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Title: Post-structuralism  
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Subject: Postmodernism, Continental philosophy, Deconstruction, Semiotics, Structuralism
Collection: Linguistic Turn, Philosophical Movements, Philosophical Schools and Traditions, Postmodern Theory, Post-Structuralism
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Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of mid-20th-century French and continental philosophers and critical theorists who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s.[1][2][3] A major theme of poststructuralism is instability in the human sciences, due to the complexity of humans themselves and the impossibility of fully escaping structures in order to study them.

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

The movement is closely related to postmodernism. As with structuralism, antihumanism is often a central tenet. Existential phenomenology is a significant influence; Colin Davis has argued that post-structuralists might just as accurately be called "post-phenomenologists".[7] 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.


  • Theory 1
    • General practices 1.1
    • Destabilized meaning 1.2
    • Deconstruction 1.3
  • Post-structuralism and structuralism 2
    • Historical vs. descriptive view 2.1
    • Scholars between both movements 2.2
  • History 3
  • Major works 4
    • Eco and the open text 4.1
    • Barthes and the need for metalanguage 4.2
    • Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins 4.3
    • Judith Butler and Gender Trouble 4.4
  • See also 5
    • Authors 5.1
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
  • External links 8


General practices

  • The author's intended meaning is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives. Also the author's identity as a stable "self" with a single, discernible "intent" is a fictional construct. Post-structuralism rejects the idea of a literary text having a single purpose, a single meaning, or one singular existence. Instead, every individual reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, and existence for a given text. To step outside of literary theory, this position is generalizable to any situation where a subject perceives a sign. Meaning (or the signified, in Saussure's scheme, which is as heavily presumed upon in post-structuralism as in structuralism) is constructed by an individual from a signifier. This is why the signified is said to 'slide' under the signifier, and explains the talk about the "primacy of the signifier."
  • A post-structuralist critic must be able to use a variety of perspectives to create a multifaceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another. It is particularly important to analyze how the meanings of a text shift in relation to certain variables, usually involving the identity of the reader (for example: class, racial, or sexual identity)

Destabilized meaning

In the post-structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. This displacement is often referred to as the "destabilizing" or "decentering" of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself. Without a central fixation on the author, post-structuralists examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc.). These alternative sources are never authoritative, and promise no consistency.

In his essay "Signification and Sense," Emmanuel Levinas remarked on this new field of semantic inquiry:


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

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

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 historical, and they classify structuralism as descriptive. This terminology relates to 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.

Scholars between both movements

The uncertain distance between structuralism and post-structuralism is further blurred by the fact that scholars generally do not label themselves as post-structuralists. Some scholars associated with structuralism, such as Roland Barthes, also became noteworthy in post-structuralism. Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault were the so-called "Gang of Four" of structuralism.[9] All but Lévi-Strauss became prominent post-structuralists. The works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva are also counted as prominent examples of post-structuralism.

The critical reading carried out by these thinkers sought to find contradictions that an author includes, supposedly inevitably, in his work. Those inconsistencies are used to show that the interpretation and criticism of any literature is in the hands of the reader and includes that reader's own cultural biases and assumptions. While many structuralists first thought that they could tease out an author's intention by close scrutiny, they soon argued that textual analysis discovered so many disconnections that it was obvious that their own experiences lent a view that was unique to them.

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


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

The period was marked by political anxiety, as students and workers alike rebelled against the state in May 1968, nearly causing the downfall of the French government. At the same time, however, the support of the French Communist Party (FCP) for the oppressive policies of the USSR contributed to popular disillusionment with orthodox Marxism. 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:

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).[14] 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.[15]

In phenomenology this foundation would be experience itself; in structuralism, knowledge is founded on the "structures" that make experience possible: concepts, and language or signs. Post-structuralism, in turn, argues that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (structuralism) is impossible. This impossibility was meant not a failure or loss, but a cause for "celebration and liberation."[15]

Major works

Eco and the open text

Umberto Eco's (1962) The Open Work satisfies the criteria of a post-structuralist work. Eco's thesis is that a work of art, and especially of contemporary art, has an undefined meaning, and that the will of the artist was exactly that of producing such indeterminacy or openness. These "open works" (Eco cites Luciano Berio's musical compositions, among many others) have then to be completed by the interpreter, according to that particular interpreter's knowledge. This idea—now accepted by many philosophers and critics (and was popularized by reader-response theories as well as by hermeneutically informed theories, such as those by Jauss or Iser)—was considered "heretical" at the time, and received a very strong opposition, notably from Claude Lévi-Strauss and the writer Eugenio Montale in Italy. These attacks were documented by Eco himself in the prefaces of later editions of this text. The Open Work is seen by some to be the very first post-structural book, and considered as a classic in semiotics and continental aesthetics.

