Poststructuralism Research Paper

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Though  often equated, poststructuralism and postmodernism are distinct intellectual phenomena.  Most wellknown  poststructuralists, especially the  French philosophers Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Jacques Derrida  (1930–2004),  eschewed any  association with postmodernism.  Only  Jean-François Lyotard  (1924–1998) can be said to straddle both of these movements.

Postmodernism is as much a sensibility or cultural mood as a specific doctrine. It implies a break with modern modes of experiencing time and space, the dissolution of  coherent  meanings and  narratives, and  changes in media of communication.  Politically, postmodernism is often seen as reflecting new forms of political organization such as global capitalism or new social movements that reflect cultural difference rather than  unity. While aesthetic modernists often wove the fragmentary nature of modern experience into a unity, postmodernists reject the assumptions of unity as metaphysical residues of modern reason. Poststructuralism shares the postmodernist unease with totality, but it refuses to herald new forms of experience of culture, politics, or thought that would replace the modern. Rather, poststructuralism is a form (one of several) of modernity’s self-criticism. Poststructuralists do not entirely reject important concepts of modernity, such as knowledge, rights, or subjectivity, but they subject these concepts to a critique that dethrones them from an imperial or originary position. They seek to avoid the totalitarian and utopian pretensions of reason and subject them to a permanent critique.

Along with Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, prominent poststructuralists include Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), Roland Barthes (1915–1980), Julia Kristeva, and Jean-Luc Nancy. As the name suggests, poststructuralism arose as an intellectual movement in reaction to the shortcomings of structuralist approaches in linguistics and the social sciences. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913)  in  linguistics and  Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology developed theories that explained language and social action, respectively, as the product of objective structures alone. While structuralists recognized that systems of meaning were essentially arbitrary systems of linguistic difference, and not reflections of transtemporal or ultimate meaning, they were still guilty, according to critics, of a form of rationalism, in which a fixed object of meaning could be studied by objectifying procedures of social science. This explanatory strategy leads to difficulties explaining the nature of involvements of participants who had to take up and employ meanings. It cannot tell us, to use a well-known example, how a gift is given or whether it is given properly.

Poststructuralists such as Derrida argued that meaning has a performative, practical dimension not associated with  an  originating  subjectivity. Meaning  is  renewed or  transformed through  such performances. Poststructuralists employed this practical dimension, however, to show the limits of the projects of theory not only in structuralism but in modern subjective reason as well. This critique took many forms, from Barthes’ criticism of the unified literary text, to Kristeva’s notion that meaning is intertextual without reference to any fixed outside order, to Deleuze’s nomad thought, and to Derrida’s criticism of the logocentrism of Western thought  and its desire for plenitude and fullness.

Poststructuralists, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and critical approaches rely implicitly on totality and thus do not fully escape the grip of Western rationalism. The nature of the practical or performative dimension always provides resistance to  fullness or  totality.  Derrida,  for example, argued that meaning was indeterminate, that is, it  was not  fixed through  any  objective or  theoretical process. Meaning is not a representation of an objective world but the disclosure of a world of meaning within which we make sense of things. However, linguistic meanings are never complete or univocal, but always fissured through ambiguity and contradiction. From another angle, Foucault argued that  systems of knowledge are always formed by power interpretations, and hence are never pure or interest-free as the traditional metaphysical notion of objectivity would hold. Poststructuralism is a form  of  negative critique.  It  stresses the  nonidentity between enacted performances that may always create a novel meaning and a fixed ideal sense. The indeterminacy of linguistic performance undermines the possibility of ideal meaning found in a transcendental subjectivity. In the tradition of negative critique, poststructuralists stress the nonidentity between enacting a performance and the ideal concepts of totality and practical understanding. The aim of this critique is to undermine the latent (and sometimes explicit) totalitarian assumptions of an overextended notion  of reason, and  thus  its political thrust  as well. There is no single political movement or ideology that captures all of reality, nor  any utopian  goal in human actions. The political is always in the particular.

Critics have equated poststructuralism with anarchic or amoral strains of postmodernism. The poststructuralist stress on the indeterminacy and internal inconsistency of thought is linked to a free-floating conceptual apparatus driven by desire and power. Poststructuralism rejects the primacy of subjectivity altogether and in contrast employs a view of social reality as fictional, without references to an outside reality. Other critics have pointed to the possible political quietism of a view that denies the viability of general or universal values. These judgments have proven to be incorrect. Poststructuralists have displaced subjectivity from its imperial role as an origin, recognizing its produced character, but they have not rejected the subject, knowledge, or even a constructive politics. After an initial phase that placed questions of language and power at the center, poststructuralism has taken an ethical turn. Many of  the  major  figures of  poststructuralism,  including Foucault, Derrida, Nancy, and Lyotard, have devoted considerable work to ethics.

There are two major strains of poststructuralist ethics. The first approach, the power-interpretive view, is associated with  Foucault  and  Deleuze. It  holds  with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) that dominance is the establishment of new interpretations. The second, which is associated with  Derrida,  Nancy,  and  Lyotard, is an ethics of otherness. The ethical is equated with a nondominating otherness that is beyond being and ontology. This interpretation  is  heavily influenced  by  the  work  of the Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906–1995).

