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date: 26 July 2017

Poststructuralism

Summary and Keywords

Poststructuralism represents a set of attitudes and a style of critique that developed in critical response to the growth and identification of the logic of structural relations that underlie social institutions—whether they exist in terms of politics, economics, education, medicine, literature, or the sciences. Poststructuralism should therefore not be thought of as a distinct philosophy that exists separately as its own “structure”—a proposition that would undermine its most fundamental attitudes. Rather, poststructuralism should be thought of as developing or arising only in response to pre-existing structures and, as a set of attitudes, helping us better understand, interpret, and alter our social environment by calling established meanings into question, revealing the points of ambiguity and indeterminacy inherent in any system, rejecting the rationalistic piety that all systems are internally coherent and circle around an unchanging center, showing how discourses are carriers of power capable of turning us into subjects, and placing upon us the burden of ethical responsibility that accompanies the acceptance of freedom.

Although poststructuralism by its very nature as a set of attitudes denies any attempt at comprehensive definition, this essay examines three of the major postructuralist thinkers in order to relate their thought to the study of communication. First, following Derrida, poststructuralist thought invites a critical deconstruction of any discourse that presents itself as completely coherent, centered, and rational. Poststructuralist approaches thus do not argue against a position by harnessing counterarguments drawing on a different set of principles. Rather, it deconstructs a discourse by occupying it and exposing the gaps, contradictions, paradoxes, and deferments, thus revealing its established hierarchies, binaries, logical conclusions, and principles to be far more loosely structured and poly-vocal than its advocates wish to present them. Second, following Barthes, poststructuralism refuses to locate any single point of origin of any text that can ground its meaning—particularly by pointing to some ground of the author. Although not denying that writers exist, Barthes refuses to identify the meaning of a text with the author’s biography and intentions, instead inviting multiple interpretations from the perspective of individual readers who encounter the text as a unique event. Therefore, just as discourses do not have a unified structure, neither do individual texts or the authors that produce them. Lastly, following Fouacult, poststructuralism invites an inquiry into how discourses, texts, and acts of communication are always implicated in relations of power that act upon possible actions. Following the first two propositions, poststructuralism does not analyze these relations of power as completely structured and determinate, however. Power relations are always within a dynamic relationship with acts of resistance, thereby constantly leaving space for freedom and possibility.

Keywords: linguistics, deconstruction, hermeneutics, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, power, author, decentering, meaning, structure, limit, freeplay

Introduction

As the name implies, poststructuralism is that which is arrived at after passing through and going beyond “structure.” Poststructuralism is neither a kind of primitivism that celebrates of some mythic state of nature when human beings were without structure nor a kind of nihilism that simply rejects the existence or legitimacy of all structures whatsoever. Rather, poststructuralism represents a set of attitudes and a style of critique that developed in critical response to the growth and identification of the logic of structural relations that underlie social institutions—whether they exist in terms of politics, economics, education, medicine, literature, or the sciences. Poststructuralism should therefore not be thought of as a distinct philosophy that exists separately as its own “structure”—a proposition that would undermine its most fundamental attitudes. Rather, poststructuralism should be thought of as developing or arising only in response to pre-existing structures and, as a set of attitudes, helping us better understand, interpret, and alter our social environment by calling established meanings into question, revealing the points of ambiguity and indeterminacy inherent in any system, rejecting the rationalistic piety that all systems are internally coherent and circle around an unchanging center, showing how discourses are carriers of power capable of turning us into subjects, and placing upon us the burden of ethical responsibility that accompanies the acceptance of freedom.

As with all broad and fashionable terms for intellectual movements, however, poststructuralism cannot avoid being reduced to a few essential features that elicit familiar critical reactions. According to Dillet, Porter, and Mackenzie, on the one hand, “poststructuralism simply comes after structuralism; it is a form of relativism; it celebrates the death of the subject; it is a post-metaphysical form of inquiry that has utterly displaced the idea of truth: it is stylistically obtuse; it refuses all claims to normativity; and it transforms critical practice into textual play” (2013, p. 2). On the other hand, the criticisms of poststructuralism are as follows: “It is empirically insightful but normatively confused; unable to perceive the performative contradictions of its own analyses; it lacks emancipatory potential and has lost sense of the central role of critical agency; and, as some Marxists often portray poststructuralism, it is a form of dogmatic thought in league with the consumerist society of late capitalism” (p. 2). Yet according to Dillet et al., its postcard summary and its simplistic critiques do not “capture the complexity of its emergence nor its current position in the Academy and beyond” (p. 2). Indeed, Dillet et al. prefer to discuss poststructuralist not as a system of thought but as an “intellectual and institutional event” that “opened a new critical practice that focused on the limits of existing knowledge” (pp. 4–5). In this way, poststructuralism carried with it a kind of rhetorical ethos, a deployment of words arising in a specific situation to disrupt and transform an established way of thinking, talking, and being.

