Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences



in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Science of Man

What a notoriously difficult reading. First blog entry for a text, so here goes.

D. begins the article by discussing rupture and redoubling. He does this in an attempt to critique the Western metaphysical concept of the center or transcendental signified. In his critique of the center, he alludes to the “structure” in Western metaphysics. According to Lucy, the structure can be divided into two separate concepts. Pre Nietzsche, the structure was conceived of relation to the center, or presence. . . a “fixed origin” (Writing and Difference 278). This is the kind of centering of structure that I usually think of when thinking about structure. Starting with Nietzsche, this concept of structure changes into “to a new or modified concept of decentered structure that came to be associated with what became known as structuralism” (Lucy 131). But what does this mean? I’ll try to revisit in a bit.

Continuing his interrogation of the center, Derrida makes the comment that,

At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements is forbidden. At least this permutation has always remained interdicted. Thus, it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing within a structure which governs the structure, while escaping structurality. This is why classical thought concerning the structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside of 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. (248)

This idea that the center of the structure must be at the center to give itself authority, but yet exists outside itself is the reason why, according to Derrida, “the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science is contradictorily coherent” (248). What this means is that history and philosophy, before the “rupture” briefly alluded to in the beginning (the rupture of Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger), has been a succession of leaps from center to center – thus marginalizing the margins (though shifting they may be). D. mentions that this center, this transcendental signified, has had many different namings, “eidos, arche, telos, energeia, oisia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man and so forth” (249). These are the primary concerns of Western metaphysics pre Nietzsche, and they are problematic as we shall soon see.

According to D., (though he makes a point of not wanting to name names in the rupture or break from traditional Western metaphysical thought), he would cite “Nietzschean critique of metaphysics, the critique of the concepts of being and truth, for which were substituted the concepts of play, interpretation, and sign (sign without truth present); the Freudian critique or self-presence, that is, the critique of consciousness, of the subject, of self-identity and of self-proximity or self-possession; and more radically, the Heideggerean destruction of metaphysics, of onto-theology, of the determination of being as presence” as the places where the rupture of traditional metaphysics finds fissures (250). When this occurs, all Western metaphysics is decentered and must, as a recourse, begin to rely on language. D. says that “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 being-present, 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 the in which language invaded the universal problematic” (249, my emphasis). In other words, “everything became discourse.”

Yet, there is a central paradox to the “decentering” achieved by Nietzsche/Freud/Heidegger. This paradox assumes that you cannot get outside the system when critiquing it. As D. says, “The paradox is that they metaphysical reduction of the sign [as performed by N/F/H] needed the opposition it was reducing. I need some help here, so if anyone has any suggestions, please share.

After laying out the aforementioned info, D. extends his critique to the human sciences. He notes that the first time that these disciplines were aware of the lack of transcendental signification was the creation of ethnology and the work of Levi Strauss. The actual realization of ethnology is the act of decentering the universal. As D. puts it, ethnography signaled the realization that European culture “had been dislocated, driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference” (251).

Taking ethnography as a starting point, D. then interrogates the nature/culture dichotomy that has structured much of the philosophy of Western metaphysics. But I’m not entirely sure why he uses this dichotomy. Part of me wants to believe that he uses the nature/culture opposition (and it’s corresponding collapsing through the incest-prohibition) as the supreme example of the lack of transcendental signification – the realization that even the most seemingly rooted and foundational truth or nature is actually a condition of culture. If this is related to the concept of presence – or transcendental signification – the ultimate self-presence would be coupling with the self – incest or masturbatory self-presence. The “scandal”, as Levi Strauss puts it, of the incest-prohibition illustrates Derrida’s point throughout this essay – that the scandal itself prefigures the structural or metaphysical nature/culture divide – and hence presents a problem for the totality of metaphysics in general as it relies on this opposition to define itself.

It is here that I’m at a bit of a loss. Derrida goes on to discuss how the myth and music (both mythopoetical in Levi-Strauss’ terms) are prime examples of how the center appears as a “historical illusion” (258).

I think D. dives next into a discussion of supplementarity to illustrate the problematic structure of Saussure’s linguistic system. When discussing the shortcomings of “totalization” or the “useless” and “impossible” (according to Levi-Strauss), D. says that empiricism has arisen as a response to totalization – albeit an inadequate one. D. notes, “Totalization can be judged impossible in the classical style: one then refers to the empirical endeavor of a subject or of a finite discourse in a vain and breathless quest of an infinite richness which it can never master” (260). If totalization is impossible, it is because the “nature” of any field is language . . . and language “excludes totalization.” Because of its exclusion of totality, language is actually a field of “freeplay” – or a field of “infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble” (260). This case of infinite substitutions underpins, I think, Derrida’s notion of supplementarity. Because language is the natural field of any discipline (not the Western metaphysical notion of presence or the transcendental signified), any concept (X) must be both supplemented (to supply something additional) and supplemented (to supply a deficiency). Inherent in this “freeplay” and “supplementarity” is the notion that “presence” is impossible. “Presence” or the transcendental signified is a totalization . . . but D. demonstrates, a la Levi-Strauss, that totalizations are impossible; hence, the “freeplay” and “supplementarity” of signs embody “differance” . . . which is another topic entirely.

Thanks for reading a bit here. This is my first sit-down with Derrida and this seminal essay. Please feel free to give me feedback and direction . . . I certainly need it!

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