Notes on Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences”

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deconstruction / derrida / Levi-Strauss / Nietzsche / structuralism / Uncategorized

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

From Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978): 278-93.

“We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things” (Montaigne).

Derrida refers to the history of the concept of structure and an “event” in that history (it should be noted that in this opening paragraph, Derrida himself highlights the bracketing of the term event in quotation marks to serve as a precaution). Even here, the choice of the word “event” is “loaded” with a “meaning” that structural or structuralist thought seems to preclude. Thus we would have to say this word “event” as though it were crossed out or sous rature (under erasure). And so, with these precautions and noting structuralism’s potential objections, Derrida chooses to speak of an event whose “exterior form would be that of a rupture and a redoubling” (278).

This rupture perhaps brings to mind what Althusser normally calls an “epistemic break”, insofar as Derrida notes how the concept and word “structure” are as old as the episteme of Western philosophy and intertwines deeply with the “soil of ordinary language”. In fact the word and concept of structure are metaphorically displaced by the “deepest recesses” of the episteme. Of course, Althusser attributes epistemological breaks specifically to Marx and the way in which ideological conceptions are replaced by scientific ones. Here, what concerns the notion of an “event” in the history of the “structurality of structure” is the way in which it has always already been at work and “neutralized or reduced” due to its spontaneous attribution of a center or point of presence, “a fixed origin”. The goal of attributing a fixed center to structure is in order to “limit what we might call the play of structure”. It is not to eliminate play but to limit it according to the “total form” of structure that the episteme has succeeded in warding off “the notion of a structure lacking any center”, which would represent “the unthinkable itself”. (279).

Perhaps the reason why the word “event” would be foreclosed by the metaphysics of presence tied to the concept of structure is rooted in the etymological root of the word “event”, which literally means “to come out (of), to fall out”, etc. Thus events, etymologically speaking, would by definition elude and fall out of the structurality of structure (a falling out of the grasp of the presence of the center), thus displacing the play that structure would attempt to centralize.

The center both closes off play and makes it possible, it limits the permutation, transformation and substitution of elements. And this is why the epistemic conception of center (as regards structure) hits upon a paradox, wherein the “center is not the center”, i.e. is both “within the structure and outside it”. Derrida, obliquely referencing Freud, claims that this coherent contradiction “expresses the force of a desire”. (In the English translation, Bass appends a very helpful footnote, pointing us to Derrida’s unpacking of this claim in Dissemination [“Plato’s Pharmacy”] and adding that “in dream interpretation…a given symbol is understood contradictorily as both the desire to fulfill an impulse and the desire to suppress the impulse” (fn. 1)). The role of centering play is to reinstate an “immobility and a reassuring certitude” (read: presence) that wards off and masters anxiety, since the latter “is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught in the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset”. It should be noted here that the words translated here in English as “play” (i.e. the concept of “play” in the title of the essay) and “game” are translating the same, single word “jeu” in the French text. Thus the “game” or “play” that the center limits and restricts is also the necessity of controlling and mastering anxiety by giving it well defined confines.

What is at stake here in the outset is pointing out the ways in which, in its contradiction, the center—so central to structure—is thought both as “origin or end, arche or telos), and this contradiction is the necessity of thinking structure and center as “a full presence which is beyond play”. And we could add, it is the notion of a full presence that coincides with the reduction and mastering of anxiety, since anxiety implies an absence, in particular insofar as it lacks an object to anchor anxiety down into the presence of a definite fear.

As will become clear later on in the essay but which is indicated here, the fact that center “plays” on both sides of its binary oppositions, this will entail that we cannot sustain a proper deconstruction of this concept without foregoing the approaches of an archaeology or eschatology (at least in their current forms determined by a metaphysics of presence).

Before we delve into the impact of the rupture or event cited in the first paragraph, Derrida notes that we should be aware of how the 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”. What is at stake in the metaphysics and determination of “Being as presence” is the history of these “metaphors and metonymies” (eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia), etc. (279-80).

The event is the (re)thinking of structure, which is at once a rupture and repetition. What entails is that the center of structure eludes “being-present” and thus entails that the “absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely”.

