Some Post-Structural Assumptions
1996, 1997; may be used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.
As is the case with all my posts for this course, this is a working document;
suggestions, arguments, comments are welcome: mail me.
The following are intended to be some suggestions which you should expect to modify, add to, contest, and otherwise work with.
Post-structuralism is not a school, but a group of approaches motivated by some common understandings, not all of which will necessarily be shared by every practitioner. Post-structuralism is not a theory but a set of theoretical positions, which have at their core a self-reflexive discourse which is aware of the tentativeness, the slipperiness, the ambiguity and the complex interrelations of texts and meanings. There may be some sharp differences about what 'post-structuralism' includes; I see a substantial ideological component which others may not, for instance.
Post-structuralism is, as the name suggests, consequent upon Structuralism, with which movement one should have some familiarity in order to understand post-structuralism.
There follow some of assumptions of post-structural thought.
I Post-structuralism is marked by a rejection of totalizing, essentialist, foundationalist concepts.
- a totalizing concept puts all phenomena under one explanatory concept (e.g. it's the will of God)
- an essentialist concept suggests that there is a reality which exists independent of, beneath or beyond, language and ideology -- that there is such a thing as 'the feminine', for instance, or 'truth' or 'beauty'
- a foundationalist concept suggests that signifying systems are stable and unproblematic representations of a world of fact which is isomorphic with human thought.
II Post-structuralism contests the concept of 'man' as developed by enlightenment thought and idealist philosophy. Rather than holding as in the enlightenment view that 'individuals', are sacred, separate and intact, their minds the only true realm of meaning and value, their rights individual and inalienable, their value and nature rooted in a universal and transhistorical essence -- a metaphysical being, in short -- the post-structural view holds that persons are culturally and discursively structured, created in interaction as situated, symbolic beings. The common term for a person so conceived is a 'subject'.
- Subjects are created, then, through their cultural meanings and practices, and occupy various culturally-based sites of meaning (as family members, as occupationally and economically and regionally defined, as gendered and of sexual orientation, as members of clubs or clients of psychotherapy or presidents of their school parents' organization, and on and on -- every site evoking a different configuration of the self, different language uses, different foci of value and energy, different social practices, and so forth).
- Subjects are material beings, embodied and present in the physical world, entrenched in the material practices and structures of their society -- working, playing, procreating, living as parts of the material systems of society.
- Subjects are social in their very origin: they take their meaning and value and self-image from their identity groups, from their activities in society, from their intimate relations, from the multiple pools of common meanings and symbols and practices which they share variously with their sub-cultural groups and with their society as a larger unit.
Post-structural understandings of persons are sometimes referred to as 'anti-humanist', because they are opposed to the Humanist idea that persons are isolate, unified, largely immaterial beings, and that humanity is transcendent, universal and unchangeable in its essence. To be anti-humanist is not to be anti-humane, however, but to have a different philosophical and ideological understanding of the nature of the person.
III Poststructuralism sees 'reality' as being much more fragmented, diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does structuralism. Some consequences have been,
- poststructuralism's greater attention to specific histories, to the details and local contextualizations of concrete instances;
- a greater emphasis on the body, the actual insertion of the human into the texture of time and history;
- a greater attention to the specifics of cultural working, to the arenas of discourse and cultural practice;
- a greater attention to the role of language and textuality in our construction of reality and identity.
IV Post-structuralism derives in part from a sense that we live in a linguistic universe. This means, in the first instance, rejecting the traditional aesthetic, phenomenalist assumption that language is a 'transparent' medium which hands over experience whole and unproblematically; in a 'linguistic' universe 'reality' is only mediated reality, and what it is mediated by is governed by such things as:
- the way language works, by difference for instance;
- the world of discourse which governs our knowledge and way of speaking about the subject under discussion: we can imagine only what we can symbolize, speak of only what we have language for, speak only in the ways our rules of discourse allow us to;
- the workings of the 'master tropes' (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else) of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony;
- the structure of ideology, which attempts to 'naturalize' power relations and our sense of how the world is configured;
- the various cultural codes which govern our understandings of our selves, our place, our procedures;
- the idea that any cultural construction of meaning will privilege some meanings or experiences and deprivilege others, but that there will be traces of the deprivileging or suppression of some experiences, and by looking at the cracks, the silences, the discontinuities which ideology attempts to smooth over, we can deconstruct or demystify the cultural meanings;
- the idea that we think in terms of certain tropes, and construct meaning in terms of genres, so that meaning is pre-channeled in certain typified, identifiable ways, which ways reveal more about their construction of meaning than about any 'reality' beyond the rhetorical constructs.
To put this briefly, we live in a world of language, discourse and ideology, none of which are transparent, all of which structure our sense of being and meaning.
V All meaning is textual and intertextual: there is no "outside of the text," as Derrida remarked. Everything we can know is constructed through signs, governed by the rules of discourse for that area of knowledge, and related to other texts through filiation, allusion and repetition. Every text exists only in relation to other texts; meaning circulates in economies of discourse. This understanding does not mean that all reality is textual, only that what we can know of it, and how we can know, is textual, constructed through discourse, with all its rules; through symbols, linguistic and otherwise; through grammar(s).
