Understanding Poststructuralism
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Understanding Poststructuralism

James Williams

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Understanding Poststructuralism

James Williams

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Understanding Poststructuralism presents a lucid guide to some of the most exciting and controversial ideas in contemporary thought. This is the first introduction to poststructuralism through its major theorists - Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Kristeva - and their central texts. Each chapter takes the reader through a key text, providing detailed summaries of the main points of each and a critical and detailed analysis of their central arguments. Ideas are clearly explained in terms of their value to both critical thinking and to contemporary issues. Criticisms of poststructuralism are also assessed. The aim throughout is to illuminate the main methods of poststructuralism - deconstruction, libidinal economics, genealogy and transcendental empiricism - in context. A balanced and up-to-date assessment of poststructuralism, the book presents the ideal introduction to this most revolutionary of philosophies.

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1 Introduction: what is poststructuralism?

DOI: 10.4324/9781315712192-1

Limits and knowledge

Poststructuralism is the name for a movement in philosophy that began in the 1960s. It remains an influence not only in philosophy, but also in a wider set of subjects, including literature, politics, art, cultural criticisms, history and sociology. This influence is controversial because poststructuralism is often seen as a dissenting position, for example, with respect to the sciences and to established moral values.
The movement is best summed up by its component thinkers. Therefore, this book seeks to explain it through a critical study of five of the most important works by five of the movement’s most important thinkers (Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault and Kristeva). The principle aim is to respond to two powerful criticisms of poststructuralism_ first, that it is wilfully and irretrievably difficult; secondly, that it takes on positions that are marginal, inconsistent and impossible to maintain.
The first idea that allows for an answer to these points is that the limits of knowledge play an unavoidable role at its core. This is the common thread running through poststructuralism. It explains why structuralism had to be added to, since the structuralist project can be summed up as arriving at secure knowledge through the charting of differences within structures. According to poststructuralists, this security missed the troubling and productive roles of limits folded back into the structure. Knowledge cannot escape its limits: “It is not surrounded, but traversed by its limit, marked in its inside by the multiple furrows of its margin” (D: 25).
So “limit” is not used in a specialist sense here, for example, in mathematical terms, or as the upper or lower limits of measurable quantities. Instead, it indicates relative security and stability within a given environment, where the boundaries are seen as less dependable than the centre. For poststructuralism, the core is not more reliable, significant and better known than its limits or outer boundaries. This is because the clear distinction of core and limit is not possible. The criticism of this distinction takes poststructuralism well beyond structuralist views, even though the former owes much to the latter.
Structuralist knowledge is open to change when the observed structures change. However, despite this openness to change, in noting a repeated pattern of signs the structuralist scientist hopes to arrive at some secure understanding. For example, in charting the repeated patterns of daily life (wake–work–eat–sleep) we can begin to understand the relations between each element (their order and place). There could be limits to such patterns (sleep–sleep–play–sleep) but these would be exceptional moves away from a normal pattern. The idea is that knowledge should start with the norm and only then consider the exception. The norm implies a deviation in the definition of the exception. If there is an ethical and political side to this distinction, it is that truth and the good are in the norm, although many disagreements are possible as to what makes the norm.
Poststructuralism folds the limit back on to the core of knowledge and on to our settled understanding of the true and the good. It does this in a very radical way. That is, the limit is not compared with the core, or balanced with it, or given some kind of tempering role, in the sense, for example, of a majority listening to minorities. Rather, the claim is that the limit is the core.
What does this strange claim mean? It means that any settled form of knowledge or moral good is made by its limits and cannot be defined independently of them. It means also that any exclusion of these limits is impossible. Limits are the truth of the core and any truths that deny this are illusory or false. The truth of a population is where it is changing. The truth of a nation is at its borders. The truth of the mind is in its limit cases. But is the definition of a limit not dependent on the notion of a prior core? You only know that sleep–sleep–sleep–drink is deviant because of the dominance of wake–work–eat–sleep. No; the autonomous definition of the limit is the next most important common thread in poststructuralism. The limit is not defined in opposition to the core; it is a positive thing in its own right.
This definition is radical since it calls into question the role of traditional forms of knowledge in setting definitions. No poststructuralist defines the limit as something knowable (it would then merely become another core). Rather, each poststructuralist thinker defines the limit as a version of a pure difference, in the sense of something that defies identification. The exact terminology chosen for this difference varies greatly and is very controversial. We shall see that it also raises many serious problems. So, less controversially, the limit is an ungraspable thing that can only be approached through its function of disruption and change in the core. You cannot identify the limit, but you can trace its effects.
Poststructuralists trace the effects of a limit defined as difference. Here, “difference” is not understood in the structuralist sense of difference between identifiable things, but in the sense of open variations (these are sometimes called processes of differentiation, at other times, pure differences). These effects are transformations, changes, revaluations. The work of the limit is to open up the core and to change our sense of its role as stable truth and value. What if life took on different patterns? What if our settled truths were otherwise? How can we make things different?
This definition of the limit as something open and ungraspable – except through its traces or expressions in more fixed forms of knowledge – leads to great variations between poststructuralists. They observe the effects in different places and follow different traces. They give different temporary and necessarily illusory characterizations of the limit.
Each of the great poststructuralist texts studied here gives a different account of the play of the limit at the core, but all share the definitions given above. Each text will have a chapter to itself where its main arguments and distinguishing features will be studied. Put simply, Derrida follows the play of the limit at the apparently more immediate and truthful core of language. Lyotard traces the effect of limit-events in language and sensation. Deleuze affirms the value of a productive limit between actual identities and virtual pure differences. Foucault traces the genealogy of the limit as the historical constitution of later tensions and problems. Kristeva follows the limit as an unconscious at work undoing and remaking linguistic structures and oppositions.
Together, these works show poststructuralism as a thorough disruption of our secure sense of meaning and reference in language, of our understanding of our senses and of the arts, of our understanding of identity, of our sense of history and of its role in the present, and of our understanding of language as something free of the work of the unconscious.
Disruption should not be seen as a negative word. One aspect of poststructuralism is its power to resist and work against settled truths and oppositions. It can help in struggles against discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, against inclusions and exclusions on the basis of race, background, class or wealth. It guards against the sometimes overt, sometimes hidden, violence of established values such as an established morality, an artistic cannon or a fixed legal framework. We shall see that this does not mean that it denies them; rather, it works within them for the better.
In each of the great works to be read here, we find specific struggles and forms of resistance. Poststructuralist works cannot be abstract theoretical reflections, since they can only show the work of the limits in the practical applications of core knowledge. They must take a given actual structure and deconstruct it, transform it, show its exclusions. Thereby, they overturn assumptions about purity (in morals), about essences (in terms of race, gender and backgrounds), about values (in art and politics), about truth (in law and philosophy).
For poststructuralism, disruption must also be seen as a positive word. It is not only that there is a work against a settled core. It is rather that there is an affirmation of the power of the limit as a source of never-ending production of new and worthwhile transformations and differences. Poststructuralism is not against this and for that – once and for all. It is for the affirmation of an inexhaustible productive power of limits. It is for the resulting positive disruption of settled oppositions.

