Friday, November 30, 2012

post structuralism

ceci n'est pas une pipe


le duex msteres

Foucault’s theories are often referred to as being both a structuralist and as a post sturcturalist. While the two theories are obviously related (see the names of the two theories), post structuralism makes a distinct turn away from structuralism, through theorists like Jacques Derida and Michel Foucault.  Before analyzing the aspects of structuralism and post structuralism in the work of Michel Foucault, an explanation of the two theories is necessary.  Structuralism comes from the theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who studied what he called the arbitrary “connection between the signifier and the signified” (Kronenfeld and Decker 1979:5).  Famously Saussure gave the example of a tree.  The word tree has nothing to do with the object tree, the connection made between the word (signifier) and tree (signified) is made through socialization with the community, language as cultural; “a human construction no single human can change” (Kronenfeld and Decker 1979:9).  A key feature of this theory is that signs only make sense in relation to other signs.  Other theorists, especially Claude Levi-Strauss, expanded off of Saussure’s base, by applying structuralism to fields other than linguistics like anthropology.  Strauss, in his work on myths, “abstracted out frozen and complete synchronic states from the inconsistencies and flux that occur in any actual system as a result of normal and constant diachronic change… [providing] a formal analysis”(Kronenfeld and Decker 1979:20).  Strauss’s application of structuralism was immensely influential on social theory.  Post structuralism on the other hand posits that we “are beings that are culturally constituted by interpretive frameworks or interpretive strategies that our culture makes available to us, and these strategies are the only way that we have of conceiving who we are, of thinking or of having a ‘self.’ The objects of our gaze are likewise constituted by these interpretive strategies”(Tompkins 1988:734).  The post sturcturalist thinker Derrida makes this argument in his essay Différance, where Derrida develops his concept of difference which he refers to as “what makes possible the presentation of being-present”, “the possibility of opposition”.  Différance is fundamentally undefinable, as it is the process that makes binary opposition, and language, possible.   (Tompkins 1988:741)  In this incredibly complex (and quite honestly often incoherent) work, Derrida essentially argues that the binary pairs, the oppositions from which language is based on, leaves out meaning.  He is building off of structuralism and the understanding of language as existing in a relation of meaning between words, but attacks (deconstructs) this relation, as words are always understood by relations to other words, and those words are then understood by relations to other words and so on ad infinitum.  There is never a final meaning, a word understood in and of itself.  Instead post structuralisism looks at these oppositions to find meaning instead in their difference.  This isn’t an easy concept to comprehend, as it attacks the very way we think and make sense of the world.
So where does Foucault fit into all of this? Poststructuralists look at discourse, to see how meaning is defined, something that Foucault certainly does in his works. (see history of sexuality, history of madness)  Like Saussure and Derrida, Foucault does look at meaning as existing in a system of other meaning, as being relational in nature.  In his work on madness, Focualt sees how the discourse of madness defines what it is to be mad, and how that meaning changes.  This is one of the most crucial implications of post structuralism, that meaning is not static, but dynamic.  For post structuralists there cannot be any single truth, as all meaning is relational and dynamic and since language is inherently incapable of conveying truth, due to post structuralism’s rejection of the binary opposition.  Furthermore, inherent to post structuralism is a concept of power and hierarchy.  The structures of meaning, according to post structuralists, create hierarchy, a more and a less; the binary opposition, of dominator and dominated, comes from the structure of meaning.  This makes the analysis and deconstruction of power structures central to post structuralism, and it certainly is central to Foucault’s work.  In his short work, This is not a pipe, Foucault discusses Rene Magritte’s famous work, itself translated as this is not a pipe, which depicts a pipe with the sentence this is not a pipe (see picture above).  For Foucalt, the seemingly contradictory nature of the painting comes from the conventions of language, the structural nature of language which relates the object (pipe) to the statement (this is not a pipe).  The actual logical contradiction comes, not from the object or statement, but from the method of relating the two.  This is post structuralism.    

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