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.
Matt Cole says
Been listening/reading round the edges of your site and picked up today on your issue with ‘Structure, Sign & Play’.
I did my own ‘close reading’ of this text (check out Simon Critchley’s idea of a ‘clotural reading’, if you haven’t, which is quite useful here) a couple of years ago:
I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but in terms of your comments above, I think Derrida’s aim in that paper was an opening up of structure – he doesn’t want to reject structuralism outright, but show how it can inform an understanding of differ*a*nce.
Deleuze’s essay, ‘How Do We Recognise Structuralism?’ (see the third paragraph down: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/deleuze/#DifRep) may be useful as a companion piece, particularly for what it says about ‘the empty square’, which might inform an understanding of Derrida’s approach to play and the centre:
‘In one sense, places are only filled or occupied by real beings to the extent that the structure is “actualized.” But in another sense, we can say that places are already filled or occupied by symbolic elements, at the level of the structure itself. And the differential relations of these elements are the ones that determine the order of places in general. Thus there is a primary symbolic filling-in, before any filling-in or occupation by real beings. Except that we again find the paradox of the empty square. For this is the only place that cannot and must not be filled, were it even by a symbolic element. It must retain the perfection of its emptiness in order to be displaced in relation to itself, and in order to circulate throughout the elements and the variety of relations.’
Daniel Horne says
For what it’s worth, YouTube has a sympathetic and coherent lecture on Derrida’s thesis from Prof. Lawrence Cahoone:
It’s worth listening to both halves, I think.
To the extent I find any common ground with Derrida, it’s in the similarities I find with Philosophical Investigations-era Wittgenstein. Seth mentioned this on the show, I think, and others have also written about it. See, e.g.:
I’m keen to hear your close reading of Derrida; please keep plugging away. Perhaps you can record it in short fragments, and share with us the compilation of recordings, just like Kurtz on the river!
David Buchanan says
As I read it, the “event” he’s talking about is a shift away from the metaphysics of “presence”, also a Heideggerian term. Derrida says, “the whole history of the concept of structure, before the rupture I spoke of, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center,” and he says, “the history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. …It would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence-eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia [truth], transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth.” Those names, I think, would be examples of what he means by a fixed center. It’s the central organizing principle that provides a bottom, a foundation to the whole structure so it’s the part that can’t be played with freely.
The idea, I think, is that there have been a variety of centers but they all count as a form of the metaphysics of presence. As Wiki’s terminology page, this is often marked by “an attitude like that of a scientist or theorist, of merely looking at or observing something. In seeing an entity as present-at-hand, the beholder is concerned only with the bare facts of a thing or a concept, as they are present and in order to theorize about it. This way of seeing is disinterested in the concern it may hold for Dasein, its history or usefulness. This attitude is often described as existing in neutral space without any particular mood or subjectivity.” So I’m thinking that this “event”, this shift away from centered structures, is also a shift away from the pretenses of observational neutrality and toward the examination of our own desires for fixed centers. The world of laws and essences and substances becomes a world of meaning and interpretation.
To understand what Derrida means by an “event” listen to an introductory lecture on Derrida that Prof. John Caputo gave to his class at Syracuse: http://trippfuller.com/Caputo/Derrida%201%20-%20Intro.mp3. At the 1:07:24 mark, Caputo explains that an event for Derrida is the production of a text (in the broad sense of that word, referring to anything that is constructed) that is novel or new. In Derrida’s earlier writings, the event tends to take the form of literary events.
Based on Caputo’s reading, I think the event Derrida speaks of in “Structure, Sign, and Play” is what “Structure, Sign, and Play” uncovers about structuralism. It brings to our attention something new about structuralism that we didn’t see before and is therefore, for Derrida, a literary event.
I agree with Daniel. Keep plugging away at Derrida. I think he has important things to say and I’d like to see a future episode on Derrida. One book that would seem to fit the PEL format well would be “Deconstruction in a Nutshell” which is an extended interview with Derrida. It’s much more accessible than much of his other writing.
via the good-folks @newapps:
Brent Voelker says
Perhaps “centers” for Derrida are what Foucault called “dubious unities”: those categories, concepts, or epistemic objects that crystallize at nodes within our assemblages of power/knowledge relations. Some unities are so powerfully reinforced within our material-semiotic networks of power/knowledge that they appear to be natural or fixed, organizing centers. Perhaps Quality could be thought of as the effect of power; Quality is the feeling – produced to large extent beneath the level of our conscious awareness by the prevailing complex of power/knowledge – of how well a particular concept or artifact fits into the pattern of the assemblage. Derrida and Foucault argue that, despite their natural appearance, all epistemic objects have a history; these taken-for-granted, apparently fixed points are actually the products of the assemblage rather than the origin. An “event” is an act of creativity that produces difference sufficient to rupture the assemblage and force a reconfiguration such that new epistemic objects emerge at new nodes.
An example of a dubious unity might be a childhood behavioral disorder like ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome. Relative to human evolution, these expanding categories have very brief histories, barely more than half a century and well within the bounds of a synchronic analysis. Although we often take them to be fixed, natural categories that emerge from the biology of the brain, they depend on dense networks of social and material conditions.
