RELATED TERMS: Postmodernism; Semiotics; Structuralism; Theoretical practice; Method and methodology
In as far as it signifies an intense engagement with language and writing and it practices a non-reductionist, relational mode of thinking, poststructuralism may be of great value in considering the language components of narrative as they are articulated in specific narrative environments.
Metaphorically, but with difficulty, poststructuralist thinking could be translated to other contexts that involve notions of structure or structuring, as in, for example, the endeavour to apply deconstruction to architecture. [It should be noted immediately that deconstruction, while an example of poststructuralist thinking, is a mode of practice that resists being ‘applied’ or being reduced to an application or method].
In the mid- to late-1960s in France, structuralism gave birth to poststructuralism, although, some argue, the later developments were already inherent in the earlier movement. From this vantage point, poststructuralism could seem a fuller working-out of the implications of structuralism, a reinterpretation of the main assumptions about language and society as signifying systems.
For example, Verena Conley (1997: 5), contrary to some received ideas, argues that poststructuralism as a current of thought grows from the sociopolitical and environmental awareness that structuralism established. Questioning the plenitude of the human subject, structuralism led to the renewed consideration of the ethical side of the relation between the human subject and the world into which he or she was born
However, since poststructuralism also seeks to deflate the scientific pretensions of structuralism, such as in, for example, the work of Ferdinand Saussure and Claude Levi Strauss, this idea of a simple transition or unfolding is itself unsatisfactory.
In the course of a root-and-branch questioning of traditional modes of philosophical and linguistic theorising, poststructuralists also challenged other major social theories, notably Marxism. The main intellectual figures associated with poststructuralism are Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, but Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan may also be included under this rubric.
The writings of Derrida in particular pose a challenge to what he regards as Saussure’s presuppositions about the (human) subject and about language. Thus, firstly, Derrida questions the view that language expresses or ‘encodes’ a subject or, more specifically, expresses the (pre-formed) intention of a subject, an intention which the receiver (listener, reader) of the expression can simply ‘de-code’ (as a particular conception of ‘communication’). Secondly, Derrida disputes that speech is a primary or more originary mode of expression of this intention than writing, which is thereby seen as secondary and derivative. Thirdly, Derrida argues that writing, as a body of texts or a literature, does not in any simple sense provide a grounding for objectivity or culture.
Derrida works through these arguments in his early writings, some of which borrow techniques from avant-garde art practices, as practical demonstrations of how difference operates in and through language, leading him to coin such terms as differance (with an ‘a’) and trace and to propose that his writing performs a deconstruction, which is neither a simple critique nor a destruction (or, indeed, annihilation) of the texts with which he is engaged.
Much of the energy of poststructuralism, then, goes into tracing the insistent activity of the signifier as it forms chains and cross-currents of meaning with other signifiers and defies the orderly requirements of a pre-ordained signified.
A useful place to begin to grasp the relationship between structuralism and poststructuralism is Derrida’s (1978) essay, Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences.
Conley, V.A. (1997). Ecopolitics: the environment in poststructuralist thought. London, UK: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In: Writing and difference. London: Routledge, 351-370.
Jary, D. and Jary, J. (2000). Collins dictionary [of] sociology, 3rd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins.
Selden, R., Widdowson, P. and Brooker, P. (2005). A Reader’s guide to contemporary literary theory, 5th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.