Lost in the post
(Post-)structuralism between France and the United States
in Post-everything

Despite what the words ‘structuralism’ and ‘post-structuralism’ would seem to imply, the relationship between them is not simply chronological; it also has a geographical component. The term ‘post-structuralism’ emerged when American academics came to read the internal fault lines of French structuralism as debates over the validity of structuralism itself. By focusing on the American reception of Jacques Derrida, I show how his immanent critique of Claude Lévi-Strauss, in both the ‘Of Grammatology’ articles of 1965–66 and the ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’ paper presented at the famous structuralism conference in Baltimore the following October, came to be understood as a critical breakthrough. This supersessionary reading was facilitated by the way structuralism was related to a homegrown movement. American scholars read into the work of French thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault their own dissatisfactions with the ‘New Critics’. By showing how ‘post-structuralism’ was forged in these local American debates, I shed light on its fraught reception and the political and methodological questions that have dogged it since its birth.


Today, the term ‘post-structuralism’ designates a stage in the intellectual history of modern France. According to a familiar narrative, post-war French thought is divided up into a number of moments that can conveniently structure an American college course. The great success of existentialist ideas in the 1940s, propounded by figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who emphasized the free and acting subject, was followed by a ‘structuralist’ reaction, when Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes foregrounded anonymous structures that transcended and determined the self. Moving on at pace, so the narrative goes, these ideas were challenged by a range of post-structuralists, most prominently Jacques Derrida but also Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. The ‘post-structuralists’ added a dash of Nietzsche to the staid structuralist mix, which tended to dissolve certainties and unsettle the structures that earlier scholars had described.

Despite the attractive simplicity of this narrative, it quickly runs into difficulties. Several figures are hard to place. Are Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser structuralists or post-structuralists? It is generally assumed that we can distinguish between an early and late Michel Foucault. But in a 1983 interview that is well beyond his putative break with structuralism, Foucault rejected ‘post-structuralist’ as a description of his work.1 Even the archetypal post-structuralist, Jacques Derrida, refused the label.2

To a certain extent, such refusals should be understood as a salutary suspicion of -isms. Intellectuals are often reluctant to let their ideas be reduced to slogans, or to be seen as just one of a group. And certainly, if we take post-structuralism to be a school with a rigid set of doctrines that have to be accepted without question, it is clear that there is no such thing. But the French aversion to ‘post-structuralism’ cannot be attributed solely to intellectual self-assertion. Foucault’s rejection is telling on this point. The 1983 interview opened with a query about the origin of ‘post-structuralism’.3 Foucault, however, simply ignored the question, only returning to the term in passing later on. Instead, he focused his analysis on ‘structuralism’. For him, this latter term, though equally objectionable as a label for his work, at least had a meaning one could discuss.

That Foucault was more familiar with ‘structuralism’ than ‘post-structuralism’ is instructive. At the time, the term post-structuralisme was hardly ever used in France.4 Rather it found traction predominantly in America, when a range of academics began to grapple with a new generation of French thinkers. As the historian of ideas Vincent Descombes noted in 1991, ‘it so happens that what goes in France under the label “structuralist philosophy” is known in the U.S.A. as “post-structuralist philosophy”. Just by crossing the Atlantic, the very same book that was still considered of structuralist vintage when it left Saint-Germain-des-Près would be recategorized as poststructuralist.’5 The form of the word ‘post-structuralism’ thus sits uneasily with its referent. The relationship of post-structuralism and structuralism is not one of supersession but of translation. To understand the emergence and meaning of ‘post-structuralism’, therefore, we first need to analyse the French word it was meant to render in English.

Structuralism in France: a polemical unity

Unlike post-structuralisme, the term structuralisme had considerable currency in 1960s France. In July 1967, the influential magazine, the Quinzaine Littéraire, published an essay by François Châtelet, ‘Où en est le structuralisme?’ which featured a now famous cartoon by Maurice Henry: ‘The Structuralists’ Lunch Party’. The cartoon depicted Foucault, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss and Barthes sitting in a circle amidst palm trees and dressed in grass skirts, a reference to the type of society many associated with Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology.6 The resonance of the word structuralisme cannot simply be seen as an effect of vulgarization in the popular press. Some of the most important French-language philosophy journals – such as Esprit (1963), the Revue Internationale de Philosophie (1965) and Les Temps Modernes (1966) – published special editions on structuralism in the 1960s, and that decade saw the appearance of a range of books that sought to define the movement, from Jean Piaget’s idiosyncratic ‘Que sais-je’ volume to the more substantial Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? edited by the philosopher François Wahl.