In 1968 Eco published La struttura assente (literally from Italian: The Absent Structure), another book that had a great impact on the transition between structuralism and post-structuralism. Eco suggests that structures are not entities existing de facto, ontologically, but formal instruments and representations by which scholars can understand cultural concepts, articulating various systems of differences. In 1968, when structuralism was the main theorical reference for many, this book received massive criticism in France and abroad. Later, several structuralists used to define themselves as either "nominalists", if following Eco's path, or "realists", if following Lévi-Strauss's and others' interpretations of what a structure is.

In his later works, especially in A Theory of Semiotics (1975), The Role of the Reader (1979) and Semiotics and Philosophy of Language (1984), Eco defined a semiotic theory taking into account the post-structural innovations, with concepts like encyclopedia, symbolic mode or model reader.

Barthes and the need for metalanguage

Although many may have felt the necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this ought to occur. Much of the study of post-structuralism is based on the common critiques of structuralism. Roland Barthes is of great significance with respect to post-structuralist theory. In his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), he advanced the concept of the "metalanguage". A metalanguage is a systematized way of talking about concepts like meaning and grammar beyond the constraints of a traditional (first-order) language; in a metalanguage, symbols replace words and phrases. Insofar as one metalanguage is required for one explanation of first-order language, another may be required, so metalanguages may actually replace first-order languages. Barthes exposes how this structuralist system is regressive; orders of language rely upon a metalanguage by which it is explained, and therefore deconstruction itself is in danger of becoming a metalanguage, thus exposing all languages and discourse to scrutiny. Barthes' other works contributed deconstructive theories about texts.

Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins

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, which invited scholars 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 interpreted as "play" in a linguistic sense, based on a general tendency towards puns and humour, while social constructionism as developed in the later work of Michel Foucault is said to create a sense of strategic agency by laying bare the levers of historical change. Many see the importance of Foucault's work as in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operations of power (see governmentality).

Judith Butler and Gender Trouble

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,[16] 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 that 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.[17]

See also


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


  1. ^ Bensmaïa, Réda Poststructuralism, article published in Kritzman, Lawrence (ed.) The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp.92-93
  2. ^ Mark Poster (1988) Critical theory and poststructuralism: in search of a context, section Introduction: Theory and the problem of Context, pp.5-6
  3. ^ a b Merquior, J.G. (1987). Foucault (Fontana Modern Masters series), University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-06062-8.
  4. ^ Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. "How Do We Recognise Structuralism?" In Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Trans. David Lapoujade. Ed. Michael Taormina. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents ser. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 2004. 170-192. ISBN 1-58435-018-0. p.171-173.
  5. ^ Craig, Edward, ed. 1998. Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Vol. 7 (Nihilism to Quantum mechanics). London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-18712-5. p.597.
  6. ^ Harrison, Paul; 2006; "Post-structuralist Theories"; pp122-135 in Aitken, S. and Valentine, G. (eds); 2006; Approaches to Human Geography; Sage, London
  7. ^ Davis, Colin; "Levinas: An Introduction"; p8; 2006; Continuum, London.
  8. ^ Levinas, Emmanuel. Humanism of the Other. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. p. 11-12.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Searle, John. (1990). "The Storm Over the University," in The New York Times Review of Books, 6 December 1990.
  11. ^ Sokal, Alan. (1997) "Professor Latour's Philosophical Mystifications," originally published in French in Le Monde, 31 January 1997; translated by the author.
  12. ^ Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN ISBN 0-231-07650-9, p. 140.
  13. ^ Michel Foucault (2003). "Society Must Be Defended": Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Macmillan. pp. 6–7.  
  14. ^ Colebrook, Claire. "Deleuze," Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2002
  15. ^ a b Colebrook 2002, pp. 2-4
  16. ^ Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison(1975)
  17. ^ Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (NY: Routledge, 1990).


  • 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.

External links

  • - Jacques DerridaStructure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
  • The Baudrillard Dictionary edited by Richard G Smith
  • "Some Post-Structural Assumptions" - John Lye
  • Talking pomo: An analysis of the post-modern movement, by Steve Mizrach
  • Information on Michel Foucault, including an archive of writings and lectures
  • - A collaborative web site that aims to allow users not only to describe post-structuralist ideas, but to create new ideas and concepts based on post-structuralist foundations
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