Sunday, August 1, 2010

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

Jacques Derrida, The Structuralist Controversy

Traditionally structure, or the “structurality of structure,” has been neutralized by giving it a center, meant to limit the “free play” of the structure.” Today the idea of a structure without a center represents the unthinkable. The center gives freeplay a ground, a sense of certitude and stability. It’s inherently contradictory, then, as it limits freeplay.

The history of metaphysics has been the history of presence and endless substitution of a center. (The center as the telos, ousia, aletheia, conscousness, man, God, etc).

Yet we have recently encountered the event of a rupture, where the structurality of a structure has begun to be thought. We began to think that the central presence was always being transported outside of itself in its surrogates. Soon we started thinking of a structure without a center, and from there, linguistics invaded, so everything became a form of discourse.

Historically, we see concrete examples of this in Nietzsche’s critiques of being and truth, Heidegger’s critiques of onto-theology, and Freudian critiques of self-presence. And yet all of these critiques are embedded in Western metaphysics and Western vocabulary. (Which Nietzsche seemed pretty aware of, so not sure what the problem is). The prime example of this is the language of the sign. As soon as we attempt to say there is no privileged signified, we need to extend this refusal to the concept of the sign. But this cannot be done; the sign is the limit which makes the whole meaningful. all of the concepts used to critique metaphysical systems drag the entirety of metaphysics with them through the back door.

Ethnology could only come about in this moment when everything is being de-centered. It too falls into the same trap of employing essentially ethnocentric categories to study its subjects, while at the moment of denouncing them.

Levi-Strauss makes all of these points clear through his discussion of the incest prohibition in relation to the nature-culture divide. In one sense, the incest prohibition seems obviously cultural, as the product of a social institution. Simultaneously, though, it is found universally, which suggests that it is natural. As something thought within the nature-culture divide, it is a scandal, undermining the categories. Thought, however, as something that escapes these divides, confounds them, and possibly even makes them possible, we see that it is almost designed to be left in the realm of the unthinkable.

There are two options at this point. First, to systematically question the origins of these concepts, presumably like Foucault. Derrida labels this approach sterile. Second, to treat these concepts as tools, which, while limited, can still be of use, at the same timr that we expose their limitations. This is the path of Levi-Strauss.

We see this effort to use what we have available in L-S’s concept of bricolage, the “practice of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined.” Every discourse, by these standards, is bricoleur.

Bricolage, for L-S is not only an intellectual activity, but also a mythopoetical one. He attempts not just to advance a structural knowledge of myth, but to make myth in his discourse reflect on itself and criticize itself. There is explicitly no unity or absolute source of the myth.

Totalization is conceived here as useless and impossible. One sense of understanding that is to see that as finite subjects surveying an infinite field. The other, though, is from the perspective of freeplay, “a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble.”

Here Derrida introduces the supplement. Because there is no center in real freeplay, the sign which supplements it, takes its place, always adds something. But this supplement to the lack of the signified is always “floating.”

In the end, we’re left with two stances toward freeplay. First, that of Rousseau, which seeks to end freeplay by turning toward an origin, and “lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation.” The other is a nietzschean affirmation, which does not turn toward any origin, and tries to move beyond humanism.

Hyppolite: What does the center of a structure mean? Particularly, what if you think of a mathematical equation as a structure? Would the rules be the center?
Derrida: “I would answer you by saying that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.” The concept of structure is no longer adequate to describe the terms of the game. A structure can be thought classically, as something with a fixed creator, or as a loss which makes possible “free play.”

Lucien Goldmann: Accuses Derrida of being destructive.

Derrida: Deconstruction simply means to be alert to the “historical sedimentation” of the language we use.

Doubrovsky: how do you reconcile your dismissal of the center with the necessity of saying I, speaking as a subject?

Derrida: I have no interest in destroying the subject; I think it’s indispensable for philosophical and scientific discourse. I merely try to situate it.

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