Narrowly defined, poststructuralism can be described as an “event” centered around the period in France that gave rise to thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Serres, Giles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard. They wrote in a post-war context in a nation that had experienced Nazi occupation and whose structure of power was supported by ideological and genocidal propaganda that seemed to be based on nothing other than the lust for power. May 1968 then initiated a period of civil unrest in France punctuated by demonstrations and culminating in general strikes and the occupation of universities and factories which brought the economic and political order of the country to a halt. According to Williams (2014):

May 1968 can be interpreted as showing that a different kind of resistance and revolution is possible: a revolution that works through different structures and bodies, opening them up to new possibilities free of set ideological directions and political logic. As an heir to 1968, poststructuralism advocates spontaneity, fluidity and openness and political movements of resistance; the revolution of the folding in of limits extends into revolutionary structures and goals. (p. 20)

Poststructuralist French thought can thus be seen as a philosophical and literary movement that paralleled the political disruption of France as it sought to challenge and transform the entire social structure of the country not by imposing a new structure but by continually holding open new possibilities for action and reinvention.

However, poststructuralism can also be more broadly defined as a set of attitudes toward communication that has a much longer history than that confined to a few decades in France at the end of the 20th century. Many traditions locate it origin with Friedrich Nietzsche’s rejection and criticism of Enlightenment rationalism in the 19th century, but one might go even farther back and make an argument that the ancient Greek Sophist Gorgias was the first recognizable “poststructuralist” despite the fact that he lived in the early part of the 5th century bce in Greece. In reaction to the natural philosophies of philosophers like Thales, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles, all of whom wrote texts called “On Being” in order to identify the center of all Being, Gorgias penned a masterful and playful parody titled “On Not Being” in order to mock the entire notion of locating any essential center in nature. Specifically, he makes three arguments that turned conventional ideas on their heads: (1) that nothing exists, namely because existence requires permanence and anything that changes therefore either comes from nothing or goes into nothing, which is impossible; (2) that even if it existed, it is unknowable, namely because the ideas in the mind never completely match the external world; and (3) that even if Being existed and could be known, it could not be communicated because words are not thoughts, things, colors, or tastes, but simply words: “therefore, if anything is knowable, no one could make it evident to another because things are not words and because no one has the same thing in mind as another” (1995b, p. 209). It is based on these resonances between classical and contemporary thought that McComiskey has argued that “Sophistic doctrines have been useful in the development of poststructuralist and pragmatist rhetoric of public discourse” (2002, p. 66). Whether or not Gorgias should or should not be called a “poststructuralist” is not the point; it is rather to demonstrate that poststructuralism, as a set of attitudes, has had a long prehistory.

Furthermore, showing how poststructuralist thought resonates with Sophists like Gorgias emphasizes the degree to which poststructuralism and communication overlap. Gerald Greenberg writes that “poststructuralism is a broad and varied school of thought that has much to say about language, its use, the meanings created by it, and the power attached to it—all of which has proved to be of interest to a wide variety of humanities and social science scholars including communication researchers” (2002, p. 150). But this “interest” is complicated by the fact that poststructuralist thought tends to be highly critical of traditional theories of communication grounded either in the humanistic presumptions of autonomous agents or in the social scientific presumptions about the ability for language to accurately explain or describe human relationships with some degree of universality. Indeed, as Greenberg observes, the critical attitude that pervades poststructuralism leads many to assume “that poststructuralists do not view anything as capable of being effectively communicated” (2002, p. 150). But just as the Sophist Gorgias was a teacher of rhetoric who also argued that it is impossible to communicate ideas perfectly between two minds using words, poststructuralists take a critical stance toward communication as a starting point for new communicative possibilities and actions.

