Study Guide

Poststructuralism Texts

  • Phaedrus by Plato (360 B.C.E.)

    Okay, so Plato's Phaedrus isn't exactly a literary text, but you know by now that deconstructionists and poststructuralists don't give a dang about the differences between literature and philosophy. And even if they did, a lot of Plato's work is pretty conventionally literary anyway, if we do say so ourselves. After all, dialogues like Phaedrus are stories about Plato's revered teacher, Socrates, and all the cool stuff he said before he was sentenced to death for "corrupting" (i.e., teaching) the youth of ancient Athens. Talk about juicy material.

    Anyway, Phaedrus is a prime example of the way Western philosophy ranks speech above writing, and so it's no surprise that Jacques Derrida returned to this dialogue more than a few times over the course of his career.

    Reading it, why not ask yourself:

    Why does Socrates tell Phaedrus that bizarre story about Thamus and Theuth?

    And is Plato using any irony as he writes about the superiority of speech over writing?

  • "The Purloined Letter" by Edgar Allan Poe (1844)

    Clever, contemplative, and darkly funny, "The Purloined Letter" helped spawn a genre that's still going strong. But even if you're not all that into detective fiction, this story is still worth a read. It meant a lot to both of poststructuralism's Jacques, and it's a great text to start cutting your poststructuralist teeth on.

    As you read it, riddle yourself this: do the contents of the stolen letter matter to you, as a reader? And get counting: how many paralleled storylines, repeated events, and doubled characters can you find?

  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1939)

    If you think Jacques Derrida's writing is confusing, wait 'til you get your hands on Joyce's nigh incomprehensible dreamscape, Finnegans Wake (yup, there's no apostrophe). This novel's stream-of-consciousness style builds layers upon layers upon layers of language games into every single sentence, and has a reputation for being the most difficult book ever written in English. Now that's one for the Guinness Book of Records.

    So why tackle it? Well, it's hard to think of any other text that'll give you such a clear illustration of language's infinite differences and deferrals. James Joyce's Ulysses comes close (he just had to go for all the prizes), and some of Virginia Woolf's novels do too, but Finnegans Wake is really the cream of the crop.

    A couple of questions to keep in mind: how do you even start to try to make sense of the text? By letting the "free-play" of the language flow over you, or by digging through dictionaries to follow Joyce's etymological tracks?

    And here's a fun one for a role-play: what might Lacan say about the novel's portrayal of unconscious language activity?

  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1949)

    Here's a play that seriously knows how to handle the threat of meaninglessness. Since deconstructionists and poststructuralists constantly find themselves struggling to remember what the point of it all is—i.e., life, the universe, 42, and everything—Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece is a perfect complement to fretful theory on a rainy day.

    Questions you might consider: if Godot is a metaphor, what might poststructuralists take him for? Going on with the metaphor thing, if we imagine that Vladimir and Estragon are metaphorical "readers," what does that do to our own reading of the play?

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

    Beloved is one of the more powerful stories you're likely to ever read, and you know how poststructuralists feel about power. Toni Morrison throws us into a house haunted by murder and grief, where traumatic memories of slavery and abuse lurk around every corner. Morrison wrote in a Foreword to the novel that "[t]o render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way."

    So where does that leave a theorist who's most interested in watching how language works?

    That's one of the hardest questions we can put to poststructuralism, and reading Beloved is a good place to start. To dig even deeper, you might ask yourself: how might a deconstructive/poststructuralist interpretation of this novel limit your understanding of what the book accomplishes? Do deconstructive/poststructuralist framings of language as power provide any insight into this text?

  • "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" by Jacques Derrida (1966)

    Short, sweet, and to the point (well, as far as you could ever expect outta Derrida's writings, anyway), "Structure, Sign, and Play" is a good place to dip your toes into Derrida's ideas. This is where the structure of structuralism all begins to unravel as Derrida points out the silly way philosophers take structure for granted when maybe it isn't there at all. And by dismantling that, he builds the new structure of poststructuralism.

    Some questions to keep in mind as you muddle through: is Derrida celebrating Claude Lévi-Strauss, or critiquing him? How does Derrida's style contribute to the points he's trying to make?

  • S/Z: An Essay by Roland Barthes (1970)

    Reading Barthes is like reading love letters to literature. Sure, his language gets a little technical sometimes, and he's still structuralist enough to keep thinking up new ways to categorize what he's doing, but, underneath it all, old Rollie just loves to read. Haven't you ever wanted to take a story apart piece by piece so you could savor every last bit of it?

    In his analysis of Sarrasine Sarrasine by Honoré de Balzac in this essay, Barthes divides the novella up into little chunks that show how reading is just as much about re-writing the texts we consume.

    Here're some things to consider as you devour: is Barthes putting more into the text than he's pulling out of it? Why is his distinction between "readerly" and "writerly" texts so important?

  • "What Is an Author?" by Michel Foucault (1969)

    Another great introductory essay, Foucault's "What Is an Author?" won't just tell you what Foucault thinks authors' names are good for; it'll also give you a good sense of how he thinks discourse works. And since this essay is a direct response to Barthes's "The Death of the Author" (1968), you'll be getting a peek at the inner workings of poststructuralist cross-pollination.

    Some questions to keep in mind: how are the names of "authors" different from the names of "ordinary" people? Where are the limits of texts? And how is Foucault's idea not only of the author, but the reader, too, different from the ideas of Barthes?

  • "The Commitment to Theory" by Homi Bhabha (1989)

    If you're bothered by the thought that deconstruction and poststructuralism might really be as nihilistic, self-serving, and pompous as many critics say they are, give Homi Bhabha's "The Commitment to Theory" a go.

    As you read it, ask yourself: how does Bhabha describe the relationship between political activism and theory? How does Bhabha's concept of hybridity critique other poststructuralist interpretations of identity? You might just find something uplifting amidst all the highfalutin lingo.

  • Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (1990)

    If our earlier comparison of Gender Trouble to Jaws didn't make you want to read this book, we don't know what will. Once you've encountered Butler's ideas, you'll never be able to think about pulling your pants on in the morning, or applying your lipstick, in the same way again. It's all a socially invented performance, people. Even the kitties know that.

    Reading it, why not ask yourself: are gender performances intentional, or prescribed? What really comes first—the body, or discourse?

    And if you really want to stick it to the structure, er, man, think about what sorts of acts of questions you have to perform as a socially constructed reader in the 21st century. That should get the wheels a-spinning.