From Structuralism to Post-Structuralism

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

From Structuralism to Post-Structuralism

In the late 1960s, some of the main assumptions of structuralist methodology were subjected to a variety of critiques, which have collectively come to be known as post-structuralism.

Many of the thinkers now identified with post-structuralism remained indebted to the insights of Saussure’s linguistics, but sought critically to expand its range of possibilities.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida playfully extended Saussure’s concept of linguistic difference, reformulating it as différance. Derrida’s pun combines the senses “to differ” and “to defer”, suggesting not only that meaning is determined negatively through a process of linguistic differentiation, as Saussure had argued, but also that:


Meaning might be ceaselessly deferred along a signifying chain … cog-dog-log … without any possibility of an ultimate destination.

Derrida’s delivery of his essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in Baltimore in 1966 is often cited as the moment when post-structuralism first emerged as a challenge to foregoing assumptions of structuralist criticism.


Structure - or rather the structurality of structure - although it has always been at work, has always been neutralized or reduced by the process of giving it a centre or of referring it to a point of presence, a fixed point or origin.

Derrida does not reject the vocabulary of structuralism outright but seeks instead to avoid the neutralization of its radical potential.

Derrida’s essay constituted part of a varied critique of the ruling logocentrism of the Western philosophical tradition. Logocentrism takes its name from Logos (the Word of God) and refers to a hermeneutic tradition based on the search for absolute meaning, authority, origin and teleology, grounded in the assumption that language and reality are transparent to one another — that nothing gets “lost in translation” when moving between words and the reality they are taken to represent. Such assumptions tended to ignore the way in which linguistic meaning can slip and slide away from itself.

Derrida’s critique of logocentrism, by contrast, is often seen as a celebration of indeterminacy, interpretative play and multiplicity. His Of Grammatology (1967) offers a sustained interrogation, or “deconstruction”, of the work of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, and Writing and Difference (1967) contains essays on Hegel, Freud and Foucault.


Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” (1968) marked his own break with structuralism, culminating in a radical challenge to traditional accounts of human subjectivity. In this essay, Barthes argued that:


It is language which speaks, not the author.

Barthes re-situated the author as an effect, rather than a cause, of discourse. Authors don’t produce texts; rather, texts “produce” authors. Barthes marked his debt to Saussure, noting that: “linguistics has recently provided the destruction of the Author with a valuable analytical tool by showing that the whole of the enunciation is an empty process”.

His arguments also recall Derrida’s, insofar as Barthes identified the figure of the “author” in traditional criticism as a means of limiting interpretative possibilities by encouraging critics to search for a single, theological meaning: the message of the “Author-God”.

Marxist Literary TheoryImage

We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.

Barthes was interested in “liberating” the text from the straightjacket of traditionalist criticism, allowing for a proliferation of interpretative possibilities.

Other thinkers identified with the displacement of structuralism included Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), Luce Irigaray (b. 1930), Jean-François Lyotard (1924—98) and Jean Baudrillard (1929—2007). This intellectual current is notable for its iconoclastic interrogation of “grand narratives”, such as humanism and Marxism. Lyotard’s The Post-Modern Condition (1979) set out to demolish the claims of these metanarratives and their claims of universality. He saw Enlightenment rationalism as coercive — along with the political and philosophical traditions that stemmed from it.