Contrast or Differences between Structuralism and Post-structuralism

Post-Structuralism which is often used synonymously with Deconstruction is a reaction to structuralism and works against seeing language as a stable, closed system. It is a shift from seeing the poem or novel as a closed entity, equipped with definite meanings which it is the critic's task to decipher, to seeing literature as irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning.

Post-structuralism is a shift of emphasis from centered to decentered structures or from the centres to the margins. The shift from structuralism to post-structuralism began in the late 1960s, and can be detected in the writings of Barthes, who eventually questioned his own search for the structures underlying literature; Jacques Derrida, who `undid' structuralist texts by applying a kind of metacriticism, claiming to show that there were no governing structures; Jacques Lacan `with his systematic assault on the idea of a centred and unified self ; and Michel Foucault `with his abandonment of the idea of a single and continuous history of mankind. All share a suspicion of `centred' thought.

Post-structuralist approaches attempt to show that even so-called basic structures can be broken down into further underlying structures, and that the unifying centres themselves can be broken down. All that remains is a free play of relationships between signs.

Peter Barry points out the following are some of the differences and distinctions between structuralism and post-structuralism in his Beginning Theory.

1.Origins    Structuralism derives ultimately from linguistics. Linguistics is a discipline which has always been inherently confident  about the possibility of establishing objective knowledge. It believes that if we observe accurately, collect data systematically, and make logical deductions then we can reach reliable conclusions about language and the world. Structuralism inherits this confidently scientific outlook:it too believes in method, system,and reason as being able to establish reliable truths.

By contrast, post-structuralism derives ultimately from philosophy.Philosophy is a discipline which has always tended to emphasise the difficulty of achieving secure knowledge about things.This point of view is encapsulated in Nietzsche’s famous remark ‘there are no facts,only interpretations’.Philosophy is,so to speak,skeptical by nature and usually undercuts and questions commonsensical notions and assumptions.Its procedures often begin by calling into question what is usually taken for granted as simply the way things are. Post-structuralism inherits this habit of skepticism,and intensifies it.It regards any confidence in the scientific method as naive, and even derives a certain masochistic intellectual pleasure from knowing for certain that we can’t know anything for certain, fully conscious of the irony and paradox which doing this entails.

2.Tone and style    Structuralist writing tends towards abstraction and  generalization: it aims for a detached, ‘scientific coolness’ of tone. Given its derivation from linguistic science,this is what we would expect. And essay like Roland Barthes’s1966 piece ‘Introduction to the structural analysis of narrative’(reprinted in Image,Music,Text,ed.Stephen Heath,1977)is typical  of this tone and treatment,with its discrete steps in an orderly exposition, complete with diagrams. The style is neutral and anonymous, as is typical of scientific writing.

Post-structuralist writing, by contrast, tends to be much more emotive.Often the tone is urgent and euphoric,and the style flamboyant and self-consciously showy.Titles may well contain puns and allusions,and often the central line of the argument is based on a pun or a word-play of some kind.

Often deconstructive writing fixes on some ‘material’ aspect of language,such as a metaphor used by a writer or the etymology of a word.Overall it seems to aim for an engaged warmth rather than detached coolness.

3.Attitude to language    Structuralists accept that the world is constructed through language,in the sense that we do not have access to reality other than through the linguistic medium.All the same,it decides to live with that fact and continue to use language to think and perceive with.After all,language is an orderly system,not a chaotic one ,so realizing our dependence upon it need not  induce intellectual despair.

By contrast,post-structuralism is much more fundamentalist in insisting upon the consequences of the view that,in effect,reality itself is textual.Post-structurslism develops what threaten to become terminal anxieties about the possibility of achieving any knowledge through language.The verbal sign,in its view,is constantly floating free of the concept it is supposed to designate.Thus,the post-structuralist’s way of  speaking about language involves a rather obsessive imagery based on liquids-signs float free of what they designate,meanings are fluid, and subject to constant ‘slippage’ or ‘spillage’.This linguistic liquid,sloppling about and swilling over unpredictably,defies our attempts to carry signification carefully from ‘giver’ to  ‘receiver’ in the containers we call words.We are not fully in control of the medium of language,so meanings can not be planted in set places,like somebody planting a row of potato seeds;they can only be randomly scattered or ‘disseminated’,like the planter walking along and scattering seed with broad sweeps of the arm,so that much of it lands unpredictably or drifts in the wind.

4.Project    By ‘project’ here  I mean the fundamental aims of each movement,what it is they want to persuade us of.Structuralism,firstly,questions our way of structuring and categorising  reality,and prompts us to break free of habitual modes of perception or categorization,but it believes that we can thereby attain a more reliable view of things.

Post-structuralism is much more fundamental: it distrusts the very notion of reason,and the idea of the human being as an independent entity, preferring the notion of the ‘dissolved’ or ‘constructed’ subject, whereby what we may think of as the individual is really a product of social and linguistic forces that is,not an essence at all,merely a ‘tissue of textualities’. Thus, its torch of skepticism burns away the intellectual ground on which the Western civilization is built.