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What is Post-Structuralism?

By Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford


Post-structuralism is a school of thought which emerged in philosophy and the humanities in the 1960s and the 1970s. It sought to interrogate structuralism’s insistence on the existence of universal structures which provided access points to meaning. Post-structuralism questioned the self-sufficiency of such structures and the binary oppositions on which they relied. Todorov framed his critique of structuralism in terms of it being ‘an attempt to transform literary studies into a scientific discipline…a coherent body of concepts and methods aiming at the knowledge of underlying laws’. Foremost proponents of post-structuralist theory are Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva.

Structuralism was based on the assumption that meaning was already imminent within the text, which was composed of a system of interdependent elements which formed an autonomous structure. Post-structuralists pointed out that this conceptualisation of the text relies on the assumption that meaning is transparent and fixed within the text before the reader encounters it. Machery’s critique of structuralism in “Literary Analysis: The Tomb of Structures” (1965) argued that this structuralist attempt ‘to extricate a structure’ was ‘to decipher an enigma, to dig up a buried meaning’ and that such ‘criticism merely produces a pre-established truth’, rather than discovers it. Thus, Barthes argued that the ‘goal of all structuralist activity’ was to ‘reconstruct’ the text as ‘an ‘object’, whilst he and Derrida argued that such an object was illusory; the object is, Robert Young observed, the product of ‘the critic’s gaze…located behind or within it’.

By contrast, a post-structuralist reading would seek to understand the text and the systems of knowledge which produced that text. In a 1966 lecture called “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Jacques Derrida referred to this interpretative strategy as “decentring” meaning, as it understood to be monolithic or singular, and instead suggested that such univocal meaning was always “deferred”, never arrived at. Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author” (1967) argued that the “death” of the author as the sole source of meaning in a text inaugurated the “Birth of the Reader”, whose cultural and social experiences were now considered as informing the reading process.