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The Key Characteristics Of Post Structuralism English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3384 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Post-structuralism, a movement in philosophy and sociology at the end of the twentieth century in France, is very difficult to summarize or to give a definition for it. That is because the authors have relatively different views and they broadly rejected the affiliation to a particular group (except, perhaps, the Tel-Quel). Even so, we can see that many post-structuralist texts are responses to the structuralist tradition. The name does not deceive us, because post-structuralism comes after structuralism and it gets its meaning by reference to structuralism. Thus, if we want to draw the key characteristics of post-structuralism, we must look in parallel at structuralism, the thesis of the antithesis in hegelian terms.

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It had been argued by many [1] that structuralism began with Saussure`s linguistic studies which focuses on the concept of the sign. So it will be natural that a post-structuralist movement will be also dealing with the sign and its meaning, but will argue against the structuralist interpretation. Saussure`s sign has two sides: a signifier (sound or mark) and a signified (concept). The relation between the signifier and the signified is an arbitrary one, it is only by current convention that one signifier is connected to a specific signified. Saussure says that “in language there are only differences without positive terms” [2] , by which he means that the relation between signifier and signified is purely structural, purely relational. Also, the meaning of a sign is not established by the relation between signifier and signified, but rather between a sign’s place within the larger system of signs (a language). This definition shows that the meaning can never be contained in the sign. But, and here we adopt the post-structuralist analysis, if every sign has its meaning in terms of its similarity with and difference to other signs, then meaning must itself be relational. If we analyze the meaning of a sign such as “culture” we see that its signified turns into a signifier for a series of further signifieds: non-natural, man-made, historical, etc. Each of these new signifieds turns “culture” into a signifier and yet each of them have meaning only in relation to other signifieds; each of them in turn must become a signifier for a new signified. So, a post-structuralist like Derrida argues, the meaning is purely relational, is a continuous play: relational movement of signifieds becoming signifiers ad infinitum. If we would like to halt this play, we will need something what Derrida calls a “transcendental signified”, that is a sign that does not depend upon other signs for its meaning. Derrida`s lesson in his deconstructive philosophy is that there is no transcendental signified, thus, no discourse can have a final and stable meaning, truth is then deconstructed.

Roland Barthes, in his later studies, also attacks and deconstructs the sign: “it is no longer the myths which must be unmasked… but the sign itself” [3] . And for this he invents a new kind of semiology, different from the structuralist one (which he links with his concept of intertextuality). The task for this new semiology, writes Barthes, is “no longer merely to reverse (or to correct) the mythic message, putting it right side up, with denotation at the bottom and connotation at the top, nature on the surface and class interest deep down, but to change the object itself” [4] . This object, the new object of demystification is the sign itself. But how come the sign, once the basis upon which semiology and structuralism established themselves as methods, had to undergone this change in Barthes`s later essays becoming “the enemy”, replacing thus the bourgeois society? The object of critique for this new semiology (the post-structuralist one) is “no longer the French society, but far beyond it, the whole of Western civilization, unified in one and the same theology (monotheism) and identified by the system of meaning it practices” [5] . So (the answer is), the sign must be attacked because it is involved in a “system of meaning” which underpins Western culture, from its philosophical origins (Greek philosophy) to its modern system of mass communication. Also, we can say that this system of meaning is a result of Western’s philosophic and religious beliefs that they (and only they) embody the Truth. Therefore, Barthes post-structuralist attack on the sign is an attempt to demystify the whole Western system of meaning and for this, he gives an Eastern antidote: Japan. Barthes essay, Empire of Signs, is a deconstructive fiction of a space (Japan) freed from the Western obsession with a clear, stable, singular meaning. The Western sign, always full, attached to a definite signified, is placed in antithesis with the flexibility of Eastern way to handle the meaning. Barthes gives the example of Tokyo, a city, unlike Western cities, that has its centre to one side: the Emperor’s residence is decentred. Here we see another characteristic of post-structuralism, that is linked with the critique of sign: the absence of a centre.

