small logo Postructuralist Approaches

A. POSTSTRUCTURALISM: a reaction against structuralists' claims to "scientific objectivity" and "universality." Most contemporary schools of literary criticism are thoroughly poststructuralist or at least share some of the poststructuralist assumptions:

  1. Antifoundationalist: seeks to challenge or destabilize Western logocentrism (idea that some ultimate signifier, which exists outside the play of language, centers or acts as a foundation for all thought, language, experience--e.g., God, the Idea, the Self, etc.)
  2. Foregrounds theory: feels compelled to explain theory of signification, the general conditions that determine meaning
  3. Decenters the human subject: downplays or denies that human beings have a coherent identity with individual motivation, initiative, and purpose; instead, individuals inhabit various "subject positions" constructed by discourse. In literature, this decenters the author and authorial intention and emphasizes the reader (but a reader that is constructed by the text)
  4. Foregrounds discourse and the constructedness of all knowledge and behavior

B. DECONSTRUCTION: an extreme poststructuralist theory and practice of reading based on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Key assumptions:

  1. "Undecidable" play of linguistic meanings: Saussure assumed that langue formed a closed, stable system, with a delimited structure of meaning; if Saussure separated the whole sign from its referent, Derrida further separated the signifier from the signified. He demonstrated that a particular signifier does not directly yield only one signified (e.g. c-h-a-i-r may suggest the concept of an object to sit on, but it also may suggest a person who supervises a committee, a professorship or bishopric, etc.); even when it does suggest one concept, its meaning will vary according to the context (e.g,, "They sent him to the chair"). Furthermore, signifieds can only be defined by more signifiers in a potentially endless regression.
  2. In this "open-ended play of signification," social ideologies privilege certain meanings, making them the centers around which all other meanings turn (e.g., "freedom" and "democracy" in the U.S.).
  3. Sausurrean difference becomes Derridean différance (a coinage suggesting in French both "to be different" and "to defer"); linguistic difference creates the effect of decidable, definite meaning, but in language meaning is actually deferred from one interpretation to another in an endless play or movement.
  4. The structures of binary opposition that are essential to logocentric language are actually hierarchies, defined not simply by differences but by the privileging of one term at the expense of the other (beautiful/ugly, divine/human, man/woman). Deconstruction demonstrates not only that such hierarchies can be inverted, but also that the whole opposition can be undermined or collapsed. Since the first term is defined by excluding the second, it requires the second for its meaning; one cannot be thought without the other ("what is outside is also inside").
  5. Since language and meaning are inherently unstable, words and texts constantly undermine and deconstruct themselves; the deconstructive critic simply calls attention to this "by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself" (Barbara Johnson), typically by finding "double binds" of contradictory or incompatible meanings or by focusing on apparently minor or peripheral details which serve as threads to unravel the fabric of the text. Deconstructive critics distinguish between the text that tries to close off the endless play of signification and push toward a specific interpretation (the "readerly" text that tries to keep one in the reader/consumer position) and the text that opens itself up to many different meanings (the "writerly" text that puts one in the writer/producer position, encouraging the creation of one's own play of meanings).

Cf. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, pp. 146-47:

Meaning may well be ultimately undecidable if we view language contemplatively, as a chain of signifiers on a page; it becomes 'decidable', and words like 'truth', 'reality', 'knowledge' and 'certainty' have something of their force restored to them, when we think of language rather as something we do, as indissociably interwoven with our practical forms of life. It is not of course that language then becomes fixed and luminous: on the contrary, it becomes even more fraught and conflictual than the most 'deconstructed' literary text. It is just that we are then able to see, in a practical rather than academicist way, what would count as deciding, determining, persuading, certainty, being truthful, falsifying and the rest--and see, moreover, what beyond language itself is involved in such definitions.

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Barbara F. McManus
Readings and Assignments
October 1998