Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Overview

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Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Overview

Structuralism was both an intellectual movement with wide ramifications in the twentieth century and an attempt to provide scientific status to the knowledge of language, culture, and society.

Structuralism originated in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), a Swiss linguist whose lectures, when published by his students in 1916 (Course in General Linguistics ), launched the new school of thought. Initially, the influence of Saussure's ideas was limited to linguistics and to the linguistics-based study of literature that the Russian formalists carried out in the early decades of the twentieth century. When one of the leaders of the formalist movement, Roman Jakobsen, emigrated to the United States during World War II, he met the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and introduced him to Saussure's work. When Lévi-Strauss returned to France after the war, he launched structural anthropology and initiated French structuralism. His work in the late 1940s and 1950s inspired congruent and related work in psychoanalysis, sociology, history, and literary and cultural studies that culminated in the mid-1960s in the writings of literary scholars Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Julia Kristeva, historian Michel Foucault, and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Structuralism dominated French thought through the early 1960s. In 1967, a new movement that questioned and extended the insights of structuralism arose. Poststructuralism, as it came to be called, is best known in the work of philosophers Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, and Jean Francois Lyotard; sociologist Jean Baudrillard; and literary critic Hélène Cixous.

Saussure and Structuralism

The Saussurean legacy in structuralism assumes two forms. The first is the study of the latent system that generates surface events such as speech in language. The second is the study of culture, language, and society as systems of signs that facilitate communication and the creation of meaning in human culture.

Saussure revolutionized the study of language. He shifted attention away from surface utterances, the everyday speech practices that make up spoken language, and focused it instead on the underlying system that allows those utterances to come into being. He distinguished between langue (language system) and parole (speech). Each speech utterance presupposes the simultaneous existence of the entire language system from which it arises, much as a leaf, when cut transversally, to use Saussure's example, reveals its entire invisible structure. Saussure also compared language to a game of chess, in which each move has meaning and is made possible by the rules of the game, all of which are implied in each move. In language, similarly, utterances can function as bearers of ideas or as names of things only if the entire system of language is implied in each utterance.

Saussure's most innovative contention was that words are signs that consist of a palpable sound image (signifier) and a mental concept (signifier). All signs exist in chains that connect them to all other signs in the language. Language works through the interrelationship and interaction of linguistic signs, not as the naming of objects by words. The relation between words and things, Saussure contended, is entirely arbitrary. Cat names a particular animal not because the sound image or signifier "cat" has a real connection or resemblance to the creature but because the signifier "cat" is different from other adjacent signifiers such as "rat" or "hat" in the particular chain of signifiers in which it exists. The slight difference in sound and spelling creates a difference of meaning. Those signifiers in turn function to name things or have meaning because they sound different and are spelled differently from other words. This is known as the diacritical principle. The identity of signifiers is determined by their differences from other signifiers. In language, according to Saussure, there are no identities, only differences. It is the relation between terms that allows signifiers to appear to possess an identity of their own. Language, in other words, is entirely conventional, a matter of form, not natural substance.

Each signifier has a value, a function within the system of language understood as a set of relations between differentially connected terms. A signifier has value as a noun or a verb or as the designator of a particular thing or as performing a particular grammatical functionthat is, as a qualifier or pronoun. Saussure notes, for example, that the French mouton functions to name both the animal and the food; it has a double value, while English uses two different words with two different values to carry out this functionsheep and mutton. Each language assigns different values to signifiers, and it is the relation between signifiers that determines value.

Saussure also distinguished between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic dimensions of language. The syntagmatic names the linking together of parts of language in temporal chains such as a sentence. The paradigmatic is the spatial dimension of language that comprises the possible options that might fill any one space in a syntagmatic chain. For example, in an utterance requiring a verb in a particular position, the slot for "verb" might be filled by any number of possible actions from that particular paradigmatic set.

Influence of Saussure.