In a long paragraph that ends the first section of this essay, Derrida notes a few “names” and indications that have prepared this event: Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics (of Being and truth, for which the concepts of play, interpretation and sign were substituted); the Freudian critique of self-presence/consciousness; “and, more radically, the Heideggerian destruction of metaphysics, of onto-theology, of the determination of Being as presence”. And yet we are nevertheless implicated and complicit with this logocentricism/metaphysics of presence, and we lack the language for overcoming it or foregoing it (280-281). Even with the concept of sign. As Derrida says: “But we cannot do without the concept of the sign, for we cannot give up the metaphysical complicity without also giving up the critique we are directing against this complicity, or without the risk of erasing difference in the self-identity of a signified reducing its signifier into itself or, amounting to the same thing, simply expelling its signifier outside itself” (281). We are thus caught in a circle—more or less exasperated or naive depending on the formulation or formalization of this circle. This leads to a conundrum, an “exercise” which is the most widespread (282), which is the following: “Since these concepts are not elements or atoms, and since they are taken from a syntax and a system, every particular borrowing brings along with it the whole of metaphysics. This is what allows these destroyers to destroy each other reciprocally—for example, Heidegger regarding Nietzsche, with as much lucidity and rigor as bad faith and misconstruction, as the last metaphysician, the last “Platonist”. (281).

Since we are at a break in this essay, it would be interesting to point out that this is precisely one of the inspirations for the early forms of non-philosophy that Laruelle proposes. Laruelle also sees in the matrix of philosophical decision the spontaneous interworkings of its syntax. In suspending the decisionality of philosophy’s tactical and syntactical matrix, one thereby undoes the “widespread” exercise of turning philosopher’s against each other in the habitual conflicts of internecine warfare.

Here Derrida turns to ethnology, and as above, it is only with a decentering and dislocation of European culture that ehtnology could be brought about. Both the destruction of the history of metaphysics and the birth of ethnology “belong to one and the same era”. (282). Just like Derrida described language and its inevitable complicity with metaphysics, “the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he denounces them”. Also, just as we are caught in the metaphysical circle, there are different gradations of being implicated in such a circle or in the logo-eurocentric bind: “The quality and fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relation to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought”. Thus Derrida is bringing up the stakes of being indebted to and complicit with a sort of metaphysical and ethnocentric inundation of language and “the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself. A problem of economy and strategy”.

As Derrida points out, this is what will make Lévi-Strauss a touchstone for these issues in the human sciences, insofar as his work is elaborated through “this critique of language and this critical language in the social sciences”. Pointing to a binary opposition that stems back to the pre-Socratic foundations of philosophy, Derrida brings up the nature/culture dyad, which Lévi-Strauss both relies upon to a certain extent and works to undo: “that which is universal and spontaneous, and not dependent on any particular culture or any determinate norm, belongs to nature…that which depends upon a system of norms regulating society and therefore is capable of varying from one social structure to another, belongs to culture” (283). Yet he encounters what he refers to as a “scandal”, which is the scandal of the incest prohibition, since it at once seems to be universal and yet, as a prohibition, also seems to be a norm and therefore cultural. Yet, as Derrida points out, “Obviously there is no scandal except within a system of concepts which accredits the difference between nature and culture”. As Derrida will argue, incest prohibition both “escapes these concepts and certainly precedes them—probably as the condition of their possibility”.

As a side note, this brings to mind the way in which Deleuze and Guattari will deal with incest in Anti-Oedipus as a “threshold”. One is either on this side of or beyond the limit of incest: in fact, they will eventually quote Derrida’s reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology for backup on making this point.

As Derrida argues, what Lévi-Strauss is contemplating as a scandal here is the evidence that “language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique” (284). And there are two paths in Derrida’s mind. The first path is to “systematically and rigorously” question the history of these concepts through a philosophical and philological investigation. And yet this would be not to fetishize them or circumscribe them but to “deconstitute them” in a way that is not familiar to the traditional work of the philologist or historian of philosophy. As he says, this is the “step ‘outside philosophy’”, something he claims is more difficult than it appears, since we are “swallowed up in metaphysics in the entire body of discourse” from which we have claimed to disengage.

