In this lesson, we will take a look at an intellectual movement from the mid-twentieth century called poststructuralism. Like postmodernism, poststructuralism is a critique of the movement that came before it, structuralism. Taking issue with operations of power such as the hierarchal ways that structuralism ordered and privileged certain ideas about people, society and culture over others, poststructural thinkers were critical of authoritative sources and preferred to deconstruct texts and the systems of knowledge that produced them. Put simply, poststructuralism is an approach to understanding how and why we know what we know and who benefits from us knowing and reproducing it.
Like the entertainment industry, philosophy too has its celebs.
Take a deep breath and be prepared to change your mind again and again as we walk through some of the key ideas of poststructuralism. The Order of Things aren’t quite what they seem from here on.
Start by watching this video for a recap on postmodernism and introduction to concepts and social conditions that underpin poststructuralism. You will not hear the word poststructuralism but that’s exactly what he’s talking about: the breaking down of authority, structure, the cannon, values and specifically our relationship to time and history.
So what is Poststructuralism? Exploring Discourse and Power.
Last week, we learned that postmodernism challenged the social conventions of modernism. It served to replace the grand narrative of art, truth, history, science etc. with individualistic metanarratives and situated itself against the modernist distinctions between high and low culture; art and entertainment. Occurring around the same time was a new approach to the analysis of cultural texts, which we call poststructuralism.
Poststructuralism suggests some pretty radical ideas:
-History, identity and pretty much everything else we ‘believe in’ is only a story we tell ourselves.
-There is no true worldview, there is no such thing as truth, only stories we continuously retell
-Truth is produced by power
-Reality is only one perspective
-We are social constructs
-Language is performative and constitutive of the real; all knowledge is constrained by language
-Everything we interpret is a text
-Every text has multiple meanings and all meaning is able to be contested
Poststructuralism attempts to interrogate the way we think i.e. the structures of meaning and regulatory systems, regimes, institutions and logic that governs our self-perception, worldviews, narratives, genres and the ways we might make meaning from texts.
Think back to CIU210 when we studied semiotics and the function of texts and signs. According to semiotics, meaning is derived via an agreed upon system of signifiers that refer to an idea (the signified), which are constituted in relation to one another.
Well, what if we contested the meaning of those signs; breaking them down into their component parts and scrutinizing value or utility of the parts as well as their systematic arrangement? If we did, that would mean we are enacting a poststructuralist critique. Specifically, we would be deconstructing the text.
In its most general sense, poststructuralism—linked to thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes’s and Judith Butler—is characterized by a suspicion of totalizing systems and a radical skepticism towards theories which attempt to explain human behaviour such as gender norms, the accepted meaning of things such as texts and the order of things such as disciplines of knowledge and conventions of style. Where structuralism (i.e. semiotics) set out to build systems for meaning e.g. histories, identities, genre conventions and narrative conventions like the hero’s journey, then poststructuralists concerned themselves with instances in which these systems break down or are subverted.
For poststructuralists, a “text” was no longer a finished, self-contained object produced by an author. Rather, according to Derrida, texts—whether literature, film, advertising, music, graphic design, games, fashion and even ourselves—are first produced in the act of interpretation. Every day we engage in the act of reading texts. By this I mean, we are makers of meaning. Take fan theories for example: are they untrue simply because someone other than the author conceived of them? After all, isn’t the author’s version simply fiction in the first place? Fan theory, then, is merely an alternative interpretation of the same fiction.
In the following video, you will be introduced to many of the key concepts that underpin poststructuralism. Watch this video and then we will unpack these ideas further.
So … is a cat a cat? Or is it a cat merely a linguistic signifier of a certain type of animal?
According to Williams in his book Understanding Poststructuralism (2005, pp.3-4) “One aspect of poststructuralism is its power to resist and work against settled truths and oppositions. It can help in struggles against discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, against inclusions and exclusions on the basis of race, background, class or wealth… Poststructuralist criticism works to overturn assumptions about purity (in morals), about essences (in terms of race, gender and backgrounds), about values (in art and politics), about truth (in law and philosophy).”
So if a cat is not simply a cat then perhaps you’re not the self you thought you were? Are you yourself? If so, are you natural, fixed or essential?
|Barbara Kruger, You Are Not Yourself (1981)||“Born This Way” Meme|
Postmodern feminist artist Barbara Kruger didn’t think so. According to Lady GaGa, she was born this way, while Michel Foucault, like Kruger, disagrees. Foucault believes we are a product of power relations. “But I’m not related to anyone in power”, I hear you say. Well, this isn’t exactly what Foucault was meaning.