From Structuralism to Poststructualism

To understand the how poststructuralism approaches communication, one must first understand the structuralists’ approach to language to which they responded. Structuralism took as its starting point the insights of French linguist Ferdinand Saussure and his Course in General Linguistics published in 1916. Although Saussure produced his work many decades before structuralism emerged as a distinct form of thought, his innovations in our understanding of language provided the basis for structuralism. Specifically, Saussure developed a theory of the sign that reacted against the positivism of his day, which understood the basis of all meanings to reside in the “positive” relationship that specific terms have with definable empirical objects or events. Positivism thus formed the basis of early philosophy of science which was skeptical of abstract terms or nonmathematical languages in which relationships between words were not grounded in any matter of fact. In contradistinction, Saussure argued that “in the language itself, there are only differences,” and that “even more important than that is the fact that, although in general a difference presupposes positive terms between which the difference holds, in a language there are only differences, and no positive terms” (1989, p. 118). For Saussure, then, language was not something that developed piece by piece, as if individual words were developed to refer to individual phenomena and only later gathered together into a coherent language system. Quite the opposite, “a language is a system in which all the elements fit together, and in which the value of any one element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others” (Saussure, 1989, p. 113). And even more radically, Saussure argued that our entire sign system of language is completely arbitrary and thereby has no real connection with a world outside of itself. Every language is thus its own “structure” in which all the parts hang together by arbitrary relations and whose most notable feature is a system of binaries and hierarchies that define terms through difference.

Saussure’s linguistics was to reject traditional approaches to studying language—that is, a diachronic, historical study of how individual words came to refer to actual objective things or events—and move toward a new, synchronic approach that looked at how the entire system of any language functions at any point in time. The focus of the study would thus fall not on what Saussure called parole, or the specific, purposive, and situated speech acts by individual actors, but on langue, or the internal arrangement and relationship of rules understood by a social group which was responsible for giving words their meanings. Saussure thus distinguished between the signifier, which was the sound pattern of a word that made it recognizable as a sign, and the signified, which was the concept or meaning of the word that existed as an idea and not an actual object. Langue was thus the system of rules and relations that established the relationship between signifier and signified in any culture. And important for understanding poststructuralist thought, Saussure made very strong claims concerning the degree to which any langue was coherent, fixed, and deterministic. Saussure argued that the signifier “is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it. The masses have no voice in the matter, and the signifier chosen by language could be replaced by no other … [The] community itself cannot control so much as a single word; it is bound to the existing language” (1989, p. 71). To pursue a study of structural linguistics was thus to study how the existing language is structured and in turn regulates the usage in any linguistic community at the level of an unconscious awareness that becomes second nature.

Structuralism developed out this approach within a postwar environment that understood structures of language to also be carriers of power. Saussure had written that “a particular language-state is always the product of historical forces, and these forces explain why the sign is unchangeable” (1989, p. 65). Structuralism studied how a language state came into existence through historical forces and developed a langue based on binaries and hierarchies to regulate the thoughts, behaviors, and practices of an entire language community. Structuralism is today most associated with the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who pushed structuralist assumptions to their limit by proposing, through his study of myth, “the universal laws which make up the unconscious activity of the mind” (1967, p. 64). But as Peter Caws points out, structuralism does not require “the view that there exists some objective or deep generating structure of which the structures it studies are transformations” (1988, p. 1). It simply requires the presumption that, at a certain space and time, some structure exists within a community that determines its language use and corresponding behavior. Michel Foucault, for instance, was fully within the tradition of structuralist thought when, in the Archeology of Knowledge, he sought to reveal the structure of what he called an episteme, by which he meant “the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and formalizable systems” and which exist as “the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyzes them at the level of discursive regularities” (1972, p. 161). Although Foucault explicitly rejected the “structuralist” label, his presumption that any study could reveal a “total set of relations” that unite all “discursive practices,” establish clear binaries and hierarchies, and which is largely arbitrary, is wholly consistent with structuralist methods.

