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Poststructuralism: How Did Foucault and Derrida’s Theories Question the Social Formation and Governance of Our Society?

Global thought should be seen through a universal and pluralist lense, one that allows the world’s boundless and divergent community to find commonality in itself in order to obtain a global approach in how we view things. Humanity’s main concern is freedom in all aspects of life. Global theory succeeds thanks to its nature of understanding forces of political, social and economic power, and how these forces unconsciously affect our ability to live and understand the world. Within this essay I shall talk about how Foucault and Derrida question the societal powers which maintain state order through their many different approaches to this, whilst also remaining optimistic of implementing critical discourse analysis in how we are being governed. I aim to show that global theory unleashes itself through an arbitrary, yet complementary relationship between power and knowledge.

Global thought could be approached as explained by religious Indian leader and teacher Buddha: “do not believe anything for the simple fact that many believe it or pretend to believe it; believe it after submitting it to the dictates of reason and the voice of conscience”[1]. In other words, this method of philosophical interpretation presents the philosophers ideas but encourages us to dictate them by applying our own knowledge to them. This method implies that philosophers are products of their time and environment; therefore their ideas derive from notions which respond to a certain historical period and cannot be translated across time because this would alter the original idea in order to forcibly accommodate it to the readers point of view. The importance of outlying this lies on the fact that Foucault and Derrida are two past figures who’s intent is to deconstruct what we undertand as `correct´. Philosophical ideas are isolated and confined to their historical and cultural context, and therefore can only be understood from a far. This theory doesn’t seek to find some sort of `final truth´, because it believes that there is none. Ideas are born from context and are therefore inextricable, and they should be interpreted in that way. The opposing side argues that historical ideas should not be considered in context but rather in how they can be rationalized. I believe that global thought is deeply personal. In my opinion, when it comes to philosophy, no one is free from their personal preconceptions, thus our final interpretation of texts and ideas isn’t common, but individual.

Having said this, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are two literary academics who belong to the contemporary system of thought, usually called “poststructuralist” or “postmodern”. While structuralism is “a theoretical approach that identifies patterns in social arrangements, mostly notably language”[2], post-structuralism “holds all meaning to be fluid rather than universal and predictable”[3]. Foucault (1926-1984) was a French postmodernist thinker who questioned most of today’s ideas and concepts by forcing us to think from a different perspective when analysing them. Hence, instead of thinking “why are we this way?”, we should question it by saying “what made us this way?”. He argued, poststructuralist critique “only exists in relation to something other than itself”[4]. By putting this into practice, his many works draw on the importance of the power discourse. “Power refers to the ability to do things and the capacity to produce effects within social interaction”[5]. Foucault underlines the idea that this discourse is largely based a “common sense” formed by a set of rules that are largely influenced by the historical conditions that make up our world. One of his most famous quotes is : “Man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge”[6]. What he wants us to do is to not think of every concept us humans have created as eternal, but rather as always moulding and expanding throughout history. For this, we can’t simply always explain an idea or word by applying them to any past works, for these are in constant and everlasting change.

Global, social and political thought longs to define and locate the source of power in society. Through many previous world-reknown philosophers such as Machiavelli in The Prince where he viewed power as a logical reason to the interests of the government, or Hobbes in Leviathan, who thought the solution to a corrupt society was having a powerful monarch, Foucault was hugely inspired by them. For this French scholar, instead of being centered on the state, power was spread across various social and political platforms. He saw power as not being repressive, rather as productive – “power produces identity and subjectivity”[7]. Roughly me speaking, I define subjectivity as the ability of being based or influenced by personal feelings, interests or opinions. Furthermore, Foucault criticized the dominant political philosophy of the time, which he claimed relied on notions of formal authority and the state, stating: “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strengh we are endowed with”[8]. For him, the state was simply a symbol of the various structures and configurations of power in society. Therfore, power is captured by Foucault as “capillary” – “flowing throughout the system as like blood in the capilleries of our body”[9]. This idea of the state as a practice instead of a thing in itself suggested that a deeper understanding of society’s structure could only be achieved through a broad analysis. In his analysis, Foucault argued that political theory should not involve the idea of an individual sovereign, who can enact laws and punish those who break them. He believed that politics had changed since the 16th century, when rulers could obtain and maintain power. In order to understand how power works, political theorists need to “cut off the king’s head”[10] and develop an approach that shows how power works.

