What is poststructuralism?

The following article comes from the first chapter of James Williams' book Understanding Poststructuralism (Acumen, 2005) and is reprinted with their kind permission...

Poststructuralism is the name for a movement in philosophy that began in the 1960s. It remains an influence not only in philosophy, but also in a wider set of subjects, including literature, politics, art, cultural criticisms, history and sociology. This influence is controversial because poststructuralism is often seen as a dissenting position, for example, with respect to the sciences and to established moral values. The movement is best summed up by its component thinkers. Therefore, this book seeks to explain it through a critical study of five of the most important works by five of the movement’s most important thinkers (Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault and Kristeva). The principle aim is to respond to two powerful criticisms of poststructuralism: first, that it is willfully and irretrievably difficult; secondly, that it takes on positions that are marginal, inconsistent and impossible to maintain.

The first idea that allows for an answer to these points is that the limits of knowledge play an unavoidable role at its core. This is the common thread running through poststructuralism. It explains why structuralism had to be added to, since the structuralist project can be summed up as arriving at secure knowledge through the charting of differences within structures. According to poststructuralists, this security missed the troubling and productive roles of limits folded back into the structure. Knowledge cannot escape its limits: "It is not surrounded, but traversed by its limit, marked in its inside by the multiple furrows of its margin" So "limit" is not used in a specialist sense here, for example, in mathematical terms, or as the upper or lower limits of measurable quantities. Instead, it indicates relative security and stability within a given environment, where the boundaries are seen as less dependable than the centre. For poststructuralism, the core is not more reliable, significant and better known than its limits or outer boundaries. This is because the clear distinction of core and limit is not possible. The criticism of this distinction takes poststructuralism well beyond structuralist views, even though the former owes much to the latter. Structuralist knowledge is open to change when the observed structures change. However, despite this openness to change, in noting a repeated pattern of signs the structuralist scientist hopes to arrive at some secure understanding. For example, in charting the repeated patterns of daily life (wake–work–eat–sleep) we can begin to understand the relations between each element (their order and place). There could be limits to such patterns (sleep–sleep–play–sleep) but these would be exceptional moves away from a normal pattern. The idea is that knowledge should start with the norm and only then consider the exception. The norm implies a deviation in the definition of the exception. If there is an ethical and political side to this distinction, it is that truth and the good are in the norm, although many disagreements are possible as to what makes the norm.

Poststructuralism folds the limit back on to the core of knowledge and on to our settled understanding of the true and the good. It does this in a very radical way. That is, the limit is not compared with the core, or balanced with it, or given some kind of tempering role, in the sense, for example, of a majority listening to minorities. Rather, the claim is that the limit is the core.

What does this strange claim mean? It means that any settled form of knowledge or moral good is made by its limits and cannot be defined independently of them. It means also that any exclusion of these limits is impossible. Limits are the truth of the core and any truths that deny this are illusory or false. The truth of a population is where it is changing. The truth of a nation is at its borders. The truth of the mind is in its limit cases. But is the definition of a limit not dependent on the notion of a prior core? You only know that sleep–sleep–sleep–drink is deviant because of the dominance of wake–work–eat–sleep. No; the autonomous definition of the limit is the next most important common thread in poststructuralism. The limit is not defined in opposition to the core; it is a positive thing in its own right.

This definition is radical since it calls into question the role of traditional forms of knowledge in setting definitions. No poststructuralist defines the limit as something knowable (it would then merely become another core). Rather, each poststructuralist thinker defines the limit as a version of a pure difference, in the sense of something that defies identification. The exact terminology chosen for this difference varies greatly and is very controversial. We shall see that it also raises many serious problems. So, less controversially, the limit is an ungraspable thing that can only be approached through its function of disruption and change in the core. You cannot identify the limit, but you can trace its effects. Poststructuralists trace the effects of a limit defined as difference. Here, "difference" is not understood in the structuralist sense of difference between identifiable things, but in the sense of open variations (these are sometimes called processes of differentiation, at other times, pure differences). These effects are transformations, changes, revaluations. The work of the limit is to open up the core and to change our sense of its role as stable truth and value. What if life took on different patterns? What if our settled truths were otherwise? How can we make things different?

This definition of the limit as something open and ungraspable – except through its traces or expressions in more fixed forms of knowledge – leads to great variations between poststructuralists. They observe the effects in different places and follow different traces. They give different temporary and necessarily illusory characterizations of the limit.

Each of the great poststructuralist texts studied here gives a different account of the play of the limit at the core, but all share the definitions given above. Each text will have a chapter to itself where its main arguments and distinguishing features will be studied. Put simply, Derrida follows the play of the limit at the apparently more immediate and truthful core of language. Lyotard traces the effect of limit-events in language and sensation. Deleuze affirms the value of a productive limit between actual identities and virtual pure differences. Foucault traces the genealogy of the limit as the historical constitution of later tensions and problems. Kristeva follows the limit as an unconscious at work undoing and remaking linguistic structures and oppositions. Together, these works show poststructuralism as a thorough disruption of our secure sense of meaning and reference in language, of our understanding of our senses and of the arts, of our understanding of identity, of our sense of history and of its role in the present, and of our understanding of language as something free of the work of the unconscious.