If we are criticizing the centre, we immediately abandon the idea of the structure. Barthes, Derrida and other post-structuralists are showing that the idea of structure is important not only for structuralism, but it also had a crucial role to play in all systems of thought since the beginning of the philosophical tradition. That is because systems are implying structures, but also, structures are depending upon a notion of centre, an origin or foundation from which meaning flows. To show this, both Derrida and Barthes are giving the same example: the literary works where the centre is the author – source of all meaning, the origin from which the literary work derives. Now, if we treat the literary work as a structure, a language system, then it seems inevitable, only natural, to posit the author as the centre (origin, source) of that structure. Just as God is seen as the author (centre) of the universe as the system or structure in religious discourses, so the literary author is the traditional centre of the work as structure. But if we always find centers, that means that all is seen through structures, we have to ask ourselves? is this the way things are, or we just have Western glasses? The two authors are suggesting in favor of the second hypothesis and are linking the myth of the centre to the myth of the sign. The apparent necessity of the centre (of the idea of a centered structure) derives from the idea that the play of meaning must come to an end, must have an end-point (Saussurean linguistics). The centre is that origin or source which allows for the play of meaning and yet which ultimately puts an end to it. The centre is, therefore, not involved in the play of meaning itself and thus not directly involved in the structure produced by that play. Like the author for the literary work, the centre establishes the play of meaning (the structure) but is not involved in that play itself. When we read a literary work we traditionally posit an author behind it, as the originator and the final reference point of the work seen as a structure or system of meanings. Indeed, if what we mean by structure is a network of relational, then it seems only natural that we should seek an origin and end-point, a centre, for such meanings. This centre would act as a transcendental signified, in that allowing for the structure itself it would not partake of the structure (play of meanings) but would be its foundation. But, Derrida argues, when we look for such centres, such transcendental signifieds, we find that “they are always somewhere else” [6] . This means not only that they are always actually outside the structure they apparently stabilize, but also that they themselves have their meaning elsewhere. This is true because when we try to posit the author as the centre of a literary work, we find that we cannot stop at that signified. What do we mean by the author?

Do we mean that the centre of the work is the author’s intention, or his or her emotional needs and desires and anxieties? Is the centre his or her unconscious, or the historical contexts within which he or she wrote? These questions do not get an answer because the author, like all apparent transcendental signifieds, turns out to have meaning only as a signifier for other signifieds: aesthetics, psychology, society, history and so on: “the entire history of the concept of structure . . . must be thought of as a series of

substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center” [7] .

In conclusion, structuralism has, like all previous intellectual discourses, erected its method on the basis of a centre, a transcendental signified. This centre, for structuralism, is the idea of the sign itself. The father of structuralism, Saussure, and all those who developed his ideas in the structuralist tradition imagined a science of semiology which would be capable of reading all cultural sign systems. Such a

method relies ultimately on the idea of the sign and its ability to centre (order and scientifically stabilize) such a method. Derrida’s deconstructive approach and Barthes`s philosophical essays however, demonstrates that the sign cannot function in this manner. Instead of stable structures (sign systems) which can be definitively analysed by semiologists or structuralists, Derrida and Barthes are presenting us the never-ending play of meaning in language. This play of meaning is given a number of names in post-structuralist works: écriture (writing), différance, textuality. The most important consequence of this post-structuralist position is that, without a transcendental signified, the play of signification is extended infinitely, the meaning of signs cannot be stopped, finalized, since there is no centre, every signified is becoming a new signifier in a process that knows no end. Or, in Barthes`s words: “in Japan, as I read things, there is no supreme signified to anchor the chain of signs, there is no keystone… this permits signs

to flourish with great subtlety and freedom” [8] . This is leading to another characteristic of post-structuralism: the reader as a writer.

If Japan (we don’t have to take Japan literally, as that specific country, but as a non-western space were the Western system of meaning is not present) is a text whose signs are not “anchored” in a supreme signified (a centre), this provokes the visitor (the tourist, that means the reader of that text) to become a writer. With no absolute signified there is no privileged meaning, so there can be multiple meanings and the reader has an active role to play: giving a meaning to the text, a meaning that was not already there. This engagement with multiple meanings and the idea of the reader as a writer (not as a discoverer) is often seen as the major move from structuralism to post-structuralism [9] . Today it had become a mere truism to say that texts, societies and cultures are open to diverse interpretations because there is no longer one single deterministic explanation being generated by underlying mechanisms (there is no supreme signified), but this is a fairly recent idea, a post-structuralist one. Derrida`s notorious concept of supplement is based on this active role of readers. It is a great shift from the author’s meaning (the meaning which the author intended to give through his work) to the reader’s creation of meaning, his interpretation of the text.

A consequence of the multiple interpretations view is that meanings can proliferate in contradictory ways, so texts, cultures and societies are no more closed, static systems in which elements are structurally locked together, rather they are systems which are open and dynamic, and there is an infinite place where they can extend.

This change of view has obvious effects on the studying methodologies. In order to study such non-linear, unstructured systems something less than formal analysis is required: “theorists need to be alert to change, divergence and difference and these qualities can only be fully appreciated if analysts remain somewhere near the surface of the phenomena under investigation” [10] . In other words, ‘depth analysis’ gives way to ‘breadth analysis’. The surface analysis is a trademark of post-structuralism.

