Study Guide

Poststructuralism Basics

  • Beginnings

    It's ironic to point to a single moment, or even a series of moments, as the starting point of poststructuralism, because poststructuralists by the fiber of their beings think that origins are about as real as unicorns, the Loch Ness monster, or pay equity based on gender. That said, let's see what we can learn from giving this story a conventional narrative form.

    Picture this. It's October, 1966. Baltimore. A dark and stormy night and all that. A gaggle of scholars have gathered at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center to take part in an interdisciplinary, bilingual symposium named "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man."

    In it, prominent scholars (mostly men) have come to exchange insights from fields as diverse as anthropology, classics, comp lit, history, linguistics, semiology, sociology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. The hot topic on everyone's lips is structuralism. What's it mean? Where's it going? How best to apply its methods across the gamut of the humanities and social sciences? So, 1966 was the place to be, huh?

    Wait. Maybe not.

    Okay, scratch that whole Johns Hopkins thing. Let's start again. It's Geneva. 1906. An eminent linguistics prof named Ferdinand de Saussure is asked to take over a course in "general linguistics." His doting students take notes attentively. One afternoon, Saussure is assaulted by a band of Klingons who're enraged by his dishonorable conjugations of the verb hegh. Typical way to go in the early 1900s.

    In the wake of their prof's untimely death, Saussure's students cobble together their notes from his classes to publish Course in General Linguistics under his name. His theories incite a critical revolution. Fast forward fifty years, and we're back at the "Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" symposium, where dozens of dudes have gathered to launch two years' worth of seminars and discussions about structuralist thought practice.

    See what we're getting at? It's a question of where stories really begin and end, and whether you can really pin down those sorts of things anyway.

    Meanwhile, back to the "Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" symposium. At that point, Derrida's reputation as a dapper young philosopher had been starting to grow. He stood up to present a paper called "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." And the world of academia was never the same again. Pretty much, most of the other academics there were just starting to wrap their heads around structuralism, and along comes Derrida to demolish the movement before it even really took root.

    So how'd he do it? To paraphrase, it went something like this:

    "Hey guys, so you know this structure thing we're so into? Well, throughout the history of Western thought, the idea of 'structure' has always been wrapped up with the idea of the 'center'—you know, the assumption that there's some sort of origin or ultimate purpose, something that makes it all make sense."

    Got it so far? Let's keep going.

    "And that would be sweet and all" (he went on), "except that if we were really serious about structure, we'd just admit that there isn't actually a single point which everything else refers to. So saying there's some floaty, mysterious, ultimate truth out there that structures the world? Total garbage. We'd do better to take apart all those oversimplified binaries these loony structuralists are taking for granted. Right, audience?"

    Chirp, chirp.

    Sure, we're paraphrasing a little. But nowadays, when theorists point to the "beginning" of poststructuralism, they point to Derrida's delivery of this paper, his infamous "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences." Though they're also a little bit terrified to call it a "beginning" for fear Derrida will call them out again. So even though Derrida's brazen, convoluted cannonball marked a beginning of a kind, you'd best keep in mind that that beginning was only one among many.

    And, ever since, deconstructionists and poststructuralists have been taking their story apart. Heck, what other choice have they got?

  • Big Players

    By now you're probably realizing that unlike some other lit theories with clear-cut foundations and manageable memberships, poststructuralism is kind of all over the place. That's why it's helpful to think of it just as Deleuze and Guattari say we should: as a rhizome (a big, tangly plant system), rather than a single tree (which has a seed and a trunk and orderly branches).

    In North America, the term poststructuralism was used synonymously with deconstruction for a long time. And lots of the time, it still is. So, Derrida's influence in American letters gives us one of poststructuralism's connecting points. He met the Yale prof Paul de Man in the early 1960s, and the two became best buds. How could you not when you're smarter than everyone else?

    Together, they defined the Yale School of deconstruction, with de Man adapting Derrida's insights into practical methods for tackling lit. de Man was also largely responsible for making Derrida's ideas popular in the USA, and it was one of his grad students, the brilliant Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who first translated Derrida's mind-bogglingly complicated masterpiece Of Grammatology from French into English. Lucky for us, she added a long explanatory introduction, too.

    Meanwhile, back in France, Lacan was doing his psychoanalysis thing. You know, lecturing on Freud in the modern world to massive audiences as if it was the filming of The Colbert Report. People were that into it.

    And hey, some other guys were publishing work that had nothing to do with either him or Derrida (shocking, we know). These were dudes like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, both of them making serious names for themselves in their respective fields of literary/cultural studies, and history/sociology.

    Basically, Barthes was doing crazy textual interpretation that wandered all over the map, and Foucault—the only 20th-century thinker whose celebrity status rivals Derrida's—was doing intensive historical studies that showed how academic disciplines like literature, history, and philosophy had come about around the same time that state institutions (like prisons, churches, and schools) had started to impose new controls over French citizens' lives. Heady stuff!

