Chomsky in the video below gives us some fascinating insights into the origins of French Poststructuralism – and also into its modern offshoot Postmodernism.
Remember he is talking about the origin of French Poststructuralism in the early 1970s.
Chomsky understood the origins of Poststructuralism very well: many of the big French Poststructuralists – like Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and Michel Foucault (1920–1984) – had been Marxists, and some of them Stalinists and Maoists.
They become disillusioned with this cult-like ideology by the late 1960s and early 1970s, which had also been associated with Structuralism (the fashionable academic theory that replaced Existentialism in post-WWII France). The result? These frustrated Marxists turned to Poststructuralism, and to what they believed was a new “radical” critique of “bourgeois” society and civilisation. Unfortunately, this involved all sorts of unbelievably stupid nonsense such as truth relativism, the idea that texts don’t really have authors, and that texts can mean anything you like (no matter how insane your interpretation).
A crucial foundational text for the emerging Poststructuralist movement was Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” (Barthes 1967 = Barthes 1977). In this, Barthes essentially argued that critics should divorce their study of a text from its author, and that a text is not a product of its author with a definite and fixed meaning intended by the author (see Barthes 1977: 146).
The radical political agenda for this nonsense was expressed quite openly, explicitly and without any shame by Barthes in this article, as follows:
“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ – victory to the critic. …. literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (Barthes 1977: 146).In other words, let us ignore authors and pretend texts can mean anything. In the process, we can emancipate ourselves from “reason, science, [and] law.”
As an aside, some people seem to think that Michel Foucault was some great exception to the absurdity of the Poststructuralist movement, but this is entirely wrong and anyone who bothers to read Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” (Foucault 1984 ) can see clearly he was fully on board with the stupidity.
Any person who wants to be “liberated” from reason and science is simply unhinged. The Poststructuralist ideology and its Postmodernist offspring was nothing but the most outrageous betrayal of the Left, which, if anything, ought to be strongly defending reason and modern science.
Let us just probe one point in what follows. For example, what would being “liberated” from modern science even involve? Would you be “liberated” from modern science-based medicine? Liberated from scientific principles that ensure that our engineers built buildings, houses and other structures that don’t just collapse on people’s heads and kill people?
Liberated from vaccination programs or scientific principles of public health and sanitation that protect first-world countries from diseases that still plague the developing world? Liberated from the germ theory of disease? Liberated from the principles of internal combustion and science that make motor vehicles work?
The few people in our world today who seriously want to be “liberated” from modern science are mostly religious fundamentalists of the most extreme kind – people who don’t accept Darwinian evolution or even modern medicine. Is that who the progressive left wants to stand with these days?
It is not surprising that the Postmodernist left took up this bizarre hostility to science to the point where it had become an embarrassment to anyone who cares to look at the issue seriously.
If the left wants to reform and strengthen itself, a good place to start is simply for left-wing people to subject Postmodernism to the withering criticism and contempt it deserves, without any concern for offending fellow leftists. Postmodernism does very little except rot your brain – it is the enemy of reason, science, logic, progressive economics and rational discourse.
“Postmodernism: Its Family Tree and Origins,” February 8, 2015.
“Quantum Weirdness and Nonsense,” October 4, 2015.
“Foucault’s “What is an Author?”: A Critique ,” March 7, 2015.
“Lectures on Russian Formalism and Semiotics and Structuralism,” February 19, 2015.
“Postmodernism and Third World Progressive Movements,” February 9, 2015.
“Yanis Varoufakis on Postmodernism and Economic Methodology,” February 16, 2015.
“The Left needs to abandon Postmodernism,” February 5, 2015.
“Chomsky on Žižek and Lacan,” February 6, 2015.
“Nonsense and Postmodernist Writing,” February 7, 2015.
Barthes, Roland. 1967. “Death of the Author,” Aspen 5/6.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Death of the Author,” Image Music Text (trans. Stephen Heath). Fontana, London. 142–148.
Foucault, Michel. 1984 . “What is an Author?,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon, New York. 101–120.