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.

Post-structuralism encourages one to read not only the text, but also one’s interpretation of it reflexively, constantly questioning and evaluating it. Roland Barthes described this approach as ‘something which turns back on itself’. Barthes and Derrida argued that there was a proliferation of meaning or what Derrida called “play” in the text.

Post-structuralism stressed that structuralism failed to recognise that cultural and historical conditions determining social and literary structures, which are always inflected by the biases of the author and the reader. Michel Foucault’s assertion that ‘power is everywhere’ applied to the power practices involved in the act of interpreting a text which, he argued, was always informed by the reader’s political assumptions. By destabilising the structuralist assumption that meaning was already embedded in the text, post-structuralism demonstrated how the interaction between the reader and the text could be productive of meaning. Post-structuralism demonstrated how notions of otherness and dissonances could enter into the meaning of the text, and disrupt structuralist conceptions of logocentrism (the primacy of the text) and unitary meaning. Ultimately, post-structuralism eschewed attempts to organize the text according to rigid underlying structures which obscured alternative readings, and its influence can be seen in the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, which resist such reductive meanings.

Further reading:

  1. Barthes, Roland, “Death of the Author”, in William Cain, Laurie Finke, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Jeffrey Williams, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 3rd edn, (London: Norton & Company, 2018).

  2. Derrida, Jacques, Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1974

  3. Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (University of Chicago Press, 2021, first published 1967)

  4. Michel Foucault, Power: Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984 (Penguin, 2019)

  5. Young, Robert, Untying the Text (Routledge & Kegan Paul: Boston, 1990)