Another characteristic of post-structuralism is the resistance to the consumerist culture. In this later view, literature is just another branch for industry, books are like soaps: the reader is encouraged to buy books (through marketing), read them, find their meaning, thus exhaust them and then buy another book. Post-structuralist texts (especially those found in Tel-Quel) are trying to resist this absorption of literature into a culture of mass-produced and consumed products. And they do this by removing the author as the centre, by removing “the Meaning” of the text, by asking the reader to be active and by the prohibition of the reading as deciphering. These are not the only political aspects of post-structuralist text. The focus on the multiplicity of meanings against the power of one meaning had influenced in a positive way the development of minorities’ rights in a society and the feminist movements. Derrida, for example, has found that some readings offer a privilege to male perspectives over female perspectives. He refers to this as ‘phallocentrism’, a narrative that routinely presents masculine traits as obviously superior to female traits. In a similar vein, post-structuralist feminists such as Luce Irigaray assert the need to establish female traits on new terms so that any subordination to masculinity can be avoided [11] . These traits can be re-constructed from ‘residues’ that elude masculine domination in the same way that multiple readings of the text can be based on the traces that escape the ‘master’ narrative. A similar approach can be taken to non-White or non-Western identifications. The fight against “the Meaning” and the support for pluralism has also deep political aspects: the resistance against government’s power and aggressions. Thus politically, post-structuralist texts are rooted in a deep belief in multiculturalism, in feminist values and in a pluralist society.

Post-structuralist texts differ from structuralist texts in their focus. If the structuralists are analyzing the language as a system, post-structuralists see the language only through the actual speech “because language always and only exists in social situations between actual speakers” [12] . So the post-structuralists are refusing the abstract and “objective” approach of the structuralists and are moving the analysis to the actual speech to be found in the numerous social contexts within which language is used because, there, important phenomena can be found. And we have to give them credit because the language is always evaluative, always involved in social ideology. There is no innocent, neutral or objective language. For example the word “brother” is used in different social situation: in a family, in a Christian church, in a rap group, etc. In all these situations, the word gets different meanings. Therefore, words are never simply our own but are “dialogic” possessing within them what has already been said before us. This multivoiced language (heteroglossia) is a positive feature of language which dominant society frequently attempts to repress in favor of the idea of one voice, one meaning, one Truth (monoglossia). The traditional, monologic tendency in linguistic studies is similar to autocratic societies where a dominant ideology and singular power are repressing diversity.

Also, post-structuralism has a more historical view, against structuralism which has a descriptive view. Structural analyses are synchronic, that means they are not interested in the history of the object, in its context, and its evolution. Instead, post-structuralism is using diachronic analyses, it is reasserting the importance of history, and doing so, they are developing new theoretical understandings of the subject. Also, by studying how cultural concepts have changed over time, post-structuralists seek to understand how those same concepts are understood by readers in the present. Taking into account the history (from the readers perspective), post-structuralism is notorious for challenging hierarchies implicit in identification of binary oppositions (for example saussurean binary oppositions) which generally characterise not only structuralism but Western metaphysics.

A last important characteristic of post-structuralism is the decentered subject. The post-structuralist texts are rejecting the traditional view of a coherent identity and are supporting instead a illogical and decentered self, a self full of contradictions and paradoxes. This view is, certainly, incompatible with the idea of an essence for the subject and so, it is against the essentialist and humanist approaches. Because the meaning is a result of the relationship between the reader and the text, the reader’s self decisively influences the meaning. Thus, if a subject wants to study a text, he must understand how the text is related to his own personal concept of self. Here various post-structuralist analyses differ greatly: Lacan has a psychoanalytic view, Derrida stresses the effects of power on the self, etc.

So, in conclusion, we can say that a post-structuralist text can be recognized via these key characteristics:

the critique of the sign;

the absence/critique of a transcendental signified;

the absence/critique of a centre/structure/author;

the idea of multiple meanings;

the critique of a singular meaning;

the focus on the reader;


the text offers a large space for interpretation (different interpretations are encouraged);

the idea of reading as writing, not as discovering/deciphering;

breadth analysis;

support for multiculturalism, feminism, pluralism;

the language is studied not at an abstract level, but at it’s speaker`s level (the uses of the language are important);

the idea of a multivoiced language;

there is no Truth;

history is present, it is used a diachronic method;

there are no hierarchies or binary oppositions;

the subject is decentered.


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