Poststructuralism refers to a philosophical, literary, and anthropological trend that was supposed to respond to its intellectual predecessor, namely structuralism. Structuralism was a fashionable anthropological and literary trend in France in the 1940s and 1950s, coined and expanded by Claude Levi Strauss. It was first and foremost a theoretical system in anthropology, which, in turn, had some roots in and inspirations from the theories of linguistics enunciated by another French thinker, Ferdinand de Saussure. So, it is essential to remember how their attention to the role of language, signs, and symbols in human relations helped structuralists build and expand on their movement.
To put it simply without simplifying it, Structuralists like Levi Strauss contends that “words do not have meanings in and of themselves but only by virtue of their relational positions within systemic codes or ‘structures.” (Warms, 646).
Influenced by American cultural anthropology, Levi Strauss also stressed the role of signs and semiotics in our understanding of the words and the world. It is also very important to know that Strauss’s structuralism allegedly provided his audience with an objectivist knowledge of the world (Warms, 646). You remember the postmodern critique of objectivity and modern allegation of achieving universal truth and objective knowledge, don’t you? Yes, it was in response to this very objectivist knowledge proposed by structuralism that the four horsemen of poststructuralism, namely Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida came on the scene.
In this way, Poststructuralist criticism works to overturn assumptions about purity (in morals), about essences (in terms of race, gender and backgrounds), about values (in art and politics), about truth (in law and philosophy).” (Williams, 2005). Understanding Poststructuralism.)
Got it? If not, don’t panic. It’s a lot to take in and it will become clearer as we move through the course and begin to create the projects.
Think back to CIM210 media studies when we studied semiotics and the function of texts and signs. According to semiotics, meaning is derived via an agreed-upon system of signifiers that refer to an idea (the signified), which are constituted in relation to one another.
This video discusses structuralism and poststructuralism in a nutshell.
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it hundred times that poststructuralism challenges any conventional, objectivist, and simplistic notion of truth. It undermines any form of knowledge that could be achieved conveniently through straightforward intellectual enterprises. Poststructuralism has a vehement power to “resist and work against settled truths and oppositions.” It is this power that enables us “in struggles against discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, against inclusions and exclusions on the basis of race, background, class or wealth.” (Williams, 2005). Poststructuralism reveals the power relations, political forces, and social institutions that constitute knowledge and language. Among them, Michel Foucault focuses on the relationship between social institutions and structures, on one hand, and the individual, on the other. His main concern is, thus, to find ways for resistance to power.
Artists have been influenced immensely by the Foucauldian idea of resisting power. Here is a hilarious example all of us might relate to easily:
A few words about discourse
In his The West and the Rest, the Jamaican-British sociologist and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, Stuart Hall defines discourse as follows:
“A discourse is a group of statements which provide a language for talking about – i.e., a way of representing – a particular kind of knowledge about a topic. When statements about a topic are made within a particular discourse, the discourse makes it possible to construct the topic in a certain way. It also limits the other ways in which the topic can be constructed.” (Hall: 1992).
Mark Rozeman, a script coordinator on “The Good Doctor” who was promoted to staff writer, is on the autism spectrum. As he sums up, “Employers want someone who can solve problems. For many people with disabilities, life is a series of problem-solving scenarios, so they’re good at it. This is an industry where the jobs are draining, with constant challenges and weird hours; you want someone with determination on your team. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Despite these attempts to bring voice to the community that is classified as “disabled”, there is a huge gap in the mainstream discourse on ability/disability when it comes to recognising the art and creativity of this group.
All in all, the instances mentioned above indicate a serious challenge, namely Ableism as a discourse of othering and exclusion, and some recent endeavours to deal with the issue. In addition, it shows that even in comparison to other discourses of othering and exclusion, the discourse of disability has yet to receive well-deserved attention from the society: “If you’re going to discuss diversity, it has to be completely inclusive of the groups that really define diversity, not just a select group that is popular,” said actor Danny Woodburn. “It’s popular to say LGBT groups, women, people of colour define diversity. It’s not so popular to say people with disabilities define diversity. But the reality is that disability puts the ‘D’ in diversity.”
Therefore, the dominant discourse around ability and disability favours those who are not disabled behind the camera and in the editing rooms.
