First, it rejects definitions that claim to have discovered
absolute quot;truthsquot; or facts about the world. Second, very few thinkers have
willingly accepted the label 'post-structuralist'; rather, they have been labeled as
such by others. Consequently, no one has felt compelled to construct a
quot;manifestoquot; of post-structuralism. Indeed, it would be inconsistent with post-
structuralist concepts to codify itself in such a way.
o 2.1 General practices
o 2.2 Destabilized Meaning
o 2.3 Deconstruction
3 Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism
o 3.1 Historical vs. descriptive view
o 3.2 Scholars between both movements
4 Major works and concepts
o 4.1 Eco and the open text
o 4.2 Barthes, and the need for metalanguage
o 4.3 Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins
5 Post-structuralism as Post-modernism
6 Other authors
7 See also
9 External links
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
French communist party's (PCF) support of 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 quot;subjugated knowledges,quot; 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 quot;Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse
of the Human Sciencequot;, Jacques Derrida presented a thesis on an apparent
rupture in intellectual life. Derrida interpreted this event as a quot;decenteringquot; of the
former intellectual cosmos. Instead of progress or divergence from an identified
centre, Derrida described this quot;eventquot; as a kind of quot;play.quot;
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 quot;deathquot; 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 quot;Death of the Author,quot; Barthes maintained,
was the quot;Birth of the Reader,quot; as the source of the proliferation of meanings of
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
– Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976, tr. David Macey
 General practices
Post-structural practices generally operate on some basic assumptions:
Post-structuralists hold that the concept of quot;selfquot; as a singular and coherent entity is
a fictional construct. Instead, an individual comprises conflicting tensions and
knowledge claims (e.g. gender, class, profession, etc.). Therefore, to properly study
a text a reader must understand how the work is related to his or her own personal
concept of self. This self-perception plays a critical role in one's interpretation of
meaning. While different thinkers' views on the self (or the subject) vary, it is often
said to be constituted by discourse(s). Lacan's account includes a psychoanalytic
dimension, while Derrida stresses the effects of power on the self. This is thought to
be a component of post-modernist theory.
The author's intended meaning, such as it is (for the author's identity as a stable
quot;selfquot; with a single, discernible quot;intentquot; is also a fictional construct), is secondary to
the meaning that the reader perceives. Post-structuralism rejects the idea of a
literary text having a single purpose, a single meaning, or one singular existence.
Instead, every individual reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, and
existence for a given text. To step outside of literary theory, this position is
generalizable to any situation where a subject perceives a sign. Meaning (or the
signified, in Saussure's scheme, which is heavily presumed upon in post-
structuralism as in structuralism) is constructed by an individual from a signifier.
This is why the signified is said to 'slide' under the signifier, and explains the talk
about the quot;primacy of the signifier.quot;
A post-structuralist critic must be able to utilize a variety of perspectives to create a
multifaceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one
another. It is particularly important to analyze how the meaningsof a text shift in
relation to certain variables, usually involving the identity of the reader.
 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 quot;destabilizingquot; or quot;decenteringquot; 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
In his essay quot;Signification and Sense,quot; 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 quot;worldquot; and from the position of one who is looking.
– Lévinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller
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 utilizes 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
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 quot;Gang of Fourquot; 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 quot;structurequot; and
quot;form,quot; giving to the reader a strong power in understanding the text. The
influence of Eco's book is often overlooked.
 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 quot;metalanguagequot;. 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
structuralists, including Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan. Derrida's lecture at that
conference, quot;Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,quot; 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 quot;playquot; in the title of Derrida's essay is often erroneously taken to
be quot;playquot; 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
 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 quot;post-
structuralist.quot; 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. ^ Derrida, Jacques; 1983; quot;Letter to a Japanese Friendquot;; pp271-276 in Derrida,
Jacques; Kamuf, Peggy (ed.); 1991; A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds;
Harverster Wheatsheaf; Hemel Hempstead; ISBN 0-7450-0991-3
2. ^ Harrison, Paul; 20016; quot;Post-structuralist Theoriesquot;; pp122-135 in Aitken, S. and
Valentine, G. (eds); 2006; Approaches to Human Geography; Sage, London
3. ^ Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended. (Trans. David Macey). Bertani,
Mauro & Fontana, Alessandro (eds.). Picador, NY 2003.
4. ^ Lévinas, Emmanuel. Humanism of the Other. Chicago: University of Illinois
Press, 2003. p. 11-12.
Barry, P. Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory.
Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2002.
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. London: Penguin,
Eagleton, T. Literary theory: an introduction Basil Blackwell, Oxford,1983.
Matthews, E. Twentieth-Century French Philosophy Oxford University Press,
Ryan, M. Literary theory: a practical introduction Blackwell Publishers Inc,
Wolfreys, J & Baker, W (eds). Literary theories: a case study in critical
performance. Macmillan Press, Hong Kong,1996.
SOME POST-STRUCTURAL ASSUMPTIONS
Copyright John Lye, 1996, 1997; may be used, with attribution, for non-
As is the case with all my posts for this course, this is a working
suggestions, arguments, comments are welcome: mail me.
The following are intended to be some suggestions which you
should expect to modify, add to, contest, and otherwise work
Post-structuralism is not a school, but a group of approaches motivated
by some common understandings, not all of which will necessarily be
shared by every practitioner. Post-structuralism is not a theory but a set
of theoretical positions, which have at their core a self-reflexive
discourse which is aware of the tentativeness, the slipperiness, the
ambiguity and the complex interrelations of texts and meanings. There
may be some sharp differences about what 'post-structuralism'
includes; I see a substantial ideological component which others may
not, for instance.
Post-structuralism is, as the name suggests, consequent upon
Structuralism, with which movement one should have some familiarity
in order to understand post-structuralism.
There follow some of assumptions of post-structural thought.
I Post-structuralism is marked by a rejection of totalizing,
essentialist, foundationalist concepts.
a totalizing concept puts all phenomena under one explanatory
concept (e.g. it's the will of God)
an essentialist concept suggests that there is a reality which
exists independent of, beneath or beyond, language and ideology
-- that there is such a thing as 'the feminine', for instance, or
'truth' or 'beauty'
a foundationalist concept suggests that signifying systems are
stable and unproblematic representations of a world of fact which
is isomorphic with human thought.
II Post-structuralism contests the concept of 'man' as developed by
enlightenment thought and idealist philosophy. Rather than holding as
in the enlightenment view that 'individuals', are sacred, separate and
intact, their minds the only true realm of meaning and value, their
rights individual and inalienable, their value and nature rooted in a
universal and transhistorical essence -- a metaphysical being, in short --
the post-structural view holds that persons are culturally and
discursively structured, created in interaction as situated, symbolic
beings. The common term for a person so conceived is a 'subject'.
Subjects are created, then, through their cultural meanings and
practices, and occupy various culturally-based sites of meaning
(as family members, as occupationally and economically and
regionally defined, as gendered and of sexual orientation, as
members of clubs or clients of psychotherapy or presidents of
their school parents' organization, and on and on -- every site
evoking a different configuration of the self, different language
uses, different foci of value and energy, different social practices,
and so forth).
Subjects are material beings, embodied and present in the
physical world, entrenched in the material practices and
structures of their society -- working, playing, procreating, living
as parts of the material systems of society.
Subjects are social in their very origin: they take their meaning
and value and self-image from their identity groups, from their
activities in society, from their intimate relations, from the
multiple pools of common meanings and symbols and practices
which they share variously with their sub-cultural groups and with
their society as a larger unit.
Post-structural understandings of persons are sometimes referred to as
'anti-humanist', because they are opposed to the Humanist idea that
persons are isolate, unified, largely immaterial beings, and that
humanity is transcendent, universal and unchangeable in its essence. To
be anti-humanist is not to be anti-humane, however, but to have a
different philosophical and ideological understanding of the nature of the
III Poststructuralism sees 'reality' as being much more fragmented,
diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does structuralism. Some
consequences have been,
1. poststructuralism's greater attention to specific histories, to the
details and local contextualizations of concrete instances;
2. a greater emphasis on the body, the actual insertion of the human
into the texture of time and history;
3. a greater attention to the specifics of cultural working, to the
arenas of discourse and cultural practice;
4. a greater attention to the role of language and textuality in our
construction of reality and identity.
IV Post-structuralism derives in part from a sense that we live in a
linguistic universe. This means, in the first instance, rejecting the
traditional aesthetic, phenomenalist assumption that language is a
'transparent' medium which hands over experience whole and
unproblematically; in a 'linguistic' universe 'reality' is only mediated
reality, and what it is mediated by is governed by such things as:
the way language works, by difference for instance;
the world of discourse which governs our knowledge and way of
speaking about the subject under discussion: we can imagine only
what we can symbolize, speak of only what we have language for,
speak only in the ways our rules of discourse allow us to;
the workings of the 'master tropes' (a trope is a way of saying
something by saying something else) of metaphor, metonymy,
synecdoche and irony;
the structure of ideology, which attempts to 'naturalize' power
relations and our sense of how the world is configured;
the various cultural codes which govern our understandings of our
selves, our place, our procedures;
the idea that any cultural construction of meaning will privilege
some meanings or experiences and deprivilege others, but that
there will be traces of the deprivileging or suppression of some
experiences, and by looking at the cracks, the silences, the
discontinuities which ideology attempts to smooth over, we can
deconstruct or demystify the cultural meanings;
the idea that we think in terms of certain tropes, and construct
meaning in terms of genres, so that meaning is pre-channeled in
certain typified, identifiable ways, which ways reveal more about
their construction of meaning than about any 'reality' beyond the
To put this briefly, we live in a world of language, discourse and
ideology, none of which are transparent, all of which structure our sense
of being and meaning.
V All meaning is textual and intertextual: there is no quot;outside of the
text,quot; as Derrida remarked. Everything we can know is constructed
through signs, governed by the rules of discourse for that area of
knowledge, and related to other texts through filiation, allusion and
repetition. Every text exists only in relation to other texts; meaning
circulates in economies of discourse. This understanding does not mean
that all reality is textual, only that what we can know of it, and how we
can know, is textual, constructed through discourse, with all its rules;
through symbols, linguistic and otherwise; through grammar(s).
VI Discourse is a material practice; the human is rooted in historicity
and lives through the body. (Why 'historicity' instead of 'history'?
Because the term 'history' suggests an objectively existing, cognitively
available reality; 'historicity' implies that what we conceive of as history
is tentative, situated, contingent.)
VII In Foucault's terms, the production of discourse, the (historical,
material) way we know our world, is controlled, selected, organized and
distributed by a certain number of procedures. Discourse is regulated by
rules of exclusion, by internal systems of control and delineation, by
conditions under which discourses can be employed, and by
philosophical themes which elide the reality of discourse -- the themes
of the founding subject, originating experience, and universal mediation.
Discourses are multiple, discontinuous, originating and disappearing
through chance; they do not hide the truth but constitute its temporary
face. Foucault is post-structuralist in his insistence that there is no great
causal flow or plan or evolution of history, that what happens is mainly
VIII The Derridean concept of différance links up with Freudian
suppositions and marxist ideas to highlight concepts of repression,
displacement, condensation, substitution and so forth, which, often by
following metaphoric or metynomic links carefully, can be deconstructed
or revealed; what is 'meant' is different from what appears to be meant.
Meaning disguises itself. This is essentially structuralist, one of the
reasons why 'post-structuralism' cannot be understood without
IX Texts are marked by a surplus of meaning; the result of this is that
differing readings are inevitable, indeed a condition of meaning at all.
This surplus is located in the polysemous nature of both language and of
rhetoric. It must be kept in mind that language is what is (for us as
cognizant beings), that our sense of reality is linguistically constructed.
Consequently the 'meaning of it all' is continually differing, overflowing,
X A 'text' exists as read. This 'reading' is formed, conducted, through
certain mediating factors:
the present structures of discourse, hence understanding,
including the present conceptions of the discourse structures of
the time of the 'writing' of the text.
the traditions of reading, and the oppositions which those
traditions have made possible, of that particular text,
the expectations dictated by the genre of the text and the
tradition of genre of the reading,
the relations of meaning which are 'in' the text by virtue of its
having been written at all, modified by the fact that these
relations have a certain historical existence, a local, situated, and
corporeal existence whose reality may or may not be
the understanding that these 'historical' relations of meaning will
to some extent be mystifying and ideologizing relations,
the understanding that insofar as texts have a surplus of meaning
they tend to reveal the flaws which the reigning discourse is
attempting to mystify,
the conceptual distances between the historical discourse /
ideology / cultural codes / genre-traditions of the past and the
historical discourse / ideology / cultural codes / genre-traditions of
the present, which distance opens up 'new' meanings which the
work could not have, in a sense, had before. Post-structuralism is
deeply aware of such hermeneutic reading and also suspicious of
it, certain that meaning is historical, uncertain that it is
recoverable as what it may have meant.
XI At the expense of repetition, let's go again over the sorts of
conflict Culler notes deconstructionist criticism (which is a mode of or
modes of post-structuralist criticism) may look for [On Deconstruction
1. the asymetrical opposition or value-laden hierarchy
2. points of condensation, where a single term brings together
different lines of argument or sets of values
3. the text's ecarte de soi or difference from itself -- anything in the
text that counters an authoritative interpretation, including
interpretations that the work appears to encourage (this was
touched on earlier re: the cracks, silences, discontinuities, etc.)
4. self-reference, when the text applies to something else a
description, image or figure that can be read as self-description,
as a representation of its own operations; one can by applying
these to the operations of the text read 'against the grain'
5. an interest in the way conflicts or dramas within the text are
reproduced as conflicts in and between readings of the text --
Texts thematize, with varying degrees of explicitness, interpretive
operations and their consequences and thus represent in advance
the dramas that will give life to the tradition of their interpretation
6. attention to the marginal -- hierarchies depend on exclusions; the
marginalized is what the text resists, and therefore can be
XII Post-structuralism is consequent on and a reaction to
structuralism; it would not exist without structuralism. Macherey's
points in his critique of structuralism (1965) lay out some of the
groundwork for post-structural thought:
1. structuralism is a-historical; life and thought are historical -- they
change, different relations with different elements at different
times, and so forth
2. the transfer of knowledge from one area of knowledge (e.g.
linguistics) to other areas of knowledge is questionable enterprise
3. structuralism assumes that a work has intrinsic meaning -- that is,
it is 'already there' and always there, that the 'meaning' pre-exists
its realization (it is already there -- we just identify it).
4. structural analysis is therefore the discovery of the rationality or
'secret coherence' of a text. But this coherence is a coherence
that precedes the text, or it could not form the text. For there to
be 'intrinsic meaning' there has to be a pattern or order or
structure which governs and orders and regulates the production
of meaning. The text is therefore in a sense a 'copy' of that order
or structure which grounds the coherence of the text; analysis of
a text is a copy of a copy, the text is just an intermediary
between the reader and the structure of rationality, and so it
5. structuralism presupposes the traditional and metaphysical notion
of harmony and unity; a work is only a work, i.e. only has
meaning as an entity, only insofar as it is is a whole. This notion
negates the reality of the material conditions of production or
reception, it makes the meaning itself unitary, is makes criticism
commentary, a pointing out of the essential truth which is
embodied not in but through the work.
Structuralism is appealing to some critics because it adds a certain objectivity, a
SCIENTIFIC objectivity, to the realm of literary studies (which have often been
criticized as purely subjective/impressionistic). This scientific objectivity is
achieved by subordinating quot;parolequot; to quot;langue;quot; actual usage is abandoned in
favor of studying the structure of a system in the abstract. Thus structuralist
readings ignore the specificity of actual texts and treat them as if they were like
the patterns produced by iron filings moved by magnetic force--the result of some
impersonal force or power, not the result of human effort.
In structuralism, the individuality of the text disappears in favor of looking at
patterns, systems, and structures. Some structuralists (and a related school of
critics, called the Russian Formalists) propose that ALL narratives can be charted
as variations on certain basic universal narrative patterns.
In this way of looking at narratives, the author is canceled out, since the text is a
function of a system, not of an individual. The Romantic humanist model holds
that the author is the origin of the text, its creator, and hence is the starting point
or progenitor of the text. Structuralism argues that any piece of writing, or any
signifying system, has no origin, and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing
structures (langue) that enable them to make any particular sentence (or story)--
any parole. Hence the idea that quot;language speaks us,quot; rather than that we speak
language. We don't originate language; we inhabit a structure that enables us to
speak; what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of
some of the elements in the pre-existing system. Hence every text, and every
sentence we speak or write, is made up of the quot;already written.quot;
By focusing on the system itself, in a synchronic analysis, structuralists cancel out
history. Most insist, as Levi-Strauss does, that structures are universal, therefore
timeless. Structuralists can't account for change or development; they are
uninterested, for example, in how literary forms may have changed over time.
They are not interested in a text's production or reception/consumption, but only
in the structures that shape it.
In erasing the author, the individual text, the reader, and history, structuralism
represented a major challenge to what we now call the quot;liberal humanistquot;
tradition in literary criticism.
The HUMANIST model presupposed:
1.) That there is a real world out there that we can understand with our rational
2.) That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real
3.) That language is a product of the individual writer's mind or free will,
meaning that we determine what we say, and what we mean when we say
it; that language thus expresses the essence of our individual beings (and
that there is such a thing as an essential unique individual quot;selfquot;).