I have to comments to add here, both of which are with an eye to Laruelle’s elaboration of non-philosophy in Philosophy and Non-philosophy. First, as Laruelle will claim, philosophy and its language cannot analyze and critique itself from within, thereby stepping out of it: for this, there must be a formalization and axiomatization (non-philosophy). Secondly, non-philosophy shows that we are not “in” philosophy, and that this is merely a hallucination. One does not exit philosophy to enter the real. This is taken up in the last chapter explicitly of Philosophy and Non-philosophy with regard to Marx’s notion of an Ausgang or out-going. Let’s return to Derrida’s text, lest we get sidetracked for too long.

The second path, which Derrida suggests is closer to the path of Lévi-Strauss, is to treat the old concepts as “tools which can still be used” (285). This will get us to the notion of bricolage that Lévi-Strauss coins. “No longer is any truth value attributed to [old concepts]; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. This is how the language of the social sciences criticizes itself”. This is how he plans to distinguish “method from truth, the instruments of the method and the objective significations envisaged by it”.

The essence of bricolage, then, seems to be that Lévi-Strauss will utilize as a tool the truth value of which he will call into question.

Due to this precariousness and openness, Lévi-Strauss will oppose the engineer to the bricoleur. The engineer “should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth”. Thus the engineer is a fantasy or a myth, “a theological idea”: “and since Lévi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur”. Following this path, however, we see that the engineer and the scientist are also “species of bricoleurs”, and thus the distinction begins to break down (which may itself show that the concept of bricolage itself is a tool in the vein of bricolage, meaning to break down after serving a certain usefulness, albeit Derrida does not venture that here, perhaps leaving it implicit).

Furthermore, insofar as Lévi-Strauss reflects on the mythopoetic status of bricolage, he is also criticizing the utilization of one his key terms. And this critique coincides with what Derrida seems to be most fascinating about his work, namely, “this critical search for a new status of discourse is the stated abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute archia”. It is precisely in the critique of bricolage and of its status that Lévi-Strauss will continue the “theme of this decentering” in the “Overture” to his last book, The Raw and the Cooked (286).

First, Lévi-Strauss disrupts the notion of a central myth, and therefore chooses the Bororo myth as one that is highlighted not because it is typical but because it is irregular.

Second, he points out how the myth itself is decentralized or acentric in terms of its origin, and thus it cannot “have an absolute subject or an absolute center”. As Derrida says: “In opposition to epistemic discourse, structural discourse on myths—mythological discourse—must itself be mythomorphic. It must have the form of that of which it speaks”. This mythomorphic or, as Lévi-Strauss calls it, “anaclastic” (in the sense of relating to the study of reflected and diffracted rays) discourse must “respect” the “rhythms” of myths (287). The logic behind this treatment of his language is due to his search for a tertiary code. The primary code would “provide the substance of language”, and the secondary code would be myths themselves in their mobilization of identities and relations. The tertiary code of critical discourse would allow for the “reciprocal translatability of several myths”. Hence the discourse in the Raw and the Cooked is itself a myth, a “myth of mythology”. And, insofar as myths themselves are anonymous, so too is this tertiary discourse, whose function “makes the philosophical or epistemological requirement of a center appear as mythological, that is to say, as a historical illusion”.

But this dimension of meta-mythology runs the risk of making all discourses on myth irreducibly and unevenly equivalent. As Derrida says, this is both “classic, but inevitable question” and one to which Lévi-Strauss does not answer. Furthermore, it perhaps cannot be posed as a question even until the relations between the “philosopheme or the theorem” and the “mytheme or the mythopoem” has been posed explicitly, “which is no small problem” (288). There is an inherent danger here of reducing all concepts down to naivetes. For Derrida, going beyond philosophy is not in “turning the page of philosophy” (albeit, Heidegger and Derrida themselves will contemplate the “death of philosophy” as a sort of unavoidable event, which Laruelle rightly shows a begging of the question of sorts), but “in continuing to read philosophers in a certain way”. Yet, Lévi-Strauss seems to be aware of these problems, since Derrida shows that he not only sees structuralism as a means of critiquing empiricism, but also that his own essays are in themselves empirical and “can always be completed or invalidated by new information”.

