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Post-structuralism refers to the intellectual developments in continental philosophy and critical theory which were outcomes of twentieth-century French philosophy. The prefix "post" refers to the fact that many contributors such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva were very critical of structuralism. In direct contrast to structuralism's claims of culturally independent meaning, post-structuralists typically view culture as inseparable from meaning.

Post-structuralism is difficult to define or summarize. There are two main reasons for this. First, it rejects definitions that claim to have discovered absolute 'truths' or facts about the world.[1] Second, very few people have willingly accepted the label 'post-structuralist'; rather, they have been labeled as such by others. Therefore no one has felt compelled to construct a 'manifesto' of post-structuralism.[2] Thus the exact nature of post-structuralism and whether it can be considered a single philosophical movement is debated. Indeed, it has often been pointed out[attribution needed] that the term is not widely used in Europe (where most supposedly "post-structuralist" theory originates) and that the concept of a post-structuralist theoretical paradigm is largely the invention of American academics and publishers.

History Edit

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

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

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

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

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

— Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976, tr. David Macey[3]

TheoryEdit

General practices Edit

Post-structural practices generally operate on some basic assumptions:

  • Post-structuralists hold that the concept of "self" as a singular and coherent entity is a fictional construct. Instead, an individual comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge claims (e.g. gender, class, profession, etc.). Therefore, to properly study a text a reader must understand how the work is related to her own personal concept of self. This self-perception plays a critical role in one's interpretation of meaning.
  • The meaning the author intended is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives. Post-structuralism rejects the idea of a literary text having a single purpose, a single meaning or one singular existence. Instead, every individual reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, and existence for a given text.
  • A post-structuralist critic must be able to utilize a variety of perspectives to create a multifaceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another. It is particularly important to analyze how the meanings of a text shift in relation to certain variables, usually involving the identity of the reader.

Destabilized Meaning Edit

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

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

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

— Lévinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller[4]

Deconstruction Edit

A major theory associated with Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which structure a given text. Such binary pairs could include male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional.

Post-structuralism rejects the notion of the essential quality of the dominant relation in the hierarchy, choosing rather to expose these relations and the dependancy of the dominant term on its apparently subservient counterpart. The only way to properly understand these meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and knowledge systems which produce the illusion of singular meaning.

A good example of this is a close reading of the Dylan Thomas poem, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London", that incorporates the line "After the first death there is no other." A deconstructionist will view this as widely open: Since there is a "first death," there is the implication that there will be another, yet Thomas contradicts himself in the line by saying "there is no other". Deconstructionists assert that this shows "discontinuity" in the line. This discontinuity points out that the language has a "slipperiness" which makes precise interpretation impossible. Meaning, therefore, is equally in the hands of the reader and the author.

Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism Edit

Post-structuralism may be understood as a critical response to the basic assumptions of structuralism. Structuralism studies the underlying structures inherent in cultural products (such as texts), and utilizes analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology and other fields to understand and interpret those structures. Although the structuralist movement fostered critical inquiry into these structures, it emphasized logical and scientific results. Many structuralists sought to integrate their work into pre-existing bodies of knowledge. This was observed in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology, and many early 20th-century psychologists.

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

Historical vs. descriptive view Edit

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

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

Scholars between both movements Edit

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

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

Major works and concepts Edit

Barthes, and the need for metalanguageEdit

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

Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins Edit

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

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

Post-structuralism as Post-modernismEdit

It is also often claimed that post-structuralists are also more or less self-consciously post-modernists, but no small number of those so designated have expressed consternation at these terms, or even consciously identified themselves as modernists. It is beyond dispute that arguments between those said to be post-structuralists were at least as strident as their objections to structuralism. Therefore, unlike postmodernism, there does not appear to be a core of knowledge which can be labeled as 'post-structuralist'.

Contemporary trends in usage seem to employ the term less, rather than to engage with a specific body of scholarship, as there is no unified post-structuralist position with which to engage. The term is also used as shorthand for what is seen as a radicalization of the French, academic left—and its American cousins—following the failure of the May 1968 French-student protests to produce a much-hoped-for revolution. This aspect also has some institutional context: many figures associated with post-structuralism were associated with the University of Paris VIII Vincennes in the northern Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, established as part of the reorganisation of the French university system in general, and the Sorbonne in particular, either serving on its faculty or as formal and informal advisors on matters of faculty and pedagogy.

Other authorsEdit

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

See also Edit

ReferencesEdit

  1. Derrida, Jacques; 1983; "Letter to a Japanese Friend"; pp271-276 in Derria, Jacques; Kamuf, Peggy (ed.); 1991; A Derria Reader: Between the Blinds; Harverster Wheatsheaf; Hemel Hempstead; ISBN 0-7450-0991-3
  2. Harrison, Paul; 20016; "Post-structuralist Theories"; pp122-135 in Aitken, S. and Valentine, G. (eds); 2006; Approaches to Human Geography; Sage, London
  3. Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended. (Trans. David Macey). Bertani, Mauro & Fontana, Alessandro (eds.). Picador, NY 2003.
  4. Lévinas, Emmanuel. Humanism of the Other. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. p. 11-12.
  • Barry, P. Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2002.
  • Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
  • Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. London: Penguin, 1998.
  • Eagleton, T. Literary theory: an introduction Basil Blackwell, Oxford,1983.
  • Matthews, E. Twentieth-Century French Philosophy Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
  • Ryan, M. Literary theory: a practical introduction Blackwell Publishers Inc, Massachusetts,1999.
  • Wolfreys, J & Baker, W (eds). Literary theories: a case study in critical performance. Macmillan Press, Hong Kong,1996.

External linksEdit



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