structuralism, theory that uses culturally interconnected signs to reconstruct systems of relationships rather than studying isolated, material things in themselves. This method found wide use from the early 20th cent. in a variety of fields, especially linguistics, particularly as formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used structuralism to study the kinship systems of different societies. No single element in such a system has meaning except as an integral part of a set of structural connections. These interconnections are said to be binary in nature and are viewed as the permanent, organizational categories of experience. Structuralism has been influential in literary criticism and history, as with the work of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. In France after 1968 this search for the deep structure of the mind was criticized by such "poststructuralists" as Jacques Derrida, who abandoned the goal of reconstructing reality scientifically in favor of "deconstructing" the illusions of metaphysics (see semiotics).

See J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics (1976); J. Sturrock, ed., Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida (1979).

Post-structuralism encompasses the intellectual developments of continental philosophers and critical theorists who wrote with tendencies of twentieth-century French philosophy. The prefix "post" refers to the fact that many contributors, such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva, rejected structuralism and became quite critical of it. In direct contrast to structuralism's claims of an independent signifier, superior to the signified, post-structuralism views the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united. The Post-structuralist movement is closely related to postmodernism—but the two concepts are not synonymous.

While post-structuralism is difficult to define or summarize, it can be broadly understood as a body of distinct reactions to structuralism. There are two main reasons for this difficulty. First, it rejects definitions that claim to have discovered absolute "truths" or facts about the world. Second, very few thinkers have willingly accepted the label 'post-structuralist'; rather, they have been labeled as such by others. Consequently, no one has felt compelled to construct a "manifesto" of post-structuralism. Indeed, it would be inconsistent with post-structuralist concepts to codify itself in such a way.


Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as an antinomian movement critiquing structuralism. The period was marked by political anxiety, as students and workers alike rebelled against the state in May 1968, nearly causing the downfall of the French government. At the same time, however, the French communist party's (PCF) support of the oppressive policies of the USSR contributed to popular disillusionment with orthodox Marxism. As a result, there was increased interest in alternative radical philosophies, including feminism, western Marxism, phenomenology, and nihilism. These disparate perspectives, which Foucault later labeled "subjugated knowledges," were all linked by being critical of dominant Western philosophy and culture. Post-structuralism offered a means of justifying these criticisms, by exposing the underlying assumptions of many Western norms.

Two key figures in the early post-structuralist movement were Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. In a 1966 lecture "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science", 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."

Although Barthes was originally a structuralist, during the 1960s he increasingly favored post-structuralist views. In 1968, 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.

In his 1976 lecture series, Michel Foucault briefly summarized the general impetus of the post-structuralist movement:


General practices

Post-structural practices generally operate on some basic assumptions:

  • Post-structuralists hold that the concept of "self" as a singular and coherent entity is a fictional construct. Instead, an individual comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge claims (e.g. gender, class, profession, etc.). Therefore, to properly study a text a reader must understand how the work is related to his or her own personal concept of self. This self-perception plays a critical role in one's interpretation of meaning. While different thinkers' views on the self (or the subject) vary, it is often said to be constituted by discourse(s). Lacan's account includes a psychoanalytic dimension, while Derrida stresses the effects of power on the self. This is thought to be a component of post-modernist theory.
  • The author's intended meaning, such as it is (for the author's identity as a stable "self" with a single, discernible "intent" is also a fictional construct), is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives. Post-structuralism rejects the idea of a literary text having a single purpose, a single meaning, or one singular existence. Instead, every individual reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, and existence for a given text. To step outside of literary theory, this position is generalizable to any situation where a subject perceives a sign. Meaning (or the signified, in Saussure's scheme, which is heavily presumed upon in post-structuralism as in structuralism) is constructed by an individual from a signifier. This is why the signified is said to 'slide' under the signifier, and explains the talk about the "primacy of the signifier."
  • A post-structuralist critic must be able to utilize a variety of perspectives to create a multifaceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another. It is particularly important to analyze how the meanings of a text shift in relation to certain variables, usually involving the identity of the reader.

Destabilized Meaning

In the post-structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. This displacement is often referred to as the "destabilizing" or "decentering" of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself. Without a central fixation on the author, post-structuralists examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc.). These alternative sources are never authoritative, and promise no consistency.

In his essay "Signification and Sense," Emmanuel Lévinas remarked on this new field of semantic inquiry:


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, which 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 which produce the illusion of singular meaning. This act of deconstruction illuminates how male can become female, how speech can become writing, and how rational can become emotional.

Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism

Structuralism was a fashionable movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s, that studied the underlying structures inherent in cultural products (such as texts), and utilizes analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology and other fields to understand and interpret those structures. Although the structuralist movement fostered critical inquiry into these structures, it emphasized logical and scientific results. Many structuralists sought to integrate their work into pre-existing bodies of knowledge. This was observed in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology, and many early 20th-century psychologists.

The general assumptions of post-structuralism derive from critique of structuralist premises. Specifically, post-structuralism holds that the study of underlying structures is itself culturally conditioned and therefore subject to myriad biases and misinterpretations. To understand an object (e.g. one of the many meanings of a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself, and the systems of knowledge which were coordinated to produce the object. In this way, post-structuralism positions itself as a study of how knowledge is produced.

Historical vs. descriptive view

Post-structuralists generally assert that post-structuralism is historical, and 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.

Structuralists also seek to understand the historical interpretation of cultural concepts, but focus their efforts on understanding how those concepts were understood by the author in his or her own time, rather than how they may be understood by the reader in the present.

Scholars between both movements

The uncertain distance between structuralism and post-structuralism is further blurred by the fact that scholars generally do not label themselves as post-structuralists. In some cases (e.g. Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes), scholars associated with structuralism became noteworthy in post-structuralism as well. Along with Lévi-Strauss, three of the most prominent post-structuralists were first counted among the so-called "Gang of Four" of structuralism par excellence: Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. The works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva are also counted as prominent examples of post-structuralism.

Basically, many who began by stating that texts could be interpreted based solely on the cultural and social circumstances of the author came to believe that the reader's culture and society shared an equal part in the interpretation of a piece. If the reader sees it in one way, how do we know that that is the way the author intended? We don't. Therefore, critical reading seeks to find the contradictions that an author inevitably includes in any given work. Those inconsistencies are used to show that the interpretation and criticism of any literature is in the hands of the individual reader and will necessarily include that reader's own cultural biases and assumptions. While many structuralists first thought that they could tease out an author's intention by close scrutiny, they soon found so many disconnections, that it was obvious that their own experiences lent a view that was unique to them.

Major works and concepts

Eco and the open text

When The open work was written by Umberto Eco (1962) it was in many (or all) senses post-structuralist. The influence of this work is however complex: Eco worked closely with Barthes, and in the second Preface to the book (1967), Eco explicitly states his post-structuralist position and the assonance with his friend's position. The entire book is a critique of a certain concept of "structure" and "form," giving to the reader a strong power in understanding the text. The influence of Eco's book is often overlooked.

Barthes, and the need for metalanguage

Although many may have felt the necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this ought to occur. Much of the study of post-structuralism is based on the common critiques of structuralism. Roland Barthes is of great significance with respect to post-structuralist theory. In his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), he 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.

Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins

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 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University that invited scholars who were thought to be prominent structuralists, including Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan. Derrida's lecture at that conference, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences," often appears in collections as a manifesto against structuralism. Derrida's essay 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 taken to be "play" 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 a sense of strategic agency by laying bare the levers of historical change. The importance of Foucault's work is seen by many to be in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operations of power (see governmentality).

Post-structuralism as Post-modernism

Academics often incorrectly assume that post-structuralists are also more or less post-modernists, but of the philosophers associated with post-structuralism, none have ever identified with post-modernism. Unlike post-modernism, there does not appear to be a core of knowledge which can be labeled as "post-structuralist." Authors who study post-modernism, such as Jean-François Lyotard, describe post-modernism as a condition of the present state of culture, social structure, and self (the Marxist subject or Lacanian I). Thus, where post-modernism exists as a distinct subject of study (describing, for instance, a period or a style), post-structuralism remains unidentifiable.

Other authors

In addition to those discussed above, the following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:

See also


  • Barry, P. Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2002.
  • Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
  • Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. London: Penguin, 1998.
  • Eagleton, T. Literary theory: an introduction Basil Blackwell, Oxford,1983.
  • Matthews, E. Twentieth-Century French Philosophy Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
  • Ryan, M. Literary theory: a practical introduction Blackwell Publishers Inc, Massachusetts,1999.
  • Wolfreys, J & Baker, W (eds). Literary theories: a case study in critical performance. Macmillan Press, Hong Kong,1996.

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