4.) the SELF--also known as the quot;subject,quot; since that's how we represent
the idea of a self in language, by saying I, which is the subject of a
sentence--or the individual (or the mind or the free will) is the center of all
meaning and truth; words mean what I say they mean, and truth is what I
perceive as truth. I create my own sentences out of my own individual
experiences and need for individual expression.
The STRUCTURALIST model argues
1.) that the structure of language itself produces quot;realityquot;--that we can think only
through language, and therefore our perceptions of reality are all framed by and
determined by the structure of language.
2.) That language speaks us; that the source of meaning is not an
individual's experience or being, but the sets of oppositions and
operations, the signs and grammars that govern language. Meaning
doesn't come from individuals, but from the system that governs what any
individual can do within it.
3.) Rather than seeing the individual as the center of meaning,
structuralism places THE STRUCTURE at the center--it's the structure
that originates or produces meaning, not the individual self. Language in
particular is the center of self and meaning; I can only say quot;Iquot; because I
inhabit a system of language in which the position of subject is marked by
the first personal pronoun, hence my identity is the product of the
linguistic system I occupy.
This is also where deconstruction starts to come in. The leading figure in deconstruction,
Jacques Derrida, looks at philosophy (Western metaphysics) to see that any system
necessarily posits a CENTER, a point from which everything comes, and to which
everything refers or returns. Sometimes it's God, sometimes it's the human self, the mind,
sometimes it's the unconscious, depending on what philosophical system (or set of beliefs)
one is talking about.
There are two key points to the idea of deconstruction. First is that we're still
going to look at systems or structures, rather than at individual concrete
practices, and that all systems or structures have a CENTER, the point of origin,
the thing that created the system in the first place. Second is that all systems or
structures are created of binary pairs or oppositions, of two terms placed in some
sort of relation to each.
Derrida says that such systems are always built of the basic units structuralism
analyzes--the binary opposition or pair--and that within these systems one part
of that binary pair is always more important than the other, that one term is
quot;markedquot; as positive and the other as negative. Hence in the binary pair
good/evil, good is what Western philosophy values, and evil is subordinated to
good. Derrida argues that all binary pairs work this way--light/dark,
masculine/feminine, right/left; in Western culture, the first term is always valued
over the second.
In his most famous work, Of Grammatology, Derrida looks particularly at the
opposition speech/writing, saying that speech is always seen as more important
than writing. This may not be as self-evident as the example of good/evil, but it's
true in terms of linguistic theories, where speech is posited as the first or primary
form of language, and writing is just the transcription of speech. Derrida says
speech gets privileged because speech is associated with presence--for there to be
spoken language, somebody has to be there to be speaking.
No, he doesn't take into account tape recordings and things like that. Remember,
a lot of what these guys are talking about has roots in philosophic and linguistic
traditions that predate modern technology--so that Derrida is responding to an
opposition (speech/writing) that Plato set up, long before there were tape
recorders. Just like poor old Levi-Strauss talks about how, in order to map all the
dimensions of a myth, he'd have to have quot;punch cards and an IBM machine,quot;
when all he'd need now is a home computer.
Anyway, the idea is that the spoken word guarantees the existence of somebody
doing the speaking--thus it reinforces all those great humanist ideas, like that
there's a real self that is the origin of what's being said. Derrida calls this idea of
the self that has to be there to speak part of the metaphysics of PRESENCE; the
idea of being, or presence, is central to all systems of Western philosophy, from
Plato through Descartes (up to Derrida himself). Presence is part of a binary
opposition presence/absence, in which presence is always favored over absence.
Speech gets associated with presence, and both are favored over writing and
absence; this privileging of speech and presence is what Derrida calls
You might think here about the Biblical phrase quot;Let there be lightquot; as an example.
The statement insures that there is a God (the thing doing the speaking), and that
God is present (because speech=presence); the present God is the origin of all
things (because God creates the world by speaking), and what God creates is
binary oppositions (starting with light/dark). You might also think about other
binary oppositions or pairs, including being/nothingness, reason/madness,
word/silence, culture/nature, mind/body. Each term has meaning only in
reference to the other (light is what is not dark, and vice-versa), just as, in
Saussure's view, signifiers only have meaning--or negative value--in relation to
other signifiers. These binary pairs are the quot;structures,quot; or fundamental opposing
ideas, that Derrida is concerned with in Western philosophy.
Because of the favoring of presence over absence, speech is favored over writing
(and, as we'll see with Freud, masculine is favored over feminine because the
penis is defined as a presence, whereas the female genitals are defined as
It's because of this favoring of presence over absence that every system posits a
CENTER, a place from which the whole system comes, and which guarantees its
meaning--this center guarantees being as presence. Think of your entire self as a
kind of system--everything you do, think, feel, etc. is part of that system. At the
core or center of your mental and physical life is a notion of SELF, of an quot;Iquot;, of an
identity that is stable and unified and coherent, the part of you that knows who
you mean when you say quot;Iquot;. This core self or quot;Iquot; is thus the CENTER of the
quot;systemquot;, the quot;languequot; of your being, and every other part of you (each individual
act) is part of the quot;parolequot;. The quot;Iquot; is the origin of all you say and do, and it
guarantees the idea of your presence, your being.
Western thought has a whole bunch of terms that serve as centers to systems --
being, essence, substance, truth, form, consciousness, man, god, etc. What
Derrida tells us is that each of these terms designating the center of a system
serves two purposes: it's the thing that created the system, that originated it and
guarantees that all the parts of the system interrelate, and it's also something
beyond the system, not governed by the rules of the system.
It is crucially important to note that LANGUAGE, as a system or structure, DOES
NOT HAVE A CENTER. There is no central term or idea that creates language
and that holds it all together. This is an extremely important idea, for Derrida and
for poststructuralism. Without a center to hold the elements of the system in
place, there is no absolute or definitive quot;truthquot; or quot;meaning.quot; Language is always
shifting and moving, not fixed by a center-- hence meaning is ALWAYS
ambiguous, multiple, and provisional. We will be talking about this idea
throughout the rest of the semester.
Derrida looks at how a binary opposition--the fundamental unit of the structures
or systems we've been looking at, and of the philosophical systems he refers to--
functions within a system. He points out that a binary opposition is algebraic
(a=~b, a equals not-b), and that two terms can't exist without reference to the
other--light (as presence) is defined as the absence of darkness, goodness the
absence of evil, etc. He doesn't seek to reverse the hierarchies implied in binary
pairs--to make evil favored over good, unconscious over consciousness, feminine
over masculine. Rather, deconstruction wants to erase the boundaries (the slash)
between oppositions, hence to show that the values and order implied by the
opposition are also not rigid.
Here's the basic method of deconstruction: find a binary opposition. Show how
each term, rather than being polar opposite of its paired term, is actually part of
it. Then the structure or opposition which kept them apart collapses, as we see
with the terms nature and culture in Derrida's essay. Ultimately, you can't tell
which is which, and the idea of binary opposites loses meaning, or is put into
quot;playquot; (more on this in the next lecture). This method is called quot;Deconstructionquot;
because it is a combination of construction/destruction--the idea is that you don't
simply construct new system of binaries, with the previously subordinated term
on top, nor do you destroy the old system--rather, you deconstruct the old system
by showing how its basic units of structuration (binary pairs and the rules for
their combination) contradict their own logic.
Suggestions for Further Information:
Derrida for Beginners, Jim Powell
Poststructuralism as Theory and Practice in the English Classroom
Poststructuralism and Education
University of Auckland
Poststructuralism will be resisted in the domain of educational theory and research
for some time to come not only for the reason that this domain, at least in the
mainstream, is inherently conservative, being largely state or federally funded, and
still strongly imbued with the positivist ethos it inherited during its historical
development and professionalization as a legitimate field of study, but also because
poststructuralism -- if we can both risk and indulge a singularization -- at the
broadest level carries with its philosophical reaction to the scientific pretensions of
structuralism, a critique of the very Enlightenment norms that ‘education research’
today prides itself on: ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’, ‘progress’. Poststructuralism as a
contemporary philosophical movement offers a range of theories (of the text),
critiques (of institutions), new concepts, and forms of analysis (of power) which are
relevant and significant for the study of education, but also it offers a range of
writings explicitly devoted to education.
Poststructuralism is a difficult term to define. It has often been confused with its
kinship term, postmodernism, and, indeed, some critics have argued that the latter
term, through patterns of established usage, has come to subsume poststructuralism.
We can distinguish between the two terms by recognizing the difference between their
theoretical objects of study. Poststructuralism takes as it theoretical object
quot;structuralismquot;, whereas postmodernism takes as its theoretical object quot;modernismquot;.
