views updated May 21 2018



Though often equated, poststructuralism and postmodernism are distinct intellectual phenomena. Most well-known poststructuralists, especially the French philosophers Michel Foucault (19261984) and Jacques Derrida (19302004), eschewed any association with postmodernism. Only Jean-François Lyotard (19241998) can be said to straddle both of these movements.

Postmodernism is as much a sensibility or cultural mood as a specific doctrine. It implies a break with modern modes of experiencing time and space, the dissolution of coherent meanings and narratives, and changes in media of communication. Politically, postmodernism is often seen as reflecting new forms of political organization such as global capitalism or new social movements that reflect cultural difference rather than unity. While aesthetic modernists often wove the fragmentary nature of modern experience into a unity, postmodernists reject the assumptions of unity as metaphysical residues of modern reason. Poststructuralism shares the postmodernist unease with totality, but it refuses to herald new forms of experience of culture, politics, or thought that would replace the modern. Rather, poststructuralism is a form (one of several) of modernitys self-criticism. Poststructuralists do not entirely reject important concepts of modernity, such as knowledge, rights, or subjectivity, but they subject these concepts to a critique that dethrones them from an imperial or originary position. They seek to avoid the totalitarian and utopian pretensions of reason and subject them to a permanent critique.

Along with Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, prominent poststructuralists include Gilles Deleuze (19251995), Roland Barthes (19151980), Julia Kristeva, and Jean-Luc Nancy. As the name suggests, post-structuralism arose as an intellectual movement in reaction to the shortcomings of structuralist approaches in linguistics and the social sciences. Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913) in linguistics and Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology developed theories that explained language and social action, respectively, as the product of objective structures alone. While structuralists recognized that systems of meaning were essentially arbitrary systems of linguistic difference, and not reflections of transtemporal or ultimate meaning, they were still guilty, according to critics, of a form of rationalism, in which a fixed object of meaning could be studied by objectifying procedures of social science. This explanatory strategy leads to difficulties explaining the nature of involvements of participants who had to take up and employ meanings. It cannot tell us, to use a well-known example, how a gift is given or whether it is given properly.

Poststructuralists such as Derrida argued that meaning has a performative, practical dimension not associated with an originating subjectivity. Meaning is renewed or transformed through such performances. Poststructuralists employed this practical dimension, however, to show the limits of the projects of theory not only in structuralism but in modern subjective reason as well. This critique took many forms, from Barthes criticism of the unified literary text, to Kristevas notion that meaning is intertextual without reference to any fixed outside order, to Deleuzes nomad thought, and to Derridas criticism of the logocentrism of Western thought and its desire for plenitude and fullness.

Poststructuralists, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and critical approaches rely implicitly on totality and thus do not fully escape the grip of Western rationalism. The nature of the practical or performative dimension always provides resistance to fullness or totality. Derrida, for example, argued that meaning was indeterminate, that is, it was not fixed through any objective or theoretical process. Meaning is not a representation of an objective world but the disclosure of a world of meaning within which we make sense of things. However, linguistic meanings are never complete or univocal, but always fissured through ambiguity and contradiction. From another angle, Foucault argued that systems of knowledge are always formed by power interpretations, and hence are never pure or interest-free as the traditional metaphysical notion of objectivity would hold. Poststructuralism is a form of negative critique. It stresses the nonidentity between enacted performances that may always create a novel meaning and a fixed ideal sense. The indeterminacy of linguistic performance undermines the possibility of ideal meaning found in a transcendental subjectivity. In the tradition of negative critique, poststructuralists stress the nonidentity between enacting a performance and the ideal concepts of totality and practical understanding. The aim of this critique is to undermine the latent (and sometimes explicit) totalitarian assumptions of an overextended notion of reason, and thus its political thrust as well. There is no single political movement or ideology that captures all of reality, nor any utopian goal in human actions. The political is always in the particular.

Critics have equated poststructuralism with anarchic or amoral strains of postmodernism. The poststructuralist stress on the indeterminacy and internal inconsistency of thought is linked to a free-floating conceptual apparatus driven by desire and power. Poststructuralism rejects the primacy of subjectivity altogether and in contrast employs a view of social reality as fictional, without references to an outside reality. Other critics have pointed to the possible political quietism of a view that denies the viability of general or universal values. These judgments have proven to be incorrect. Poststructuralists have displaced subjectivity from its imperial role as an origin, recognizing its produced character, but they have not rejected the subject, knowledge, or even a constructive politics. After an initial phase that placed questions of language and power at the center, poststructuralism has taken an ethical turn. Many of the major figures of poststructuralism, including Foucault, Derrida, Nancy, and Lyotard, have devoted considerable work to ethics.

