Poststructuralism as Theory and Practice in the
English Classroom. ERIC Digest.
by Bush, Harold K., Jr.
WHEN DID POSTSTRUCTURALISM "BEGIN?"
In the late 1960s, just as structuralism was reaching its apex as an
influential theory of language, along came a new wave of philosophers intent
on subjecting it to a rigorous and sustained critique. Structuralism, an
intellectual movement most readily associated with the linguist Ferdinand
de Saussure and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, examined cultural
phenomena according to the underlying formal systems out of which those
phenomena naturally spring. That is, both language and culture acquire
meaning only insofar as they participate in a complex pool of structural
This seemingly scientific view of language and culture posited a systemic
"center" that organized and sustained an entire structure. The historical
attack against this central premise of structuralism is usually traced
to a paper entitled "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human
Sciences," delivered by Jacques Derrida to the International Colloquium
at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. In his essay, later collected in his
influential book "Writing and Difference" (1978), Derrida criticized the
Western "logocentric" notion of an ever-active, transcendent center or
ground. Since language does in fact lack such a center, say poststructuralist
critics, language is therefore inherently unstable and fraught with ambiguity
and "slippage," with the result that meaning is indeterminate.
WHAT IS POSTSTRUCTURALISM?
Poststructuralism, like its related second cousin postmodernism, is
a slippery term for anyone to define. As a result, any basic outline such
as this summary is by necessity extremely general and open to controversy
by theorists (a phenomenon, by the way, that is inherent to poststructuralist
thought). Nevertheless, poststructuralism is generally considered to include
three main features or tenets:
The Primacy of Theory
In contemporary philosophy, it has become incumbent upon every critic
to "theorize" every position and critical practice. In effect, "theory"
has almost in and of itself become an independent field of study and research
in the humanities, designating as it now does any account of whatever conditions
determine all meaning and interpretation.
In addition, much of contemporary theory seeks to challenge, destabilize,
and subvert the foundational assumptions and beliefs which comprise all
modes of discourse that make up western civilization. Because of this ongoing
and at times rather stridently oppositional stance, poststructural criticism
has been associated with an adversarial stance that often takes on the
established institutional and political forces in American society. Among
the many essays describing the rise and content of the field that today
is called "theory," Terry Eagleton's fine study (1983) is the most accessible
and the best introductory text.
The Decentering of the Subject
Poststructural critics have called into question the very existence
of the human "subject" or "self" posited by "humanism." The traditional
view of individuals in society privileges the individual's coherent identity
endowed with initiative, singular will, and purposefulness. However, this
traditionalist concept is no longer seen as tenable in a poststructuralist
view of human subjectivity. By way of contrast, the poststructural subject
or self is seen to be incoherent, disunified, and in effect "decentered,"
so that depending upon the commentator a human being is described as, for
example, a mere conveyor of unconscious mainstream ideologies, or as simply
a "site" in which various cultural constructs and "discursive formations"
created and sustained by the structures of power in a given social environment
play themselves out. Some of the most important early essays signaling
the turn to such a view of human subjectivity, and in particular of authorship,
also appeared in the late 1960s, including influential works by theorists
like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes.
The Fundamental Importance of the Reader
With the destabilizing or decentering of the author and in more general
terms of language as a system, the reader or interpreter has become the
focal point of much poststructural theorizing. The traditional notion of
a literary "work" that has some sort of objective, singular existence and
meaning all its own has been rejected and translated into the more common
contemporary category of "text," a concept that suggests the centrality
of the reader and the decentered nature of the written product itself.
According to "deconstruction," a theoretical approach to written texts
that is largely an offshoot of poststructural theory, any text comprises
a chain of signifiers which appears to evoke a singular meaning, but which
upon investigation can be shown to contradict itself and thus "deconstruct"
whatever meaning it can be said to contain. In the most extreme forms of
deconstruction, meaning is fully indeterminate, and any claim to understand
and interpret objectively and completely a given text is merely an illusory
In addition to deconstruction, another particularly important and related
field of poststructuralist theory is "reader response theory." Reader response
is most interested in how individuals read the same text in vastly different
ways. Although reader response (like poststructuralism and deconstruction)
should not be considered a field of unified critical thought, the term
has "come to be associated with the work of critics who use the words "reader,"
"the reading process," and "response" to mark out an area of investigation"
(Tompkins, 1980). Thus, reader response theorists would agree that a work
of literature cannot be understood apart from its effects on individual
readers; indeed, the work's "meaning" really has no existence separate
from the way readers respond to it. A recommended introductory text discussing
readers respone theory as a field of inquiry is a collection of foundational
essays edited by Jane Tompkins entitled "Reader Response Criticism" (1980).
