Poststructuralism Essay

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Like postmodernism, this relatively recent coinage encompasses a wide range of intellectual schools and levels of analysis. These approaches tend to cluster around two somewhat overlapping camps: the ”literary” theorists interested in describing the structure of language and culture, and the ”sociological” camp consisting of sociologists and anthropologists interested in describing the structure of society and human agency.

Linguistic and cultural uses of poststructuralism draw from linguistic and philosophical debates regarding whether the essential nature of language, and by extension human consciousness, is rooted in constantly shifting systems of meaning. The founder of linguistic structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, argued that language only has meaning in relation to a specific cultural framework. He argued that the system of meaning that underlies language or signifiers is always shifting and can only be studied synchronically (at a given moment in time). Signifiers only make sense in relation to other signifiers and have no fixed relationship to the real world they represent at a given time. To illustrate, consider how the terms ”gay” and ”queer” have shifted from their conventional meanings, to pejorative terms for people with alternate sexual orientations and, more recently, to a more contested positive connotation for identifying the same group.

While Saussure was primarily interested in studying the system of meaning that underlies language itself, the literary strain of poststructuralist thought argues that other human creations such as film, advertisements, and other cultural forms can be studied as systems of meaning that only make sense within a specific cultural framework and time period. Members of this camp agree with Saussure’s assertion that language, and by extension culture, exists as a system of signifiers with no relation to the signs they represent, while rejecting his belief that this system of signs forms a well-defined and cohesive system of meanings that can be mapped through semiotics.

The first step towards literary poststructuralism was taken by Roland Barthes in his analysis of French popular culture. Barthes is notable for developing Saussure’s link between the signified and signifier into the study of culture. In Mythologies (1972) he explored the meaning underlying many forms of popular culture, including the characters and performances that made professional wrestling meaningful to spectators of the time who, he argued, were more interested in the way that culturally meaningful dramas and characters such as ”the clown” and ”the traitor” interacted than they were in the athleticism involved. Barthes explained that myths acted to naturalize a society’s values while cloaking this form of socialization behind entertainment or objectivity. His science of semiotics involves looking at various forms of literature and popular culture to uncover the social values they communicate and the practices they encourage.

Barthes was also interested in intertextuality, the idea that a work of art, such as a novel or performance, has a meaning that shifts according to the audience experiencing it and its relationship to other works of art. Barthes’s ideas were further expanded by thinkers such as Derrida and Baudrillard who emphasize the constantly shifting nature of any system of signifiers. Signifiers only make sense as they are interpreted by a reader, viewer, or participant, and since the experience and interpretations of cultural systems vary widely between individuals and across time, there is a constant shifting of cultural meanings.

Through his concept of deference, Derrida explains that any given signifier only makes sense in relation to its opposition to other signifiers. Because these relationships are not linked to any specific real-world referent and shift across different works and the interpretation, the true meaning of a text is always ”deferred.” By extension, Derrida argues that attempts to close systems of meaning within literary or philosophical texts under the guise of accurately described real-world experiences, or providing a system of ”ultimate truths,” are power games masked as objectivity. Derrida’s attempt to seek inconsistencies within these texts, to deconstruct the contingency of an author’s belief system, parallels postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives which describe the world as a whole.

The second camp of poststructuralism — the sociological one — refers to a shift from structuralist models of agency, society, and power to a more general understanding of the way that social structures influence our behavior and identity. Like Derrida and other poststructuralists in the literary camp, these poststructuralists borrowed many of the methods of structuralism while reaching very different conclusions.

Social poststructuralists argue that human agency is shaped but not determined by a wide variety of social structures and cultural forces, including systems of belief and knowledge, disciplines of the body, and other systems of thought and action. This camp of poststructuralists is primarily interested in the way that culture and other ”ideologies” shape human identities and act as unconscious systems of power over individuals.

Foucault, for example, uses the term discourses to emphasize that in modern society, power most often takes a moral form. New systems of moral control develop as a result of a compulsion to discuss and scientifically study issues that have been problematized. As a result, the academic disciplines, classifications, and practices that emerge from these discourses become systems of power.

Critics of both camps of poststructuralism provide two objections to these ideas: (1) a scientific study of culture or society is nearly impossible if these forces are viewed as situational and constantly shifting, and (2) there is little or no opportunity for resistance against social forces if they are internalized and invisible to individuals. As a result, it is argued that poststructuralist research and theory have no value for improving society because they cannot tell individuals how to escape from the yoke of social power.


  1. Barthes, R. (1972) [1957] Mythologies. Hill & Wang, New York.
  2. Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Derrida, J. (1998) Of Grammatology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
  4. Foucault,    (1990)   The   History   of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vintage Press, New York.

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