Poststructuralism: The Basics

Politics can be interpreted through a poststructuralist lens, this for me is a good way to understand history and why it is difficult to find any really good sources on the 1936 Catalan revolution, it seems to work particularly well with anarchism for me. By understanding the thought of people like Nietzsche and Foucault we can better understand the history of anarchism. We must be able to take away the power that hides the pure reason of anarchist thought. Our knowledge must be objective, once we have arrived there, people will start to dismantle the structures of oppression all around themselves.

Post-structionalism is a great tool to look at knowledge, as it doesn’t regard knowledge as a cognitive process but as an aesthetic, normative and political tool. Nietzsche and Foucault are the two great thinkers here. Nietzsche said ‘when we say something about the world we also inevitably say something about our conception of the world’. We can take from this that Nietzsche never believes our language to be neutral, all our statements are rising out of our prejudices and values. Therefore our use of language shapes our knowledge and knowledge can never be neutral. Foucault also believes that knowledge can not be neutral. For Foucault knowledge is tied together with power. They are so intertwined that one will always support the other.

Foucault as a result created the ‘rule of immanence’, this is the difference between the knowledge of the state and the knowledge of it’s citizens (man). Richard Ashley famously argued that ‘modern statecraft is modern mancraft’. This is his ‘paradigm of sovereignty’ . Knowledge is for Ashley dependent upon the sovereignty of ‘the heroic figure of reasoning man who knows that the order of the world is not God-given, that man is the origin of all knowledge, that responsibility for supplying meaning to history resides with man himself, and that, through reason, man may achieve total knowledge, total autonomy, and total power’. This can all be true but also politics finds it’s sovereignty it’s basic prinicple. This brings us to what Zizek calls a master signifier, it is worth noting here how Zizek differentiates between Lacanian thought and that of Habermas.

‘For Zizek, discourse is always to be seen as authoritarian or ‘political’. To form a consistent field of meaning, previously free-floating signifiers are quilted by the master signifier, seen as a paradoxical element that stands for ‘lack’ in ‘a non-founding act of violence.’ In this he distinguishes a Lacanian position from that of Jurgen Habermas. In Lacan the master signifier distorts the symbolic field in the very process of establishing it (temporarily) as a discursive field. Without this distortion, the field of meaning would disintegrate: The role of the paradoxical element is constitutive. As Zizek puts it the master is an imposter – anyone who finds him- or herself at the constitutive lack of structure will do – but finds the place it occupies can not be abolished. It can only be rendered as visible as empty’.

This quote from Jenny Edkins’ book ‘Poststructuralism & International Relations: Bringing the Political Back in’ could probably do with being broken down a bit more. For Edkins
and Zizek here they are prompting Lacan’s psycho-analysis of the ‘mirror stage’, the moment where the fiction of the self is created, all they have done is moved this idea to state. The state is therefore created as an analogy, or a logos if you prefer Derrida’s view. In this view man is pre-given and has no choice but to enter into dealings with other sovereign signifiers.

The next step in the understanding of post-structuralism is to understand genealogy. Simply put genealogy is a look at historical thought paying close attention to power/knowledge relationship. Through this we can see the way that history has been written with certain origins, meanings and constructions applied to certain representations of the past, these then guide how our current lives are run and structured. We therefore want to find the bits that were buried and forgotten, whether by mistake or by purpose. We need to find the hidden histories.

We are wanting to disrupt the teleological form of history we currently have and show as Foucault put it ‘the endlessly repeated play of dominations’, or show the different interpretations of the same story. We need to knock down the gates of closed off avenues of historical perspective, think of the stories of the Greens in the Russian Civil War or of the Catalan Revolution of 1936, why are the true anarchist perspectives so hard to find? All of history is many interwoven strands and not one straight linear route as we are taught at school.

If there is so many interwoven strands and origins, we must face the face the fact that is no one truth but just many perspectives. This is caused by the fact that as we’ve already read knowledge is never unconditioned. Knowledge is trapped by our origins, the political and historical landscape we find ourselves in and trapped by our concepts and ideas.

We are now left with realising there is no one size fits all guide to history. As Nietzsche says ‘There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”’. All perspectives are therefore different and will all revolve around a set of rules/values that belong to the person holding that perspective. This for Nietzsche killed off the notion of one ‘real world’, there can be no one ‘real world’ when all perspectives of it are different. We are then left with only perspectives or to refer to Derrida again, we have only ‘textuality’.

