Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1966-present)
This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams
Last Edited: 2018-02-07 03:21:05
Note: Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.
The Center Cannot Hold
This approach concerns itself with the ways and places where systems, frameworks, definitions, and certainties break down. Post-structuralism maintains that frameworks and systems, for example the structuralist systems explained in the structuralist area, are merely fictitious constructs and that they cannot be trusted to develop meaning or to give order. In fact, the very act of seeking order or a singular Truth (with a capital T) is absurd because there exists no unified truth.
Post-structuralism holds that there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered. Moreover, post-structuralism is also concerned with the power structures or hegemonies and power and how these elements contribute to and/or maintain structures to enforce hierarchy. Therefore, post-structural theory carries implications far beyond literary criticism.
What Does Your Meaning Mean?
By questioning the process of developing meaning, post-structural theory strikes at the very heart of philosophy and reality and throws knowledge making into what Jacques Derrida called "freeplay": "The concept of centered structure...is contradictorily coherent...the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay" (qtd. in Richter, 878-879).
Derrida first posited these ideas in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University when he delivered “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”: "Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an 'event,' if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural-or structuralist-thought to reduce or to suspect. But let me use the term 'event' anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling” (qtd. in Richter, 878). In his presentation, Derrida challenged structuralism's most basic ideas.
Can Language Do That?
Post-structural theory can be tied to a move against Modernist/Enlightenment ideas (philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Réne Descartes, John Locke, etc.) and Western religious beliefs (neo-Platonism, Catholicism, etc.). An early pioneer of this resistance was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In his essay, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), Nietzsche rejects even the very basis of our knowledge making, language, as a reliable system of communication: “The various languages, juxtaposed, show that words are never concerned with truth, never with adequate expression...” (248).
Below is an example, adapted from the Tyson text, of some language freeplay and a simple form of deconstruction:
Time (noun) flies (verb) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Time passes quickly.
Time (verb) flies (object) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Get out your stopwatch and time the speed of flies as you would time an arrow's flight.
Time flies (noun) like (verb) an arrow (object) = Time flies are fond of arrows (or at least of one particular arrow).
So, post-structuralists assert that if we cannot trust language systems to convey truth, the very bases of truth are unreliable and the universe - or at least the universe we have constructed - becomes unraveled or de-centered. Nietzsche uses language slip as a base to move into the slip and shift of truth as a whole: “What is truth? …truths are an illusion about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions...” ("On Truth and Lies" 250).
This returns us to the discussion in the structuralist area regarding signs, signifiers, and signified. Essentially, post-structuralism holds that we cannot trust the sign = signifier + signified formula, that there is a breakdown of certainty between sign/signifier, which leaves language systems hopelessly inadequate for relaying meaning so that we are (returning to Derrida) in eternal freeplay or instability.
Important to note, however, is that deconstruction is not just about tearing down - this is a common misconception. Derrida, in "Signature Event Context," addressed this limited view of post-structural theory: "Deconstruction cannot limit or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must…practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces" (328).
Derrida reminds us that through deconstruction we can identify the in-betweens and the marginalized to begin interstitial knowledge building.
Modernism vs Postmodernism
With the resistance to traditional forms of knowledge making (science, religion, language), inquiry, communication, and building meaning take on different forms to the post-structuralist. We can look at this difference as a split between Modernism and Postmodernism. The table below, excerpted from theorist Ihab Hassan's The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1998), offers us a way to make sense of some differences between Modernism, dominated by Enlightenment ideas, and Postmodernism, a space of freeplay and discourse.
Keep in mind that even the author, Hassan, "...is quick to point out how the dichotomies are themselves insecure, equivocal" (Harvey 42). Though post-structuralism is uncomfortable with binaries, Hassan provides us with some interesting contrasts to consider:
|Modernism vs Postmodernism|
|form (conjunctive, closed)||antiform (disjunctive, open)|
|art object/finished work/logos||process/performance/antithesis|
|narrative/grande histoire||anti-narrative/petite histoire|
|God the Father||The Holy Ghost|
Post-Structuralism and Literature
If we are questioning/resisting the methods we use to build knowledge (science, religion, language), then traditional literary notions are also thrown into freeplay. These include the narrative and the author:
The narrative is a fiction that locks readers into interpreting text in a single, chronological manner that does not reflect our experiences. Postmodern texts may not adhere to traditional notions of narrative. For example, in his seminal work, Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs explodes the traditional narrative structure and critiques almost everything Modern: modern government, modern medicine, modern law-enforcement. Other examples of authors playing with narrative include John Fowles; in the final sections of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles steps outside his narrative to speak with the reader directly.
