Are Post-Structuralists too Dense and Complex?

Here’s a quick rejoinder to the blogging conversation between Greg Thompson, Greg Ashman and Naomi Barnes.

To recap, the initial Thompson post celebrated a couple of books on technology and culture and was explicitly unapologetic for the use of big words.  Ashman rejoined by questioning the value of certain types of scholarship, particularly various traditions of sociology that use big words, concluding that some sociological traditions need to do a better job of explaining themselves.  Barnes then rejoined from a post-structural, feminist, critical race perspective; saying good writing is important but this is hard in a genre dominated by white men of the Enlightenment.   While the arguments were well addressed in the various blogs, I feel the urgency of the underlying issue was not fully appreciated and I will attempt to redress that a little here.


white men

To begin, whatever the term, Occidental culture has experienced a seismic latent cultural shift since the sixties, a shift signified by many events. These events, including the 1967 summer of love in San Francisco, the 1968 Paris riots, the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt Igoe estate in St Louis, the 1973 oil crisis, the release of Koyaanisqatsi,  the art of Jeff Koons, among a range of other events, led to what some characterise as a condition of postmodernity (e.g. Harvey, 1990; Lyotard, 1984), a condition that needed to be described and theorised leading to various theoretical positions including postmodernism and post-structuralism.  These are in turn associated with the linguistic turn in philosophy, which focussed on the role of language in creating reality.

The decades of the linguistic turn of course produced much dross, and it would not be hard to find examples to sustain Ashman’s argument of too ‘Dense and Complex’.  Nevertheless such examples should not discount the worthiness of the endeavours to theorise the contemporary world. However post structuralism is not beyond criticism, skepticism or challenge. Eagleton (2008, pp. 199–200) for example, in an afterword to his 25th anniversary edition on literary theory, observes that as the 1980s wore on that post-structuralism failed to deliver on its political promise, with the German tradition including Habermas –  tenaciously clinging to topics such as discourse, justice, autonomy and ethics –  being better placed to provide a response to circumstances.  More recently others and in different traditions, such as Barad (2003), consider language as having been given too much power due to the linguistic turn and propose an alternative in posthumanism .  Given the coherence of Barad’s position, Ashman may find relief from dense and complex word smithing in her work.

The dichotomy between positivism and post-structuralism implicit in the blogs concerned me. This dichotomy does not seem appropriate for educational research or social science in general.  For example, while much quantitative educational research is dense with numerical methodology, all educational research and assessments are underpinned by educational content that is represented in some way.  It is within the brief exchange of signifiers between assessor (stimulus) and assessee (response) that post structuralism, with its tradition of addressing representation, has a role to play.  This is particularly the case as technology is restructuring the field of representation and communication leading to massive power struggles (Kress, 2003).   One current example is the big shift in how team work is being represented in schools, what used to be team sport, team dance, and team music is now appropriated thought proprietary technology (e.g. Griffin, McGaw, & Care, 2012). It is here that post-structuralists could insinuate themselves in the creation of new representational forms to be used within education to ensure that feminist and post-colonial concerns, as well as a bag of others, are addressed from the outset in the introduction of technology.  Rather than critiquing commercial implementations post-hoc, there remains an opportunity to influence given that many high stakes exams remain predominantly paper-based due to, from my perspective, a failure to agree on matters of subject matter representation using new technologies.  Post structuralist could definitely do more in asserting and explaining themselves here.

However, the real issue around which I would like to generate a sense of urgency is at the heart of Thompson’s initial post, the industrialization of time that sees humans being reconfigured for a fragmented world with disconnected events.  These observations resonate with my lived experience, amplify my own reading (e. g. Wajcman, 2015), and make me very concerned for future generations. It is towards addressing these issues, not just to identify them, that post-structuralists in education have their future work cut out.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity : Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs, 28(3), 801–831.

Eagleton, T. (2008). Literary Theory : An Introduction, Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Griffin, P., McGaw, B., & Care, E. (Eds.). (2012). Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. Dordrecht: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-2324-5

Harvey, D. (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge MA: Blackwell.

Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wajcman, J. (2015). Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.