post-structuralism

post-structuralism
   Post-structuralism is a term applied to a range of positions and approaches in critical and cultural theory, developed in and from the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva and Louis Althusser among others. Poststructuralist theory has been increasingly influential in Britain since the 1960s, particularly in literary and cultural studies. It is a term which marks a connection with, and departure from, an earlier theoretical stance, namely structuralism. Both ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘structuralism’ describe theoretical approaches developed within a diversity of fields of enquiry, ranging from anthropology and psychoanalysis to linguistics, literary or textual, and cultural studies. After, and in some instances before, Derrida’s inauguration of ‘deconstruction’, a reading strategy that does not ‘interpret’ a text but expose its workings and reveal its hierarchical assumptions, post-structuralists in such fields as psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva) and history (Michel Foucault and Hayden White) have decentred the principles and precepts of many traditional disciplines. Most important, since poststructuralist interventions, the human subject is now seen as without an ‘essence’, ‘nature’, or capacity for ‘self-determination’, and is instead seen as being inserted in language and discourse. The subject is therefore not considered the centre of history, and such categories as ‘meaning’ and ‘experience’ are also no longer authenticated by appeals to the individual consciousness.
   The most widely influential work in both structuralism and post-structuralism has been concerned with articulating alternative models of language and subjectivity to those deployed by the empiricist-idealist philosophy which underpins ‘common sense’ ideas. The most influential theorists of language within structuralism and poststructuralism were, respectively, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Among structuralism’s most important premises was that meanings do not precede language but are constructed by it. Its model of language as a structure in which meaning is produced through the differential relationship of arbitrary signs, each consisting of a signifier (sound image or written shape) and signified (concept), challenged the idea that language reflects reality and that words are labels for things or thoughts. Post-structuralism built on this work but made a number of significant challenges to structuralism, which was seen as only partly escaping the constraints of traditional Western thought, notably of its scientific and formalist claims and of its limited acknowledgement of historical context. Jacques Derrida endorsed the structuralist model of language but argued that it still privileged concepts or signifieds. His own analysis of ‘logo-centrism’, forms of thought which are grounded in belief in an external reference point such as God or truth, suggested that traditional Western philosophy and metaphysics has maintained a hierarchy in which ideas or thought are primary and writing is a secondary vehicle. In his deconstructive reading of key texts of Western thought, Derrida observed that this hierarchical division was often sustained by what he termed ‘phonocentrism’, the privileging of speech over writing, based on the assumption that speech directly expresses thought in a way that writing cannot. In contrast Derrida argued that language is a kind of writing and employed the term ‘difference’, a compound of two French words meaning to differ and defer, to describe and exemplify the way in which meaning is contextual and never absolute.
   In British post-structuralist analysis, this model of the production of meaning was combined with ideas from Althusser’s reformulation of the Marxist concept of ideology which posited a new understanding of the human subject. Although the analysis of texts and various types of signification is a key strand of post-structuralist work, it is matched by attention to the subject addressed by, and produced by, signifying practices. As Saussure and Derrida’s analyses of language overturned conventional idealist-empiricist models, so poststructuralist theories of subjectivity have challenged traditional Western ideas about the status of the subject.
   Post-structuralism’s challenge to the idea of the human subject as the autonomous source of meaning was developed from work on language and in the work of the psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, of feminists like Helena Cixous and Julia Kristeva, and in the cultural and historical analysis of Michel Foucault. In adopting and deploying this work, British critics have explored a wide range of issues of power, knowledge and discourse.
   As post-structuralist theories have been adopted and adapted within academic institutions, certain forms, notably deconstruction as practised by some academics in the United States, have been criticized for being either too playful and ignoring the harsh realities of capitalism or for being easily recuperated by a conservative academy. In Britain, where many of its practitioners had or have occupied a Marxist or socialist position, post-structuralism is marked by a more clearly radical theoretical and political engagement and an understanding that criticism is a form of intervention in political and cultural debates and struggles to change existing power relations.
   Post-structuralism in Britain has been an important force in changing the content, form and relationships between various academic disciplines which address, as the stress on analysing a diversity of signifying practices necessitates a reappraisal of conventional divisions of knowledge. Among the best-known exponents of post-structuralist theory and analysis in Britain are Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath, whose contributions to the journal Screen were extremely influential in the 1970s, and also Catherine Belsey, Antony Easthope and Christopher Norris.
   See also: literary theory
   Further reading
    Easthope, A. (1988) British Post-structuralism since 1968, London: Routledge (a wide-ranging, knowledgeable and critical review across the social sciences and humanities).
   TAMSIN SPARGO

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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