Despite the widespread use of the term, few thought that the structuralist movement cohered. The Quinzaine Littéraire article began by acknowledging its variety and complexity and reached the conclusion that ‘only a very hasty reading, one can see, can constitute a doctrinal body called “structuralism”’.7 The divergences were foregrounded in Henry’s cartoon, which was hardly the picture of a genial get-together. Foucault is trying to speak, but he is confronted by Barthes’s stony expression and Lacan’s defensive scepticism; Lévi-Strauss does not appear to be listening at all. The worry that ‘structuralism’ might involve a number of scholars talking past each other pervades the literature. In the introduction to his edited volume, Wahl felt compelled to ask the question, ‘Does structuralism exist?’ and was sceptical that one could identify a common approach.8 Others were equally unconvinced. Foucault complained in the pages of the Quinzaine Littéraire on 1 March 1968 that ‘structuralism is a category which exists for other people, people who aren’t in it … We ourselves don’t see any unity.’9

If there was a unity to structuralism then, it was a weak or thinly coherent one. Rather than a school, it is better to consider structuralism as a diverse appeal to a shared set of sources, the most important of which was Ferdinand de Saussure’s 1916 Course on General Linguistics. In that text, Saussure had made a number of claims whose implications would be enthusiastically debated almost half a century later. First, he had shifted analytic focus from linguistic reference to linguistic structures. A word’s meaning arose not from the relationship between a ‘signifier’ (the sound pattern ‘tree’) and a ‘signified’ (the concept of a tree), but rather thanks to a homology between the differences between signifiers (the word ‘tree’ sounds different from ‘plant’ and ‘leaf’) and the differences between the signified objects (tree, plant and leaf). The upshot of this argument was that the sign was ‘arbitrary’, and a different signifier could take its place as long as the structure of differences was maintained.10 Second, these structures had to be understood ‘synchronically’. Since meaning was produced according to the set of relations between signifiers, the history of a language (diachronic change) was irrelevant to its meaning. Saussure argued his point by comparing language to a game of chess. Certainly it was interesting to understand how a game had developed up until a particular point, but that history was irrelevant to the next move.11 Third, Saussure’s structures exceeded and determined the individual. It was not possible for any single person to shape his or her language. Rather the structure of a language constrained what an individual could say and how.12

The Saussurian revival can be traced back to the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss. Fleeing France in 1941, he had learnt about Saussure in New York from the Czech linguist Roman Jakobson.13 Saussure’s structuralism then informed Lévi-Strauss’s 1949 thesis, the Elementary Structures of Kinship, where he argued that marriage choices were not entirely free or determined by individual preferences. Rather they were the effects of a shared set of structures that distinguished appropriate from inappropriate partners. Lévi-Strauss based his work on the study of non-Western societies, which he quickly came to present not as inferior or undeveloped, but as privileged means for grasping the universal structures of human thought.14 Though Lévi-Strauss rejected the idea that there was any natural logic to these structures – for instance, he argued that the incest taboo could not be explained by biology, just as Saussure argued that words could not be explained by their referent – he did think that these social structures could be explained by the architecture of the human brain.15

Lévi-Strauss introduced Saussure to his friend, the psychoanalyst Lacan, who incorporated Saussure’s ideas in his famous ‘Rome Report’ from 1953. There he posited what he called the ‘symbolic’ realm as the foundation of psychoanalysis. When Lacan argued that the unconscious was ‘structured like a language’ he meant language understood in Saussure’s sense, one that preceded and shaped the ego.16 The literary critic Barthes picked up structuralist ideas in his 1957 book Mythologies in order to redirect attention from the manifest meaning of cultural products to a latent and often ideological one. In his famous example, the cover of Paris-Match depicted a young black soldier saluting the tricolour flag, but it also carried the mythological signification of a colour-blind French Empire, which was all the more powerful because it was implicit, and thus shielded from rational scrutiny.17 Finally, in his 1962 History of Madness, Foucault suggested that human reason was not a reflection of the world, but rather a result of the suppression of madness.18 Foucault expanded the scope of this argument in his Order of Things from 1966, where he laid out a stadial history of different epistemic structures that were independent and determinative of the subject.19

Whatever the parallels between these projects, it was clear that structuralism was more a set of debates and questions than a coherent set of ideas. One of the major divides was disciplinary. The early structuralists worked in a variety of fields: anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary criticism and the history of ideas. In the 1960s, structuralism started to make inroads into philosophy. In 1964, Lacan began to teach a seminar for philosophy students at the École Normale Supérieure, one of the most important institutions of higher learning in France.20 He had been invited by Althusser, the director of studies in philosophy, who also embraced a ‘structuralist’ approach in his reading of Marx.21

The transfer was not without its problems. Althusser and his students were savagely critical of Lévi-Strauss for seeing primitive societies as windows into men’s souls, and thus naturalizing certain social forms, a classic gesture of ideology. Moreover this contravened structuralist principles, they thought, because it led Lévi-Strauss to think that social structures were rooted in brain biology.22 Similarly, they resisted Foucault because they thought that his appeal to a foundational suppression of madness came close to being an ‘origin’ of rational structures.23 For them, the whole point of structuralism was that it eschewed the idea of an origin or ‘centre’ in the same way that it eschewed the idea that signifiers could be explained by their referents.

It was in this context that Derrida first came to read and think through structuralist ideas. We should note the contingent nature of Derrida’s engagement. Before 1963 he had been interested primarily in phenomenology, but the rapid rise of structuralist ideas in the 1960s made them unavoidable, and several of Derrida’s early essays engaged with structuralism, challenging the idea that structures were atemporal and fixed, often through an appeal to Nietzsche.24 The pressure to grapple with structuralism intensified when Derrida entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1964 to teach the history of philosophy. There he confronted Althusser’s reading of structuralism, which, coupled with Lacan’s, had left its mark on a generation of students. The structuralist enthusiasm at the École lends context to Derrida’s most extensive engagement with structuralist ideas: his essays and then book Of Grammatology from 1965–66 and 1967, which included long treatments of both Saussure and Lévi-Strauss.

