Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ten Statements Towards an Understanding of Post-Structuralism

Preparing for the conference next week on Language, Literature, and Religion, I have been spending a good bit of time preparing my presentation on Christian responses to post-structuralism and particuarly deconstruction. It is more complicated for me than my other presentation, which is direct literary analysis. So regarding post-structuralism, here are some guiding ideas I have been articulating for myself, advancing from the simple (and generally accepted) to the more complex (and perhaps more debatable):

1. Post-structuralism is not a critique of structure in itself (i.e., it is not anti-structure). It has its own conceptual structure(s) and one must not conflate structure with structuralism, thus creating a caricature of the latter. Even regarding deconstruction (even Derrida's), it is important to eschew the error of equating it with pure relativism and ultimate meaninglessness.
2. Post-structuralism is a critique of structuralism, which was first and foremost a set of linguistic theories (beginning with Ferdinand de Sassure) and became a literary theory applied to the interpretation of texts. Only after linguistics and literary theory was structuralism applied to a host of other disciplines. From the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss to French structuralist feminism to structuralism in biblical studies, it is a whole mindset that shapes how one thinks about the world. This means that it ultimately will become a sort of philosophy and respond to philosophical questions. The same is, naturally, true of post-structuralism. 
3. Post-structuralism, like structuralism, thus focuses primarily on language and by extension texts (though the definition of text is drastically broadened by most post-structural theorists). Post-structural thought tends to be either of a linguistic or a literary orientation, though again it is taken up in many other disciplines.
4. Post-structuralism is a useful label for an ensemble of overwhelmingly diverse theories and thinkers (a bit like the label of postmodernism, if not quite to the same extent). The extension of the term is so broad that it necessitates great precision when analysing post-structuralist writers and clarification regarding whom and what ideas we are agreeing or disagreeing with.
5. Post-structuralism is not, properly speaking, a philosophical or theological system, as already mentioned. 
6. Post-structuralism does interact significantly with the Western philosophical tradition. The preceding points are not meant to minimize the impact of post-structuralism on philosophy and vice versa, only to remind of the origins of structuralism and post-structuralism and their primary interest (language). Whatever one thinks of Derrida, for example, he was a philosopher by training and much of his own deconstructive analyses were of Western philosophers (Heidegger, Husserl).
7. Post-structuralism does interact significantly with the Western theological tradition.
8. Post-structuralism, because it focuses on language (point 3 above), relates to every academic discipline in some way. Its importance can be overblown in some fields, however, and attempts to wed it with other disciplines can be artificial and even anti-intellectual.
9. Post-structuralism is at times misunderstood and misapplied by Christian theorists. This point should not, however, be overblown. Some Christians (like some Muslims, atheists, pantheists, Buddhists . . . in short, humans) misunderstand different things to different extents.
10. Post-structuralism has significantly shaped the world we live in, and deserves to be fairly understood.

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