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Structuralism and Poststructuralism


Derrida's work launched a new intellectual movement called poststructuralism. If structuralism searched for the invariant structures of language and culture, poststructuralism was more concerned with criticizing the rationalist impulse that animated the structuralist undertaking. The impact of his work was immediate and profound. Structuralists like Barthes and Kristeva shifted their focus to the alogical and prerational dimension of literary texts. In S/Z (1970), Barthes examines a tale by Honoré de Balzac from the perspective of the multiple codes that go into its making; in Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Kristeva notices the conflict in texts between a symbolic level associated with logic and meaning and a semiological level that is prerational.

Derrida's contention that the world is itself differential led many thinkers to apply his ideas to such social issues as feminism. The two most noteworthy practitioners of deconstructive feminism were Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray.

In The Newly Born Woman (1975), Cixous examines the traditional way in which men and women are characterized in Western culture. She suggests that men are associated with reason, identity, truth, and logic and women with unreason, difference, falsity, and hysteria. Cixous argues that this social and philosophical system is deconstructed by certain kinds of avant-garde writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf who write in a way that undermines traditional rationalist assumptions. Their writing is deliberately alogical and semantically generative. It works through horizontal linkages along a differential chain of semiotic connections that obey no rationalist logic. Cixous calls this "feminine writing" because it accords with the traditional negative way of characterizing women. Following Derrida, she argues that a deconstructive strategy in regard to the patriarchal tradition would deliberately inhabit its terms and reveal their subversion from within. If différance does inhabit and make possible the categorical identities of patriarchy, then its undoing consists of revealing that différance and undermining the authority of those categories.

Luce Irigaray argues in Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) and This Sex Which Is Not One (1977) that in Western philosophy woman have been portrayed as matter, body, fluidity, boundarylessness, irrationality, artificiality, and the like. Women are the opposite or mirror image (hence speculum) of men, who are assigned reason, truth, and authenticity. Male philosophic speculation abstracts from concrete particularity and bodily materiality when it resorts to metaphysical concepts and categories such as "being," "becoming," "truth," and "infinity." The attempt to transcend matter is quintessentially male. In pursuing such speculative philosophy, men have sought to separate themselves from matter and from mater, that is, from their own links through their mothers to physical life and to material fluidity. Men must separate from their bloody origin in the mother's body and elevate themselves above such matter if they are to attain a psychic identity predicated on masculine principles and ideals. The subordination of women is thus both a psychic and a philosophical necessity and process. Men take matter as an object of speculative knowledge and thereby gain control over physical processes that threaten to overwhelm and overpower male identity. Those processes must remain outside male reason and never accommodate themselves to its categories. Irigaray thus ends up arguing for female separatism.

Jean François Lyotard pursues the poststructuralist argument in books such as The Postmodern Condition (1979) and The Differend (1983). Lyotard argues that knowledge and discourse are inseparable. The traditional stories or narratives about the world have been transformed in what he calls the postmodern era. The classic narratives of the Enlightenment such as liberal humanism and Marxism no longer provide a convincing or accurate account of the world. They have been replaced by a proliferation of micro-narratives. In a world dominated by corporations, especially, what counts as true is increasingly determined by the financial and technical requirements of those with economic power. Lyotard sees society as consisting of contending stories about the world, no one of which is in itself more true than another. Each person or group must work rhetorically to convince others of the truth of their own particular discourse. Social life is an ongoing discussion in which people seek to make their perspective and their story dominant. Totalitarianism consists of abolishing this free play of discussion by establishing a consensus that silences further discussion.

One of the most innovative French poststructuralists, Jean Baudrillard, began as a structuralist sociologist interested in the way the semiotic regimes of advertising shape and categorize reality. Baudrillard has since that early work on "consumer society" been preoccupied with the power of cultural representations to become lived reality. Initially, this meant for him the power of advertising images to shape social identities and to impose modes of behavior. By "being a Marlboro man," one adopted a cultural sign and adapted one's behavior to the code it implied and imposed. In that code, to become the bearer of certain signs (smoking cigarettes, for example) is tantamount to assuming a particular social identity. The code shapes and determines reality through the operation of both cultural and behavioral signs. Baudrillard's understanding of this process becomes more pronouncedly pessimistic over time. From Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) to "Simulacra and Simulations" (1981), he argues that the media have become so powerful that simulated realities have now replaced actual reality. This hyperreality is a perfect imitation of reality, much as Disneyland aspires to be a totally enclosed universe of its own, created through the manipulation of signs. At his most provocative, Baudrillard argues that something like the first Gulf War "did not take place." Its "reality" was so mediated and constructed by images that in effect it occurred in hyper-reality. The real, in other words, can be shaped to be whatever those with economic, political, and cultural power want it to be.

While there are significant differences between structuralism and poststructuralism, the two movements share a concern with signs and with the power of sign systems both in the field of human knowledge and in the field of culture and society. The structuralists moved from examining the operations of sign systems to understanding their role in human society. The poststructuralists furthered that undertaking by studying the way signs operate to misrepresent the world and to underwrite social power.


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Originally published in French, 1957.

——. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Originally published in French, 1970.

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1988. Contains "Simulacra and Simulations" (1981).

——. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage Publications, 1993. Originally published in French, 1976.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Originally published in French, 1969.

——. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Originally published in French, 1961.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Originally published in French, 1967.

——. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Translated by David B. Allison. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973. Originally published in French, 1967.

——. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Originally published in French, 1967.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Pantheon, 1965. Originally published in French, 1964.

——. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1971. Translation of Les mots et les choses, 1966.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Originally published in French, 1974.

——. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catharine Porter. N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Originally published in French, 1977.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. Originally published in French, 1974.

——. Semeiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. Originally published in French, 1966.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon, 1969. Originally published in French, 1949.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Differend: Phases in Dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Originally published in French, 1983.

——. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Originally published in French, 1979.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Originally published 1916.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Originally published in French, 1971.

Michael Ryan

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsStructuralism and Poststructuralism - Saussure And Structuralism, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, And Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida And Deconstruction