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Post-structuralism is associated with the works of a series of mid-20th-century French and continental philosophers and critical theorists who came to international prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. The term is defined by its relationship to its predecessor, Structuralism, an intellectual movement developed in Europe from the early to mid-20th century which argues that human culture may be understood by means of a structure--modeled on language (i.e., Structural Linguistics)--that differs from concrete reality and from abstract ideas--a "third order" that mediates between the two.
Post-structuralist authors all present different critiques of structuralism, but common themes include the rejection of the self-sufficiency of the structures that Structuralism posits and an interrogation of the binary oppositions that constitute those structures. Writers whose work is often characterised as post-structuralist include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva, although many theorists who have been called "post-structuralist" have rejected the label.
Post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and Foucault did not form a self-conscious group, but each responded to the traditions of phenomenology and Structuralism. The phenomenological idea that knowledge could be centred on the human knower is rejected by Structuralism, which seeks what it asserts to be a more secure foundation for knowledge. In phenomenology, this foundation is experience itself; in Structuralism, knowledge is founded on the "structures" that make experience possible: concepts, and language or signs. By contrast, Post-structuralism argues that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (Structuralism) is impossible. This impossibility was not meant as a failure or loss, but rather as a cause for "celebration and liberation."
A major theory associated with Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, that human logic has given to text. Such binary pairs could include Enlightenment/Romantic, male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional, signifier/signified, symbolic/imaginary. Post-structuralism rejects the notion of the essential quality of the dominant relation in the hierarchy, choosing rather to expose these relations and the dependency of the dominant term on its apparently subservient counterpart. The only way to properly understand these meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and knowledge systems that produce multiplicity, hence the illusion of singular meaning.[clarification needed]
Structuralism was an intellectual movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s that studied the underlying structures in cultural products (such as texts) and used analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and other fields to interpret those structures. It emphasized the logical and scientific nature of its results.
Post-structuralism offers a way of studying how knowledge is produced and critiques Structuralist premises. It argues that because history and culture condition the study of underlying structures, both are subject to biases and misinterpretations. A Post-structuralist approach argues that to understand an object (e.g., a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object.
Post-structuralists generally assert that Post-structuralism is historical, and they classify Structuralism as descriptive. This terminology relates to Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the views of historical (diachronic) and descriptive (synchronic) reading. From this basic distinction, Post-structuralist studies often emphasize history to analyze descriptive concepts. 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. For example, Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization is both a history and an inspection of cultural attitudes about madness. The theme of history in modern Continental thought can be linked to such influences as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time.
The uncertain distance between Structuralism and Post-structuralism is further blurred by the fact that scholars rarely label themselves as Post-structuralists. Some scholars associated with Structuralism, such as Roland Barthes and Foucault, also became noteworthy in Post-structuralism.
Some observers from outside the Post-structuralist camp have questioned the rigor and legitimacy of the field. American philosopher John Searle argued in 1990 that "The spread of 'poststructuralist' literary theory is perhaps the best known example of a silly but noncatastrophic phenomenon." Similarly, physicist Alan Sokal in 1997 criticized "the postmodernist/poststructuralist gibberish that is now hegemonic in some sectors of the American academy." Literature scholar Norman Holland argued that Post-structuralism was flawed due to reliance on Saussure's linguistic model, which was seriously challenged by the 1950s and was soon abandoned by linguists: "Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics and the occasional philosopher. [Strict adherence to Saussure] has elicited wrong film and literary theory on a grand scale. One can find dozens of books of literary theory bogged down in signifiers and signifieds, but only a handful that refer to Chomsky."
David Foster Wallace has stated:
Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as a movement critiquing Structuralism. According to J.G. Merquior a love-hate relationship with Structuralism developed among many leading French thinkers in the 1960s.
In a 1966 lecture "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", Jacques Derrida presented a thesis on an apparent rupture in intellectual life. Derrida interpreted this event as a "decentering" of the former intellectual cosmos. Instead of progress or divergence from an identified centre, Derrida described this "event" as a kind of "play."
In 1967, Barthes published "The Death of the Author" in which he announced a metaphorical event: the "death" of the author as an authentic source of meaning for a given text. Barthes argued that any literary text has multiple meanings, and that the author was not the prime source of the work's semantic content. The "Death of the Author," Barthes maintained, was the "Birth of the Reader," as the source of the proliferation of meanings of the text.
The period was marked by the rebellion of students and workers against the state in May 1968.
Barthes in his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), advanced the concept of the "metalanguage". A metalanguage is a systematized way of talking about concepts like meaning and grammar beyond the constraints of a traditional (first-order) language; in a metalanguage, symbols replace words and phrases. Insofar as one metalanguage is required for one explanation of first-order language, another may be required, so metalanguages may actually replace first-order languages. Barthes exposes how this structuralist system is regressive; orders of language rely upon a metalanguage by which it is explained, and therefore deconstruction itself is in danger of becoming a metalanguage, thus exposing all languages and discourse to scrutiny. Barthes' other works contributed deconstructive theories about texts.
The occasional designation of Post-structuralism as a movement can be tied to the fact that mounting criticism of Structuralism became evident at approximately the same time that Structuralism became a topic of interest in universities in the United States. This interest led to a colloquium at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 titled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man", to which such French philosophers as Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan were invited to speak.
Derrida's lecture at that conference, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences," was one of the earliest to propose some theoretical limitations to Structuralism, and to attempt to theorize on terms that were clearly no longer Structuralist.
The element of "play" in the title of Derrida's essay is often erroneously interpreted in a linguistic sense, based on a general tendency towards puns and humour, while social constructionism as developed in the later work of Michel Foucault is said to create play in the sense of strategic agency by laying bare the levers of historical change. Many see the importance of Foucault's work to be in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operation of power (see governmentality).
The following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period: