Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Post-er Boy

So, I’ve recently been reading up on post-structuralism for a novel I’m thinking of writing, and I was reminded just how much I hate the movement. If you’re not familiar, post-structuralism is one of those newfangled literary/philosophical movements which defies explanation.

In fact, to attempt to explain it in simple terms would insult the very ideas it represents. Therefore:

Post-structuralism basically holds that any analysis of meaning should be conducted from the point of view of the reader (or listener or viewer or what-have-you), rather than the author. In essence, they’re arguing that discussions about an author’s intended meaning are pointless, since we’ll never really know what any author actually wants to communicate.

Oh, there’s more than that: whole books about the deconstruction of texts and meaning, but I’d say that right there is the CORE of post-structuralism. Yes indeed, that’s generally what the term MEANS.

I could rant for a while about inherent problems with this framework, how it neglects the possibility of skeptical doubt regarding an author’s intent, leaping instead to a sort of linguistic nihilism… but that’s not really what I want to do. I’d rather take a moment and consider the man I consider the epitome of post-structuralism: George W. Bush.

You see, nearly everything that came out of the ex-president’s mouth was a post-structural gem. Consider his stance on torture: namely that it was wrong and that “We do not torture.” All the while, of course, we were.

Consider the schism between his stance on civil liberties and the actions he took. If he’d only been lying when he claimed he was protecting our liberties, he have had to change his tune in the face of overwhelming evidence. Fortunately, he wasn’t lying. A lie represents a contradiction behind a statement and the truth. But there can be no truth. There is only text.

A cynic might accuse Bush of lying to the American people, but this would be an antiquated appraisal, a structuralist reading, in fact. Consider that the word “torture” is but a signifier. And any good post-structuralist will tell you that the signified slides away. Clinton may have toyed with the meaning of words, but Bush abandoned meaning altogether. There was NO direct correlation between what he said and did: none was needed. As he proved in 2004, he was able to get reelected by repeating meaningless slogans over and over again.

The administration seemed to know what it was doing: the 24-hour news networks were all to happy to air these soundbites all day. Voters responded to phrases like “flip-flopper” and “stay the course” more than they cared about numbers or facts. Bush voters, in particular, revealed little knowledge of the state of the world.

In essence, Bush correctly realized that his statements were, for all intents and purposes, the only things that mattered. Whether Iraq had weapons of mass-destruction was irrelevant to the public: only the rhetoric – the text – mattered.

Bush was a president whose claims existed outside of context, and, as much as I hate to admit it, this worked for a while. During the Bush years, we existed in a kind of post-structural environment. But nothing lasts forever: by 2006, the voters had had enough. Out went Republican control, and in came the Democrats. By 2008, the rhetoric had subsided a bit. Sure, a good one-liner was still important, but candidates who tried to run on these alone – such as Giuliani’s nonstop string of 9/11 references – found themselves out of the race early.

It seems to me that post-structuralism was not only epitomized by the Bush era, but I feel comfortable claiming it died there, as well. The utter lack of context or meaning that defined Bush’s presidency wasn’t something we were able to stomach.


Anonymous said...

I have a little commentary on Bush and his speechifying you might find interesting regarding this discussion --

Threat Quality Press said...

Now, wait a minute. There seems to me to be an essential difference between what George W. Bush says--which is a specific referent to a verifiable datum--and what, say, Herman Melville says about Captain Ahab. Herman Melville came from his own history and context that we are not privy to--even dedicated Melville scholars are not privy to. Exactly how much of that context shapes his intent? Without knowing the intricacies of his life and world, is it even possible to understand Moby-Dick?

Melville comments on the nature of Captain Ahab, but how can we have enough information to be sure that we think he's lying about it? Ahab is not verifiable outside the confines of the novel--in fact, there's nothing in the novel at all that's verifiable outside of itself.

I am suspicious of the idea that there's any way to intuit what an author meant in a novel using information that is from somewhere other than the novel--within reason, of course; obviously, for example, the meaning of words like "Captain" is a priori knowledge that I bring with me when I read.

Erin Snyder said...

Braak: Writing is, among other things, a form of communication, a fact I think post-structuralists have forgotten.

And it is, in fact, possible to communicate ideas.

Of course it's also possible to misinterpret. It's possible to be misled or to lack a crucial element of context and reach a conclusion that's completely wrong.

That why there's skeptical doubt.

Is it possible that no one will ever really understand the depth of Melville's intent? Sure, that's possible. A lot of things are possible.

But it's also possible that thousands of scholars, students, and readers have understood it just fine. That's what post-structuralists seem to miss: the lack of absolute proof for a theory does not, on its own, invalidate the theory.

When reading a novel (or any other work of fiction), we should always remember that our interpretation could be wrong. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to understand it.