“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences” by Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida first read his paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences (1966)” at the John Hopkins International Colloquium on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in October 1966 articulating for the first time a post structuralist theoretical paradigm. This conference was described by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donata to be “the first time in United States when structuralism had been thought of as an interdisciplinary phenomenon”. However, even before the conclusion of the conference there were clear signs that the ruling trans-disciplinary paradigm of structuralism had been superseded, by the importance of Derrida’s “radical appraisals of our assumptions”

Derrida begins the essay by referring to ‘an event’ which has ‘perhaps’ occurred in the history of the concept of structure, that is also a ‘redoubling’. The event which the essay documents is that of a definitive epistemological break with structuralist thought, of the ushering in of post-structuralism as a movement critically engaging with structuralism and also with traditional humanism and empiricism. It turns the logic of structuralism against itself insisting that the “structurality of structure” itself had been repressed in structuralism.

Derrida starts this essay by putting into question the basic metaphysical assumptions of Western philosophy since Plato which has always principally positioned itself with a fixed immutable centre, a static presence. The notion of structure, even in structuralist theory has always presupposed a centre of meaning of sorts. Derrida terms this desire for a centre as “logocentrism” in his seminal work “Of Grammatology (1966)”. ‘Logos’, is a Greek word for ‘word’ which carries the greatest possible concentration of presence. As Terry Eagleton explains in “Literary Theory: An Introduction (1996)”, “Western Philosophy…. has also been in a broader sense, ‘logocentric’, committed to a belief in some ultimate ‘word’, presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation for all our thought, language and experience. It has yearned for the sign which will give meaning to all others, – ‘the transcendental signifier’ – and for the anchoring, unquestioning meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point (the transcendental signified’).”

Derrida argues that this centre thereby limits the “free play that it makes possible”, as it stands outside it, is axiomatic – “the Centre is not really the centre”. Under a centered structure, free play is based on a fundamental ground of the immobility and indisputability of the centre, on what Derrida refers to “as the metaphysics of presence”. Derrida’s critique of structuralism bases itself on this idea of a center.  A structure assumes a centre which orders the structure and gives meanings to its components, and the permissible interactions between them, i.e. limits play. Derrida in his critique looks at structures diachronically, i.e., historically, and synchronically, i.e. as a freeze frame at a particular juncture. Synchronically, the centre cannot be substituted: “It is the point at which substitution of contents, elements and terms is no longer possible.” (Structuralism thus stands in tension with history as Derrida argues towards the end of the essay.) But historically, one centre gets substituted for another to form an epistemological shift: “the entire history of the concept of structure must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center.” Thus, at a given point of time, the centre of the structure cannot be substituted by other elements, but historically, the point that defines play within a structure has changed. The history of human sciences has thereby been a process of substitution, replacement and transformation of this centre through which all meaning is to be sought – God, the Idea, the World Spirit, the Renaissance Man, the Self, substance, matter, Family, Democracy, Independence, Authority and so on. Since each of these concepts is to found our whole system of thought and language, it must itself be beyond that system, untainted by its play of linguistic differences. It cannot be implicated in the very languages and system it attempts to order and anchor: it must be somehow anterior to these discourses. The problem of centers for Derrida was thereby that they attempt to exclude. In doing so, they ignore, repress or marginalize others (which become the Other). This longing for centers spawns binary opposites, with one term of the opposition central and the other marginal. Terry Eagleton calls these binary opposition with which classical structuralism tends to function as a way of seeing typical of ideologies, which thereby becomes exclusionary. To quote him, “Ideologies like to draw rigid boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not”.

