Poststructuralism - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

The Rise of Literary Theory

Poststructuralism designates a number of distinct theoretical principles and practices with a common aim: a critique of Structuralism, the idea that human societies and their traditions can be understood according to universal and unchanging structures that are replicated in texts, artworks, rituals, and other modes of expression. Of special importance in the development of Poststructuralism were Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistics and Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology. (See below, “Structuralism” pp. 181-90.) The “structurality of structure,” according to Jacques Derrida, in his groundbreaking essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), is the concept of the center: “The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure - one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure - but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure [i.e., structuration] would limit what we might call the play of the structure. By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form.” It is play “based on a fundamental ground” that is itself beyond play (Writing 278-79). In the poststructuralist critique of structure, the center is deconstructed, exposed as contradictory, incoherent, a “mythology of presence.” “The center is at the center of totality,” Derrida claims, “and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure - although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science - is contradictorily coherent” (Writing 280). Poststructuralists question the ability of language to designate the center, to remain structured around a center, if there is no center, if there is only irresolvable contradiction. If there is no guarantee of stable and stabilizing authority, no absolute criterion for assessing the truth, then disciplines grounded in structuralist paradigms of truth, especially scientific truth, are deprived of their legitimacy.

Poststructuralism rejects what Derrida calls “onto-theology,” a world view in which meaning and value are invested in the transcendent ESSENCE (onto, being) of an unchanging principle or divinity (theo, God). Nor does it accept PHALLOGOCENTRISM, a world view in which social and cultural power are invested in a symbol of pure abstract presence (phallus) and articulated in the unchanging concepts of reason (logos). Poststructuralism, in its principal modes - Deconstruction, SEMIOTICS, and DISCOURSE ANALYSIS - precisely by focusing its critical energies upon structured systems, especially binary systems, commits itself to discovering alternatives precisely through the critical project itself. Derrida invites us “to seek new concepts and new models, an economy escaping this system of metaphysical oppositions. This economy would not be an energetics of pure, shapeless force… . If we appear to oppose one series to the other, it is because from within the classical system we wish to make apparent the noncritical privilege naively granted to the other series by a certain structuralism. our discourse irreducibly belongs to the system of metaphysical oppositions” (Writing 20). Derrida famously warned that we cannot step outside of the metaphysical tradition of philosophy and humanism in order to critique it, that critique must be conducted immanently. There is no possibility of stepping outside the (con)text: il n'y a pas de hors-texte, there is nothing outside of the text. If this vision of the world resembles Postmodernism, it is because some of the same deconstructionist strategies are employed in both fields; the key difference lies in Poststructuralism's requirement of structure, not only as an object of critique but as a means of measuring alternatives. The chief concepts of Poststructuralism - DIFFERENCE, openness to the OTHER, resistance to dialectical and binary operations - derive their power precisely from the NEGATIVE or deconstructionist critique that alone creates a space for the production of new theoretical values and techniques within structured systems.

One of the most innovative poststructuralists, Roland Barthes, began his career in SEMIOTICS and structural narratology. His early work drew on Saussure's semiology and Levi-Strauss's structuralist analysis of mythology; by the late 1960s, he had taken structuralist analysis to a certain limit, discovering in literary and cultural texts a plurality of possible interpretations and a dizzying kind of bliss in the contemplation of them. Though his “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966) is, in many ways, an exemplary structuralist analysis, it also stands at a transition point in Barthes career, a point at which the idea of a regulated and centered structure is transformed into the idea of an unregulated, decentered process of reading. Like Foucault, he rejected the conventional figure of the author who originates the work. in “The Death of the Author” (1968), Barthes argued that authorship is a linguistic function, “never more than the instance writing, just as I is never more than the instance saying I(Image 145). The Author is a subject position in a text or discourse, not a psychological being, locus and origin of aesthetic and ethical values. In place of the “author,” Barthes produces the “modern scriptor,” a force “in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing”; nor is this scriptor a “subject with the book as predicate.” It is “born simultaneously with the text” (Image 145). So too is the reader, but “at the cost of the death of the Author” (Image 148). It is a decisive moment in Barthes’s development, and a critical turn from structuralist orthodoxies, to link the reader and the work joined in “a single signifying practice” (Image 162).