Poststructuralism can be characterized as a mode of thinking, a style of
philosophizing, and a kind of writing yet the term should not be used to convey a
sense of homogeneity, singularity and unity. The very term ‘poststructuralism’ is not
uncontested. Mark Poster (1989: 6) remarks that the term poststructuralism is
American in origin and that quot;poststructuralist theoryquot; names a uniquely American
practice, which is based upon an assimilation of the work of a diverse range of
theorists. More generally, we might say that the term is a label used in English-
speaking academic community to describe a distinctively philosophical response to the
structuralism characterizing the work Claude Lévi-Strauss (anthropology), Louis
Althusser (Marxism), Jacques Lacan (psychoanalysis), and Roland Barthes
(literature) (see Gadet 1989). Manfred Frank (1988), a contemporary German
philosopher, for his part prefers the term quot;neo-structuralismquot; emphasizing a
continuity with quot;structuralismquot;, as does John Sturrock (1986: 137), who focusing
upon Jacques Derrida the quot;Post-Structuralistquot; -- indeed, quot;the weightiest and most
acute critic Structuralism has hadquot; -- discusses the quot;postquot; in quot;post-Structuralismquot; in
terms of quot;coming after and of seeking to extend Structuralism in its rightful
directionquot;. He continues: quot;Post-Structuralism is a critique of Structuralism
conducted from within: that is, it turns certain of Structuralism’s arguments against
itself and points to certain fundamental inconsistencies in their method which
Structuralists have ignoredquot; (ibid.). Richard Harland (1987), by contrast, coins the
term ‘superstructuralism’ as a single umbrella based on an underlying framework of
assumptions common to quot;Structuralists, Poststructuralists, (European) Semioticians,
Althusserian Marxists, Lacanians, Foucauldians, et alquot; (Harland, 1993: ix-x). All of
these locutions quot;poststructuralismquot;, quot;neo-structuralismquot; and quot;superstructuralismquot;
entertain as central the movement’s historical, institutional, and theoretical proximity
to quot;structuralismquot;. Yet poststructuralism can not be simply reduced to a set of shared
assumptions, a method, a theory, or even a school. It is best referred to as a movement
of thought -- a complex skein of thought -- embodying different forms of critical
practice. It is decidedly interdisciplinary and has many different but related strands.
As a French and predominately Parisian affair, first-generation poststructuralism is
inseparable from the immediate intellectual milieu which prevailed in postwar
France, a history dominated by diverse intellectual forces: the legacy of Alexander
Kojéve's and Jean Hyppolite's quot;existential stquot; interpretations of Hegel’s
Phenomenology; Heidegger’s phenomenology of Being and Jean-Paul Sartre's
existentialism; Jacques Lacan’s rediscovery and structuralist quot;readingquot; of Freud; the
omnipresence of Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot; Gaston Bachelard's radical
epistemology and Georges Canguilhelm's studies of science; and, perhaps, most
importantly, the French reception of Nietzsche. It is also inseparable from the
structuralist tradition of linguistics based upon the work of Ferdinand de Saussure
and Roman Jacobson, and the structuralist interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss,
Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser and (early) Michel Foucault. Poststructuralism,
considered in terms of contemporary cultural history, can be understood as belonging
to the broad movement of European formalism, with explicit historical links to both
formalist and futurist linguistics and poetics, and the European avant-garde.
Decisive for the emergence of poststructuralism was, undoubtedly, the rediscovery of
Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings and Martin Heidegger’s (1991) interpretation of them
by a group of French thinkers, along with the structuralist readings of both Freud
and Marx. Where Marx was seen to play out the theme of power in his work, and
Freud gave a conceptual priority to the notion of desire, Nietzsche was read as a
philosopher who did not prioritize or subordinate the one concept over the other. His
philosophy offered a way forward that combined both power and desire (see Schrift,
1995; Peters, 1998).
The American reception of deconstruction and the influential formulation of
quot;poststructuralismquot; in the English-speaking world, quickly became institutionalized
from the point at which Derrida delivered his essay quot;Structure, Sign and Play in the
Discourse of the Human Sciencesquot; to the International Colloquium on Critical
Languages and the Sciences of Man at John Hopkins University in October 1966.
Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (1970: x) described the conference as quot;the first
time in the United States that structuralist thought had been considered as a cross-
disciplinary phenomenonquot;. Even before the conclusion of the conference, there were
clear signs that the ruling transdisciplinary paradigm of structuralism had been
superseded, yet only a paragraph in Macksey’s quot;Concluding Remarksquot; signaled the
importance of Derrida’s quot;radical reappraisals of our [structuralist] assumptionsquot; (p.
The quot;decenteringquot; of structure, of the transcendental signified, and of the sovereign
subject, Derrida suggests -- naming his sources of inspiration -- can be found in the
Nietzschean critique of metaphysics and, especially, of the concepts of being and
truth, in the Freudian critique of self-presence, as he says, quot;the critique of
consciousness, of the subject, of self-identity and of self-proximity or self-possessionquot;
(ibid. 280), and, more radically, in the Heideggerian destruction of metaphysics, quot;of
the determination of Being as presencequot; (ibid.). In the body of the essay, Derrida
considers the theme of quot;decenteringquot; in relation to Lévi-Strauss' ethnology and
concludes by distinguishing two interpretations of structure. One, Hegelian in origin
and exemplified in Lévi-Strauss’ work, he argues, quot;dreams of deciphering a truth or
an origin which escapes play and the order of the signquot; and seeks the quot;inspiration of a
new humanismquot;. The other, quot;which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms
play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism …quot; (Derrida, 1978: 292).
Gilles Deleuze’s (1983, orig. 1962) Nietzsche and Philosophy, which interpreted
Nietzsche’s philosophy as an attack upon the Hegelian dialectic, helped to create the
conditions for an accent upon pure difference -- a quot;philosophy of differencequot; -- that
emphasized difference not only as a constant in linguistic and symbolic systems but
also as a necessary element in the process of creating social and cultural identity (see
Schrift 1995, Peters, 1996, 1998).
In its first generation poststructuralism is exemplified in the work and writing of
Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles
Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard and many others. Historically, its early
formation and institutional development can be charted in Philippe Soller’s highly
influential journal Tel Quel, and there are strong connections with literary figures
such as Maurice Blanchot and Roland Barthes. In addition to work which engages
directly with specific philosophers poststructuralist thinkers have developed distinctive
forms of analysis (grammatology, deconstruction, archeology, genealogy, semanalysis)
and often developed these forms as critiques of specific institutions (family, state,
prison, clinic, school, factory, armed forces, university, even philosophy itself) and
theorizations of a range of different media (quot;readingquot;, quot;writingquot;, teaching, television,
the visual arts, the plastic arts, film, and forms of electronic communication).
The influence of the first generation poststructuralists has been immense: inside
France it has lead to exciting developments at the forefront of feminist research,
psychoanalysis, literary theory, anthropology, sociology and history. It has also led to
important cross-fertilizations and interpenetrations among the disciplines and to
intellectual advances in newly configured fields such as film theory, media studies,
queer theory, postcolonial studies, Afro-American and Hellenistic studies. Outside
France and especially in the American academy, the influence of poststructuralism
has been strongly felt in literary studies (e.g., Jonathon Culler, Shoshana Felman,
Vincent Leitch) and is strongly evident in the work of the Harvard literary school
(e.g., Paul de Man, Hillas Miller). Within the Western academy more generally it has
influenced the traditional disciplines of sociology (e.g., Zygmunt Bauman, Barry
Smart), philosophy (e.g., Cornel West, Paul Patton, Hubert Dreyfus), politics (e.g.,
Colin Gordon, William Connolly, Barry Hindess), anthropology (e.g., James Clifford,
Paul Rabinow), history (e.g., Hayden White, Mark Poster, Dominick La Capra),
geography (e.g., Edward Soja, David Harvey), as well as the newly emergent fields of
feminist and gender studies (e.g., Judith Butler, Chris Weedon), postcolonial studies
(e.g., Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha), and cultural studies (e.g., Stuart
Hall, Simon During) .
In part the significance of poststructuralism for education philosophy and theory lies
in the fact that it can be construed as a philosophical reaction against a scientistic
social science. The theoretical development of French structuralism during the late
1950s and 1960s led to the institutionalization of a transdisciplinary quot;mega-
paradigmquot; which helped to integrate the humanities and the social sciences but did so
in an overly optimistic and scientistic conception of the social sciences. It's claim to the
status of a quot;mega-paradigmquot; was based around the centrality of language and its
scientific analysis in human social and cultural life, considered as self-reflexive
signifying or semiotic systems or sub- systems. It was, in this sense, part of the broader
quot;linguistic turnquot; taken by Western philosophy. The tradition of structuralist
linguistics had its origins in late nineteenth century European formalism and under
the combined influence of Ferdinand de Saussure (1959) and Roman Jakobson (e.g.,
1973) developed into the dominant research program in linguistics. In the hands of
Claude Lévi-Strauss, A. J. Greimas, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan,
Michel Foucault, and many others, it made its way into anthropology,literary
criticism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, history, aesthetic theory and studies of popular
culture, developing into a powerful over-arching framework for the semiotic and
linguistic analysis of society, economy and culture, considered as a series of
functionally interrelated sign systems.
