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Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2009
I'm aware of the irony of using a word usually associated with postmodernism to criticise a book on poststructuralism but for me, this book seemed a lot better on a flick-through than it turned out to be.

The author writes well and engagingly but poststructuralism is a complex field and I felt that the difficult aspects were skipped over in favour of the more entertaining.
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3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 17 August 2011
Structuralism had a brief existence in linguistic theory in the early part of the twentieth century but in recent times has been largely ignored in its original field. Its founder, Ferdinand de Saussure, worked on the basis that language transmits the knowledge and value of the particular culture in which it exists. Consequently, it embodies existing cultural values and meanings which determine the way in which it is acquired. Belsey uses the word "woman" to show that at one time its meaning was not confined to physical identification but to a range of attitudes and roles which were socially attributed to the word. Meanings change over time but, for Belsey, the question is to see, "how far we should let the existing language impose limits on what it is possible to think." Such limits may be imposed but are capable of change outside totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

Saussure argued that language is "form, a system of sound-images linked to ideas. To be understood properly words needed to be divided into two categories, the signifier and the signified. This creates two dimensions from one and "subordinates the prior dimension of the variable 'word' ". Belsey justifies the use of "signifier" on the grounds that there are non-verbal signifiers. Linguistics moved on from Saussure's structuralist methodology but the methodology itself found new breeding grounds in the humanities and social science. Thomas Kuhn applied it to science in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" showing how new ideas were resisted then absorbed by means of a paradigm shift. Marxist philosophers, notably Louis Althusser who killed his wife and Nicos Poulantzas, who killed himself, used structuralism to re-state theories of ideology. Structuralism was fashionable in France at the expense of Existentialism but was replaced by deconstructionalism and poststructuralism as fashions changed.

Roland Barthes's book Mythologies (1957) was a psuedo-Marxist interpretation of social control exercised by bourgeois ideology providing the parameters within which society thinks and expresses itself. This idea is not a new one and mirrors Vance Packard's 1957 book "The Hidden Persuaders". However, there is a major difference between Barthes and Packard. Barthes is trapped in his self-imposed class ideology using the term "bourgeois" which carries no conviction in the United Kingdom, where the bourgeoisie as a social class is an inappropriate and misleading nomenclature for the owners of capital and the changing composition of the middle classes. In the United States too "bourgeois" fails to describe the social composition of society. In both societies "bourgeoisie" is a pejorative term, used ideologically, to avoid undertaking the empiricism which demonstrates its emptiness as a tool of analysis. In brief, it is claptrap. Belsey's suggestion that, "the Marxist theory of ideology still helps to explain why things don't seem to get better faster" is an indictment of academia's shallow thinking, its flight from the reality of Marxism in practice and an absence of originality.

Writing off "Soviet-style communism" as an aberration which "gave Marxism a bad name" glosses over Cambodia under Pol Pot, North Korea under Kim Il Sung, China under Mao and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Belsey seems to have forgotten the observation that was prevalent in Communist Europe under Soviet domination, although some have attributed it to John Kenneth Galbraith. "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is the opposite: the exploitation of man by man". In academia, of course, intellectuals exploit society by theorising at the expense of evidence. Ideology in the Marxist sense tends to equate with "false consciousness" but proving whether consciousness is false or true is theoretical or, as some would contend, theological. Marxism itself is a cultural myth whose adherents cling to its doctrinal tenets as fervently as any religious fundamantalist and have long since surrendered their critical faculties.

Belsey trundles through the intellectuals associated with structuralism including Foucault, Lacan and Kristeva. Foucault distanced himself from structuralism and claimed to be a Nietzschean. His work was described by James Miller as a "great Nietzschean quest that is, an effort to think through-- and live out-- the consequences of Nietzsche's profound, still imperfectly understood critique of modernity." Foucault tried to explain how and why individuality changed since the Renaissance and Enlightenment and the impact it had on those for whom morality had been corrupted by power. In essence, Foucault's critique of history was designed to produce new moral values applicable to contemporary society. That begs the question of whether materialism itself produces values capable of general social application without imposition. What is apparent is that creating truth as a relative category facilitates social conflict instead of minimising it. If truth is only for the individual then it can be argued, as did Margaret Thatcher, that there is no such thing as society.

Structuralism showed all the characteristics of its predecessors, not least in its tendency to provide an overview from which minority groups can claim political and social legitimacy to rationalise unease with their own identity crisis. Although Belsey argues that poststructuralism offers "an opportunity and a cause for reflection" she overlooks the paucity of her empirical evidence. In claiming, "poststructuralism is at once sceptical towards inherited authority and affirmative about future prospects" she appears not to appreciate that the same can be said about virtually all post-Enlightenment theories. The weakness of structuralism was its use of binary oppositions which provided meanings which were in themselves unstable and unsustainable.

Grand narratives are not yet dead, although they have been supplemented by adherence to empirical evidence previously lacking. By way of contrast Poststructuralism tries to provide a critique of an intellectual fad based on a re-working of fanciful social theories which permitted the unproven existence of influential mechanisms of control. Belsey's "Very Short Introduction" is much longer than the subject deserves. From this viewer's perspective it's worth three stars.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 13 February 2013
Delivery was great, nothing to say really. Havent read it yet, but got it use a handy guide when trying to describe ideas to students etc.
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1 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 25 December 2012
We all like new idea; new ways of looking at the world; seeing what had previously eluded us, but that does not mean that every idea humans have ever had - Astrology, The Tarot, the I-Ching, endless religions, or Metaphysics have any validity. I have a similar feeling about Post-Structuralism, which is largely of course a French idea and I must say from French males. The author is from her C.V. on the back cover a paid-up Feminist that is to say a Female Supremacist and so I wondered how long before she would be batting for the sisterhood. I did not have long to wait, as she gets her first misandrist attack in by page 4 ; and of course that is the trouble with feminism - which always means whatever any woman at any time chosses it to mean - the only thing feminism ever acheived was to complain, for it is nothing other than envy of the male role. They can't raise themselves up so they seek to knock men down and what better way to do that than to promote a way of thinking where black is white and 2+2=5.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if some women - French or otherwise - came up with some new way of thinking, that was genuinely enlightening and not merely an attack on men of the 'we woz robbed' type. I am not going to hold my breath.
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