Let’s watch this video about the construct of feminine beauty to help us understand the power relations Foucault was on about.
What is the video above suggesting? Could it be challenging the idea that we are born either feminine or masculine? If we’re not born this way then we must ‘become’ these things through social construction? And the reason we are instructed to become one thing or another has to do with the power relations Foucault was on about above.
Basically, we are all non-essential subjects produced by social institutions that collate and legitimise (and illegitimise), privilege and persecute certain kinds of knowledge over others? Thus, who we are is governed by regimes of power.
What facets of your own self-concept are the result of social construction as opposed to something you think of as essential or biological? Gender? Race? Or perhaps it’s a particular skill or talent? Let’s say, for example, you are a really good singer, drawer, or a long-distance runner. If so, then it’s quite likely that your parents, teachers or coaches have at one time referred to you as having ‘natural talent’. Perhaps, you once thought your skills tastes, values, gender, ethnicity, nationality etc. were qualities you were born with, something you were predestined to be or could not escape. Well, according to a poststructural interpretation, who you are is the sum of your experiences, choices, feelings and perceptions. These are not natural or essential to who you are. Instead, they are constructive – that is, in combination, they inform your understanding of who you are. Take race for example… many of us presume to think of it as inborn, but is it?
Binary opposition is the principle of contrast between two mutually exclusive terms such as on/off, up/down, left/right. By ‘mutually exclusive’, we mean that we define one term against another, therefore if something is off it cannot be on, so if something occupies one of these states it is automatically excluded from the other. Or to put it another way, each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with the other term, as in binary code: 0 and 1.
Originally theorised by the French the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), binary opposition is a key concept of structuralism, as they are fundamental organisers of human philosophy, culture, and language, therefore structuring the way we think and make meaning.
Think about how binary oppositions might work in media texts. Take characters in a film for example:
Bernard Tschumi’s Architecture and Disjunction is a collection of his essays on post-structuralism. Overall, they engage with the idea of applying Derrida’s theories about how people interact with meaning in art to architecture and space. If you need a basic rundown on some ways that architecture and video games relate to one another, you can check out my column on the subject.
Cranbrook Academy of Art’s graphic design programme has been accused of hermeticism, formalism, theoretical obfuscation and other crimes against the values of both classic Modernism and the slicker professional mainstream. While these accusations have some basis in fact, the question remains whether such transgressions are truly objectionable, or whether instead they have broadened graphic design’s formal range and its capacity for intellectual self-examination.
1] Are there traces of deconstruction in contemporary musical thought? Traces of post-structuralism? Although it is important to note at the outset that they are not fully related terms, deconstruction and post-structuralism are often bracketed (cf. Culler, p.28). According to Culler, deconstruction can be read as either a precursor of a post-structural situation or a subset of post-structuralism.
Poststructuralism rejects the notion of the essential quality of the dominant relationship in the hierarchy, rather, choosing to expose these relations and the dependency of the dominant term on its apparently subservient counterpart.
The only way to properly understand these meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and knowledge systems that produce the illusion of a singular meaning.
To continue reading this apt definition of binary oppositions in full check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism …
Yes, I borrowed my definition of binary oppositions from a wiki entry. In doing so I’m enacting a poststructuralist critique of textual hierarchies and institutions of knowledge production 😄
Texts and Contexts
In the poststructuralist approach to meaning-making (i.e. textual analysis), the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry.
This displacement is often referred to as the“death,” “destabilising”or “decentering” of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself.
Without a central fixation on the author, poststructuralists examine other sources for meaning that emerge from the text (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc.) other texts. You are therefore required to understand and apply the principles of these multi-textual conversations.
📚 PRESCRIBED WEEKLY READING
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
Finally, here are the related CIU 211 Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest boards that will aid you in your knowledge quest. And just in case you’re feeling a little confused. Don’t worry. You’re meant to be. Knowledge, culture and society are very complex systems which have literally taken since the beginning of recorded history (and longer) to build. Right now, you’re starting to look into the mechanics of this system and pull it apart a little. You’re just exploring. No one is going to ask you to remember where all the pieces fit, so have fun and just be curious because in the process you’ll surely know more that you did before you started.