As I have shown elsewhere, Derrida’s position in these essays is complicated, and is best understood as a critical engagement with the Althusserians, his colleagues and students at the ENS, rather than with Lévi-Strauss, a scholar working at another institution.25 It is true that Derrida follows Althusser and his students in criticizing Lévi-Strauss’s nostalgia for the ‘primitive’.26 But for Derrida that nostalgia manifested itself in the drawing of a sharp line between primitive and advanced societies, and by extension nature and culture, and thereby skated over the deficiencies of the former that had encouraged the development of the latter. That is why, in contrast to the Althusserians, Derrida praised Lévi-Strauss’s desire to ground cultural structures in the brain. Here, Lévi-Strauss worked to deconstruct the ideological nature/culture distinction, to which Derrida thought Althusser and his students remained beholden.27 Rather than exclude all appeals to nature, Derrida argued that we should fold that nature into our analyses. This argument leads up to Derrida’s most famous catchphrase. Because a supposedly original and pristine speech (like a supposedly original and pristine nature) was wracked with the same tensions as writing (or culture), Derrida could argue that ‘there is nothing outside of the text’.28

As the triangular attacks between Althusser, Lévi-Strauss and Derrida show, intellectual life in France was riven by a number of debates where the very meaning of structuralism was in question. And yet these divisions should not be seen as weaknesses. Rather they allowed structuralism to become the unsurpassable philosophy of its time. It was sufficiently capacious to encompass a vast range of thinkers, and amorphous enough to resist easy refutation. There could be no ‘post-structuralism’ in France, because it was unclear what it would mean to leave structuralism behind.

Reading Derrida in America

The intellectual effervescence in France raised the profile of structuralism in America. France had amassed significant cultural capital in the United States since the end of the Second World War, thanks to the international reputations of Sartre and other existentialists, whose work had attracted the interest of literary scholars.29 Americans were so caught up in the thrall of existentialism that the more academic philosophical developments of the French 1950s registered little in the American imagination. But the rise of new structuralist criticisms of existentialism made French thought relevant again, especially in literary circles. Moreover, Lévi-Strauss’s account of human difference and attempt to move beyond ethnocentrism resonated in American society, which was in the throes of the civil rights and the anti-war movements. When the New York Times Magazine published a profile on Lévi-Strauss in January 1968, it bore the title ‘There are No Superior Societies’.30

In the summer of 1965, René Girard, a historian and literary critic, who was at that time a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, wrote a letter to the director of the Humanities and Arts section of the Ford Foundation. Girard bemoaned the fact that structuralism had not found a foothold on this side of the Atlantic, and attributed this failure to the lack of inter-disciplinary institutions. For this reason, Girard sought funding for a ‘structuralist section’ at the newly founded Johns Hopkins Humanities Center and proposed two conferences as well as a ‘Distinguished Visiting Professorship in Structuralism’.31 With $36,000 in funds forthcoming, the first conference was planned for October the following year. The thirty-five-year-old organizer, Richard Macksey, hoped to include a range of younger scholars in addition to established voices, and (probably on the advice of Hegel scholar Jean Hyppolite), reached out to Derrida in April 1966.

Derrida’s presentation at the conference, ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’, had a dual and only apparently contradictory effect: it foregrounded Derrida’s engagement with structuralism at the expense of his other intellectual interests, and it tended to reduce his ambivalent treatment to a simple critique. The very fact that Derrida was included in the conference reinforced the impression he was a member of the structuralist family. Given the goals of the conference organizers, Derrida chose to present on Lévi-Strauss, and he formulated his paper in structuralist terms. Thus, what was in fact only a passing interest for Derrida – after the paper he never engaged with Lévi-Strauss at length again – came to shape the American reception of his work.

At the same time, the American context of the conference gave Derrida’s critique a sharper edge. In his ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’, Derrida made a set of arguments that were very close to the ones he had made in the almost contemporaneous ‘Grammatology’ articles: he criticized Lévi-Strauss’s nostalgia for primitive societies, and yet praised his breakdown of the nature/culture division, which counted as an attack on the Althusserians.32 In Baltimore, however, Althusser was not yet well known and so the latter intervention was illegible. Participants focused rather on Derrida’s challenge to Lévi-Strauss’s nostalgia, seeing it as a criticism of structuralism in general, even though, as we saw, it had been first deployed by Althusser to impugn Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist credentials. Derrida encouraged the idea that he was breaking with Lévi-Strauss and structuralism in the closing moments of his paper: he described the ‘as yet unnameable which is announcing itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity’.33 Derrida might have been riffing off the way he had been presented in the conference programme. Derrida’s paper was scheduled for the final day, and, due to his late inclusion, it did not yet have a title. The programme merely offered the promissory note: ‘to be announced’.34

