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Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of mid-20th-century French and continental philosophers and critical theorists who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s.[1][2][3]

Post-structuralism is defined by its coming after structuralism, an intellectual movement developed in Europe from the early to mid-20th century which argued that human culture may be understood by means of a structure—modeled on language (i.e., structural linguistics)—that differs from concrete reality and from abstract ideas—a "third order" that mediates between the two.[4] Post-structuralist authors all present different critiques of structuralism, but common themes include the rejection of the self-sufficiency of the structures that structuralism posits and an interrogation of the binary oppositions that constitute those structures.[5] Writers whose work is often characterised as post-structuralist include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and Julia Kristeva, although many theorists who have been called "post-structuralist" have rejected the label.[6]

Existential phenomenology is a significant influence; Colin Davis has argued that post-structuralists might just as accurately be called "post-phenomenologists".[7]


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 Levinas 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 made of isolated elements lodged somehow in a Euclidean space... [Words] signify from the "world" and from the position of one who is looking.
— Levinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller[8]


Main article: Deconstruction

A major theory associated with Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which human logic has given to text. Such binary pairs could include Enlightenment/Romantic, male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional, signifier/signified, symbolic/imaginary.

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

Post-structuralism and structuralism[edit]

Structuralism was an intellectual movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s that studied the underlying structures in cultural products (such as texts) and used analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and other fields to interpret those structures. It emphasized the logical and scientific nature of its results.

Post-structuralism offers a way of studying how knowledge is produced and critiques structuralist premises. It argues that because history and culture condition the study of underlying structures, both are subject to biases and misinterpretations. A post-structuralist approach argues that to understand an object (e.g., a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object.

Historical vs. descriptive view[edit]

Post-structuralists generally assert that post-structuralism is historical, and they classify structuralism as descriptive.[citation needed] 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"

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. Some scholars associated with structuralism, such as Roland Barthes, also became noteworthy in post-structuralism. Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault were the so-called "Gang of Four" of structuralism.[9] All but Lévi-Strauss became prominent post-structuralists. The works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva are also counted as prominent examples of post-structuralism.

The critical reading carried out by these thinkers sought to find contradictions that an author includes, supposedly inevitably, in his work. Those inconsistencies are used to show that the interpretation and criticism of any literature is in the hands of the reader and includes 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 argued that textual analysis discovered so many disconnections that it was obvious that their own experiences lent a view that was unique to them.

Some observers from outside the post-structuralist camp have questioned the rigor and legitimacy of the field. American philosopher John Searle[10] argued in 1990 that "The spread of 'poststructuralist' literary theory is perhaps the best known example of a silly but noncatastrophic phenomenon." Similarly, physicist Alan Sokal[11] in 1997 criticized "the postmodernist/poststructuralist gibberish that is now hegemonic in some sectors of the American academy." Literature scholar Norman Holland argued that post-structuralism was flawed due to reliance on Saussure's linguistic model, which was seriously challenged by the 1950s and was soon abandoned by linguists: "Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics and the occasional philosopher. [Strict adherence to Saussure] has elicited wrong film and literary theory on a grand scale. One can find dozens of books of literary theory bogged down in signifiers and signifieds, but only a handful that refer to Chomsky."[12]


Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as a movement critiquing structuralism. According to J.G. Merquior[3] a love–hate relationship with structuralism developed amongst many leading French thinkers in the 1960s.

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 support of the French Communist Party (FCP) for the oppressive policies of the USSR contributed to popular disillusionment with orthodox Marxism. 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 Sciences", 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."

Although Barthes was originally a structuralist, during the 1960s he increasingly favored post-structuralist views. In 1967, Barthes published "The Death of the Author" in which he announced 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.

Post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and Foucault did not form a self-conscious group, but each responded to the traditions of phenomenology and structuralism. Phenomenology, often associated with two German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, rejected previous systems of knowledge and attempted to examine life "just as it appears" (as phenomena).[13] Both movements rejected the idea that knowledge could be centred on the human knower, and sought what they considered a more secure foundation for knowledge.[14]

In phenomenology this foundation would be experience itself; in structuralism, knowledge is founded on the "structures" that make experience possible: concepts, and language or signs. Post-structuralism, in turn, argues that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (structuralism) is impossible. This impossibility was meant not a failure or loss, but a cause for "celebration and liberation."[14]

Major works[edit]

Barthes and the need for metalanguage[edit]

Although many may have felt the necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this ought to occur. Much of the study of post-structuralism is based on the common critiques of structuralism. Roland Barthes is of great significance with respect to post-structuralist theory. In his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), he advanced the concept of the "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 colloquium being held at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 titled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" which saw such French scholars such as Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan invited to speak.

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 interpreted as "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. Many see the importance of Foucault's work as in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operations of power (see governmentality).[citation needed]

See also[edit]


The following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:


  1. ^ Bensmaïa, Réda Poststructuralism, article published in Kritzman, Lawrence (ed.) The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp.92-93
  2. ^ Mark Poster (1988) Critical theory and poststructuralism: in search of a context, section Introduction: Theory and the problem of Context, pp.5-6
  3. ^ a b Merquior, J.G. (1987). Foucault (Fontana Modern Masters series), University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-06062-8.
  4. ^ Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. "How Do We Recognise Structuralism?" In Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Trans. David Lapoujade. Ed. Michael Taormina. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents ser. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 2004. 170-192. ISBN 1-58435-018-0. p.171-173.
  5. ^ Craig, Edward, ed. 1998. Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Vol. 7 (Nihilism to Quantum mechanics). London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-18712-5. p.597.
  6. ^ Harrison, Paul; 2006; "Post-structuralist Theories"; pp122-135 in Aitken, S. and Valentine, G. (eds); 2006; Approaches to Human Geography; Sage, London
  7. ^ Davis, Colin; "Levinas: An Introduction"; p8; 2006; Continuum, London.
  8. ^ Levinas, Emmanuel. Humanism of the Other. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. p. 11-12.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Searle, John. (1990). "The Storm Over the University," in The New York Times Review of Books, 6 December 1990.
  11. ^ Sokal, Alan. (1997) "Professor Latour's Philosophical Mystifications," originally published in French in Le Monde, 31 January 1997; translated by the author.
  12. ^ Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN ISBN 0-231-07650-9, p. 140.
  13. ^ Colebrook, Claire. "Deleuze," Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2002
  14. ^ a b Colebrook 2002, pp. 2-4


  • Angermuller, J. (2015): Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France. The Making of an Intellectual Generation. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Angermuller, J. (2014): Poststructuralist Discourse Analysis. Subjectivity in Enunciative Pragmatics. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  • 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.

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