Derrida insists that with the ‘rupture’ it has become necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the center had no natural locus….a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play.” Derrida attributes this initiation of the process of decentering “to the totality of our era”. As Peter Barry argues in “Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural (1995)” that in the twentieth century, through a complex process of various historico-political events, scientific and technological shifts, “these centers were destroyed or eroded”. For instance, the First World War destroyed the illusion of steady material progress; the Holocaust destroyed the notion of Europe as the source and centre of human civilization. Scientific discoveries – such as the way the notion of relativity destroyed the ideas of time and space as fixed and central absolutes. Then there were intellectual and artistic movements like modernism in the arts which in the first thirty years of the century rejected such central absolutes as harmony in music, chronological sequence in narrative, and the representation of the visual world in art. This ‘decentering’ of  structure, of the ‘transcendental signified’ and of the sovereign subject, Derrida suggests – naming his sources of inspiration – can be found in the Nietzchean critique of metaphysics, and especially of the concepts of Being and Truth, in the Freudian critique of self-presence, as he says, “a critique of consciousness, of the subject, of self-identity, and of the self-proximity or self-possession”, and more radically in the Heideggerean destruction of metaphysics, “of the determination of Being as Presence”.

Derrida argues that all these attempts at ‘decentering’ were however, “trapped in a sort of circle”. Structuralism, which in his day was taken as a profound questioning of traditional Western thought, is taken by Derrida to be in support of just those ways of thought. This is true, according to deconstructive thought, for almost all critique of Western thought that arises from within western thought: it would inevitably be bound up with that which it questions – We have no language-no syntax and no lexicon-which is alien to this history; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.” Semiotics and Phenomenology are similarly compromised. Semiotics stresses the fundamental connection of language to speech in a way that it undermines its insistence on the inherently arbitrary nature of sign. Phenomenology rejects metaphysical truths in the favor of phenomena and appearance, only to insist for truth to be discovered in human consciousness and lived experience. To an extent Derrida seems to see this as inevitable, “There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics”; however, the awareness of this process is important for him – “Here it is a question of a critical relationship to the language of the human sciences and a question of a critical responsibility of the discourse. It is a question of putting expressly and systematically the problem of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary of that heritage itself.” It is important to note that Derrida does not assert the possibility of thinking outside such terms; any attempt to undo a particular concept is likely to become caught up in the terms which the concept depends on. For instance: if we try to undo the centering concept of ‘consciousness’ by asserting the disruptive counterforce of the ‘unconscious’, we are in danger of introducing a new center. All we can do is refuse to allow either pole in a system to become the center and guarantor of presence.

In validate this argument, Derrida takes up the example of Saussure’s description of sign. In Saussure, the ‘metaphysics of presence’ is affirmed by his insistence on the fact that a sign has two components – the signifier and the signified, the signified which the mental and psychological. This would imply that the meaning of a sign is present to the speaker when he uses in, in defiance of the fact that meaning is constituted by a system of differences. That is also why Saussure insists on the primacy of speaking. As soon as language is written down, a distance between the subject and his words is created, causing meaning to become unanchored. Derrida however critiques this ‘phonocentrism’ and argues that the distance between the subject and his words exist in any case, even while speaking – that the meaning of sign is always unanchored. Sign has no innate or transcendental truth. Thus, the signified never has any immediate self-present meaning. It is itself only a sign that derives its meaning from other signs. Hence a signified can be a signifier and vice versa. Such a viewpoint entails that sign thus be stripped off its signified component. Meaning is never present at face-value; we cannot escape the process of interpretation. While Saussure still sees language as a closed system where every word has its place and consequently its meaning, Derrida wants to argue for language as an open system. In denying the metaphysics of presence the distances between inside and outside are also problematized. There is no place outside of language from where meaning can be generated.

Derrida next considers the theme of decentering with respect to French structuralist Levi Strauss’s ethnology. Ethnology too demonstrates how although it sets out as a denouncement of Eurocentrism, its practices and methodologies get premised on ethnocentricism in its study and research of the ‘Other’ – the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he is employed in denouncing them This necessity is irreducible; it is not a historical contingency”. Derrida uses the classical debate on the opposition between nature and culture with respect to Levi Strauss’s work. In his work, Elementary Structures, Strauss starts with the working definition of nature as the universal and spontaneous, not belonging to any other culture or any determinate norm. Culture, on the other hand, depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. But Strauss encountered a ‘scandal’ challenging this binary opposition – incest prohibition. It is natural in the sense that is it almost universally present across most communities and hence is natural. However, it is also a prohibition, which makes it a part of the system of norms and customs and thereby cultural. Derrida argues that this disputation of Strauss’s theory is not really a scandal, as it the pre-assumed binary opposition that makes it a scandal, the system which sanctions the difference between nature and culture. To quote him, “It could perhaps be said that the whole of philosophical conceptualization, systematically relating itself to the nature/culture opposition, is designed to leave in the domain of the unthinkable the very thing that makes this conceptualization possible: the origin of the prohibition of incest.”