Barthes follows Derrida in recognizing that language is fundamentally “dilatory,” a play of differences, deferrals, and displacements of meaning within semiotic and linguistic systems. Unlike the AUTONOMOUS “work,” which fixes signification and reference, the “text” takes its shape and meaning from a fluid and multifarious network of signs. The distinction between “work” and “text” is coupled to a distinction between writerly and readerly texts. The writerly text is a text of bliss, “pleasure without separation” (Image 164); it induces JOUISSANCE and leaves the contented reader behind: it is “the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (Pleasure 14). Over against this notion of the writerly text is “what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text” (S/Z 4). It is a text of pleasure, “a comfortable practice of reading” (Pleasure 14).

Barthes’ poststructuralist semiology has much in common with the work of Julia Kristeva. Both theorists proceeded from similar foundations in semiotics and structuralist linguistics and both found much of value in Psychoanalysis. Perhaps because she was a practicing analyst herself, Kristeva was more inclined to “graft” psychoanalytic theory onto semiology. Her practice of “semanalysis” is an “analytical discourse on signifying systems” (Desire 125). Kristeva’s early poststructuralist semiology is driven by a desire for language. Like many French Feminists, Kristeva focuses attention on the body and the ways in which ideology penetrates and inhabits the body, sometimes leaving signs and significa tions on the flesh (as in tattoos and scars). She also looks at how libido - Freud's word for sexual energy as it is expressed in psychological and physiological systems - interlocks with language and discourse to form a libidinal economy. The structure, trajectory, and outcome of libidinal drives become the model for new forms of SEMIOTIC activity. Kristeva treats language, especially literary language, as an exemplary conduit for libidinal energies that inevitably flow between readers and texts. She developed a theory of INTERTEXTUALITY to explain the way that language, especially non-representational language, maps “historical and social coordinates” at “different structural levels of each text” (or “semiotic practice”) (Desire 36). Drawing on M. M. Bakhtin's theory of DIA- LOGISM and the CARNIVALESQUE in Rabelais and Dostoyevski, Kristeva emphasized the polyphonic nature of the novel and its constitutive AMBIVALENCE, its oscillation between monological and dialogical narrative structures. “Bakhtinian dialogism identifies writing as both subjectivity and communication, or better, as intertextuality” (Desire 68). For Bakhtin, literary texts were dialogized and stratified by a variety of languages and idioms. His essays of the 1930s and '40s, which were later republished in The Dialogic Imagination (1981), challenged the limits of Formalism and raised the kinds of questions that poststructuralists would ask in the 1960s and '70s. Intertextuality integrates and translates discourses within interlocking and interdependent sign systems; it is a fundamentally rhetorical and semiological concept, that “situates philosophical problems within language; more precisely, within language as a correlation of texts, as a reading-writing that falls in with non-Aristo- telian syntagmatic, correlational, ’carnivalesque’ logic” (Desire 88-89). (On Bakhtin, see pp. 115, 157, 184-6.)

Early critics of Poststructuralism point out that Kristeva's “semanaly- sis” lacks a concrete ground and therefore lacks an effective defense against arbitrary practice. “The problem for any intertextual reading,” writes Toril Moi, “is to counter the charge of arbitrariness. Paradoxically, it is precisely because there is, in principle, no limit to the number of possible intertexts to any given text, that it becomes necessary explicitly to justify one's choice of any particular intertext” (Moi 1043). Kristeva is less interested in a “particular intertext” than in understanding the operations of the “speaking subject” of language and TEXTUALITY, which is not to be confused with the autonomous bourgeois SUBJECT. Structural linguistics falls short, she argues, by refusing to recognize the speaking subject of discourse: “[I]n order to move from sign to sentence the place of the subject had to be acknowledged and no longer kept vacant” (Desire 127-28). On this point, Kristeva follows Lacan's groundbreaking critique of SUBJECTIVITY founded on the primacy of the ego. Lacan, like other poststructuralists, rejected the “unity of the subject” (Ecrit 281), positing instead a subject who accepts “the signifier as the determinant of the signified,” “through an enunciation that makes a human being tremble due to the vacillation that comes back to him from his own statement” (288-9). This trembling marks “the moment of a fading or eclipse of the subject - which is closely tied to the Spaltung or splitting he undergoes due to his subordination to the signifier - to the condition of an object” (301).

