I’m not an expert on poststructuralism, but from what I understand it’s a term for a really interesting set of ideas that get applied in inaccessibly academic ways almost all the time.

In brief, what poststructural theory states is that words and the things we describe with them don’t actually match up. The objects in question can be measured and weighed and empirically examined, but that precision doesn’t get carried across into everyday language. A British chip is an American’s fry; a poker chip is a different thing again. Physicists can build specificity into the terms mass and weight, but only within the confines of their field: we learn words as they are relevant to our lives and interests, and so each individual’s understanding of them is born from their individual experience. Dictionary definitions and scientific clarity can try to impose exact meanings on words, but meanings are things words gain naturally from a web of concepts and connotations in each speaker’s mind.

Poststucturalist theory reminds us that those nets of meanings words have for us exist, and that they hold us back at one remove from the things we use them on.

That’s the heart of the matter, at least as far as I understand it: there’s a distance between what we each understand by any given bit of language and the thing itself – and, for that matter, there’s no guarantee that any other person’s understanding will match up to either meaning. What’s the use of this observation?

There are a lot of ways to use this claim, a lot of rarefied arguments about whether any true communication can take place between people and do things like ask whether rhetorical questions cover a bleak despair of ever being truly understood. For me, though, most language seems pretty functional. I don’t feel like I need to examine it in polysyllabic detail for hidden flaws. I feel like there are much more immediate things to look at with poststructuralist eyes: for one, the places where different groups already know they don’t share ideas about what words mean.

What people think of first when they hear a word can make a difference to very concrete things: to a person’s safety, to their ability to express their identity and be understood and not be condemned. Here’s where I see a use for the set of ideas we call poststructuralism: the model I just set out gives me a way to to look at arguments and language politics and ideological struggles. Feminist and slut and queer are each embattled words: they’ve been loaded with shaming and activist energy by turns, and changes in their use give and take away power from the group they describe.

Words don’t always convey the same ideas: someone using the word ‘slut’ might be inviting their listeners to share the misogynistic cultural baggage they carry with them, sometimes they can be challenging those assumptions. There aren’t two entirely different definitions there: there are two different understandings of the same collection of ideas. By seeing how that network of social and ideological assumptions, we can see how one use relies on it and the other challenges its influence; for me, that’s a useful tool.