But after Derrida’s long quote of Lévi-Strauss (288-89) we come back to the notion that the lack of a center in his mythological discourse is the fact that in his work totalization is both “useless” and “impossible”. This is not merely due to the finitude inherent in empirical study but also “from the standpoint of the concept of play” (289). This is to say that totalization is not impossible due to an indefiniteness of the empirical, “but because the nature of the field—that is, language and a finite language—excludes totalization”. This is because it lacks a center that would halt play, “a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite”. The movement of play, made possible by this lack of a center, is “the movement of supplementarity”. As he notes elsewhere, the supplement (the Nachtrag in Freudian terms), is the appendix, postscript, footnote, at once what is missing and a surplus. Signification is always “floating”, always performing a “vicarious function, to supplement a lack on the part of the signified”.

As Derrida closes his essay, he continues to look at the text of Lévi-Strauss, particularly the way in which he uses the term “supplement” without the emphasis Derrida gives it here. In the quote from his introduction to Marcel Mauss, Lévi-Strauss discusses the way in which humans symbolically portion out significations that resonate with a symbolic surplus. This surplus is what he calls a ration supplémentaire (supplementary allowance, as Bass translates it). This supplementarity is complicit with a complementarity of signifier to signified “which is the very condition of the use of symbolic thought” (290).

Here Derrida shifts to another quote in which the concept of mana as a linguistic “zero phoneme” is introduced to ballast—supplement—the notion of play. Mana is a stand-in, at once material and empty sign, it coheres in its contradiction as a “sign marking the necessity of a symbolic content supplementary to that with which the signified is already loaded, but which can take on any value required, provided only that this value still remains part of the available reserve and is not, as phonologists put it, a group-term”. This is to signify further, drawing on Roman Jakobson, that the zero phoneme is not a phoneme absence but an emptiness of preliminary presence that can fulfill any function do to its lack of “differential characters”. Not the absence of signification, and yet not a particular signification.

Moving to the final paragraphs, what is at stake in the notion of play is that it is not just the play of absence and presence (Freud: fort/da), but also must be conceived before this alternative: “Being must be conceived as presence or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not the other way around” (292). This is to remove that “ethic of nostalgia for origins” that, in many sense, reminds me of Nietzsche, his critique of hope and his call upon an eternal recurrence whose sameness is not presupposed or ready-made (present) but empty, whose repetition precedes its origin. Here, Derrida confirms this by juxtaposing the sad nostalgia of Rousseau seeking to restore an origin or faced with the exhaustion of a non-originary origin, and “Nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation. This affirmation then determines the noncenter otherwise than as loss of center”. What is key to Nietzsche’s affirmation is that it does not have anything to fall back upon, and is therefore insecure but, as I would say, free. This is to radicalize the loss of presence in Nietzsche’s affirmation: “For there is a sure play: 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”. Here already, Derrida is invoking the notion of dissemination, which is something that Rousseau, too, inspires him with, even if he may usually instill the negative image of this notion.

I will add as a quick note that the juxtaposition of Rousseau and Nietzsche here vis-a-vis presence certainly is helpful as pertains to the notion of play, but I would suggest two things: first, Nietzsche takes much from Rousseau and generally finds a lot of inspiration in his work, even if he sometimes is critical of certain notions; and second, I would suggest that Rousseau “coheres contradictorily” with Derrida’s quick description here of nostalgia, insofar as I believe he both thinks this nostalgia and uses it as a means by which to critique and undermine it. Thus Derrida’s description of Rousseau seems more true at a glance rhetorically than more profoundly thematically. This, too, would perhaps collapse under scrutiny, and we will leave this for another time.

And this leads us to two “interpretations of interpretation”. Either an origin that escapes play, “which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile”, or one that no longer concerns itself with the origin, “and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology—in other words, throughout his entire history—has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play”.

These two interpretations are “irreconcilable” and yet lived “simultaneously”, reconciled in “an obscure economy” in the problematic field of the “social sciences” (293).

We cannot choose between the two, since we are caught in a region wherein the choice is “trivial” and “because we must first try to conceive of the common ground and the différance of this irreducible difference”. The question facing us is a historical one that involves conception, formation, gestation and labor, childbearing metaphors that faces us with a “birth [that] is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity”.

This is how the essay ends, and I will merely point out that this nonspecies and monstrosity are what is at stake in the notion of the overman, which itself, in retrospect on Lévi-Strauss, seems to be a signifier much like that of mana, i.e. a zero phoneme whose play cannot be decided from a preestablished center or structure, which is what makes its monstrosity so terrifying.

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