Disruption should not be seen as a negative word. One aspect of poststructuralism is its power to resist and work against settled truths and oppositions. It can help in struggles against discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, against inclusions and exclusions on the basis of race, background, class or wealth. It guards against the sometimes overt, sometimes hidden, violence of established values such as an established morality, an artistic cannon or a fixed legal framework. We shall see that this does not mean that it denies them; rather, it works within them for the better.

In each of the great works to be read here, we find specific struggles and forms of resistance. Poststructuralist works cannot be abstract theoretical refl ections, since they can only show the work of the limits in the practical applications of core knowledge. They must take a given actual structure and deconstruct it, transform it, show its exclusions.

Thereby, they overturn assumptions about purity (in morals), about essences (in terms of race, gender and backgrounds), about values (in art and politics), about truth (in law and philosophy).

For poststructuralism, disruption must also be seen as a positive word. It is not only that there is a work against a settled core. It is rather that there is an affirmation of the power of the limit as a source of neverending production of new and worthwhile transformations and differences. Poststructuralism is not against this and for that – once and for all. It is for the affi rmation of an inexhaustible productive power of limits. It is for the resulting positive disruption of settled oppositions.

Critical counters

The radical nature of poststructuralism means that it is also very controversial. There have been many attacks on the movement. In return, it has had powerful critical roles to play. These arguments and controversies have taken many forms, from accusations about the destructive nature of radical opposition to tradition, to accusations of a betrayal of the radical cause.

When making sense of the great range of often quite ignorant and vitriolic debates that have followed the spread of poststructuralism, it is helpful to look at very pure philosophical criticisms of its general form. The radical folding back of a limit, defined as pure difference, on to a core of knowledge, falls prey to the following related objections:

1. A limit must be defined in terms of a known core that takes precedence over it. After all, what is the limit a limit of?

2. It makes no sense to speak of a pure difference, since in order to do so we must treat it as something knowable. You have to identify something in order to be able to speak of it.

3. Truthis a matter of consistency and therefore presupposes some kind of core, if only in terms of logic.

4. To deny a core is to fall into relativism, where all values are relative. If all claims are relative to different values, how do we choose justly between different claims? How do we deny extreme values?

5. Moral goods depend on a core, and relativism is therefore to abandon morality. Many of our most important values are not relative.

These objections have great intuitive strength. They capture commonsense intuitions about the nature of truth and morality. They also sum up apparently straightforward arguments about the links between knowledge, justice and morality. This common-sense background has led debates to be rather simple and polarized, as if we need to take one side or the other dependent on whether we really care about truth, logic and morality.

The simplicity is illusory and very damaging, however, since it fails to register that all the great poststructuralist works to be read here develop their arguments with a strong critical awareness of these points. Their answers to the points could begin to be summed up as follows:

1. There is no known core that does not presuppose the limit. The limit comes first, not the core.

2. Sense is something more than knowledge. There are important things that matter exactly because we cannot identify them.

3. There is truth as consistency, but there is a deeper truth as variation (the truth of the radically new as opposed to the truth of the settled).

4. To deny absolutes, such as a certain core, is not to deny significant differences that we can act upon.

5. There is an ethics associated with showing that a core hides differences and suppresses them; this is not to deny morality, but to deny that ethics is a matter of absolutes.

These answers show that the critical arguments must be taken a step higher. The real critical issues for the defence of poststructuralism are whether it can be shown on a case by case basis that:

• A core is destabilized by its limits.

• This destabilization is ethically positive.

• It involves a new sense of truth beyond identity in reference and coherence in structure.

• Showing something in practice is as valuable as demonstrating it once and for all.

In other words, the goal is not to give final answers to the criticisms. It is to show that they do not apply in practical but far-reaching cases (sometimes so far-reaching that they can appear to be new claims to universal truths).

This leads to an important further definition. Poststructuralism is a practice. It is not about abstract arguments or detached observations, but about a practical expression of the limits in a given core. This explains why different varieties of poststructuralism are given names that correspond to practical critical and creative activities: deconstruction (Derrida), libidinal economics (Lyotard), genealogy and archaeology (Foucault), transcendental empiricism (Deleuze), dialectics (Deleuze, Kristeva). This pragmatic side to poststructuralism invites further critical arguments, since it seems to commit it to endless critical and constructive work, with no final truths in sight. This is indeed the case. There is an irresolvable difference between the poststructuralist commitment to practice and any commitment to an absolute foundation or final end in knowledge, logic or morality. Poststructuralism is constantly revived through openness to the new (to pure difference). It is opposed to any absolute certainty, but can only work through this opposition in repeated critical and creative practices.