Lacan follows Freud in grounding his theory of the subject in neurosis, specifically in the structure of the symptom. The symptom “speaks in the other, i say, designating by ’other' the very locus evoked by recourse to speech in any relation in which such recourse plays a part. If it speaks in the Other, whether or not the subject hears it with his ear, it is because it is there that the subject finds his signifying place in a way that is logically prior to any awakening of the signified” (275). But whereas Lacan remains committed to the oedipal paradigm and the castration complex as fundamental to the construction of speaking subjects, Kristeva concentrates on the pre-oedipal, pre-symbolic possibilities of poetic language. These possibilities signal “a heterogeneousness to meaning and signification” that “operates through, despite, and in excess of [meaning] and produces in poetic language ’musical' but also nonsense effects that destroy not only accepted beliefs and signification, but, in radical experiments, syntax itself” (133). In a manner similar to Lacan's jouissance, which is caused by proximity to unconscious processes, Kristeva’s chora designates an ecstatic experience of the IMAGINARY grounded on the “oceanic” bond of mother and child. in both cases, a structured system (the ego, language) is disrupted by an excess of signs, a boundless, oceanic state, a “semiotic disposition” rooted in the maternal body. For poststructuralist feminists, the body is the ultimate structure: systematized at multiple levels, intricately cross-referenced, coded but capable of a wide range of random de- and recodings, fluid but contained. The structuralist conception of the relationship between enonce (utterance) and enonciation (the act of uttering in a specific material and social context) tended to privilege the enonce, the utterance or text that embodied linguistic (or semiotic) information. This privilege is challenged in Kristeva's semiotics, which focuses on enonciation, on context and place, on the site of discourse. Understood in this radical sense, the body itself is simultaneously enonce and enonciation, message and site of inscription. (On Lacan's terms, see pp. 112, 168-9.)

Foucault’s theories of GENEALOGY and ARCHAEOLOGY offer innovative ways to map the complex networks of language and text, discontinuous and decentered, with which poststructuralists grappled. They are both anti-historicist modes of DISCOURSE ANALYSIS, interested not in chronology, causality, precedent and continuity but rather in POWER and its emergence and the discontinuities and ruptures it occasions in DISCURSIVE FORMATIONS. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault offered a detailed account of the archaeological method and the principles governing discursive formations. A discursive formation is a “system of dispersion” a series of statements (e.g., on medicine or madness), “an order in their successive appearance, correlations in their simultaneity, assignable positions in common space, a reciprocal functioning, linked and hierarchized transformations” (Archaeology 37). Archaeological analysis, which is concerned primarily with synchronic relations, infers and describes the patterns of emergence, dispersion, and disposition of statements and events within a formation. The historicity of formations is purely discursive or textual; it is an “enunciative past,” an “acquired truth,” a form of recurrence that is not a return, but rather a refiguring, modification, and accumulation of discursive material. What we often think of as a “unity through time” is really the effect of a “temporality of accumulation,” which Foucault calls historical a prioris. This term designates not historically constituted conditions for judgment but rather the concrete, material aspect of discursive statements, the “condition of reality for statements” as well as “the group of rules that characterize a discursive practice” (Archaeology 127). The “rules of enunciation” for each formation determine what constitutes a “legitimate” statement; they determine the horizon of what is sayable, the limit of a particular discursive formation beyond which enunciations simply cannot be heard. The practice of archaeology produces a “series full of gaps, intertwined with one another, interplays of differences, distances, substitutions, transformations” (Archaeology 37). By mapping conceptual and methodological similarities, continuities, connections, and imbrications, the archaeologist can see patterns in the production and consumption of discourse and, inferring from these patterns, can derive the rules of enunciation of a given formation.

