In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Post-Structuralism

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • The Tel Quel Group and the Historical Context of Post-structuralism
  • Structuralism as a Precursor to Post-structuralism
  • From Structuralism to Post-structuralism
  • Roland Barthes
  • Jacques Lacan
  • Michel Foucault
  • Post-structuralist Figures and Themes
  • Umberto Eco and Post-structuralist Semiotics
  • Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction
  • Gilles Deleuze’s Post-structuralist “Image of Thought”
  • Julia Kristeva and “Intertextuality”
  • Post-structuralism and Postmodernism
  • Post-structuralism and Complexity
  • Criticism of Post-structuralist Ideas

Literary and Critical Theory Post-Structuralism
Andrea Hurst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0008


Post-structuralism denotes a way of theorizing that emerged around the 1950s, predominantly in France, among otherwise extremely diverse intellectuals (although many question this label). Most thinkers termed post-structuralist, as well as the legitimating struggles and heated debates, were prominent until about the 1980s. Beyond this date, the debates died down and many once radical post-structuralist ideas were subsequently absorbed into mainstream disciplines. As the name suggests, a post-structuralist way of thinking is rooted in structuralism, but it also represents a retrospective critique of certain structuralist commitments. Like structuralism, post-structuralism identifies a way of theorizing that belongs equally to literary theory (the systematic study of literary texts), philosophy (especially the study of how thought works, insofar as thinking is carried out in language), and critical theory (emancipatory social science via discourse analysis and ideology critique). The starting points for a post-structural theoretical vision within this enormous terrain of interdisciplinary scholarship are language, signification, and semiotics. Most post-structuralist thinkers first sought to establish new concepts in this domain to describe their novel way of thinking. Most later turned their attention to philosophical and ethical themes and, consequently, to emancipatory social critique. Of the figures commonly named post-structuralist, some are more closely aligned than others with structuralism. Together, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault have been named structuralism’s “Gang of Four.” However, the latter three, across their diverse domains of concern, ultimately shifted from structuralist to post-structuralist thinking. Lacan, in particular, remains difficult to place since he published “work in progress” that was subject to revision over a span of fifty years, and his texts generate opposing structuralist and post-structuralist readings. The selection of more clearly post-structuralist figures (Umberto Eco, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva) follows the overall flow from concerns with signification, through philosophical and ethical issues, to social critique. A great deal of overlap is found, however, since this trend is also evident in the course of thinking specific to each figure. The “ethical turn” in post-structuralism is marked by an emphasis on subjectivity, authorship, and identity (particularly feminine). This emphasis reflects both an important critique of structuralism (which threatens subjectivity) and the overall shift toward philosophical and ethical concerns that culminates in critical theory. Disagreements among post-structuralists, as well as criticisms of post-structuralism, concern the degree to which “chaos concepts” (such as instability, chance, and ambiguity) should be accommodated when considering issues of meaning, knowledge, subjectivity, and ethics. Although the border between post-structuralism and postmodernism is not clearly drawn, postmodernism can be characterized as an extremist response, which celebrates “chaos” as a replacement for structuralist rigidity. Such extremism has elicited strong criticism. A more rigorously post-structural approach is to resist extremes and adopt a theoretical attitude that accommodates complexity.