This series of arguments and oppositions is not merely theoretical. The philosophical arguments have consequences and parallels in familiar political and moral disputes. If the left in politics is defined as a politics for the margins, for those who are excluded and for those who are defined as inferior and kept there, then poststructuralism is a politics of the left. If the right in politics is defined as a politics of fixed truths and values, whether these are fixed traditions, or inalienable values, or eternal moral truths, then poststructuralism is opposed to such a politics. It also draws fire and distaste from the right. This critique has often been vitriolic and deeply ill-informed.

However, given these definitions, it is a mistake to identify particular political parties or movements with the right and with the left. If a particular margin is valued, once and for all, then it cannot fit the definition of the left set out here. So a politics that rests on particular values, once and for all, is of the right; this is independent of how "good" those values are judged to be at a given time. This does not mean that poststructuralism, defined as a politics of the left, cannot fight for causes. It means that the reason for fighting for those causes has to be because they are right at a particular time and given a particular situation, rather than because the causes are cases of a wider absolute and eternal good. The struggle is for these rights now and not for universal and eternal rights. This also means that the poststructuralist political struggle cannot appeal to absolutes and must seek to undermine them as they begin to appear, even in a politics that poststructuralists favour. So, as a politics of the left, poststructuralism cannot depend on certainty and unchangeable convictions. This does not mean that it cannot act; on the contrary, that kind of certainty is oft en a weakness or a lie, or a form of self- delusion. Conviction should be open to change; it should seek to change. Where it fails to do this, there is no thought. Each of the poststructuralists considered here took stands on key injustices and conflicts. Derrida has written powerfully against apartheid. Lyotard militated for the Algerian struggles for independence and revolution, as well as the May 1968 student uprisings in his own university. Foucault and Deleuze campaigned for better conditions in prisons. Kristeva is an important fi gure in contemporary feminism. The turn away from absolutes in poststructuralism has not hindered political action; it has given it a different form.

Philosophical roots: Husserl and Heidegger

Although it is associated with works produced in the 1960s and 1970s, poststructuralism has deep historical roots. These allow for a better sense of the meaning and possibility of folding limits back. They also allow for a better understanding of why poststructuralism allows for this definition of its practice. Poststructuralism is a heavily historical movement reacting to a long series of philosophical ideas. It is also, though, a revolutionary way of thinking about history.

Philosophical roots: Freud, Kant and Nietzsche

Freud’s work has a much less ambiguous place in the roots of poststructuralism than Heidegger’s. This is because Freud’s work on the unconscious is an important stage towards poststructuralism, but it is reacted to very strongly and transformed. In fact, other psychoanalysts, such as Jacques Lacan, are adopted more straightforwardly than Freud, although not by all and, again, not without transformations.

A simple explanation for the interest but also wariness with respect to Freud is that he provides much of the conceptual framework for the understanding of the importance of the unconscious by poststructuralism, but he also stands for a mistaken orthodoxy on the content and form of the unconscious. In short, for poststructuralism, there is an unconscious. It matters for any understanding of consciousness, but it does not follow the detail of Freud’s account, notably with respect to infantile sexuality, in castration anxiety, for instance. Freud’s description of unconscious drives is very important for many poststructuralist thinkers. For example, they owe much to the distinction drawn between a pleasure principle (we are driven to seek the pleasure associated with the diminution of an intense sensation) and a death drive (we are also driven to seek the excitations associated with destructive increases in intensity). However, they criticize Freud when these drives are explained in terms of normal states associated with gender or sexuality, since this contravenes the openness and variability found in many poststructuralist thinkers. There is no fixed "natural" state, either for the unconscious, or for its relation to consciousness and to actual behaviour.

This distinction means that poststructuralist thinkers cannot be seen as adopting the specifics of Freudian therapy, for example, in terms of the interpretations of dreams. Neither can poststructuralists be taken as following any strongly deterministic interpretation of the relation between the unconscious and conscious acts or neuroses. The whole point of the idea of the limit, and of the many different poststructuralist interpretations of it, is its resistance to systematization in terms of content or identity, or in terms of its causal relation to the core. Because of this commitment to openness and to a resistance to the definition of limits in terms of identity, poststructuralists are opposed to all forms of essentialism, determinism and naturalism. For example, in reaction to Freud’s work on the unconscious, it makes no sense to speak of naturally determined sexuality or deviancy from a natural norm (whether evolved or essential).

The common accusation against Freud that his views of the unconscious and his therapy do not have a scientific basis does not, therefore, apply to poststructuralism, since it is not making scientific claims about the unconscious or for a fixed psychoanalytic practice. This does not mean that the relation between poststructuralism and science is a simple one. It will be covered in greater depth in many of the following chapters, since it is crucial for many of the debates around the value of poststructuralism.

