Structuralism as a school of though...

What is deconstruction

Deconstruction eschewed the concept of ...
Critics of deconstruction have also accused the theory of being fascist in nature. This is
largely due to one major propon...
The Analysis of Traces

In the late nineteenth century, Western science expended considerable energy on the
problem of per...
given rise to questions; scholars have asked not only what these documents meant, but
also whether they were telling the t...
economics and the turn to micro-economics, and the universal egoism flowing
      from the "beginning of history" in the m...
•   thirdly, it is an ideological expression of its times.

The Epistemology of Post-structuralism

The statement of Fouca...
inherit concepts and work with them together with others within definite social relations,
and to the extent of no more th...
What lies behind the trace is materiality. One cannot go beyond that without slipping into
dogmatism. One cannot deny that...
is but the problem of living in a world which one must also reject. One must reject, but
one must live.

Philosophy Arc...
thus a system of signs or a semiotic system, but merely one of many,
all of which construct meaning, which does not exist ...
Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) took Saussure's ideas and applied them to
psychoanalysis, arguing that the unconscious is struct...
Edward Said (1935-2003) used poststructuralist ideas to analyze
Orientalism, the study of the Orient by academics of the W...


2.) That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real

       3.) That language is ...
Derrida says that such systems are always built of the basic units structuralism analyzes--
the binary opposition or pair-...
Because of the favoring of presence over absence, speech is favored over writing (and, as
we'll see with Freud, masculine ...
binaries, with the previously subordinated term on top, nor do you destroy the old
system--rather, you deconstruct the old...
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  1. 1. www). Structuralism as a school of thought hit its stride during the radical movements of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in France, although it had its roots back at the beginning of the 20th century. Structuralists look at the foundational structures implicit in all productions of a culture, and undertake an analysis of the many parts that create something, to get a better understanding of the creation. Linguistics was one of the first fields to use structuralism to its advantage, and its application quickly spread to other fields. The basic premise of structuralism is that all things have a structure below the level of meaning, and that this structure constitutes the reality of that thing. Post-structuralism grew as a response to structuralism’s perceived assumption that its own system of analysis was somehow essentialist. Post-structuralists hold that in fact even in an examination of underlying structures, a slew of biases introduce themselves, based on the conditioning of the examiner. At the root of post-structuralism is the rejection of the idea that there is any truly essential form to a cultural product, as all cultural products are by their very nature formed, and therefore artificial. This concept of non-essentialism was famously expanded upon by Foucault in his History of Sexuality, in which he argues that even gender and sexual orientation are contrived formations, and that our concept of essentialist notions of gender or sexuality is flawed. For example, he argues that the entire class of homosexuality is in fact quite recent, built up by cultural norms and an interplay between different groups in society, but with no more essential a quality than, for example, the idea of beauty. One of the pivotal moments in the history of post-structuralism occurred in 1966, when Derrida delivered a talk at John Hopkins University. Derrida was respected as one of the great thinkers of structuralism, and so was invited to speak on the subject at length, as it was just beginning to receive a great deal of attention in the American intellectual community. Derrida’s lecture, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,” was a sharp critique of structuralism, pointing out its inherent limitations, and laying out some basic principles for a new language of discourse. Post-structuralism is importantly different from postmodernism, although the two are often considered one and the same by the general subject. Although there are certain areas of overlap, thinkers from one school almost never identify themselves with the other school of thought. Postmodernism importantly seeks to identify a contemporary state of the world, the period that is following the modernist period. Postmodernism seeks to identify a certain juncture, and to work within the new period. Post-structuralism, on the other hand, can be seen as a more explicitly critical view, aiming to deconstruct ideas of essentialism in various disciplines to allow for a more accurate discourse.