The starting point for a post-structural theoretical vision is language and signification. Classic introductions to literary theory, therefore, such as Culler 2011 and Eagleton 2008, provide essential groundwork for understanding post-structuralism. Along with these two overviews, Belsey 2002, which focuses particularly on post-structuralism, completes a trio of popular and accessible introductions. Written with the insight gained from personal acquaintance, Roudinesco 2008 supplements these more general works with a detailed, particularized account of the intellectual context that gave birth to post-structuralist thinking. More depth and detail for advanced researchers is offered by the selection of essays by major and interesting figures provided in Young 1981. As these texts show, most post-structuralists first sought to establish new linguistic concepts to describe their novel way of thinking and turned later toward articulating a consequent emancipatory critical theory. Norris 1996 examines this link, criticizing extreme forms of post-structuralism that produce a “textualism” leading to overblown skepticism and cultural relativism. In the process, the text provides lucid explanations of structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism, and defends deconstruction as a mode of thinking. Dillet, et al. 2013, an edited collection of essays written by diverse contemporary experts, offers an up-to-date survey of major post-structuralist thinkers and ideas. A similarly contemporary overview and assessment of post-structuralism is provided in Williams 2005, which explains key post-structuralist concepts and considers the extent to which they apply to contemporary issues. Harland 2010 offers an overview that takes the further step of coining a new term, “superstructuralism,” first to coordinate structuralist and post-structuralist theories as the complex components of a larger paradigm and, second, to indicate that this is grounded on a neo-Marxist inversion that prioritizes the superstructure.

  • Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192801807.001.0001

    Chapters engage with “difference,” a major theme linking post-structuralist authors. A philosophically orientated text, focusing on how post-structural thinking unsettles traditional understandings of human existence. Sound advice is offered concerning who and what to read among post-structuralist authors and texts. Suitable for both undergraduate teaching and more advanced research.

  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199691340.001.0001

    A popular introduction, offering a lucid overview of what literature is and does, and why this matters. Provides welcome examples to elucidate complex theories. The second edition improves on the first, adding reflections on critical, cultural theory and diverse contemporary concerns. Suitable for both undergraduate teaching and more advanced research.

  • Dillet, Benoit, Robert Porter, and Iain Mackenzie, eds. The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

    A substantial compilation of twenty-three essays by diverse experts, offering a comprehensive survey of post-structuralist ideas. The text covers the history of post-structuralism’s emergence, major methodologies, thinkers and themes, and the turn toward cultural critique, as well as its reception and criticism. Excellent text for cross-disciplinary research at all levels.

  • Eagleton, T. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

    Anniversary edition with a new preface. An accessible introduction to ideas in literary theory and beyond. First published twenty-five years ago and enjoying enduring popularity, the text has benefited from revisions that reflect on the turn to critical theory and contemporary cynicism in notions of “anti-theory” and institutionalization. Suitable for undergraduate teaching and more advanced research.

  • Harland, Richard. Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-structuralism. London: Routledge, 2010.

    An accessible, clearly written overview that links structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers according to a common insistence on the priority of “culture,” within which constructs such as “nature” and “the individual” are produced. Challenges an Anglo-Saxon tendency to take such culturally produced notions to be basic common sense.

  • Norris, Christopher. Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

    Anthology of essays representing Norris’s effort to preserve genuinely critical resources, Derrida’s deconstruction included, from extreme post-structuralisms. These, he argues, draw selectively from Saussure, producing a “textualism” that reduces knowledge, reality, meaning, value, and subjectivity to internal constructs of language games, between which we cannot adjudicate. Suitable for philosophically sophisticated researchers.

  • Roudinesco, Élisabeth. Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida. Translated by William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    English translation of Philosophes dans la tourmente: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida (Paris: Fayard, 2005). A particularly interesting read for more senior students and researchers who accept that lived experience inspires and nourishes theory.

  • Williams, James. Understanding Poststructuralism. Understanding Movements in Modern Thought. Durham, NC: Acumen, 2005.

    An excellent, text-focused account of the main post-structuralist thinkers, texts, and arguments. Particularly valuable for researchers interested in the more specialized details of post-structuralist ways of thinking. Also offers a balanced engagement with critics of post-structuralist methods.

  • Young, Robert, ed. Untying the Text: A Post-structuralist Reader. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

    A usefully concise introduction to post-structuralism by Young and a judicious selection of essays by major figures as well as unusual, albeit important, thinkers. This text moves beyond the introductory and offers an interesting overview suitable for more senior students and researchers.

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