Thursday, 15 December 2016

Derrida's 'Structure, Sign & Play' - A Critical Summary

Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences


“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences (1966)” was presented by Jacques Derrida at the John Hopkins International Colloquium on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in October 1966. This essay articulates a poststructuralist theoretical paradigm and effectively brings out the important distinctions between the ‘classical’ mode of thinking contrasted with the ‘post-structuralist’ ways of thinking. The classical way of thinking, according to Derrida, gives structure a centre and neutralizes the ‘structurality of structure’, and thereby limits the play of structure.

Rupture in the History of the Concept of Structure

Derrida begins his text with a reference to a recent event in the history of the concept of structure, that is also a ‘rupture’ or a ‘redoubling’, but immediately gets back to the use of the word “event.” The word ‘event’ ushers a significant epistemological break with structuralist thought. But the meaning of the word event is something that structuralism would need to contain as an element within a structure or at least exhaustively determined by a structure. In the same way that science must contain all contingencies (chances, accidents and secondary causes) within the thought of what is necessary, all events should be contained as parts of a comprehensive structure. So strictly speaking, and according to Levi-Strauss, the concept “event” is opposed to the concept “structure.” Derrida uses the word ‘event’ as a word and not as an event to signify the rupture and redoubling.

The Contingent and the Necessary

In The Savage Mind Levi-Strauss says that “Science as a whole is based on the distinction between the contingent and the necessary, this being also what distinguishes event and structure” (21).  This argument draws on the distinction between things that exist necessarily and things that exist contingently.

Something is “necessary” if it could not possibly have failed to exist. The laws of mathematics are often thought to be necessary. It is plausible to say that mathematical truths such as two and two making four hold irrespective of the way that the world is. Even if the world were radically different, it seems, two and two would still make four. God, too, is often thought to be a necessary being, i.e. a being that logically could not have failed to exist.

Something is “contingent” if it is not necessary, i.e. if it could have failed to exist. Most things seem to exist contingently (subject to chance/accident). All of the human artefacts around us might not have existed; for each one of them, whoever made it might have decided not to do so. Their existence, therefore, is contingent. You and I, too, might not have existed; our respective parents might never have met, or might have decided not to have children, or might have decided to have children at a different time. Our existence, therefore, is contingent. Even the world around us seems to be contingent; the universe might have developed in such a way that none of the observable stars and planets existed at all.

Signs vs Concepts

Strauss illustrates these divergent sciences by means of an engineer and a ‘bricoleur’. The engineer works by means of concepts, the bricoleur by means of signs. Signs are opposed to concepts, because: whereas concepts aim to be wholly transparent with respect to reality, signs allow and even require the interposing and incorporation of a certain amount of human culture into reality.

Possibility vs Actuality

The argument from contingency rests on the claim that the universe, as a whole, is contingent. It is not only the case, the argument suggests, that each of the things around us is contingent; it is also the case that the whole, all of those things taken together, is contingent. It might have been the case that nothing existed at all. The state of affairs in which nothing existed at all is a logically possible state of affairs, even though it is not the actual state of affairs.

The Organizing Principle of the Structure: It Limits Play

Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure—or rather the structurality of structure—although it has always been at work, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of 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—one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure— but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure. By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.

The Centre: Constitutes the Structure but escapes Structurality

Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible. As 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 (which may of course be structures enclosed within a structure) is forbidden. At least this permutation has always remained interdicted (and I am using 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 while governing the structure, escapes 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.

Example: The Unmoved Mover of Aristotle

Hence, a center is that part of a structure which focuses and organizes the entire system. One good example is Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover: (or prime mover): As is implicit in the name, the "unmoved mover" moves other things, but is not itself moved. Aristotle argues, in Book 8 of the Physics and Book 12 of the Metaphysics, "that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world". Just like his predecessor Heraclitus, Aristotle recognised that everything in the world is in a state of flux. Aristotle argued that behind every movement there must be a chain of events that brought about the movement that we see taking place.

Aristotle argued that this chain of events must lead back to something which moves but is itself unmoved. This is referred to as the Prime Mover. In Aristotle’s view change is eternal. There cannot have been a first change, because something would have to have happened just before that change which set it off, and this itself would have been a change, and so on.

In his book Metaphysics (literally after physics), Aristotle calls this source of all movement the Prime Mover. The Prime Mover to Aristotle is the first of all substances, the necessary first sources of movement which is itself unmoved. It is a being with everlasting life, and in Metaphysics Aristotle also calls this being ‘God’.

The Prime Mover causes the movement of other things, not as an efficient cause, but as a final cause. In other words, it does not start off the movement by giving it some kind of push, but it is the purpose, or end, or the teleology, of the movement. This is important for Aristotle, because he thought that an effective cause, giving a push, would be affected itself by the act of pushing. Aristotle believed the prime mover causes things to move by attraction in much the same way that a saucer of milk attracts a cat. The milk attracts the cat but cannot be said to be changed in the process!