Thanks to the Baltimore conference, Americans saw Derrida as both more and less of a structuralist than was possible in France. Initially the former impression dominated. After the conference, Macksey continued to refer to Derrida as one of the ‘structuralist gang’.35 American academics approached Derrida through his relationship to structuralism, and they tended to overlook his phenomenological work. Even when American scholars focused on Derrida’s criticism of structuralism, they considered him significant to the extent that he participated in and ‘deconstructed’ the structuralist tradition. In his 1971 essay, ‘Abecedarium culturae: Structuralism, Absence, Writing’, Edward Said presented Derrida as a structuralist, and indeed shaped his reading of structuralism in terms that foreshadowed the discussion of Derrida’s work. As he wrote, ‘at bottom structuralism is a set of attitudes to and of writing: grammatology’.36 Conversely, Derrida merited mention ‘in an essay on structuralism because his work is a critique, by grotesque explication, of the structuralists’.37 Even Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her enormously influential introduction to the English translation of Of Grammatology (1976), posed the question: ‘Can Derrida – substituting the structure of writing (the sign “sous rature”) for the structure of the sign – simply be dubbed a grammatological structuralist historian of philosophy, and there an end?’ To which she answered, ‘no doubt’, before going to suggest that in replacing the sign by writing, the sign ‘under erasure’, his work would ‘deconstruct structuralism’.38 As late as 1979, in his popular book on structuralism, John Sturrock presented Derrida as a member of the movement, even if he admitted that Derrida refused the label.39

Over time, however, the latter impression of Derrida’s work predominated, in large part because American scholars were all too willing to consign structuralism to the past. Indeed, the American reception of structuralism was, from the beginning, marked by a critical distance and caution. In the introduction to the 1966 edition of Yale French Studies, the first American volume dedicated to structuralism, the Yale professor Jacques Ehrmann chose a rather contrary epigraph: a line from the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, ‘reality is not about to let itself be completely enclosed in form. Form for its part does not agree with the essence of life.’ Ehrmann admonished his readers not to forget what eluded structuralism’s grasp. In so far as the volume could be seen as an endorsement of structuralism, it was structuralism as a ‘living question’, which encouraged ‘a series of interrogations’ that might even come to ‘question structuralism itself’.40

Given this caution amongst its proponents, structuralism did not make significant inroads into English-speaking academia. As late as 1972, in their anthology The Structuralists, Fernande M. de George and Richard T. de George could present the future of structuralism only in aspirational terms. As they wrote, ‘structuralism promises an intellectual revolution in the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. Whether the revolution will be successful, only time will tell. It is at present a promise in search of its fulfilment.’41 At the same time other scholars were foretelling its demise. In his 1972 book The Prison-House of Language, Fredric Jameson argued that ‘a genuine critique of Structuralism commits us to working our way completely through it so as to emerge, on the other side, into some wholly different and theoretically more satisfying philosophical perspective’, one that would ‘reopen text and analytic process alike to all the winds of history’.42

In his book, Jameson followed the consensus at the time and presented Derrida as a structuralist, even arguing that Derrida’s triple publication of 1967 marked structuralism’s ‘zenith’.43 Jameson did argue that Derrida had come to discern the limits of structuralism and thus had engaged in a ‘structuralist critique of structuralism’. This was, however, by no means a break from it. Derrida’s work, Jameson wrote, ‘feels its way gropingly along the walls of its own conceptual prison, describing it from the inside as though it were only one of the possible worlds of which the others are nonetheless inconceivable’.44 Derrida might have realized that he was caught in the structuralists’ prison-house of language, but he had lost hope of ever escaping.

For others, however, growing misgivings about structuralism encouraged them to take Derrida’s reading of Lévi-Strauss as a critical breakthrough. We can follow this changing understanding of Derrida’s relationship to structuralism by examining the titles of the Baltimore conference and its proceedings. The conference was originally given the title ‘Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’. By the time the papers were published in 1970, however, and in large part due to the growing fame of Derrida’s contribution, the editors Macksey and Donato added the subtitle ‘The Structuralist Controversy’, which was promoted to the title for the 1972 paperback edition. In the new preface, ‘1971: The Space Between’, the editors suggested that the republication of the volume deserved a word of explanation because by then ‘the very existence of structuralism as a meaningful concept’ was in question.45 They noted that linguistics had been dislodged from its earlier dominant position, and a resurgent Nietzscheanism had upset structuralism’s scientific pretensions. By 1971, at least according to the editors of the volume, structuralism was dead, and something new had taken its place.

The idea that structuralism was now a thing of the past guided Donato’s 1973 essay for SubStance: ‘Structuralism: The Aftermath’. According to Donato, Derrida had undermined the central pillars of Saussure’s linguistics – the sign and difference – such that ‘after Derrida’s analysis … a certain number of [structuralist] concepts become inoperative as analytical tools’. In marking this breakdown, Donato labelled Derrida as one of the ‘fanatics of the apocalypse … one could hardly hope for more [a] appropriate [thinker] for the times we live in’.46

In a short space of time, then, Americans came to revise their understanding of Derrida; he went from being an unruly structuralist to being someone who marked the movement’s end, a ‘post-structuralist’. As such, his work contributed to the impression that French intellectual life was fast-paced and changing. In one of the first anthologies dedicated to the movement from 1979, Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Josué Harari opens with this sense of disorientation and constant change: ‘listening to the talk of Parisian intellectual circles often brings to mind Rica’s unhappy refrain from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters: “A woman who quits Paris to go and spend six months in the country comes back as antique as if she had sequestered herself there for thirty years.”’47 As the person who had compiled one of the earliest bibliographies of structuralism only eight years earlier, one might well imagine that Harari was talking about himself.48

Deconstruction, the ‘New Criticism’ and the problem of history

If in the American imagination Derrida had indeed broken through and out of structuralism, there was no consensus about how he had done it. The divergence can be attributed to the way in which Anglophone critics grafted structuralism onto their own intellectual history. One of the reasons that scholars had been so eager to predict structuralism’s demise was that they associated it with a home-grown formalism that by the 1970s was widely considered to be on its way out. As we shall see, scholars in Britain and the United States embraced Derrida because they saw him as an ally in their struggle against the ‘New Criticism’.

