Key words: subject, subject as split and heterogeneous
system, poststructuralism, signifying chain, metaphysical, supplement,
technologies of power, power/knowledge, subversion, regimes of truth, phallic
position, patriarchal, ideology, logic of negativity, structuralist
anthropology, simulacrum, hyperreality, grand narratives, Cartesian subject,
Mirror Stage, Oedipalization, repression, interpellation, genotext, phenotext,
chora, readerly text, writerly text.
1. The Semiotics of the Sign and the Subject
Saussure: language is a system of differences where elements attain (a
negative) value only in relation to all the other elements, and not to reality.
Value, meaning is not inherent in the signifier, the signifying unit can only
operate because it is different from all the other elements, thus it can be
identified and distinguished from other elements, and subsequently a value
(code) can be assigned to it. The relationship between the signifier and the
signified is conventional, arbitrary: reality, the referent is not part of the
Poststructuralism: the signifier's arbitrariness and instability
determines signification. The signifier has an uncontrollable capacity to refer
to various signified, the text has an uncontrollable signifying potential.
A signifier does not refer to a signified in the first place, but to other
signifiers: the signified is sliding on the chain of signifiers. The
fundamental characteristic of language is this free play which the subject
cannot control, we only try to fix this chain when we (momentarily) produce,
posit meaning, but the meaning is always unstable.
the signifier is not tied to the signified, the author cannot have power over
the writing after the point of creation: this semiotic realization resulted in
announcing "the death of the author" (Roland Barthes).
Emile Benveniste: language is constitutive of subjectivity,
"ego is he who says ego". Human subjectivity is produced in a social
"symbolic order" (language!) where the signifiers that work in
meaning-production are always ideologically determined.
It follows that the signifier is constitutive of the
subject, the human being who is positioned in society. Semiotics studies how
the codes setting up possible relations between signifiers and signified
are determined by historically specific social/political strategies.
The "Freudian revolution": the subject is a
heterogeneous system. The signifying process has two modalities,
the unconscious and the conscious are both participating in the production
The concept of the unconscious: the repressed region of primary
processes (attachment to the mother, identification with the outside, desire).
The fundamental drive in the psychic apparatus of the human being is to
identify with the outside, with reality, with the mother’s body. The social
subject is constituted by the successful repression of these drives.
Primary repression: the child has to accept the condition
that the mother is not unconditionally available, the demand for the mother has
to be repressed. The repression establishes the unconscious.
Secondary repression of desire for the mother through the
realization of the Father's (phallus: key-signifier) power. Fear of castration and
acceptance of the Father's ( = the social patriarchal symbolic order) rule: Oedipalization.
Recanalization of desire: the child learns that the way to the object of desire
(Mother) is through the position of the Father (the key signifier of the Social
Symbolic Order, which is a network of interrelated hierarchical positions of
Jacques Lacan: "The unconscious is structured like language."
The agency of the Signifier is constitutive of the subject both on
the conscious and the unconscious level. The psychic apparatus is formed by signification,
subjectivity is produced by the emergence of the signifier which separates the
subject from the Real. The Signifier emerges as a compensation for the losses
through which the split subject is produced (loss of the mother, the
breast, etc.): the engine of signification is the Desire continuously emanating
from the core of our repressed primary desires.
The unconscious makes itself manifest through linguistic symptoms:
word play, slippages, failure of communication, puns, ambiguities, metaphors.
aims at uncovering the logic of Western metaphysics behind our
discourses: signification is always meaning- or truth-production, but the elements
participating are dependent on a hierarchy of value (soul / body, good /
bad, masculine / feminine) which is always metaphysical (i.e., socially
conventional, not inherently true). The inequality and metaphysical nature of
these binaries and the structures constituted by these binary oppositions is in
the focus of deconstructive criticism in general, in order to rehabilitate
the suppressed pole of the binary, the disprivileged supplement.
Process of deconstructive analysis:
showing the metaphysical hierarchies that constitute the
(ideological) framework in which the text participates (e.g., the patriarchal,
male-dominated Western social establishment and its cultural myths);
reversing the hierarchy, showing that the system has no inherent
fixity, there is no "central, key signifier" or a "transcendental
signified" (e.g., God in theology) that determines or guarantees in an
objective, a priori, natural way the values and "the one and only
meaning" of things (it is not "written in nature" that a woman should not
publish, that the aboriginal has no cultural values, that the homosexual is a
disease in the body of society);
allowing the free play between the two orders rather
than setting up one as prior to, better than the other.
4. New Historicism
rejection of traditional (positivistic) historicism
which studies literary history as a linear development reflecting the nation's
evolution and the "spirit of the age".
Michel Foucault: social discourses (e.g., literature) are
governed by historically specific technologies of power which determine what
can be part of our language, i.e., our knowledge. Power/knowledge is a social
functioning setting up regimes of truth, systems of exclusion that
shape our reality through ideological discourses and institutions.
Ideology is the most extensive technology to set up relations
of power in society: certain marginal or subversive discourses may try to
undermine this dominance of ideology.
Literature often fulfills this subversive role:
it questions the legitimacy, the working of the ideological apparatuses, the
position of rulers, etc. BUT: resistances like this may always be pre-scripted
and contained by ideology itself. The "safety-valve theory": every ideological
establishment is grounded in the continuous production (and, thus, immediate
pre-calculated containment) of its own subversion.
New Historicism studies how texts reflect the antagonisms, struggles,
ideological tensions and discontinuities of a historical era, always bearing in
mind that our interpretations inevitably contain our own historical positionality.
We cannot have an "objective" approach to history, which is always
our interpretively created discourse, our own version of past.
5. Feminist Criticism
Western society is a patriarchal, male-dominated structure, with the
constitutive male / female binary, which sets up technologies suppressing women
and assigning them to definite social roles and categories (psychoanalysis: the
Phallus is a key-signifier according to which the human subject is constituted
and enters society's symbolic order);
The critique of the ideological canon:
canon-formation and editorial policy have been
determined by these patriarchal rules in the Western literary institution;
the male perspective usually organizes the fabric of the
LWA: the male GAZE working in the text assigns a predetermined role,
an ideologically prefabricated position to the reader. Feminist criticism
aims at showing these biased strategies and inherent prejudices in literature
through the application of a different, feminine perspective;
literature as a semiotic practice is also "feminine" (Julia
Kristeva) in the sense that it plugs the subject back into (repressed) psychic
drives attached to the MOTHER (mainly through rhythm and deviation): this
practice resists the patriarchally determined identity-formation of the main
social discourses (psychoanalysis again!).