The Concept of Centered Structure: ‘Contradictorily Coherent’

The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. In other words, the classical concept of structure has what Derrida calls a “contradictory coherence.” This means that, there is contradiction but it is coherent. And as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire. (the desire to fulfill and suppress a given impulse). The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play. And on the basis of this certitude anxiety can be mastered!

Only when there is uncertainty (like in a text), one never loses the notion of textual anxiety, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset.

Loss of an Absolute Centre: Reader Plays the Game without Security

Loss of an absolute centre makes the reader play the game without security (or anxiety). Thus centre, security, presence, tautological subject are thus located on the side of the narcissistic, centripetal subject, whereas, radical decentering, anxiety, indetermination, heterological subject and adventure appear on the side of writing, finally freed from the subjective fixation.

History of the Concept of Structure: As A Series of Substitutions of Center for Center

If this is so, the entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture, 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. (when a person claims, “I am an Indian, and I am a Jew” etc, metaphors and metonymies here denote existence. Although metaphors claim to state that this is that, or while metonymy makes possible changes of names, in fact they are nothing but descriptions with reference to some centre. Although their power is rhetorical, their power is real. Its matrix is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence—eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) ale theia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth. For example, in claims such as seeing the sign/signifier Jesus as the ‘liberation Jesus’, ‘historical Jesus’, ‘apocalyptic Jesus’, etc, it is only in the form of metaphors and metonymies – language that points to the event horizon of the Living Christ and not the substitute for him.

Thinking about the Structurality of Structure

Hence, the "rupture," with which "Structure, Sign, and Play" begins, "comes about when the structurality of the structure had to begin to be thought". Once people begin to recognize that the structure is a structure, and nothing else, a rupture can occur; prior to that, when people believe that the structure is something other than a structure (e.g., "the way things are"), they have instead fallen for metaphor.

The absence of the Transcendental signified: Its Effect on Play

This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse—provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, a system in which 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 play of signification infinitely. The idea that everything operates like language and that everything is writing, and that, verbal language came to invade the universal problematic of meaning and value. That the transcendental signifiers (God, Man) of yore have been ousted by the successive, contaminating, perpetually replicating influence of language.

Language, According to Foucault

Language, as Foucault understands it, is a system of exchange predicated on the notion of difference. It is something that burst onto the scene of human evolution in one fell swoop as Levi-Strauss puts it, as an event. If the meaning of the letter “b” is uncertain, then I cannot create the word bust and if the meaning of the word “bust” is uncertain, then I cannot combine as I please with other words.

The Revolutionary Decentering of Epistemology by 19th and early 20th Century Thinkers

Where and how does this decentering, this thinking the structurality of structure, occur? 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 cites Nietzche, Freud and Heidegger as exemplars of decentering, or “thinking the structurality of structure”. Amongst them, Derrida lists the Nietzchean critique of metaphysics as the most radical articulation of that decentering.

Methodological Affinity between Derrida and Nietzche

There is a profound methodological affinity between Derrida and Nietzche in terms of a rejection of the binary logic that they both view as a mainstay of the philosophical tradition. The ‘typical prejudice’ and ‘fundamental faith’ of all metaphysicians, Nietzche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, is “the faith in opposite values”. Throughout his critique of morality, philosophy, and religion, Nietzsche attempted to dismantle such oppositional hierarchies as good/evil, truth/error, being/becoming. This refusal to sanction the hierarchical relations among those privileged conceptual oppositions transmitted within the Western metaphysical tradition pervades the contemporary French philosophical scene, and it is one of the primary points of convergence between Nietzsche and contemporary French philosophical thought in general.

This critique of binary, oppositional thinking is, of course, most closely identified with Derrida’s critical project, and it is on this issue, so central to the critical method that has come to be called “deconstruction,” that we can locate most clearly Derrida’s intellectual debt to Nietzsche.

For Derrida, the history of philosophy unfolds as a history of certain classical philosophical oppositions: intelligible/sensible, truth/error, speech/writing, literal/figurative, presence /absence, etc. These oppositional concepts do not coexist on equal grounds, however one side of each binary opposition has been privileged while the other side has been devalued. Within these oppositions, a hierarchical “order of subordination” has been established and truth has come to be valued over error, presence has come to be valued over absence, and so on.

Age-old quest for Truth as the Will to Power

According to Nietzche, the age-old quest for absolute truth is now exposed as the will to power. Moreover, to Derrida, the metaphysics of presence is shaken with the help of the concept of sign. He says: But, as I suggested a moment ago, as soon as one seeks to demonstrate in this way that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or play of signification henceforth has no limit, one must reject even the concept and word “sign” itself—which is precisely what cannot be done. For the signification “sign” has always been understood and determined, in its meaning, as sign of, a signifier referring to a signified, a signifier different from its signified. If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word “signifier” itself which must be abandoned as a metaphysical concept. When Lévi-Strauss says in the preface to The Raw and the Cooked that he has “sought to transcend the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible by operating from the outset at the level of signs,” the necessity, force, and legitimacy of his act cannot make us forget that the concept of the sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. The concept of the sign, in each of its aspects, has been determined by this opposition throughout the totality of its history. It has lived only on this opposition and its system.

