C21CH

Speculative Web Space

Glossary

Glossary of terms and concepts commonly used in Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism. Many of these terms have finely nuanced interpretations and their meaning is debated or may vary from writer to writer. This is a rough guide only.

agency:
the ability to choose and take action.
anachronism:
Something from one time transplanted to another. Eg: art deco fashions in Blade Runner; Edwardian dress and 50s cars in the not too distant future in Wild Palms; steam punk; a Roman soldier wearing a watch; the Dr Who episode where all history happens at the same time; Marie Antoinette in a Maitland supermarket.
bricolage:
making do by putting things together in ways they weren't necessarily intended to be used, repurposing, collage, diy
cybernetics:
the study and design of interaction of humans and machines / control systems / user interfaces
cyborg:
from the term 'cybernetics' which is the study of interactions between humans and machines, or 'user interfaces', the term refers to a fusion of human and machine, often involving robotics and software. The popular image of a cyborg is a very close fusion of machine and body, such as an electro-mechanical arm or pacemaker but it includes almost any machine organic interdependence and functioning. Typically it involves the extension or enhancment of human capacities, seeing further, seeing smaller, moving faster, reacting quicker, flying, increasing effect while minimising effort - flicking a switch and lighting a room from a vast electromechanical complex of mining, power stations and power lines. Often this calls into question what it means to be human as the boundary between body and machine, or mind and software is blurred. The biological body, for example, can be thought of as a machine, and the machines we use everyday or automatically become an extension of our body, for example when a wheelchair becomes part of personal space, or we learn to drive well enough we don't think about how to drive, we simply go where we intend.
deconstruction:
to question pre-suppositions, assumptions, and the conditions of possibility, taking note of their relations, the history of those relations, heirarchical and other relationships, ad infinitum. Deconstruction is a word often misused or used lightly. It is often confused with simply 'taking apart' or 'breaking down into component parts'. This is more appropriately termed 'analysis' (eg: analytic chemistry is about isolating elements from molecules, while synthetic chemistry is about combining them). Because of a high profile conflict between 'analytic philosophy' and post-structuralism, it is important not to confuse analysis with deconstruction. I'll try to make this distinction clearer: An analysis of the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill might break it down into component parts: beginning, middle and end; two characters of different gender; a certain rhyme scheme and meter; etc. A deconstruction would ask what is presupposed and what makes the nursery rhyme possible, - the history of nursery rhymes and how they came to be distinguished from fables, and adult poetry; how the rhyme and meter assumes and establishes a difference and a relationship between child and adult, and how basic rhyme thereby becomes a sign, or marker of childishness; how gender assumptions result in Jack having the crown and Jill coming after; how poetry is already distinguished from prose; etc. Note that analysis remains 'within' the text while deconstruction refers far beyond it, and crucially that a deconstructive approach would expose what assumptions an analytical approach has made and what socio political heirarchies it establishes or reinforces, even if unwittingly, and critiqueing assumed 'objectivity'. Although the term 'deconstruction' is associated with Derrida, it's hard to find the word actually used in his writings. Deconstruction can be applied at fundamental levels. Derrida applies it in philosophy to the concept of 'being as presence', Foucault studies the history of our idea of 'self' and the control of bodies. Nietzsche, while, not a post-structuralist, looked at the history, or genealogy, of morals, showing how our idea of good and evil has changed over thousands of years.
diachronic:
across time. By contrast to Structuralism, Post Modernism focused on development over time, recognising that any state of affairs, even the concepts we use to think about things, our daily actions, our idea of self, is contingent on historical changes (diachronic).
dialogic:
the view that literature, or any utterance or sign (and so everything since everything signifies) is in constant relation to other writings/utterences/signs/etc. Each utterance is a response to what has been said before, and will be responded to in future, and so is part of a broad extended 'dialogue'.
