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

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

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).

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formula, lacan, Poe, psychoanalysis, Purloined Letter, repetition, signifier, structuralism, subject

Lacan and the Formula of the “Purloined Letter”


Now, it seems more and more clear to us that this subject who speaks is beyond the ego…It’s also the question…to what extent does the symbolic relation, the relation of language, retain its value beyond the subject, in as much as it may be characterized as centred in an ego –by an ego, for an alter-ego? –Jacques Lacan, “Odd or even? Beyond intersubjectivity,”The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II p. 175, 177.

In his second seminar, before introducing his thoughts on Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” Jacques Lacan raises the question of the “relation of signification to the living man” (186). In general, Lacan sees this story as revolving around problems of signification, meaning, received opinion and truth. What seems to animate Lacan in this early seminar is the fact that Poe’s story places intersubjectivity at its core, highlighting the dynamics at work in the different subjective positions that are oriented in the symmetrical series of the story. When Lacan tells us that “The subject adopts a mirror position, enabling him to guess the behavior of his adversary,” he is both simultaneously referring to the game of odds and even and to a later interpretation that sees the Minister taking the position of the Queen and becoming-femininized. How does this displacement of series take place? By hiding the letter in plain sight as the Queen does at the beginning of the story, the Minister foils the police (linked to the position of the State and the King) while at the same time repeating the Queen’s very actions: so one of the key questions is to reconstruct how the signifier performs this work in the series and what this means for Lacan’s conceptualization of signifying chains as a whole.

As Lacan reminds us, the letter itself is a character. At the same time, it is the presence-absence that allows the series to be composed as such (around which the King, Queen, Minister and Dupin revolve). The letter is the mighty signifier that constitutes the chain; as Lacan writes in his seminar in the Ecrits: “If what Freud discovered, and rediscovers ever more abruptly, has a meaning, it is that the signifier’s displacement determines subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate…” (21). The letter constitutes the signifying chains that come to dominate the signified symbolic universes that structure and tie the story’s characters together. If the signifier has priority over the signified (20) this is due to the fact that Lacan believes that the signifier is what represents the subject for another signifier. The subject oscillates between two signifying chains, S1 and S2 (which relate to the two series in Poe’s story). These chains come to symbolically structure the intersubjective relations among subjects (by definition) because the same master signifier (the letter) dominates both chains. In other words, the force of Lacan’s quote above resides in what he identifies as the formula behind Poe’s story.

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