What I Know About Post-Structuralism

Post-structuralism is a branch of contemporary philosophy which sits in our current postmodern context, with its roots in Continental Philosophy (a loose term to describe a wide range of philosophies popular in Germany and France that were in some ways opposed to Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the 20th century) and informed by Structuralism, a philosophy of linguistics developed by Saussure and utilised by disciplines outside of that area.

To me, structuralism is in part an attempt to bring aspects of scientific method (favoured by the analytic philosophers) into theories relating to social sciences and the human. The concept that human behaviour and psychology are governed by a structure of principles that simply need to be uncovered (and once uncovered, manipulated) has been a popular idea in the 20th century.

Post-structuralists rightly criticise this idea, earning them their name.

There are two main criticisms of the foundations of post-structuralist thought. These are that the work of Saussure has been widely criticised and the state of linguistics is now very different than when he was influential. Therefore Post-structuralists are critiquing an out of date system. The second is that structuralism itself has been misinterpreted by post-structural philosophies (and other disciplines that have appropriated the ideas) and the post-structuralist project is pointless.

However their assertion of the inability for any human to discern the structure of something they themselves are inside of, and therefore cannot be objective about is also pretty good.

The reason I like post-structuralism is that while it has criticised previous modes of thought and stated that even if structures exist that determine human behaviour, it would not be possible to accurately perceive them, it has not succumbed to an intellectual equivalent of a shrug in the face of the uncertainty produced by their claims, unlike much other postmodern thought.

Rather they have developed a theoretical language to somehow describe these amorphous moments within social relations that can handle the various and ever changing contexts of human interaction. They have also given us new lines along which to think about social constructs. Indeed it is on the order of a new scale, dimension or direction for thought.

Foucault’s concepts of power

Judith Butler’s socially-constituted gender

Deleuze’s rhizomes

Baudrillard’s simulacra

The following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:

Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard *
Judith Butler *
Rey Chow
Hélène Cixous
Gilles Deleuze *
Jacques Derrida
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault *
Félix Guattari *
René Girard
Luce Irigaray *
Sarah Kofman
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Jean-François Lyotard *
Jean-Luc Nancy
Avital Ronell
Bernard Stiegler


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