Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Deconstruction! 1. What's Structuralism?
Structuralism is a school of art and social criticism . A structuralist is someone who rejects the notion that there is "inherent meaning" in a piece of art, or civilization, or any other object of study. Instead, she focuses her analyses on the formal structures of the object in question, attempting to "read" it as one would decipher parts of an interdependent text.
Both post-structuralist and and deconstruction practices have developed from the basis of structuralism.
2. Who Was Saussure?
Structuralism begins with the study of linguistics, particularly the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure. Before Saussure, linguists followed one of two main schools (historical and rational), both of which thought of language as a simple naming process, and both of which assumed a natural link between the name and its object.
Saussure was trained as a specialist in Sanskrit and ancient Indo-European languages, and much of his work challenged the idea that one could study "language" as a unfied field. (I think you had to read Sandskrit to even get away with a challenge like that, back in the day. ) By the of his lectures comprised in Course in General Linguisitics Saussure had decided instead to focus on the configurations of particular national languages, like English and French. He had learned something we take for granted today: that there is no History of Language, only histories of languages.
(Note: for those interested in dates, S. was a contemporary of Freud and Durkheim...)
3. Saussure's first question: What gives meaning in a language?
Looking carefully at particular language structures, Saussure asked : what is that permits the human mind to make meaning out of a spoken utterance?
Saussure noted that in speech, there are "phonetic contrasts" which permit us to distinguish between one word and another. So "I'm here now", for instance, is often heard as "AHEMHEERUHNAHOWE" or some such, with or without proper pauses between words. Our ears (and brain), trained to understand particular dialects and speech patterns, make sense of it all.
True to standard linguistic beliefs, Saussure conjectured that many phonetic speech contrasts probably some kind of natural history in human development (think of how we came up utterances like "Ow!" for instance.) He thought that this natural history of spoken sound might be somehow linked to it ultimate meaning, but he didn't really delve deeply into the particulars of this all. The problem of the natural origins of speech was later taken up by linguists like Noam Chomsky, and even hard-core child development specialists like hmmm I can't think of a name here!)
4. What's the Signifier and Signified Thing About?
Next, Saussure moved his analysis from spoken to written language. He asked, "When we think of the "meaning" of a spoken phoneme, and compare it to a written word, do we mean the same thing?" Contrary to the linguistic traditions of his day, Saussure's answer was a definite NO.
For Saussure, the written word is a radically different beast than the spoken one. Oral language based is on sound, and as such, it may make meaning between words and things (for example onomatopoeias). Written language, on the other hand, is based on signs, and therefore can only make meaning by way of "signifieds" and "signfiers."
People get confused by the signified/signifier thing, and I've found one of the easy ways to explain it, as well as Saussure's notion of "difference", is by talking about money. Here goes:
Did you ever wonder why a dollar bill is worth more than a penny? Of course the answer is that it isn't, in its purest sense. Because it can be melted down and used for tools, copper is worth more in some cultures than paper. Copper is what Marx would call a penny's "use value".
But as everyone knows, a dollar bill has another value--a culturally agreed upon value at which one paper dollar becomes equal to one hundred pennies, ten dimes, and so on. This culturally agreed upon value is what Marx would call "exchange value." For Marx, while use value is tied to an item's natural state, exchange value is the result of its cultural state.
A dollar bill is a signifier, because its meaning is culturally derived. There is no "thing" that a dollar bill is, save a piece of paper that has more cultural importance than other pieces of paper. The buying power of that dollar bill is its signified. The relationship of the dollar bill (exchange value) to its buying power (use value) is the relationship of the signifier to the signified.
Now, let's move from money to words. Like the paper on which a dollar bill is printed, printed words have a crappy use value (which is why when they are typed out of sequence we think of them as gibberish.) But relative to ONE ANOTHER, written words have significant exchange value. "Kill boy girl" means little to us. But "The boy killed the girl" and "the girl killed the boy" mean very different things, because in English, it is culturally agreed upon that word order denotes subject and object of a sentence.