The New Criticism had developed in the 1930s in response to an older form of historically minded literary scholarship. Rather than placing literary works into their political and social contexts, the New Critics undertook an internal formal analysis to reveal the work’s aesthetic aspects. The turn away from history as an explanatory device coincided with a turn towards poetry as a privileged object of study because, of all literary forms, poetry seemed the most untouched by external forces. The goals of the New Criticism were in part disciplinary, an attempt to assert the singularity and independence of literature as a scholarly field. But New Criticism also involved political gestures. It was democratic – one did not need specialist knowledge to read texts, only a book and some time – and it simultaneously fostered an elitist sensibility in the sense that it required analytic brilliance. The New Critics valued the virtuosic analysis of a poem, which by identifying tensions and contradictions could, with a theatrical flourish, reconcile them in a final organic unity.

The idea that structuralism was a European analogue of the New Criticism has a long history. The connection can be traced back to René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949), which was widely used as a university textbook in the 1950s and 1960s.49 The parallel also crops up across the early discussions of structuralism.50 It is telling that in Jonathan Culler’s 1975 Structuralist Poetics, the fullest and most influential attempt to construct an Anglophone structuralism (at least in the humanities), he felt compelled to counter the association on the first page.51 This is not to say that most scholars identified the two; it was widely agreed that structuralism did not attribute the same status to poetry, and that it had different disciplinary commitments. Nevertheless, on the whole American academics saw in structuralism the same flaws they saw in the New Criticism, and so they sought to overcome the former for the same reasons they had criticized the latter.

For one influential group of scholars, the New Criticism and structuralism alike needed to be supplemented with a greater sensitivity to history. Take Jameson’s main argument. He claimed that structuralism, like the New Criticism, had failed because it had emphasized the synchronic and thus had been insufficiently attentive to temporal phenomena.52 Jameson’s proposed alternative to structuralism would reconcile ‘the twin, apparently incommensurable, demands of synchronic analysis and historical awareness, of structure and self-consciousness, language and history’.53

Jameson did not see Derrida as part of the solution, but, as Mark Currie has recently shown, history became one of the guiding if contested themes of Derrida’s first reception in America.54 In Alexander Gelley’s review of Of Grammatology for Diacritics from 1972, he argued that Derrida’s work seemed ‘to clear a new path for the historical study of cultural and philosophical concepts’, and claimed that ‘in contrast to many contemporary structuralists … he views this “formal organization which in itself has no sense” as susceptible to historical delineation’.55 Gelley made clear that Derrida’s argument could also be turned against the New Critics, and he claimed that Derrida had contributed to the process of breaking down the distinction between literary and non-literary texts, which had been a central plank of the New Critics’ rejection of history. Derrida’s ideas would thus allow the ‘historical’ to ‘recover a central role in literary studies’ even if it meant that it would ‘require a revision of traditional forms of literary history’.56

We can see a similar move in Frank Lentricchia’s 1980 book, After the New Criticism. Derrida had introduced a ‘play’ into signifying structures, which, Lentricchia thought, necessitated an appeal to historical forces. The key questions that needed to be asked, Lentricchia declared, were ‘what discharges of power, under what networks of guidance, to what ends, and in what temporal and cultural loci have semiological systems been produced?’ Lentricchia nonetheless thought that Derrida’s openness to history was ultimately insufficient, and at times came close to an all-encompassing argument, where ‘the environments (intellectual, social, political, etc.) of Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, and Lévi-Strauss are reassuringly interchangeable’. For these reasons he found it ‘difficult to see … why Derrida’s and others’ attacks on structuralism for its courting of formalism and historical aridity do not apply to Derrida as well’.57

Lentricchia’s reluctance to embrace Derrida fully can be explained by the fact that in the late 1970s when he was completing the book, he felt compelled to confront another self-proclaimed successor to the New Criticism, which had also co-opted the French thinker, but which understood Derrida’s relationship to history in a very different way: the Yale School.58 The core of the ‘Yale School’ was a group of four professors who taught at the Ivy League university: Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. Like Lentricchia, the Yale School also positioned their work in opposition to the New Criticism, but rather than articulating their difference in terms of history, they aimed their challenge at the New Critics’ teleological goal of reconciliation.59 Thus while the Yale School resembled the New Critics in their focus on internal and formalist readings of a text, they presented the tensions and aporias that such readings revealed not as an intermediary moment before their harmonization in an organic whole, but rather as the end point of the analysis, which revealed the polysemy of literary texts.