In parallel with the concept of discourse, there is another equally important tool for understanding the construction of a topic is deconstruction. If discourse is presented most elaborately by Foucault, deconstruction is explicated by another outstanding poststructuralist thinker, Jacques Derrida.
As a method of research and an analytical toolbox, deconstruction is applied in a wide range of fields in humanities and social sciences, from modern languages and comparative literature to philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, linguistics, anthropology, political theory, history, art theory, architecture, and film studies. In a simple and straightforward definition, deconstruction is a literary and linguistic approach to criticise and dismantle the tendency to think in terms of binary opposition. This tendency is widespread and diehard in a wide array of intellectual disciplines and traditions all around the globe, most specifically in the Western philosophical tradition.
Binary opposition is the principle of contrast between two mutually exclusive terms such as on/off, up/down, left/right. By ‘mutually exclusive’, we mean that we define one term against another, therefore if something is off it cannot be on, so if something occupies one of these states it is automatically excluded from the other. Or to put it another way, each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with the other term, as in binary code: 0 and 1.
It is hard to prepare an exhaustive list of binary oppositions common in our systems of thought. Here are just a few among many:
Yes, you may also add presence/ absence, primary/ secondary, or male/ female. What other binary oppositions you can find in your fields of interest? If you look at all these binary pairs, at least one thing is common among all of them: they are not understood as equal. Young is not equal to old, primary is not equal to secondary, and ad infinitum. There are always hierarchical valorization systems behind them that present one of them superior to the other.
Derrida’s deconstructionsim is concerned with the dismantling of these hierarchies behind words. It breaks down the binaries into pieces to reveal the connotations behind them and to facilitate the possibility of forming new ways of understanding concepts. How does deconstruction work?
Watch the following video carefully. In this video, the deconstruction method is explained by a few clear examples. For example, it tries to find out where the meaning is located: in the text, author, or the audience. Deconstruction undermines all one-sided, dogmatic answers to the question of meaning in literature:
You can deconstruct a binary opposition by taking two steps:
Step 1: identifying an opposition;
Step 2: deconstructing it. Is it that simple?
Well, some might say no! But this set of slides make it easier for sure to do this:
Try this in your after-class activity.
In sum, as we have learned so far about discourse and deconstruction, poststructuralist criticism overturns assumptions about purity (in morals), about essences (in terms of race, gender, and backgrounds), about values (in art and politics), about truth (in law and philosophy).” (Williams, 2005. Understanding Poststructuralism.)
Got it? If not, don’t panic. It’s a lot to take in and it is only week two! we come back to these ideas in future weeks.
Simply put, there are at least two conventional ways to understand power. Sometimes we may understand power as the capacity of agents to realise their will over the people who do not have such a capacity and agency. Sometimes power is understood as a possession. In this sense, the powerful has it and the powerless struggles to gain it. Foucault challenges both. For him, instead, power is something that is performed. For him, power is more like strategy rather than possession. (Mills, 34-5). For Foucault power is understood as an action, something that should be done. This power is a system of widespread relations throughout society (Ibid). In this way, as Foucault puts it “Power is employed and exercised through a netlike organisation . . . Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.” (Cited in Ibid). To understand the ways in which power is employed and exercised, necessitates knowing about the concept of discourse. What does Foucault mean by discourse that regulates power and produces knowledge?
Choose one of the resources below;
How does the resource relate to elements of poststructuralism you learned in this lesson?
Mills, Sara. Foucault (Routledge Thinkers). New York: Routledge, 2003 [Key Ideas: The Chapter on Discourse].
Warms, Richard. ‘Poststructuralism’ in Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. New York: Sage Publications, 2013, 646-8 (Online Publication date)
Williams, James. Understanding Poststructuralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
You have already learned from cited works (e.g. Sara Mills and her overview of Foucault and his systems of thought) about poststructuralists. If you are eager to further your knowledge about poststructuralist’s key ideas about concepts such as power, you may find the following helpful:
Buchanan, Ian. ‘Poststructuralism,’ in Oxford Online Dictionary
Mills, Sara. Foucault (Routledge Thinkers). New York: Routledge, 2003 [Chapters on Power and Institutions as well as Power/Knowledge].
Gaukroger, Stephen and Knox Peden. French Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.