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Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction to: Poststructuralism

“Existing meanings are not ours to command. When we use a language, we inherit & reproduce, usually unintentionally, the language’s cultural legacy & moral attitudes… This is the way in which language as it exists necessarily imposes limits on thought.”

The OUP’s Very Short Intro to Poststructuralism (2002) lucidly explains the key ideas & developments in poststructuralism, a major movement in c19th-20th intellectual, artistic, & cultural discourse. The book explains some of poststructuralism’s key ideas:

Language requires shared meanings; language can’t be private.

Existing meanings are not ours to command. When we use a language, we inherit & reproduce, usually unintentionally, the language’s cultural legacy & moral attitudes… This is the way in which language as it exists necessarily imposes limits on thought.

poststructuralism’s central claim, then, is that Consciousness = the product of the meanings we learn & reproduce.

Saussure distinguished b/w The Signifier (the visual & phonic properties of a symbol e.g. a word) vs. The Signified. A pure signifier exists only to someone who doesn’t speak/read a given language: who only sees letter shapes/hears unintelligible speech sounds. The Signifier-Signified relationship, in any langauge, is arbitrary. Learning a language, we receive the Signifier first, then its meaning.

Poststructuralism’s approach to literary criticism: No point trying to get ‘behind’ the work to decode the author’s intention, the socioeconomic conditions prevailing when the work was written, etc… No, just look AT the work: at its surface. In poststructuralism, all there is is surface. Depths are suspect.

Any text (the cultural significance of a novel/song/painting) is the effect, not of authorial intentions, but of meanings in circulation at that historical moment. The author, the text, & the reader participate in a shared practice that repdroduces their culture’s ideology.

Citationality – the cultural heritage & associations of signifiers – influences meaning. All communication & behaviour is citational: located within culture & existing discourse. Even the act of being hungry / in love is citational: we learn how to be in love, how to write love letters, how to go about acquiring & consuming food…

Read a PDF or Kindle copy of the OUP Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism to save paper.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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