Critical counters

The radical nature of poststructuralism means that it is also very controversial. There have been many attacks on the movement. In return, it has had powerful critical roles to play. These arguments and controversies have taken many forms, from accusations about the destructive nature of radical opposition to tradition, to accusations of a betrayal of the radical cause.
When making sense of the great range of often quite ignorant and vitriolic debates that have followed the spread of poststructuralism, it is helpful to look at very pure philosophical criticisms of its general form. The radical folding back of a limit, defined as pure difference, on to a core of knowledge, falls prey to the following related objections:
  1. A limit must be defined in terms of a known core that takes precedence over it. After all, what is the limit a limit of?
  2. It makes no sense to speak of a pure difference, since in order to do so we must treat it as something knowable. You have to identify something in order to be able to speak of it.
  3. Truth is a matter of consistency and therefore presupposes some kind of core, if only in terms of logic.
  4. To deny a core is to fall into relativism, where all values are relative. If all claims are relative to different values, how do we choose justly between different claims? How do we deny extreme values?
  5. Moral goods depend on a core, and relativism is therefore to abandon morality. Many of our most important values are not relative.
These objections have great intuitive strength. They capture common-sense intuitions about the nature of truth and morality. They also sum up apparently straightforward arguments about the links between knowledge, justice and morality. This common-sense background has led debates to be rather simple and polarized, as if we need to take one side or the other dependent on whether we really care about truth, logic and morality.
The simplicity is illusory and very damaging, however, since it fails to register that all the great poststructuralist works to be read here develop their arguments with a strong critical awareness of these points. Their answers to the points could begin to be summed up as follows:
  1. There is no known core that does not presuppose the limit. The limit comes first, not the core.
  2. Sense is something more than knowledge. There are important things that matter exactly because we cannot identify them.
  3. There is truth as consistency, but there is a deeper truth as variation (the truth of the radically new as opposed to the truth of the settled).
  4. To deny absolutes, such as a certain core, is not to deny significant differences that we can act upon.
  5. There is an ethics associated with showing that a core hides differences and suppresses them; this is not to deny morality, but to deny that ethics is a matter of absolutes.
These answers show that the critical arguments must be taken a step higher. The real critical issues for the defence of poststructuralism are whether it can be shown on a case by case basis that:
  • A core is destabilized by its limits.
  • This destabilization is ethically positive.
  • It involves a new sense of truth beyond identity in reference and coherence in structure.
  • Showing something in practice is as valuable as demonstrating it once and for all.
In other words, the goal is not to give final answers to the criticisms. It is to show that they do not apply in practical but far-reaching cases (sometimes so far-reaching that they can appear to be new claims to universal truths).
This leads to an important further definition. Poststructuralism is a practice. It is not about abstract arguments or detached observations, but about a practical expression of the limits in a given core. This explains why different varieties of poststructuralism are given names that correspond to practical critical and creative activities: deconstruction (Derrida), libidinal economics (Lyotard), genealogy and archaeology (Foucault), transcendental empiricism (Deleuze), dialectics (Deleuze, Kristeva).
This pragmatic side to poststructuralism invites further critical arguments, since it seems to commit it to endless critical and constructive work, with no final truths in sight. This is indeed the case. There is an irresolvable difference between the poststructuralist commitment to practice and any commitment to an absolute foundation or final end in knowledge, logic or morality. Poststructuralism is constantly revived through openness to the new (to pure difference). It is opposed to any absolute certainty, but can only work through this opposition in repeated critical and creative practices.