HOW HAS POSTSTRUCTURALISM AS A THEORY AFFECTED ENGLISH CLASSROOM
PRACTICES IN THE TEACHING OF LITERATURE?
As Arthur Applebee has pointed out, the English curriculum's primary
objective should be the enhancement and maintenance of the conversational
feature of culture within the domain of the English classroom. Applebee
and his colleagues advocate a view of curriculum that creates "a domain
for culturally significant conversations into which we want our students
to be able to enter" (Applebee, 1994). Applebee's aim, which demonstrates
how poststructural theorizing has influenced English curriculum development,
is to create such domains by holding to one of Applebee's key principles:
"content that does not invoke further conversation is of no interest; it
is dead as well as deadly." Blau (1993) provides a solid introductory essay
linking current literary theory with actual teaching of literature. Johnson
(1994) discusses how readers are profoundly affected by such social categories
as race and gender, while Patterson (1992) considers reading as a discursive
practice and demarcates the shift toward poststructural views of individualism.
HOW HAS POSTSTRUCTURALISM AFFECTED THE TEACHING OF WRITING?
Berlin (1992) and Winterowd and Blum (1994) have supplied two of the
best introductions to how poststructural theory has had a massive impact
on composition pedagogy. A growing number of scholars have written about
this influence on a variety of practical areas: Hourigan (1991) describes
the impact of poststructuralism on writing assessment, and Joyner (1991)
advocates the employment of poststructural insights into the procedures
of writing centers. Jonsberg (1993) and Hodgkins (1993) are interested
in how poststructural theory might affect student-teacher relationships,
writing assignments, and student writing modes such as expressivism.
Finally, poststructural theory is having an effect on areas of professionalization
and teacher education. Capper and Jamison (1993), Deever (1993), Oldendorf
(1992), and Robinson et al. (1993) have all contributed to the larger project
of determining how the emergence of poststructuralism should affect what
English teachers teach, how institutions should make evaluative judgments,
and how preservice English teachers should be prepared to begin their careers.
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Discipline-Based Conversation." English Journal, 83(3), 45-52. [EJ 480
Berlin, James A. (1992). "Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies, and the
Composition Classroom: Postmodern Theory in Practice." Rhetoric Review,
11(1), 16-23. [EJ 451 299]
Blau, Sheridan (1993). "Building Bridges between Literary Theory and
the Teaching of Literature." Albany, NY: National Research Center on Literature
Teaching & Learning. [ED 356 472]
Capper, Colleen A., and Michael T. Jamison (1993). "Outcomes-Based Education
Reexamined: From Structural Functionalism to Poststructuralism." Educational
Policy, 7(4), 427-46. [EJ 475 775]
Deever, Bryan (1993). "A Curriculum for Educational Justice: The Social
Foundations of Education and Pre-Service Teachers." Teacher Education Quarterly,
20(2), 43-56. [EJ 466 237]
Eagleton, Terry (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Hodgkins, Deborah (1993). "Constructive/ Constructing Dialogue: Students,
Teachers, and the 'Self' in the Writing Classroom." Paper presented at
the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication
(San Diego). [ED 361 743]
Hourigan, Maureen M. (1991). "Poststructural Theory and Writing Assessment:
'Heady, Esoteric Theory' Revisited." Teaching English in the Two-Year College,
18(3), 191-95. [EJ 432 506]
Johnson, Cheryl L. (1994). "Participatory Rhetoric and the Teacher as
Racial/Gendered Subject." College English, 56(4), 409-19. [EJ 481 051]
Jonsberg, Sara Dalma (1993). "Rehearsing New Subject Positions: A Poststructural
Look at Expressive Writing." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the
Conference on College Composition and Communication (San Diego). [ED 358
Joyner, Michael A. (1991). "The Writing Center Conference and the Textuality
of Power." Writing Center Journal, 12(1), 80-89. [EJ 435 657]
Oldendorf, Walter P. (1992). "Teacher Renewal and Educational Reform:
A Poststructuralist at Home on the Range." [ED 353 208]
Patterson, Annette (1992). "Individualism in English: From Personal
Growth to Discursive Construction." English Education, 24(3), 131-46. [EJ
Robinson, Rhonda S., et al. (1993). "Researching Instructional Materials
Evaluation: Adding Socio-Cultural Dimensions." [ED 363 294]
Winterowd, W. Ross, and Jack Blum (1994). A Teacher's Introduction to
Composition in the Rhetorical Tradition. Urbana, IL: National Council of
Teachers of English. [ED 373 330]