The person who did most to link the new Yale School to Derrida’s deconstruction was Paul de Man. De Man had written one of the earliest accounts of Derrida’s work in the 1972 volume Blindness and Insight. The overall thesis of de Man’s book was that texts often cultivated meanings that clashed with their explicit aims and that it was the role of the critic to draw out the insight to which the author had been blind.60 The argument was a retort to the New Critics because it sought to pull down the barriers that had separated literary language from everyday language, and that had allowed critics to consider the former as immune to ‘duplicity … confusion … and untruth’.61 And again, while de Man was attentive to the differences, his major criticism of the New Criticism coincided with his major criticism of structuralism: both tended to reify form as harmony and forget the ‘temporal structure of the act of interpretation’.62 As de Man argued in an essay that had originally appeared in the French journal Critique in 1956, structuralist criticism, especially the work of Barthes, approached a ‘formalism that, appearances notwithstanding, is not that different from New Criticism’.63 Again, as for Lentricchia, Derrida played a privileged role in this argument, and de Man introduced him as a philosopher who had brought disruptive close reading to self-consciousness. In Derrida’s work, de Man assured the reader, ‘the discrepancy implicitly present in the other critics … becomes the explicit centre of the reflection’.64

While Lentricchia thought that Derrida had opened up a new path to historical analysis but had been unable to take it himself, de Man argued that Derrida’s sensitivity to discrepancy had been dulled because he remained wedded to a particular conception of history. According to de Man, Derrida had ‘narrated’ the repression of written language ‘as a consecutive, historical process’. But for de Man – and this was, he thought, the insight to which Derrida was blind – the ‘historical scheme is merely a narrative convention’.65 This argument was also picked up by de Man’s colleague J. Hillis Miller in his 1974 article ‘Narrative and History’.66 When the veteran literary critic M. H. Abrams complained that according to ‘deconstructionist principles … any history which relies on written texts becomes an impossibility’, Miller responded, ‘so be it. That is not much of an argument’.67

The debates over Derrida’s relationship to history were soon invested with political meaning. As we have seen Jameson had attacked Derrida for being caught in the structuralists’ ‘prison-house of language’. Terry Eagleton developed this argument in his 1984 book, The Function of Criticism, which argued that deconstruction had blunted the political edge of literary studies. Derrida’s claim that there was nothing outside of the text quashed all hope of something fundamentally new, and so encouraged acquiescence to existing forms of domination. This complaint was not restricted to Marxists. Edward Said made a similar criticism in his preface to the 1985 re-edition of his Beginnings. It was also the central argument in Lentricchia’s book. In cutting themselves off from history the Yale critics had also cut themselves off from politics.

It would be wrong, however, to see this as a debate between political Marxists concerned with real history and the apolitical Yale School who concentrated on textual aporia. Rather it is better understood as a clash of different versions of politics. Jameson, Lentricchia and Eagleton criticized Derrida from a Marxist or quasi-Marxist perspective. But the Yale critics they attacked saw their work as a response to the political questions of the time, especially around what might loosely be called identity politics.68 They argued that the New Critics had cut off their work from the political ferment occurring in America in the 1960s. Thus, for them, the attentiveness to aporia and contradiction provided a means to invest their readings with the type of political meaning that they noted had engulfed American society. Deconstructive reading could challenge racial, gender and sexual hierarchies, and thus participate in the broader political activism of the age.69 This political reading of Derrida (and post-structuralism more generally) as a deconstruction of ethnocentrism, sexism and patriarchy was developed more fully and consistently by a younger generation of scholars including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler amongst others.

The ever-expanding post-structuralist movement

The short-lived, but consequential, reading of deconstruction as a historical corrective to structuralism allowed scholars to include other French thinkers in the movement. Though in the 1960s and early 1970s Foucault had been often cited as a structuralist,70 now he was paired with Derrida as a ‘post-structuralist’, who sought to root the types of structures described by Lévi-Strauss and the early Barthes within a broader historical moment. As Lentricchia put it, Derrida’s work was solidary with the ‘poststructuralist writings of Michel Foucault’; both thinkers sought ‘to uncover the nonontological reincarceration of the signifier within cultural matrices’.71

The emphasis on disruption, characteristic of the Yale School, also allowed Foucault’s inclusion under the rubric of ‘post-structuralism’, but in a different way. Donato, for instance, saw a relationship between Derrida’s emphasis on temporality and Nietzschean themes in Foucault’s work, ones that troubled the archaeological metaphor that had structured the latter’s book, The Order of Things.72 This argument became easier to make after the publication of Foucault’s ‘genealogical’ texts from the mid 1970s, especially Discipline and Punish, which some scholars figured as a response to Derrida’s criticisms.73 Similar arguments, starting with Derrida at the core and building out to include other French thinkers, allowed American scholars to grow the movement. In his 1979 anthology, Harari identified the later Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, and Gilles Deleuze, amongst others as ‘post-structuralists’. Harari was attacked for privileging an ‘international “old boy” fraternity’, and neglecting women like Kristeva and Irigaray, on the French side, and Spivak and Shoshana Felman on the American.74 By the early 1980s all the above were regularly mentioned in overviews of the movement.

While some sought to use post-structuralism as a way of categorizing an upcoming generation in France, others expanded its reach further into the past. As we have seen, Derrida had emerged as a post-structuralist in the American reading, because the mechanics of transatlantic transfer recast his passing engagement with structuralist ideas as both identification and radical critique. The same could be said of Foucault, who considered himself neither a structuralist nor a post-structuralist. In the American imagination, however, he was both and. As Hayden White argued in a 1972 article on Foucault, ‘what makes him a post-Structuralist, not to say anti-Structuralist, thinker is the fact that he turns this interpretative strategy upon the human sciences in general and on Structuralism itself in particular’.75 From this point of view, then, structuralism had contained the seeds of its own destruction; there was post-structuralism from the beginning. In his 1981 Post-Structuralist Reader, Robert Young generalized this argument: ‘Structuralism as an origin never existed in a pre-lapsarian purity or ontological fullness: post-structuralism traces the trace of structuralism’s difference from itself.’76 As late as 1986 John Sturrock could argue that ‘post-structuralism is not “post” in the sense of having killed Structuralism off, it is “post” only in the sense of coming after and of seeking to extend Structuralism in its rightful direction’.77 The result was that many of the figures previously associated with structuralism, including Althusser and Lacan, could be welcomed into the post-structuralist camp.

