Poststructuralism: Banal When It's Not Busy Being Absurd

            Reading the chapter in one of my textbooks on Poststructualism, I keep wondering why this paradigm has taken such a strong hold of scholars' minds in the humanities. In a lot of ways, the theories that fall under its aegis are really simple--overly simple in fact. The structuralism that has since been posted was the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, who held that words derive their meanings from their relations to other, similar words. Bat means bat because it doesn't mean cat. Simple enough, but Saussure had to gussy up his theory by creating a more general category than "words," which he called signs. And, instead of talking about words and their meanings, he asserts that every sign is made up of a signifier (word) and a signified (concept or meaning).

            What we don't see much of in Saussure's formulation of language is its relation to objects, actions, and experiences. These he labeled referents, and he doesn't think they play much of a role. And this is why structuralism is radical. The common-sense theory of language is that a word's meaning derives from its correspondence to the object it labels. Saussure flipped this understanding on its head, positing a top-down view of language. What neither Saussure nor any of his acolytes seemed to notice is that structuralism can only be an incomplete description of where meaning comes from because, well, it doesn't explain where meaning comes from--unless all the concepts, the signifieds are built into our brains. (Innate!)

            Saussure's top-down theory of language has been, unbeknownst to scholars in the humanities, thoroughly discredited by research in developmental psychology going back to Jean Piaget that shows children's language acquisition begins very concretely and only later in life enables them to deal in abstractions. According to our best evidence, the common-sense, bottom-up theory of language is correct. But along came Jacques Derrida to put the post to structuralism--and make it even more absurd. Derrida realized that if words' meanings come from their relation to similar words then discerning any meaning at all from any given word is an endlessly complicated endeavor. Bat calls to mind not just cat, but also mat, and cad, and cot, ad infinitum. Now, it seems to me that this is a pretty effective refutation of Saussure's theory. But Derrida didn't scrap the faulty premise, but instead drew an amazing conclusion from it: that meaning is impossible.

            Now, to round out the paradigm, you have to import some Marxism. Logically speaking, such an importation is completely unjustified; in fact, it contradicts the indeterminacy of meaning, making poststructuralism fundamentally unsound. But poststructuralists believe all ideas are incoherent, so this doesn't bother them. The Marxist element is the idea that there is always a more powerful group who's foisting their ideology on the less powerful. Derrida spoke of binaries like man and woman--a man is a man because he's not a woman--and black and white--blacks are black because they're not white. We have to ignore the obvious objection that some things can be defined according their own qualities without reference to something else. Derrida's argument is that in creating these binaries to structure our lives we always privilege one side over the other (men and whites of course--even though both Saussure and Derrida were both). So literary critics inspired by Derrida "deconstruct" texts to expose the privileging they take for granted and perpetuate. This gives wonks the gratifying sense of being engaged in social activism.

            Is the fact that these ideas are esoteric what makes them so appealing to humanities scholars, the conviction that they have this understanding that supposedly discredits what the hoi polloi, or even what scientists and historians and writers of actual literature know? Really poststructuralism is nonsense on stilts riding a unicycle. It's banal in that it takes confirmation bias as a starting point, but it's absurd in that it insists this makes knowledge impossible. The linguist founders were armchair obscurantists whose theories have been disproved. But because of all the obscurantism learning the banalities and catching out the absurdities takes a lot of patient reading. So is the effort invested in learning the ideas a factor in making them hard to discount outright? After all, that would mean a lot of wasted effort.

Also read:

Putting Down the Pen: How School Teaches Us the Worst Possible Way to Read Literature