On Post-structuralism

It appears that there are few more confounding, and misunderstood, approaches to understanding the logic of the works that post-structuralism. Invariably, those from different philosophical/epistemological traditions and those for whom post-structuralism is a new field can fall into a form of a theoretical ad absurdam argument that post-structuralism in simply moral relativism (a point I will return to in a later post).

A common, and somewhat ridiculous request, that we sometimes see on Twitter is that post-structuralism should be able to be condensed to 140 characters for it to have either relevance or meaning. However, post-structuralism is difficult, but not impossible, to define, with the caveat that in the defining of it we necessarily force a systematicity that post-structuralism may not have. While a snappy tweet that is adequate to the purpose is not possible, a careful and considered unpacking of this rich theoretical tradition is very worthwhile. Over the next few weeks I plan to devote a number of blogs to poststructuralism, focusing in turn on the relationship between post-structuralism and the Enlightenment, truth, ethics, Science before considering the many and varied criticisms of poststructuralism. I hope that readers find these useful.

One of the reasons that many are loathe to define post-structuralism is that the term ‘post-structural’ is really a post-hoc categorisation originally created by American academics to group a collection of post-1968 Continental philosophers and sociologists. In short, it is kind of an academic shorthand to describe a loosely associated group of thinkers, many of whom did not see or define themselves or their work as post-structural. I often have doubts that post-structuralism is really a valid categorisation beyond that of a certain ‘historical’ form. To attempt a definition, however, we have to pay attention to the etymology of the term, and ask what the ‘post’ actually means? Does it refer to an historical moment (as in temporally after structuralism), is it a claim on theoretical succession (as an improvement on structuralism but still within the same theoretical ‘family’), or is it a decisive rupture with structuralism? I think the answer is probably all 3 in that different theorists manifest different aspects of these ‘posts’ at various points in their work. However in this post I will propose that the historical definition, although acknowledging it’s obvious limitations, is the most useful for an introductory treatment of the work.


Prior to 1968, and following the horrors of World War II, French leftist intellectual thought was dominated by two distinct traditions – existentialism and structuralism. Existentialism was the movement loosely organized around Jean-Paul Sartre that argued that the world was absurd rather than rational, and that human existence itself held no specific purpose. In this, existentialism is profoundly anti-Enlightenment in it orientation, Structuralism, on the other hand, is the belief that human culture and nature are related to broader structures and/or systems. In other words, human activity, thought, communication and belief are not natural, rather they are constructed. Furthermore, language is itself a complex structure is constructed of signs and symbols. Tellingly, for structuralists,

Truth is not something we ‘discover’, or can ‘own’, or can ‘start from’, but a structure which society invents.

The most important structuralists were Althusser, Lacan and Levi-Strauss. Basically, structuralism was heavily influenced by both Marxist theory and Freudian psychoanalysis.


Up until 1968, many of the leading figures of post-structuralism were busily going about their work in universities and salons across France, publishing work fairly traditional in scope. One thinks here of Foucault’s order of Things and Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. But France in the 60s was in the grip of social, political and economic turmoil. May 1968 in Paris was gripped by student riots, a general strike, mass civil unrest and confrontation with authorities. There’s quite a readable account here.

While they were protesting many things, what emerged after May 1968 was, to a great extent, the end of the dream of Communism, so horrified were many with Stalinism and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the abuses and barbarity of the Vietnam War, the ongoing horror at the Holocaust and the inability of the philosophical traditions at their disposal to explain, let alone improve, life and social relations. It must be remembered, that post-structuralism is, at some level, a criticism of Marxism as much as it is a criticism of the Enlightenment that thinkers such as Adorno had long argued was a central factor in the Holocaust.

So, at its outset, post-structuralism (if it exists) is an attempt to think about the relationships between individuals, societies, states, ideas and beliefs in new ways. This essay here is a useful introduction for those who would like to read further. In the next blog post, I will provide a brief insight into some of the key thinkers and their major ideas.

On ideology

One of the frequent expressions heard in the context of education and education research is that of ideology and/or the accusation that someone (presumably that we don’t agree with) is either being ideological or conducting ideological research. I must confess to being guilty of this at times as well. In my opinion ‘being ideological’ is often conflated with the quality of research, non-ideological=good research or practice, ideological research=bad research or practice. My argument in this post is that this conflation is highly problematic, because in its most literal sense all research can be seen as ideological to some degree because it is about the intersection of ideas with social relations and institutions.