Saussure made the study of language more scientific by dividing the field into its component parts. He also specified the linguistic field as being concerned with the way language worked as a sign system with a particular structure and with specific rules of operation.

Two of Saussure's ideas proved of great use to thinkers in other fields such as philosophy, history, and sociology. The first was that language is a self-sufficient system of interconnected terms whose value derives entirely from their functions within the system, not from their relation to objects or ideas outside it. This insight allowed other thinkers to argue that human knowledge and human consciousness in social life occurs within language or discourse. Knowledge of reality is frequently more a matter of the interconnections among terms in the particular discourse (of economics, politics, or science, for example) than of the connection between the terms of the discourse and objects in the extra-discursive world. The second influential idea was that difference makes identity possible. There is no substance in language apart from the differential relations among the terms, none of which otherwise have an identity of their "own." All traditional notions of a natural substance in philosophy, social thinking, political theory, and other fields could now be rethought as effects of differential relations.

Saussure's discoveries influenced work in other fields directly and by analogy. In the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, both kinds of influence are evident. Lévi-Strauss noted, for example, that numerous different myths, when studied together, reveal a common structure. Myths are sign systems in which terms have different values in relation to one another. Those values often consist of oppositions between terms such as the raw and the cooked or nature and culture. Myths functioned to resolve contradictions in human culture by constructing stories in which opposed and contradictory possibilities are mediated and their opposition resolved in a way that provides a solution to some conceptual problem or conflict of values in that particular culture. The myth of Oedipus, for example, resolves the dilemma of human origins by positing a mediation between the supposed earthly origins of human life and the fact that all humans are the product of human sexual relations. The tale is a version of the opposition between nature and culture.

Many mythic stories revolve around the incest taboo, which forbids marriage between members of the same family. In his famous study of human kinship systems (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949), Lévi-Strauss noted that all human societies enjoin incest. If one studies kinship structurally as a system of relations between terms in which one element has meaning through its relation to all the other terms, then the incest taboo must be understood as a function of the larger kinship system. Kinship is like language in two respects. It is a system of communication among different tribal groups, and it is a language, in which value is determined by function. The value of the incest taboo is that it forbids marriage within a clan or family, but as a result, it has the function of obliging marriage between members of different clans, tribes, and family groups. The result is a form of communication through marriage that binds different people together. The larger function of this languagelike kinship system is to work to prevent conflict; strife is less likely between groups connected by marriage.

Lévi-Strauss's work had an impact on literary and cultural studies, psychoanalysis, and historiography. Roland Barthes argues in Mythologies (1957) that culture (in the form of movies, advertisements, commodities, books of photography, wrestling matches, travel guides, and so on) resembles language in that it operates through signs that create meaning. Barthes distinguishes between signifiers such as the photo of a black French colonial soldier on the cover of a magazine saluting the French flag and the signifieds such an image generates. Such signifieds have several levels, from the elementarythe image signifies the loyalty of the colonial subjectto the more complex and abstractthe idea of imperialness that is sanctioned and communicated by the image. In his later work in literary criticism, Barthes studies literature in a similar manner, noting how writers operate within systems of meaning that rely on the differences between terms to make signification possible.

The impact of Saussure is also evident in the work of literary critics Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov argues in The Poetics of Prose (1971) that fictional narratives can be understood in structuralist terms. A diverse set of short stories by the same writer can be interpreted as having a similar internal structure. The tales of Henry James, for example, all deal with an absence at the center of the tale. Kristeva in Semanalysis (1967) uses structural linguistics to argue that works of literature have different levelsthe phenotext and the genotextthat resemble Saussure's distinction between langue and parole.

Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze

One of the most ingenious and influential uses of structuralism occurred in psychoanalysis. In Écrits (1966), Jacques Lacan gathered together three decades worth of work, much of which owed a debt to Lévi-Strauss and to Saussure. For Lacan, the psyche is immersed in signification, and psychic content exists in the form of signifiers. The unconscious, as he famously put it, "is structured as a language." Symptoms of psychic dys-function are signifiers, but because the psyche is semiotic in the same way that language is, one never moves from psychic signifiers to a content or a mental object. Instead, signifying reference moves along a chain of signifiers, each of which is linked to other signifiers. All one can do in the process of psychoanalysis, then, is trace the signifying links. One can never reach the "real" that would deliver up a knowable object or thing or reality signified by psychic language.

The other major work of mid-1960s structuralism was Michel Foucault's Words and Things (1966; Les mots et les choses, translated 1970 as The Order of Things ). A historian, Foucault argues that our knowledge of the world is always mediated by signifiers. Over time, systems of signification change, and with each new system, a different picture of the world emerges. Each episteme, or system of knowledge, portrays (or signifies) the world differently depending on what kind of signification is used.

Like a number of structuralists, Foucault pointed the way toward poststructuralism's critique of rationalism. His Madness and Civilization (1961; Folie et déraison ) reflected the influence of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who shifted attention away from the post-Enlightenment philosophic concern with rational knowledge and focused instead on fundamental metaphysical issues that he felt withstood rationalization. A similar influence came from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose recently translated work was critical of the idea that one could know the world clearly through reason. Nietzsche noted that knowledge reduces the complexity of the world to false identities. His influence is evident in the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, especially in his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1961). Deleuze, in his work in the 1960s such as The Logic of Sense (1969), tries to expose the irrational and alogical elements of human knowledge.

What these thinkers share is a sense, derived from Saussure, that the identities of knowledge arise from and are made possible by differential relations between terms that have no identities of their own apart from those relations. Reason, insomuch as it operates through clear distinctions that demarcate separate identities (of categories, of things), cannot, by definition "know" or grasp this realm of difference. Difference makes knowledge possible, yet it is ungraspable using only the categories of knowledge. Difference by definition does not lend itself to identity, but knowledge consists of identification.

Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

This antirational implication of Saussure's thinking is most fully exploited beginning in 1967 in the work of Jacques Derrida (Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, and Speech and Phenomenon, all published that year). Derrida contends that if difference makes knowledge possible, it also renders it impossible on its own terms. If the world is differential in the same way language is, then knowledge of that world which operates according to rationalist imperatives and seeks to identify "what is" will necessarily miss the mark. We have to think more complexly about how we know, and we have to rethink what the known world looks like.

Derrida's most interesting advance on Saussure consists of formulating a new concept, which he calls différance. He argues that philosophy has traditionally based concepts of truth on presencethe presence of the thing or of the idea to the mind. Yet when one examines presence, one finds that it is not a simple identity. Presence must exist both in time and in space. In time, it must be distinguished from past moments and from future moments. In space, the presence of a thing can only be isolated and identified by distinguishing it from other objects. In both a temporal and a spatial sense, then, presence arises out of difference. Derrida combines spatial and temporal difference into one processdifference spelled with an a, or différance. This neologism is significant because in French one cannot hear the a when one pronounces the word. The a, in other words, cannot be made present. It thus resembles the way difference in time and space gives rise to presence (of the present moment, of the thing in its presence) without itself assuming the form of presence.

Derrida contends that all being and all thought is made possible by différance. In order for difference to be operative in language, there must, he argues, be at work in being a more primordial process that distinguishes one thing from another in time and space. It has no identity of its own, but it makes all identity possible. All things thus bear the mark or trace of other things from which they differ and to which they relate or are connected in their very constitution. Because this primordial process can never assume the form of presence or of identity, one finds its imprint, when one reviews the philosophic tradition, in the very concepts and categories that would seem to deny its priority. Because all philosophic concepts operate through identification and the naming of presence, they obscure the process of différance. Yet because it is prior and because it constitutes all presence and all identity, its effects are evident in the text of philosophy.

