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.

Structuralism

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.

1968

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.