Poststructuralism develops out of this structuralist position not by rejecting structure per se but by challenging many of its rationalistic and totalizing presumptions. Structuralism was attractive because it presumed to account for everything. Any set of practices, beliefs, and events, no matter how apparently contradictory or diverse, could be reduced to an explanation of some underlying structure that brought everything into a unity. The attraction of Freudian or Marxist explanations, for instance, can be attributed to their structuralist confidence in providing a universal account of human behavior or historical events while also providing some method for leveraging change in the future. Poststructuralism shares with structuralism much of its desire to study language and discourse as well as some of his reformist goals, but it rejects structuralism’s rationalism and universalism. The great discovery of poststructuralism, in other words, was that the very structuralist analyses that purported to reveal a total and coherent set of relations actually revealed the opposite—that all so-called structures are in fact riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and incoherencies. Moreover, poststructuralism asserted that these gaps are not simply the result of an incomplete system but are the outgrowth of the very nature of language itself. Whereas structuralists like Saussure had simply assumed that it was possible for langue to exist as a perfect set of internally coherent relations and thereby saw speech acts of parole as exceptions to the rule or departures from the norm, poststructuralists like Derrida viewed parole, in all its eventfulness, as more representative of the nature of language which always escapes our ability to completely limit its scope.

For poststructuralists, then, the study of parole reveals the systematic presumptions of langue not only to be illusory but also to be at the heart of its power. Poststructuralism thus does not reject the structuralist belief that discourse is the carrier of power; what it does is to say that that power derives, in part at least, from the myth of its totalizing character than from in its actual ability to completely determine meanings and direct behavior. Judith Butler, for instance, identifies poststructuralism as the rejection of “the claims of totality and universality and the presumption of binary structural oppositions that implicitly operate to quell the insistent ambiguity and openness of linguistic and cultural signification” (1990, p. 40). For Butler, the difference between structuralism and poststructuralism is found in their respective approaches to signification. Structuralism asserts that the relationship between signifier and signified can be completely and fully determined by a culture’s linguistic structure. In contradistinction, poststructuralism sees this relationship as always fluid and subject to play: “As a result, the discrepancy between signifier and signified becomes the operative and limitless différance of language, rendering all referentiality into a potentially limitless displacement” (Butler, 1990, p. 40). The next sections will explore the basis and significance of this recognition by examining particular works by three of the major representative theorists of poststructuralism—Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault.

Jacques Derrida and the Decentering of Discourse

One of the founding events of poststructuralist thought was the 1966 lecture by Jacques Derrida titled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” This lecture introduced many terms now familiar in poststructuralist discourse—event, rupture, presence, composition, paradox, bricoleur, play, supplement, and difference—but its most important contribution was to clearly distinguish poststructuralist from structuralist thought by its attitude toward the “center.” Specifically, Derrida argued that the defining characteristic of structuralism had been “a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin,” and that “the function of the center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure—one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure—but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure” (1991, p. 278). Against this position, poststructuralism proposes an act of “decentering.” What this meant was to “begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being present, that the center had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (Derrida, 1991, p. 280). Poststructuralism thus did not simply turn structuralism on its head and eliminate and idea of the center; what it did was to de-naturalize the center by redefining as a function that was constantly changing and often difficult to hold in one place.

The structuralist notion of a “center” can be easily understood in communicative terms by associating it with the whole tradition of “god terms” in rhetoric. For instance, Richard Weaver defines a god term as “that expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate and serving dominations and powers,” and which “fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood” (1985, p. 212). Weaver’s position is an entirely structuralist one. In explaining the notion of center, for instance, Derrida basically lists a series of God terms, arguing that “it would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence—eidos, arché, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth” (1991, p. 280). Moreover, he argues that the purpose of these terms is to regulate free play by creating those theories of dominations, subordinations, and limits that emanate in concentric circles around the god terms. Thus for Derrida, any flexibility within a system is nonetheless “constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the free play” (1991, p. 279). Weaver’s subsequent complaint against what he calls “charismatic terms” is indicative of this anxiety about what occurs when a discourse lacks a center. Weaver writes that charismatic terms “seem to have broken loose somehow and operate independently of referential connections,” and that “the charismatic term is given its load of impulsion without reference, and it functions by convention” (1985, pp. 227–228). His appeal for an ethics of rhetoric grounded on a completely coherent and self-sustaining system of statements that surround a clearly defined center—an ultimate term—thus expresses the tendency of all structuralist thought to see the universe as a linguistic totality.

