Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction

Post-Structuralism (which is often used synonymously with Deconstruction or Postmodernism) is a reaction to structuralism and works against seeing language as a stable, closed system. “It is a shift from seeing the poem or novel as a closed entity, equipped with definite meanings which it is the critic’s task to decipher, to seeing literature as irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning” (Eagleton 120 – see reference below under “General References”). Jacques Derrida’s (dair-ree-DAH) paper on “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (delivered in 1966) proved particularly influential in the creation of post-structuralism. Derrida argued against, in essence, the notion of a knowable center (the Western ideal of logocentrism), a structure that could organize the differential play of language or thought but somehow remain immune to the same “play” it depicts (Abrams, 258-9). Derrida’s critique of structuralism also heralded the advent of deconstruction that–like post-structuralism–critiques the notion of “origin” built into structuralism. In negative terms, deconstruction–particularly as articulated by Derrida–has often come to be interpreted as “anything goes” since nothing has any real meaning or truth. More positively, it may posited that Derrida, like Paul de Man (de-MAHN) and other post-structuralists, really asks for rigor, that is, a type of interpretation that is constantly and ruthlessly self-conscious and on guard. Similarly, Christopher Norris (in “What’s Wrong with Postmodernism?”) launches a cogent argument against simplistic attacks of Derrida’s theories:

On this question [the tendency of critics to read deconstruction “as a species of all-licensing sophistical ‘freeplay'”), as on so many others, the issue has been obscured by a failure to grasp Derrida’s point when he identifies those problematic factors in language (catachreses, slippages between ‘literal’ and ‘figural’ sense, subliminal metaphors mistaken for determinate concepts) whose effect–as in Husserl–is to complicate the passage from what the text manifestly means to say to what it actually says when read with an eye to its latent or covert signifying structures. This ‘free-play’ has nothing whatsoever to do with that notion of an out-and-out hermeneutic license which would finally come down to a series of slogans like “all reading is misreading,” “all interpretation is misinterpretation,” etc. If Derrida’s texts have been read that way–most often by literary critics in quest of more adventurous hermeneutic models–this is just one sign of the widespread deformation professionelle that has attended the advent of deconstruction as a new arrival on the US academic scene. (151)

In addition to Jacques Derrida, key poststructuralist and deconstructive figures include Michel Foucault (fou-KOH), Roland Barthes (bart), Jean Baudrillard (zhon boh-dree-YAHR), Helene Cixous (seek-sou), Paul de Man (de-MAHN), J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Lacan (lawk-KAWN), and Barbara Johnson.

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