Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as a movement critiquing structuralism. According to J.G. Merquior a love–hate relationship with structuralism developed amongst many leading French thinkers in the 1960s.
The period was marked by political anxiety, as students and workers alike rebelled against the state in May 1968, nearly causing the downfall of the French government. At the same time, however, the support of the French Communist Party (FCP) for the oppressive policies of the USSR contributed to popular disillusionment with orthodox Marxism. As a result, there was increased interest in alternative radical philosophies, including feminism, western Marxism, anarchism, phenomenology, and nihilism. These disparate perspectives, which Michel Foucault later labeled "subjugated knowledges," were all linked by being critical of dominant Western philosophy and culture. Post-structuralism offered a means of justifying these criticisms, by exposing the underlying assumptions of many Western norms.
Two key figures in the early post-structuralist movement were Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. In a 1966 lecture "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", Jacques Derrida presented a thesis on an apparent rupture in intellectual life. Derrida interpreted this event as a "decentering" of the former intellectual cosmos. Instead of progress or divergence from an identified centre, Derrida described this "event" as a kind of "play."
Although Barthes was originally a structuralist, during the 1960s he increasingly favored post-structuralist views. In 1967, Barthes published "The Death of the Author" in which he announced a metaphorical event: the "death" of the author as an authentic source of meaning for a given text. Barthes argued that any literary text has multiple meanings, and that the author was not the prime source of the work's semantic content. The "Death of the Author," Barthes maintained, was the "Birth of the Reader," as the source of the proliferation of meanings of the text.
In a 1976 lecture series, Foucault briefly summarized the general impetus of the post-structuralist movement:
...For the last ten or fifteen years, the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something... beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.
— Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976, tr. David Macey
Post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and Foucault did not form a self-conscious group, but each responded to the traditions of phenomenology and structuralism. Phenomenology, often associated with two German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, rejected previous systems of knowledge and attempted to examine life "just as it appears" (as phenomena). Both movements rejected the idea that knowledge could be centred on the human knower, and sought what they considered a more secure foundation for knowledge.
In phenomenology this foundation would be experience itself; in structuralism, knowledge is founded on the "structures" that make experience possible: concepts, and language or signs. Post-structuralism, in turn, argues that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (structuralism) is impossible. This impossibility was meant not a failure or loss, but a cause for "celebration and liberation."
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