Observations / Questions / Quotations / Thoughts

The Family-Like Relationship between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

As I read through Peter Barry’s explanation and analysis of “Post-structuralism and deconstruction,” I kept thinking of structuralism and post-structuralism as quarreling siblings – from the same roots, but different, contradictory, and at-times hostile to the other.

Whatever structuralism does, post-structuralism does just the opposite – and to a seemingly further degree.

“Is post- structuralism a continuation and development of structuralism or a form of rebellion against it? In one important sense it is the latter, since a very effective way of rebelling is to accuse your predecessors of not having the courage of their convictions.”

“If we have the courage, [post-structuralism’s] implication is, we will enter this new […] universe, where there are no guaranteed facts, only interpretations, none of which has the stamp of authority upon it, since there is no longer any authoritative centre to which to appeal for validation of our interpretations.” (Emphasis mine)

I feel caught in Culler’s discussion, wading through distinct and overlapping views of literary and cultural studies. Though these excerpts echo more common generational tensions than intergenerational tensions (i.e. parent-child rather than sibling-sibling), Barry makes a point that I find interesting. In the sense of rebellion and more ardently clinging to “convictions,” post-structuralism may or may not have begun as an attempt to take structuralism one step further. Whichever is the case, the two profiles now dramatically foil the other.

The distinctions between the two – their origins, tone and style, attitude to language, and purpose – illustrate this night-and-day complex. I find it fascinating that two such approaches, both of which I know realize I have utilized in literature classes and in personal reflection, can both illuminate texts, with an eventual end of deeper reflection on and analysis of a text.

Structuralists identify patterns and symmetries with the aim of discovering a unified text that is “happy with itself,” while post-structuralist reading patterns seek to “read the text against itself” to uncover disunity – a text “engaged in a civil war with itself.” This personification of approaches to reading and analysis and interpretation are thoroughly engaging.

Ultimately I find humor in their shared fault. The warring siblings, ever antagonistic, have yet to evade one connective bond: “both tend to make all poems seem similar.” By the time both theories have had their way with a work, all works suffer from the same flaws.

As I read I felt a strange sense of familiarity with deconstructive practices. I came to see the reflection of my own habits when analyzing a work, though certainly not to the same extent and level of complexity. However, I recognize approaches taken by both past teachers and myself in the structuralist vein, as well. Ultimately, I must conclude that I have utilized both, and the combined perspectives, as well as those of other critical strategies, serve to gather a deeper, more holistic interpretation and evaluation of a work.

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2 thoughts on “The Family-Like Relationship between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

  1. Hi Becca,
    Thanks for the good response. S and PS do seem like quarreling siblings. PS as the younger sibling has to reject everything that S attempts to do, and yet you are right, there is a final irony in that both ultimately are not concerned with the close textual analysis. both leave close readings in order to concentrate on larger issues. That’s a good insight to keep in mind. I have always believed that we need to read a text closely before inferring and expanding. I think taking a little of both is a good approach. dw

  2. It seeems like every one of these movements starts with a rejection, if not a full-out rebellion, against a previously established movement. There is a similar relationship between Modernism and Post-Modernism, for example. It makes me wonders how we’ll progress beyond Post-Modernism without reverting. How do you reject a rejection without being caught in a theory vortex? I suppose if we are to progress, it would have to coinside with some unforseeable philosophical, literary, or ideological leap.. Who knows? There’s a lot to consider. Not least of which is the very idea of progression. Does art or theory really ever ‘progress?’ I can think of quite a few people who would answer no.

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