Poststructuralist Semiotics and Evolutionary Psychology

Poststructuralism is a theory of semiotics (language and signs) that, broadly speaking, says that meaning is an effect of language, rather than a cause. In other words, what things mean to us is formed by language as opposed to our language having a 1-to-1 correspondence with reality. This theory, of course, takes the blank slate theory axiomatically. But what if we combine it with evolutionary psychology?

In poststructuralist thinking, the way things are spoken about (or represented pictorially) shapes their meaning in our minds. By showing images and movies of people being satisfied by working hard and laborious jobs and having them talk about freedom and opportunity, the poststructuralist says, we have capitalism reinforced in my minds as a natural state of humanity, regardless of whether it’s actually natural or not. We can even see this type of symbolism in laundry detergent commercials, where during the Cold War the detergent was shown to liberate clothes from dirt and purify them, as the U.S. was attempting to do with communism, whereas now the detergents wage war on filth and kill stains, just as the U.S. is attempting to do with terrorism. Poststructuralism says that being immersed in such symbolism reinforces these ideas in our minds and make them seem natural.

poststructuralism

Poststructuralist theorists also posit that the adherence to ‘family values’ is as a way to teach obedience, deference, and heteronormative values. That’s the reason why, on the left, the family is often seen as unnecessary at best and a way to indoctrinate people into evil ideologies at worst.

Even if we accept the poststructuralist conception of language as the medium from which meaning is produced, are their critiques accurate? I would have to agree with the theory on language, in a lot of ways, but I think the blank slate assumption is unsound. Humans do have an innate, genetically and evolutionary defined nature. That’s not to say that our nature is either morally good or bad, or the best way for an intelligent species to exist, but it cannot be denied.

The poststructuralist critique of the family comes to mind. The family unit wasn’t something that was created by language, but in fact predates language. Language can’t explain why someone would be willing to die for their sibling. It’s also been shown that having a two-parent household is better for children, and being part of the family is better for the elderly.

But it goes beyond just family. While language might influence various behaviors surrounding sex, death (natural, accidental, purposeful), childbirth, disgusts (eg of bugs, snakes, fecal matter, etc.), stress, addiction, and so on, the underlying traits are genetic. And it’s these types of traits that have an enormous impact on our lives. Also, let us not forget that language itself is genetic – the sorts of sounds we respond to (or are even capable of making and hearing) and the fact that we can even speak and understand language.

My point here isn’t to completely throw out a poststructuralist analysis of language, but perhaps to revise it (and call it postpoststructuralism or neopoststructuralism?) so that it incorporates our evolutionary past and genetic present as well.

Poststructuralism says of history that it is contingent in the sense that we can’t extrapolate nature of the accidents of history – because humans did A throughout our history, we cannot say that A is an aspect of human nature. Given a different usage of language, it’s possible that humans could have done B instead of A, in which case we would mistakenly say B is an aspect of human nature. But postpoststructuralism might say that both A and B necessarily overlap in some way determined by our evolutionary past and current genetics, as would any other logically possible history C, D, or E.

For my theory of postpoststructuralism or neopoststructuralism, I would say that the primary locus of struggle is between the ideologies of which we are an effect and our evolutionary past and genetic present. A frequent refrain of mine is that humans are not suitable for the world we’ve created for ourselves. All ideologies like capitalism, communism, fascism, organized religion and so on compel us to go against our human nature. In addition, our human nature imbues us with various cognitive and social biases that make our technologies and any sort of large-scale cooperation anathema to our natural inclinations.

Thus, much of the alienation we humans feel is because of our struggle between our natural inclinations and ideologies produced and reproduced by language.

 

Featured image is Roland Barthes, a poststructuralist theorist during the mid-to-late twentieth century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s