  2. 2. What is deconstruction Deconstruction eschewed the concept of one possible meaning for a text, and instead suggested that meanings of a text are multiple and contradictory. Underlying a text is the subtext, a set of values that must be evaluated to see if the text is really contrary in nature and hence somewhat without meaning. Deconstruction also evaluates the way in which texts in the traditional literary canon are taught to students, suggesting that traditional “readings” of a text often ignore underlying value structures in direct opposition to what is taught. A simple example of this is analysis of the work Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. For many years, this novel was thought to be an important work on human rights and an examination of man’s inhumanity to man. Through the eyes of Huck, the reader could see the devastation of slavery and the degradation suffered by African Americans. Critics who use deconstruction quite logically point to the last portion of the book, in which Huck and Tom realize that Jim is a free man and no longer a slave, yet go to great lengths to pretend he is a slave. They lock him up and nearly starve him. Huck is quite willing to degrade Jim in this way, showing few moral qualms about doing so. For those practicing deconstruction, this bizarre chapter suggests that the so-called work about human rights is anything but. The underlying values in the text are not consistent with the way it is presented to students. In a sense, the deconstructionist has taken apart the novel and its critical tradition, displaying its inconsistencies. Many literary critics abhor deconstruction, stating that deconstructing a text deprives the text of meaning and ultimately dismisses the value of anything it touches. To those who use deconstruction, the answer to this criticism might be: “How does one define value? What is meaning?” Though this answer may frustrate critics of deconstruction, it points to the way in which deconstructionists see the text as a source of multiple meanings, determined very much by each reader's own subtexts and definitions. To reduce and reduce the meaning of a work may ultimately make it purposeless, say some critics. At its best, though, deconstruction can be helpful in unmasking huge contradictions present in a text.
  3. 3. Critics of deconstruction have also accused the theory of being fascist in nature. This is largely due to one major proponent, Paul de Man, who may have written for a magazine that had some Nazi sympathies. Paul de Man has refuted these charges, yet deconstruction seems inexorably tied to fascism in the minds of many. It is true that reading a deconstruction of a text can be similar to attempting to decode a secret message. Deconstructionists like Jack Derrida deliberately choose confusing and lengthy words to derive a multiplicity of meanings from their interpretation. In some ways, this makes deconstruction elitist and inaccessible to many readers. The deconstructionist cares not, however, for those who are confused. They believe that confusion should be the result of reading a deconstruction of a text. Value of Knowledge Reference "Post-structuralism" One of the principal ingredients of today's ideological soup is "post-structuralism", so- called because it had its origins in the structuralism of Althusser's days, and continues into a new stage the essential project of structuralism, but breaks with structuralism in certain key features and bases itself upon a certain, characteristic critique of structuralism. To make a specific and not a vague characterisation of post-structuralism, I shall confine myself to comments on certain key passages of Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge. While Foucault himself moved on from this position, this work remains a landmark for the emergence of post-structuralism. A critique of Foucault is particularly important, because he expresses in clear, well-argued form - and has been very influential in this - the rejection of "grand narratives", the rejection of the possibility of grasping from the universe of appearances, periods, tendencies, sequences and so on; in short, the possibility of finding within history that which is Essential. Essence is important, because Essence exists not just behind Appearance, in some beyond, but exists materially in its own right, side-by-side with the inessential. Unless we can see what is essential in the system of oppression we confront, then it is impossible to fight against it.
  4. 4. The Analysis of Traces In the late nineteenth century, Western science expended considerable energy on the problem of perception of the physical world, in particular the surprising results of the Michelson-Morley experiment. One of the most influential figures of this time was Ernst Mach. I would like to quote a few words from his most famous work, The Analysis of Sensations: "The vague image which we have of a given permanent complex [of sensations], being an image which does not perceptibly change when one or another of the component parts is taken away, seems to be something which exists in itself. ... it is imagined that it is possible to subtract all the parts and to have something still remaining. Thus naturally arises the philosophical notion, at first impressive, but subsequently recognised as monstrous, of a 'thing-in-itself', different from its 'appearance', and unknowable. ... we ultimately accustom ourselves to regard all properties of bodies as 'effects' proceeding from permanent nuclei and conveyed to the ego through the medium of the body; which effects we call sensations. By this operation, however, these nuclei are deprived of their entire sensory content, and converted into mere mental symbols. The assertion, then, is correct that the world consists only of our sensations. In which case we have knowledge only of sensations, and the assumption of the nuclei referred to, or of a reciprocal action between them, from which sensations proceed, turns out to be quite idle and superfluous. Such a view can only suit with a half-hearted realism or a half-hearted philosophical