Study Guide

Poststructuralism Buzzwords

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You can think of signification as what language does. It's an active, ongoing process of producing meaning. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, whose teachings gave structuralism its start, language works by combining two things: signifiers and signifieds.

Um, what?

Backing up: Signifiers are "sound-images"—in other words, words. Signifieds are the things or concepts that words are supposed to refer to. So "tree" is the signifier and the signified is that big branchy thing with leaves. Together, signifiers and signifieds make signs. And what do signs do? Signs signify. Totally clear, right?

But wait! There's a catch. Saussure tells us that the relationship between signs and things is arbitrary. He says there's nothing inherent that makes the signifier "dog" the best choice for describing a furry quadruped with a waggity tail; the word's value comes from the unique function it serves in the larger system that gives it meaning: in this case, the English language. Just like the later poststructuralists, Saussure argued that value comes from the system, not from signs themselves.


When Derrida coined this term, the Wachowski siblings peed a little, and deconstruction was born. Différance is a snappy combination of two verbs: to differ and to defer. To differ means to be "not the same," and to defer means "to postpone," "to delay," or "to get someone else to do it." Mix 'em together, and you get an explosive definition of how language works.

Basically, Derrida makes up this word to say that meaning is never transmitted perfectly by signs: we can never be 100% sure that we've understood exactly what a book or a friend is trying to say.

Plus, no matter how hard we try, even our own words don't always seem to be able to say what we want. Attempt to describe something utterly gorgeous, like a sunset or Keanu Reeves's face (at least, if you're a Wachowski), and you'll see what we mean. According to Derrida, language never holds onto meaning, or makes it stay put—communication is an infinite chain of différance.


"Writing," as Derrida defines it at least, is one of those theory terms that manages to be simple and hugely complex all at the same time. Suffice it to say that, for Derrida, "writing" doesn't just refer to the stuff we normally think of as the written word: it applies to all speech acts. When President Obama delivers an address to the nation, that's writing. When your lit prof explains the stickier bits of a novel nobody gets, that's writing too.

Derrida's smash hit (you can't say that about many theory books) Of Grammatology lays all this out, but we'll sum it up, 'cause Derrida's tough, and we got your back. According to Derrida, the entire tradition of Western philosophy talks about speech like it's got magical abilities. It's just assumed that speech is a sign of presence—not just the physical presence of the person speaking, but also the kind of metaphysical presence that we can read about if we flip to the first page of the Bible. In Genesis, when God speaks, things get real. Like, literally real.

Writing, by comparison, is assumed to be about as powerful as a wet noodle. It's speech's opposite. Non-presence, non-fullness, non-anything. But Derrida asks this question: if speech is so hot, why does writing exist at all? Why supplement something that supposedly has it all?

His answer? That speech and writing are the same. One word might be said out loud while the other is marked down, but both are marked by différance. But don't forget: meaning isn't present in either spoken or written words—no matter what, it's always deferred.

Transcendental Signified

This is another of Derrida's biggies. It builds on concepts we've already covered, so let's recap real quick: for deconstructionists and poststructuralists, language never transmits meaning perfectly. On top of that, because the assembly line of signification never stops, we can never get meaning to hold still. We can never reach Absolute Truth. Heck, we can't even assume there is such a thing. This goes for individual interpretations of books and poems, but it also applies to bigger ideas in philosophy and religion too.

Now, Derrida wasn't the first philosopher to suggest that it's impossible for us mere mortals to get to the bottom of things, but he showed that when other philosophers claim to have abandoned all hope of finding the One True Answer, usually they've just replaced an old Truth with a new one. Convenient, huh?

So, whatever the truth of the day happens to be, that's what Derrida calls the transcendental signified. Needless to say, he's having none of it: if meaning is created by the system, he says, then there just can't be anything that hovers outside to give it meaning from the Great Beyond.


Text can mean a lot of things, but deconstructionists and poststructuralists like to use it in their own fancy-pants sort of way. Roland Barthes, who liked to straddle the fence between structuralism and poststructuralism, tells us that we experience text as "an activity of production."

