Yesterday I started trying to record a “Close Reading” on the Derrida essay we read for the podcast, and I just couldn’t get more than a few sentences into it before losing patience, so I thought I’d either as a substitution for that effort or possibly a warm-up do a few posts dissecting the essay here. I want this to be group effort, so you folks should comment here to help out my interpretations.
Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural-or structuralist-thought to reduce or to suspect. But let me use the term “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling.
It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme -that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy-and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure-or rather the structurality of structure-although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or 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 freeplay of the structure. No doubt that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.
So we don’t know what the “event” is yet, and though Derick mentioned that this was some reference to Heidegger. From the Wiki page for Heideggerian terminology:
Ereignis is translated often as “an event,” but is better understood in terms of something “coming into view.” It comes from the German prefix, er-, comparable to ‘re-‘ in English and Auge, eye. It is a noun coming from a reflexive verb. Note that the German prefix er- also can connote an end or a fatality. A recent translation of the word by Kenneth Maly and Parvis Emad renders the word as “enowning”; that in connection with things that arise and appear, that they are arising ‘into their own’. Hubert Dreyfus defined the term as “things coming into themselves by belonging together.”
From the context, though, it looks like “the event” is some advance in the concept of structure to his (Derrida’s) view from the one it had before, which involves a fixed center and then variables related to that center: the elements in “free play.” What he’ll be advocating is some more to total free play, i.e. no center, which in effect means it’s not a structure at all. The point of structure in Saussure was to distinguish synchronic analysis (analysis at a time, i.e. of a structure) from diachronic/historical analysis, which was not his concern. If you throw away the center of the structure, you’re essentially going back to historical concerns, and understanding current patterns in terms of their history, which was exactly what Saussure was against (but which we see successfully used in Foucault, for instance).
Nevertheless, the center also closes off the freeplay it opens up and makes possible. Qua 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 (I use 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 governs the structure, while escaping 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. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure-although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science-is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire. The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay. With this certitude anxiety can be mastered, 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 from the very beginning at stake in the game. From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arché as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions. the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens]-that is, a history, period-whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence. This is why one could perhaps say that the movement of any archeology, like that of any eschatology, is an accomplice of this reduction of the structuralality of structure and always attempts to conceive of structure from the basis of a full presence which is out of play.
What makes this so difficult is that it’s entirely abstract. He’s saying that that there’s something wrong with the idea of a structure with a fixed center, because then why even consider the center a part of the structure? Without an example or two, I can’t evaluate that claim, and I doubt that even if it works for some particular example it would be legitimate for anything we might call a structure.
So, here’s an attempt: the game of chess has a particular structure, in that there are variables (the positions of the pieces at a point in time), yet plenty of consistency: the board itself, the pieces, the rules for how the pieces can move and otherwise how the game is conducted. So, you could argue that the rules are not part of the structure, I guess; they’re part of the causal network governing the players. Are the pieces and the board part of the “structure?” I think we need to be clearer regarding exactly what a structure is and why we’re talking about it in order to answer that question. Maybe this isn’t even a legitimate example of a structure. To me, it’s an activity that involves certain rules and relations of defined elements, and the concept of structure is not actually all that helpful in clarifying things beyond that.
What about the structure of myth? The way we discussed it was that like Freud and Jung, Levi-Strauss posited some kind of mass enactment of unconscious impulses. So myths have certain common elements with free play as to how they’re realized, i.e. different elements in the stories. The key structural element across cultures seems to be this dialectical relation between themes: myths depict the struggle between opposing themes as the culture seeks to work out its ambivalence about certain ideas. The ideas themselves (in the case of Oedipus according to Levi-Strauss, the value of blood relations and our birth from two people as opposed to the earth) would be part of the structure, but (I guess) are supposed to vary between cultures, so this is a cultural unconscious, not a Jungian world unconscious.
So what’s the correct structural account here? The dialectical structure is fixed, the themes vary, that story elements vary further (assuming that multiple myths in a culture are grappling with the same themes), and the details of the different versions of the same story vary further than that. Derrida would argue, then, that the fixed origin really can’t be part of the structure, or rather that if we look at this fixed origin, we see that it’s fundamentally historical, and so not really fixed. I don’t understand this critique from Derrida. Saussure would admit to the historicality of some of the fixed elements. He’s not against diachronic analyses; he just doesn’t care about them. Derrida is going to have to argue that we just can’t know anything really important about the structure without taking into account this history and so violating Saussure’s rule, but if you buy Levi-Strauss’s notion of the collective unconscious (which I don’t, but that’s beside the point here), then Derrida is just wrong.