différance:
A word which in French means both 'to differ' and 'to differ'. Derrida uses this term to discuss a variety of facets of his philosophy. It highlights that meaning is both diachronic and synchronic. It is an articulation of Derrida's critique of 'presence' (being here and now) where he demonstrates that meaning is always 'deferred' across time, and determined by context and so also by 'difference' - because meaning is dependant on other meanings across time and space there is never any 'presence'. To understand the meaning of something we always need to defer to something it is different to. Simply put a sign always refers to something else, and everything, since it has meaning to us, is a sign. Derrida makes much of 'writing' in contrast to speech. Speech has historically been placed in a hierarchical relationship above writing, as prior to writing, with writing being a secondary representation of speech. Speech then is analogous to 'presence' - the here and now of a speaker, face to face, while writing is used when a speaker or reader is absent. Yet when we speak our words are always referring to something. Derrida argues that writing, historically marginal to speech, is a better metaphor for language and meaning than speech.
grand narratives:
Political, social, religious or ideological views which articulate history as a struggle between two or more great forces towards some utopia or distopia. Eg: Christianity depicts a struggle between good and evil towards Paradise or Hell. The Enlightenment envisioned progress towards a better world of knowledge and technology. Marxism proposes a struggle of the proletariat towards a fair and equitable society. Free market capitalism proposes the removal of government intervention will achieve a free and wealthy society. Grand narratives are characteristically argued against or dismissed in Poststructuralism and Postmodernism as doomed to failure, as ignoring the reality of complexity, as inevitabley violent and totalitarian in their tendency to polarise people into one or other side of the heirarchy. The assumptions and oppositions of grand narratives are demonstrated to be mutually dependant, through deconstruction, and by showing that the ideas and meanings articulated in these narratives have developed over time, are historically contingent, they are thereby not necessary true, nor objective reality but social constructions often establishing and reinforcing power relations that control our lives at many levels, from the daily ritual movements of our bodies, to our life goals etc. See Deconstruction.
discourse:
a broad body of communication. 'Discourse' is used with a few slightly different meanings. It may mean all utterances in a language, all texts on a certain topic or within a subculture, or the act of speaking.
hyperreal:
as our world fills more and more with copies and simulations the distinction between reality and copy, or sign and referrent collapses and we live in a world of hyperreality. Some ways of understanding this might be people who spend most of their time in online games or social media, simply living their lives in this way without distinguishing simulation from reality. Another is the desire for reality and authenticity in a world that seems fake, but consuming simulations and copies because they signify reality and authenticity, rather than originally being that reality - such as consuming the brand Harley Davidson because the meaning of the brand is authenticity, or getting tribal style tattoos without belonging to a tribe, or lifestyle getaways, were we are tourists in the simulation of an ideal life, for a few weeks.
intertextuality:
connections among texts, references within a text to other texts outside of it.
irony:
where the intended meaning is not the literal meaning, usually for humour, criticism, or dramatic effect.
kitsch:
technically this means 'bad taste', or crude or common taste, but it has come to mean something like 'bad taste on purpose' or the fashionable enjoyment of bad taste, such as when 70s fashions, when out of fashion, are worn ironically by the cogniscenti to make a fashion statement, or as part of 'camp' display. Artist Koons is a master of kitsch.
marginal:
Not central, at the edge, not the accepted norm. Post structuralism, as part of an overall theme of decentering, along with network structures, also focuses on marginality - marginalised groups in society, and marginal texts rather than the canon. A deconstruction may examine how marginal examples define what is taken as central or normal and placed in a heirarchy, the point being to demonstrate how the very existence of what is elevated or privileged depends on what is marginal, by contrast.
objectification:
To treat something as an object, in particular something which is actually a subject, ie: a person. This assumes a fundamental distinction between objects and subjects. Objects such as stones, wood, engines, and so on, do not have a sense of self, do not think or feel and so on, and we merely 'use' or encounter them without a direct ethical relation, in so far as no discussion is be entered into with a rock, the rock does not judge our actions or debate right and wrong with us - the rock simply exists, and we simply use it to whatever ends we choose. Note that to suggest the rocks have a spirit, that someone might speak to them, that they will judge us if we misuse the land etc is to suggest they are not objects but 'subjects'. A 'subject' in this relation is a person - someone who thinks their own thoughts, has their own feelings, makes their own judgements about the world, and who we can discuss things with - someone who can judge whether I'm using this rock rightly or wrongly. It is possible to treat a person as if they were an object - something merely to be used, or treated as a 'thing' (as it might seem in statistics, or the term 'collatoral damage' for killing people, or in labour exploitation, cannon fodder, using someone for sexual gratification without regard for their opinions and emotions, etc) hence to treat a subject as an object is objectification.