One of the problems with this conflation is that it basically advances a position that some research (generally that I disagree with) is ideological and other research (generally that I agree with based either on the findings or the method) is clearly not ideological. This position is problematic for a number of reasons, because a) it misunderstands the etymology of ideology and b) following on from a), this position fails to recognise that all research is inherently ideological because the questions that we ask, the methods that we use, the way we analyse data etc are predicated upon ideological assumptions about reality, the world, the purpose of education etc.

One example of this is this article published in The Age, an Australian newspaper, which argued that social science as a discipline is in a dire state because “The very concept of objectivity is scorned in the academy” such that

The victory of theory and ideology is now pervasive in the social sciences, especially sociology and social psychology. Even history is now wrapped in so much historiography, encroaching on the primacy of rigorous factual research and narrative. Communications degrees are now weighed down by useless theory when the field requires rapidly evolving technical skills.

Of course the chief cause of this problem is the university, that bastion of (presumably Left) ideology, has become so enamoured with anti-empiricism and/or anti-realism that we can’t have basic Clint Eastwood style westerns anymore where the white guys are the good guys and the Indians are the bad guys.

One of the things that I find interesting about this piece is that it advances the notion that some beliefs are ideological, and others are not.  In this instance, it seems that a belief in empirical objectivity is natural, and a belief in theoretical accounts of the world must be ideological. Rather than prosecuting this as an argument about whether this is right/wrong (and I clearly have a position on that) I am much more interested in working through how we understand ideology, the rhetorical work that it does and how it is that some beliefs are OK and others not. In short, I think it could usefully help debate if we had a better understanding of ideology, particularly in the context of social media discussions.

Ideology was a phrased first coined, or at least popularised, by  Antoine Destutt de Tracy during the upheaval during and after the French Revolution. It’s originary meaning refers to a ‘science of ideas’, which aims to understand ideas empirically rather than theologically and/or metaphysically. During his life, de Tracy and his followers came into conflict with Napoleon who accused them, as Enlightenment thinkers interested in human rights, freedom, and other Enlightenment ideals, of being “ideologues” because their views were overly romantic, unrealistic and of no use to the real world which demanded military conquest. It seems that this style of critique remains alive and well.

Subsequently, ideology became an important concept for Karl Marx and his followers (such as Althusser), who argued that social, economic, and political theories were the structures, consciousness and set of ideas of the ruling classes. Of course, one of the problems with this position is that if all social theories are ideological, so is Marxism (a point I tend to agree with). In other words, Marxism is necessarily ideological as it advances ideological critique of the ‘ruling classes’.

In 1991, Terry Eagelton in his book Ideology: An Introduction which is framed as a Marxist rebuke of postmodernism, argued that the

word ‘ideology’, one might say, is a text, woven of a whole tissue of different conceptual strands; it is traced through by divergent histories, and it is probably more important to assess what is valuable or can be discarded in each of these lineages than to merge them forcibly into some Grand Global Theory. (p.1)

It is an interesting point, how do we assess what is valuable within the various ideological positions that proliferate within the social world? Also importantly, what do we need to challenge, remove, discard within those positions?  However, what his work most usefully does is set out a list of ways that ideology is employed as a communicative, and often rhetorical, tool. Eagleton argues that there are least 16 definitions of ideology (see below) that make up this text, some of which are similar whilst others are contradictory. This highlights the complexity of ideology as a word, often we may be using the same word but our understandings are so different that assuming word-meaning correspondence is often a problem for discussion.

(a) the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life; (b) a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class; (c) ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; (d) false ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; (e) systematically distorted communication; (f) that which offers a position for a subject; (g) forms of thought motivated by social interests; (h) identity thinking; (i) socially necessary illusion; (j) the conjuncture of discourse and power; (k) the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world; (l) action-oriented sets of beliefs; (m) the confusion of linguistic and phenomenal reality; (n) semiotic closure; (o) the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure; (p) the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality (pp.1-2)

Perhaps the most useful, albeit largely forgotten contribution to understanding ideology was that of Karl Mannheim. Mannheim argued, in his foundational work Ideology and Utopia, that most ideological positions are derived from social life, are quite workable in social situations, and that they may even be necessary in certain ways for the maintenance of that social life. Where things get interesting, is where ideology becomes to an extent unworkable or unavailable (and indeed the inevitability of this), as “The individual is always compelled to fall short of his own nobler motives.” (p.342) and utopian notions of changing social relations are manifest.