Today, this seems like an obvious proposition. But it's important to remember, prior to Saussure, linguists were arguing that there was an inherent relationship between an object and its name (mostly suggesting that if one went back far enough, to say, Sanskrit, that relationship would become obvious.) Saussure, a Sanskrit scholar himself, did not agree. He felt that while a scream might be universal (that is, a scream is a scream in any language) all writing must be culturally constructed and agreed upon to have meaning at all. If you think this is hair-splitting, try remembering the Clinton impeachment hearings. Law, which is based upon nothing but written language with the force of police power, derives its sole authority by determining the legitimate placement of words in an argument.
5. Why is the Sign Arbitrary?
Saussure is famous for calling the meaning of signs "arbitrary", which means they are selected at random and without reason. This kind of flew in the face of the "universal logic of language" crowd. Saussure thought that signs are kind of like money. You can change a ten word sentence to a five word sentence and retain meaning, the same way you can use twenty nickels or ten dimes to make a dollar. Signifiers can be swapped out. Signifieds--the concepts pointed at by signifiers--can be swapped out, too. If the government declares tomorrow that the buying power of one dollar has shifted, that's a change in the signified.
Actually, the analogy Saussure liked to use was chess. In his wonderful _Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers_, John Lechte's explains that Saussure thought of language "both as a history lesson and a chess game." To see language historically is to give it a diachronic perspective, but to see language as a chess match is to give it a much-needed synchronic perspective. "In chess, not only is the present configuration of pieces on the board all that matters to a newcomer to the game, but any number of items can be switched around for pieces on the board (a button for a king, etc.)" Cryptography is a kind of chess game with words. So is poetry, or any kind of writing, really.
6. What's Difference for Saussure?
If the sign is arbitrary, then how do we make meaning in writing, and how come everything doesn't seem like crazy poetry? What allows you to read this paragraph, and see it as more than gibberish? This is where Saussure's idea of "difference" comes in.
Difference, for Saussure, is "the means whereby value is established in any system of linguistic signs." Kind of a stock market of linguistic meanings. Grammar, usage, custom, history, syntax, and spelling are all difference mechanisms, in that they define what words will mean when placed next to one another. Meaning is impossible to ascertain outside of the system of difference.
7. Structuralists After Saussure
After Saussure's work was rediscovered in the 1960's, there was an explosion of interest in theories of difference and formal "textual analysis", and not just of language, but of entire social systems. Today, we think nothing of referring to movies, sports events or psychological interactions as "texts" to be read.
One of the main critiques of Saussure's flavor of structuralism was that it was too closed off to social change. Because he was a big old Commie (it's a joke, people) Mikael Bakhtin was obsessed with using Saussure's methods to illuminate the "dialectical struggles" within words. In _Marxism and the Philosophy of Language_, he argued that language happens primarily through of a "clash of social forces" between people who use words. To study the changes in signs, and to chart those changes, is to study the class struggles of society itself.
It is from Bakhtin that Michel Foucault draws the very useful notion of "normative language". "Normative" is a fancy way of saying, "Words that have become naturalized over time, and thus hide their power base. " For instance (to take Foucault's famous example) "Sanity" is equated with a particular brand of culturally sanctioned behavior. Over time, the term "sane" is normalized, and becomes synonymous with "the natural state." Insanity", on the other hand, shifts in meaning from "un-sane" to "un-natural."
In her book _Epistemology of the Closet_, Eve Segwick makes a similar claim about the term "homosexual", arguing that "natural" heterosexuality is an impossible idea without the creation of an "unnatural" sexuality--homosexuality. In truth, both sanity and insanity, as well as hetero and homosexuality, "mean" nothing outside their cultural exchange values--which is to say their differences.
I bring these examples up to demonstrate that structuralism is alive and well in contemporary thought. Indeed, you really can't engage in post-structuralist critique without resorting to structuralism at some point. As my friend Jennifer likes to say: "Can't go over it. Can't go under it. Gotta go through it."