Derrida's method of analysis, called "deconstruction," seeks to locate the fuzzy, anti-identitarian process of différance at work in philosophic and literary texts. He notices places in texts where thinkers lay claim to an ideal of natural substance or of full and self-identical presence that allows them to order their conceptual world. Usually, such ordering consists of a hierarchy in which the ideal of natural substance or of presence is thought to be prior, foundational, or axiomatic, and something else is declared to be derivative, secondary, and lesser in relation to that norm. Such differentiations, Derrida finds, characterize most if not all philosophical thinking. Many thinkers, for example, locate value and truth in what is declared to be more natural in relation to something else that is declared to be artificial, external, additive, or merely supplementary in relation to an internal or prior essence. Even Saussure, Derrida argues, is guilty of this "metaphysical" maneuver. He argues that speech is more central and internal to language because it is more natural, while writing is more artificial, a matter of external notation and convention rather than of natural substance. Yet, Derrida notes, Saussure's own concept of difference should instruct him that what he calls nature is itself differential. Indeed, in order to delineate the natural as a concept, Saussure must differentiate between an inside and an outside. The supposed natural substance of speech is declared to be inside language, while the technical artifice of writing is declared to be an external addition. Saussure's description of language never takes this particular distinction into account, but on it his entire argument rests. Saussure merely assumes it is the case that speech is closer to the natural "inside" of language while writing is an "external" form. If he tried to take the initial distinction between "inside" and "outside" into account, he would be obliged to notice that difference must precede and determine what he calls "nature." And what this means is that nature is not foundational; it derives from and is produced by difference.

What Derrida calls différance thus obliges philosophic knowledge to relinquish its traditional concern with identification and to instead adopt a looser style that makes weaker, less absolutist claims. American philosophers like Richard Rorty (Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, 1979) notice that Derrida's position recalls arguments made by proponents of Pragmatism, which also favored a less absolutist epistemology and an approach to knowledge tailored to circumstances that would be more experimental in character. Knowledge, for Pragmatism, is what works in a particular historical situation, not what is absolutely and unequivocally true in nature.


Derrida's work launched a new intellectual movement called poststructuralism. If structuralism searched for the invariant structures of language and culture, poststructuralism was more concerned with criticizing the rationalist impulse that animated the structuralist undertaking. The impact of his work was immediate and profound. Structuralists like Barthes and Kristeva shifted their focus to the alogical and prerational dimension of literary texts. In S/Z (1970), Barthes examines a tale by Honoré de Balzac from the perspective of the multiple codes that go into its making; in Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Kristeva notices the conflict in texts between a symbolic level associated with logic and meaning and a semiological level that is prerational.

Derrida's contention that the world is itself differential led many thinkers to apply his ideas to such social issues as feminism. The two most noteworthy practitioners of deconstructive feminism were Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray.

In The Newly Born Woman (1975), Cixous examines the traditional way in which men and women are characterized in Western culture. She suggests that men are associated with reason, identity, truth, and logic and women with unreason, difference, falsity, and hysteria. Cixous argues that this social and philosophical system is deconstructed by certain kinds of avant-garde writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf who write in a way that undermines traditional rationalist assumptions. Their writing is deliberately alogical and semantically generative. It works through horizontal linkages along a differential chain of semiotic connections that obey no rationalist logic. Cixous calls this "feminine writing" because it accords with the traditional negative way of characterizing women. Following Derrida, she argues that a deconstructive strategy in regard to the patriarchal tradition would deliberately inhabit its terms and reveal their subversion from within. If différance does inhabit and make possible the categorical identities of patriarchy, then its undoing consists of revealing that différance and undermining the authority of those categories.