There are two major strains of poststructuralist ethics. The first approach, the power-interpretive view, is associated with Foucault and Deleuze. It holds with Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) that dominance is the establishment of new interpretations. The second, which is associated with Derrida, Nancy, and Lyotard, is an ethics of otherness. The ethical is equated with a nondominating otherness that is beyond being and ontology. This interpretation is heavily influenced by the work of the Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (19061995).

Foucault, and for the most part Deleuze, follow Nietzsche in seeing interpretation as a form of power. In Nietzsches view, the creation of new interpretations established what is true or false and moral or immoral. Power discloses a world of meaning. Foucault takes this formative power in an Aristotelian direction in order to view the ethical as a form of work on the self, an interpolation of self and other. Interpretative thought is not pure strategy because it draws on an expressive world-forming capacity.

The ethics of otherness draws on the poststructuralist idea of the resistance of performance to full interpretation. Against what he saw as a Hegelian notion of totality, as well as Martin Heideggers (18891976) notion of homeland, Lévinas rejected the view of mutual recognition as metaphysical residue. Mutual recognition extends only to the familiar, the similar, or the identical. Such an ethics could not account for the outsider or the strangerthey can never be assimilated. Recalling another radical critic of G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), the outsider is a nonperson who belongs to no corporate entity. An ethics of otherness is beyond the realm of being or ontology. It can never be made explicit, but requires an attitude of openness or welcoming toward the excluded other.

Derrida, Nancy, and Lyotard all begin from Lévinass ethics of otherness. Derrida employs what might be called a linguistic-critical approach to otherness. The limits of deconstruction are found in the notion of justice. Respect for the other is the one premise that can never be deconstructed. Derrida gives a non-Kantian account of universal justice as a reception of the other that is the precondition of any language. This leads not only to an ethics of otherness, but to a conception of democracy that is linked to the ethical demands of the other. Democracy is never fulfilled, never entirely specified, but it is always yet to be. Still, Derridas use of otherness as a critique of ethics, politics, and philosophy denied any specific politics or doctrine. No explicit account of democracy or an ethos of otherness is possible.

In contrast, Nancys ethical and political reflections draw on phenomenology and on Heideggers notion of Mitsein (being with others) in order to develop a notion of community as incorporating otherness. Identity and difference constitute each other.

Lyotards position is an important variation of the ethics of otherness. He begins with a notion of speech acts that gives more credence to everyday understanding than does Derrida or Nancy. Like neo-Aristotelians, Lyotard puts the faculty of judgment at the center of political reflections. Despite this similarity with interpretive approaches, Lyotard relies on Lévinass notion of the ethical as beyond the dialogical nature of ordinary speech and action. Justice is not an ineliminable basis of his theory. Instead, justice is a political capacity that steers between the realms of action. Lyotards conception of justice, like Hannah Arendts (19061975), is drawn from Immanuel Kants (17241804) critique of judgment.

Critics of poststructuralism, such as Todd May, argue that an ethics of otherness must fail. While poststructuralists correctly identify the limits of foundationalism, they often err in equating all theoretical accounts with foundationalism. Domains of inquiry that are constituted through difference or otherness are difficult to define or delimit and are inherently contradictory. Even sympathetic critics, such as Simon Critchley, find the excessive emphasis on otherness to be problematic. Critical theories that grow out of Jürgen Habermass work have held that accountability is not just theoretical but a feature of practical activity. This postmetaphysical version of mutual recognition and mutual understanding does not, in their view, require the identity of subjects, but fosters the inclusion of the other into ethics without the need for totality.

Poststructuralism has had a significant impact on the social sciences, especially in regard to the social construction of knowledge, communication, and methodologies. Poststructuralists challenge the traditional model of objectivity, which claims to be able to represent or describe social reality. They dissent from interpretive approaches in holding that the social construction of knowledge raises an irresolvable dilemma on the nature of truth. Anthropologists, for example, have had to address questions about the adequacy of their descriptions of other cultures. They doubt whether one can represent social reality in any way. Poststructuralist anthropology often contends that anthropologists create the very phenomenon they seek to study. More recently, many social scientists have linked poststructuralism to a postpositivist perspective that overcomes the division between natural science and social science. Here, all science is a kind of pragmatic production shaped by social motives of power and dominance.

Sociologists, while raising similar questions about the objectivity of knowledge, have employed poststructuralist perspectives to study the production of knowledge. In opposition to what they see as the interpretive theorists emphasis on the formative power of intentional action, poststructural sociologists want to emphasize the way subjects themselves are formed by regimes of knowledge. Foucaults The Order of Things (1970) is an example of this type of approach, as is Bruno Latours study of scientific practices. Latour sees science as constructed by the laboratory and its instruments, not independent of them.