Two important questions arise at this point: the first is about philosophical method; the second about philosophical goals. If poststructuralism is not making scientific claims (whether empirical or rational) then what is the methodological basis for its views on the unconscious and on the role of limits? If poststructuralism is resistant to all forms of determinism, to norms and to specific goals, then what is its positive point? These questions can be put in different terms that explain the importance of Kant for poststructuralism. What are the grounds for claims to truth in poststructuralism? Have poststructuralist thinkers abandoned the great philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment? Is poststructuralism a new form of dogmatism? Have poststructuralist thinkers abandoned all hope in reforming and bettering the world; have they hence fallen into nihilism? Responses to these questions lead to an ambivalent relation to Kant.

First, poststructuralism owes much to the Kantian method of transcendental philosophy. This philosophical method searches for the necessary conditions for a given intuition. These conditions are not causes; this explains the break with causal determinism. Instead, these conditions provide the necessary grounds and formal laws for intuitions, thereby resisting claims to relativism, dogmatism and nihilism. Transcendental philosophy deduces the necessary frame for things to appear as they do. In poststructuralism, the limits can be seen as the transcendental conditions for the core. This does not mean that the limits cause the core, hence leading them to be overly determined, in the sense of being objects of knowledge like any others. The limits are not subject to causal laws. They are not part of chains of causes and effects. Instead, they are like causal laws, rather than actual causes, in standing outside the things they apply to. They give the form for something rather than having an effect on it. This means that the deduced limits provide a formal legislating framework for the core. That is, they lead to laws or principles that apply to knowledge and that change our common view of what is known. Poststructuralism is about deducing limit-principles implied by given events; for example, in the deduction of principles that counter claims that the core is pure, or final, or absolute. However, the nature of principles is heavily altered, because principles become much more flexible and open to change. Principles become part of an experimental practice, rather than an external guide for it.

Poststructuralists cannot adopt Kant’s transcendental philosophy unchanged, since it leads to exactly the kind of conditions that they seek to reject, for example, in terms of universal ethical laws, or in terms of fixed categories for the understanding. Kant’s transcendental philosophy goes too far in fixing the conditions for given things or intuitions. The problem is, though, can poststructuralist thinkers resist Kant’s conclusions while adopting his method?

Secondly, poststructuralists want to maintain the progressive nature of Kant’s enlightenment; that is, it is worth struggling for some good guided by thought. However, poststructuralists resist Kant’s specific understanding of thought as reason and of the goals of enlightenment as human freedom within carefully defined legal frameworks. We should think and act for a better world, but not with a Kantian definition of reason or with his goal of a cosmopolitan world brought together under the banner of humanism. Poststructuralism is not a form of anti-humanism or irrationalism. It is a practice that attempts to show the limits and problems of humanism and rationalism while maintaining their progressive drive. The ambivalent roots of poststructuralism in Kant lead it to redefine the conditions of thought away from human reason and towards much wider bodily, systematic and structural processes. In turn, these processes are thought of in terms of the conditions for their changes and evolutions, rather than as fixed and closed entities.

This ambivalence also leads poststructuralism to redefine the conditions of action away from freedom (defined as the condition for nonexternally caused actions of a human subject) and towards openness (defined as the condition for radical novelty within well-determined systems and structures). Instead of reason, there are thought processes. Instead of freedom, there is openness. Reason and freedom are not discarded, but set against a wider background. This ambivalence and its consequences are not new. Questions about anti-humanism and irrationalism had been raised against Nietzsche long before the advent of poststructuralism. The form of his responses and of his critical attacks on the Kantian and Platonic legacies are very important for the development of poststructuralist thought. Th ree key areas of his philosophy stand out for their infl uence on poststructuralism:

• his genealogical method, as a critique of all forms of transcendence;

• his emphasis on the importance of style for thought;

• his search for a new way of thinking about the metaphysical basis of philosophy.

Nietzsche’s philosophy allows for a better understanding of the practice of poststructuralism as something that works critically from within a situation, rather than by positing something outside it. This is because Nietzsche attacks all transcendent values that claim an independence from the historical struggles and valuations that give rise to them. It is important to distinguish "transcendent" and "transcendental". A transcendent realm is external, superior and independent. It sets superior values that can then be applied to a lower realm. It is like a different world that gives ours direction, while maintaining its independence (a godly realm, for example). A transcendental condition is internal, different

but not superior, and dependent on the given intuition it is deduced from. It gives the form for those intuitions, but sets no external values. It is a different but entirely dependent part of our world.

For Nietzsche, everything has a historical genealogy. Everything has evolved through historical struggles and everything continues to evolve. Nothing is independent of its genealogy and all genealogies intertwine. Therefore, all things are part of the same realm, that is, they are all immanent, rather than some being transcendent. This is one of his strongest legacies to poststructuralist thinkers. For poststructuralism, values are necessarily immanent and abstract external truths are illusions.

