Post-structuralism refers to the intellectual developments in continental philosophy and critical theory that were outcomes of twentieth-century French philosophy. The prefix "post" refers to the fact that many contributors such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva were former structuralists who, after abandoning structuralism, became quite critical of it. In direct contrast to structuralism's claims of culturally independent meaning, post-structuralists typically view culture as inseparable from meaning.

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.[1] Second, very few people have willingly accepted the label 'post-structuralist'; rather, they have been labeled as such by others. Therefore no one has felt compelled to construct a 'manifesto' of post-structuralism.[2] Thus the exact nature of post-structuralism and whether it can be considered a single philosophical movement is debated. It has been pointed out that the term is not widely used in Europe (where most supposedly "post-structuralist" theory originates) and that the concept of a post-structuralist theoretical paradigm is largely the invention of American academics and publishers.


What is shared is a suspicion of the universal structures that were the object of structuralist study. While post-structuralists still employ methods gleaned from structuralism, they no longer share the structuralists certainty in the ability to reveal the defining structures of society (Claude Levi-Strauss), narrative (Vladimir Propp) or the mind (Sigmund Freud). Even linguistics, the basis for structuralism in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure has undergone a major revision since his time.


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 Michel 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"[3], 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 center, Derrida described this "event" as a kind of "play."

American roots

Some of the ideas of poststructuralism were anticipated by the philosophy of the school of New Criticism, a group of twentieth century literary critics who sought to read literary texts removed from historical or biographical contexts. New Criticism dominated American literary criticism during the forties, fifties and sixties. The crucial New Critical precept of the "Intentional Fallacy" declares that a poem does not belong to its author; rather, "it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public." William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote this in 1946, decades before Barthes' essay. ("The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. (University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 3-18.) New Criticism differs significantly from Poststructuralism, however, in that it attempts to arrive at more authoritative interpretations of 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 Jacques 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 humor, 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.

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

… For the last ten or fifteen years, the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something… beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.

Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976, tr. David Macey[4]


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 Foucault stresses the effects of power on the self.
  • The meaning the author intended 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:

… language refers to the position of the listener and the speaker, that is, to the contingency of their story. To seize by inventory all the contexts of language and all possible positions of interlocutors is a senseless task. Every verbal signification lies at the confluence of countless semantic rivers. Experience, like language, no longer seems to be made of isolated elements lodged somehow in a Euclidean space… [Words] signify from the "world" and from the position of one who is looking.

Lévinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller[5]


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 structure a given text. Such binary pairs could include male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional.

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.

A good example of this is a close reading of the Dylan Thomas poem, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London," that incorporates the line "After the first death there is no other." A deconstructionist will view this as widely open: Since there is a "first death," there is the implication that there will be another, yet Thomas contradicts himself in the line by saying "there is no other." Deconstructionists assert that this shows "discontinuity" in the line. This discontinuity points out that the language has a "slipperiness" which makes precise interpretation impossible. Meaning, therefore, is equally in the hands of the reader and the author.


Although many may have felt the necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this was 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.

Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism

Post-structuralism may be understood as a critical response to the basic assumptions of 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 twentieth-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 linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the views of historical (diachronic) and descriptive (synchronic) theories of language. From this basic distinction, post-structuralist studies often re-introduce the historical element to analyze descriptive, diachronic concepts. The re-introduction of the historical element serves to destabilize the fixed meanings applied by structuralist categories. Michel Foucault's works, such as Madness and Civilization, which examines the history and cultural attitudes about madness, is a good example of poststructuralist analysis.

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.

Many of those who began from the perspective that texts could be interpreted based solely on the cultural and social structures came to believe that the reader's culture and society shared an equal part in the interpretation of a piece.

Death of the author

Though Barthes was originally a structuralist, during the 1960s he grew increasingly favorable to post-structuralist views. In 1968, Barthes published “The Death of the Author” in the American journal Aspen. The essay later appeared in an anthology of his essays, Image-Music-Text (1977), a book that also included "From Work To Text." In it he declared 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 essay, Barthes criticizes the reader's tendency to consider aspects of the author’s identity—his political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes—to distill meaning from his work. In this critical schematic, the experiences and biases of the author serve as its definitive “explanation.” For Barthes, this is a tidy, convenient method of reading and is sloppy and flawed: “To give a text an Author” and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it “is to impose a limit on that text.” Readers must separate a literary work from its creator in order to liberate it from interpretive tyranny (a notion similar to Erich Auerbach’s discussion of narrative tyranny in Biblical parables), for each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings. In a famous quotation, Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, declaring that a “text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations,” drawn from “innumerable centers of culture,” rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, or community of readers as Stanley Fish would point out, rather than the “passions” or “tastes” of the writer; “a text’s unity lies not in its origins,” or its creator, “but in its destination,” or its audience.