So perspective is not only a tool for observing the world but is also what creates the ‘real world’. It is the underpinning of the world. For Nietzsche perspective is both a tool and the fabric of the ‘real world’. All these interpretations of the ‘real world’ mean that none can claim to be reality-in-itself or be the one true Archimedean perspective. All these perspectives must be woven together to create the ‘real world’. There can therefore be no event out with history or even prior to perspective or narrative. This is called by Campbell the ‘narrativising of history’. This means things are real not because they happened but because they are remembered and are important to a current piece of narrative. Narrative then does not as much show us history but creates the events that are important, as we have made these events reality. Historical narratives are then important to politics today, as they create the narrative for today’s political movements and powers.

We have just seen the terrorist attacks on Paris, it is not quite a jump to see we will move back to the narratives of 9/11 to allow certain political decisions be made. It is important to realise this and help people to see the changes of narratives so as to try and stop the wars, increased surveillance of the civilian population, and loss of rights that are very possibly about to happen. To help do this we must examine 9/11. What was 9/11 or the attacks on Paris, was it an act of terrorism, an act of war, an act of evil, a criminal act, an act of liberation, a clash of civilisations or an act of revenge? The answer to this will depend upon your perspective. When did the attacks happen was it the moment the flights hit one of the towers, was it when the first bomb went off in Paris, was it when the planes took off, was it when the bomber left his house, was it when the attack was planned, was it when the US/France started to get involved in the Middle East, was it even earlier? Therefore we can see that the act was only part of sequence in the narratives but which part to we give significance to, we therefore make one part the master signifier.

Edkins and Campbell both worried about putting the signifier on 9/11. For Edkins the events happened outside our normal linguistic and social routines, we do not experience them enough so as to be able to assimilate them into normal day social interactions. Campbell believes that we also shouldn’t be quick to use the term 9/11, as despite it giving us a new narrative, the war on terror, we have just walked back into using old narratives. ‘This return of the past means that we have different objects of enmity, different allies, but the same structure for relating to the world through foreign policy’. It is also possible if you chase the narrative to see America use the same structures during the Cold War and immediately after Pearl Harbour.

Thus we should by looking at what the political structures did and the language they used be able pre-emptively to know what they will say about Paris. We will be able to disseminate their policies before they bring them to fruit.

History can then be seen a constant clash between rival perspectives, structures, and ideas. Central to this language battle is the metaphors for war and battle. Foucault gave a series of lectures analysing this and believed war to be ‘a permanent social relationship, the intractable basis of all relations and institutions of power’. Foucault is trying to explain here how war became an apt way of describing politics, as Clausewitz says ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means’. He wanted to know the origins of when war became the analysis of power between political institutions. Here Foucault shows a short coming in Hobbes’ thought, as for Foucault political power created war and actually legitimised it.

For Foucault we have to begin a ‘systematic disassociation of identity’, we must challenge our group and individual ideas of self. The first reason for this is so as we avoid substituting cause for effect. We therefore have to change the question ‘what is?’ to ‘how is?’ This is to avoid assuming identity or agency, as these are both effects to be accounted for and not just to be assumed. We need to work out what created an event, rather than work out it’s hidden, fixed essence. Secondly by doing this we take away from events that seem natural or are told to be natural. We have removed it’s foundations in letting us know why we have the current structures around us. Identities can not then become normalised.

This neatly brings us back to Paris and 9/11. We are told and many believe that 9/11 was an attack on the West. In the UK and US we were repeatedly told this. Zehfuss says we here are ignoring the abstract notion of the West, we are also ignoring cause and effect or at least severely limiting it. We ignore the strands of the narrative that Western nations are complicit with the perpetrators, we ignore the face Western nations helped with the technology, we ignore that many people in the narrative do not want the dead to be used as an excuse for war. We look at 9/11 as if it ’caused’ the war on terror, as if before 9/11 there was no history. 9/11 came out of nowhere to create this war, we have simplified cause and effect for this purpose and many people now can’t question the cause of 9/11 as 9/11 for their narrative was the beginning.

We can also look at the event from two sides. One side sees the story as showing a world power not to be what it thinks it is and the other narrative wants us to see senseless destruction and loss of life. We then have political structures trying to dictate our memory of events to suit the narrative of what they want to carry out. Already in the UK we can see this happening on the headlines, social media, and news reports about Paris. Our memory of the events is being dictated by what the political powers want us to remember. They want us to remember just cause for war, bombings, and increased surveillance on the population. Our memory will be the politicos greatest weapon against narratives that disagree with their narrative.

This is what Foucault would have called ‘writing the history of the present’. The government at the minute is trying to make their actions seem as natural as can be, the only possible course of action. They want us to forget things, so as to legitimise their place in history.

We will finish with a quote by Derrida on 9/11. ‘ We must recognise here the strategies and relations of power. The dominant power is the one that manages to impose and, thus, to legitimise, indeed to legalise… on a national or world stage, the terminology and thus the interpretation that best suits it in a given situation.’


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