criticism." In the naturalistic theory of reflection, the word "trace" is often used for sensations, and Foucault also uses the same word to indicate the documents of interest to the historian, the markings that are left behind after events and people have passed, which allow us to surmise what may have caused them. 120 years later, the focus of attention has moved from perception and comprehension of space, time, colour, etc., to perception and comprehension of history and social phenomena, and the word "trace" accurately indicates the commonality between the concerns of the two authors. I will therefore continue to use the word "trace", in lieu of the more commonly used "text". In his time, Mach played an important and positive, if confusing, role, because, by waging war on naïve realism he drew attention to the unspoken presumptions, the "sleight of hand" involved in the physical theory of his time, and obliged natural scientists to view much more critically the concepts with which they analysed the data of perception, in particular to question the presumption of something which lay beyond the traces. It is now history that Mach turned out to be wrong, in that his approach did not lead to a valid interpretation of the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, but Einstein always acknowledged his debt to Mach's inspiration. Foucault introduces The Archaeology of Knowledge with: "the questioning of the document. Of course, it is obvious enough that ever since a discipline such as history has existed, documents have been used, questioned, and have
  5. 5. given rise to questions; scholars have asked not only what these documents meant, but also whether they were telling the truth, and by what right they could claim to be doing so, whether they were sincere or deliberately misleading, well informed or ignorant, authentic or tampered with. But each of these questions, and all this critical concern, pointed to one and the same end: the reconstitution, on the basis of what the documents say, and sometimes merely hint at, of the past from which they emanate and which has now disappeared far behind them; the document was always treated as the language of a voice since reduced to silence, its fragile, but possibly decipherable trace. Now .. history ... has taken as its primary task, not the interpretation of the document, nor the attempt to decide whether it is telling the truth or what is its expressive value, but to work on it from within and to develop it." Thus Foucault makes exactly the same point as Mach in the new context, and requires that historians give up the, supposedly naive realist, presumption that the primary task is surmising what lies behind the trace, but must instead simply describe the traces themselves. "I have undertaken, then, to describe the relations between statements." - the opening words of Chapter Two. He continues by noting three consequences of this turn: "[1] The problem now is to constitute series"; and "[2] discontinuity assumes a major role in the historical disciplines" and "[3] the theme and the possibility of a total history begin to disappear, and we see the emergence of something very different that might be called a general history. The project of a total history is one that seeks to reconstitute the overall form of a civilisation, the principle material or spiritual - of a society, the significance common to all the phenomena of a period, the law that accounts for their cohesion - what is called metaphorically the 'face' of a period. Such a project is linked to two or three hypotheses; - it is supposed that between all the events of a well-defined spatio-temporal area, between all the phenomena of which traces have been found, it must be possible to establish a system of homogeneous relations: a network of causality that makes it possible to derive each of them, relations of analogy that show how they symbolise one another, or how they all express one and the same central core; it is also supposed that one and the same form of historicity operates upon economic structures, social institutions and customs, the inertia of mental attitudes, technological practice, political behaviour, and subjects them all to the same type of transformation; lastly, it is supposed that history itself may be articulated into great units - stages or phases - which contain within themselves their own principle of cohesion. These are the postulates that are challenged by the new history when it speaks of series, divisions, limits, differences of level, shifts, chronological specificities, particular forms of rehandling, possible types of relation." Three things to note about this paragraph: 1. The deletion of the materiality of the traces renders them into total discontinuity and this total discontinuity is characteristic of Foucault's method; it also expresses the spirit of his times, with the rise of finite mathematics over analysis, the rise of digital technology over analogue electronics, the abandonment of macro-
  6. 6. economics and the turn to micro-economics, and the universal egoism flowing from the "beginning of history" in the mid-1960s; 2. The critique of continuity is exclusively based on the structuralist conception of "system". 3. Although the focus on "general history", i.e. the entire culture, rejecting presupposed divisions, continues the project of the Frankfurt School which had its roots in Lukacs's and Korsch's attempts to reconstitute Marxism with its genuine Hegelian conceptions of totality, as a "post-structuralist", Foucault has completely missed this conception. The danger here then is that the structuralism 's constitution of meaning by a system, albeit a closed and static system, will be taken to the point of extremity by the shattering of the totality into generalised egoism. The concluding words of Chapter 3 make, I think, a fair summary of Foucault's project: "To write a history of discursive objects that does not plunge them into the common depth of a primal soil, but deploys the nexus of regularities that govern their dispersion". ... "We shall not return to the state anterior to discourse - in which nothing has yet been said, and in which things are only just beginning to emerge out of the grey light; and we shall not pass beyond discourse in order to rediscover the forms that it has created and left behind it; we shall remain, or try to remain, at the level of discourse itself. ... I would like to show with precise examples that in analysing discourses themselves, one sees the loosening of the embrace, apparently so tight, of words and things, and the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice. These rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects. 