Developing from this, Foucault discussed in his lectures the concept of Government, which he saw as an art form that involved various techniques of discipline and control. By “Governmentality”, he refers to “the increasing homogenization abd organization of society in modern times – through a huge bureaucratic machinery that evolves endless ways of classifying people”[11]. This concept can be seen in various contexts, such as the family, school, or the workplace. Through his explorations of power, he broadened his understanding of society’s various forms of power. In his works, he discussed the various forms of political power that can be found in society, such as the school classroom being a type of “micro-site” of political power which moves away from the traditional structures of government.

Using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, we are more vulnerable to being tracked and monitored. This is because the very nature of these platforms makes it possible for anyone to access our private information anytime, but unlike before, “what the surveillant knows, the subject probably knows as well”, in the new surveillance “the surveillant knows things that the subject doesn’t”[12]. In his 1975 panopticon view of the system, Michel Foucault explained how the power to watch over prisoners is distributed among various institutions, and that this has imitated itself in the digital world. It is also a form of power, which can be used to control or discipline the mass population. For people, this can become an internalized discipline that they adopt in order to avoid the consequences of their actions. Upon entering a facility, we are immediately captured with multiple cameras that capture us in varying angles, and these can then be used to identify criminals and monitor our body movements. This is now considered normal, as we are now subject to the dominant norm. The construction of subjectivity is not limited to a specific source of power. It can encompass all aspects of society, and it makes us question the freedom that we have as citizens. In his panopticon, Foucault referenced the idea of virtual prisons, where the institutions that control us affect our everyday lives.

Now, looking at another key philosopher in postmodernism is Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). His main theory was associated with “deconstruction”, “a complex and nuanced approach to how we read and understand the nature of written texts”[13]. Derrida used deconstruction as a method for unfolding the relationship between power and knowledge. He believed that Western philosophers had systmatically priviledged speech and thought of it as the “authentic way” of communicating. On the other hand, writing was given less importance because it lacked the interaction and truthfulness that comes with conversation. In his work, Derrida tries to show that both empirical and transcendental subjectivity can be formulated beyond the limits of language. He rejects the idea that there is a universal language or that men can acquire one once and for all. Instead, he believes that there are multiple languages and various speech events. For Derrida, when people pick up a book, they imagine that what they see is a self-contained whole. For instance, when it comes to philosophy, they might expect to see texts that are logical and systematic. So, if you were to pick a book on mammals, you would think that by reading the whole thing you would have a lot of knowledge and understanding on this type of species. But, for him books and texts don’t work this way for he “reads texts against the grain of an author’ self-interpretation. In so doing, he does not simply disavow an author’s views on what his own texts are about. He takes an author’s standpoint as a pont of departure for his own discursive inverstigations, questioning the concepts that are employed to evaluate how their proposed oppositions and appositions harmonise with how they are used”[14].

Derrida came up with the term “aporia” and “différance”[15]. The word aporia means “contradiction or puzzle” in Greek[16] and différance is a new word coined by himself to show how language and words can be manipulated. Différence with an `e´ means “to differ”[17] and “deférrer” means “to defer”. Now, both words are strongly similar which caught Derrida’s attention for he saw it as a way to explain the changing of meaning in written texts. The more description and words you add in a text, the more the meaning of it all changes and is revised. Meaning is differed in language. By implementing these two words when analysing texts it proves Derrida’s main point of written words actually show us something about language that speech doesn’t. All written texts have some form of contradiction, and this is what Derrida aims to show by deconstructing them. He shows that the complexity of textwork lies in the inner workings of most of the works. Deconstruction is a process of reading texts to expose hidden contradictions and paradoxes. This approach can also help us understand how social formations and ways of governance work because we are continuosly forced to acknowledge our deeply embedded political, historical and ethical unconscious. Thus, when we write a letter to a friend, the meaning of what we write is for Derrida, changed by what we write next without as being consciously aware of this.

In contrast to what has been said so far on Derrida, one cannot say “this is just” ‘without immediately betraying justice’.[18] However, I accentuate that government control can be a part of justice, thus, in order to understand state order, one has to separate oneself from the desires of the self. Justice is infinite and can never be satisfied. One of his many famous quotes includes: “There is nothing outside of the text”[19], which somehow tries to imply that nothing actually matters also in life, not just in written works. It is here where I would like to criticize his theory for it is not accurate enough. His idea rejects logic and evidence and tries to undermine the social structures of life. Both Foucault and Derrida were left-wing, which is seen all throughout their work. In Deconstructing Modern and Global Theory, “Derrida’s deconstructive techniques alert readers to how concepts may be interpreted in ways that disturb the hierarchies and exclusions that are advertised and rehearsed by authors, who are set upon imagining a message that is clear and distinct[20]”.