Poststructuralism, then, can be interpreted as a specifically philosophical response to
the alleged scientific status of structuralism -- to its status as a mega-paradigm for the
social sciences -- and as a movement which, under the inspiration of Friedrich
Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and others, sought to decenter the quot;structuresquot;,
systematicity and scientific status of structuralism, to critique its underlying
metaphysics and to extend it a number of different directions, while at the same time
preserving central elements of structuralism’s critique of the humanist subject.
Its main theoretical tendencies and innovations can be summarised in terms of its
affinities and differences with structuralism:
(i) The critique of Renaissance humanist philosophy and the rational, autonomous,
self-transparent, subject of humanist thought. A shared suspicion of phenomenology’s
and existentialism’s privileging of human consciousness as autonomous, directly
accessible, and as the sole basis of historical interpretation,understanding and action.
. (ii) A general theoretical understanding of language and culture in terms of linguistic
and symbolic systems, where the interrelations of constituent elements are regarded
as more important than the elements considered in isolation from one another. Both
structuralism and poststructuralism take up the Saussurean belief -- and innovative
methodologies based upon its insights -- that linguistic signs act reflexively rather
(iii) A general belief in the Unconscious and in hidden structures or socio-historical
forces that, to a large extent, constrain and govern our behavior. Much of the
innovation of structuralism and poststructuralism is directly indebted to Freud’s
study of the Unconscious and his clinical investigations which undermined the
prevalent philosophical view of the pure rationality and self-transparency of the
subject, substituting a greater complexity that called into question traditional
distinctions of reason/unreason (madness).
(iv) A shared intellectual inheritance and tradition based upon Saussure, Jacobson,
the Russian formalists, Freud, and Marx, among other thinkers. This shared
intellectual history is like a complex skein that has many strands. We might call it
European Formalism, beginning in pre-Revolutionary Russia, in Geneva, and in Jena,
with simultaneous and overlapping developments in linguistics, poetics, art, science
(v) The reintroduction of history. Where structuralism sought to efface history
through synchronic analyses of structures, poststructuralism brings about a renewed
interest in a critical history through an re-emphasis on diachronic analyses, on the
mutation, transformation, and discontinuity of structures, on serialization, repetition,
quot;archeologyquot; and, perhaps most importantly, what Foucault, following Nietzsche,
calls genealogy. Genealogical narratives are seen to replace ontology, or, to express
the same thought in a different way, questions of ontology becomes historized.
(vi) The challenge to scientism in the human sciences, an anti-foundationalism in
epistemology, and a new emphasis upon perspectivism in interpretation.
Poststructuralism challenges the rationalism and realism that structuralism continues
from positivism, with its promethium faith in scientific method, in progress, and in
the capacity of the structuralist approach to discern and identify universal structures
of all cultures and the human mind.
(vii) The rediscovery of Nietzsche and Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche as the
quot;last metaphysicianquot;. Nietzsche’s work provides a new way to theorize and conceive
of the discursive operation of power and desire in the constitution and self-
overcoming of human subjects. Heidegger in his two-volumed Nietzsche first
published in 1961, focuses upon The Will to Power -- a work assembled from notes
and first published posthumously by his sister -- interprets Nietzsche as the last
metaphysician. Derrida, in particular, takes issue with Heidegger’s quot;reductivequot;
interpretation, and translates Heidegger’s quot;destructionquot; of the history of Western
metaphysics as quot;deconstructionquot;.
(viii) A critical philosophy of technology. Much of the history of poststructuralism
can be written as a series of innovative theoretical developments of or about
Heidegger’s notion of technology. Heidegger’s philosophy of technology is related to
his critique of the history of Western metaphysics and the disclosure of being. The
essence of technology is a poiesis or quot;bringing forthquot; which is grounded in disclosure
(aletheia). He suggests that the essence of modern technology shows itself in what he
calls enframing and reveals itself as ‘standing reserve’, a concept that refers to
resources that are stored in the anticipation of consumption. As such modern
technology, names the final stage in the history of metaphysics (nihilism) andthe way
in which being is disclosed in this particular epoch: a stockpiling in principle
completely knowable and devoted entirely for human use. He suggests that the
essence of technology is nothing technological; it is rather a system (Gestell), an all-
embracing view of technology, described as a mode of human existence that focuses
upon the way machinic technology can alter our mode of being, distorting our actions
and aspirations. Heidegger is careful not to pose as an optimist or pessimist. He sees
his own work as preparation for a new beginning that will enable one to rescue
oneself from nihilism and allow the resolute individual to achieve an authenticity.
(ix) A deepening of democracy and a political critique of Enlightenment values.
Poststructuralism criticizes the ways that modern liberal democracies constructs
political identity on the basis of a series of binary oppositions (e.g., we/them,
citizen/non-citizen, responsible/irresponsible, legitimate/illegitimate) which has the
effect of excluding or quot;otheringquot; some groups of people. Western countries grant
rights to citizens -- rights are dependent upon citizenship -- and regard non-citizens,
that is, immigrants, those seeking asylum, and refugees, as quot;aliensquot;. Some strands of
poststructuralist thought are interested in examining how these boundaries are
socially constructed, and how they are maintained and policed. In particular, the
deconstruction of political hierarchies of value comprising binary oppositions and
philosophies of difference, are seen as highly significant for currents debates on
multiculturalism and feminism, and as issuing from the poststructuralist critique of
representation and consensus.
(x) Foucault’s later work based on the notion of ‘governmentality’ has initiated a
substantial body of contemporary work in political philosophy which deals directly
with political reason. Foucault coins the term quot;governmentalityquot; in an analysis of
liberalism and neoliberalism, viewing the former as origination in a doctrine
concerning the critique of state reason. Foucault uses the term quot;governmentalityquot; to
mean the art of government and to signal the emergence of a distinctive type of rule
that became the basis for modern liberal politics. He maintains that the quot;art of
governmentquot; emerges in the 16th century, motivated by diverse questions: the
government of oneself (personal conduct); the government of souls (pastoral
doctrine); the government of children (pedagogy). It is around the same time that
quot;economyquot; is introduced into political practice as part of the governmentalization of
the state. What is distinctive of Foucault’s approach is that he is interested in the
question of how power is exercised and, implicitly, he is providing a critique of
contemporary tendencies to overvalue problems of the state, reducing it to a unity or
singularity based upon a certain functionality. Both Foucault and Derrida, returning
to Kant’s cosmopolitical writings, have addressed themselves of the prospect for
global governance and Derrida has talked about both deepening democracy and --
entertaining developments of new technologies -- a quot;democracy to comequot;.
(xi) Philosophies of difference. If there is one element that distinguishes
poststructuralism it is the notion of difference which various thinkers use, develop
and apply in different ways. The notion of difference comes from Nietzsche, from
Saussure, and from Heidegger. Gilles Deleuze (1983, orig, 1962), in Nietzsche and
Philosophy, interprets Nietzsche’s philosophy according to the principle of difference
and advances this interpretation as an attack upon the Hegelian dialectic. Derrida
notion of difference can be traced back to at least two sources: Saussure’s insight that
linguistic systems are constituted through difference, and; Heidegger notion of
difference. From the first mention of the notion of difference (in 1959) to its
development as différance, takes nearly a decade. Différance, as Derrida (1981: 8-9)
remarks, as both the common root of all the positional concepts marking our
language and the condition for all signification, refers not only to the quot;movement that
consists in deferring by means of delay, delegation, reprieve, referral, detour,
postponement, reservingquot; but also and finally to quot;the unfolding of differencequot;, of the
ontico-ontological difference, which Heidegger named as the difference between Being
and beings. As such différance is seen as plotting the linguistic limits of the subject.
Lyotard (1988), by contrast, invents the concept of the différend which he suggests
establishes the very condition for the existence of discourse: quot;that a universal rule of
judgment between heterogeneous genre is lacking in generalquot; (p. xi) , or again, there
is no genre whose hegemony over others would be justquot; (p. 158). A différend, as
Lyotard (1988) defines it quot;is a case of conflict, between (al least) two parties, that
cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both
argumentsquot; (p. xi). Poststructuralist notions of difference, pointing to an anti-
essentialism, have been subsequently developed in relation to gender and ethnicity:
the American feminist philosopher, Iris Marion Young (1991) writes of Justice and
the Politics of Difference and the Afro-American philosopher, Cornel West (1993)
speaks of quot;The New Cultural Politics of Differencequot;.