This leads Derrida to his theory of the bricoleur inspired from Levi Strauss. He argues that it is very difficult to arrive at a conceptual position “outside of philosophy”, to not be absorbed to some extent into the very theory that one seeks to critique. He therefore insists on Strauss’s idea of a bricolage, “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.” It is thereby important to use these ‘tools at hand’ through intricate mechanisms and networks of subversion. For instance, although Strauss discovered the scandal, he continued to use sometimes the binary opposition of nature and culture as a methodological tool and to preserve as an instrument that those truth value he criticizes, The opposition between nature and culture which I have previously insisted on seems today to offer a value which is above all methodological.” Strauss discusses bricolage not only as an intellectual exercise, but also as “mythopoetical activity”. He attempts to work out a structured study of myths, but realizes this is not a possibility, and instead creates what he calls his own myth of the mythologies, a ‘third order code’. Derrida points out how his ‘reference myth’ of the Bororo myth, does not hold in terms of its functionality as a reference, as this choice becomes arbitrary and also instead of being dependent on typical character, it derives from irregularity and hence concludes, “that violence which consists in centering a language which is describing an acentric structure must be avoided”.

Derrida still building on Strauss’s work, introduces the concept of totalization – “Totalization is…. at one time as useless, at another time as impossible”. In traditional conceptualization, totalization cannot happen as there is always too much one can say and even more that exists which needs to be talked/written about.  However, Derrida argues that non-totalization needs to conceptualized not the basis of finitude of discourse incapable of mastering an infinite richness, but along the concept of free-play – “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.” It is finite language which excludes totalization as language is made up of infinite signifier and signified functioning inter-changeably and arbitrarily, thereby opening up possibilities for infinite play and substitution. The field of language is limiting, however, there cannot be a finite discourse limiting that field.

Derrida explains the possibility of this free play through the concept of “supplementality” – “this movement of the free play, permitted by the lack, the absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarily. One cannot determine the center, the sign which supplements it, which takes its place in its absence-because this sign adds itself, occurs in addition, over and above, comes as a supplement”. Supplementality is thus involves infinite substitutions of the centre which is an absence which leads to the movement of play. This becomes possible because of the lack in the signified. There is always an overabundance of the signifier to the signified. So a supplement would hence be an addition to what the signified means for already. Derrida also introduces the concept of how this meaning is always deferred (difference), how signifier and signified are inter-changeable in a complex network of free-play.

This concept of free-play Derrida believes also stands in tension with history. Although history was thought as a critique of the philosophy of presence, as a kind of shift; it has paradoxically become complicitous with a teleological and eschatological metaphysics.” Free-play also stands in conflict with presence. Play is disruption of presence. Free play is always interplay of presence and absence. However, Derrida argues that a radical approach would not be the taking of presence or absence as ground for play. Instead the possibility of play should be the premise for presence or absence.

Derrida concludes this seminal work which is often regarded as the post-structuralist manifesto with the hope that we proceed towards an “interpretation of interpretation” where one “is no longer turned towards the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism”. He says that we need to borrow Nietzsche’s idea of affirmation to stop seeing play as limiting and negative. Nietzsche pronouncement “God is dead” need not be read as a destruction of a cohesive structure, but can be seen as a chance that opens up a possibility of diverse plurality and multiplicity.

5 Responses to “Derrida: Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”

  1. SK Says:

    This essay starts on a promising note, but becomes as incomprehensible as the original essay halfway through. The writer did not understand Derrida’s concepts clearly or he/she would have used examples to make the points more coherent. Without examples, this essay becomes a sort of paraphrasing of the original essay.

  2. Supriya Shirke Says:

    so good intepretation.

  3. M Says:

    I found this really useful, thanks!

  4. c jana Says:

    very good excellent sir

  5. Rimsa Says:

    The Interpretatin Is Really Very Good And Helpful To Any Reader To Understand The Text

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