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Post-structuralism

Post-structuralism is a movement of thought in various fields – literary criticism, cultural studies, political theory, sociology, ethnography, historiography, psychoanalysis – which grew out of (and to some extent reacted against) the earlier structuralist paradigm adopted by mainly French theorists in the 1950s and 1960s.

Structuralism took its methodological bearings from the programme of theoretical linguistics devised some four decades earlier by Ferdinand de Saussure. This work was rediscovered by structuralist thinkers who proceeded to apply his ideas to a range of social and cultural phenomena exhibiting a language-like (systemic) character. Thus, in each of the above-mentioned disciplines, the aim was to break with an existing (empirical or case-by-case) treatment of the innumerable narratives, myths, rituals, social practices, ideologies, case-histories, cultural patterns of belief, etc., and to focus rather on the underlying structure – the depth-logic of signification – which promised to fulfil Saussure’s great dream of a unified general semiology. Such would be the structuralist key to all mythologies, one that explained how such a massive (empirically unmanageable) range of cultural phenomena could be brought within the compass of a theory requiring only a handful of terms, concepts, distinctions and logical operators.

 

Thus structuralist thinking most often went along with a strain of theoretical anti-humanism which defined itself squarely against such earlier “subject-centred” movements of thought as phenomenology and existentialism. In this respect, and others, there is a clear continuity between structuralism and post-structuralism. Indeed, there has been much debate among theorists as to how we should construe the “post-“ prefix, whether in the strong sense (“superseding and displacing the structuralist paradigm”) or simply as a matter of chronological sequence (“developing and extending the structuralist approach in certain new directions”).

 

The “post-“ in “post-structuralism” is perhaps best understood – by analogy with other such formations, among them “postmodernism,” “post-Marxism,” and more lately “post-feminism” – as making a widespread movement of retreat from earlier positions more directly aligned with the project of political emancipation and critique. However, post-structuralism does lay claim to its own kind of radical politics, one that envisages a “subject-in-process” whose various shifting positions within language or discourse cannot be captured by any theory (structuralist, Marxist, feminist or whatever) premised on old-style “enlightenment” ideas of knowledge and truth. In the late writing of a post-structuralist like Roland Barthes, it became a high point of post-structuralist principle (deriving from the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan) that the unconscious was “structured like a language,” that its workings were by very definition inaccessible to conscious thought, and that the human subject was irreparably split between a specular realm of false (“imaginary”) ego-identification and a symbolic realm where its “identity” consisted of nothing more than a series of shifting, discursively produced subject-positions. Then again, post-structuralists have been much influenced by Michel Foucault’s sceptical genealogies of knowledge, his arguing that “truth” is always and everywhere a product of vested power-interests, so that different regimes of “power-knowledge” give rise to various disciplinary techniques or modes of subjectively internalised surveillance and control. These ideas are presented as a marking a break – a radical break – with the concepts and values of a humanist discourse which concealed its own will-to-power by fostering the illusion of autonomous freedom and choice.

 

So the claim is that post-structuralism affords a potentially liberating space, a space of “plural,” “decentred,” multiple or constantly destabilised subject-positions where identities can no longer be defined according to such old “essentialist” notions as gender or class-affiliation. For some theorists, it points the way towards a politics that acknowledges the sheer range and variety of present-day social interests. In their view, we should think – post-structuralist terms – of subjects as “dispersed” over a range of multiple positions, discourses, sites of struggle, etc., with nothing (least of all some grand “totalizing” theory) that would justify their claim to speak on behalf of this or that oppressed class or interest-group. Still there is a problem when it comes to explaining how anyone could make a reasoned or principled choice in such matters if every such “choice” were indeed just a product of the subject’s particular mode of insertion into a range of pre-existing discourses.

 

In Barthes’ later work it is the very act of writing, exemplified in certain avant-garde literary texts, that is thought of as somehow accomplishing the break with oppressive (naturalised or realist) norms, and thus heralding a new dispensation where identity and gender are no longer fixed by the grim paternal law of bourgeois “classical realism.” Such ideas have a certain heady appeal when compared with the bleak message conveyed by theorists such as Foucault and Lacan. Nevertheless, they are open to the same objection: that the subject remains (in Lacan’s phrase) a mere “plaything” of language or discourse, and that reality likewise becomes just an optional construct out of various signifying codes and conventions.

 

One result – as seen in post-structuralist approaches to historiography and the social sciences – is a blurring of the crucially important line between fictive discourse (novels, stories, imaginary scenarios of various kinds) and those other kinds of narrative that aim to give a truthful account of past or present events.

 

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Could we see something of parallel nature within the context of treating patients where the medical discourse is no more truthful than the non-scientific narrative account of the patients no-medical life history?

 

That confusion of realms is carried yet further in the writing of postmodernist thinkers like Jean Baudrillard who argue – largely on the same premiss – that we now inhabit a world of ubiquitous mass-media simulation where the very idea of a reality “behind appearances” must be seen as belonging to a byegone age of naïve Englightenment beliefs.

 


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