'Words and things' is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that consists of not - of no longer treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language (langue) and to speech. It is this more that we must reveal and describe." Much of the philosophy and cultural criticism of our times is an exaggeration and a degeneration from this project, and some do better here and there, but I think a critique of what Foucault here expresses can suffice to deal with the Essence of what I understand by "post-modern theory". I would like to tackle this program at three levels: • firstly, it is not an adequate method for the analysis of discourse, although it does make true and significant warnings against the kind of metaphysic which is characteristic of structuralism; • secondly, it leads to a politics which does work which is essential preparation for liberation, but still fundamentally reinforces dominant forms of oppression, that is to say, it constitutes a form of progressive bourgeois ideology;
  7. 7. • thirdly, it is an ideological expression of its times. The Epistemology of Post-structuralism The statement of Foucault that the historian ought only concern herself with the analysis of traces only repeats in a new context what Ernst Mach said in the 1890s. The truth of this advice is that the "object is formed" by the subject, and consequently, in order not to be trapped within an unrecognised system of objects formed by practices (or language) inhering in a given system of concepts, it is necessary to be able, so far as possible, to continuously withdraw to the immediately given and re-form the object knowingly, critically, as if á là Carnap (the "third positivism") one were simply adopting a kind of shorthand for the entire mass of traces. Let us look at this business of the subject forming the object. Structuralism understood that the world was formed in the system of objects known to a culture, and that this world of objects corresponded to the social relations with which a people made their living in the world. Thus, structuralism introduced a kind of valid relativism - the world is formed by a culture, and the truth of the subject-object relation is given in the practical life of that culture. The sacrifice structuralism made was adherence to the "law of identity", that is, in order to do theoretical work on the conception of a system, the system was abstracted from its materiality and reified into a self-identical object of mathematics. On this basis of identity, structuralism was able to perceive regularity in history, to talk of periods, influence, the impact of events on whole social structures, and so on and so forth. The "First Positivism" of Comte, Mill & Co. wanted to build a scientific view of the world based on analysis of the data of perception, and with sociology at its centre. One of the unfortunate results of their efforts was a tendency to sweeping generalisations, but it nevertheless created a basis for the positive investigation of perception, which in turn engendered the critique of these sweeping generalisations. Did not structuralism play a similar role to that of the first positivism, but on the basis of much more sophisticated mathematics, more freedom from self-confident Euro-centrism and "naturalism", and a vastly expanded knowledge of anthropology and sociology made possible by the world market? And does not post-structuralism play a similar role in breaking down the sweeping generalisations of structuralism, as did the second positivism? I do not rely on the parallel I am drawing attention to here, but in dealing with a tendency that makes such claims to break down the unities of its predecessors, it is worthy of attention. Firstly, how does the subject form the object? Who is this subject? Of course, the subject cannot exist outside of individual human beings, but that means nothing - one also needs hydrocarbons, but so what? The subject which forms concepts is the social and historical practice of human beings. Concepts are social products. They are passed on to generations through social vehicles and products such as languages, media, institutions, wars and industries, etc. They are not primarily the creation of individuals, who 99%
  8. 8. inherit concepts and work with them together with others within definite social relations, and to the extent of no more than 1% do individuals create concepts. So when, for example, my male chauvinism confronts your feminism, it is not true that both are equally true, nor that the truth of each are incommensurable, or that the truth of each is in my life and your life, or yours is true for middle-class Western women and mine for backward males, nor surely that "truth" is meaningless, or something trivial that interests only dogmatists!? Nor that I make a better, more convincing, politically-correct defence of my position which is published in a reputable journal, or vice versa, or that I get more votes than you. But nor can I make the claim that my idea reflects what objectively exists, independently of human experience and yours not - what an absurdity! Perhaps we can say that yours is liberatory and mine repressive, and although neither is true, one is good and the other is bad, and that is all that matters? Perhaps we could settle the matter by arm-wrestling? We must not get this question confused with the right of an individual to hold a view. This is of course a basic bourgeois right. But that is not the point; I do not thank you for allowing me the right to walk across a mine-field. I