VI Discourse is a material practice; the human is rooted in historicity and lives through the body. (Why 'historicity' instead of 'history'? Because the term 'history' suggests an objectively existing, cognitively available reality; 'historicity' implies that what we conceive of as history is tentative, situated, contingent.)
VII In Foucault's terms, the production of discourse, the (historical, material) way we know our world, is controlled, selected, organized and distributed by a certain number of procedures. Discourse is regulated by rules of exclusion, by internal systems of control and delineation, by conditions under which discourses can be employed, and by philosophical themes which elide the reality of discourse -- the themes of the founding subject, originating experience, and universal mediation. Discourses are multiple, discontinuous, originating and disappearing through chance; they do not hide the truth but constitute its temporary face. Foucault is post-structuralist in his insistence that there is no great causal flow or plan or evolution of history, that what happens is mainly by chance.
VIII The Derridean concept of différance links up with Freudian suppositions and marxist ideas to highlight concepts of repression, displacement, condensation, substitution and so forth, which, often by following metaphoric or metynomic links carefully, can be deconstructed or revealed; what is 'meant' is different from what appears to be meant. Meaning disguises itself. This is essentially structuralist, one of the reasons why 'post-structuralism' cannot be understood without structuralism.
IX Texts are marked by a surplus of meaning; the result of this is that differing readings are inevitable, indeed a condition of meaning at all. This surplus is located in the polysemous nature of both language and of rhetoric. It must be kept in mind that language is what is (for us as cognizant beings), that our sense of reality is linguistically constructed. Consequently the 'meaning of it all' is continually differing, overflowing, in flux.
X A 'text' exists as read. This 'reading' is formed, conducted, through certain mediating factors:
- the present structures of discourse, hence understanding, including the present conceptions of the discourse structures of the time of the 'writing' of the text.
- the traditions of reading, and the oppositions which those traditions have made possible, of that particular text,
- the expectations dictated by the genre of the text and the tradition of genre of the reading,
- the relations of meaning which are 'in' the text by virtue of its having been written at all, modified by the fact that these relations have a certain historical existence, a local, situated, and corporeal existence whose reality may or may not be imaginatively recoverable;
- the understanding that these 'historical' relations of meaning will to some extent be mystifying and ideologizing relations,
- the understanding that insofar as texts have a surplus of meaning they tend to reveal the flaws which the reigning discourse is attempting to mystify,
- the conceptual distances between the historical discourse / ideology / cultural codes / genre-traditions of the past and the historical discourse / ideology / cultural codes / genre-traditions of the present, which distance opens up 'new' meanings which the work could not have, in a sense, had before. Post-structuralism is deeply aware of such hermeneutic reading and also suspicious of it, certain that meaning is historical, uncertain that it is recoverable as what it may have meant.
XI At the expense of repetition, let's go again over the sorts of conflict Culler notes deconstructionist criticism (which is a mode of or modes of post-structuralist criticism) may look for [On Deconstruction pp. 213-215]:
- the asymetrical opposition or value-laden hierarchy
- points of condensation, where a single term brings together different lines of argument or sets of values
- the text's ecarte de soi or difference from itself -- anything in the text that counters an authoritative interpretation, including interpretations that the work appears to encourage (this was touched on earlier re: the cracks, silences, discontinuities, etc.)
- self-reference, when the text applies to something else a description, image or figure that can be read as self-description, as a representation of its own operations; one can by applying these to the operations of the text read 'against the grain'
- an interest in the way conflicts or dramas within the text are reproduced as conflicts in and between readings of the text -- Texts thematize, with varying degrees of explicitness, interpretive operations and their consequences and thus represent in advance the dramas that will give life to the tradition of their interpretation
- attention to the marginal -- hierarchies depend on exclusions; the marginalized is what the text resists, and therefore can be identified by.
XII Post-structuralism is consequent on and a reaction to structuralism; it would not exist without structuralism. Macherey's points in his critique of structuralism (1965) lay out some of the groundwork for post-structural thought:
- structuralism is a-historical; life and thought are historical -- they change, different relations with different elements at different times, and so forth
- the transfer of knowledge from one area of knowledge (e.g. linguistics) to other areas of knowledge is questionable enterprise
- structuralism assumes that a work has intrinsic meaning -- that is, it is 'already there' and always there, that the 'meaning' pre-exists its realization (it is already there -- we just identify it).
- structural analysis is therefore the discovery of the rationality or 'secret coherence' of a text. But this coherence is a coherence that precedes the text, or it could not form the text. For there to be 'intrinsic meaning' there has to be a pattern or order or structure which governs and orders and regulates the production of meaning. The text is therefore in a sense a 'copy' of that order or structure which grounds the coherence of the text; analysis of a text is a copy of a copy, the text is just an intermediary between the reader and the structure of rationality, and so it 'disappears'.
- structuralism presupposes the traditional and metaphysical notion of harmony and unity; a work is only a work, i.e. only has meaning as an entity, only insofar as it is is a whole. This notion negates the reality of the material conditions of production or reception, it makes the meaning itself unitary, is makes criticism commentary, a pointing out of the essential truth which is embodied not in but through the work.