ABSTRACT

The thinkers who have responded most vigorously to the crisis of European civilization, who have spoken for postmodernism or been appropriated and popularized by postmodernists, are the French ‘poststructuralists’.1 The best known of these: Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, are, or were, a group of Parisian intellectuals who, from marginal positions within the French educational establishment, succeeded in displacing the Marxists and the structuralists as the dominant group of philosophers and literary and social theorists in France.2 Some poststructuralists were reacting against and trying to overcome the limitations of structuralism, the systematic attempt to carry out Saussure’s proposal to develop on the foundation of his linguistic theory a general science of signs; however, poststructuralism is generally related to earlier traditions of thought in a much more complex way. Poststructuralism is not just another fashion in French philosophy. In reacting against structuralism, poststructuralists have attacked the attempt to reduce the world to an object of analysis. This rejection of ‘objectivism’ has not been a return to the subject-centred philosophy of the Hegelian or Marxist existentialist phenomenologists, the target of the structuralists, but has involved a questioning of the subject/object dichotomy which underlay not only the opposition between phenomenology and structuralism, but at least since the seventeenth century, most of European culture. And this questioning of European culture has not stopped with questioning this crucial opposition. It has led to a questioning of every aspect of Western civilization from its origins in Ancient Greek and Hebraic thought to the most recent developments in European and American culture. In particular, the tendency to identify European notions of rationality with universal truth has been questioned.3 While this furthers the work of the structuralist Lévi-Strauss, it continues more profoundly the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and poststructuralism is only fully intelligible in relation to their ideas. In fact what is most significant about the poststructuralists is that they have revived and sustained interest in these philosophers, who can be regarded as the true originators of postmodernism.4