Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards: Part 1

The most controversial intellectual movement of the 20th century explained with the help of 11 epic face-forests.

1. In the early 20th century, a linguist called Ferdinand de Saussure tried to answer a simple question: how do signs make meaning? Why does this beard totally say “hipster”?

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2. Saussure said that every sign is divided into two parts: the signifier (the face-fur itself), and the signified (the idea of a pretentious PBR-drinker who lives in Bushwick)

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3. He also said signs are arbitrary. In other words, there’s nothing inherent about a beard that means hipster – the signifier could just as easily have been wearing a blanket, or having blue hair.

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4. And signs aren’t simply labels for real things – they actually constitute reality. Japan has different signs for hipster than bushy beards. And the concept of hipster those signs create is different, too.

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5. A key insight of Saussure is that signs make meaning through difference. A bushy beard only means “hipster” because we have shaved faces to compare them to.

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6. Each sign we use is chosen from what Saussure called a paradigm of available options: for example, the full hipster-beard, mutton-chops, moustache, clean-shaven, braided, etc.

David Stillman / Via Flickr: stilldavid
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7. Once we’ve chosen a sign, we arrange it with other choices – tatts, a vintage shirt, a digital watch, etc – in an arrangement called a syntagm. Another example of a syntagm is this sentence.

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8. Combining signs into different syntagms can radically change the meaning – a beard, some normcore glasses, and a couple of monitors makes a sysadmin, not a hipster.

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9. This invisible structure of paradigm and syntagm is how we make meaning – which is why Saussure’s ideas are called structuralism. (Take a swig of PBR, we are nearly through Part 1!)

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10. In the 50s and 60s, structuralism became a popular tool for analysing culture (not as popular as beards). Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used it to understand kinships and myth, while Roland Barthes applied it to photos and fashion.

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11. But by the 1970s, some French thinkers decided structuralism was, like, totally over (even though many of them were structuralists themselves.) Post-structuralism was born!

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12. Now go to Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards Part 2 – with added GIFs!

You can also follow me on Twitter at @chrisrodley.

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