(xii) Suspicion of metanarratives. Lyotard’s definition of the quot;postmodern conditionquot;
characterizes a feature of poststructuralism that we can call the suspicion of
transcendental arguments and viewpoints, combined with the rejection of canonical
descriptions and final vocabularies. In particular, quot;suspicion towards
metanarrativesquot; refers to the question of legitimation with reference to the modern
age in which various grand narratives have been advanced as a legitimation of state
power. There is no synthesizing or neutral master discourse that can reproduce the
speculative unity of knowledge or adjudicate between competing views, claims or
discourses. The quot;linguistic turnquot; of twentieth-century philosophy and social sciences
does not warrant the assumption of a metalinguistic neutrality or foundational
(xiii) The diagnosis of quot;power/knowledgequot; and the exposure of technologies of
domination based upon Foucault’s analytics of power. For Foucault, power is
productive; it is dispersed throughout the social system, and; it is intimately related to
knowledge. It is productive because it is not only repressive but also creates new
knowledge (which may also liberate). It is dispersed rather than located in any one
center, like the state; and, it is part of the constellation quot;power/knowledgequot; which
means that knowledge, in the sense of discursive practices, is generated through the
exercise of power in the control of the body. Foucault develops this thesis through his
genealogical study of the development of modern institutions like the prison and the
school, and the corresponding emergence of the social sciences that helped devised
new methods of social control.
(xiv) The politics of the global knowledge/informationsociety/economy.
Poststructuralism provides intellectual resources to philosophers of education for
unpicking the ruling assumptions currently used to construct the dominant neoliberal
paradigm of globalization as a global economy/society allegedly based upon a
conception of knowledge and 'free trade'. The new production of knowledge and the
global knowledge economy, together with classical assumptions of rationality,
individuality and self-interest, are important construction sites for knowledge
deconstruction and critique. They are also conceptual sites for alternative
Deleuze, Gilles (1983) Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. H. Tomlinson,
Derrida, Jacques (1978) quot;Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of the Human
Sciencesquot;. In: Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass, Chicago, University of Chicago
Derrida, Jacques (1981) Positions, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago, University of Chicago
Dosse, Francois (1997) History of Structralism, vols 1 and 2, trans. Debroah Glassman,
Mineapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, Michel (1989) quot;How Much Does It Cost To Tell the Truth?quot; in Foucault
Live: Interviews 1966-84, edited by S. Lotringer, trans. J. Johnson, New York,
Foucault, Michel (1991) Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori,
trans. R. Goldstein and J. Cascaito, New York, Semiotext(e).
Frank, Manfred (1988) What is Neo-Structuralism?, trans. Sabine Wilke and Richard
Gray, Foreword by Matin Schwab, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Gadet, F. (1989) Saussure and Contemporary Culture, trans. G. Elliot, London,
Gutting, G. (1998a) quot;Post-Structuralismquot;. In: E. Craig (Ed.) Routledge Encyclopedia
of Philosophy, London and New York, Routledge: 596-600.
Gutting, G. (1998b) quot;Post-Structuralism in the Social Sciencesquot;. In: E. Craig (Ed.)
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London and New York, Routledge: 600-604.
Harland, Richard (1987) Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and
Post-Structuralism, London and New York, Methuen.
Harland, Richard (1993) Beyond Superstructralism: the Syntagmatic Side of
Language, London, Routledge .
Heidegger, Martin (1991) Nietzsche, 2 vols., trans. David Krell, San Francisco,
Hengehold, L. (1998) quot;Subject, The Postmodern Critique ofquot;. E. Craig (Ed.)
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London and New York, Routledge: 196-201.
Jakobson, Roman (1973) Main Trends in the Sceience of Language, London, Allen
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1968) Structural Anthropology, London, Allen and Unwin,
Lilly, R. (1998) quot;Postmodernism and Political Philosophyquot;. In: E. Craig (Ed.)
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London and New York, Routledge: 590-596.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1992) The Postmodern Explained to Children:
Correspondence 1982-1985, Sydney, Power Publications.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1988) The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den
Abbeele, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,
trans. Geoff Bennington and Brain Massumi, Foreword by Fredric Jameson,
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, .
Macksey, Richard and Donato, Eugenio (Eds.) (1970) The Structuralist Controversy:
The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, Baltimore, John Hopkins Press.
Peters, M. (1995) Education and the Postmodern Condition, Foreword by Jean-
François Lyotard, Westport, Conn, and London, Bergin and Garvey.
Peters, M. (1996) Poststructuralism, Politics and Education, Westport, Conn. and
London, Bergin & Garvey.
Peters, M. (1998) quot;Introduction: Naming the Multiplequot;. In: M. Peters (Ed.) Naming
the Mutiple: Poststructralism and Education, Westport, Conn. & London, Bergin &
Poster, Mark (1989) Critical Theory and Poststructuralism: In Search of a Context,
Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.
Saussure, Ferdinand (1959) Course in General Linguistics, (eds.) Charles Bally and
Albert Sechehaye (with Albert Reidlinger), trans. Wade Baskin, New York, The
Philosophical Library, .
Schrift, Alan (1995) Nietzsche's French Legacy: A Genealogy of Poststructuralism,
New York & London, Routledge.
Schrift, Alan (1996a) quot;Poststructralismquot;. In: D. Borchert (Ed.) The Encyclopedia of
Philosopy, Supplement, New York, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster: 452-453.
Schrift, Alan (1996b) quot;Nietzsche's French Legacyquot;. In: B. Magnus & K. Higgins
(Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Sturrock, John (1986) Structuralism, London, Paladin.
West, Cornel (1992) quot;The New Cultural Politics of Differencequot;. In: C. West, Keeping
Faith: Philosophy and race in America, New York and London, Routledge.
Young, I. M. (1991) Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton, New Jersey,
Princeton University Press.
Poststructuralism as Theory and Practice in the English
Prepared by: Harold K. Bush, Jr.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication Digest
When Did Poststructuralism quot;Beginquot;?
In the late 1960s, just as structuralism was reaching its apex as an influential
theory of language, along came a new wave of philosophers intent on subjecting it
to a rigorous and sustained critique. Structuralism, an intellectual movement
most readily associated with the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, examined cultural phenomena according to
the underlying formal systems out of which those phenomena naturally spring.
That is, both language and culture acquire meaning only insofar as they
participate in a complex pool of structural relations.
This seemingly scientific view of language and culture posited a systemic quot;centerquot;
that organized and sustained an entire structure. The historical attack against
this central premise of structuralism is usually traced to a paper entitled
quot;Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,quot; delivered by
Jacques Derrida to the International Colloquium at Johns Hopkins University in
1966. In his essay, later collected in his influential book Writing and Difference
(1978), Derrida criticized the Western quot;logocentricquot; notion of an ever-active,
transcendent center or ground. Since language does in fact lack such a center, say
poststructuralist critics, language is therefore inherently unstable and fraught
with ambiguity and quot;slippage,quot; with the result that meaning is indeterminate.
What Is Poststructuralism?
Poststructuralism, like its related second cousin postmodernism, is a slippery
term for anyone to define. As a result, any basic outline such as this summary is
by necessity extremely general and open to controversy by theorists (a
phenomenon, by the way, that is inherent to poststructuralist thought).
Nevertheless, poststructuralism is generally considered to include three main
features or tenets:
(1) The Primacy of Theory
In contemporary philosophy, it has become incumbent upon every critic to
quot;theorizequot; every position and critical practice. In effect, quot;theoryquot; has almost in
and of itself become an independent field of study and research in the
humanities, designating as it now does any account of whatever conditions
determine all meaning and interpretation.
In addition, much of contemporary theory seeks to challenge, destabilize, and
subvert the foundational assumptions and beliefs which comprise all modes of
discourse that make up western civilization. Because of this ongoing and at times
rather stridently oppositional stance, poststructural criticism has been associated
with an adversarial stance that often takes on the established institutional and
political forces in American society. Among the many essays describing the rise
and content of the field that today is called quot;theory,quot; Terry Eagleton's fine study
(1983) is the most accessible and the best introductory text.