    What all of these thinkers had in common was their fascination with the connections between language and power. Deleuze and Guattari picked up on some of the same threads when they published their first book together, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in 1972.

    Soon, Julia Kristeva joined the ranks of the psychoanalytically-trained poststructuralists by defending and publishing her massive tome of a doctoral thesis, Revolution in Poetic Language.

    Also in France, Jean Baudrillard threw his lot in with the growing crowd too. He may have thought society was all about simulations of reality, but at least he knew whose simulations he liked best.

    All of these thinkers published A LOT of work over the course of the mid-to-late 20th century, and there's no one text or player who was the biggest and baddest of all (even Derrida). Together, deconstruction and poststructuralism kept picking up steam until their influence was felt throughout the Western academic world. Whether you loved 'em or hated 'em, you knew who they were. Kind of like Justin Bieber.

    By the early 1990s, though, the fervor was starting to die down. Major scholarly stuff was still being done, but by then lots of thinkers were starting to put deconstructive and poststructuralist lessons to use in other emerging fields, like postcolonial theory and gender studies.

    Respectively, Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler were pioneers in these fields, proving that even though deconstruction and poststructuralism often seemed like the jargon-filled, murky scribblings of élite academics, they could still have practical value for people who needed to resist imperial violence and patriarchy.

  • Key Debates

    As maybe you've guessed from the complicated origins, tangled mess of theoretical influences, and use of words like "rhizome," poststructuralism ain't a view people can discuss calmly over a sundae. This is one contentious branch of theory, and the debates can get personal. Got your boxing gloves? Let's dive into the ring.

    The Jocks Jacques Face Off

    Remember how we said it was hard to say who came up with poststructuralist theories of language first? Well, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida found this more than a little frustrating too. Back in the early 1960s, Derrida was nothing but a rookie compared to Lacan; he'd barely published any work of his own, and Lacan was teaching weekly seminars that were legen—wait for it—dary.

    Now, Derrida had read a couple of Lacan's published essays, but he hadn't attended his seminars. Let's just say he had some issues with what Lacan was saying about the relationships between language and psychoanalytic treatment, but he didn't say anything about it—not in print, anyway. In 1966, Lacan published his magnum opus, Ecrits, a ginormous collection of his essays and lectures.

    So Derrida curled up in his favorite armchair to read the "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter,'" a lecture Lacan had given about a detective story of that name by spooky American author Edgar Allan Poe.

    That essay, called "The Purveyor of Truth" (sense the sarcasm?) claimed that Lacan had seen only what he wanted to see in Poe's story, and that that was the problem with psychoanalysis on the whole. It always found exactly what it expected to: psychological traumas caused by repression and unfulfilled desire. And was that ever a psychological trauma for Lacan!

    On top of everything, Derrida pointed out that Lacan had failed to acknowledge one of the major sources of his arguments in the seminar: an earlier psychoanalytic interpretation of Poe's story by the well known psychoanalyst (and Napoleon descendant and princess) Marie Bonaparte. Derrida wasn't accusing Lacan of plagiarism, exactly; instead, he argued that Lacan's seminar was full of gaps and ruptures and misidentifications. In other words, that it took a deconstructive reading, rather than a psychoanalytic reading, to come to terms with all of it.

    Lacan never published a response to Derrida's essay, but, in true poststructuralist style, their conflict (such as it was) was supplemented and expanded over the years by other writers who jumped in to say their piece. In 1977, a poststructuralist scholar named Barbara Johnson published an essay called "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, and Derrida," where she showed that Derrida, in reading Lacan misreading Poe, repeats the exact same pattern by misreading Lacan!

    Talk about a never-ending chain of signification. What the double-Jacques face-off highlights is how easy it is, in deconstructive and poststructuralist thinking, to go round and round in circles without ever escaping from the loop, drawing new texts and thinkers into the whirlpool as you go.

    Where Do Texts Begin and End, and Who Writes 'Em, Anyway?

    However you want to draw the lines between deconstruction and poststructuralism, there's no getting around their shared love of text. Roland Barthes's writings were what really set the stage for conversations about authors and texts. In his 1968 essay "The Death of the Author," he argued that it's more important to examine how language works through writers, rather than how writers work with language. Likewise, in in his 1971 essay "From Work to Text," he argued that "works" are simply products, but texts are animated, active processes of production.

    For Barthes, not only are readers and critics involved in the processes of textual production, they're more important, heck, better than anyone else, even the "author," at figuring out what's going on inside them. That's because texts don't begin and end between the book covers: texts come into being because of discourse, the way they're talked about (or written about). And discourse has no beginning or end, and isn't ever contained inside individual books.

    As we'll see in a moment, it's a pretty big deal to suggest that readers and critics are more important than writers, and better at grasping how language works. Some of the strongest and most important criticisms leveled against deconstruction and poststructuralism were made in response to ideas like these. Get ready for the fisticuffs.

    Who Is Theory Really For?

