What is Poststructuralism/ Deconstruction?| Meaning & Key Theorists

Poststructuralism, a major theory in literary criticism embraces the multiple perspectives to study literary texts. It came into being in France in the late 1960s with the radical views of Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Some critics, such as Hans Bertens, think poststructuralism as continuation of structuralism, and critics like Peter Barry considers it as a rebellion against the structuralism. Here we need to differentiate between the two forms of the word—poststructuralism and post-structuralism, the former is a theory and has its principles of analysis, and later, more specific indication of time, post- (hyphen) structuralism; its meaning is after structuralism or following structuralism. The exact point of the beginning of poststructuralism is denoted by a research paper Structuralism, Sign and Play of the Discourse of the Human Sciences presented by Derrida in an international conference at John Hopkins University in 1966. Later, this paper has been published in many journals and edited books and vigorously included in Derrida’s own book Writing and Difference published in 1978. The most influential exponents of poststructuralism are:
1. Roland Barthes who wrote The Structural Analysis of Narrative (1966), The Pleasure of the Text (1973) and the most discussed of his essays The Death of the Author (1968).
2. Jacques Derrida, the author of the influential texts Speech and Phenomena (1967), Of Grammatology (1967) translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in 1976, the third book Writing and Difference (1967).
3. Michel Foucault (1926-1984), famous for his essay What is an Author (1969).
4. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), a psychoanalyst who wrote Ecrits (1966) and On Feminine Sexuality (1994).
Most of the times, poststructuralism and deconstruction are used as substitute or parallel terms. There is inherent precedence of deconstruction in poststructuralism because Derrida’s Of Grammatology decodes the text on the basis of that text only. We have a famous deconstructionist statement from the same book “there is nothing outside of the text”. Here we have the words of Bertens:
“Deconstruction takes its name from Derrida’s practice; his strategy of analysing and dismantling texts or, more usually, parts of texts in order to reveal their inconsistencies and inner contradictions. At the heart of deconstruction is the effort to dismantle the cover ups that texts use to create the semblance of stable meaning: their attempt to create ‘privileged’ centres—implicit or explicit binary oppositions—with the help of all sorts of rhetorical means.” (131).
Everything is in the text. We need not to go beyond the text to find meaning and hence the concept of ‘death of the author’ which has given birth to the concept ‘rise of the reader’. Barthes, basically a structuralist, turned poststructuralist with his seminal essay The Death of the Author (1968) in which he asserted the independence of the text, its self-contentedness. It supports the concept of nothing outside of the text. The principles of poststructuralism or deconstruction are based on Derrida’s concept of ‘differance’ a term derived from French word ‘differer’ having the use of letter ‘a’ instead of ‘e’ which gave rise to two different words—‘differ’ and ‘defer’, the meaning of former is different or distinct, the later to postpone, delay or change. Thus no word has an absolute or fixed meaning but it is postponed to other words creating a cycle, e.g. let’s look at any word in dictionary, we get other words describing its meaning, again look at entries of those words describing the earlier word, they are described by yet another words. Derrida calls it as deconstructionist reading. Let’s take the following statement:
“Differance, a French portmanteau word combining ‘difference’ with ‘deferral’ to suggest that the differential nature of meanings in language carelessly defers or postpones any determinate meaning: language is an endless chain or ‘play of differance’ which logocentric discourses try vainly to fix to some original or final term that can never be reached.” (Baldick, 81).
To arrive at a particular or specified meaning is delayed due to ‘deferring’ nature of words. We can never reach to the final or the meaning of a word—it is a chain. The claim of the structuralists that the world is shaped by language is deconstructed by poststructuralists that no meaning is fixed and it is beyond linguistic processing, there is uncertainty of meaning.
Derrida very strongly rejects the claim of structuralists that sign is conditioned through signifier (a sound, image or word) and signified (form of concept or perception, the meaning); it is not so. The sign is maintained through defferance—difference and deferring. Each sign (the object/ word/ text) is distinct to another and has the capacity to deferment. E.g. the word daffodils used in a poem. Now it does not reveal what it stands for. When we think that it is not just a flower but the representation of poet’s mood or nature or mental condition, it is unable to display the meaning. The sign daffodils is not adequate but inadequate. Then why did poet use it? Because there is no substitute or adequate sing available and it can never be. The sign daffodils gets its meaning through the context where it has been used.
For Derrida writing bears superiority over speech which is the opposite case for structuralists and hence he discarded the notions of metaphysics, linguistics and structuralism:
“Derrida discards these three disciplines—metaphysics, linguistics and structuralism—as they have treated writing as secondary to speech. He calls this concept of writing as ‘vulgar concept’. Derrida’s intention is to liberate language and criticism from the totalizing and totalitarian influence of metaphysics. Hence he proposes a new concept of writing.” (Das, 41).
In Derrida’s new concept of writing, three elements are significant—differance (as discussed above), trace (new name of sign) and arche-writing which covers graphic and non-graphic expressions. So the writing or trace becomes wider, anything, a spoken or written word, painting, sing, a poster, even a gesture, and so on. Here we have words of Spivak: “Writing’ then is the name of the structure always already inhabited by the trace. This is a broader concept than the empirical concept of writing, which denotes, an empirical system of notation on the material substance.” (Quoted Das, 42-43).
What Poststructuralist/ Deconstructionist Critics Do? (Barry, 70-71):
1. They ‘read text against itself’ to find contradictions/ paradoxes, shifts, breaks in tone, viewpoint, tense, time, person, attitude, etc. they dive beyond the surface meaning of the text.
2. They look at the surface features of the words like similarities in sound, root meanings, ‘dead’ metaphor, etc. to find relation with overall meaning.
3. They consider text as disunity rather than unity.
4. They take single passage or a short piece for analysis and seek multiple meanings.
5. They find the base of their analysis of meaning through shifts or breaks as discussed in the first point above. “These discontinuities are sometimes called ‘fault-lines’, a geological metaphor referring to the breaks in rock formations which give evidence of previous activity and movement.”
Thus the theory of poststructuralism or deconstruction, though emerged from its parental form of structuralism (though against it), has distinct principles to carry in deciding the meaning and nature of literary text. It set the path to fresh debates in the field of criticism.

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