(2) The Decentering of the Subject
Poststructural critics have called into question the very existence of the human
quot;subjectquot; or quot;selfquot; posited by quot;humanism.quot; The traditional view of individuals in
society privileges the individual's coherent identity endowed with initiative,
singular will, and purposefulness. However, this traditionalist concept is no
longer seen as tenable in a poststructuralist view of human subjectivity. By way of
contrast, the poststructural subject or self is seen to be incoherent, disunified,
and in effect quot;decentered,quot; so that depending upon the commentator a human
being is described as, for example, a mere conveyor of unconscious mainstream
ideologies, or as simply a quot;sitequot; in which various cultural constructs and
quot;discursive formationsquot; created and sustained by the structures of power in a
given social environment play themselves out. Some of the most important early
essays signaling the turn to such a view of human subjectivity, and in particular
of authorship, also appeared in the late 1960s, including influential works by
theorists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes.
(3) The Fundamental Importance of the Reader
With the destabilizing or decentering of the author and in more general terms of
language as a system, the reader or interpreter has become the focal point of
much poststructural theorizing. The traditional notion of a literary quot;workquot; that
has some sort of objective, singular existence and meaning all its own has been
rejected and translated into the more common contemporary category of quot;text,quot; a
concept that suggests the centrality of the reader and the decentered nature of the
written product itself. According to quot;deconstruction,quot; a theoretical approach to
written texts that is largely an offshoot of poststructural theory, any text
comprises a chain of signifiers which appears to evoke a singular meaning, but
which upon investigation can be shown to contradict itself and thus quot;deconstructquot;
whatever meaning it can be said to contain. In the most extreme forms of
deconstruction, meaning is fully indeterminate, and any claim to understand and
interpret objectively and completely a given text is merely an illusory quot;effect.quot;
In addition to deconstruction, another particularly important and related field of
poststructuralist theory is quot;reader response theory.quot; Reader response is most
interested in how individuals read the same text in vastly different ways.
Although reader response (like poststructuralism and deconstruction) should not
be considered a field of unified critical thought, the term has quot;come to be
associated with the work of critics who use the words 'reader,' 'the reading
process,' and 'response' to mark out an area of investigationquot; (Tompkins, 1980).
Thus, reader response theorists would agree that a work of literature cannot be
understood apart from its effects on individual readers; indeed, the work's
quot;meaningquot; really has no existence separate from the way readers responds to it. A
recommended introductory text discussing reader response theory as a field of
inquiry is a collection of foundational essays edited by Jane Tompkins entitled
quot;Reader Response Criticismquot; (1980).
How Has Poststructuralism as a Theory Affected English Classroom Practices in the
the Teaching of Literature?
As Arthur Applebee has pointed out, the English curriculum's primary objective
should be the enhancement and maintenance of the conversational feature of
culture within the domain of the English classroom. Applebee and his colleagues
advocate a view of curriculum that creates quot;a domain for culturally significant
conversations into which we want our students to be able to enterquot; (Applebee,
1994). Applebee's aim, which demonstrates how poststructural theorizing has
influenced English curriculum development, is to create such domains by holding
to one of Applebee's key principles: quot;content that does not invoke further
conversation is of no interest; it is dead as well as deadly.quot; Blau (1993) provides a
solid introductory essay linking current literary theory with actual teaching of
literature. Johnson (1994) discusses how readers are profoundly affected by such
social categories as race and gender; while Patterson (1992) considers reading as
a discursive practice and demarcates the shift toward poststructural views of
How Has Poststructuralism Affected the Teaching of Writing?
Berlin (1992) and Winterowd and Blum (1994) have supplied two of the best
introductions to how poststructural theory has had a massive impact on
composition pedagogy. A number of scholars have written about this influence on
a variety of practical areas: Hourigan (1991) describes the impact of
poststructuralism on writing assessment, and Joyner (1991) advocates the
employment of poststructural insights into the procedures of writing centers.
Jonsberg (1993) and Hodgkins (1993) are interested in how poststructural theory
might affect student-teacher relationships, writing assignments, and student
writing modes such as expressivism.
Finally, poststructural theory is having an effect on areas of professionalization
and teacher education. Capper and Jamison (1993), Deever (1993), Oldendorf
(1992), and Robinson et al. (1993) have all contributed to the larger project of
determining how the emergence of poststructuralism should affect what English
teachers teach, how institutions should make evaluative judgments, and how
preservice English teachers should be prepared to begin their careers.
Applebee, Arthur N. (1994). quot;Toward Thoughtful Curriculum: Fostering
Discipline-Based Conversation.quot; English Journal, 83(3), 45-52. [EJ 480 971]
Berlin, James A. (1992). quot;Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies, and the
Composition Classroom: Postmodern Theory in Practice.quot; Rhetoric Review, 11(1),
16-23. [EJ 451 299]
Blau, Sheridan (1993). quot;Building Bridges between Literary Theory and the
Teaching of Literature.quot; Albany, NY: National Research Center on Literature
Teaching & Learning. [ED 356 472]
Capper, Colleen A., and Michael T. Jamison (1993). quot;Outcomes- Based Education
Reexamined: From Structural Functionalism to Poststructuralism.quot; Educational
Policy, 7(4), 427-46. [EJ 475 775]
Deever, Bryan (1993). quot;A Curriculum for Educational Justice: The Social
Foundations of Education and Pre-Service Teachers.quot; Teacher Education
Quarterly, 20(2), 43-56. [EJ 466 237]
Eagleton, Terry (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Hodgkins, Deborah (1993). quot;Constructive/ Constructing Dialogue: Students,
Teachers, and the 'Self' in the Writing Classroom.quot; Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (San
Diego). [ED 361 743]
Hourigan, Maureen M. (1991). quot;Poststructural Theory and Writing Assessment:
'Heady, Esoteric Theory' Revisited.quot; Teaching English in the Two-Year College,
18(3), 191-95. [EJ 432 506]
Johnson, Cheryl L. (1994). quot;Participatory Rhetoric and the Teacher as
Racial/Gendered Subject.quot; College English, 56(4), 409- 19. [EJ 481 051]
Jonsberg, Sara Dalma (1993). quot;Rehearsing New Subject Positions: A
Poststructural Look at Expressive Writing.quot; Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (San
Diego). [ED 358 447]
Joyner, Michael A. (1991). quot;The Writing Center Conference and the Textuality of
Power.quot; Writing Center Journal, 12(1), 80-89. [EJ 435 657]
Oldendorf, Walter P. (1992). quot;Teacher Renewal and Educational Reform: A
Poststructuralist at Home on the Range.quot; [ED 353 208]
Patterson, Annette (1992). quot;Individualism in English: From Personal Growth to
Discursive Construction.quot; English Education, 24(3), 131-46. [EJ 451 353]
Robinson, Rhonda S., et al. (1993). quot;Researching Instructional Materials
Evaluation: Adding Socio-Cultural Dimensions.quot; [ED 363 294]
Winterowd, W. Ross, and Jack Blum (1994). A Teacher's Introduction to
Composition in the Rhetorical Tradition. Urbana, IL: National Council of
Teachers of English. [ED 373 330]
Harold K. Bush, Jr., teaches American Studies and writing at Michigan State
Digest #104 is EDO-CS-95-07 and was published in June 1995 by the ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading, English and Communication, 2805 E 10th Street, Bloomington, IN 47408-2698,
Telephone (812) 855-5847 or (800) 759-4723. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be
freely reproduced. Additional copies may be ordered by contacting the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service at (800) 443-3742.
This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of
Education under contract number RR93002011. The content of this publication does not
necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of
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Dr. Carl B. Smith, Professor
By the mid 20th century there were a number of structural theories of human
existence. In the study of language, the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de
Saussure (1857-1913) suggested that meaning was to be found within the
structure of a whole language rather than in the analysis of individual words. For
Marxists, the truth of human existence could be understood by an analysis of
economic structures. Psychoanalysts attempted to describe the structure of the
psyche in terms of an unconscious.
In the 1960's, the structuralist movement, based in France, attempted to
synthesise the ideas of Marx, Freud and Saussure. They disagreed with the
existentialists' claim that each man is what he makes himself. For the
structuralist the individual is shaped by sociological, psychological and linguistic
structures over which he/she has no control, but which could be uncovered by
using their methods of investigation.
Originally labelled a structuralist, the French philosopher and historian Michel
Foucault came to be seen as the most important representative of the post-
structuralist movement. He agreed that language and society were shaped by rule
governed systems, but he disagreed with the structuralists on two counts. Firstly,
he did not think that there were definite underlying structures that could explain
the human condition and secondly he thought that it was impossible to step
outside of discourse and survey the situation objectively.
Jacques Derrida (1930- ) developed deconstruction as a technique for uncovering
the multiple interpretation of texts. Influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche,
Derrida suggests that all text has ambiguity and because of this the possibility of
a final and complete interpretation is impossible.
