Poststructuralism – A Very Short Introduction

PoststructuralismThis book was on the Context and Narrative Reading List when I signed up for the course as a recommended reference book, but there is a new reading list and it no long features there. I had already obtained a copy so I thought it would be useful to go through this book.

On the one hand, it is a good book to start learning about all the “-isms:” positivism, psychoanalytic criticism, modernism, constructivism, postmodernism and so on. Although it is a fairly easy read, the author, Catherine Belsey, takes the reader through the various theorists’ points of view and how these views grow and/or expand or deconstruct from their predecessors. I’m still not clear what is the difference between postmodernism and poststructuralism, but there is a huge amount of overlapping between the two theories from what I have gleaned in my first read of this book.

Poststructuralism names a theory, or a group of theories, concerning the relationship between human beings, the world, and the practice of making and reproducing meanings.

Belsey, p.5

Ferdinand de Saussure, a professor of Linguistics argued that if a thing or word exists in a language, it would have its equivalent in other languages as well. However, we know this is not the case. Romance languages tend to assign genders to all their nouns while in English this is not the case. I believe it was Saussure that came up with the original idea of semiotics. He thought of words as signs. He divided the sign into two parts – the signifier which is the sound or visual appearance of the word or image and the signified which was its meaning.

A large discussion on Barthes argument in ‘The Death of the Author’ where he claims that the reader would affix his/her own meaning depending on his/her culture and experience to a novel or image.

His argument depends on the fact that the signifier I is a ‘shifter'” it moves from speaker to speaker as each lays claim to it. In linguistic terms, the author is never more than the figure produced by the use of I, just as we constitute ourselves subjects of the sentences we speak by the same means.

Belsey, p 18

Catherine Belsey then tackles difference and culture (more of Barthes here – Mythologies). Marxism is touched upon briefly, leading into Louis Althusser’s The German Ideology. Under capitalism the state sets up institutions to defend property. These institutions would be the law which would be backed by the police and prison systems. Althusser stated (Belsey p. 33) that the Repressive State Apparatus preserves the order, the existing relations of production, in which some people have to sell their labour-power to earn a living and some don’t but live on their investments. Parallel to this is the Ideological State Apparatuses which states (Belsey p. 34) ‘that work is a duty; that work well done is a pleasure; that we are free to get another job if we don’t like this one; that we can move to Cuba if we don’t like capitalism. ‘

Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist was interested in tribal cultures, the meanings of their customs and the commonality between their everyday practices and ours and was interested in finding the common element of all cultures. Structuralism was thought as holding the key to all human practices. It was very prevalent in the 1960’s.

Next up is difference and desire covering gender identification and how this has evolved in society.  Michel Foucault, historian touches on accountability in society, and the norms that culture constructs. Up until this point I was OK with the text. However, as soon as the author started discussion on Jacques Lacan’s theories I was lost:

The big Other is there before we are, exists outside us, and does not belong to us … we necessarily borrow our terms from the Other, since we have no alternative if we want to communicate.

Belsey, p. 58

Um …. yeah, if you say so!

The next chapter dealt with difference or truth. Today people ‘are willing to surrender the idea that there is in all instances a single, authoritative truth to be discovered and defended’ (Belsey, p. 71). The belief that everything is subjective, or truth resides in the individual’s opinion, political correctness being a prime example in my opinion. Belsely next tackles deconstruction and the deconstructing of these theorists writings, while the final chapter deals with dissent and all its facets.

What poststructuralism offers is … an opportunity and a cause for reflection. It proposes a lexicon and a syntax, which is to say a vocabulary and an indication of the ways words legitimately relate to each other. But the language poststructuralism puts forward … is more useful in prompting uncertainty of questions than in delivering the finality of answers.

Belsey, p. 107

From my first reading of this text (I’m sure I will dig into it in greater detail later on), there is a common thread running through this book and that is ‘difference’. It is by our very definitions of something that we find difference. My definition of peace may not be the same as yours. And I believe that it is this relative ‘difference’ which is at the heart of poststructuralism (but I could be wrong).

Reference List

Belsey, C. (2002) A Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism. Oxford: Oxford University Press


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