No longer the focus of creative influence, the author is merely a “scriptor” (a word Barthes uses expressly to disrupt the traditional continuity of power between the terms “author” and “authority”). The scriptor exists to produce but not to explain the work and “is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, [and] is not the subject with the book as predicate.” Every work is “eternally written here and now,” with each re-reading, because the “origin” of meaning lies exclusively in “language itself” and its impressions on the reader.

Barthes notes that the traditional critical approach to literature raises a thorny problem: how can we detect precisely what the writer intended? His answer is that we cannot. He introduces this notion in the epigraph to the essay, taken from Honoré de Balzac’s story Sarrasine (a text that receives a more rigorous close-reading treatment in his influential post-structuralist book S/Z), in which a male protagonist mistakes a castrato for a woman and falls in love with her. When, in the passage, the character dotes over her perceived womanliness, Barthes challenges his own readers to determine both who is speaking, and what is said. “Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? … We can never know.” Writing, “the destruction of every voice,” defies adherence to a single interpretation or perspective.

Barthes’s articulation of the death of the author is, however, the most radical and most drastic recognition of this severing of authority and authorship. Instead of discovering a “single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God),” readers of text discover that writing, in reality, constitutes “a multi-dimensional space,” which cannot be “deciphered,” only “disentangled.” “Refusing to assign a ‘secret,’ ultimate meaning” to text “liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.” The implications of Barthes’s radical vision of critical reading are indicative of the inherently political nature of this vision, which reverses the balance of authority and power between author and reader. Like the dethroning of a monarchy, the “death of the author” clears political space for the multi-voiced populace at large, ushering in the long-awaited “birth of the reader.”

Michel Foucault also addresses the subject of the author in critical interpretation in a response to Barthes's death of the author theory. In his 1979 essay "What is an Author?," he argues for the term "author function," which essentially fills what some critics see as the void left by Barthes's theory.

Post-structuralism as Post-modernism

It is also often claimed that post-structuralists are also more or less self-consciously post-modernists, but no small number of those so designated have expressed consternation at these terms, or even consciously identified themselves as modernists. It is beyond dispute that arguments between those described as post-structuralists were at least as strident as their objections to structuralism. Therefore, unlike postmodernism, there does not appear to be a core of knowledge which can be labeled as 'post-structuralist'.

Contemporary trends in usage seem to employ the term less, rather than to engage with a specific body of scholarship, as there is no unified post-structuralist position with which to engage. The term is also used as shorthand for what is seen as a radicalization of the French, academic left—and its American cousins—following the failure of the May 1968 French-student protests to produce a much-hoped-for revolution. This aspect also has some institutional context: many figures associated with post-structuralism were associated with the University of Paris VIII Vincennes in the northern Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, established as part of the reorganization of the French university system in general, and the Sorbonne in particular, either serving on its faculty or as formal and informal advisers on matters of faculty and pedagogy.

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


  1. Jacques Derrida, Kamuf, Peggy (ed.) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991), 271-276 ISBN 0745009913
  2. Stuart C. Aitken and Gill Valentine. Approaches to Human Geography. (London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif. : SAGE, 2006), 122-135 ISBN 0761942629
  3. Jacques Derrida, "Writing and Difference," trans. Alan Bass. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science" Retrieved November 7, 2007.
  4. Michel Foucault. Society Must be Defended, trans. David Macey. (Picador, NY: Bertani, Mauro & Fontana, Alessandro (eds.) 2003. ISBN 9780312203184)
  5. Emmanuel Lévinas. Humanism of the Other. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003 ISBN 9780252028403), 11-12.


  • Aitken, Stuart C. and Gill Valentine. Approaches to Human Geography. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2006, ISBN 0761942629
  • Barry, P. Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002. ISBN 0719043255
  • Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. New York: Noonday Press, 1968. ISBN 9780374521462
  • Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. London: Penguin, 1998. ISBN 0631202714
  • Derrida, Jacques, with Peggy Kamuf, (ed.) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991. ISBN 0745009913
  • Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge,
  • Eagleton, T. Literary theory: an introduction. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1983. ISBN 9780816612383
  • Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended, trans. David Macey. Picador, NY: Bertani, Mauro & Fontana, Alessandro (eds.) 2003. ISBN 9780312203184
  • Lévinas, Immanuel. Humanism of the Other. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003 ISBN 9780252028403
  • Matthews, E. Twentieth-Century French Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0192892487
  • Ryan, M. Literary theory: a practical introduction. MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1999. ISBN 0631172750
  • Wolfreys, J. & W. Baker, (eds). Literary theories: a case study in critical performance. Macmillan Press, 1996. ISBN 0814712940

External links

All links retrieved May 26, 2015.


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