An important consequence of this commitment to immanence is that the realm within which all things occur – the realm within which everything is immanent – cannot itself be perfectly well ordered. It cannot have a well-defined centre and periphery, or a fixed order of measures and priorities. This is because such a system of ordering or measurement would be transcendent to the world it applied to. Instead, the realm varies according to relative perspectives of different actors and thinkers. For poststructuralism, truth becomes a matter of perspective rather than absolute order.

This means that style, as innovating expression of individual perspective, becomes very important because it comes to replace universals truths and forms of rationality. This is not style in the sense of different ways of doing something, as in different schools of painting, for example. It is style in the sense of an expression of individuality. Style is what sets an individual apart. It must always be something new, mobile and distinctive, in order to resist settled measures and orders. It must also be something that communicates individuality

without lending an absolute transparency to it, since this would be to fall back into the illusion of perfect communication and universally accessible truths. This has two results in poststructuralist works. First, poststructuralist thinkers tend to experiment with style in terms of writing and methods. This does not necessarily mean that they are examples of "good" style or "stylishness" in some well-defined sense. On the contrary, the demand for innovation and for communication as individual expression often makes postmodern works extremely difficult, although also very rewarding and enticing. Secondly, style in poststructuralist works is deliberately resistant to perfect understanding and deliberately demanding of different reactions depending on perspective. Poststructuralist works invite varieties of different interpretations and resist single fi nal and universally communicable meanings.

Nietzsche’s doctrine of will to power (everything is will to power and nothing else) provides an example of the kind of explanations needed to justify claims about multiple perspectives, about the necessity of genealogy and about the absence of any transcendent values. All things are ongoing processes, as struggles between different wills to power, between different values, different ways of life, and between different forms of life. No ideas can stand outside these struggles. Many poststructuralists follow Nietzsche’s explanation in order either to provide a metaphysics to underlie their broader philosophical claims (Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault) or to begin to outline new concepts capable of accounting for differences resistant to identifi cation and oppositions (Derrida, Kristeva).

A key series of questions returned to throughout Nietzschean interpretations therefore plagues poststructuralism. What is the status of explanations of the processes of will to power and of pure difference? Do they involve ultimate claims about the nature of all things? Or are they speculations and fictions, designed to prompt thought but not to make final claims to truth? If poststructuralists are making such final claims, does that not contradict their views on the limits of knowledge? If they are not making such claims, are they not just putting forward fanciful theories that should be given no more credence than science fiction?

Science, art and value

Scientific theories and the more detailed discoveries and data from empirical science now dominate our views of ourselves and of the world. They also play the main role in setting out the situations we need to react to and how we can react to them. As answered by the sciences, the questions "What are the facts?" and "How can we forecast how things will turn out?" guide our acts towards the future, for example, in terms of deciding on the use of energy resources or in reacting to new viruses.

Yet, despite this dominance, poststructuralism is not primarily focused on the model of science in terms of the understanding and guidance of thought. Instead, this model is criticized and reflected upon, even sometimes ignored in favour of more aesthetic models. For poststructuralism, the dominance of the model of the sciences and of scientific knowledge should be resisted.

These remarks raise a series of serious critical remarks against poststructuralism.

First, in terms of method:

• Is it not the case that science provides the paradigm for methods, in terms of the discovery and rejection of truths and the construction of theories?

• Should poststructuralist theories not be falsifi able through counterevidence, in the same way as scientific theories?

• Should they also not be subject to the same demands of consistency as scientific theories?

Secondly, in terms of content:

• Is it not the case that science, rather than art, provides the data that we must use for understanding the world?

• Should poststructuralism not follow the latest scientific discoveries and use them as the proper basis for reflection?

• Is it not a mistake to take outdated or non-empirical views of the world, as a basis for action?

In short, the accusation is that, by ignoring scientific discoveries, poststructuralism

peddles a false view of the world. It is also that, by ignoring scientific method, it puts forward theories that are not subject to the possibility of being constructed on the basis of evidence or proved false by it. Answers to these important critical questions begin with the remark that poststructuralists are aware of the dominance of scientific theories, discoveries and methods. However, they are critical of this dominance because they defi ne thought as a process that runs with, but also independently of science. On this view, thought is at the limit of science and goes beyond it, allowing for a more profound perspective on it. In poststructuralism, life is not to be defined solely by science, but by the layers of history and future creations captured in wider senses of language, thought and experience. This explains why poststructuralists do not seem to spend that much time on the sciences. In fact, when they resist and criticize attempts to give a scientific view of language, poststructuralists are making a wider point about science and its limits. Furthermore, the future of thought cannot be guided solely by science. Our desires, acts and thoughts have valuable extra-scientific dimensions. These dimensions are an important part of a full sense of life. Science cannot operate independently of that part and does not do so even when it claims to. Many poststructuralist arguments are reactions to the technological approach to life characterized by science (when done in abstraction or without imagination). They stress undervalued and hidden influences at work within science.

