Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Derrida’s "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

Derrida’s "Structure", originally published in 1970, is justly labelled one of the more easily comprehensible texts in his large body of work. In it, he discusses some of his basic notions of post-structuralism and deconstruction, roughly explains the origin of the school of thought revolving around these practices, and gives several concrete examples in support of his arguments. Compared with other introductory essays by post-structuralist theorists, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" remains one of the key texts of basic post-structuralist thought, and appears to be a good introduction to Derrida’s work.
Rather than arguing a specific point based on the evidence he gives, Derrida writes what at certain points almost resembles an ultra-brief history of structural and post-structural thought. It is in this essay, too, where he introduces a number of terms that are essential for an understanding of his own theories (such as his concept of "play"). Most of Derrida’s theoretical constructs, however, although obviously alluded to, are not mentioned explicitly. While spending a good amount of time describing what he elsewhere called "logocentrism", for example, Derrida never explicitly formulates these thoughts in "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences".
As in most of his writing, here, too, Derrida applies much of what he writes about to the way he writes (It is no secret that it is exactly this practice of writing that makes it so difficult to read Derrida.). As usual, he "means" much more than merely what is perceivable on the surface of his text. Accordingly, this essay simultaneously deals with several topics that are never actually named. The basic deconstructive procedure of detecting, questioning and upsetting dichotomies, for example, is performed on the traditional metaphysical concept of "structure", but not put in the foreground. In reading this one -- much as any other -- of Derrida’s texts, we thus have to act exactly as he advises us to in his own readings of other texts: Look for meaning not only in declarative and prescriptive passages of texts, but in the margins, the gaps, "between the lines".
In "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", Derrida starts off hinting at an "event", a "rupture", that brought about a revolutionary change in the history of the concept of structure. (He later goes on to state that this rupture marks the transition from structuralism to post-structuralism, along with all the ideas and theories that led to it.) Derrida then goes on to recapitulate what, up to that point, the general ideas of structure where. He shows that the whole history of the concept of structure itself can be seen as functioning within one system, one structure, namely that of metaphysics (part of which is logocentrism). What all those concepts have in common is that they imagine structures as organized around a center. But since this center -- be it God, freedom, man, happiness, consciousness, etc. -- can not be affected by the structure surrounding it, it has to be seen as residing outside of the system, as not actually being in the center. Although constituting the axis around which everything revolves, the center – i.e. the source, goal, and explanation of All – is not part of the system it defines, it is not located in its center.
At the time "when language invaded the universal problematic" (a recurring hint in Derrida's writing at Sausurre’s theories), it was necessary to begin to think that none of the structures discussed have centers, and it is this moment when, according to Derrida, the "rupture" referred to in the opening paragraph occurred. The simple fact that signs define themselves by their relationship to other signs implies that there can not be "a center" – neither within nor without the system (or ‘structure’), since this ultimate sign (the 'transcendental signifier') could not be defined without reference to yet another sign.
Derrida goes on to list a number of influential thinkers who were important in propagating this shift from structuralist to post-structuralist thought (among them Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger). What all the new theories and concepts had in common is that -- even though they claimed to be aware of the predicaments -- they still operated from within a metaphysical system. The new generation of philosophers articulating them were for the most part quite ignorant of the fact that it is impossible to escape the metaphysical system, as long as one does not want to abandon the concept of the sign altogether.
This general transition from a belief in structures with centers to a belief in decentered structures has, according to Derrida, relevance in connection with what is generally called "human sciences". Ethnology, he argues, is an academic discipline that could only be born within a metaphysical system (that of ethnocentrism) that had a center (Europe). After "the rupture", of course, these perspectives had to be revised. In giving a more detailed example, Derrida discusses the theoretical work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who -- surprisingly early -- thought and argued in accordance with much of what Derrida formulated much later, but was clearly positioned within a metaphysical system. Derrida analyzes Lévi-Strauss’ treatment of the nature/culture dichotomy, as well as his studies of mythology. At the same time – in good Derridaen fashion – he takes the opportunity to examine Lévi-Strauss’ methods and modes of arguing. This instance is a good example of how Derrida usually treats texts he works with on multiple layers, and how he works his theories into his own text-about-another-text. He writes about Lévi-Strauss that "his discourse [...] reflects on itself and criticizes itself" (116) -- which is exactly what Derrida himself does with both the text he uses to support his argument (Lévi-Strauss’), and with his own writing. Other deconstructive features of Lévi-Strauss’ text that Derrida mentions include the setting up and questioning of dichotomies, the exposure of the fragmentedness and decenteredness of texts (here myths, and -- following Lévi-Strauss’ argument -- ultimately language itself), the impossibility of totalization when it comes to the concept of language, and, finally, the concept of "play". (None of these issues are addressed in this article, as they are all explained in a very comprehensible way in Derrida’s essay.)
Some of these arguments (in the fashion of "always already there") are developed by Derrida himself, and -- since they are not explicitly mentioned in the texts he analyzes --read into Lévi-Strauss’ work. This is yet another instance where Derrida performs in praxis what he simultaneously discusses in theory: The concept of play; The open-endedness of interpretation; The making-use of the surplus of meaning and the lack of a center in order to validate new/further meanings, meanings that the text itself might not have been aware of.
Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences". In The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1970. (247-72) (reprinted in Writing and Difference)

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