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Mikhail Bakhtin · Roland Barthes
|preceded by Modernism|
Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s. The label primarily encompasses the intellectual developments of prominent mid-20th-century French and continental philosophers and theorists. Although "poststructuralism" is often defined analytically as a position or argument which denies the possibility of "truth", this definition is vague and misleading. Poststructuralism denies the possibility of a truly scientific study of "man" or of "human nature". It disintegrates any and all metanarratives of historical progress -- the idea that the gradual movement out of superstition and into reason is a necessary condition of man's being (see dialectical materialism).
The post-structuralist movement is difficult to summarize, but may be broadly understood as a body of distinct responses to Structuralism. An intellectual movement developed in Europe from the early to mid-20th century, Structuralism argued that human culture may be understood by means of a structure-—modeled on language (i.e., structural linguistics)—that is distinct both from the organizations of reality and the organization of ideas and imagination—a "third order." The precise nature of the revision or critique of structuralism differs with each post-structuralist author, though 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. Writers whose work is often characterised as post-structuralist include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva.
The movement is closely related to postmodernism. As with structuralism, antihumanism is often a central tenet. Existential phenomenology is a significant influence; one commentator has argued that post-structuralists might just as accurately be called "post-phenomenologists."
Some commentators have criticized poststructuralism for being radically relativistic or nihilistic; others have objected to its extremity and linguistic complexity. Others see it as a threat to traditional values or professional scholarly standards. Many theorists who have been called "post-structuralist" have rejected the label.
Post-structural practices generally operate on some basic assumptions:
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.
...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.
— Levinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller
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 which produce the illusion of singular meaning. This « deconstruction » can be used to explain how male can become female, how speech can become writing, and how rational can become emotional.[clarification needed]
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.
Post-structuralists generally assert that post-structuralism is historical, and they 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.
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. 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 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 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 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."
Some have argued that the term "post-structuralism" arose in Anglo-American academia as a means of grouping together continental philosophers who rejected the methods and assumptions of analytical philosophy.
Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as an antinomian movement critiquing structuralism. According to J.G. Merquior 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. As a result, there was increased interest in alternative radical philosophies, including feminism, western Marxism, anarchism, phenomenology, and nihilism. These disparate perspectives, which Michel 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 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.
In a 1976 lecture series, 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
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). 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.
In phenomenology this foundation would be experience itself; in structuralism, knowledge was to be founded on the "structures" that make experience possible: concepts, and language or signs. Post-structuralism, in turn, argued that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (structuralism) was impossible. This impossibility was meant not to be a failure or loss, but a cause for "celebration and liberation."
When The Open Work was written by Umberto Eco (1962) it was in many (or all) senses post-structuralist. The influence of this work is, however, complex: Eco worked closely with Barthes, and in the second Preface to the book (1967), Eco explicitly states his post-structuralist position and the assonance[clarification needed] with his friend's position. The entire book is a critique of a certain concept of "structure" and "form," giving to the reader a strong power in understanding the text.
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.
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 post-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).
A major American thinker associated with post structuralist thought is Judith Butler. Trained in Continental philosophy and published on Hegel, Butler is better known for her engagement with feminist theory and as the 'mother' (along with English literature scholar Eve Sedgwick) of Queer Theory. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Butler explored the persistence of biological sex in feminist theory as the source and cause of the unequal social treatment and status of women. Using ideas about power and subjectification first broached by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, and the linguistic theories of J. L. Austin, Butler argued that sex was an effect rather than the cause of social gender difference, and that the fiction of a stable core gender identity was maintained through socially coerced performances of gender. Butler's ideas depend greatly on the notion of "performativity" and she is widely credited with introducing the term into gender studies. Austin described performative words as those which both describe and produce a thing. The classic example is a minister's statement, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," which both describes and produces two people as married. Similarly, Butler argued that repetitive socially coerced gender performances, which aspire to replicate a normative gender ideal, actually produce the sexed body and gender identity. In Gender Trouble, Butler also relied on deconstructionist language theory and Freudian psychoanalysis to argue that heterosexuality is structured in an ongoing series of losses stemming from a repudiation of homosexuality; as such homosexuality can be seen as constitutive of heterosexuality, necessitating its repeated repudiations. Butler embraced the Foucauldian notion that there is no "outside" to culture, and therefore resistance—even consciousness, volition, the self—to forms of oppression is always already structured in terms of that oppression. Therefore, resistance can only take the form of failed imitations of social norms, whose very failure reveals the structures of power that often masquerade as natural or inevitable. For this reason, Butler's work has been taken up by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people because it re-imagines sexual and gender non-conformity—not to mention the way that heterosexual and cisgender norms are often reproduced in gay and lesbian culture and relationships—as a form of resistance to a heteronormative society that attempts (but always fails) to naturalize the relationships among sex, gender, and sexual orientation.
The following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:
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