Post-Structuralism As Subculture
Post-Structuralism As Subculture

Barbara Epstein probes the roots of postmodernism's
attraction -- and its limitations.

     Two articles examining postmodernism, post-
structuralism, and their implications for left politics have
appeared in recent issues of CrossRoads. I agree with some
of the points made in each article. In "Political Strategy
for the 1990s" (No. 36), Paul Costello argues that Marxism
fails to account for many of the developments of the late
twentieth century: the increased power and reach of the
state, the increased importance of technology and media, of
culture as an arena of politics, of social categories
transcending class. He argues that postmodernism (or post-
structuralism, the set of theoretical perspectives
associated with it) do a better job of describing these
     Mel Rothenberg, in "Making Left Politics More Than a
Discourse" (No. 37), argues that the claims of what he calls
postmodern discourse (there is no objective reality, there
can be no overall strategy for social change) reflect the
fragmentation of contemporary society; and that post-
structuralist theory, while giving us insight into
contemporary culture, cannot provide a basis for left
politics. Costello is sympathetic to utilizing postmodernism
as the theoretical framework for left politics; Rothenberg
argues for a return to Marxism and to the category of class.
     I agree with Costello and Rothenberg that we need to
look at the challenge to Marxism presented by
postmodernism/post-structuralism, and also at the impact of
this discourse on progressive movements (given the very
large numbers of left and progressive intellectuals who have
become part of this movement, or are influenced by it).
However, I would address the question a little differently
than either Costello or Rothenberg. I don't think that
either post-structuralism or Marxism is likely to provide a
strategy or politics for the left.


     Post-structuralism, as both writers acknowledge, can
give us an appreciation of some of the developments of the
late twentieth century that do not easily fit Marxist
categories. Marxism can help us understand the social and
historical context of these developments. It cannot tell us
what an oppositional stance should consist of, but it can
help provide a theoretical framework for our search for that
     Comparing Marxism and post-structuralism, as bases for
radical politics, seems to me not a very useful approach:
Marxism and post-structuralism are different kinds of
philosophies, with different aims. Marxism is about the
prospects for social change; post-structuralism is not.
Neither post-structuralism nor the deconstructionist method
that it is associated with implies any particular politics.
The post-structuralist suspicion of all assumptions, its
emphasis on the breakdown of social and ethical systems,
suggests a mood of despair but does not call for the
construction of an alternative; its implication is that all
forms of politics are equally suspect.
     The one arena that post-structuralism does not examine
with suspicion is, of course, itself. (There is another area
that post-structuralism endlessly uncovers and examines, but
oddly, often seems to take as "natural": the desire for
power. Perhaps this may have something to do with the
ubiquity of the quest for power and status in the world of
elite academia that post-structuralism inhabits, where
status, and limited but nevertheless real forms of power, do
more than money to bolster the ego).
     The concept of alienation, which is key to a Marxist
critique of capitalism and vision of a better society, is
entirely absent from post-structuralism; one cannot be
alienated if, as post-structuralism argues, there is no self
to be alienated from. But if alienation drops out of our
vocabulary, we have no reason to protest current conditions
and no basis for imagining anything better. Lacking the
concept of alienation, we also have no basis for criticizing
the quest for power and status that fascinates post-
structuralism, or for rejecting it in favor of other aims.
     A critical stance is not necessarily the same thing as
a politically radical stance. Post-structuralism calls for
taking apart existing ideas and assumptions: a progressive
perspective would call for dismantling some things, but not
others. Probably the majority of intellectuals who adhere to
post-structuralism have progressive sympathies -- but post-
structuralism itself does not provide a basis for a
political perspective, by which I mean a vision of a better
society, and some idea of how to get there.
     The fact that post-structuralism implies no particular
politics is not necessarily an indictment. There have been
many intellectual and artistic developments that have not
addressed political issues but have made other sorts of
contributions; Freudian theory, for instance, is not
inherently either radical or conservative. Freudian theory
can enhance a political perspective; an understanding of the
psychic structure of individuals can deepen one's
understanding of social processes. But if Freudianism is
taken as the core of one's political stance, it tends to
lead to a simplistic politics, one that is blind to its own
consequences because it has no tools for understanding
social and historical dynamics.
     I think something similar could be said for post-
structuralism: a method that is geared to exposing all
claims to truth or value does not tell us how current
systems evolved, what would be better, or how we might get


