barthes, foucault & derrida

April 18, 2014 § 2 Comments


meret oppenheim / object / 1936

It is with a slight reluctance to declare that philosophical theories, advanced in the name of post-structuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, etc., are past their prime. However, one will readily admit that philosophy has a perennial applicability, that is, if one follows Louis Althusser’s radical claim that philosophy has no history.[1] In other words, there is always room to explore philosophy outside of an historical paradigm that privileges chronology, e.g. our thinking is not antiquated if we try to negate Plato’s idealism in everyday, contemporary terms. This short post will seek to provide a brief account of how three preeminent post-structuralist thinkers were interested in repositioning, rethinking, and reevaluating: (a) traditional practices of reading a unified work, with Roland Barthes, (b) a single author who frames a discourse, with Michel Foucault, and, (c) language operating within presuppositions of fixed, de/coded meanings, with Jacques Derrida. This account (this post) should give a general direction from where to draw on each philosopher’s pursuits for future dissembling of modernist ideologies of univocity, presence, unification, history, and so on.

All ideas considered, close to the base of Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida’s projects, is a de-centering of a work, author, and meaning—respectively. Barthes, in his essay from the early 1970s, “From Work to Text,” presents a dichotomy between reading what he terms: the work and a Text. Here, a common modernist (and historical) assumption might be to place most, if not all, the importance of meaning on single literary works. His motivation gracefully slides away from the static univocal work, to that of the fluid dynamic multiplicity of a Text. One might ask, what is the difference between a work and a Text? The two terms sound like the same things, i.e. isn’t the ‘text’ something you read in a ‘work’? Barthes lays down a number of ways that the two terms are different. “The difference is this: the work is a fragment of substance, occupying the space of books (in a library for example), the Text is a methodological field.”[2] For Barthes, a work is singular, whereas a Text is plural. If one were to recall the classic Saussurian semiotic division of the sign: signifier represents the word, spoken or otherwise, and the signified represents the concept signaled by the word, Barthes shows that the Text “practices the infinite deferment of the signified”[3] and the work operates more like a traditional sign. This “deferment” implies that any particular work carries with it an inherent instability of meaning. It’s not just that a single word has a hoard of meanings connected to it. It is rather, that each word can’t settle on being isolated within a single reading. Words then, in this sense, open themselves up from a concrete context of a work to a dynamic fluidity of the Text. Barthes associates play with a way to encounter a text, much in the same way a musician or an orchestra would methodically play a piece of music. Works, in Barthes’ context, do not play out like this since they are (due to the enforcements of culture) confined to singular interpretations, as opposed to being open to creative and necessary possibilities. Music and poetry are two excellent examples of how Barthes’ theory is applicable to the field of artistic expression. Poetry, say Japanese haiku, due to its elegant brevity, invites a wide range of playfulness, since the play of a poem happens beyond what is actually said—words allude to meaning, they don’t dictate it.

In a discourse of art history, the concept of the ‘artist genius’ is arduously rehashed in the usual ways art is understood and conceptualized. Studying art parallels the manner in which an author is regarded in a literary discourse. Yes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but the mindset of art history’s old-fashioned discourse is not easy to dislodge, given that this was the prevailing discourse for centuries. The paradigm runs like this: if one wants to get to know art better, what can be done is to get to know the life of the artist, look at her other works, and her oeuvre will answer any of our questions as what to make of any singular expression. Her name, if she’s famous enough to be recognized, stands in for her style, her discourse, and so on. Once, for instance, the name Meret Oppenheim is mentioned we get that the discourse is about surrealism, one quickly forgets that her Object (Fur Breakfast / Le Déjeuner en fourrure) was made within a social milieu that then went far beyond her immediate circle and context of surrealist/artist friends, Breton, Picasso, et al. Closer inspection disperses authorship. “The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.” [4] Foucault expressed this sardonic statement in his essay, also from the 1970s, “What is an Author?” His quote is another way of saying that the author (artist) is one small part of the larger discourse. But what is at stake in a discourse when one is deploying Foucault’s strategy? The short answer is that to study the dominant discourse opens up the way meaning is controlled. The manner in which a traditional discourse usually operates isolates, and stifles meaning to only one category, re: that of the singular author. These could be the reasons why Foucault prefers to use the (philosophical and post-structuralist) term: subject, meaning that the author, in Foucault’s context, becomes subject/ed to the forces of power that surround her. The roles are then reversed. The author is fixed in a web of influence and cultural control. Such moves are important, if only to comprehend the interplay of the larger structures that created the artist. One might forget that the artist is just as pliant as the materials with which she works. It is impossible to imagine that Foucault can be summarized in such a short space, but it is easy to posit that an author, the mythic genius, need not be the sole framing device in any discourse, whether it is in the field of art history and beyond.