Inasmuch as man is a creature living primarily in history and society, the “existence” that surrounds him is never “existence as such,” but is always a concrete historical form of social existence. For the sociologist, “existence” is … a functional social order, which does not exist only in the imagination of certain individuals but according to which people really act. (p.341)

One of the most interesting things about the use of ideology as a rhetorical device (intended as either a Napoleonist/Marxist put-down) is that it necessary appears to operate as a pejorative; whether it be a belief in the scientific method (or indeed its critique), quantitative or qualitative research method, the Foucaultean juncture of knowledge/power etc. Arguing that social science should be more objective is necessarily ideological, but it is also a position that should be engaged with and argued for or against rather than ignored. However, I don’t think that utilitarian or economic arguments are the best way to justify what it is that social science is and should be.

As I read it, everything we believe is already ideological because we are necessarily social (for example, through language). Saying this, however, does not  imply that any position held is necessarily right or wrong, rather that within the ontological and epistemological assumptions of any belief system ideology invariable precedes consciousness. For this reason, I don’t mind being called ideological (of course I am) or suggesting that others are ideological (of course they are). However, I do think that what is most interesting about the use of the term ‘ideology/ical’ is to try to uncover what is being concealed within that rhetorical move. Sometimes it may be a frustration that two distinct ways of looking at the world aren’t reconcilable. I kind of like this irreconcilability, I often learn more form the productive tension of ideologies than I ever do from their attempted synthesis.

On defending shit work

In response to On Reading (Part I) Greg Ashman responded with his post Dense and Complex. While I welcome the debate, and thank Greg for his consideration of my post, I think there are factual, logical and nonsensical problems with his work. Greg’s arguments, if I may summarise, and respond underneath to each one, are as follows:

1. All sociological/critical theory/poststructural work share certain outlooks: ‘In particular, there is a scepticism about objective truth and a disdain for using scientific methods in the social sciences. This is given the signifier of ‘positivism’.’

Unbeknownst to many (it would appear) there is a strong tradition of positivism in both sociology and  philosophy. Whilst I don’t subscribe to these positions myself, the argument that all sociology etc is anti-positivist is nonsense. A little bit of research (ie googling the terms) can simply refute this.

2. While Science and Maths are difficult, New Scientist (and presumably other publications) make this complex work like string theory easy to understand.

Just for fun, I googled ‘introduction to poststructuralism’ reasoning that if this field of endeavour was being deliberately obtuse, you wouldn’t be able to find anything. Here is a screenshot:


Given that there are around 342,000 introductory posts, papers, podcasts, lectures and comic books available for study, I disagree that explaining  poststructuralism has been shirked. There is more than enough for study there, and while I wouldn’t suggest that they are of equal quality, there is more than enough to go on with.

3. The Sokal Affair showed that postmodernism is nonsense.

The Sokal Affair showcases shit editorial work, and I’m not going to defend it. The editors deserve to be called for publishing the nonsense paper. However, as I’ll explain below, this is not a failure of the academic field and/or peer review. Sokal’s paper is often trotted out for rhetorical effect, with scant engagement with the actual details of the affair. Just to clarify:

  • The nonsense paper was sent to what I would call a literary magazine, not an academic journal, and as such was not subject to peer review. The editors read the paper, and asked for revisions, which Sokal refused to do, and they decided to publish anyway. Obviously this was a mistake, and the editors (and their journal) have had to cop the humiliation of publishing a nonsense paper. This is harsh but fair. However, and I stress this, because the Sokal paper was not published in a peer reviewed journal, the argument that it is an indictment of academic work in the area is not a valid inference.
  • Further, Sokal also published a book which ridiculed many post-modern and structural thinkers. This book was enthusiastically received by the anti-PoMo crowd, until a number of problems of logic and fact were pointed out with the work. Here is one refutation. Someone who can’t even get the history of their own field correct seems to me to be of dubious authority as your go-to-guy for slaying the big bad PoMo wolf.
  • Finally, we all know that Science is not immune from egregious errors in publication. These include plagiarism, fudging results, and downright lying in areas such as cancer research. Now I, and I assume most people, would see these egregious and dishonest acts as exceptions to the rule and that the vast majority of science researchers are ethical, methodical and making their best possible contribution to their field. I am interested that this generosity isn’t extended to much of the theoretical work in and around education. Interestingly, I work as an editor on two education journals that publish sociological and philosophical work in education. Both of these journals have high rejection rates because they are rigorous, methodical and exacting. These rejection rates are as high as for some Science journals. If it was ever true that once upon a time all you had to do was mention ‘discourse’, ‘power/knowledge’ etc to get published, it is certainly not so now.

