Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Belsen (2002)

Writing a short essay on a book about Poststructuralism seems quite ironic as one of the opening chapters focuses on the use of technical language to declare one’s proficiency in a subject matter, thereby confirming the legitimacy of the educational systems control over the structure of knowledge and who is recognised as qualified in that field.

Catherine Belsen does a fantastic job of Poststructuralism, albeit in a somewhat deceiving way as despite its diminutive size the book is very much not a very short one.

The fundamentals of Poststructuralism are based in the writing of Saussure on signification. Belsen goes on to include the perspectives of Barthes, Foucault and Lacan with reference to their thoughts on the ideas Saussure conceptualised with varying degrees of agreement and opposing views.

The opening description of Humpty Dumpty assigning his own meaning to the word ’Glory’ is a fine example of what poststructuralism is looking to highlight in language. That being, that the language we use is only useful in the fact that as a culture we agree on the use of and meaning of the words we use. The words we use extends out to any type of sign which we can read. Where structuralism instils these ‘rules’ poststructuralism recognises them and looks to cause reflection on and rebellion against control through exclusion.

However, the idea that a universal understanding of language is a fact is undermined by our insistance on misunderstanding, misusing or misappropriating words advocating in slang and puns, skewing the meaning which even as a native speaker we struggle to solidly declare as truth.

This truth, when in constant flux between interpretation through dialect and understanding is therefore fluid.

The structures of society, education, family, nationality etc, declare what is the accepted and universally appropriate use of language and in that declaration of the binary right and wrong use of language is restricting its use to an authorised meaning.

Official language then is a means of controlling not just what we say but how we say it and how it represents our intentions regardless of the words effectiveness at communicating our intent.

Saussure’ spoke of the signified and signifier, in which the use of language is highlighted for this control mechanism where allowed words not only signify our accepted intent but also the intent of the structures which control the language. The sign itself is not connected to the signified, we are not born knowing language we learn it from others which in turn confirms the signifier as the accepted signified meaning.

Artists such as Margritte questioned the meaning of language in works which juxtaposed nouns with conflicted images, an exercise in challenging the meaning of the words used in that whilst they did not meet the accepted signification they were in some ways associated through our understanding of the signified and its relation to the signifier.

Furthering these ideas Althusser suggested the concept of the Subject. The individual who is both the user of language and the one who is controlled, or subjected to, by the structure of language.

The subject is unaware of the structures of the systems of signification but through learning how to communicate, teach and exist, they adopt the system, use the system and proliferate the system on behalf of the institutions that instill the systems from birth.

This subjection is essentially a type of blinder for those within that structure. By limiting the language n approved ways the structure preserves the hierarchy by restricting access through lack of correct terminology, it enforces an ideology by infusing certain signs with nationalistic sentiment and limits opportunity and understanding by setting standards and expectation for accepted behaviours. The structure delineates a binary right and wrong way of being through good and bad language.

Foucault proposes opposition to the structure through resistance, not necessarily an outright rebellion but a commitment to questioning each structure and highlighting its limitations and contradictions.

Lyotard called for dissent in much the same vein, especially against the idea of realist art which in it’s desire for depicting accurate scenes of reality also enforced the roles and places of individuals, genders and places through the construction of accepted art structures.

One key theme which continues throughout the book is the idea that language describes only through ’differance’ spelt purposefully with an ‘a’ to distinguish it as a term which references how we use language. Rather than having terms which are inexorably true and sisngularly referring to a set understanding, language is built on the distinction between the objects we describe. We don’t understand what the colour grey is until someone explains to use that it is darker than white or lighter than black. A description which in itself is still lacking any real clarity. This wooliness in the fixed meaning is said, by Lacan, to be the basis of desire.

Desire being the yearning for something other than what we have or are. A space which we cannot describe through lack of language and a place we cannot explore as the structures restrict us. Desire is the ‘real’ which is lost to us. Lacan takes the Freudian idea of the forbidding Father as a structural symbol, to describe the restrictions of structures on our desires. To be ‘good’ is to take on Fathers traits and forbid the ‘bad’ unaccepted ones.

However these structures are only relevant to the culture in which they are born and the experience of the social cues and accepted norms both alienate and liberate those who are strangers to the culture such as immigrants or outsiders.

Post-Modernism is in a away a resistance to structuralism. As individuals become more aware of the not necessarily the writing of Foucault, Lyopard and Saussure, they were more influenced by the views of other cultures which in turn highlighted how one system is not necessarily the correct one when so many others obviously succeed.

In summary I feel that Belsen has done a fantastic job of balancing all the opposing views of each of the referenced writers to guide the reader through an understanding of the theories an concepts of Poststructuralism and in the end how it is fundamental to a postmodern practice.

My take away is that I feel through experience I have, as Belsen describes, been aware of the structures although somewhat passively and this book has put names to the ideas.

Trying to condense an already fairly concise discussion into an essay is difficult but I feel the main points have been covered.

If I was to try and communicate it in a single paragraph, again ironic considering the subject, I would probably start with a question.

Is there ever a time when no matter what you said you always felt misunderstood or unheard? For me the binary nature of many peoples perceptions is often quite obvious. We don’t like someone for something they said or something they wear, yet we have no understanding of their personal circumstances, intentions and upbringing. I think back to my times in retail were my staff would be frustrated with the apparent lack of respect from European customers but spent no time considering the fact those customers were familiar with different social norms. This difference to me was indicative of the difference in structures. Times of frustration highlight our lack of ability to communicate why and even when we attempt to, by showing our frustration we break and structures unspoken rules. As a non religious person I notice the rhetoric, especially through experiencing church with my grandparents, and how it influences peoples perceptions in different ways but also absolves the followers of misintent. And Finally my experience of University is both fulfilling and frustrating in the acceptance of my work but the challenge to fulfil the criteria of writing on a subject to prove comprehension.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post!
If you found it useful or interesting you may also like my other work, which you can find here…

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