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Post-Structuralism

Post-Structuralism

During the 1960s and 1970s in France, something very important was brewing among academics – and we're not just talking about Café au Lait. A group of French scholars, who are now considered figureheads of the post-structuralist movement, started writing post-structuralism theory in ways that would lead to the questioning of everything, including the very existence of 'truth' itself.

So, what exactly is post-structuralism's definition, and how can we connect post-structuralism to literary theory? Let's take a look.

Post-structuralism: Definition

We can give a preliminary definition of post-structuralism as the following:

Post-structuralism: an intellectual movement from France during the 1960s and 1970s that challenged the belief in stable or unchanging meanings and identities.

As reflected in its name, post-structuralism was an intellectual movement that developed as a response to another. So, before we can fully understand post-structuralism, we should first take a look at the movement that came before it: structuralism.

Structuralism

Structuralism is an intellectual movement that focuses on the underlying structures behind language and culture. Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, structuralists wanted to bring science back into the analysis of culture and language.

Structuralist thought can be traced back to the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's (1857–1913) semiotic theory. The theory proposed that meaning in language and, as a result, culture (which structuralists argued were deeply connected) was constructed from a system of units called linguistic signs.

Linguistic signs: a combination of the signifier (something that communicates meaning, like a word or sound pattern) and the signified (a meaning or concept).

The word 'cat' is the signifier. The signified is whatever image pops into your or your audience's head when the word 'cat' is read or spoken, i.e., a cute, furry, biscuit-making creature with pointy ears and whiskers.

Structuralists believed these systems didn't just come out of nowhere – they were human-made. Structuralists also saw these systems as closed, self-regulating, and therefore predictable.

Because of this, structuralists argued the 'true' meanings of spoken and written communication could be found if readers were familiar with the universal systems behind them, such as linguistic and narrative structures, genres, or plot devices.

Now we know more about the theory that post-structuralism is based upon, let's take a look at post-structuralism itself.

Post-structuralism: Theory

Post-structuralists questioned the simplicity of structuralism. For post-structuralists, the idea that language and culture were constructed by humans actually presupposed their unpredictability and vulnerability to bias.

Post-structuralist theory suggests that the concept of 'truth' is tricky – if not impossible – to pin down. This is because the link between signifier and signified is not as fixed as structuralists believed due to the influence of multiple factors.

Person A might associate the signifier 'cat' with the image of a cute, furry, biscuit-making creature with pointy ears and whiskers, while Person B might associate it with a horrible, furry, allergy-inducing creature with pointy claws and evil eyes.

The different meanings Person A and Person B associate with the signifier 'cat' are based on their own individual experiences with the concept it represents.

Because of this, an author's intended meaning and how meaning will be received by an audience can never be guaranteed, and this goes for any mode of communication.

Food for thought: have you ever been in a situation where you were anxious about being misunderstood even though you tried to be as clear as possible? For a post-structuralist, this reflects the impossibility of perfect communication through language.

Post-structuralism, a yawning bat, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cute or not cute? According to post-structuralists, the meaning of 'cat' will never be exactly the same from one context to the next.

Post-structuralism: Literary Theory

Roland Barthes (1915–80) and Jaques Derrida (1930–2004) are prominent post-structuralist theorists who have been instrumental in bringing post-structuralist theory to literary analysis.

Roland Bathes' death of the author theory

Who has the final say over what something in a novel means? A structuralist thinker may reply that it's the author as they were the mastermind behind it. Roland Barthes' essay 'The Death of the Author' (1967) famously challenged this perspective by arguing:

    1. it's impossible for anyone to know the author's exact intentions at the time of writing.
    2. the author no longer has control over how their text will be interpreted once it is made public.

According to Roland Barthes, we should approach literary analysis as if the author is dead:

we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.1

This sounds pretty murderous, but Barthes meant it as a strongly worded critique. He disagreed with classical theorists' tendency to put authors' feelings, opinions, and intentions on a pedestal when analysing literature. Barthes saw this as an old-fashioned and limiting approach that ignored the countless ways a text could be interpreted by its readers and the productive discussions that could be had about society as a result.

Post-Structuralism, a gravestone with a skull and RIP on it, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A grave for all the author's lives and opinions Barthes says we shouldn't care about in our literary analysis.

Jaques Derrida's deconstruction theory

Like structuralists, Jaques Derrida was also fascinated by the structures underlying language. However, Derrida's deconstruction theory challenges the idea that true meanings can be found by logically analysing a language's structure, such as the binary oppositions (e.g., black/white; good/evil; high/low) it contains.

Derrida saw these structures as proof of language's underlying instability and unpredictability rather than the other way around. This is because if the core meaning of a word is dependent on what it isn't, it has no meaning outside of its relation to external influencing factors.

A structuralist might say that we know the meaning of 'black' because we know it is not 'white'. However, a post-structuralist might say that we can also understand the meaning of 'black' because it is not 'purple', 'blue', 'cat', 'guitar', etc, which leads to the meaning of 'black' being dependent upon an infinite web of other meanings.

As a result, when conducting a post-structuralist literary analysis, readers should acknowledge the multiplicity of meanings that can be interpreted from a text and their influencing contexts.

Derrida also argued that binaries in language can reflect ideology in society because binaries often contain hierarchies. Derrida argues that readers should be sceptical of accepted binaries and encourages readers to take them apart in order to examine their parts more easily. This leads to a better understanding of the meanings of binaries within the context of the individual text and also within the wider society.

Post-structuralism: Example

Let's take a look at Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) as an example of a post-structuralist reading of a literary text.