Moreover, grand narratives are resisted. For example, the belief that through science the human race will improve is questioned. In addition, metaphysics is questioned. Instead, postmodern knowledge building is local, situated, slippery, and self-critical (i.e. it questions itself and its role). Because post-structural work is self-critical, post-structural critics even look for ways texts contradict themselves (see typical questions below).
The author is displaced as absolute author(ity), and the reader plays a role in interpreting the text and developing meaning (as best as possible) from the text. In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that the idea of singular authorship is a recent phenomenon. Barthes explains that the death of the author shatters Modernist notions of authority and knowledge building (145).
Lastly, he states that once the author is dead and the Modernist idea of singular narrative (and thus authority) is overturned, texts become plural, and the interpretation of texts becomes a collaborative process between author and audience: “...a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue...but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader” (148). Barthes ends his essay by empowering the reader: “Classical criticism has never paid any attention to the reader...the writer is the only person in literature…it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (148).
- How is language thrown into freeplay or questioned in the work? For example, note how Anthony Burgess plays with language (Russian vs English) in A Clockwork Orange, or how Burroughs plays with names and language in Naked Lunch.
- How does the work undermine or contradict generally accepted truths?
- How does the author (or a character) omit, change, or reconstruct memory and identity?
- How does a work fulfill or move outside the established conventions of its genre?
- How does the work deal with the separation (or lack thereof) between writer, work, and reader?
- What ideology does the text seem to promote?
- What is left out of the text that if included might undermine the goal of the work?
- If we changed the point of view of the text - say from one character to another, or multiple characters - how would the story change? Whose story is not told in the text? Who is left out and why might the author have omitted this character's tale?
Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:
- Immanuel Kant - "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?", 1784 (as a baseline to understand what Nietzsche was resisting)
- Friedrich Nietzsche - “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense," 1873; The Gay Science, 1882; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Book for All and None, 1885
- Jacques Derrida - "Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences," 1966; Of Grammatology, 1967; "Signature Event Context," 1972
- Roland Barthes - "The Death of the Author," 1967
- Deleuze and Guattari - "Rhizome," 1976
- Jean-François Lyotard - The Postmodern Condition, 1979
- Michele Foucault - The Foucault Reader, 1984
- Stephen Toulmin - Cosmopolis, 1990
- Martin Heidegger - Basic Writings, 1993
- Paul Cilliers - Complexity and Postmodernity, 1998
- Ihab Hassan - The Dismemberment of Orpheus, 1998; From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: The Local/Global Context, 2001
- William S. Burroughs - Naked Lunch, 1959
- Angela Carter - Burning Your Boats, stories from 1962-1993 (first published as a collection in 1995)
- Kathy Acker - Blood and Guts in High School, 1978
- Paul Auster - City of Glass (volume one of the New York City Trilogy), 1985 (as a graphic novel published by Neon Lit, a division of Avon Books, 1994)
- Lynne Tillman - Haunted Houses, 1987
- David Wojnarowicz - The Waterfront Journals, 1996
Post-structuralism is associated with the works of a series of mid-20th-century French, continental philosophers and critical theorists who came to to be known internationally in the 1960s and 1970s. The term is defined by its relationship to the system before it— Structuralism, an intellectual movement developed in Europe from the early to mid-20th century which argues 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.
Post-structuralist authors all present different critiques of structuralism, but common themes include the rejection of the self-sufficiency of Structuralism and an interrogation of the binary oppositions that constitute those structures. Writers whose work are often characterised as post-structuralist include: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva, although many theorists who have been called "post-structuralist" have rejected the label.
Existential phenomenology is a significant influence; Colin Davis has argued that Post-structuralists might just as accurately be called "post-phenomenologists".
Post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and Foucault did not form a self-conscious group, but each responded to the traditions of phenomenology and Structuralism. The idea that knowledge could be centred on the beholder is rejected by Structuralism, which claims to be a more secure foundation for knowledge. In phenomenology, this foundation is experiential in itself. In Structuralism, knowledge is founded on the "structures" that make experience possible: concepts, and language or signs. By contrast, Post-structuralism argues that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (Structuralism) is impossible. This impossibility was not meant as a failure or loss, but rather as a cause for "celebration and liberation."