In order to advance these arguments, poststructuralist texts cannot restrict themselves to a scientific view or methodology. Instead, they approach other texts with relations to science, such as works from the history of philosophy, works of art and works of literature. The point is to show that there are truths resistant to scientific methodology and truths different from scientific facts. These truths have a role to play in relation to science, for example, through a critique of technological approaches to the world or through alternatives to the logic of scientific methods. Poststructuralists are not anti-science or anti-technology; rather, they see important dimensions that cannot be accounted for from within science. Unlike similar positions, though, poststructuralism does not advocate realms that are completely separate from science, as if there were a realm for science and a realm for ethics or aesthetics, for example. Instead, the critical point that the limits of knowledge are at its core is applied to scientific theories and to theories about scientific methodology. Science cannot justify claims to objectivity or to greatest truthfulness, since the grounds for such claims are themselves open to critique or to deconstruction in terms of their limits. There is no purely scientific ground for the justification of science. Scientific theories and facts must therefore be seen as part of a much wider series of extra-scientific theories and criticisms, in particular, in terms of the impossibility of final theories or final truths. The assumption that science is the main arbiter of fact and the main paradigm for method comes under scrutiny with poststructuralism in terms of its presuppositions and exclusions. Here, "extra-scientific" must be understood as beyond the limits of restricted definition s of science in terms of method, in terms of relations to truths, and in terms of forms of evidence and logic. It is quite possible to define poststructuralism as empirical, but where experimentation is not given any predetermined limits. This point is important, since otherwise the claim to something "extra-scientific" would contradict the thoroughgoing poststructuralist critique of fixed oppositions and limits. In poststructuralism, the assumption that scientific method is somehow pure or objective is contrasted with values still at work in that assumption.

For example, the language of science and the forms used to justify it are analysed for false presuppositions, with respect to time, space and reality (Deleuze), with respect to narratives of progress (Lyotard), with respect to ethical or epistemological neutrality (Foucault, Kristeva) or with respect to freedom from implied metaphysics (Derrida). This extension into value does not imply a rejection of science at all. It implies a rejection of the dominance of science, or perhaps more accurately of a certain and possibly false image of science, especially where it becomes either an arbiter of value (for example, in terms of morality) or where it is claimed to be value free (for example, in terms of being able to give value-neutral determinations of human and animal essences or life). The attraction of art for poststructuralism is therefore in the way art opens on to different senses of value. It does so through the complexity of art, that is, through the way it allows for multiple interpretations and creative responses. It also does so by exhibiting the way in which value is created rather than essential, pre-given, or explicable through natural evolution.

Art provides material for practical thinking on the relation of different kinds of knowledge to the disruptive power of their limits (Foucault gives historical examples of this in painting and architecture, for instance). The rich variety of ideas and sensations found in a single artwork go beyond scientific understanding both of the work and of its ideal and emotional contents. Artworks involve forms of experience that show the limits of established ways of understanding and of valuing environments and experiences (Lyotard and Deleuze are interested in this in painting and film, for example, with respect to experiences of space, time and memory).

Art’s relation to the unconscious shows the limits of consciousness and of the self (in the work of Kristeva). Works of art show how meaning is always excessive and resistant to final patterns or methods of interpretation (Derrida’s deconstructions work through this). Poststructuralism goes beyond art-criticism or theories of art to become part of artistic processes. In poststructuralism, there are no external valuations of what is good or bad in art, or of what art is and is not. Instead, works of art become parts of wider philosophical refl ections where styles of thought, philosophical problems and works of art interact to transform and broaden the problems. This explains why poststructuralism has had a rich relation to art: in architecture, in literature, in fine art, for example.

All the thinkers studied here have developed such fruitful interactions for art and for thought. The poststructuralist work is oft en itself part of an aesthetic creative process and a prompt for further creations in art.

Capitalism and democracy

Poststructuralist works are a radical activity, in the sense of an active process designed to change situations and move them on (but free of fixed norms, values and truths). As such, poststructuralism is political. It changes our world and our views of it across a great range of situations, for example, in terms of our relations to our bodies, in terms of sexuality, gender, relations with others, and in terms of our relations towards the environment or with the unconscious.