Derrida now refers back to the anthropology of Levi Strauss. As far as the “human sciences” are concerned, one of them perhaps occupies a privileged place—ethnology. In fact one can assume that ethnology could have been born as a science only at the moment when a decentering had come about: at the moment when European culture—and, in consequence, the history of metaphysics and of its concepts—had been dislocated, driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference.

Hence, one can say with total security that there is nothing fortuitous about the fact that the critique of ethnocentrism—the very condition for ethnology—should be systematically and historically contemporaneous with the destruction of the history of metaphysics.

Therefore, to Derrida, “ethnology, like any science, comes about within the element of discourse”. Strauss’s work is criticized by Derrida on the grounds that there is no book or study by Levi Strauss that is “NOT proposed as an empirical essay,” and “empiricism is the matrix of all faults”. The clear implication is that, empiricism is the necessary condition for a scientific discourse. Yet it is now argued that empiricism entails a necessary failure in totalisation.

Critique of Levi Strauss: Nature vs Culture

In order to follow this movement in the text of Lévi-Strauss, let us choose as one guiding thread among others the opposition between nature and culture. In the Elementary Structures, he begins from this axiom or definition: that which is universal and spontaneous, and not dependent on any particular culture or on any determinate norm, belongs to nature. Inversely, 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.

But in the very first pages of the Elementary Structures Lévi-Strauss, who has begun by giving credence to these concepts, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted, something which simultaneously seems to require the predicates of nature and 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:

Moreover, Levi-Strauss in the book Raw and the Cooked, cited by Derrida discussed the Bororo myth which he referred to as the key myth. This is a story of the origins of wind and rain which conveys the idea that a myth cannot be understood in isolation but as a part of the entire context within which it is used. 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 Lévi-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 therefore a critique of language in the form of bricolage, and it has even been said that bricolage is critical language itself.

Thus, although Derrida is attracted to the structuralism of Levi Strauss’s ethnological work on myth, particularly to his claim that there is no unity or absolute source of myth, Derrida posits a structuring of signification in the absence of a centre endowing the whole with significance but depending instead on an endless play of difference, that would ensure the reciprocal translatability of several myths.

Totalization: Sometimes Useless, and Sometimes Impossible

Totalization is the idea that there can be a system that explains everything. But according to Derrida, this system does not exist; there is no system that can explain absolutely everything. The two reasons why it is impossible are: there is far too much knowledge to master (classical reason); and because there is too much play (Derrida’s reason). When there is too much play the system is not fixed and therefore, cannot be measured. The reason there is infinite play is that the system is lacking a center; because when there is a center, play is limited and the system is stable.

Hence totalisation is therefore defined at one time as useless, at another time as impossible. This is because of the fact that there are two ways of conceiving the limit of totalisation. In the classical style, totalisation can be judged impossible because it is a vain and breathless quest of an infinite richness which it can never master. There is too much, than one can say. Similarly, nontotalisation can also be determined in another way: from the standpoint of freeplay. Totalisation no longer has any meaning because the nature of the field-that is, language and a finite language – excludes totalisation. This field is in fact that of freeplay – a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble.

The Movement of Supplementarity

This movement of the freeplay, permitted by the lack, the absence of a centre or origin, is the movement of supplementarity. One cannot determine the centre, 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.

The movement of supplementarity is the movement of play that is allowed because of the absence of a center. So then, a sign is needed to replace the absent center. This sign is called a supplement. So, one cannot determine the center and exhaust totalization because the sign which replaces the center, which supplements it, taking the center’s place in its absence—this sign is added, occurs as a surplus, as a supplement.

[Eg: the relationship between speech and writing. Writing is subordinate to speech; it’s absent. Speech is present. Therefore, writing is a supplement to speech.]

Importance of the Concept of Play

The concept of play is quite important in Lévi-Strauss. His references to all sorts of games, notably to roulette, are very frequent, especially in his Conversations, in Race and History and in The Savage Mind. Further, the reference to play is always caught up in tension. Tension with history, first of all. More concretely, in the work of Lévi-Strauss it must be recognized that the respect for structurality, for the internal originality of the structure, compels a neutralization of time and history. For example, the appearance of a new structure, of an original system, always comes about—and this is the very condition of its structural specificity—by a rupture with its past, its origin, and its cause.

Besides this tension between play and history, there is also the tension between play and presence. Play is the disruption of presence. Play is always play of absence and presence, but if it is to be thought radically, play must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence.


There are thus, according to Derrida, two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. Moreover, the ‘irreducible plurality’ of deconstruction exposes the undecidability constitutive of the metaphysics of presence in all its formulations from ethics to the proper name. In other words, because all naming is inhabited by differance, the proper name is ‘always already under erasure’. Jacques Derrida therefore sets play free in the joyous Nietzschean affirmation of the play of the world, a world without a centre, or without origin.

Note: The views expressed in this article are Derrida’s, and Purdue OWL’s.

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