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Post-structuralism is a term coined in the United States in the mid- to late 1960s to describe mostly French language scholarship that challenged the primacy of structuralism in the humanities.

The term is troublesome because relations between the work of scholars generally held to be post-structuralists (as, virtually without exception, they do not identify themselves as such) are often contentious, and there is nothing like a common set of works to which they all refer as shared doctrine (rather unlike structuralism, where the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss is regarded as a common point of reference). As much as anything else, post-structuralism may find substance in the fact that many of its most prominent works are by authors who were closely associated with structuralism, and more substance yet in that much of the work so designated attempts to reforge structuralist positions whose limitations transformed so many structuralists into critics of structuralism. 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.

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 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 designate some theoretical limitations to structuralism (*what were these limitations? What questions was structuralism trying to answer? How did it fail in answering some of these questions?*) and, while giving it due credit, attempt to theorise on terms that were clearly no longer structuralist. Although many may have felt a necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this was to take place. 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 conceptualised the "metalanguage", which is a higher-order language , that is necessary to explain a first or lower-order language. In so far 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, therefore deconstruction itself is in danger of becoming a metalanguage itself, thus exposing all languages and discourse to scrutiny. Barthes' other works contributed deconstructive theories about texts.

Where structuralism attempted to find a level of generalisable and self-sufficient metalanguage capable of describing configurations of elements variously anthropological, literary, linguistic, historical, or psychoanalytic and analyse their relations without being mired by the identity of these elements as such , post-structuralism is said to share a concern for identifying and challenging hierarchies implicit in identification of binary oppositions which generally characterise not only structuralism but Western metaphysics, see deconstruction. Re-evaluation of the structuralist interpretation of Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the diachronic and the synchronic is the most that can be credited as a common point of critique which generally led post-structuralists to assert that structural analyses are generally synchronic and thereby suppress historical or diachronic analyses . It has accordingly been claimed that post-structuralism has been concerned with reasserting the importance of history, and in so doing, developing new theoretical understandings of the subject. Not entirely apart from this are claims that post-structuralism consists in an emphasis on reinterpreting the work of Sigmund Freud, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger (e.g. Nietzschean genealogy serves as a reference point for theoretical history in Foucault's work in the 1970s, including his critical remarks about his structuralist work).

More grandly, it is said that post-structuralism characterizes the reductionism of structuralists as "violent" and identifies this violence with Western civilisation and the objectionable excesses of colonialism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and the like. 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.

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 so the term at the very least is not very specific. Contemporary trends in usage seem to employ the term less; rather than attempting to engage with a specific scholarship (as there is no unified post-structuralist position with which to engage). The term is also used as a shorthand for what is seen as a radicalisation of the French academic left and its American cousins following the failure of the May 1968 student protests in France 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.

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


  • Barthes, Roland Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
  • Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, London: Penguin, 1998.

Further reading

External links

es:Postestructuralismo fr:Post-structuralisme he:פוסט סטרוקטורליזםsk:Postštrukturalizmus sv:Poststrukturalism zh:後結構主義

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