It is less to deny the desirability of such an ethics than to refute its very possibility that Derrida performs a close reading of the structuralist writings of Lévi-Strauss to show this structuralist dream of a complete and organize totality to be an illusion. Moreover, characteristic of poststructuralist criticism generally, Derrida does not argue his case from a counter philosophical position relying on his own imported presumptions. Rather, he occupies the discourse of Lévi-Strauss to show, from an internal critique, how the latter’s structuralist assumptions breakdown within his very own writing. Throughout his work, according to Derrida, Lévi-Strauss relies on a dichotomy between nature and culture in which “that belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous” while that belongs to culture “which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another” (Derrida, 1991, p. 283). In his inquiry into myth, Lévi-Strauss sought to use structural method to reveal the center not only of any particular culture’s mythological structure but the universal center of all such structures that emanated from a single natural essence. Yet when Lévi-Strauss encountered the incest-prohibition, the simple dichotomy between nature and culture seemed to break down. On the one hand, Derrida writes, “the incest prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in the sense one could call it cultural” (1991, p. 283). Whereas Lévi-Strauss saw this as an exception to the rule, however, Derrida sees it as exemplifying what is in fact a characteristic of all structures—the fact that there is no such absolute center, privileged reference, or natural presence regulating the whole system; any system of language and discourse is fraught with contradictions, exceptions, and unexpected events that become readily apparent when one looks closely at its utterances.

The result of Derrida’s “decentering” of the structuralist “center” is not to do away with all structure but rather to loosen the jangle of the multiple structures which we use and in which we inhabit—to encourage what he calls “freeplay.” In the structuralist understanding, “the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the free play of the structure” (Derrida, 1991, p. 278). That is to say, new possibilities might be entertained, but only insofar as they were safely contained inside the limits of the total form as understood as emanating from an established and natural core. But once the center is seen to be multiple, mobile, and often indeterminate, the established relationships between center and limit are seen to be constantly in motion. Freeplay emerges in a decentered structure as a “field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble”—that is to say an ability to constantly combine and recombine a finite number of signs and symbols to create new and unpredictable events and utterances within a bounded linguistic system (Derrida, 1991, p. 289). Poststructuralism as an attitude thus represents an embrace of freeplay, an acceptance of the fact that our structures are never fixed and constantly changing, and an eagerness to challenge structuralist assumptions of a “center” wherever they are still maintained in our discourses, whether they be ideological, scientific, philosophical, political, religious, literary, or historical.

Roland Barthes and the Death of the Author

Another significant contribution that poststructuralism made to our understanding of communication—specifically the method of interpreting texts—is to challenge the notion that the basis for that interpretation is the biography, contexts, thoughts, and intentions of the authors that produced them. In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes (1977) announces not the death of individuals who write—for certainly many texts are physically produced by a single hand—but rather the death of the author as that romantic ideal of an individual genius wholly responsible for unrolling a work of brilliance out of their private consciousness and whose meaning can only be found in relationship to that consciousness. For Barthes, “the author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 142–143). The rise of the author in recent times has also been aided by what he calls a “capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author” as one might imagine in the intersection between copyright law and marketing (p. 143). The result of the rise of the author was an interpretive method whereby everything that was encountered in the text ultimately had to be traced back to its new “center”—the author himself or herself. Barthes observes that “the author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines,” and that “the image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions” (p. 143). In this model of interpretation, freeplay is almost eliminated and the limits of interpretation are strictly controlled by this tyrannical center.

When Barthes announced the death of the author, however, it is important to note what characterized his position as uniquely poststructuralist as opposed to structuralist. For structuralism, too, might declare the death of the author in its own way while retaining a “center” in language itself. For instance, Barthes notes that “Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and to foresee in its full extent the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner. For him, for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author” (Barthes, 1977, p. 143). Yet this comment might easily be reconciled with the structuralist position insofar as individuals are seen as simply individual emanations of a cultural linguistic structure which largely determines what can be said. But this simply moves the center from the author’s biography to the language in which that author inhabits. For a structuralism focused on langue, one might easily kill the author but retain a method of interpretation that might speak of “French literature” as the foundation for criticism and meaning.

