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

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  • Topic: Structuralism, Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' (Derrida, 1978: 278 –293) may be read as the document of an event, although Derrida actually commences the essay with a reservation regarding the word "event", as it entails a meaning "which it is precisely the function of structural – or structuralist – thought to reduce or suspect" (278). This, I infer, refers to the emphasis within structuralist discourse on the synchronous analysis of systems and relations within them, as opposed to a diachronic schemata occupied with uncovering genetic and teleological content in the transformations of history.

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, but also traditional humanism and empiricism – here it becomes the "structurality of structure" (278) itself which begins to be thought. Immediately however, Derrida notes that he is not presuming to place himself ‘outside' of the critical circle or totality in order to so criticise. While the function of the centre of the structure is identified as that which reduces the possibility of thinking this structurality of structure, even though "it has always been at work" (278), that is, it has always been an economic and economising factor within Western philosophy limiting the play of the structure – where I understand play to be associated with "uneconomic" deconstructive notions such as supplementarity, the trace, and differánce, Derrida notes that "even today the notion of a structure lacking any center [sic] represents the unthinkable itself" (279).

This appears to present a conundrum. For while the centre closes off play, it apparently cannot be done without, at least, it cannot be simply discarded without it re-emerging somewhere else within the totality. The conundrum is in fact a paradox and a coherent contradiction of classical thought, which echoes the Freudian theory of neurotic symptoms where a symbol at once expresses the desire to fulfil and suppress a given impulse (339). Hence, "the contradiction expresses the force of a desire" (279). The centre is, according to Derrida, both within and without the totality – it is an elsewhere (Derrida's italics) of the totality. It is also a difficult and paradoxical concept to grasp.

The notion of a full presence informs metaphysical discourses in movements aiming to uncover origins or to decode, prophesy even, the aims of philosophical and metaphysical thought. Derrida then makes what I read as an important statement: that "the entire history of the concept of structure…must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center [sic] for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center " (279) and the centre thus receives many different forms or names. The name here refers to the name as primary concept grounding the subject in the immediate self-presence of the I, rather than as signifier – as part of the constitution of the subject as self-present, and here is reflected the Lacanian observation in ‘The insistence of the letter in the unconscious' (1988: 79 - 106). Lacan writes that not only here is "no meaning…sustained by anything other than a reference to another meaning" (83), but like the substitutions of centre for centre, "We are forced, then, to accept the notion of an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier" (87). Echoing Derrida's linked chain of determinations, Lacan here also writes that, "namely, the signifying chain, gives an approximate idea: rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings" (86).

Derrida continues on to propose a decentring, which refers to thinking the structurality of structure, and offers several "names", not echoing Foucaultian author-functions but as hints or signals – these names being those of Nietzsche, who substituted Being and Truth...
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