Study Guide

Poststructuralism Timeline

How It All Went Down

1966: Derrida presents "Structure Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

In the midst of an international symposium on structuralist theory, Derrida threw a curveball from the podium. "Structure, Sign, and Play" was like a bullet to the heart for structuralism: not only does the paper reveal all of the internal paradoxes and inconsistencies in the practice of one of structuralism's most important figures, Claude Lévi-Strauss—it also introduced American scholars to Derrida's work, planting the seeds for poststructuralism.

And so poststructuralism was born. Except don't forget: poststructuralism hates the idea of births and origins, so be careful when you talk about anything starting at one specific point. 

1966: Jacques Lacan's Ecrits

Ecrits is French for "writings," and this collection gathered together all of the essays and lectures Lacan had written up to that point. The book's publication made Lacan all the more famous in Paris, and drew more listeners to his weekly seminars than ever before.

The Ecrits also gave Derrida plenty to chew on, and Lacan's "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" inspired one of the greatest not-quite-conflicts in the history of lit theory.

1967: Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays

Folks, Derrida is for serious. Who else comes out with three game-changing books in the same year? Together, these texts laid the foundations of deconstruction, and the rest, as they say, is history. Of Grammatology is a long reflection on the writings of the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and in it, Derrida sketches out his theories of différance, the supplement, and writing.

Writing and Difference is a collection of essays that covers much of the same ground, but through discussions on a whole slew of thinkers, like René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Edmund Husserl. It also includes the essay "Structure, Sign, and Play"—you know, the one that nearly caused an academic riot at that conference a year earlier.

Finally, Speech and Phenomena is a book-length meditation on Husserl. Seriously, Derrida never shied away from taking on philosophy's heaviest hitters. Maybe that's because he was determined to rival them all. First Husserl, then the world!

1968: Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author"

After a fellow lit scholar took Barthes to task for writing a book on Jean Racine without talking very much about Racine at all, Barthes drew a pretty bold line in the sand. "The Death of the Author" argues that texts are composite spaces where all identities, including the identity of "the body writing," are called into question by the functions of language itself.

Barthes says that it's language that speaks, not the "author." Only readers are able to hear and understand texts in all their varied meanings. The "death" of the author, says Barthes, makes way for the "birth" of the reader. Tah-dah!

1970: Roland Barthes' S/Z: An Essay

Barthes called S/Z an "essay" on Sarrasine, a novella by the 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac.

But it would take some serious nerve to write an essay like this for your lit class: Barthes breaks down the text of Sarrasine into small fragments that he calls "lexias," a Greek term that translates loosely to "units of reading." Is that how Balzac intended it? Who cares! (says Barthes). It's all about how you read it.

S/Z is a perfect illustration of how "reading" a text involves "writing" it too—Barthes' commentary on Balzac's story takes up more space than the story itself, and has as much to do with what Barthes is bringing to the text as it does with what was already there.

1972: Jacques Derrida's Margins of Philosophy, Dissemination, and Positions

Hold onto your butts, folks, Derrida's gonna do it again. Three books in one year, just five years after his first hat trick? There's a reason why this man's name is legend.

As you might expect, these three texts continue to flesh out Derrida's ideas—which, let's face it, are so complex that sometimes they're practically impossible to track. Margins of Philosophy is another collection of essays that takes on philosophy's biggest superstars, subjecting them to Derrida's hard-nosed deconstructions.

Dissemination is essentially a book-length essay on différance, exploring how easily language gets away from us and refuses to do what we wish it would.

And finally, Positions is a collection of interviews with Derrida, where he talks about his work a little more off-the-cuff (which isn't to say that his style is any easier to understand). Incidentally, it's in one of these interviews that Derrida starts to get vocal about Lacan.

Sigh of relief: he calmed down a bit after this—or the publishers got sick of having him reject every edit they suggested. But these, plus the first mega-burst a few years back, make up what's generally seen as the core of Derrida's deconstructionist project. Except he hates things with cores. D'oh!

1975: Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Foucault's writings ranged widely over the histories of ideas, social institutions, and discourses throughout the Western tradition. And of course, for him, those topics couldn't be separated from one another all that easily.