The difficulty of drawing a clean line between structuralism and post-structuralism, separating structuralists from post-structuralists, meant that many did not even try. In the 1970s, the two terms were often uttered in the same breath, as a shorthand for the intellectual activity in the French capital.78 The multiple and mutual implications of structuralism and post-structuralism led the critic David Harland to coin the term ‘superstructuralism’ in his 1987 book of the same name, which covered both structuralism and its post-structuralist heirs.79

Some took this argument one step further, challenging not only the idea of a clear dividing line between structuralism and post-structuralism, but also the idea of a simple chronological relationship. As Harari wrote:

Without blurring the issues, we could say that whatever came after structuralism and transformed it was also, and at the same time, before it (without any exaggeration, one can trace the tradition which questions logocentrism back to Nietzsche), with it (the example of the two Barthes), and as a counterpoint to it (Lévi-Strauss versus Derrida, for instance).80

The Derrida scholar Geoff Bennington concurred: ‘[I]t is already a historical simplification to assume that post-structuralism simply comes after structuralism.’81

The most concrete consequence of this disengagement from traditional temporal schemes is that Anglo-American scholars granted themselves licence to search for post-structuralists even further into the past and even further afield. Alongside Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were added to the canon. Sturrock tied the history of post-structuralism back to the critics of Russian formalism in the interwar period: ‘Without knowing it, and well ahead of time, Bakhtin and Medvedev here inaugurate the age of post-Structuralism.’82 Gathering together a range of historically and geographically distant thinkers, post-structuralism started to cut its historical anchoring to structuralism, and it became easier to see it as an autonomous movement. In its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, ‘post-structuralism’ was no longer necessarily defined by its relationship to structuralism. Indeed one could argue that the development of ‘post-structuralism’ as a ‘method’ (though that word was often taboo) applicable to a range of different fields was reliant on the fact that it had been detached from historicist narratives.


In France, structuralism was too robust and too diverse to be easily dispatched. Structuralism was a space in which debates took place, and a common set of sources that could be read in a variety of ways. It was possible to ignore structuralism, but it was difficult to overcome it, because it remained unclear what structuralism actually was. In order for structuralism to earn its post-prefix, the internal intellectual tensions that had animated it in France would need to be recast as decisive and revolutionary critique. This occurred in two ways: first by transporting structuralism to America, and second by associating it with an intellectual movement, the New Criticism, that many had already declared to be obsolete. In this way, Derrida’s short-lived and contingent articulation of structuralism’s fault lines in France was heard in America as the rallying cry for a new intellectual movement. And yet just because Americans felt able to treat structuralism as surpassed did not mean that it was now beyond debate, and how precisely post-structuralism had overcome its structuralist predecessor remained an object of intense discussion, a debate that powered a rapid inflation of the term to cover an ever-larger and more disparate groups of thinkers. For if history is not, as the Yale School argued, simply a fictitious narrative, neither is it, as their critics thought, a refuge from the interpretative dilemmas of literature. When we examine the reception of (post-)structuralism in America we realize that the post-prefix designates not a temporal relationship, but rather a historical problem.


