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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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:
" The problem now is to constitute series"; and " discontinuity assumes a major role
in the historical disciplines" and " 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
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-
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
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;
• 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
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%
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.
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?
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
is but the problem of living in a world which one must also reject. One must reject, but
one must live.
Philosophy Archive @ marxists.org
WS 305: Feminist Theories
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
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
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.
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 . . . .
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.
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
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
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 "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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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