polysemy:
many meanings
post human:
After human. The view that traditional understandings of the 'self' and what it means to be human are redundant due to social and technological change and need to be replaced by a new conception of ourselves as 'post-human'. This view dismantles traditional boundaries and contrasts between human and machine, mind and artificial intelligence, human and animal, human and environment and so on. Artificial intelligence for example forces us to contemplate whether we are the only kinds of human or if there might be other kinds, and to concieve of our daily connection to electronic devices as fundamentally changing our ability to act in the world and so transforming our notion of 'body'. Post Humanists, such as Hayles, differentiate their views from 20th century depictions of cyborgs by rejecting the possibility of disembodied mind (eg: rejecting cyberpunk depictions of minds saved from brains and loaded into software) and focusing on how embodiment determines self and including non-machine interactions, such as people's interdependence with pets.
rhetoric:
The art of convincing others, particularly through speeches or by making an argument. One of the main subjects taught in academia since ancient times. Of particular note is the classical view that a convincing argument should include logos (good reasoning), pathos (emotional appeal) and ethos (the reputation, character or attitude of the speaker).
rhizome:
A kind of root system that spreads out underground, forming nodes without a central root. A network structure. Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as a metaphor in constrast to the branching root structure that reflects a tree, to critique the view of a one to one correspondance between the world and ideas in our mind, signs and what they refer to, the scientific impetus to taxonomic structures, and to articulate a theory of signification that doesn't rely on a central meaning or idea but a complex set of disordered connections etc.
sampling:
Re-use of existing texts is a common technique in post modernism and is most obvious in genres such as dada, pop art, hip hop and electronic music. It's done all the time on the internet with memes and so on. While you might see the technique of sampling used throughout history, in PostModernity it comes to the fore as a defining characteristic. Sampling goes beyond mere technique with the suggestion that all language and culture, and meaning itself, is constructed through this principle of re-use. We re-use letters to make words, and re-use words to make sentences. We re-use tropes and genres. Any communication may be regarded as a re-mix of pre-existing voices, tones, utterances and so on. Making new meaning depends on this recombination of mutually understood signs. This is often contrasted to the view of Romanticism, which remains popular, that meaning is the creation of the author's genius and that the true meaning of a text is the author's intention. Soda Jerk notes that to use any tool is to turn an object in the world to some new purpose, and so 'sampling' is a crucial part of what it means to be human, as a tool using and language using animal.
Self and Other:
This is an ethical relation. The 'Self' in this relation is similar to the 'subject' as described below. The 'Other' is another 'subject' not myself, also capable of making use of the world, of decision, who has agency, and so on and who may judge my own actions and enter into dialogue and economic exchange. Because we have different experiences we are likely from time to time to disagree and judge each other's actions. Although we might have a good relationship with Others, it's possible to treat Others unethically, as objects. The term 'Other' is often used in this later negative sense, or to mean more simply and generally, a group of people who have been objectified or made to seem inhuman, different to 'normal', 'good' people, different to and against 'us', and to be feared in some way - portrayed as evil, or having only animal intelligence, as violent, sexually deviant, and so on. A post-structuralist view would look at how the meaning of 'us' or what our 'self' is depends for it's very existence on this delineation of the 'Other' and the heirarchy established and at how various signifiers and the things we do become embroiled in these identities. For example, the 'we' constructed in colonists texts could not be 'civilised' if it weren't by contrast to those 'savages' - being civilised depends on treating and defining 'the Other' as savages.
self-reflexivity:
to refer to yourself. This is traditionally uncommon in academic writing which is meant to focus objectively on the topic. Self reflexivity acknowledges that each of us understands a topic from their own point of view and as much as we may try to be objective it's inevitable that we bring with us our own assumptions, personal and cultural. Self reflexivity is open about these to the reader and a questioning of ones own assumptions and how they condition the discussion of the topic can form part of the overall discussion.
