The Sign , Structure and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences by Derrida-Key Ideas

The Sign , Structure and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences by Derrida-Key Ideas

Key lines:

Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an "event.

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word "structure" itself are as old as the episteme -that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy.

up until the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure-or rather the structurality of structure-although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.

The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure- but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure. No doubt that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.

Nevertheless, the center also closes off the freeplay it opens up and makes possible. Qua center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements is forbidden. At least this permutation has always remained interdicted (I use this word deliberately). Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which governs the structure, while escaping structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure-although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science-is contradictorily coherent.

If this is so, the whole history of the concept of structure must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the center receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. It would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the I center have always designated the constant of a presence-eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia [truth], transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth.

The event rupture would presumably have come about when the structurality of structure had to begin to be thought, that is to say, repeated, and this is why I said that this disruption was repetition in all of the senses of this word. From then on it became necessary to think the law which governed, as it were, the desire for the center in the constitution of structure and the process of signification prescribing its displacements and its substitutions for this law of the central presence. From then on it was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a beingpresent, that the center had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse-provided we can agree on this word-that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.

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.
From the moment anyone wishes this to show that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or the interplay of signification has, henceforth, no limit, he ought to extend his refusal to the concept and to the word sign itself.. For the signification "sign" has always been comprehended and determined,  as sign-of, signifier referring to a signified, signifier different from its signified. If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word signifier itself which ought to be abandoned as a metaphysical concept. The concept of the sign is determined by this opposition: through and throughout the totality of its history and by its system. But we cannot do without the concept of the sign, we cannot give up this metaphysical complicity without also giving up the critique we are directing against this complicity, without the risk of erasing difference [altogether] in the self-identity of a signified reducing into itself its signifier, or, what amounts to the same thing, simply expelling it outside itself. For there are two heterogenous ways of erasing the difference between the signifier and the signified: one, the classic way, consists in reducing or deriving the signifier, that is to say, ultimately in submitting the sign to thought; the other, the one we are using here against the first one, consists in putting into question the system in which the preceding reduction functioned: first and foremost, the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible.

It was within concepts inherited from metaphysics that Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger worked, for example. Since these concepts are not elements or atoms and since they are taken from a syntax and a system, every particular borrowing drags along with it the whole of metaphysics.

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.

The oppostion between nature and culture. In spite of all its rejuvenations and its disguises, this opposition is congenital to philosophy. It is even older than Plato. It is at least as old as the Sophists. A whole historical chain which opposes "nature" to the law, to education, to art, to technics - and also to liberty, to the arbitrary, to history, to society, to the mind, and so on. Levi-Strauss has felt at one and the same time the necessity of utilizing this opposition and the impossibility of making it acceptable. That belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm. That belongs to culture, on the other hand, which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. These two definitions are of the traditional type. But, in the very first pages of the Elementary Structures, Levi-Strauss, who has begun to give these concepts an acceptable standing, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted and which seems to require at one and the same time the predicates of nature and those of culture. This scandal is the incest-prohibition. The incest-prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural.
Let us assume therefore that everything universal in man derives from the order of nature and is charactenzed by spontaneity, that everything which is subject to a norm belongs to culture and presents the attributes of the relative and the particular.

On the one hand, Levi-Strauss will continue in effect to contest the value of the nature/culture opposition.

On the other hand, still in The Savage Mind, he presents as what he calls bricolage what might be called the discourse of this method. The bricoleur, says Levi-Strauss, is someone who uses "the means at hand," that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogenous -- and so forth.

There is no unity or absolute source of the myth. The focus or the source of the myth are always shadows and virtualities which are elusive, unactualizable, and nonexistent in the first place.

It is by this absence of any real and fixed center of the mythical or mythological discourse that the musical model chosen by Levi Strauss for the composition of his book is apparently justified. The absence of a center is here the absence of a subject and the absence of an author: "The myth and the musical work thus appear as orchestra conductors whose listeners are the silent performers. If it be asked where the real focus of the work is to be found, it must be replied that its determination is impossible. Music and mythology bring man face to face with virtual objects whose shadow alone is actual. . . . Myths have no authors."

Totalization is therefore defined at one time as useless, at another time as impossible. This is no doubt the result of the fact that there are two ways of conceiving the limit of totalization.

If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinity of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field-that is, language and a finite language-excludes totalization. This field is in fact that of freeplay, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble. This field permits these infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and founds the freeplay of substitutions.

Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternativeof presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around. If Levi-Strauss, better than any other, has brought to light the freeplay of repetition and the repetition of freeplay, one no less perceives in his work a sort of ethic presence, an ethic of nostalgia for origins, an ethic of archaic and natural innocence, of a purity of presence and self-presence in speech-an ethic, nostalgia, and even remorse which he often presents as the motivation of the ethnological project when he moves toward archaic societies-exemplary societies in his eyes. These texts are well known.

As a turning toward the presence, lost or impossible, of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauist facet of the thinking of freeplay of which the Nietzschean affirmation-the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation-would be the other side. This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as loss of the center. And it plays the game without security. For there is a sure freeplay: that which is limited to the substitution of given and existing, present, pieces. In absolute chance, affirmation also surrenders itself to genetic indetermination, to the seminal adventure of the trace.

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of freeplay. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology-in other words, through the history of all of his history-has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game. The second interpretation of interpretation, to which Nietzsche showed us the way, does not seek in ethnography, as Levi-Strauss wished, the "inspiration of a new humanism"