Luce Irigaray argues in Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) and This Sex Which Is Not One (1977) that in Western philosophy woman have been portrayed as matter, body, fluidity, boundarylessness, irrationality, artificiality, and the like. Women are the opposite or mirror image (hence speculum) of men, who are assigned reason, truth, and authenticity. Male philosophic speculation abstracts from concrete particularity and bodily materiality when it resorts to metaphysical concepts and categories such as "being," "becoming," "truth," and "infinity." The attempt to transcend matter is quintessentially male. In pursuing such speculative philosophy, men have sought to separate themselves from matter and from mater, that is, from their own links through their mothers to physical life and to material fluidity. Men must separate from their bloody origin in the mother's body and elevate themselves above such matter if they are to attain a psychic identity predicated on masculine principles and ideals. The subordination of women is thus both a psychic and a philosophical necessity and process. Men take matter as an object of speculative knowledge and thereby gain control over physical processes that threaten to overwhelm and overpower male identity. Those processes must remain outside male reason and never accommodate themselves to its categories. Irigaray thus ends up arguing for female separatism.

Jean François Lyotard pursues the poststructuralist argument in books such as The Postmodern Condition (1979) and The Differend (1983). Lyotard argues that knowledge and discourse are inseparable. The traditional stories or narratives about the world have been transformed in what he calls the postmodern era. The classic narratives of the Enlightenment such as liberal humanism and Marxism no longer provide a convincing or accurate account of the world. They have been replaced by a proliferation of micro-narratives. In a world dominated by corporations, especially, what counts as true is increasingly determined by the financial and technical requirements of those with economic power. Lyotard sees society as consisting of contending stories about the world, no one of which is in itself more true than another. Each person or group must work rhetorically to convince others of the truth of their own particular discourse. Social life is an ongoing discussion in which people seek to make their perspective and their story dominant. Totalitarianism consists of abolishing this free play of discussion by establishing a consensus that silences further discussion.

One of the most innovative French poststructuralists, Jean Baudrillard, began as a structuralist sociologist interested in the way the semiotic regimes of advertising shape and categorize reality. Baudrillard has since that early work on "consumer society" been preoccupied with the power of cultural representations to become lived reality. Initially, this meant for him the power of advertising images to shape social identities and to impose modes of behavior. By "being a Marlboro man," one adopted a cultural sign and adapted one's behavior to the code it implied and imposed. In that code, to become the bearer of certain signs (smoking cigarettes, for example) is tantamount to assuming a particular social identity. The code shapes and determines reality through the operation of both cultural and behavioral signs. Baudrillard's understanding of this process becomes more pronouncedly pessimistic over time. From Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) to "Simulacra and Simulations" (1981), he argues that the media have become so powerful that simulated realities have now replaced actual reality. This hyperreality is a perfect imitation of reality, much as Disneyland aspires to be a totally enclosed universe of its own, created through the manipulation of signs. At his most provocative, Baudrillard argues that something like the first Gulf War "did not take place." Its "reality" was so mediated and constructed by images that in effect it occurred in hyper-reality. The real, in other words, can be shaped to be whatever those with economic, political, and cultural power want it to be.

While there are significant differences between structuralism and poststructuralism, the two movements share a concern with signs and with the power of sign systems both in the field of human knowledge and in the field of culture and society. The structuralists moved from examining the operations of sign systems to understanding their role in human society. The poststructuralists furthered that undertaking by studying the way signs operate to misrepresent the world and to underwrite social power.

See also Postmodernism ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Anthropology ; Text/Textuality .


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. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Originally published in French, 1970.

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1988. Contains "Simulacra and Simulations" (1981).

. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage Publications, 1993. Originally published in French, 1976.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Originally published in French, 1969.

. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Originally published in French, 1961.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Originally published in French, 1967.

. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Translated by David B. Allison. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973. Originally published in French, 1967.

. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Originally published in French, 1967.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Pantheon, 1965. Originally published in French, 1964.

. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1971. Translation of Les mots et les choses, 1966.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Originally published in French, 1974.

. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catharine Porter. N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Originally published in French, 1977.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. Originally published in French, 1974.

. Semeiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. Originally published in French, 1966.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon, 1969. Originally published in French, 1949.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Differend: Phases in Dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Originally published in French, 1983.

. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Originally published in French, 1979.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Originally published 1916.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Originally published in French, 1971.

Michael Ryan

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Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Overview

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