pop culture:
cultural phenomena, signs and artefacts that are 'popular', ie: of 'the people', that are part of the everyday life of the majority of people. This is often contrasted with elite, experimental, avant garde, bohemian or traditional culture. This has come to mean more specifically the consumer culture of the 20th century and after. Some draw a distinction between pop culture that comes from the people as their own production, such as 'the blues' and pop culture that is produced for mass consumption under capitalism - such as Hollywood movies, comics, Coca-Cola advertisements, etc.
semiology:
the scientific study of meaning. This relates more to Structuralism.
semiotics:
the study of meaning not limited to science. This relates more to Post-Structuralism.
simulacra:
a copy without an original.
subject:
'subject' is a word with many meanings, some almost contradictory: 1) A topic of study. Someone who is under the power of another, and is obliged to obedience, as in a King's subject. 2) when used as a verb, the act of putting someone under power and requiring their obedience, controlling their actions and applying punishments. 3) The 'self', or a thinking feeling person capable of judgement, self awareness, and the ability to choose and take action. In critical theory and philosophy it's usually used in this last sense. The term is closely related to but not the same as the 'subject' and 'object' relation in grammar. The 'subject' of a sentence is that which is doing the verb, while the 'object' is the thing that is being used or having something done to it (In the sentence 'I cook fish' 'I' is the subject and 'fish' is the object. Roughly speaking in English the subject comes before the verb and the object after). There is a paradox with the term 'subject' because to think of myself, to think of 'I' is to think of myself as an object - to objectify myself. Strictly speaking the 'subject' is the 'I' that does the cognition, the thinking, the concieiving even when I think of myself as a subject which becomes the object of my thought. If I am to think of myself, I become an 'object' and as this happens, I begin to attribute qualities to this 'subject' object, and attribute relationships to it in society, with the world, and so on. Much of Foucault's work involves the history of how this idea of a 'self' or subject-as-object and what it is and what it can do, came about. In poststructuralism even that we can think of such a thing as our 'self' is historically and socially conditioned.
subjectively constructed:
The view that our understanding of the world is created by ourselves, and that we do not have direct access to objective reality. We have perceptual experiences and from these build up an idea of how the world is. For example, we see one side of a dice but do not think it merely a square - from prior experience and seeing dice from different angles, we have built up an understanding of it as a cube, even though we can't see all sides at once. This is even more easy to understand when we think of social realities that are based on ideas rather than physical realities - political parties, holidays, that wearing a tie means you're in business etc. This view can sometimes seem hard to accept when we think of how objectively real a brick is, for example, and that, without hesitation we would step out of the way of an on coming bus. That our world is subjectively constructed, doesn't necessarily mean it isn't objectively real - it means only that all we can understand of it is subjective. You need only think of how different a cockroach's understanding of a chair must be to your own to see how each constructs the world according to their perceptual capacity and what use they make of things. For us a chair is something usually of certain height, that is solid and can support our weight and is for sitting on. For a cockroach I can only imagine, but I imagine it is nothing more than another surface, either in the way or to be climbed upon when looking for more food.
synchronic:
at one time. Structuralism focused on the structure of a system (such as linguistic, anthropological or mythic systems) as it exists at one time, as opposed to diachronically.
text:
anything in so far as we read it. A 'text' is not limited to writing as we conventionally think of it. Since anything may be read, anything we may be aware of has meaning to us, everything is a text. The phrase 'There is nothing outside the text' is not a focus on what we might find in books and conventional writing. Quite the contrary. In this way post structuralism's characteristic blend of literary theory and philosophy comes about - the techniques of reading and the study of language become techniques for relating to the world. In Barthes' Mythologies for example, he reads things like soap powder, the face of Greta Garbo, the brain of Einstein, a new Citroen and the cover of a magazine as texts in contemporary mythology. For Derrida writing becomes a crucial metaphor, an elaborate conceit, in his critique of 'presence' (being here and now) in metaphysics.