In communications theory, Jean Baudrillards influential work analyzes the way in which subjectivity is constructed as a consumer of material good and products. Charles Lemert developed a general sociological approach based on poststructuralism. Though not strictly in the camp of poststructuralism, Bent Flyvbjergs attempt to formulate a practically oriented phronetic social science draws heavily on Foucaults linkage of power and knowledge. In addition, much of Pierre Bourdieus (19302002) writing on symbolic power and the construction of social hierarchies of knowledge in universities and in culture was influenced by Heidegger and poststructuralism.

SEE ALSO Other, The; Postmodernism; Subject/Self; Subjectivity: Overview


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Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

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Brian J. Caterino


views updated Jun 08 2018

post-structuralism A broad-based and therefore loosely structured interdisciplinary movement which originated in France during the 1960s and spread rapidly to other countries thereafter. Post-structuralism's prime achievement has been to rediscover and extend the radical analytical possibilities inherent in Saussure's theory of language as a significatory rather than a representational phenomenon. According to its proponents, these possibilities were obscured for a long time by the scientistic readings of Saussure which dominated the work of linguists, as well as such other usages as those associated with the likes of Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and other structuralists.

More specifically, its achievement had been to rediscover the possibilities implicit in Saussure's insistence that language is a self-subsisting if not a self-sufficient social entity; that is, an entity wherein the two aspects of all signs (their ‘signifiers’ (physical images) and their ‘signifieds’ (mental images)) are brought into alignment with one another, but not with any referent they may have in the extra-linguistic world. Putting the point another way, what excited the post-structuralists were the analytical possibilities created by the realization that words (and signs more generally) may mean something, without referring to anything in the extra-linguistic world; and, therefore, that all language and language-borne phenomena (philosophies, ideologies, sciences and even whole societies, for example) might be far more autonomous, in relation to other social phenomena, than had hitherto been suspected.

The scientistic appropriations of Saussure's theory which for so long obscured the theory's more radical implications did so because their authors made the claim that their words, if no others, were verifiable accurate depictions of what they referred to, whether the latter objects were aspects of language, literature, kinship systems, or modes of production. However, with the exception of the pioneering Jacques Lacan, rather than return to Saussure directly and try to reformulate what had become known as ‘the structuralist tradition’ on a nonscientistic basis, the leading post-structuralists sought to counter scientism by resorting to bodies of thought which were located outside of the tradition itself— for example, the philosophies of Nietzsche, in the case of Michel Foucault, and Heidegger in that of Jacques Derrida. Whichever strategy was adopted, the result was similar in that in each case the conclusion arrived at was that there was both more and less to words than met the eye: more, in that even individual words always carry ‘traces’ of other words and texts (Derrida), provide evidence of and for the ‘unconscious’ (Lacan), and project power as elements in ‘discourse’ (Foucault); less, in that, for Lacan and Derrida (if not necessarily Foucault), words were no longer understood to carry aspects of the extra-linguistic world into thought.

The full relativistic implications of the post-structuralist critique are perhaps most easily seen in the work of the French social theorist Jacques Derrida. The starting-point of Derrida's self-differentiation within the structuralist tradition, and therefore of his post-structuralism, is his claim to have detected a residual humanism within the former. This humanism inheres in the unconscious privileging of speech over writing which, ironically, underpins Saussure's decision to make langue (language as an established system of rules and units) rather than parole (language in use as actually produced speech) the object of study of linguistics. In Derrida's view it is the spoken rather than the written language that Saussure is concerned to elucidate. This privileging of speech, or ‘phonocentrism’, betrays a ‘metaphysics of human presence’ buried deep in the heart of the text that has commonly been supposed to be the founding document of the non-humanist approach to the study of social phenomena. Such a metaphysics, because it unconsciously privileges the speaker, vouchsafes not just the possibility of stable meanings, but also the possibility of a knowable truth, and for no convincing reason.

On the basis of this insight, which may be found in the opening essay of his Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida proceeds to elaborate on the method, if that is not too strong a word, that made it possible. The essential elements of this are: that writing should not be disprivileged, compared to speech, but that both should simply be taken as instances of ‘texts’; special attention should be paid to the decorative and rhetorical aspects of the text (especially if it is one that makes claims to any special rigour); and, finally, the reader should be given an authority as a ‘meaning-giver’ that is at least equal to that commonly ascribed to the author. Under these conditions, the pursuit of meaning becomes the pursuit of an endlessly receding horizon, whose centripetal movement (differance) is the product of the proliferation of connotations (traces or grams for Derrida) that occurs whenever we use (as we must) other signifiers to define what is signified by any particular signifier. In other words, the true meaning of a text can never be known, and nothing can ever be said about it that is anything other than a provisional account of its ‘intertextual’ nature.