A related conception, genealogy, is less interested in language and the function of statements in discursive formations than in the emergence of concepts and forms of knowledge through the specific practices of social and cultural institutions. in Discipline and Punish, for example, Foucault built on Nietzsche's theory of genealogy, which does not seek to find the origin of ideas and values, but rather to establish their emergence as functions of institutional POWER (or “power/knowledge”) in its various forms. Genealogy is not interested in TELEOLOGICAL theories of history, for it does not give credence to historical origins and ideals. Instead, it looks for the “the hazardous play of dominations,” “the emergence of different interpretations” (Language 148, 152); it identifies the ruptures in the flow of events, “the accidents, the minute deviations - or conversely, the complete reversals - the errors and the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us” (Language 146). In his late essays, Foucault elaborated on the way that power effects the constitution of social subjects. Perhaps his most influential genealogical work was The History of Sexuality, in which he considered the emergence of a discourse of sexuality, which he called a “slow surfacing of confidential statements” (History of Sexuality 61, 63) produced and regulated by particular matrices of power.

Foucault (and his predecessor, Nietzsche) is often criticized for being abstract and reductive, for substituting one idealist and ahistorical value for another, DIFFERENCE (or signification or discourse) for transcendence (or being, presence, consciousness), power for Truth. At a more pragmatic level, Foucault is criticized for not asking more penetrating questions: for example, who “composes” the rules of enunciation within a given discursive formation? What are the options for concrete political action within them? Pierre Bourdieu's theory of SOCIAL FIELDS is one attempt to theorize the relationship between DISCURSIVE FORMATIONS and concrete fields of social action. Bourdieu regards the social field as a sphere of social action, a site of power games between individuals and social institutions. “Social fields,” Bourdieu notes, “are the products of a long, slow process of AUTONOMIZATION, and are therefore, so to speak, games ’in themselves' and not ’for themselves' ” (Logic of Practice 67). They exist on two levels: the level of material production and the level of symbolic production. The ability to manipulate the HABITUS formed within a given social field is the measure both of “cultural capital” and of social distinction. The term HABITUS refers to the half-conscious, unspoken (because always already consented to) limits of a given field, the “acquired, socially constituted dispositions” formed by experience with the rules of a particular social practice. It is a “’creative,’ active, inventive capacity” of an “active agent,” not “a transcendental subject in the idealist tradition” (In Other Words 12-13). Like discursive formations, social fields perform a mediating function, allowing the critic or historian to formulate provisional TOTALITIES that are not completely arbitrary, that are fashioned out of perceived systematic relations (of dispersion and contiguity), even though these relations are often antagonistic, contradictory or coercive, in which case they can be regarded as a form of “symbolic violence.”

Foucault's final works on the “care of the self” and the rise to prominence of feminist theories of the body and subjectivity reflect general developments in literary and cultural theory grounded in the poststructuralist critique of the ESSENTIAL or UNIVERSAL SUBJECT. Foucault's late interviews and essays on the relationship between individuals and social power recognize the subject's freedom to negotiate among structures and discourses of power. “At the very heart of the power relationship,” Foucault claims, “and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather than speaking of an essential freedom, it would be better to speak of an ’agonism’ - of a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle; less of a face-to-face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation” (“Subject” 221-22). However, Slavoj Zizek criticizes Fou- cauldian theories of identity for failing to offer a decisive critique of existing social conditions: “The predominant form of ideology today is precisely that of multiple identities, non-identity and cynical distance. This includes even sexual identities… . these Foucauldian practices of inventing new strategies, new identities, are ways of playing the late capitalist game of subjectivity” (40). This is perhaps an unsurprising outcome of a theoretical formation rooted in philosophical modernity.

Note. For more on Derrida, see Deconstruction; on Foucault and Nietzsche, see New Historicism; on Barthes, see Structuralism; on Kristeva, see Feminism; on Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, see Psychoanalysis; on Saussure, see Structuralism.


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