     Post-structuralism is a set of theoretical claims, a
theoretical literature with roots in Continental philosophy;
it is also, at least in the U.S., an intellectual subculture
with considerable influence. Post-structuralism has been
frequently criticized from the left as incoherent, at least
as a basis for politics or social analysis. These criticisms
often seem to fall into a void. The reason, I believe, is
that those who are drawn to post-structuralism are not
looking for a theoretically coherent basis for social
analysis or left politics. More often they are drawn by the
celebration of incoherence, and by the subculture that has
grown up around radical post-structuralism, centered in the
elite universities but also reaching outside them.
     Most accounts of the rise of postmodernism/post-
structuralism describe it as a response to the crisis of
Marxism, and in a certain sense this is true: what is being
challenged is the Marxist belief that a coherent strategy
can be devised on the basis of an understanding of history,
and that concerted action can produce desired social change.
I believe that part of the appeal of post-structuralism is
that, as a subculture, it creates a refuge from the
seemingly impossible demand of creating an effective left
politics, and it does so without abandoning the attractive
aura of radicalism. It creates an arena in which one can
regard oneself as a subversive without worrying much about
whether one is changing society. It celebrates the playful,
the "excessive" or absurd, the apparently useless; it
creates a space in which brilliance, originality, even
intellectual perversity, are valued for their own sake,
without regard to their connection or lack of connection
with any external reality.
     The playfulness of post-structuralism is unfortunately
accompanied by less appealing characteristics: an
obscurantist language, intended to create a privileged space
for the cognoscenti; the worship of celebrities; a
conviction of cultural superiority, and a tendency to resort
to mockery, rather than  debate, when confronted with
criticisms. These qualities collide with radical post-
structuralism's presentation of itself as "subversive,"
affiliated with the politics of the powerless and
     David Hoy, in an article on the work of Jacques
Derrida, points out that deconstruction aims not to clarify
the texts that it addresses but to show how they work
against themselves, to make it impossible to read them as
coherent works. He suggests that ennui may be one basis for
the appeal of this approach to so many contemporary
theorists. (David Hoy, "Jacques Derrida," in Quentin
Skinner, ed., The Return of Grand Theory in the Human
Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p.
44. I would suggest that the culture of radical post-
structuralism is driven by a tension between surface glitter
and play and a deeper level not just of boredom but of
despair: about the possibility of radical social change and
also about the possibility of intellectual work having any
social impact. I suspect that many intellectuals, as well as
others, feel both sides of this tension: the appeal of
intellectual play for its own sake, and an a sense of defeat
over the reduction of intellectual work to play.