am interested in whether my idea of the best way home is objectively correct or not. The Politics of Identity The structuralists were right when they identified the location of truth in the social practice of a culture, but limited by the conception of culture in anthropological static isolation (dynamic, static or partial "equilibrium"). The truth and error of my view and your view (continuing the metaphor from above) is a really-existing patriarchal society of which we are both a living part and which is undergoing transformation under the impact of the socialisation of women's labour and your struggle for the value of your labour. That is the source of the concepts (of "feminism", "male-chauvinism", "sexist language", etc.), that is the criterion of truth and that is what is changed by the material struggle of our ideas, that is the meaning. If we were try to interpret the clash of ideas in individual terms - your idea versus my idea - we cannot but rely upon and reinforce the Utilitarian ethic of Universal Egoism (formulated in theoretical terms by John Stuart Mill in 1861). The road to liberation which is founded on you versus me, is the fundamental and dominant modus vivendi of bourgeois society. The displacement of this ethic to that of, for example, collectivism - our idea versus your idea - hardly cures the problem. It goes perhaps, halfway back to structuralism that is all. The politics of identity. Now, just as Mach played a "confusing but necessary" role in the 1890s, preparatory to the natural scientific revolutions of the turn-of-the-century, Foucault's war on "naïve structuralism", his insistence on halting at the presumption of what lies behind the trace, of all those categories like "influence", "author" and geographical, temporal or social continuity, is a "necessary but confusing" obstacle.
  9. 9. What lies behind the trace is materiality. One cannot go beyond that without slipping into dogmatism. One cannot deny that and avoid scepticism. For example, the victim of a murder-rape is silent, their violator is articulate. Maybe we never hear the words of the victim, hear her testimony or even see her body. But what kind of science is it that asks use to confine ourselves to the traces, if (in this example) they be only the testimony of the rapist? Perhaps we are forced to return an open verdict in this case. Who knows - but something happened! I cannot presume to speak for the silent, but I must hear the silence. This example is extreme, and perhaps for that reason unfortunate. It is well-known that the dominant ruling classes of any society write the history, they leave their traces on every monument, every document and their names live forever. Must we not surmise what lay behind? whose hands built the monument to Kubla Khan? Post-structuralist Times In the mid-1960s, not only was there a loss of faith in the possibility of overthrowing the system of capitalist oppression by global transformation, by overthrowing the State, defeating imperialism and making national liberation gun in hand. The bourgeoisie also lost faith in resolving its crisis by means of macro-economics, state intervention, the Gold-Dollar standard and orchestration of the world economy by the World Bank. The maintenance of the Gold-dollar standard and the use of the dollar as the medium of international exchange, in other words, the maintenance of the paper dollar as the substance of value had become untenable. Only by a drastic collapse of the level of world trade and a head-on confrontation with the working class could that position be maintained. Value had to be "floated", and be substantiated in the market for each and every commodity, extracted at the point of production. This situation had been brought about by the very magnitude of the mass of value circulating independently of any production. The war of all against all had returned, but now under the weight of a huge mass of value which appeared to have no centre. It would be hardly original to note that post-modern theory is as much a part and expression of the problem as it is a critique and opponent of it. Could it be otherwise? Well, with difficulty of course, but if we can see what is essential in the contemporary situation, if we are not blinded and swept along with the tide, then we have a chance. Essence and Abstraction The essential methodological error which is common to positivism, structuralism and post-structuralism is the inability to perceive the essence of processes and to understand and distinguish between Essence and the abstract quantitative reflection of the data of perception; the inability to work with true Notions rather than abstract universals. The struggle to identify Essence within Appearance is an interminable one and the tendency of any of us to operate uncritically with the static categories of yesterday inescapable. It
  10. 10. is but the problem of living in a world which one must also reject. One must reject, but one must live. Philosophy Archive @ WS 305: Feminist Theories Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Deconstruction (Foucault) Kari Boyd McBride These influential theories of the second half of the twentieth century, all of which are focused on language, have their origins in the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), particularly his Cours de linguistique générale (1916) or Course in General Linguistics, taken from his students' lecture notes and published posthumously. Contrary to many of the linguistic theories of the day, which focused on diachronic linguistics or the changes in languages over time, Saussure developed a theory of synchronic language, how language works in the present. He argued that the relationship between the spoken word (signifier) and object (signified) is arbitrary and that meaning comes through the relationship between signs, which are for Saussure the union of signified and signifier. So the word "tree" means by custom only and not through any intrinsic relationship between the sound and the thing. That's why both "arbol" and "tree" can both signify the same signified. English speakers construct meaning by distinguishing between tree and treat and trek as well as between tree and bush and flower. Meaning, then, comes from understanding what a thing IS NOT rather than from knowing in any kind of ontological sense what a thing IS. Meaning is constructed through difference, particularly through binary pairs (man/woman, good/evil). There is no absolute Platonic ideal "out there" to anchor meaning. There is no truth that is not constructed. There is nothing outside language. Language speaks (through) us. Language is