1 Gérard Raulet, ‘Structuralism and Post-Structuralism: An Interview with Michel Foucault’, Telos, 55 (1983), 205.
2 Jacques Derrida, ‘Marx and Sons’, in Michael Sprinker (ed.), Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (London: Verso, 1999), p. 229.
3 Raulet, ‘Structuralism and Post-Structuralism’, 195.
4 For the difficulty of identifying ‘post-structuralism’ in France, see Johannes Angermüller, Why There Is No Post-Structuralism in France (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Angermüller provides a helpful institutional analysis of the rise and fall of what he calls the ‘structuralist generation’.
5 Vincent Descombes, ‘Philosophy and Anthropology after Structuralism’, Paragraph, 14 (1991), 217.
6 François Châtelet, ‘Où en est le structuralisme?’, Quinzaine Littéraire (1 July 1967).
7 Ibid.
8 François Wahl, ‘Introduction’, in Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1968), p. 8.
9 Michel Foucault, Quinzaine Littéraire (1 March 1968).
10 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course on General Linguistics (London: P. Owen, 1960), p. 116.
11 Ibid., pp. 87–8.
12 Ibid., p. 71.
13 François Dosse, A History of Structuralism, trans. Deborah Glassman, vol. 1. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 11.
14 See, for instance, Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage (Paris: Plon, 1962).
15 See, for instance, Lévi-Strauss, Le totémisme aujourd’hui (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), p. 130.
16 See Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), p. 205. See also, in the same volume, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’.
17 See especially Roland Barthes, ‘Myth Today’, in Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavres (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 225–6.
18 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).
19 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971).
20 See Dosse, History of Structuralism, vol. 1, p. 240.
21 See Louis Althusser et al., Reading Capital (New York: Verso, 1971).
22 See, for instance, Louis Althusser, ‘On Lévi-Strauss’, in Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, trans. G. M. Goghgarian (London: Verso, 2003).
23 See Louis Althusser, ‘Séminaire 1962–3’, in ALT 2 A40–02.02 in IMEC Archives, Caen.
24 See, for example, Jacques Derrida, l’Écriture et la différence (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1967), pp. 48–9.
25 See Edward Baring, ‘Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cercle d’Epistémologie; Or, how to be a good Structuralist’, in Peter Hallward and Knox Peden (eds), Concept and Form, vol. 2. (London: Verso, 2012).
26 See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 114.
27 Ibid., p. 105.
28 Ibid., p. 158.
29 See George Cotkin, Existential America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
30 See Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 305.
31 Girard to Stephen Koch, 7 June 1965, in Author Correspondence: Macksey, ‘The Structuralist Controversy, 1965–71’, The Johns Hopkins University Archives.
32 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 283–6, 292.
33 Ibid., p. 293 (translation amended).
34 ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man 1966–7 Final Draft’, Symposia, Dean of Arts and Sciences, The Johns Hopkins University Archives.
35 R. M. to J. G. Goellner, 31 January 1968. Author Correspondence: Richard Macksey ‘Velocities of Change’, The Johns Hopkins University Archives.
36 Edward Said, ‘Abecedarium culturae: Structuralism, Absence, Writing’, TriQuarterly, 20 (1971), 53.
37 Ibid., 65.
38 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Translator’s Preface’, in Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. lv–lix.
39 John Sturrock, Structuralism and Since (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 3–4.
40 It was published four years later as Ehrmann, ‘Introduction’, Yale French Studies, 36 (1970), vii, x–xi.
41 Richard de George and Fernande de George, ‘Introduction’, in Richard de George and Fernande de George (eds), The Structuralists: From Marx to Lévi-Strauss (New York: Anchor Books, 1972), p. xxix.
42 Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. v–vii, 214–16.
43 Ibid., p. ix.
44 Ibid., p. 186.
45 Richard Macksey (ed.), The Structuralist Controversy (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), p. ix.
46 Eugenio Donato, ‘Structuralism: The Aftermath’, SubStance, 3:7 (1973), 22–5.
47 Josué Harari (ed.), Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 9.
48 See Josué Harari, Structuralists and Structuralism: A Selected Bibliography of French Contemporary Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971).
49 René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1949). The same could be said of the work of Northrup Frye, who drew on Lévi-Strauss in his 1957 reformulation of New Criticism, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).
50 See Said, ‘Abecedarium’, 57 and Jameson, Prison-House of Language, pp. 45–7.
51 See Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. vii–viii.
52 Jameson, Prison-House of Language, pp. 45–7.
53 Ibid., p. 216.
54 See Mark Currie, The Invention of Deconstruction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 28–63.
55 Alexander Gelley, ‘Form as Force’, Diacritics, 2 (1972), 10
56 Ibid., 12.
57 Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 174–7.
58 Ibid., pp. 159–73, 177–88.
59 For Currie, de Man’s argument should be seen as a different articulation of the relationship between language and history rather than the denial of history. Currie, Invention of Deconstruction, p. 93.
60 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, trans. Wlad Godzich, 2nd edn (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 103.
61 Ibid., p. 9.
62 Ibid. For de Man, structuralism helps overcome the privileging of the literary in New Criticism. See, for example, ibid., p. 107.
63 Ibid., pp. 230–1. On the point of reconciliation see also p. 245.
64 Ibid., pp. 110–11.
65 Ibid., pp. 137–8.
66 J. Hillis Miller, ‘Narrative and History’, English Literary History, 41 (1974), 460–1.
67 J. Hillis Miller, ‘The Critic as Host’, Critical Inquiry, 3 (1977), 439.
68 See the lively account in François Cusset, French Theory, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), chapter 6.
69 See Currie, Invention of Deconstruction, chapter 1.
70 See, for instance, Michel Pierssens, ‘Introduction’, SubStance, 3:7 (1973), 3.
71 Lentricchia, After the New Criticism, p. 174.
72 Donato, ‘Structuralism: The Aftermath’, 17–25.
73 Allan Megill, ‘Foucault, Structuralism, and the Ends of History’, The Journal of Modern History, 51:3 (1979), 491.
74 Steven Ungar, review of Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse, and Josué Harari (ed.) Textual Strategies, in SubStance 9:3 (1980), 98. Harari does include Kristeva in the movement in his introduction. Textual Strategies, p. 20.
75 Hayden White, ‘Foucault Decoded’, History and Theory, 12 (1972), 24.
76 Robert Young (ed.), Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 1.
77 John Sturrock (ed.), Structuralism (London: Paladin, 1986), p. 137.
78 See, for instance, Jeffrey Mehlman, ‘Portnoy in Paris’, Diacritics, 2 (1972), 21; and Jonathan Culler, ‘Derrida’, in Sturrock (ed.), Structuralism, p. 155.
79 David Harland, Superstructuralism (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 1.
80 Harari, Textual Strategies, p. 30.
81 Geoff Bennington, ‘Introduction’, in Bennington (ed.), Poststructuralism and the Question of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 8.
82 Sturrock, Structuralism, p. 136.


An intellectual history of post-concepts


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