Barthes, however, goes past the structuralist move to embrace a total decentering of interpretation—both in its production and its interpretation. On the one hand, the death of the author does not negate the act of writing itself. It simply locates writing within the moment of writing rather than in the biography or intentions of an author that preceded the text. Consequently, “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now” (Barthes, 1977, p. 145). The author is thus replaced with a scriptor who represents simply a string of utterances created in an ongoing present. On the other hand, the meaning of the work is detached from this productive act and decentered in a multiplicity of readers who encounter a work in their own present moments. He writes that “every text is eternally written here and now,” namely by locating the meaning of the work neither in the author nor in the author’s native tongue but rather in the individual reader who encounters a work (p. 145). In short, Barthes argues that “its source, its voice, is not the true place of the writing, which is reading” (p. 147). With the death of the author, both creative production and creative interpretation are avoided in the points of encounter between an individual and a text that is not determined (though it may be influenced) by any larger structure outside of that moment.

However, the impact of this poststructuralist attitude toward the author is clearly on the side of interpretation. The death of the author effectively challenged the authority of centuries of established interpretations of classical works grounded in detailed knowledge of history, language, biography, philosophy, and psychology. In Barthes’s position, however, these interpretations are simply one set of an infinite number of different encounters of readers with texts—which themselves consist of nothing other than many writings and readings. Barthes writes that “a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation” (Barthes, 1977, p. 148). The effect of all of this is to proliferate interpretations and encounters and give authority to the reader as the source of all meaning. Barthes concludes that “there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (p. 148). In short, poststructuralism encourages critics of texts not only to develop their own interpretations but to rediscover the unique interpretations of others in history that may have been overlooked or suppressed by dominant interpretations. With the death of the author, new voices of new readers are encouraged to come forward to engage in dialogue, parody, or contestation.

Michel Foucault and the Economy of Power

Perhaps the most significant way that poststructuralism has influenced the study of communication has occurred with respect to the study of power. From the origin of the study of language with the Sophists and later with Plato and Aristotle, power has been a central concern. Returning to the work of Gorgias, in this case his Encomium of Helen, written as a mock defense of Helen of Troy, the Sophists argued that Helen should be excused from blame for fleeing to Troy because of the irresistible influence of the speech (logos) of Paris. Gorgias argued that “speech is a powerful master and achieves the most divine feats with the smallest and least evident body,” that “the power of speech has the same effect on the disposition of the soul as the disposition of drugs on the nature of bodies,” and that persuasion “has the same power, but not the same form as compulsion” (1995a, pp. 192–193). This power derives not only from its ability to manipulate emotions, but also because of its ability to create “illusions of the mind and delusions of judgment” which replace the complex and chaotic world in which we live with a false illusion of clarity and order generated by words (p. 192). It was precisely this presumption that language has power (without necessarily being a bearer of truth or virtue) that inspired the desire in Plato to identify a new center of order in the Forms.

The work of Michel Foucault in many ways harkens back to the position of Gorgias, but with one major difference. Gorgias, as a Sophist, approached logos as a single persuasive act—an oration—that could overwhelm its listeners in the moment because of its sheer persuasiveness. Foucault, in contradistinction, is more interested in logos as a discourse whose power is not located in a single act but a whole network of strategies and relations that functions to organize societies, cultures, and institutions. As Foucault explains in his essay, “The Subject and Power,” his goal has not been to study specific texts in order to show how it attains power over specific audiences, as might a Sophist; rather his objective “has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (1994, p. 126). In the Encomium of Helen, for instance, Gorgias explains the way in which Helen was made a “subject” by the logos of Paris, persuading her to accept a new identity as his wife and also as one who betrayed the trust of the Greeks. Foucault pursues a similar inquiry but at the level of discourse, disciplines, and society. His interest is to study “the way in which systems of objective finality and systems of communication and power can be welded together” for the purposes of constituting forms of subjectivity that are seen to be necessary for the social order (p. 136).

Crucial to understanding Foucault’s position, however, is to distinguish it from a structuralist interpretation. If Foucault were a structuralist (as he was often accused of being in his early work), he might posit that there exists at any time a coherent and organized “discourse” with a clearly defined center that operates below the level of conscious awareness and anywhere and everywhere determines our thoughts, actions, and identities. In his words, this approach would analyze “power from the point of view of its internal rationality” and then would reveal how that rationality emanates throughout an entire structure (Foucault, 1994, p. 129). However, as a poststructuralist, Foucault rejects the idea that any discourse operates according to the dictates of some internal rationality that is always coherent and consistent. Although he argues that “power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social,” this is “not to say, however, that there is a primary and fundamental principle of power which dominates society down to the smallest detail” (p. 141). Rather, “the forms and the specific situations of the government of some by others in any given society are multiple; they are superimposed, they cross over, limit and in some cases annul, in others reinforce, one another” (p. 141). Consistent with poststructuralist presumptions, there are always multiple centers in any system of power relations and structures of discourse. Moreover, “every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle, in which the two forces are not superimposed, do not lose their specific nature, or do not become fully confused” (p. 142). Power thus always stands in relationship to some form of resistance with which it is struggling.

