Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Continuing our week of -isms today, we have:

Terms of Art #19:
structuralism & poststructuralism


but really, that’s Pikachu ^^

Pronunciation: STRUCturalism & postSTRUCturalism

Definition: Structuralism and poststructuralism are not exactly historical movements (although they were each popular in the 20th century), but are more like methodologies or views.

Structuralism says, basically, that a thing is defined and only makes sense once you understand the structure it is a part of. (As opposed to a view where you understand it based on its intrinsic properties or whatever else.)

Example: pikachu
To understand “pikachu” is not just to have someone point to a drawing of pikachu and be like, “That’s pikachu.” You have to understand that pikachu is a pokemon and that pokemon are creatures from a game called Pokemon, and that you can catch them (indeed, catch ’em all if you try!) and fight them but they’re also your friends and that it was originally a card game and then a TV show, its outgrowth from tropes in Japanese culture … etc. etc. ONLY THEN do you really, fully understand what “pikachu” is and means. (All of you two-month Pokemon Go dilettantes will NEVER understand pikachu like I do!)

This was originally a linguistic theory, but then became a template for analyzing culture, literary texts, film, etc. It’s the same deal. You just try to understand particular things in terms of their relationship to the “language” of mythology, or the “grammar” of horror movies – like standard themes, plot elements, character roles, etc. (For more, see the semiotics entry from last week.)

BUT for structuralists, there’s an end point: You can (at least in principle) FULLY understand something. That happens when you understand all the structures around it. Practically, not going to happen. But it’s possible.

Poststructuralism points out that structures are always super messy – in fact, they are intractably messy.


Example: still pikachu
The associations “pikachu” has for me are different than the associations “pikachu” has for someone who encountered pikachu only in the Detective Pikachu movie. Our different associations are going to affect our different conceptions of pikachu, and that’s going to bleed into (a) what we intend “pikachu” to mean, and (b) what we interpret “pikachu” as meaning. This creates inevitable misunderstandings and messiness in language.

So misunderstanding is not the exception to the linguistic rule where we all understand each other well. Misunderstanding is the rule and perfect understanding is not just difficult but impossible.

For cultural criticism, literary theory, etc. this means: Authors don’t have special authority over the meaning of their texts. There’s no final Truth about what the texts mean, and we’re just co-constructing (co-authoring!) the meaning when we read. In short, readers are co-authors.

Key figures:
structuralism – Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss
poststructuralism – Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida
lists “it’s complicated” as their status – Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault

tl;dr: it’s a bunch of French people

Related terms:
deconstructionism – a fallout species of poststructuralism, especially associated with Derrida. Notable for a similar approach to literary criticism, especially the thought that opposites (“binaries”) like man/woman or us/them or spoken/written language are convenient fictions that reveal cultural biases, perpetuate themselves (think: man/woman leading to actor/actress and gender-binary bathrooms), and misrepresent reality.*

*to the extent deconstructionists are happy using a term like “reality” which… well, they definitely aren’t but whatever

death of the author – all that stuff earlier about no true authorial meaning, readers as co-authors

Not to be confused with:
modernism and postmodernism – Modernism and postmodernism are historical movements rather than views/methodologies. Structuralism is part of the broader modernist movement, and poststructuralism is (loosely speaking) postmodern.


  1. What happens to the provocativeness of the poststructuralist’s cocktail party proclamations about “mis-understanding” when he’s denying the existence of whatever “understanding” is supposed to mean?

  2. Really appreciate your efforts and expertise…being student of ms linguistics
    i get much info from your posts….. thanks

  3. LOVE your explanation of structuralism/poststructuralism here. Thank you.

  4. I have spent the better part of the last month trying to understand these terms by reading Barthes, etc and art criticism, and you are the first person to explain this succinctly and clearly and instantaneously understandably. Thank you.

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