Both of them liked to say that political, social and economic systems exclude, that any hierachy of value excludes. However, this is obvious to me because if there is a hierarchy of value then some things are more valuable than others and the less valuable things are excluded. Derrida claimed that the reason that those hierachies of value are constructed isn’t to produce objects and products of value, but to exclude and to maintain the structure of power that is instrinsic to the hierachy of value. This claim is incorrect because there are numerous other reasons of why a hierarchy of value might be put into place such as in hierachies of beauty, competence, intelligence, attractiveness, atheltic ability and musical talent. All these different hierarchies exists in order of high order for us to name the best person out of these groups, hence why we exclude the rest who aren’t that good. In this sense, we get music, and direction and order. Their postmodernist theories seem to be an attack to dismantle Western tradition and Eurocentric science by labelling it as “patriarchal and authoritive”. They seem to believe that there is no real world outside of their arbitrary opinion.

To conclude everything said so far, global thought can be used to study the various ways in which power is exercised. A political theory framework must also include an awareness of how power operates and the norms that are associated with it. Through theoretical arguments and historical examples, Foucault aims to show how different systems of thought and discourse can affect different periods. His focus is on the distinction between langue and parole, and he avoids relying solely on the analogy with language, but rather emphasize relations of power and control. In terms of his main subject areas, Derrida differs from Michel Foucault. He focuses on the nature of language and meaning, rather than on historical and political detail. Both Derrida and Foucault cover a wide range of subjects, and they do not always agree on some of the ground they cover. For instance, he challenges Foucault’s apparent wish to veer away from the language of reason. Nevertheless, what is clear is that both tend to destabilize the social centers of control and government.


  • Barker, C., 2010. The Sage dictionary of cultural studies. London: Sage Publications, p.Abstract.
  • Bhargava, R. and Acharya, A., 2016. Political Theory: An Introduction. 1st ed. India: Pearson India Education Services, pp.149-157.
  • Browning G. (2011) Conclusion: Deconstructing Modern and Global Theory. In: Global Theory from Kant to Hardt and Negri. International Political Theory Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Buckingham, W., Burnham, D., Hill, C., King, P., Marenbon, J. and Weeks, M., 2011. The philosophy book. 1st ed. London: Jonathan Metcalf, pp. 302-303 and pp.310-313.
  • Derrida, Jacques. ‘Force of Law: the “Mystical Foundation of Authority”.’ In Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion. New York: Routledge, 2002: 228-298
  • Gary T Marx 2002. What’s new about the “new surveillance”? Classifying for change and continuity. Surveillance & Society 1 (1): 9–29
  • Jacques Derrida: Margins of philosophy (Différance), publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Kelly, P., Dacombe, R., Farndon, J., Hodson, A., Johnson, J., Kishtainy, N., Meadway, J., Pusca, A. and Weeks, M., 2013. The politics book. 1st ed. New York: DK Pub., pp.310-311.
  • Foucault, Michel (1997) ‘What is Critique?’ in The Politics of Truth, Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (eds.) (New York: Semiotext), p. 24.
  • TACO SAGRADO CORAZON -2022, 2022. Madrid: MENSAJERO, EDICIONES (18 octubre 2021).
  • Seiler, R. (n.d.). Semiology // Semiotics. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Feb. 2022].

[1] Buddha: TACO SAGRADO CORAZON -2022

[2] Abstract: Chris Barker (2010): Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and Cultural Studies

[3] Ibid

[4] Foucault (1997) ‘What is Critique?’ in The Politics of Truth, Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth, p. 24.

[5] Rajeev Bhargava and Ashok Acharya in Political Theory: An Introduction (2016), p.149

[6] Michel Foucault in The PhilosophyBook (2011), p.303

[7] Political Theory: An Introduction (2016), p. 155

[8] Michel Foucault in The Politics Book (2013), p.310

[9] Political Theory: An Introduction (2016), p.155

[10] The Politics Book (2013), p.310

[11] Political Theory: An Introduction (2016), p.155

[12] Gary T Marx, 2002: Surveillance & Society 1 (1): 9–29

[13] Jacques Derrida in The PhilosophyBook (2011), p.310

[14] Conclusion: Deconstructing Modern and Global Theory, (2011) p.159

[15] Margins of philosophy (Différance) pp.6-27

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Jacques Derrida, ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority,”’ in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002): 237

[19] The PhilosophyBook (2011), p.308

[20] Conclusion: Deconstructing Modern and Global Theory (2011) p.160


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