This series of arguments and oppositions is not merely theoretical. The philosophical arguments have consequences and parallels in familiar political and moral disputes. If the left in politics is defined as a politics for the margins, for those who are excluded and for those who are defined as inferior and kept there, then poststructuralism is a politics of the left. If the right in politics is defined as a politics of fixed truths and values, whether these are fixed traditions, or inalienable values, or eternal moral truths, then poststructuralism is opposed to such a politics. It also draws fire and distaste from the right. This critique has often been vitriolic and deeply ill-informed.
However, given these definitions, it is a mistake to identify particular political parties or movements with the right and with the left. If a particular margin is valued, once and for all, then it cannot fit the definition of the left set out here. So a politics that rests on particular values, once and for all, is of the right; this is independent of how “good” those values are judged to be at a given time. This does not mean that poststructuralism, defined as a politics of the left, cannot fight for causes. It means that the reason for fighting for those causes has to be because they are right at a particular time and given a particular situation, rather than because the causes are cases of a wider absolute and eternal good. The struggle is for these rights now and not for universal and eternal rights.
This also means that the poststructuralist political struggle cannot appeal to absolutes and must seek to undermine them as they begin to appear, even in a politics that poststructuralists favour. So, as a politics of the left, poststructuralism cannot depend on certainty and unchangeable convictions. This does not mean that it cannot act; on the contrary, that kind of certainty is often a weakness or a lie, or a form of self-delusion. Conviction should be open to change; it should seek to change. Where it fails to do this, there is no thought.
Each of the poststructuralists considered here took stands on key injustices and conflicts. Derrida has written powerfully against apartheid. Lyotard militated for the Algerian struggles for independence and revolution, as well as the May 1968 student uprisings in his own university. Foucault and Deleuze campaigned for better conditions in prisons. Kristeva is an important figure in contemporary feminism. The turn away from absolutes in poststructuralism has not hindered political action; it has given it a different form.

Philosophical roots: Husserl and Heidegger

Although it is associated with works produced in the 1960s and 1970s, poststructuralism has deep historical roots. These allow for a better sense of the meaning and possibility of folding limits back. They also allow for a better understanding of why poststructuralism allows for this definition of its practice. Poststructuralism is a heavily historical movement reacting to a long series of philosophical ideas. It is also, though, a revolutionary way of thinking about history.
It is possible to see these philosophical roots in terms of which ones are being reacted to and which borrowed from, but this does not allow for a subtle enough understanding. This is because all the main figures in this history have provided positive and negative influences. It is also because poststructuralism continues to alter its roots. The past changes in the present and roots are not foundations. So it is better to look at the detail of which ideas have been picked up and transformed, rather than catalogue continuities and oppositions. Poststructuralism can therefore be seen as a series of interpretations of its historical roots. Each interpretation of these influences is also a transformation. So it makes more sense to think of the roots in terms of what they made possible and how they defined a terrain, rather than specific elements that were either repudiated or kept. It is a mistake to think of the movement as simply “Kantian” or simply “Anti-Cartesian”, for example.
The roots that will be covered here are among the most obvious and shared ones, but there will necessarily be exclusions that can only be justified as resulting from lack of space and time, rather than any careful principle. We shall cover the following movements and thinkers in turn: phenomenology and Husserl; hermeneutics and Heidegger; psychoanalysis and Freud; transcendental philosophy and Kant; and existentialism and Nietzsche. It should not be inferred from this list that the thinkers are clear-cut representatives of the movements.
If phenomenology is defined (no doubt overly simply) as the study of how consciousness is directed or intends towards things, and as the search for the truth or essence of that intentionality, then poststructuralism involves a critique of such truth or essences. The phenomenologist method of seeking to cut away to, or perform a reduction to an inner essence does not arrive at certainty.
For example, poststructuralist philosophers have sought to show how innate senses of our own consciousness and its relation to things cannot b...

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