    One of the many characteristics that deconstruction and poststructuralism share is their insistence that writing—whether it be lit, philosophy, lit theory, the news, or an SNL skit—is always political. This makes for a BIG difference between deconstruction/poststructuralism and New Criticism, which argued that we should interpret lit without asking what it might have to say about its author's politics or morals or opinions whatsoever.

    Deconstruction and poststructuralism, on the other hand, invented a whole new language for talking about how language itself creates and enforces power. Pretty meta, huh? And with that kind of credential, you might think that "theory" would be celebrated across the board.

    But it wasn't. And it's a good idea to ask why.

    First off, French feminist philosophers like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva all pointed out that Lacan's psychoanalytic notions about language were sexist. For Lacan, everything always comes down to the phallus. He loves talking about who has it (no one, really), who people think have it (usually men), who wants it (pretty much everyone), and what wanting it does to us.

    Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva were all influenced by psychoanalysis, but they were sick of dealing with metaphors that connected men's bodies to power and women's bodies to weakness and "lack." All three of them argued, in their own ways, that women needed to reclaim language and discourse for themselves. This was usually done through attempts to associate certain kinds of speech with women's bodies—especially the maternal body.

    Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva all had problems with parts of poststructuralist theory, and their response was to adopt and adapt the ideas they found useful, and to trash the rest. The same approach was used by others too, like Kentucky-born scholar bell hooks (that's right, she doesn't capitalize on purpose. Can't get much more poststructuralist than that). In her 1990 essay "Postmodern Blackness," hooks argued that even though the world of theory was dominated by white male intellectuals and other élites, there were still some valuable ideas coming out of the movement that could be put to good use by black activists, writers, and scholars who were trying to combat racism.

    Despite her commitment to sifting through theory for its genuinely useful lessons, hooks' essay makes a comment that should make every reader—especially fans of Barthes's "Death of the Author"—take a serious step back. hooks asks: "Should we not be suspicious of postmodern critiques of the 'subject' when the surface at a historical moment when many subjugated people feel themselves coming to voice for the first time?"

    That is a powerful question without an easy answer, and hooks wasn't the only one asking it. In her 1988 essay "The Race for Theory," Barbara Christian had argued that the language of poststructuralist theorists had become just as oppressive as the discourses it was supposedly attacking, and that its critiques of ideas about "centers" and "peripheries" had become popular "just when the literature of peoples of color, of black women, of Latin Americans, of Africans began to move to 'the center.'"

    So, what hooks, Christian, and many others pointed out was that despite the fact that men like Derrida, Lacan, de Man, Barthes, and Foucault said they were interested in dismantling hierarchies, they never looked outside the Western tradition—the predominantly white and male Western tradition—to do so. They were getting famous while women and people of color were struggling to get their voices heard at all. Ain't much deconstructionist about that. Let the debates continue.

  • State of the Theory

    So where does that kind of political conflict leave us? And where does it leave poststructuralism? There are no easy answers here: these theories have some serious pros and cons. In fact, most theorists who call themselves deconstructionists and poststructuralists today have learned to sift through the tradition for the biggest and best nuggets while letting the other stuff go.

    Or, to put it another way: many thinkers have chosen to take what's politically useful from deconstruction and poststructuralism, and to leave the rest behind.

    When your lit prof slowly "unpacks" a text, that's these guys at work. And when you encounter critics who use literary texts as entryways into much broader discussions about discourse and culture, there's a good chance they're working with Derrida's and Foucault's tools in their utility belts. Poststructuralism even inspired a new field that probably exists on your campus now: cultural studies!

    So the next time someone rolls their eyes when you say the word "Derrida," know that they're deconstructing that dude even as they scoff at deconstruction. And then you can roll your eyes back.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature is so passé. Let's talk about text instead.

    It's time to throw away all these imaginary distinctions that give us "great books" and "great authors" and "glorious works of art." Yawn! Language is operating everywhere, and a billboard ad or tabloid exposé can be just as rich a read as Middlemarch. Get your nose out of that dusty old book and take a look at how writing is shaping the world.

    What is an author?

    Well, a writer is a human being like any other, existing in and through language, and, for whatever reason, spending a lot of time writing stuff down.

    The capital-A Author, on the other hand, doesn't exist. We certainly can't appeal to any singular "author"-ity to find meaning in a text; most of the time, writers are oblivious to half the stuff they're streaming onto the page.

    The only reason we still refer to writers' names at all is that they're useful for making categorizations. It's helpful to say that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and The Cuckoo's Calling, and it's really interesting to track the discursive effects that a writer's name can have.

    But, in the end, no text has any one author: language is far too slippery for that.

    What is a reader?

    In deconstruction, a reader is someone who can zero in on a small, seemingly unimportant moment in a text, and then take aim. After the dust settles, they'll discover how that tiny moment exposes the text's own logic contradicting itself…and they'll tell us why that contradiction was necessary, too.

    A poststructuralist reader does the same, but they're interested in the bigger picture. Why stop at a single text when you can pry apart the hinges of the whole culture? The poststructuralist reader sees writing everywhere—even reading can be writing too!