Structuralism was really big in the 1960's and 1970's, and though it still has its die-hard fans, it has been replaced in the academy by post-structuralism. Post-structuralism has an interesting historical beginning in the student uprisings at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968. It also comes as a result of some important moments in political history (the dawn of "second wave" feminism in the U.S. and parts of Europe, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.) Here, however, I will only concentrate on its status as a philosophical movement which seeks to redress some of the problems of structuralism.
For many folks, post-structuralism begins with Jacques Derrida, who adapts notion of Saussure's "difference" and changes it into "differance" (with some wacky French accents)-- which Derrida calls a combination of "difference" plus "deferral".
_The Bloomsbury Guide_explains it this way, "For Derrida, no word (or sign) can ever be brought directly into alignment with the object it purports to recall. This means that meaning is always deferred, and can never be final." Sounds good to me, but let's back up a second.
8. Structuralists say Yes to Meaning, and talk about Difference.
The difference (hahah) between Saussure and Derrida, indeed the very rift between structuralism and post structuralism, is a disagreement over the following question: If the sign is always arbitrary, is there anything that has meaning, prior to culture?
A structuralist answer is, "Yes, pre-cultural meaning exists." Different structuralist locate pre-cultural meaning differently. Phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau Ponty argue that pre-cultural meaning resides in the body's ability to gesture. Elaine Scary has argued that the body in pain is a pre-cultural source of meaning.
Psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan hinted that there were two kinds of pre-cultural meaning. One he called The Imaginary, was formed by pre-Oedipal drives of the psyche (Julia Kristeva calls this place "the chora.") The other, which he called The Real, has to do with the clash of social forces and language, and can only be apprehended in fragments.
Structuralist anthropologists like Levi-Strauss found pre-cultural meaning in tribal ritual and formation. .Certain structuralist linguists like Chomsky argue that there is pre-cultural meaning in certain particular universal sound patterns, like screams. And the list goes on
9. Post-structuralists say "No" to Meaning, and talk about Differance.
A post-structuralist answer is: "Pre-cultural meaning is at best a fantasy, and at worst a dream that hiding a series of class-based nightmares. Differance helps us to remind ourselves to continually defer assigning fixed meaning to anything within language."
In _Writing and Difference_, Derrida argues that the belief in the "meaning" is at its core, Platonic. The Greek philosopher Plato argued that for every idea (artificial), there is a corresponding form (natural). In Saussure's story, writing is the idea and speech is the natural form.
But, asks Derrida, is this really so? Saussure holds that speaking precedes writing for humans, and is thus a purer form of communication. But when you think about it, Saussure's chronology doesn't really hold. Did the "cave people" speak before they drew, or pointed? Does a child's gesturing at birth precede or follow her first cries? And what of deaf people, many of whom gesture (and gesture, because it is a sign, is considered "writing", here), before they speak? If speaking doesn't "come first", is it really more "natural" and privileged than writing? Of course, Derrida answers, No.
In _Speech and Phenomenon_, Derrida takes issue with the old-fashioned notion of philosophy which attempts to "explain" reality, or old-fashioned critics who purport to "say" what art "really means." For Derrida, these constructions use speech metaphors (or other metaphors about embodiment) that they implicitly mean to be seem more truthful than writing. But the truth is, there is no such thing as "pure speech" outside of writing, just as there is no "meaning" outside of culture.
In Truth in Painting, Derrida argues that these are not his insights, but are rather buried within philosophy texts themselves. Kant concluded, for example, that God was an undecideable proposition, but in order to continue the work of philosophy, Kant made what he called a "leap of faith" and kept writing. Derrida refuses, or in his words "defers" the leap of faith necessary to make meaningful philosophy.
11. What's Deconstruction? (Note: I'd like to do a little more on this section, when I get time.)
When it refuses the leap of faith, Derrida argues, traditional philosophy cannot ultimately state what something "means", and finds itself rendered worthless.