  11. 11. thus a system of signs or a semiotic system, but merely one of many, all of which construct meaning, which does not exist outside the semiotic system. Some anthropologists seized on Saussure's theory of semiotic structure to analyze and understand a variety of cultures, which, they theorized, could be mapped "scientifically" through a structuralist methodology. Literary critics also drew on Structuralism to map the semiotics of genres and individual works and, in the process, to challenge the formalist / humanist criticism that had dominated literary study in the first half of the century. Perhaps most influential was Roland Barthes (1915-1980) who proclaimed the death of the author. That is, if language speaks us, then the author is relatively unimportant to the process of writing. Jacques Derrida (1930- ) used Saussure's insights to develop Deconstruction, a perspective that focuses on the lack of a truth "out there" or at the center to provide meaning. He showed how all Western philosophical systems are dependent on a center (God, the self, the unconscious). But structuralism had shown that the center is a fiction, merely another signified that has no being beyond language. Furthermore, Derrida focused on the binary pairs that make meaning, arguing that rather than being polar opposites, each was dependent on the other for meaning and (we might say) existence. (Hence one deconstructs the polarity of the binary terms.) He also showed how in all binaries, one of the terms was always subordinated to the other (man/woman, good/evil). To describe how meaning is produced, Derrida developed the term différance, meaning to differ and to defer. He focused in particular on the binary speech / writing, in which speech has been seen to provide a guarantee of subjectivity and presence in the history of philosophy and linguistics (someone has to do the speaking). Alternatively, writing is about absence, the absence of the speaker and what is signified by the written signifiers. Derrida calls the privileging of speech and presence logocentrism. Poststructuralism rejected the theory that one could map the structure of a language or culture. Rather, meaning is constantly slipping from one sign to the next. Signifiers do not produce signifieds; they merely produce an endless chain of signifiers--hence my need to find a signifier from another semiotic system to represent the tree above. In that example, the signifier tree did not produce the signified but merely another signifier. Language works like a dictionary where, when you look up a word, you get other words that provide meaning. If you keep looking up those words, you'll ultimately come back to the word you started with.
  12. 12. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) took Saussure's ideas and applied them to psychoanalysis, arguing that the unconscious is structured like a language, that is, the unconscious is a semiotic system signs stand arbitrarily for particular meanings. Lacan also postulated that every human being goes through the mirror stage in which we construct our sense of coherent selfhood by seeing ourselves in a mirror (real or imaginary; other people can also mirror us back to ourselves). But that self and its coherence are based on méconnaissance or misrecognition, because the mirror image shows us to be more unified and separate than we actually are. As in Saussure's linguistic theory, here the self has no ontology but is rather a construct, a sign, created through relationship and difference. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) always insisted that he was not a poststructuralist critic but rather a genealogist. But his analysis of discourse owes a lot to Saussure's insights about the construction of meaning. Foucault shows how discourses regulate what can be said, what can be thought, and what is considered true or correct. So the pre- modern medical theories based on bodily humors constructed a particular understanding of the body, and within that discourse, certain things were true and false. However, there were many other propositions that were neither true nor false but fell outside the discursive system altogether. Anyone who tried to think outside the system would not have been respected or accorded a voice in the conversation about bodies. Discourse is thus the medium through which power is expressed and people and practices are governed; academic disciplines discipline. Foucault also argued that "the history of thought" is a misnomer, as it implied a continuous evoltion of ideas. Rather, he used the terms genealogy or archeology of knowledge, focusing on the ruptures or breaks between one era's discourse and another's. Thomas Kuhn's (1922-1996) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962; he wrote it as a grad student) makes the kind of argument about scientific thought that Foucault made about discourses in general (and in particular). Kuhn used the term paradigm to describe the foucauldian discourses that regulate scientific thought. For Kuhn, science is not an evolutionary, progressive march towards greater and greater truth but rather "a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions" (Foucault's "ruptures") in which one point of view is replaced by another. (Think of the difference between the Ptolomaic and Newtonian worlds.) So science's claim to truth is highly questionable and even ephemeral; since the truths of past science have passed away, we can be certain that what science claims today will itself one day be superseded by the claims of a new paradigm, which will itself one day be superseded . . . .