     While it is true that postmodernism competes with
Marxism for an audience among intellectuals, the leading
edge of the shift toward post-structuralism has not
consisted of disillusioned Marxists (most of whom are
discouraged but nevertheless not ready to give up
materialist analysis) but of feminists and other cultural
     The association between post-structuralism and feminist
theory has become so close that among left/feminist
intellectuals challenges to post-structuralism tend to be
understood as either challenges to theory generally or as
challenges to feminism. This makes discussions of post-
structuralism extremely fraught. If it is not just a theory
but Theory, any challenges seem to presume anti-
intellectualism. If it is not just an approach that some
feminists are drawn to but feminism itself, then challenges
are politically and morally suspect. This does not create an
atmosphere conducive to discussion.
     Radical post-structuralism is shaped not only by post-
structuralist theory but also by the fact that it is a
movement that is aspiring to hegemony in the liberal arts in
the universities and outside them. Post-structuralist theory
criticizes "totalizing metanarratives" or attempts to
establish any one hegemonic theory; but in practice radical
post-structuralism is often associated with the claim that
it has superseded all other perspectives, and with scorn for
those who espouse them.
     Though neo-conservative critics of the university often
describe post-structuralism as the latest infatuation of the
activists of the '60s, now ensconced in the universities, in
fact the enthusiasm for post-structuralism has come mostly
from disciplines (such as literature) that were not
particularly associated with radicalism when those now
holding professorships were students. Many of the '60s
generation of students were sympathetic to the movements of
the time; many of those now drawn to post-structuralism were
in this category. But on the whole those who were activists
in those movements have remained aloof from post-
structuralism. The post-structuralist contempt for other
perspectives, its claim that it represents radicalism, and
the daunting volume and obscurity of the literature, has
done a great deal to discourage open criticism from those
with a commitment to radical politics.
     Radical post-structuralism lays claim to an
egalitarianism that is belied in practice. The most
thoughtful and detailed attempt to link post-structuralism
with egalitarian politics is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal
Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical
Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1987). Laclau and Mouffe
argue that Marxism erred in asserting a connection between
class position and political stance: they point out that
there is nothing given about working class radicalism, and
they argue that this "indeterminacy" of politics applies to
every social group. The working class, they argue, has no
special standing; all social groups, and their perspectives,
must be regarded as equivalents.
     There are theoretical problems with this view: the fact
that workers are often conservative does not prove that
there is no relationship between class position and
politics. Workers adopt conservative politics for different
reasons than their employers, and if socialism were a real
possibility one could expect workers to look at it
differently than employers. Laclau and Mouffe themselves
favor radical democracy, but their theoretical stance, that
every perspective is equivalent, removes any basis for
believing that radicalism is better than conservatism; it
turns it into one perspective among many.
     But what is most troubling about Laclau and Mouffe's
book is not these theoretical inconsistencies but the
contrast between the call for a radically egalitarian
politics and a writing style that is so arcane that no one
outside a small group of academics familiar with this
vocabulary could be expected to understand it.
     The contradiction between egalitarian claims and a
highly exclusive vocabulary is not an idiosyncrasy of Laclau
and Mouffe's; writing that is arcane to the point of
incomprehensibility is very much part of radical post-
structuralism. Style, according to radical post-
structuralism, is political. Post-structuralist writers tend
to cultivate a style that excludes the vast majority of
potential readers, reduces most of even the highly educated
to a passive audience, and invites at best a small circle of
initiates to discussion. This is not a matter of objecting
to the use of technical terms that are not part of everyday
language. Post-structuralist writing more often aims to
confuse than to clarify or explain. Some post-structuralist
writing rests on idiosyncratic vocabularies; much of it is
written in jargon that could be translated into clear
English relatively easily. Probably most of those who write
in this jargon do not write with the conscious intention of
bewildering or intimidating their audience. The style is
absorbed with the ideology, and has become an integral part
of the discourse.
     The style of radical post-structuralist writing is a
key to its aims, which often have more to do with
performance than with dialogue or persuasion. The
orientation toward performance is particularly evident at
conferences, lectures, seminars, forums, where what is
valued is the brilliance or at least impressiveness of an
individual's orientation. These events become highly
competitive; those most skilled in the vocabulary hold
forth, while the less skilled, or the uninitiated, remain
silent. Often the theoretical artillery employed seems to
overwhelm the actual issues under discussion. Values that
were once associated with feminism -- the openness and
accessibility of discussion -- seem to have been forgotten.
     The radical post-structuralist orientation toward
performance intersects with a readiness to adopt a manner of
condescension. Critics of post-structuralism are more likely
to be mocked than answered. Mainstream culture, when
analyzed from a post-structuralist perspective, is likely to
either be applauded when it can be fit within the post-
structuralist list of accolades (fragmented, destabilized,
shifting, and so forth). More often, objects of post-
structuralist cultural criticism are held up to a disdainful
scrutiny. The implication is that radical post-structuralist
culture is more sophisticated, and that sophistication is
the highest value.
     I recently attended a panel on the history of American
patriotism at an American Studies conference. Three papers
revolved around the relationship between patriotism and
racism; each paper sneered at the attitudes it described. I
was disturbed by this, not because I wanted the speakers to
be indifferent to racism, but because this approach seemed
to imply that racism could be dismissed as bad taste. I
tried to imagine this approach applied to anti-Semitism in
Nazi Germany: a paper that dealt with fascism by sneering at
it would probably be regarded as offensive. The easy
recourse to a stance of intellectual superiority in radical
post-structuralism leads to intimidation. It discourages
debate and promotes intellectual conformity.
     Several years ago a feminist theorist gave a lecture on
sexuality and feminist politics at a prominent East Coast
university. She began her talk, to an overwhelmingly female
audience of several hundred, by asking, "Is there anyone in
this room who believes that she is a woman?"  Not one hand
went up. At least according to that year's intellectual fad,
to think that there was such a thing as "woman" was to
commit the error of essentialism. Any woman in the room who
thought of herself as a woman evidently realized that if she
said so she would be ridiculed, and that, with less command
of post-structuralist vocabulary than the speaker, she would
have a hard time responding. So the entire audience seemed
to assent to the view that there is no such thing as
     Given the amount of grumbling that there is among left
intellectuals about radical post-structuralism, it is
surprising how few efforts there have been to actually
engage it in debate. This is partly because many people are
intimidated: challenging it requires becoming adept in the
vocabulary and familiar with the quite extensive literature.
People may also sense that debate is not quite what is
called for. To return to the example of the text whose
coherence can always be undermined: the fact that one can
uncover internal contradictions (of a text, a culture, a
social structure) does not determine what one does next.
Pointing to incoherence is one possibility; another would be
to look for the elements of a new, preferable whole --
though undoubtedly with its own internal contradictions.
Which one does is a matter of preference, of values.
     This piece is not intended to answer the question of
what the theoretical basis for a left politics should be, or
what those politics should consist of. What I am trying to
do here is to clear the way for a productive discussion of
those issues by arguing that post-structuralism does not
provide the theoretical basis for such a politics, and that
the subculture of radical post-structuralism is not a place
to begin that discussion.
     Barbara Epstein teaches in the History of Consciousness
Board at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a
Contributing Editor of CrossRoads.