So. Discipline and Punish is partly a literal history of penitentiaries. In other ways, it's a broad commentary on the oppressiveness of state ideologies and surveillance systems. It's also a commentary on society as a whole. It's in this text that Foucault makes his famous statement comparing society to a panopticon—a prison structure where prisoners' cells are arranged in a large circle with a guard tower standing in the middle. There doesn't even need to be a guard in the tower; prisoners will more likely than not behave themselves based on the off chance that someone might be watching them.

For Foucault, that's exactly how all of modern society works, even in supposedly free and democratic nations. He argues that citizens are compelled to obey the law and to toe the party line based on the fear that someone, somewhere, is always watching. Conspiracy theory, anyone?

1980: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

A Thousand Plateaus emerged as a sequel to an earlier volume that Deleuze and Guattari had published together in 1972: an intervention into psychoanalytic narrative and practice called Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. But A Thousand Plateaus was way more poststructuralistically savvy. Like, a thousand times more.

Basically, like lots of their contemporaries, Deleuze and Guattari were interested in pulling apart the whole tradition of Western thought and putting something different in its place. No biggie, right? With that modest little goal, A Thousand Plateaus introduces their metaphor of the rhizome, and—in a really stylish and weirdly sexy way—is structured "rhizomatically."

That is, the book playfully denies its author's unique identities, and doesn't need to be read from start to finish or front to back. Now that's deep.

1981: Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation

This book is a great example of what poststructuralism can do when it moves away from lit theory and tackles full-on cultural critique. It's a classic for a lot of reasons, but is most famous for its scathing critique of Disneyland, of all things. Baudrillard argues that American culture has become nothing more than the circulation of meaningless signs (Matrix alert!). According to him, when people go to Disneyland, it isn't just to enjoy the fantasy experience—it's because Disneyland's obvious "unreality" makes the rest of America seem real by comparison. But Baudrillard insists that that's just an illusion: in his opinion, authentic "reality" doesn't exist.

1982: Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Rilke, Nietzsche, and Proust

Allegories of Reading contains some of the best examples of what it means to deconstruct a literary text. In the book, de Man performs close readings of writings by men like Rousseau (remember? Derrida was into him too), Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Not names you can shake a stick at any day outta the year.

Anyway, de Man pores through their texts in search of "allegories of reading." Huh? Right—places where the texts themselves seem to be saying something about what it means to read well. In true deconstructive style, de Man reveals how often these authors end up writing contrary to their own logic.

For instance, while Proust spends pages trying to show us that metaphor is better than metonymy, the examples he uses to prove his point are actually metonymic, not metaphoric! Is your head totally exploding? 'Cause ours are. And de Man's all over that like white on rice.

1989: Homi Bhabha's "The Commitment to Theory"

This essay doesn't just argue that "theory" is as good for the masses as it is for stuffy academics (though sure, maybe doing that in a little bit of a stuffy academic way). It also introduces Bhabha's concept of hybridity. Bhabha argues that critical theory uses notions about "otherness" as a crutch, which doesn't do anything good for the people that Western thought tends to represent as being "others"—like women, people of color, and anyone "foreign" to Western nations.

Thinking about hybridity helps us understand that cultures are never totally exclusive, or the same across the board: distinctions between "self" and "other" may be politically convenient, but they're not real. Bhabha is sticking his toes into the waters of postcolonial theory here, and by this point plenty of folks think it's great to give traditional poststructuralism a bath.

1990: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Gender Trouble builds on ideas that you can find in the writings of folks like Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, Althusser, and Foucault. But when Butler pulled all those folks together to show that the difference between "male" and "female" isn't so obvious as you might think, she made quite a splash.

Butler's breakthrough argument that gender isn't natural. Instead, it's an effect of discourse and interpellation. Wait, what? It's not that there's no such thing as biological differences, just that the things we think of as "natural"—women wearing lipstick, men liking sports—are more culturally ingrained than something you're born with. Whew, guess we can all skip football later.

Still, you can be sure this raised some hackles with the whole "gender-isn't-natural" thing. But don't think for a second the reviews were all bad. Although some people say Butler's style is about as fun as a shark attack, think of it like this instead: What Jaws did for summer blockbusters, Gender Trouble did for poststructuralism, feminism, and cultural studies. Talk about a classic.