As for the question of how there can be a transformation of created, negated meaning that is also de/coded within the context of a particular discourse, Derrida’s famous (or infamous, depending on your affiliations) mode of philosophy, aptly named deconstruction, is brought to the fore. Here is yet another example of how a single idea speaks volumes, therefore to give a full explication of the diffusion of his radical project is not within a comprehensible range. Still, one has to start somewhere, and since the topic at hand is aesthetical, there is “Parergon,” a chapter from Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting from the 1980s. In these highly erudite pages both Hegel and Heidegger’s aesthetics are considered and up for inspection. While Heidegger was looking for the origins on a work of art, Hegel presumes that art is a firm and stable category to begin with. Derrida shows that the question of what art is, or what are its origins “assumes that we reach an agreement about what we understand by the word art.”[5] The ways in which one asks a question and the very questions themselves aggressively gesture toward the expectation of the answers. Buried deep within Derrida’s deconstructive methodology is the ghost of his phenomenological past, since the reader is consistently asked to re-inquire Hegel and Heidegger’s presuppositions[6] about works of art. Even within this inquiry one is tempted to think that Derrida is wishing to come to some definitive conclusion, or that this is a kind of critique aimed to get on to a better line of argumentation. These objectives are not his goal. All we need to do is decode the work of art, and then we’ll understand it—is not where he’s going. If common understanding desires a univocity of meaning, Derrida’s deconstruction shows that meaning is only a settlement of naturalized codes of convention, history, discourse, culture, and the like.

With Derrida, post-structuralism and postmodernism take to full stratospheric flight, yet he didn’t work in a vacuum, Barthes’ Text and Foucault’s critical discourse are also factors that make for alternative vectors of open study and inquiry. In Barthes’ theory, where semiotics and structuralism still predominated, the Text becomes a playful anecdote to the stolid work. One reads a Text like a musician plays Bach. Then, with Foucault, there is the overarching power of culture, society, and hegemonies that deployed to inculcate the subject to abidingly operate inside the structures of particular epistemic discourses. Finally, as mentioned, with Derrida, there is a full dispersal and unfolding of meaning, whereby one is left to question the very means by which things are understood, defined and philosophically regarded. Post-structuralism destabilizes structures that we were not even aware of, and the question remains: what can we did to avoid becoming their victims?

Aurelio Madrid



Badiou, Alain, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition.” The Symptom,, 1997/2006. Accessed April 14, 2014,

Barthes, Roland, “From Work to Text.” In Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Derrida, Jacques, “Parergon.” In The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, 17-33. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel, “What is an Author?” In Art in Theory, 1900-200: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, 949-953. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

——, “What is an Author?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 101-120. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory, 1900-200: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Sarup, Madan, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1989.

[1] See Alain Badiou, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition.” The Symptom,, 1997/2006, accessed April 14, 2014,

[2] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Art in Theory, 966.

[3] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” 967.

[4] Foucault, “What is an Author?” Art in Theory, 952.

[5] Derrida, “Parergon,” in The Truth in Painting, 20.

[6] Husserl’s motto “go to the things themselves,” urges us to let go of presuppositions of the so-called ‘natural attitude’ from which to better get into the epoché, re: the phenomenological reduction (an attempt to get to a pure phenomenological description of experience). No, this is not Derrida’s pursuit exactly, but there is a aspect of letting go of presuppositions in order to get at a wider dispersal of meaning.

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