The relationship between communication and power in Foucault is thus not simply a matter of analyzing speech acts and determining their immediate persuasive effects. It is a matter of studying, in any given society, the relationship among power relations, relationships of communication, and objective capacities. By objective capacities, Foucault means “the field of things, of perfected technique, work, and the transformation of the real” through some combination of physical activity and technological force (Foucault, 1994, p. 135). Legs and arms have objective capacity, as do automobiles, telephones, weapons, and cameras. By relationships of communication, he means “that of signs, communication, reciprocity, and the production of meaning” that arises through the sharing of signs and which allows two or more people to understand one another’s purposes, goals, meanings, identities, emotions, or beliefs (p. 135). Power relations then are restricted to mean “the domination of the means of constraint, of inequity and the action of men upon other men” (p. 135). Specifically, Foucault means by power “a mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others,” but rather “acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions” (p. 137). Power thus “is a set of actions on possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult” (p. 138). For instance, the physical abuse of another individual is an application of objective capacity, not of power. However, a casual threat made against another person—using communication to make clear one’s possession of objective capacity and the willingness to use it for violence—may act upon future actions by making them do or not do certain things in the awareness of what might happen to them. Similarly, laws combined with police enforcement and surveillance allow a state to exert power not by directly arresting a criminal but rather by regulating the possible actions of an entire population and making them “subject” to the law. The study of communication must therefore be situated within these complex relations between communication, power, and objective capacities in order to understand its unique function.

The method that Foucault proposes to study communication is based on what he calls a “new economy of power relations, a way that is more empirical, more directly related to our present situation, and one that implies more relations between theory and practice” (Foucault, 1994, p. 128). In this new economy of power relations, old methods of studying communication as individual speech acts, either by intentional agents in discreet situations or as a systematic structural inquiry into the internal rationality of some political party, ideology, institution, state, or social movement, are largely rejected—the former because it isolates the speech act from its larger context of power relations and strategies and the latter because it imposes a structural rationality on a constantly changing and decentered structure. Instead, research “consists in taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point,” using “this resistance as a chemical catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, find out their point of application and the methods used” (p. 128). In other words, the study of power first requires some specific act of resistance in order to then study how power is exercised upon that resistance at a specific point, using these observations as material to trace out “power relations through the antagonism of strategies” as they emerge (pp. 128–129). For instance, instead of simply looking at the speech acts of an individual (Paris) as he attempts to persuade a specific audience (Helen), the flight of Helen to Troy would be seen as an act of resistance that set in motion a whole sequence of power relations in the aristocracy of Greece culminating in the campaign against Troy. The entire structure of the Iliad—particularly insofar as it dramatizes the way in which the characters negotiate their own subjectivities as women and men in a time of war—would thus be a more appropriate artifact for poststructural analysis than any single speech by Paris.

The study of communication within this system thus always situates our thoughts, actions, and utterances within a network of power relations and confrontation strategies that often strive for stability and yet cannot ever eliminate what he calls “the free play of antagonistic reactions” (Foucault, 1994, p. 142). And the goal of such research is not to study how specific choices are made but how general subjectivities are formed and resisted. For instance, in the study of educational institutions, one might look at how “activity to ensure learning and the acquisition of aptitudes or types of behavior works via a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differential marks of the ‘value’ of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy)” which in turn rely on the possession and use of certain technical capacities (buildings, cameras, busses, computers) (p. 136). The goal is not to understand any particular individual, event, or speech act but rather to use these as material to understand the power relations of the entire system. And consistent with the ethics of poststructuralism generally, the end goal of this type of inquiry would be to “liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization linked to the state,” thus promoting “new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality that has been imposed on us for several centuries” (p. 134). As with all poststructuralist endeavors, Foucault seeks to reveal the possibilities of freedom and free play within a structure that seeks to cover up these possibilities and limit novelty to a safe zone surrounding an identifiable center.

