Kimberly Quiogue Andrews
Kimberly Quiogue Andrews is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Ottawa. She is a literary critic as well as a poet, and is the author of three books: The Academic Avant-Garde, A Brief History of Fruit, and BETWEEN.
Who’s On First? Who’s on First!
If you’re like most people, you probably go through your day assuming that words mean things. For example, if you were to say the word “apple” to someone, they would picture roughly what you would picture: a piece of fruit, red or green, that grows on trees all over the world. But what if the person you said the word to had just been reading an issue of People magazine in which Gwyneth Paltrow had featured prominently? You might be talking about the fruit, but they might hear the name of Paltrow’s child, which is “Apple.” The word apple, then, refers to two very different things—the fruit and the child—and depending upon the situation, it might be impossible to tell which one you meant when you said “apple” without further context.
This radical indeterminacy—the impossibility mentioned above—is also the premise of the Abbott and Costello sketch, “Who’s on First.” This classic bit of comedy is a good way to try to wrap your brain around the definition of poststructuralism, which is one of the trickier ways of thinking within the humanities and social sciences. First, watch the sketch here.
Now that you’ve gotten a dose of 1950’s comedy, you can see that the engine of this sketch is the fact that the word who has a dual function. For Costello, it has its normal function as an interrogative: Who is on first base? But for Abbott, it has a much different function, as “Who” is the name of the guy on first base. So he keeps saying: Who is on first! The meanings of who, here, are actually mutually exclusive. This is even wackier than the “apple” example above, and thus makes it better for comedy. Because Costello is asking a question, he cannot hear Abbott’s answer as anything other than a restatement of the question. Their communication breaks down, which is what makes it funny. The way that language works in this sketch draws our attention to how arbitrary it is: “Who” doesn’t naturally refer to the question-word, just as “apple” doesn’t naturally refer to the fruit. And this radical questioning of anything that seems ‘natural’ (that is, fixed, obviously true, etc.) is what poststructuralism is all about.
Poststructuralism, as you might have already gleaned from its name, is a reaction of sorts to a movement called structuralism. The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss are often credited with being the ‘fathers’ of structuralism. Structuralism’s basic argument is that if you look at enough examples of something (e.g,. a myth, a marriage ritual, a grammatical unit), you can discern general laws and principles that apply to all instances of that thing. By extension (says structuralism), human behavior and language all follow some basic, structural laws, regardless of where in the world you are or what language you speak. Poststructuralism argues, in contrast, that even the ‘general laws and principles’ that you think you’re extracting are themselves just other examples, not anything closer to the truth or to the natural. The nature of what we think we know, in other words—that “who” has a fixed meaning, for instance—could always be upended by some guy coming along whose name is “Who.”
A lot of people think that, if meaning is always indeterminate, and that there’s no such thing as a general principle or law, that poststructuralism must be saying that nothing means anything. Or even that ‘reality’ doesn’t exist! This is a bit of a misunderstanding. Poststructuralist thought doesn’t deny the existence of apples, nor does it say that the word “who” has no meaning. Quite the opposite: it says that the word “who” could have endlessly proliferating meanings, potentially, all coexisting in a sort of epistemological soup. Moreover, if all of this is true for language, it is also true for basically everything people think. Anything that you think is true—be it the naturalness of the nuclear family unit or the soundness of physics or the functioning of the stock market—has gone through a long process of becoming ‘true’, one that almost certainly has gaps or fissures in it that can allow other truths into the picture, if you look hard enough. Indeed, sometimes looking hard starts off a process in which an assumed truth becomes untrue. We’re starting to see that happening right now, for example, with the assumption that gender and biological sex are naturally linked.
Don’t ever let looks deceive you: this is what poststructuralism tells us. Otherwise, you might never find out who’s on first.
- Identify three things that you are pretty sure are true, but which aren’t just “facts” (e.,g., water is wet, the earth goes around the sun, etc.). Then ask yourself, how did you come to have that belief? How might you be persuaded otherwise? Note that this exercise does not ask you to figure out whether or not your beliefs are true. It only asks you to think hard about the process by which you came to think of something as true.
- Now try a corollary question/problem. One of the most revolutionary things about poststructuralist thinking is in the last paragraph of the text above. That is, the idea that what we think of as “true” or “natural” is actually anything but. Does this mean, however, that you can never say anything true? How might you leave room for “truth” if you are a poststructuralist? What might be the problem if you don’t?
- What is the use of poststructuralism in disciplines like sociology or anthropology or law? What aspects of human society seem like they might benefit most from poststructuralist analysis?
- How might you apply this sort of thinking to the physical or biological sciences?
Harcourt, B. E. (2007). An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Poststructuralism?’ University of Chicago Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper 156. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=public_law_and_legal_theory
Science Direct. (n.d.) Post-Structuralism. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/post-structuralism
Fry, P.H. (2012). Theory of Literature. Yale University Press.
Derrida, J. (1966). Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. http://www2.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f13/DrrdaSSP.pdf