Post-structuralism and deconstruction can be seen as the theoretical
formulations of the post-modern condition. Modernity, which began
intellectually with the Enlightenment, attempted to describe the world in
rational, empirical and objective terms. It assumed that there was a truth to be
uncovered, a way of obtaining answers to the question posed by the human
condition. Post-modernism does not exhibit this confidence, gone are the
underlying certainties that reason promised. Reason itself is now seen as a
particular historical form, as parochial in its own way as the ancient explanations
of the universe in terms of Gods.
The postmodern subject has no rational way to evaluate a preference in relation
to judgements of truth, morality, aesthetic experience or objectivity. As the old
hierarchies of thought are torn down, a new clearing is formed on the frontiers of
understanding: quite what hybrids of thought will metamorphose, interbreed and
grow is this clearing is for the future to decide.
Michel Foucault: Genealogy of Knowledge.
Foucault attempted to analyse the 'discursive practices' or serious speech acts
that lay claim to revealing knowledge. Rather than analyse these discursive
practices in terms of their truth, he analyses them in terms of their history or
genesis. He claimed that he was attempting to do an 'archaeology' of knowledge,
to show the history of truth claims.
In his latter work, he borrowed from Nietzsche the 'genealogical' approach and
from Marx his analyses of ideology. Foucault sought to show how the
development of knowledge was intertwined with the mechanisms of (political)
power. Unlike Marx, Foucault had no underlying belief in a deep underlying truth
or structure: there was no objective viewpoint from which one could analyse
discourse or society.
Foucault focused on the way that knowledge and the increase of the power of the
state over the individual has developed in the modern era. In his 'History of
Sexuality' he argued that the rise of medical and psychiatric science has created a
discourse of sexuality as deep, instinctual and mysterious. This discourse became
accepted as the dominant explanation, and its assumptions began to seep into the
discourse of the everyday. In this way the human subjects's experience of their
own sexuality is shaped and controlled by the discourses that purport to explain
it. The search for knowledge does not simply uncover pre-existing 'objects'; it
actively shapes and creates them.
Foucault does not offer any all-embracing theory of human nature. He was
critical of 'meta-theory': beliefs that claimed to give an exclusive objective
explanation of reality. For Foucault there is no ultimate answer waiting to be
uncovered. The 'discursive practices' of knowledge are not independent of the
objects that are studied, and must be understood in their social and political
Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction
For Derrida, language or 'texts' are not a natural reflection of the world. Text
structures our interpretation of the world. Following Heidegger, Derrida thinks
that language shapes us: texts create a clearing that we understand as reality.
Derrida sees the history of western thought as based on opposition: good vs. evil
mind vs. matter, man vs. woman, speech vs. writing. These oppositions are
defined hierarchically: the second term is seen as a corruption of the first, the
terms are not equal opposites.
Derrida thought that all text contained a legacy of these assumptions, and as a
result of this, these texts could be re-interpreted with an awareness of the
hierarchies implicit in language. Derrida does not think that we can reach an end
point of interpretation, a truth. For Derrida all text s exhibit 'differance': they
allow multiple interpretations. Meaning is diffuse, not settled. Textuality always
gives us a surplus of possibilities, yet we cannot stand outside of textuality in an
attempt to find objectivity.
One consequence of deconstruction is that certainty in textual analyses becomes
impossible. There may be competing interpretations, but there is no
uninterpreted way one could assess the validity of these competing
interpretations. Rather than basing our philosophical understanding on
undeniable truths, the deconstructionist turns the settled bedrock of rationalism
into the shifting sands of a multiplicity of interpretations.
The displacement of the author in post-structuralism is an attack on an ideology
of higher knowledge and power, and on the notion of individual ownership of
texts and meanings. Granting those arguments, it seems still to be desirable to
retain the term ‘writer’ for someone who engages in the practice of textual
production. Writers can then be described in terms of their various cultural,
institutional and economic situations: what publishers publish them, what media
they use, what associations they belong to, how they are paid and/or otherwise
employed. (Similar questions can be asked about readers.) The circumstances
of linguistic practice determine the modes of discourse, and therefore the ranges
of meaning, available to speakers and writers; this is a commonplace assumption
in the ethnography of communication (see, for example, Bauman and Sherzer,
1974; Gumperz and Hymes, 1972), and is implicit in materialist analyses of
textual production and consumption (see Eagleton, 1976). A radical claim of
linguistics which may help us understand the situation of writer, text and context
is that discourses and their significances pre-exist the act of writing; the writer
may choose the words and structures, but communication takes place only
because they are already impregnated with social meanings. It is in this sense
that we can say that writers, like any communicating subjects, are semiotically
constituted by their texts, and it is in this way that textual illusions such as the
‘implied author’ (Booth, 1961) are constructed for the reader.
An awareness of and respect for an ‘author’ who controls the text of the
‘work’ correlatively implies an inferior and inactive reader, a passive reader
who is acted upon by the work. Apologists for ‘Literature’ take their cue from
Horace’s dictum that poetry is ‘dulce et utile’, sweet and useful; ‘Literature’
has the dual goal to ‘delight’ and ‘instruct’ the reader. The key term for the
first half of the conjunction is ‘pleasure’, defined variously: it could be a feeling
of the sublime, the relief of a cathartic purging of violent feelings, a
harmonization of impulses (Richards, 1924), even just an agreeable feeling of
admiration for the poet’s skill: in the review of Larkin mentioned above,
Saussure, as the reader will remember, argues that meaning in language is
just a matter of difference. 'Cat' is 'cat' because it is not 'cap' or 'bat'. But
how far is one to press this process of difference? 'Cat' is also what it is
because it is not 'cad' or 'mat', and 'mat' is what it is because it is not 'map'
or 'hat'. Where is one supposed to stop? It would seem that this process of
difference in language can be traced round infinitely: but if this is so, what
has become of Saussure's idea that language forms a closed, stable system? If
every sign is what it is because it is not all the other signs, every sign would
seem to be made up of a potentially infinite tissue of differences. Defining a
sign would therefore appear to be a more tricky business than one might
have thought. Saussure's langue suggests a delimited structure of meaning;
but where in language do you draw the line?
Another way of putting Saussure's point about the differential nature of
meaning is to say that meaning is always the result of a division or 'articulation'
of signs. The signifier 'boat' gives us the concept or signified 'boat'
because it divides itselffrom the signifier 'moat'. The signified, that is to say,
is the product of the differencebetween two signifiers. But it is also the
product ofthe difference between a lot of other signifiers: 'coat', 'boar', 'bolt'
and so on. This questions Saussure's view of the sign as a neat symmetrical
unity between one signifier and one signified. For the signified 'boat' is really
the product ofa complex interaction of signifiers, which has no obvious endpoint.
Meaning is the spin-off of a potentially endless play of signifiers,
rather than a concept tied firmly to the tail of a particular signifier. The
signifier does not yield us up a signified directly, as a mirror yields up an
image: there is no harmonious one-to-one set of correspondences between
the level of the signifiers and the level of the signifieds in language. To
complicate matters even further, there is no fixed distinction between
signifiers and signifieds either. If you want to know the meaning (or signified)
of a signifier, you can look it up in the dictionary; but all you will find
will be yet more signifiers, whose signifieds you can in turn look up, and so .
on. The process we are discussing is not only in theory infinite but somehow
circular: signifiers keep transforming into signifieds and vice versa, and you
will never arrive at a final signified which is not a signifier in itself. If
structuralism divided the sign from the referent, this kind of thinking
often known as 'post-structuralism' goes a step further: it divides the
signifier from the signified.
Another way of putting what we have just said is that meaning is not
immediately present in a sign. Since the meaning of a sign is a matter of what
the sign is not, its meaning is always in some sense absent from it too.
Meaning, if you like, is scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of
signifiers: it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in anyone
sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence
together. Reading a text is more like tracing this process of constant
flickering than it is like counting the beads on a necklace. There is also
another sense in which we can never quite close our fists over meaning,
which arises from the fact that language is a temporal process. When I read
a sentence, the meaning of it is always somehow suspended, something
deferred or still to come: one signifier relays me to another, and that to
another, earlier meanings are modified by later ones, and although the
sentence may come to an end the process of language itself does not. There
is always more meaning where that came from. I do not grasp the sense of
the sentence just by mechanically piling one word on the other: for the
words to compose some relatively coherent meaning at all, each one of them
must, so to speak, contain the trace of the ones which have gone before, and
hold itself open to the trace of those which are coming after. Each sign in
the chain of meaning is somehow scored over or traced through with all
the others, to form a complex tissue which is never exhaustible; and to this
extent no sign is ever 'pure' or 'fully meaningful'. At the same time as this
is happening, I can detect in each sign, even if only unconsciously, traces of
the other words which it has excluded in orderto be itself. 'Cat' is what it is
only by fending off 'cap' and 'bat', but these other possible signs, because
they are actually constitutive of its identity, still somehow inhere within it.