4. Given ‘that taxpayers are funding thousands of academics to research this stuff, it needs to do a much better job of explaining itself’. On the one hand, I think that all disciplines could do with better outreach communication. Broadly speaking, I agree with the second half of that argument, but as I’ve pointed out above, there is lots of (unread) explanatory and introductory material. However, in the spirit with which the comment was intended, over the next few weeks I’ll take the challenge of explaining poststructuralism in a series of posts, so watch this space.

  • My first problem with this statement is that the idea that we can choose where our tax dollars go isn’t how parliamentary democracy and taxation work. For example, if we could decide how our tax dollars would be spent, I’d imagine that there’d be a number of very nervous elite private schools in Australia. Of course,  wishing that governments would spend tax dollars how we would is the stuff of fantasy.
  • Second, each year government funding makes up less and less of the budget of universities, around 45% on average in this latest report. Following the taxpayer logic (remembering that academics also pay tax, so I suppose they could just refuse as taxpayers if tax payment confers some special authority), academics could manipulate their workload allocation on paper to show that they don’t use the government funding of their wage (approx 45% minus the tax that they pay as taxpayers themselves) for their poststructural research and devote the tax-funded aspects to teaching and service. Given the teaching/service/research workload split most academics work under, I doubt they’d have to change anything that they do. Of course, this example is nonsensical, sketched out to show the messiness of the ‘I’m a taxpayer’ argument.
  • Third, given that many of the most wealthy corporations in Australia pay no tax, one of which is NewsCorp which owns a number of newspapers which comment on Australian education, I wonder if the argument is that as non-taxpayers they don’t really have the right to that commentary? Of course, I would disagree with this because a) the status of taxpayer doesn’t seem to confer the authority in practice that the blog suggests and b) silencing public voices in most cases should be avoided.

Ultimately, this post has extended well beyond the 500 words I set myself for each blog post. If you’ve read this far, congrats, and sorry for the length.

On reading (part 1)

The end of the academic year provides academics, and others I presume,  with an opportunity to rest, recharge and spend time with loved ones.

Seemingly it also provides an opportunity for rather pointless Twitter witchhunts, attacks and narcissistic requirements to submit to ‘my authoriteh’, but seeing as how I see this pursuit as rather pointless, I like to spend my time reading. You know, trying to learn more rather than assuming that I know everything and everyone should be forced to acknowledge my brilliance.

So, over the next few posts I thought I’d share with you what I have been reading (and why). Here are the 4 books I’ve been working through this break.Books

The first book is Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time II. As the name suggests, this book is the second in the trilogy that looks at the relationship between technology and the ‘invention’ of the human. In the first book, Stiegler’s thesis was that the the most primitive tools (technology), and the most primitive humans, co-create each other, tools are only needed when the future (time) becomes a concern, yet correspondingly, tools teach humans to see the future. This is kind of a chicken and the egg argument (which comes first…) but Stiegler’s point is that the human (the who) is not the subject of history and technology (the what) its object. Rather, technology creates humans as much as humans create technology. There’s lots of Derrida and Heidegger in here. I must admit, even though I am well-versed in reading post-structural and modernist philosophy, I find these among the hardest to understand. (A note on this: there seems to be a popular view expressed on social media that dense and complex writing necessarily indicates that the work is not worthwhile. This is nonsense, I am in awe of my science and mathematics friends for the complexity of the work that they do and for the years of toil that enable them to do this complex work. I expect to have to study hard to be able to understand this, and I don’t blame them when it takes a long time for me to understand this. Expecting philosophy to be different seems stupid to me.)

In the second book, Stiegler advances the argument that the industrialization of time, affected by technological change and our incorrect conception of it (as being treated by the human) is problematic because the memory of human is being reconfigured. This is because, for Stiegler, technics essentially function as a form of external memory, that remind subsequent generations of how to ‘become’. The problem with this exteriorization, and indeed, the acceleration of this prosthetic memory due to technological innovation (think of computerisation, network technology and Big Data), is that it fragments the world into disconnected events, and in those disconnections we (paradoxically) forget as ‘society’ that which we don’t remember.

As many of you know, I am interested in the technologisation of education, including the use of digital forms of assessment such as computer adaptive tests, learning analytics and the creation of interactive learning environments. What I aim to do is to engage with these approaches that are emerging in schools on their own terms, to provide a critical reading of them in their specific functions, rather than regressing to some technology is good/bad binary. In other words, asking how do they work, as both technical and social machines that produce certain things. Stiegler is proving very useful in helping me think through these things.

I’ll follow though with book 2 (Galloway and Thacker’s The Exploit) in the next few days.