This does not mean that poststructuralism is a fixed form of politics in the more restricted sense of government and power within social organizations. One key aspect of poststructuralism is to show that power is not limited to such organizations. This applies both to the limits of government, which extend far beyond laws and political structures, and to the limits of power, where power is to be understood not only as a power over others, but also as a power to change oneself and wider situations from within. For instance, Foucault traces political power through the historical development of medical practices and institutions, through the shapes of buildings and the technologies of vision and of bio-power (the way power works through biological manipulation of bodies). He also, though, traces the aesthetic power to make and unmake ourselves as subjects and selves. Lyotard describes the power of ideas, such as the image of a possible exhaustion of natural resources and the related dream of a new world. Kristeva describes the revolutionary force of literary works. Deleuze insists on the power of open creativity. Derrida shows the influence of different metaphors, such as the metaphor of light, and their hold on forms of thought. This extension of the political into a wide range of processes of radical change is one of the great achievements of poststructuralism. It is made possible by the philosophical critique of core forms of knowledge and power, since these are shown to be suff used by much wider and more liberating creative forms that are themselves impossible to identify once and for all.

Poststructuralist politics is an opening up of many different situations and structures on to new possibilities hidden within apparent fixities. This explains the poststructuralist suspicion of the term "possibility" and the preference for the term "virtual". Imagined possibilities are always restrictions based on what we already know, so it is important to define the future in terms of a virtual that does not restrict it through fixed possibilities and probabilities. This is freedom defined as a creative opening on to the unknown, rather than as choice between different options. Two historical events are emblematic of this way of thinking about the political. The first is the waning of traditional Marxist political movements, in part due to the wider understanding of the failure and repressiveness of Soviet and Maoist regimes in the 1960s, and in part due to the failure of revolutionary movements (for example, in Algeria).

Poststructuralism is post-Marxism and post-Maoism, but it is deeply indebted to Marx. All the poststructuralists treated here have insisted that they continue with the spirit of Marx’s work as a movement of the left, as a combat for the margins, for the exploited and the down-trodden. But, equally, all resist the fixed definition s of society, of political structures and of revolutionary movements that come out of Marxism– Leninism or Maoism. Poststructuralism breaks with Marxism but works within Marx.

The second emblem is the May 1968 revolutionary movement, with its spontaneity and lack of overarching ideological or organizational unity. 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 in political movements of resistance; the revolution of the folding in of limits extends into revolutionary structures and goals.

Two related general types of criticisms arise out of these relations to Marxism and to May 1968. The first accuses poststructuralism of naivety with respect to political action; it can be made from within liberal political positions or by more traditional Marxists. The second accuses poststructuralism of failing to understand the repressive nature of capitalism and the need to oppose it in terms of alternatives. The liberal criticism is related to the discussion of Kant and of the Enlightenment set out above. In seeking to highlight the limits and flaws within human rights and within democratic institutions, poststructuralism can be seen as failing to understand that democracy and human rights are the only way to resist evil, ignorance and injustice. Political action should centre on the improvement and extension of democracy guided by a defence of human rights. To deny this is, in the long run, to side naively withevil and repression. However, it is a mistake to view poststructuralists as opposed to democracy and to human rights. The opposition is to final accounts of the superiority of specific democratic institutions and human rights. These must be criticized or worked on, not in the hope of overthrowing them, but in the hope of improving our political structures. The view is that any given democracy and set of rights conceal relations of power and of domination that need to be resisted and criticized.

For poststructuralism, any given democracy and set of rights must be opened on to new possibilities and revitalized, indeed changed radically and riskily. But for poststructuralism this risk for democracy must be taken, as the most open form of government available. It is for a "democracy to come", to use Derrida’s expression from his Politics of Friendship.

There is therefore a refusal to fall into modes of thought that say "either you defend this democracy or democratic decision unconditionally or you are against democracy". Such modes devalue thought and philosophy. Keeping democracy alive through creative transformation is a key part of the politics of poststructuralism.

If there is a critique of this view it comes from a more radical Marxist view that says that this belief in openness fails to take account of the all encompassing power of capitalism and its relation to failed democracy. On this view, poststructuralists are naive in believing that there is space for resistance from within capitalism and liberal democracy. Instead, there should be a struggle for a post-capitalist economy and post-liberal form of government.

The poststructuralist answer to this double accusation of naivety and resignation is itself twofold. First, poststructuralism does not allow for the utopian form of the argument. There can be no promised state somehow free of all the ills of capitalism. Different economic structures are interlinked and the forms of repression found in each can be found to different degrees in all. Poststructuralism involves a critique of utopian politics and a reflection on how to retain a drive for a better world without a fixed image of what that world should be.

Secondly, poststructuralists stress the places in capitalism where it opens up against its most repressive tendencies, such as the invasion and acceleration of time for profit, or the destruction of deep values in the name of comparability. There are places for resistance to these tendencies, in particular, in terms of the creation of new forms of life and relations that are both necessary for capitalism and its thirst for growth and destructive of its worst properties. This is not to be resigned to capitalism; it is to force it to change with a politics of the left, again defined as a politics for ever-changing limits. Poststructuralism does not promise a pure state, free of current evils; it advocates working for the openings within current states to allow them to change with and for their limits.

