Post-Structuralism is a late 20th Century movement in philosophy and literary criticism, which is difficult to summarize but which generally defines itself in its opposition to the popular Structuralism movement which preceded it in 1950s and 1960s France. It is closely related to Post-Modernism, although the two concepts are not synonymous.
In the Post-Structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry and, without a central fixation on the author, Post-Structuralists examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc), which are are therefore never authoritative, and promise no consistency. A reader's culture and society, then, share at least an equal part in the interpretation of a piece to the cultural and social circumstances of the author.
Some of the key assumptions underlying Post-Structuralism include:
- The concept of "self" as a singular and coherent entity is a fictional construct, and an individual rather comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge claims (e.g. gender, class, profession, etc). The interpretation of meaning of a text is therefore dependent on a reader's own personal concept of self.
- An author's intended meaning (although the author's own identity as a stable "self" with a single, discernible "intent" is also a fictional construct) is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives, and a literary text (or, indeed, any situation where a subject perceives a sign) has no single purpose, meaning or existence.
- It is necessary to utilize a variety of perspectives to create a multi-faceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another.
Post-Structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s, a period of political turmoil, rebellion and disillusionment with traditional values, accompanied by a resurgence of interest in Feminism, Western Marxism, Phenomenology and Nihilism. Many prominent Post-Structuralists (generally labelled as such by others rather than by themselves), such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980), were initially Structuralists but later came to explicitly reject most of Structuralism's claims, particularly its notion of the fixity of the relationship between the signifier and the signified, but also the overall grandness of the theory, which seemed to promise everything and yet not quite to deliver.
In his 1966 lecture "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science", Jacques Derrida (a key figure in the early Post-Structuralist movement, although he later founded the Deconstructionism movement), was one of the first to propose some theoretical limitations to Structuralism, and identified an apparent de-stabilizing or de-centring in intellectual life (referring to the displacement of the author of a text as having greatest effect on a text itself, in favour of the various readers of the text), which came to be known as Post-Structuralism.
Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980), originally a confirmed Structuralist, published his “The Death of the Author” in 1968, in which he argued that any literary text has multiple meanings, and that the author was not the prime source of the work's semantic content. In his 1967 work "Elements of Semiology", he also advanced the concept of the metalanguage, a systematized way of talking about concepts like meaning and grammar beyond the constraints of traditional (first-order) language.
Other notable Post-Structuralists include Gilles Deleuze (1925 - 1995), Julia Kristeva (1941 - ), Umberto Eco (1932 - 2016), Jean Baudrillard (1929 - 2007) and Judith Butler (1956 - ).