Conclusion

Although poststructuralism by its very nature as a set of attitudes denies any attempt at comprehensive definition, this brief analysis of three works by three major poststructuralist thinkers identifies at least three important consequences for the study of communication. First, following Derrida, poststructuralist thought invites a critical deconstruction of any discourse which presents itself as completely coherent, centered, and rational. Poststructuralist approaches thus do not argue against a position by harnessing counterarguments drawing on a different discourse. Rather, poststructuralism occupies that discourse and exposes the gaps, contradictions, paradoxes, and deferments that reveal its established hierarchies, binaries, logical conclusions, and principles to be far more loosely structured and poly-vocal than it wishes to present itself. Second, following Barthes, poststructuralism refuses to locate any single point of origin of any text that can ground its meaning—in particular the ground of the author. Although not denying that writers exist, Barthes refuses to identify the meaning of a text with the author’s biography and intentions and instead invites multiple interpretations from the perspective of individual readers who encounter the text as a unique event. Therefore, just as discourses themselves do not have a unified structure, neither do individual texts. Lastly, following Fouacult, poststructuralism invites an inquiry into how discourses, texts, and acts of communication are always implicated in relations of power that act upon possible actions. Following the first two propositions, structuralism does not analyze these relations of power as completely structured and determinate, however. Power relations are always within a dynamic relationship to acts of resistance, thereby constantly leaving space for freedom and possibility.

From this perspective of poststructuralism, one can see its resonance with the sophistical attitudes of Gorgias, for whom language is on the one hand a vehicle for power but on the other hand always contingent, relative, playful, and open to possibility. The Sophists, of course, did not have a modern understanding of structure. This is why it is anachronistic to call Gorgias a poststructuralist despite his echoing some of its attitudes. Poststructuralism moves beyond the Sophists insofar as it looks at all speech acts from the point of view of a decentered structure that is but one of many in a diverse global environment. Also, the Sophists, while cosmopolitan for their day, nonetheless widely accepted Greek norms as universal. In modern poststructuralism, all of this is called in question. Julia Kristeva (2000) gives us a succinct summary of the ethical implications of poststructuralist thought. She writes that

ethics used to be a coercive, customary manner of ensuring the cohesiveness of a particular group through the repetition of the code—a more or less accepted apologue. Now, however, the issue of ethics crops up wherever a code (mores, social contract) must be shattered in order to give way to free play of negativity, need, desire, pleasure, and jouissance, before being put together again, although temporarily and with full knowledge of what is involved. (p. 230)

Gorgias anticipated this sort of ethics in his Encomium of Helen when he attempted to upend traditional Greek characterizations of her immoral character simply for the pleasure in doing so. Poststructuralist thought invites this attitude toward all established discourses wherever they are found in a celebration of constant transgression and unlimited possibility.

Discussion of the Literature

In communication and rhetorical studies, postructuralism came to have an impact beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Early essays on structuralism and French thought appeared by Sanders (1981), Hall (1985), Warnick (1979), Harvey (1985), and Harlos (1986). But it was within a few years that essays by Biesecker (1989; 1992), Blair (1992), Charland (1991), Cooper (1988), Desilet (1991), Ellis (1991), Foss and Gill (1987), Hariman (1991), McKerrow (1989), Ono and Sloop (1992), Sholle (1988), Rahim (1989), and Zulick (1991) established the language and attitudes of poststructuralism in communication. Since then, poststructuralist themes have emerged in work in communication by Crick (2014), Dahlberg (2014), Dillon (2000), Dow (1995), Greenberg (2002), McNamara (2012), and Posner (2011). Many poststructuralist notions that were controversial in the 1990s have now become established discourses in the 21st century.

Primary Sources

The main postructuralist theorists and works include those of Barthes (1972, 1975, 1977), Baudrillard (1981, 1988a, 1988b), Bourdieu (1977, 1984), Butler (1990), Deleuze (1987, 1990), Deleuze and Guattari (1983), Derrida (1976, 1978, 1991, 1992, 1994, 2007), Foucault (1970, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1990), Kristeva (1986, 2000), Lacan (1977), Latour, (1987), Lévinas (1969, 1981), Lyotard (1984, 1988, 1989), Nancy (1991), and Serres (2007).

Further Reading

For basic introductions, one can draw from reviews by Belsey (2002), Palmer (2007), and Sarup (1993).

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