Plot summary:

Jane Eyre is named after its protagonist, who endures many challenges throughout her life. She begins working for Mr Rochester as a governess at Thornfield Hall. Over the course of the novel, clear chemistry between Jane and her employer begins to develop. Perhaps, Jane can finally find happiness, but there is a problem: Bertha Mason. Bertha is Rochester's secret wife, who he has confined to the attic due to her violent insanity. After Bertha sets Thornfield Hall on fire and dies, Jane and Rochester can finally live happily ever after.

Post-structuralist analysis:

A clear binary is set up in the novel between its hero, Jane, and its villain, Bertha. Jane is described as a quiet but principled English woman who is searching for freedom and happiness. Jane describes Bertha, a Creole woman from the West Indies, as the following: 'whether beast or human being . . . it snatched and growled like some strange animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane' (Chapter XXVI).

A post-structuralist reading could take apart this hero/villain binary by asking and trying to answer the following questions:

  • What makes Jane Eyre the hero, and what makes Bertha the villain?
  • Can we link these markers of heroism and villainy to Jane's Englishness and Bertha's foreignness? If so, what does this say about ideology in society?
  • Why is it that we see Jane as the hero/victim and Bertha as the villain/aggressor, and how would the meaning of the novel change if we were sceptical of these binaries?

It is also important to remember that texts themselves may be influenced by post-structuralist approaches.

The novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys' (1890–1979) deconstructs the binary in Brontë's Jane Eyre by exploring what Bertha Mason's backstory could have been and presenting a feminist, postcolonial critique of Bertha's previous villainous characterisation.

Post-Structuralism, puzzle pieces scattered on a table StudySmarterFig. 3 - A post-structuralist reading is similar to taking apart a puzzle, looking at its individual pieces, and questioning how each one connects to the others.

Critique of post-structuralism

Post-structuralist approaches to literature have been hugely influential. However, they have also been the subject of lots of critiques.

Firstly, post-structuralism could be critiqued for putting too little focus on the author. It could be argued that by neglecting the author's life and beliefs entirely, we are also taking away the author's responsibility for anything they wrote.

Furthermore, if post-structuralists contend that there is no fixed meaning, doesn't this also undermine the idea of a post-structuralist movement with its own particular approach? If so, perhaps it could be argued that post-structuralism is too contradictory to be taken seriously.

Food for thought: it could be said that post-structuralism leads to more questions than it does answers, but could this be one of the reasons why the approach has been so influential? What do you think?

Post-structuralism - Key takeaways

  • Post-structuralism is an intellectual movement from France during the 1960s and 1970s that challenged the belief in stable or unchanging meanings and identities.
  • Post-structuralism challenged the ideas presented by structuralism, an intellectual movement that came before it.
  • For post-structuralists, language and culture are unpredictable and vulnerable to bias. Because of this, meaning is always changing; there can be no absolute truths.
  • Roland Barthes' (1915–80) death of the author theory and Jaques Derrida's deconstruction theory (1930–2004) have been influential within post-structuralist scholarship.
  • A post-structuralist reading of a text prioritises the audience's response over the life and opinions of the author. It is sceptical of accepted binaries and encourages them to be taken apart and questioned.

1 Roland Barthes. 'The Death of the Author'. Image, Music, Text. Fontana, 1977.

Frequently Asked Questions about Post-Structuralism

Post-structuralism is an intellectual movement from France during the 1960s and 1970s.

Post-structuralists believe that meaning is unstable and subject to change, leading to the impossibility of absolute truths.

Structuralists believed that truth and meaning could be found in the underlying structures of language. Post-structuralists challenged this as they saw the underlying structures of language as unpredictable and vulnerable to bias.

Post-structuralist research is driven by scepticism of accepted meanings in language and culture.  

The main features of post-structuralism are the beliefs that language is inherently flawed and that meaning is never fixed.

Final Post-Structuralism Quiz

Question

Post-structuralism developed as a critique of which intellectual movement?

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Answer

Structuralism

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Question

In which country did post-structuralism originate?

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Answer

France

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Question

What is post-structuralism?

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Answer

Post-structuralism is an intellectual movement from France during the 1960s and 1970s that challenged the belief in stable or unchanging meanings and identities 

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Question

Why did post-structuralists critique structuralism?

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Answer

Post-structuralists disagreed that truths could be found in language's underlying structures. 

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Question

True or false: post-structuralists believe that an author's intended meaning can be found if a reader analyses the text correctly.

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Answer

False. Post-structuralists believed that communication is inherrently flawed and that it is impossible to know an author's intentions at the time of writing.

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Question

What is the name of Roland Barthes' famous post-structuralist theory?

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Answer

The death of the author theory

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Question

What is the name of Jaques Derrida's famous post-structuralist theory?

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Answer

Deconstruction theory

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Question

What did Roland Barthes mean when he wrote 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author'?

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Answer

Barthes was critiquing the tendency of classical theory to put the author's feelings, opinions, and intentions on a pedestal when analysing literature. He thought that putting a focus on the multiple possible interpretations of a text would be more productive. 

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Question

What is a deconstructive reading of a text`?

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Answer

A deconstructive reading of a text is one that questions accepted meanings and binaries and looks at how this is related to ideology in wider society.

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Question

According to post-structuralists, who has the final say over what something means in a novel?

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Answer

Nobody has the final say as meaning is limitless and always changing.

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Question

According to post-structuralists, language is:

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Answer

A flawed system

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Question

Why is language flawed according to post-structuralists?

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Answer

Language is flawed because meaning can never be perfectly communicated. This is because meaning is ever-changing, there are no absolute truths, and everything is always dependent on interpretation.

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Question

In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre is presented as a hero and Bertha Mason is presented as a villain.


Would a post-structuralist analysis accept or question this binary?

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Answer

Question

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