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Structuralism and Poststructuralism - Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, And Gilles Deleuze

knowledge signifiers world identities

One of the most ingenious and influential uses of structuralism occurred in psychoanalysis. In Écrits (1966), Jacques Lacan gathered together three decades worth of work, much of which owed a debt to Lévi-Strauss and to Saussure. For Lacan, the psyche is immersed in signification, and psychic content exists in the form of signifiers. The unconscious, as he famously put it, "is structured as a language." Symptoms of psychic dys-function are signifiers, but because the psyche is semiotic in the same way that language is, one never moves from psychic signifiers to a content or a mental object. Instead, signifying reference moves along a chain of signifiers, each of which is linked to other signifiers. All one can do in the process of psychoanalysis, then, is trace the signifying links. One can never reach the "real" that would deliver up a knowable object or thing or reality signified by psychic language.

The other major work of mid-1960s structuralism was Michel Foucault's Words and Things (1966; Les mots et les choses, translated 1970 as The Order of Things). A historian, Foucault argues that our knowledge of the world is always mediated by signifiers. Over time, systems of signification change, and with each new system, a different picture of the world emerges. Each episteme, or system of knowledge, portrays (or signifies) the world differently depending on what kind of signification is used.

Like a number of structuralists, Foucault pointed the way toward poststructuralism's critique of rationalism. His Madness and Civilization (1961; Folie et déraison) reflected the influence of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who shifted attention away from the post-Enlightenment philosophic concern with rational knowledge and focused instead on fundamental metaphysical issues that he felt withstood rationalization. A similar influence came from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose recently translated work was critical of the idea that one could know the world clearly through reason. Nietzsche noted that knowledge reduces the complexity of the world to false identities. His influence is evident in the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, especially in his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1961). Deleuze, in his work in the 1960s such as The Logic of Sense (1969), tries to expose the irrational and alogical elements of human knowledge.

What these thinkers share is a sense, derived from Saussure, that the identities of knowledge arise from and are made possible by differential relations between terms that have no identities of their own apart from those relations. Reason, insomuch as it operates through clear distinctions that demarcate separate identities (of categories, of things), cannot, by definition "know" or grasp this realm of difference. Difference makes knowledge possible, yet it is ungraspable using only the categories of knowledge. Difference by definition does not lend itself to identity, but knowledge consists of identification.

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