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Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play


in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"
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Al Drake, Chapman U, E 456, Intro. to C20 Theory
Nietzsche's deconstructive analysis of the relation between words and the world
leads smoothly to Derrida's comments about the problem with the structuralist
enterprise of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Structuralism, after all, has at
least partly borrowed its concepts from Saussurean linguistics. At base,
Derrida's criticism is that the very concept of "structure" is a metaphor; it is not
a given reality that might be said to ground the whole project of structuralism,
guaranteeing order and intelligibility to its objects of study. (I am using the word
"metaphor" in the Nietzschean sense that it is a word used to impose order and
intelligibility on a world we cannot access directly.) If the system is based upon
structure as a ground or "center," how can one evade the philosophical baggage
that kind of term carries with it? To say that something is the "center" of the
system and that this center is itself beyond analysis or "play" is more or less to
repeat the gesture made by theologians and philosophers who made their center
concepts like "the Forms," "God," "Reason," and so forth.
The way to begin dealing with Derrida's critique is to examine his statements
about Levi-Strauss' use of the traditional binary opposition between "nature"
and "culture." This aspect of Levi-Strauss' work shows both his astuteness as an
anthropologist and the philosophical problems he ends up re-invoking in his
attempt to avoid certain road-blocks that his own subject throws up before him.
Levi-Strauss himself is by no means simplistic or nave: he is well aware of the
problem with the oppositional relation nature/culture. As he points out in a
passage that Derrida cites at length, the practice of incest creates a scandal for
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the anthropologist in that it is both universal (which means incest should belong
to the realm of "nature") and particular (which means that it ought to be
considered an affair of "culture"). There are many different cultural ways of
prohibiting incest, and yet the prohibition in general appears to be something
universal and thus natural. So as Levi-Strauss knows, the two terms "nature"
and "culture" are not mutually exclusive and stable; they are instead somehow
implicated the one in the other. It is going to be difficult, then, to take such an
opposition and use it as the solid foundation for one's anthropological project.
What is an anthropologist to do? Levi-Strauss' answer is practical: he fashions
an intellectual activity or discourse he calls "bricolage," with the one practicing
it to be called a "bricoleur." The word is an interesting onethe French verb
"bricoler" means "to do odd jobs," i.e. to serve as a handyman of sorts and make
things out of the materials one has lying about. This kind of activity
Levi-Strauss opposes to the more systematic operations of an engineer who
draws up his plans with a sense of the whole and only afterwards goes to work
on the specific tasks of construction. In essence, the bricoleur will use an
opposition such as "nature/culture" as a tool while not accepting it as
philosophical truth.
The most important example of bricolage that Derrida examines is Levi-Strauss'
analysis of the Bororo Myth. It has less to do with the above binary set of terms
as with the notion of structure itself: Levi-Strauss, Derrida points out, is willing
to take as his starting point a certain myth, but he admits that there is no
particular reason for treating this myth as a key to understanding how myth
works. Levi-Strauss, reflecting upon his own methodology, openly
acknowledges the need to abandon (in Derrida's words) "all reference to a
center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin. (1121).
Levi-Strauss' way of explaining his methodology here is to say that his book on
myth "is itself a kind of myth" (1122). In other words, like myth, it does not try
to go back to the absolute source of the thing in questionthere is no central
myth, and no truly "centering" way of dealing with myth, which is after all
prolific in its endless variations and anonymity of authorship. The main problem
that Derrida associates with this move on Levi-Strauss' part is that in his failure
to pose questions of epistemology (literally "the theory of knowledge")
questions that would deal with the first principles or ground of
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anthropological discourse about myththe anthropologist risks becoming a
mere empiricist in the specific sense of one who doesn't think through the
reasons for which an activity is being undertaken and the methods by which it is
to be undertaken. The validity of one's methods doesn't come into sharp enough
focus, in other words, and one just goes about the practical tasks and
experiments called for by the field of anthropology or some other discipline.
But perhaps more important is Derrida's commentary about Levi-Strauss's
employment of variants on the term "supplementarity" because it gets to the
basis of Derrida's broader critique of structuralism. Levi-Strauss, as Derrida
cites him, seems not to be in despair over the inability to exhaust his subject
matter, myth, to "totalize" it: "In his endeavor to understand the world, man
therefore always has at his disposal a surplus of signification. . . . This
distribution of a supplementary allowance . . . is absolutely necessary in order
that on the whole the available signifier and the signified it aims at may remain
in the relationship of complementarity which is the very condition of the use of
symbolic thought" (1124). Yet this "supplementarity" is a curious and
contradictory movement, as Derrida points out on page 1123: it appears both to
refer back to something lacking and to add something new. Levi-Strauss'
thought, in attempting to follow this "overabundance" of signification, comes to
depend heavily on concepts like "play," "discontinuity," and "chance." In a
sense, says, Derrida, Levi-Strauss is rightly rejecting the traditional alignment
between what Derrida (following Martin Heidegger) calls "the determination of
Being as presence" and history, which latter endeavor is oriented toward "the
appropriation of truth in presence and self-presence, toward knowledge in
consciousness-of-self" (1124). The above phrases would take much time to
explain adequately, but let's just remind ourselves from our previous readings in
structuralism that it tends to put aside or bracket out notions of development
through time, favoring rather the "synchronic" element of structure. If you study
the structure of something without concern for how it came to be structured as it
is, you can't account for changes in the structure. Derrida's ultimate point about
Levi-Strauss' endeavors as a structuralist is that he remains caught up in a kind
of nostalgia for an absent center or origin or presence: "he must always conceive
of the origin of a new structure on the model of catastrophe" (1125). So even in
his advocacy of a structurality that may be analyzed by means of terms like
"supplement" and "play," Levi-Strauss is compelled by the hidden complexities
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and contradictions within such terms to conceive of his project in nostalgic
termsa longing for an anterior and pure society motivates his researches into
ancient cultures and their myths.
This nostalgia Derrida calls "the structuralist thematic of broken immediacy"
and "the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking
of play" (1125). So much for structuralism as a radical break with traditional
philosophy. To this he opposes "the Nietzschean affirmation of a world of signs
without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active
interpretation." This part of the essay is quite complex in that it seems Derrida is
aligning himself, choosing, the second way of thinking about "play." But is he?
Remember that one of the names he associates with the "rupture" in the thinking
about structure is Nietzsche, the author of that remarkable deconstructive essay
we read in a previous class. In writing about this supposed rupture, Derrida
places the word "event" (i.e. the rupture) in quotation marks and refuses to
describe it as a clean break with traditional philosophy. If there is one thread
running all through the essay, it is that attempts to jettison traditional concepts
like that of the sign, the center, and so forth have always involved the attempter
in traditional philosophical quandaries. Affirming a concept like "play," that is,
over against rigid older ways of conceiving a thing, does not necessarily result
in perpetual affirmation of the "incredible non-centeredness of being" (to adapt
a phrase from a film title). For that matter, even the joyous Nietzschean
affirmation of which Derrida writes would not necessarily come without
consequence or philosophical predicaments of its own. You cannot even offer a
critique of, say, "structure" or "the sign" without making use of these concepts,
which in fact open up the intellectual space within which the deconstructionist
must work. Note that the essay ends on anything but an affirmative noteit
seems almost fearful of what may follow the "region of historicity" (the sixties,
scandalously reductive though my use of such a standard historical term may
be) within which the piece is written.
*The reading selection is from Davis, Robert Con and Ronald Schleifer.
Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. Fourth edition.
New York: Longman, 1998. 100-14.
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