  13. 13. Edward Said (1935-2003) used poststructuralist ideas to analyze Orientalism, the study of the Orient by academics of the West. He showed how the academics and their disciplines constructed an object of study that had very little to do with the East (which is East, of course, only in relationship to the West, a binary relationship in which one terms has more value than the other). The theories inspired by Saussure's linguistic theory have influenced every academic discipline because they all bear on epistemology or what can be known. If knowledge is relationship, a product of societies, the medium of power, then academic endeavor is not about the discovery of truth but rather its construction. Furthermore, the methodologies we employ in our various academic endeavors are undermined by the insights of poststructuralism. What is the relationship between the academic and the object of study? In what way can we know that object; is it available to us at all? What can we know about the past? What does it mean to interpret or analyze a work of literature? How do we choose what works to study? What is the role of the aesthetic in either art history or literary study? How is the canon of literature or art produced? How do we decide what is "good" or "beautiful"? Can there be any absolute standards of value at all if meaning is a product of arbitrary relationship and difference? Poststructuralism has also influenced materialist theory or Marxism by providing a way of understanding ideology and showing how important it is to the maintenance of any economic system. The union of poststructuralist and materialist theory produced cultural theories and cultural studies, including, in literature, new historicism and cultural materialism, in which the goal is to understand cultures as both material and discursive. In such theories, everything can be a text (a semitic system), everything can be "read." But no one kind of text is privileged over another. All texts are literary in a sense, as they are all produced in what we might call a self-conscious manner. On the other hand, no self produces any text; there is no authorial intention; language speaks through all of us, even the most "intentional" author. The influence of Poststructuralism, particularly in its union with materialism, is what has produced the "cultural turn" in the social sciences and humanities. And cultural criticism tends to be interdisciplinary, as the questions it asks cannot be answered from within the old disciplinary boundaries. Anyway, disciplines themselves have been called into question by the foucauldian critique of discourses. We understand them as social constructs rather than as taxonomies that arise from the nature of things.
  14. 14. Structuralism/Poststructuralism 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 "parole" to "langue;" 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 "language speaks us," 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 "already written." 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 "liberal humanist" tradition in literary criticism. The HUMANIST model presupposed: 1.) That there is a real world out there that we can understand with our rational minds.
  15. 15. 2.) That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real world.. 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 "self"). 4.) the SELF--also known as the "subject," 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 "reality"--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 "I" 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.
  16. 16. 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 "marked" 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 "punch cards and an IBM machine," 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 LOGOCENTRISM. You might think here about the Biblical phrase "Let there be light" 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 "structures," or fundamental opposing ideas, that Derrida is concerned with in Western philosophy.
  17. 17. 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 absence). 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 "I", of an identity that is stable and unified and coherent, the part of you that knows who you mean when you say "I". This core self or "I" is thus the CENTER of the "system", the "langue" of your being, and every other part of you (each individual act) is part of the "parole". The "I" 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 "truth" or "meaning." 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 "play" (more on this in the next lecture). This method is called "Deconstruction" because it is a combination of construction/destruction--the idea is that you don't simply construct new system of
  18. 18. 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 • Poststructuralism as Theory and Practice in the English Classroom All materials on this site are written by, and remain the property of, Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado at Boulder. You are welcome to quote this lecture, or to link it to another site, with proper citation and attribution. For more information, see Citing Electronic Sources Last revision: September 13, 2010 For comments, send mail to Mary Klages ( //////