Study Guide


Poststructuralism Introduction

Thought structuralism was where it's at? Catch up with the times, dear. We are living in a post world.

But what does that even mean? Poststructuralism may be one of the trickiest lines of theory you'll encounter. For one thing, pinning down what it actually is is about as slippery as Justin Bieber attempting to thwart the grip of justice. So this line of theory likes to dodge definition—heck, some people don't even think it counts as literary theory at all.

Sure, some of its major thinkers occasionally turned their attention to literature, but they were usually more interested in thinking through issues in linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. In fact, these guys tended to question whether or not "literature" really exists at all. They looked around and saw a world full of all kinds of interesting language activity, and, through their work, the distinctions between "great writing" and "language in general" started to get really hazy.

One of the basic assumptions that shapes poststructuralist thinking is that every aspect of human experience—our modes of communication, social habits, values, wallpaper preferences, even our personal identities—are textual. That means that everything we think we know about our selves and our world is based on language.

In fact, poststructuralists believe that our realities are created by the languages we use. Poststructuralism takes us well beyond the world of New Criticism, which asks us to think about "the text and nothing but the text." As Jacques Derrida, poststructuralism's sweetheart from the eerily similar world of deconstruction, puts it: there's nothing that isn't text!

Poststructuralism got its start in a convoluted sort of way. In the 1950s and '60s, radical new work in linguistics was inspiring a whole slew of French thinkers to re-imagine their own disciplines. Psychoanalysis and philosophy started to go through major upheavals, and their little buddies lit studies and sociology didn't want to be left on the sidelines.

These changes didn't go by any one name, but all of them were grappling with ideas, methods, and problems that existed in structuralism, the academic mode that trending at the time. As these upheavals migrated across the Atlantic and into the good old US of A, they started to get associated with two new terms: deconstruction and poststructuralism. While Derrida himself had been using the word deconstruction to describe his own unique brand of philosophical sauce, "poststructuralism" was a name that American scholars thought up.

So how do we tell the difference between deconstruction and poststructuralism? Where does one begin and the end? And do we even need to know?

Like we said, this theory is nebulous. But don't worry, 'cause that's actually our first clue as to how it thinks and works.

So. Both deconstruction and poststructuralism are into disrupting the ideas you might take for granted every day—especially convenient distinctions like the differences between male and female, nature and culture, health and sickness, good and bad, or true and false. Deconstructionists and poststructuralists look around and see a world where all our values and ideals are created by the language we use to think up said values and ideals.

And since so many of those ideals have been used throughout history to rate some people over others—like men over women, white over black, law-abiding over criminal, sane over sick—poststructuralists say it's up to us to reveal those hidden relationships between language and power. Why should the word "dark" have a negative connotation in so many contexts?

Like a band of secret linguistic rebels, we've got to work to dismantle the system from within. Within language, that is. After all, would you really be Shmooping about poststructuralism if you weren't thinking in words, even a little bit?

What is Poststructuralism About and Why Should I Care?

Why Should Readers Care?

Imagine you're a young, good-looking nerd named Thomas Anderson. You're a genius computer hacker who loves bullet-time fight scenes and surfing the net for Lolcats. One night, you meet a mysterious man who calls himself Morpheus. He tells you the world you've grown up knowing isn't actually real: instead, it's a fantasy projected by a massive information network called the Matrix. He offers you the choice between a blue pill and a red pill. You choose the red pill, swallow it, and…nothing happens.

What gives? Shouldn't you be waking up in a containment pod somewhere, where you can rip out your connecting lines and swim away to join the revolution?

The Wachowski siblings' classic sci-fi thriller The Matrix has a lot in common with poststructuralist theories of language, but there's one important difference. In The Matrix, when Thomas/Neo takes the red pill, he sets off a chain of reactions that lets him disconnect from the system. But for poststructuralists, there's no way out. The world is shaped by countless networks of meaning and code, and the best we can do is try to decipher and alter them from within.

What does that mean for you as a reader? One cool strategy that this theory gives us is "reading against the grain." That doesn't mean going gluten-free. In woodworking, when you sand a piece of wood, it's always best to sand with the direction of the grain. Going in the opposite direction will leave your wood stubbly and scratched.

That's not a good look for a coffee table, but deconstructionists and poststructuralists think it's a great look for discourse and text. They want you to reveal the inner flaws, contradictions, and paradoxes that lie in wait in everything you read. They're into roughing things up, and more than a little. Ready to swallow that pill?

Why Should Theorists Care?

Deconstruction and poststructuralism are commonly associated with the "rise of theory" in North American lit departments in the 1970s and '80s. Think Rise of the Machines, but in academia-land, which means that instead of being about Arnold, it's about changing the ways that scholars, critics, and researchers talked about texts.

In other words, because the act of reading got wrapped up in the activity of "writing" the text, lit profs started to pay a lot of attention to how their own interactions with novels, poems, plays and the like influenced how people saw the meanings of the texts themselves. Theorists responded to the writings of other theorists as much as they responded to "lit." Discourse about discourse was everywhere. Starting to feel like the Twilight Zone yet?

Then, poststructuralists went and shocked people even more when they started to insist that everything in our lives comes down to text. Some people even accused them of being nihilists—i.e., of not believing in meaning at all.

But these theories care a lot about meaning; in fact, they're kind of obsessed. And that obsession makes this line of theory really good at picking apart the bad habits that have been passed down through Western culture for centuries. For example, poststructuralism loves to talk politics. And for a lot of academics, that's a refreshing change from New Criticism's insistence on reading lit without relating it to the outside world that'd helped to create it.

And in the '70s, a branch o' literary theory that talks about the real world was just what the doctor ordered. The doctor for academics trying to be cool, that is.