For example, where a cultural or political claim has failed to be recognized as having any value or legitimacy, the point will be to find ways to express its value and legitimacy. Where new forms of poverty, alienation and exploitation emerge, the struggle will be to force structures to open up to new ways of eliminating them. But this is not to dream of a structure where they cannot exist at all. Poststructuralism is consistent with activism, but not with utopian states.

The limits of the human

Poststructuralism is a set of experiments on texts, ideas and concepts that show how the limits of knowledge can be crossed and turned into disruptive relations. The range of areas for these applications is very great. It stretches from long historical studies with Foucault, through deconstructions of texts in Derrida, to studies of artworks and linguistics in Kristeva, to studies of structures and sensations in Lyotard, to the creation of new philosophical concepts in Deleuze. For example, if we take the spaces drawn up by a human being (its body, its consciousness, its mind and ideas, soul and heart), poststructuralist thinkers have broken through each of these spaces to show how any determination of an absolute, pure space cannot hold. The skin is not a fi rm border between an inside and an outside, but a permeable set of passages that connect the inside to an endless set of causal and wider relations. We are connected to the furthest stars and they are in us. The birth and death of bodies, or of conscious minds, fails to delimit a pure space of a human life. Both are processes that involve genetic continuity, continuities of ideas and of language, of societies and worlds. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a human life, or that it is not valuable. It means that the life is not an absolute and that its borders are not the greatest certainty on which to construct systems of truths. Human beings do not die, if that is understood as ending finally, once and for all, at a particular point in space and time. They are not born, either, if birth is seen as an absolute point.

Nor is there final certainty when a human mind contains an idea such as "I think". That idea takes its place in an extended and constantly changing tissue of linguistic usage and creativity where "I" and "think" change according to different relations with other words. With them, the idea changes. It has a history and a future that can change it by changing its relation to it. What I think now changes the significance of what I thought then: it was not independent.

Nor is there any final certainty in the limits of human properties, of gender or sex, for example. When we take the presence of a chromosome as the arbiter of a final truth, we miss the extension of that finality, not only in terms of the social, political and ethical meanings of sex and gender, but also as part of a much longer and intertwined series of genetic relations. The association of the chromosome to the words "male" and "female" already undermines the certainty of its presence through the shifting meanings and significances of the words. The noting of any given fact "here is Y" is already a very wide and complex situation of "Y", of "here" and of "is" in structures of varying differences (of significance, interpretation, feeling). Y is inseparably connected to all things that are different from it; to the point where they are constitutive of Y and where it has no meaningful independent existence. A fact cannot escape its history, its meaning and its future; it does not exist independently of them. This poststructuralist claim extends to personal identity (the self cannot be abstracted from its background) and to the mind (the mind extends to processes way beyond the contents of a particular mind or brain and this extension is both external – outside the mind and body – and internal – deep within the unconscious conditions that determine them). Perhaps, though, we can claim with structuralism that more secure truths lie in structures rather than individual facts, or the contents of an individual mind, or a particular event. To be human is to have a set of differential relations to other entities: to be an animal in some ways, but not in others, to fit into a set of social relations, inclusions and exclusions, to use language in this or that way. Although changing through time, structures would give us a relative grasp of meaning and truth.

We could agree that, at this point, human meant V in relation to X, Y, Z. Poststructuralist thinkers do not deny this kind of truth, but they stress its relativity. How can the statement "at this point" be defined without prejudging the question? The point changes with individual situations and problems. There are events that resist insertion into structures exactly because they force the structures to change. These events are as important in deciding the significance of the human as apparently settled structures. "Human" is a net thrown over multiple variations and evolutions. The role of thought is to lead and respond to these evolutions, as much as to chart the more fixed states in which they take place. The fixity is always a necessary convention or illusion, rather than a deeper truth. Or perhaps we could claim that the empirical sciences provide a framework of evolving but consistent theories that give us the best available idea of "human". The meaning of "human" must be determined by a set of sciences at a given time, open to revision, but only through well-defined rational scientific methods.

There is no opposition to this view of the importance of empirical sciences from within poststructuralism, except for the value claim "best" and the normative statements "must be" and "only through". Poststructuralist thinkers oft en rely on the sciences and often model parts of their work on the empirical sciences, but they resist and seek alternatives to the view that science is an ultimate arbiter, or even the final judge of truths.

The limits of science – in terms of what is excluded by it and what is presupposed by any given science – are important factors in working with a concept such as "human". It is not only that literature, art and philosophy, as well as "out-dated" scientific theories, have critical roles to play in terms of the scientific determination of the meaning of "human"; it is that they have a positive constituting role to play. "Human" is always more than what is determined by science. The scientific determination of "human" is always the product of extra-scientific presuppositions.

-- James Williams (20/02/2004)

Readers Comments

  1. Scott Temple says... Wednesday 27 April 2011

    Have a pile of books beside me and have found this article to act as a binding agent to the crowded information circling my mind at present. Thank you for posting this and making something that doesn't claim to be easily interpretable, relatively easy to interpret.

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