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Post-structuralism Literary Criticism

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Marie Payne

on 13 December 2013

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Transcript of Post-structuralism Literary Criticism

I. Learning Objectives
This tutorial aims to inform the audience about the contexts that post-structuralism evolved out of and its philosophical bases, as well as to explain individual theorists' contributions to how the theory was developed. At the end of the presentation students will also understand the differences between structuralism and post-structuralism and how they are associated with one another.
Post-structuralism Literary Criticism
Political Context: May '68
Post-structuralism emerged during a time of political upheaval in France. May of 1968 was filled with general worker strikes and university and factory occupations. During this short period, France’s advanced capitalist economy was virtually halted for about two weeks. May 1968 meant the end of traditional collective action and the beginning of a new era to be dominated mainly by social movements. The short-lived movement didn’t spur a revolution but it did spur a general interest in radical political and philosophical ideas among the public.
II. Thesis
Post-structuralism, mostly developed in the 60’s and 70’s by French philosophers, sought to redefine structuralism and critique its linguistic tenets. It denies that a central meaning can be found in any text and denies that you can analyze structures with accuracy, instead proposing that multiple and dynamic meanings exist and change with the societal conditions of the audience that consumes the text.
An Animated Introduction to Post-structuralism by Somebody who Knows More About it Than I Do
This video was written and voiced-over by Christopher Bolton, a professor at Williams College who teaches 20th century literary theory.
This video by Hennessy Youngman attempts to explain post-structuralism in terms that don't alienate people who aren't philosophers. His YouTube channel description is "I JUST BE NOTICING THINGS".
“One day, two years ago, when I was in Cambridge… a journalist took the microphone and said, ‘Well, could you tell me, in a nutshell, what is deconstruction?’ Sometimes, of course, I confess, I am not able to do that. But sometimes it may be useful to try nutshells.” –
Deconstruction in a Nutshell, a conversation with Jacques Derrida
Umberto Eco’s
The Open Work
It is considered by some to be the first proper post-structuralist work. In this book Eco argues that literary texts are fields of meaning and that they incorporate internally dynamic and engaging ways of interpretation.
Jacques Derrida’s
Speech and Phenomena
This and a few of his other essays (Différance and Positions) developed the idea that words and signs cannot fully conjure what they mean, but they can only be defined through the difference of other words, or by ‘deferring’ to their ‘difference’. Derrida called this concept ‘différance’ which plays on the French word ‘différence’ which means both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’. The <a> is a deliberate misspelling on his part, trying to emphasize the written word over the spoken word, as ‘différence’ and ‘différance’ are pronounced the same. Etymologically, deconstruction refers to Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘destruktion’, a process of exploring the categories of concepts that tradition has imposed on a word and the history behind them. He also argues that because the perceiver's mental state is constantly in a state of fluctuation and differs from one re-reading of a text to the next, a general theory describing this phenomenon is unachievable.
Jacques Derrida’s
Of Grammatology
It proposed the idea of deconstruction, a literary theory that relies on the idea of metaphysics of presence. The deconstructive interpretation of texts holds that the entire history of Western philosophy and its language and traditions has emphasized the desire for immediate access to meaning, and thus built a hierarchy around the privileging of presence over absence.
Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author (1967)
In this essay Barthes argues against the role the author plays in interpreting and criticizing a text. He suggests that a consideration of the author imposes a limit on the interpretations, and that instead of discovering a "single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God)," readers of a text discover that writing, in reality, constitutes "a multi-dimensional space," which cannot be "deciphered," only "disentangled." "Refusing to assign a 'secret,' ultimate meaning" to text "liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law." The "Death of the Author," Barthes maintained, was the "Birth of the Reader," as the source of the proliferation of meanings of the text.
Michel Foucault’s
Discipline and Punish
It proposes the idea of analyzing power relationships and how they perpetuate with use of language, which has since been come to be known as Foucauldian discourse analysis. Foucault uses examples from historical documents of the French penal system to develop his ideas.
"For the last ten or fifteen years, the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something... beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.— Foucault,
Society Must be Defended
Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990)
Widely known to be the foundation upon what queer and feminist theory now rests upon, Butler explores the concept of performativity and how it relates to gender. Performative phrases or words act as both the signifier and the signified. A common example of this is the phrase, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” which is simultaneously describing and producing two people as married.
Helene Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa (1975):
This book puts forward the idea of phallologocentrism; this term focuses on Derrida's social structure of speech and binary opposition as the center of reference for language, with the phallic being privileged and how women are only defined by what they lack; not A vs. B, but, rather A vs. not-A. (In later works, she reformulates this idea in a less Freudian way around more fluid gender presentations and that gender does not compose of genitals.)
“There is nothing outside of the text. (Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.)”
–Jacques Derrida
“Language refers to the position of the listener and the speaker, that is, to the contingency of their story. To seize by inventory all the contexts of language and all possible positions of interlocutors is a senseless task. Every verbal signification lies at the confluence of countless semantic rivers. Experience, like language, no longer seems made of isolated elements lodged somehow in a Euclidean space... [Words] signify from the "world" and from the position of one who is looking.” — Emmanuel Levinas,
Signification and Sense
, Humanism of the Other (1972)
Discussion Question:
Do you believe in the death of the author, and that all work you create is a production of the society you lived in and doesn’t really belong to you?

Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Cixous, Hélène, and Mireille Gruber. Hélène Cixous, rootprints memory and life writing. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
"Deconstruction." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction>.
Derrida, Jacques. Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Print.
Derrida, Jacques, and John D. Caputo. Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Differance. Frederiksberg: Det lille Forlag, 2002. Print.
Eco, Umberto. The open work. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The essential Foucault: selections from essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984. New York: New Press, 2003. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Society must be defended. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Ignacio, Juan. "The French May and the Roots of Postmodern Politics." Scribd. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/112409042/The-French-May-and-the-Roots-of-Postmodern-Politics>.
"Jacques Derrida." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida>.
Lévinas, Emmanuel, Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Emmanuel Levinas: basic philosophical writings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Print.
"May 1968 events in France." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1968_events_in_France>.
"Post-structuralism." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism>.

VI. Sources
Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Deleuze, Gilles (2009)

The Essential Foucault: Selections from The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (1990)

Structuralism and since: from Lévi-Strauss to Derrida by John Sturrock (1979)

A Very Short Introduction Series by Oxford University Press (Derrida, Post-structuralism, Foucault)
VII. Further Reading
Full transcript