Foucault,  and  for  the  most  part  Deleuze, follow Nietzsche in seeing interpretation as a form of power. In Nietzsche’s view, the creation of new interpretations established what is true or false and moral or immoral. Power discloses a world of meaning. Foucault takes this formative power in an Aristotelian direction in order to view the ethical as a form of work on the self, an interpolation of self and other. Interpretative thought is not pure strategy because it draws on an expressive world-forming capacity.

The ethics of otherness draws on the poststructuralist idea of the resistance of performance to full interpretation. Against what he saw as a Hegelian notion of totality, as well as Martin Heidegger’s (1889–1976) notion of homeland, Lévinas rejected the view of mutual recognition as metaphysical residue. Mutual recognition extends only to the familiar, the similar, or the identical. Such an ethics could not account for the outsider or the stranger—they can never be assimilated. Recalling another radical critic of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), the outsider is a nonperson who belongs to no corporate entity. An ethics of otherness is beyond the realm of being or ontology. It can never be made explicit, but requires an attitude of openness or welcoming toward the excluded other.

Derrida, Nancy, and Lyotard all begin from Lévinas’s ethics of otherness. Derrida employs what might be called a linguistic-critical approach to otherness. The limits of deconstruction are found in the notion of justice. Respect for the other is the one premise that can never be deconstructed. Derrida gives a non-Kantian account of universal justice as a reception of the other that is the precondition of any language. This leads not only to an ethics of otherness, but to a conception of democracy that is linked to the ethical demands of the other. Democracy is never fulfilled, never entirely specified, but it is always yet to be. Still, Derrida’s use of otherness as a critique of ethics, politics, and philosophy denied any specific politics or doctrine. No explicit account of democracy or an ethos of otherness is possible.

In contrast, Nancy’s ethical and political reflections draw on phenomenology and on Heidegger’s notion of Mitsein (being with others) in order to develop a notion of community as incorporating otherness. Identity and difference constitute each other.

Lyotard’s position is an important  variation of the ethics of otherness. He begins with a notion of speech acts that gives more credence to everyday understanding than does Derrida or Nancy. Like neo-Aristotelians, Lyotard puts the faculty of judgment  at the center of political reflections. Despite  this  similarity  with  interpretive approaches, Lyotard relies on Lévinas’s notion of the ethical as beyond the dialogical nature of ordinary speech and action. Justice is not an ineliminable basis of his theory. Instead, justice is a political capacity that steers between the realms of action. Lyotard’s conception of justice, like Hannah Arendt’s (1906–1975), is drawn from Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) critique of judgment.

Critics of poststructuralism, such as Todd May, argue that an ethics of otherness must fail. While poststructuralists correctly identify the limits of foundationalism, they often err in equating all theoretical accounts with foundationalism. Domains of inquiry that are constituted through difference or otherness are difficult to define or delimit  and  are inherently contradictory. Even sympathetic critics, such as Simon Critchley, find the excessive emphasis on otherness to be problematic. Critical theories that grow out of Jürgen Habermas’s work have held that accountability is not just theoretical but a feature of practical activity. This  postmetaphysical version of mutual recognition and mutual understanding does not, in their view, require the identity of subjects, but fosters the inclusion of the other into ethics without the need for totality.

Poststructuralism has had a significant impact on the social sciences, especially in regard to the social construction of knowledge, communication, and methodologies. Poststructuralists challenge the traditional model of objectivity, which claims to be able to represent or describe social reality. They dissent from interpretive approaches in  holding  that  the  social construction  of  knowledge raises an irresolvable dilemma on  the  nature  of truth. Anthropologists, for example, have had to address questions about the adequacy of their descriptions of other cultures. They doubt  whether one can represent social reality in any way. Poststructuralist anthropology often contends that anthropologists create the very phenomenon they seek to study. More recently, many social scientists have linked poststructuralism to a postpositivist perspective that overcomes the division between natural science and social science. Here, all science is a kind of pragmatic production shaped by social motives of power and dominance.

Sociologists, while raising similar questions about the objectivity of knowledge, have employed poststructuralist perspectives to  study the production  of knowledge. In opposition to what they see as the interpretive theorists’ emphasis on the formative power of intentional action, poststructural sociologists want to emphasize the way subjects themselves are formed by regimes of knowledge. Foucault’s  The Order of Things (1970) is an example of this type of approach, as is Bruno Latour’s study of scientific practices. Latour sees science as constructed by the laboratory and its instruments, not independent of them.

In communications theory, Jean Baudrillard’s influential work analyzes the way in which subjectivity is constructed as a consumer of material good and products. Charles Lemert developed a general sociological approach based on poststructuralism. Though  not  strictly in the camp of poststructuralism, Bent Flyvbjerg’s attempt  to formulate a practically oriented phronetic social science draws heavily on Foucault’s linkage of power and knowledge. In addition, much of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1930–2002) writing on symbolic power and the construction of social hierarchies of knowledge in universities and in “culture” was influenced by Heidegger and poststructuralism.


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