For this reason, Derrida urges a new form of philosophy: deconstruction. A deconstructionist is a post-structuralist who acknowledges (to return to Saussurian terms) that there are no signifieds, only signifiers. Derrida, deconstruction forgoes the "why" of traditional philosophy, supplanting it with an extended analysis of the "how".
Derrida is famous for the deconstructionist statement, "there is nothing outside the text". People misinterpret Derrida's words here, thinking he means to say that written texts matter more than everything else in the world. What he means is exactly the opposite. To Derrida, EVERYTHING ALREADY is a text, and the job of the philosopher not to tell the universe what things mean writ large, but rather to be one of many "readers" of that text.
Because we live in a technological time, I'll use an analogy many people are more comfortable with: hypertext. Many of us understand the notion that "the world is always hypertext" to mean that these days, everything we experience seems to contain "links" (sometimes visible, sometimes not) to other things. I see a flower, that flower reminds me of my grandmother, which reminds me of her pie, and suddenly every time I see a rose I need to go to the diner and get pie a la mode, etc. I also understand that when my best friend sees a rose, she may need to go swimming, for a set of enirely diffferent (yet still connected to her personal story) reasons.
When I shake my head and say, "Wow it's all hyperlinked", I don't mean that nothing counts except for the World Wide Web. Rather, I mean that everything in the world functions as if it were a web page, according to the arbitrary logic of hyperlinking. This is Derrida's argument, as well.
12. Is Deconstruction Apolitical?
Contrary to critics who argue that deconstruction is tantamount to saying "everything is relative", a number of minoritarian scholars (feminists, queer theorists, Black Atlantic theorists, cultural studies thinkers) have pointed out that deconstruction can be a powerful political tool. Perhaps this is better explained through examples:
For legal critics like Barbara Johnson, there is no "justice" or "crime", but a series of decisions and events which shape the juridical system. Ironically, it is in its reading of legal matters that post-structuralist thinkers come heavily under attack. Some folks, particularly a group of Germans called the Frankfurt School (led by Jurgen Habermas), argue that in the wake of the Holocaust, the ideas of justice and society needs to be resurrected, not abandoned to the terrain of "word gamesmanship". The post-structuralist retort to this attack is, I hope, something you'll already know by now, so I won't detail it here.
Here's another example: To theorist Judith Butler, "sex" and "gender" don't really exist per se. Certainly, she concedes in Bodies that Matter, there are constellations of physiological signs that are understood to be (for example) "heterosexuality" or "femaleness." But in truth, these understandings are cultural inheritances rather than given facts." Ironically, she points out, the very fact that we have discourses around "the body" indicates its status as a shifting term, lacking any securable ultimate meaning.
Of course, just because something is difficult to define doesn't mean that the project of making definitions should be abandoned. And both Johnson and Butler, both of whom are quite actively politically, are hardly "moral relativists." Though some critics accuse them of doing so, post-structuralism thinkers rarely advocate nihilism or even relativism for that matter. Instead, they demand that philosophy turn away from the false conviction that it can say for certain what anything "is" outside of culture and history. This is why, when making decisions with a postructuralist outlook, principals like provisionality, standpoint analysis, and at times "strategic essentialism" often come in handy. Other things post-structuralists tend to employ are irony, parody, mimicry, and camp, all used as strategies to understand the ways in which different viewpoints radically affect what something philosophically "is".
Understood this way, post-structuralism needn't be off-putting, mind-blowing or scary. Instead, for many of us, it seems a rather a reasonable description of the way things "are" these days. The truth may well be, as the old saying goes, if we really knew what it was we thought we were talking about, we wouldn't talk about it so much!
At one level, post-structuralism is more playful than other ways of doing philosophy, but at another level it is quite profound. As the debates circulating around the "viability of the fetus" on one hand and "ethical euthanasia" on the other demonstrate even the thing we call "life" is difficult to secure via language. Anyone who has ever had to wrestle with a handful of arguments, a series of breath and brain wave patterns on a machine, and a hope that they can live with the consequences of their actions, knows what I mean.