In sum, Derrida provides a means, not so much of subverting truth claims, but of showing how the texts wherein such claims are made subvert (or ‘deconstruct’) themselves. The deconstructive method would appear to possess great power when applied to texts that either claim or are claimed to validate themselves (for example religious scriptures). It does not, however, appear to possess the same degree of meaning-deferring power when applied to texts that either do not claim or cannot be claimed to validate themselves. Such texts (those of the social and natural sciences for example) have recourse to modes of validation which refer to phenomena that are beyond their boundaries. Notwithstanding the fact that neither these modes of validation nor the interpretation of their results are innocent of complicity with the texts or counter-texts involved, the possibility of external validation remains ever present, and cannot be denied by deconstructionists without involving them in a self-contradictory claim to know the truth.

The significance of post-structuralist ideas for sociology has been twofold: on the one hand, to stimulate new methods of approach to old problems, especially in relation to the study of the ideological realm; and, on the other, to stimulate apocalyptic thoughts about the impossibility of sociology. That said, some authorities have claimed that sociology might profit from a sustained programme of deconstructive readings which would enhance the reflexivity of its practitioners, by drawing their attention to the self-subverting sub-texts that are imported into their discourse, with the myriad metaphors upon which they too often depend in order to make their meanings clear. For a measured assessment (which nevertheless opens with the statement that ‘structuralism, and poststructuralism also, are dead traditions of thought’) see Anthony Giddens , ‘Structuralism, Post-structuralism and the Production of Culture’
, in Anthony Giddens and and Jonathan Turner ( eds.) , Social Theory Today (1987)


views updated May 14 2018


POST-STRUCTURALISM is an eclectic school of thought that significantly influenced literary and cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s. It emerged as a reaction against the claims of 1960s French structuralism to scientific rigor, objectivity, and universal validity. Structuralism convinced many theorists that the key to under-standing culture lay in the linguistic systemization of interrelationships in language. Building on the theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Russian Formalism, the structuralists found the clue to literary and cultural analysis in the phoneme, a unit of sound meaningful only because of its differences from other phonemes. Phonemes exemplify the elements in a cultural system that derive meaning from relations and contrasts with other elements. Structuralists determine meaning not by correlation to external reality but by analyzing its functions within a self-contained, culturally constructed code. Linguistic meaning is often established through binary opposition, or the contrast of opposites, such as cold versus hot and nature versus culture. A critic who under-stands the underlying rules or "language" determining individual utterances will understand meaningful combinations and distinctions.

Post-structuralism was in part a reaction to structuralism's claim to comprehensive and objective exploration of every cultural phenomenon. This countermovement denied the objectivity of linguistic and cultural codes, language, and categories of conceptualization. It emphasized the instability of meanings, categories, and the inability of any universal system of rules to explain reality. The result was a radically nonhierarchical plurality of indeterminate meanings. Central to post-structuralist thought is Jacques Derrida's deconstructionism. Influential among literary critics at Yale University in the 1970s and 1980s, deconstructionism indicts the Western tradition of thought for ignoring the limitless instability and incoherence of language. The dominant Western logocentric tradition sought a transcendent center or primal guarantee for all meanings. Logocentric thinking, common since Plato, attempts to repress the contingency and instability of meaning. Thus, any privileging of some terms as central to truth is denied as being merely arbitrary. For example, consider male over female and white over black. In the United States, literary critics used post-structuralist analysis to challenge the boundary between criticism of literature's subjectivity and objectivity, while elevating figurative language and interpretation. For post-structuralists there is no God, Truth, or Beauty, only gods, truths, and beauties. In the early 1990s, post-structuralism under-went an intense critique from a range of social critics. Aside from the obscurantism of the movement, it seemed ahistorical, dogmatic, willfully nihilistic, and unable to provide a critique of moral and social injustice. Perhaps a part of the hedonistic flight from social responsibility of previous years, the movement seemed to slow down. The trend away from post-structuralism has continued into the twenty-first century, as the gradual tapering off of publications on the topic from its height in the mid-1980s clearly indicates.


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Kearney, Richard, ed. Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Mouffe, Chantal, ed. Deconstruction and Pragmatism. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Raman, Selden, and Peter Widdowson, eds. A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. 3d ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Alfred L.Castle/a. e.

See alsoAnthropology and Ethnology ; Assimilation ; Linguistics ; Philosophy .