In other words, Barthes wants us to know that reading a text and writing the text aren't all that different: the two activities blend together as readers and texts interact. Everything that you bring to the table when you sit down to read a book—for example, anything you know about the author's life, or the historical events the novel is based on, or the things reviewers had to say—becomes part of the "text" too.

In those ways, you help to "write" the text as you respond to it through your reading. And part of your job as a critic-in-the-making is to keep this in mind. 'Cause the thing is, before you ever came to it, the text was already full of writing by all kinds of other people too—everyone who helped to create the language, and all the effects of discourse, that seeped into the text through the "author's" pen.


Back in old-timey days, "discourse" used to mean the action of running or traveling through space. Nowadays, though, you're more likely to think of the word as having something to do with what it means to discuss an issue, or talk through an idea or problem. Think of it as running or traveling through space, but instead of space-space it's the space of language.

Plus, discourse can mean a "way of speaking," but deconstructionists and poststructuralists use the word a bit more broadly. For them, it refers to "language activity." And, like most of their concepts, this one lumps speech and writing together.


You've probably got at least one friend or family member with a very distinctive way of seeing the world. Maybe Aunt Wendy's a Marxist, or Second-Cousin Hildebrand believes eating nothing but carrots will make him live to 100. And no matter how hard you or anyone else tries to make them see things differently, they just can't seem to manage it. That's ideology at work.

But don't assume it's just dear old Uncle Opinionated who's under its spell—in one way or another, we all are. Even if it's not about carrots, all of us are shaped to some extent by the cultures we inhabit. Sure, we can try to "unlearn" the perspectives we've developed, it can be really hard. Ideologies let us take it for granted that some actions and values are natural and normal—"the way things are, and ought to be"—while others are strange, or just plain wrong.

Believing that freedom is an inalienable right? That going to the movies should not cost more than ten buckaroos? Yep, that's ideology, too.

Basically, whatever color they take, ideologies are cultural and created by discourse, and it's hard to see past 'em when you're on the inside.


The poststructuralist theorist and doomsayer Jean Baudrillard made the terms "simulacrum" and "simulation" popular in the early '80s, when he starting writing that consumer culture in the West had murdered "reality."

Pretty intense, yeah?

See, a simulacrum is a copy or image of something—say, a Captain Kirk action figure, or a charcoal portrait of William Shatner in a bathrobe. Baudrillard tells us that it's easy to think of simulacra as obscuring the True thing. In Christian religious history, for instance, icons (images of Christ and the Madonna) were HUGELY controversial for a while. The debates about whether or not they misdirected believers' worship onto the images themselves, rather than the divine figures they were meant to represent, caused a massive split in the way Christianity was practiced.

But Baudrillard, in true poststructuralist style, turns all that on its head when he says that simulacra don't obscure the True thing after all. What they do hide is the fact that the True thing never existed at all. Gasp! So instead, he asks us to consider the question: what if there was only ever the image to begin with?

Simulation, he says, means pretending to have something that you don't. Simulacra simulate authenticity: they're images of an authentic reality that doesn't actually exist—that only appears to exist, in fact, because they make it seem as though it does. For Baudrillard, Western culture is just one big tangled web of simulacra and simulation. And by buying into the system, we've murdered the real.

Talk about a Matrix complex!


This one's fun, because who doesn't love wacky plant life? Especially when they're metaphors for crazy ideas in theory.

So the rhizome. Over the course of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, two French thinkers teamed up to produce two major interventions into psychoanalytic and philosophical discourses in France. Their names were Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and they were super bros. In their classic study A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari point out that Western philosophy has always used a metaphor of a tree to describe itself.

A tree has a definite origin—the seed—and although its roots and branches can spread out far, they're ultimately all connected to one central core. But really, what fun is that?!

Good poststructuralists that they are, Deleuze and Guattari aren't interested in definite origins and central cores. So they propose the rhizome as a better, faster, stronger metaphor for thought and discourse. A rhizome is a plant system without a central node. Any of its points can connect to any other; there's no fixed order, or predictable direction. Basically, it's a bunch of roots tangled up around each other with no distinct point of entry and no escape. It's always establishing new connections and new offshoots, and it isn't hierarchical.

Folks, this is about as idealistic as poststructuralism gets!

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