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Post-Structuralism 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 . Jacques Derrida's 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 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)

Some commonly used terms in deconstructive theory: 

Aporia - the inherent contradictions found in any text. Derrida, for example, cites the inherent contradictions at work in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's use of the words culture and nature by demonstrating that Rousseau's sense of the self's innocence (in nature) is already corrupted by the concept of culture (and existence) and vice-versa. 

Différance - a combination of the meanings in word différance. The concept means différer or to differ, différance which means to delay or postpone (defer), and the idea of difference itself. To oversimplify, words are always at a distance from what they signify and, to make matters worse, must be described by using other words.

Erasure (sous rature) - to highlight suspect ideologies, notions linked to the metaphysics of presence, Derrida put them under "erasure," metaphorically pointing out the absence of any definitive meaning. By using erasure, however, Derrida realized that a "trace" will always remain but that these traces do not indicate the marks themselves but rather the absence of the marks (which emphasize the absence of "univocal meaning, truth, or origin"). In contrast, when Heidegger similarly "crossed out" words, he assumed that meaning would be (eventually) recoverable.

Further reference:

R. Selden, P. Widowson, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, ch. 6.

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Though often used interchangeably with post-structuralism, postmodernism is a much broader term and encompasses theories of art, literature, culture, architecture, and so forth. In relation to literary study, the term postmodernism has been articulately defined by Ihab Hassan. In Hassan's formulation postmodernism differs from modernism in several ways:


Modernism Postmodernism
Purpose Play
Design Chance
Hierarchy Anarchy
Hypotactic Paratactic
Totalization Deconstruction
Presence Absence
Root/Depth Rhizome/Surface
Synthesis Antithesis
Urbanism Anarchy and fragmentation
Elitism Anti-authoritarianism


In its simplest terms, postmodernism consists of the period following high modernism and includes the many theories that date from that time, e.g., structuralism, semiotics, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and so forth. For Jean Baudrillard, postmodernism marks a culture composed "of disparate fragmentary experiences and images that constantly bombard the individual in music, video, television, advertising and other forms of electronic media. The speed and ease of reproduction of these images mean that they exist only as image, devoid of depth, coherence, or originality" (Childers and Hentzi 235). 

Further references:

  • R. Selden, P. Widowson, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, ch. 7 (174-185).
  • J.-F. Lyotard, "Defining the postmodern," in The Cultural Studies Reader, 170-176.
  • Michel Foucault, "Space, power and knowledge," in The Cultural Studies Reader, 161-169.

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© Jan Rybicki 2003 unless otherwise stated.