A major theory associated with Structuralism is binary opposition. This theory proposes that there are frequently used pairs of opposite but related words, often arranged in a hierarchy. Examples of common binary pairs include: Enlightenment/Romantic, male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional, signifier/signified, symbolic/imaginary. Post-structuralism rejects the notion of the dominant word in the pair being dependent on its subservient counterpart. The only way to properly understand the purpose of these pairings is to assess each term individually, and then its relationship to the related term.[clarification needed]
Post-structuralism and Structuralism
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
Post-structuralists generally assert that Post-structuralism is the historical context surrounding the arts, while Structuralism is considered descriptive of the present. This terminology is derived from 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 the same concepts are understood by readers in the present. For example, Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization is both an observation of 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
The uncertain distance between Structuralism and Post-structuralism is further blurred by the fact that scholars rarely label themselves as Post-structuralists. Some scholars associated with Structuralism, such as Roland Barthes and Foucault, also became noteworthy in Post-structuralism.
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."
David Foster Wallace has stated:
- "The deconstructionists (“deconstructionist” and “poststructuralist” mean the same thing, by the way: “poststructuralist” is what you call a deconstructionist who doesn’t want to be called a deconstructionist) . . . see the debate over the ownership of meaning as a skirmish in a larger war in Western philosophy over the idea that presence and unity are ontologically prior to expression. There’s been this longstanding deluded presumption, they think, that if there is an utterance then there must exist a unified, efficacious presence that causes and owns that utterance. The poststructuralists attack what they see as a post-Platonic prejudice in favor of presence over absence and speech over writing. We tend to trust speech over writing because of the immediacy of the speaker: he’s right there, and we can grab him by the lapels and look into his face and figure out just exactly what one single thing he means. But the reason why poststructuralists are in the literary theory business at all is that they see writing, not speech, as more faithful to the metaphysics of true expression. For Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, writing is a better animal than speech because it is iterable; it is iterable because it is abstract; and it is abstract because it is a function not of presence but of absence: the reader’s absent when the writer’s writing, and the writer’s absent when the reader’s reading.
- For a deconstructionist, then, a writer’s circumstances and intentions are indeed a part of the “context” of a text, but context imposes no real cinctures on the text’s meaning, because meaning in language requires a cultivation of absence rather than presence, involves not the imposition but the erasure of consciousness. This is so because these guys–Derrida following Heidegger and Barthes Mallarme and Foucault God knows who–see literary language as not a tool but an environment. A writer does not wield language; he is subsumed in it. Language speaks us; writing writes; etc."
Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as a movement critiquing Structuralism. According to J.G. Merquior a love–hate relationship with Structuralism developed among many leading French thinkers in the 1960s.
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."
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.
The period was marked by the rebellion of students and workers against the state in May 1968.
Barthes and the need for metalanguage
Barthes in his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), 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
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 at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 titled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man", to which such French philosophers as Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan were invited to speak.
Derrida's lecture at that conference, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences," 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 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 play in the sense of strategic agency by laying bare the levers of historical change. Many see the importance of Foucault's work to be in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operation of power (see governmentality).
The following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:
- 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.
- ^Bensmaïa, Réda Poststructuralism, article published in Kritzman, Lawrence (ed.) The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp.92-93
- ^Mark Poster (1988) Critical theory and poststructuralism: in search of a context, section Introduction: Theory and the problem of Context, pp.5-6
- ^ abMerquior, J.G. (1987). Foucault (Fontana Modern Masters series), University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-06062-8.
- ^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.
- ^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.
- ^Harrison, Paul; 2006; "Post-structuralist Theories"; pp122-135 in Aitken, S. and Valentine, G. (eds); 2006; Approaches to Human Geography; Sage, London
- ^Davis, Colin; "Levinas: An Introduction"; p8; 2006; Continuum, London.
- ^ abColebrook 2002, pp. 2-4
- ^Searle, John. (1990). "The Storm Over the University," in The New York Times Review of Books, 6 December 1990.
- ^Sokal, Alan. (1997) "Professor Latour's Philosophical Mystifications," originally published in French in Le Monde, 31 January 1997; translated by the author.
- ^Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-07650-9, p. 140.
- ^Biblioklept (2010-12-22). "David Foster Wallace Describes Poststructuralism". Biblioklept. Retrieved 2017-05-25.