The error of structuralism is to suppose that social structures derive from essential, perhaps biologically determined, structures – or centers – of thought. There is some good empirical evidence from neuroscience and developmental biology to support this criticism. While it may be that cultures take the forms they do because they are collections of cultural bodies, there are no essential structures of human thought. Rather, human thought is only conditioned – and not determined – by existing relations of power/knowledge in the assemblage. Assemblages are tight but still flexible, stable but at the same time open to resistance – or free play – and to potential reconfiguration in the face of new events. Like the crucial interplay in biology between genetic stability and the possibility of the production of difference, the assemblage ensures the mental and cultural stability necessary for consistent replication without precluding the experimentation and adaptation that comes through difference. If there is anything fundamental to life, then, it is not a static structure or a material thing, but the dynamic process of difference and repetition, of stability and flexibility. We need stable and reliable reproduction if we are to continue to exist into the future, but flexibility to adapt as the conditions of our existence change. This is true at every level: for cells, for minds, and for culture.
David Buchanan says
Excellent. And damn! I wish I’d said that.
It seems that Kuhn’s picture of Scientific revolutions depends on the same sort of tension between stability and novelty. As he paints it, novelty is made possible by the stability and can only grow out of the stability. One has to be familiar with the overall structure of the current paradigm in order to detect the anomaly, the loose thread, that will eventually unravel the paradigm. In other words, dynamic change depends on static mastery the way growth depends on health.
would be a good pragmatist/nominalist way to approach these matters and would suit much of Foucault but probably not generative enough for Derrida, might help to remember that deconstruction has resonances with Heideggerian destruktion:
David Buchanan says
Are we playing some kind of fill-in-the-blanks game here, dmf? In any case, I don’t know what you’re saying.
sorry was trying to reply to Brent and this is how the reply got embedded.
Brent Voelker says
Thanks, David. My dissertation is in there somewhere, if only I can expand these three paragraphs to 200 pages. It comes out of my reading of sciences (biology, cognitive science, neurosciences, and psychology) and anthropology (both physical and cultural), as well as philosophy. It is incredible how well 17th to early 20th century philosophy could anticipate, or at least hold up in the face of, late 20th and early 21st century neuroscience. An excellent example of the synthesis of these diverse disciplines is Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species. One puzzle, though, is the extent to which Deacon appears to be marginalized while structuralist accounts like Noam Chomsky’s happy accident of language continue to hold great sway. Despite his generous reading of their work, others rarely respond directly to Deacon: the operation of a paradigm, perhaps.
That is an interesting connection you make to Kuhn. I haven’t read him in some time, and not at all since my introduction to post-structuralism. It may be time for another look. Thanks for the suggestion.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks to you all; I’m still figuring out how to process all this and whether I can legitimately do another post on the next few paragraphs of this without reading these 20 links you’ve just given me.
it’s a quandary, in some sense rendering many of the continental folks user friendly is to work against their very intents, Bennington’s “Derridabase” is an interesting exercise in these matters.
Billie Pritchett says
I plan to re-read that essay. I remember having read it in college and it being one of the more perspicuous pieces from Derrida. That being said, doesn’t Derrida’s position boil down to this? “Anyone trying to give a structuralist account of some aspect of language (or reality or whatever) is really just using Batman logic (I think as you said), but not admitting it.” But then his conclusion, as subsequent writings seem to indicate (among them, the essay Derrida did on the concept ‘pharmakon’ in one of Plato’s dialogues), is that “We should and can all and only use Batman logic (through wordplay, free association, and so forth) because there can’t be some true account.” There seems to be a premise he doesn’t confess to, though, and it seems to be something like this: “Structuralist accounts are all that there are of any given thing, but we’ve already admitted that structuralist accounts are equivalent to Batman logic.” It seems to me, then, Derrida is still well within the structuralist vein in that he is taking the attitudes, concepts, and categories put forth by the structuralists seriously but just reinterpreting their value, that is, by assuming that any structuralist account could be equally legitimate.
Billie Pritchett says
Sorry for posting again, but it just occurred to me that the popular conception of deconstructionism might not be too off the mark. For example, when people, in contemporary parlance, use the verb ‘deconstruct,’ as in ‘Let’s deconstruct the game play,’ or ‘I’ve never heard anyone deconstruct marriage so well,’ they seem to be using it synonymously with ‘interpret in a novel way.’ That usage seems to be consistent with the original concept of deconstructionism.
sadly the pop view is quite stunted but it would take an intimate knowledge of his sources, say Husserl, to see how he reads them carefully/deeply and in some ways overcomes their internal limits to open up new possibilities in their lines of thought.
Unlike say Rorty Derrida was deeply committed to the idea and the practice of Philosophy in the grand old traditions of France which of course is not without its ironies but than that may have been his life’s work…
Billie Pritchett says
Having re-read the essay now, I was amazed at its clarity and it does seem to be a well-argued critique of Levi-Strauss in particular and structuralism in general. I understand now why this essay launched Derrida’s career. Unfortunately, it also led to a lot of other much less intelligible writings from Derrida.
Derrida seems to locate the problem of structuralism as not being able to give a true or real account of any given phenomenon. If the structuralist assumptions are correct, that
(1) language is essentially a system of signs, for which there is a signifier, some hitherto arbitrary mark or utterance or what have you, and the signified, depending on how one interprets it either the thing in the world or minimally that which is perceived, and
(2) using language is a matter of exploiting or using these signifiers within some matrix of interrelated signifiers, for which there exist antonyms, synonyms, and classes of such,
then the use of any given signifier only bears a relationship to the signified relative to the matrix of signifiers, and there is nothing that grounds or makes necessarily true that one matrix of signifiers in relation to that which is signified is real or true as opposed to another possible matrix of signifiers. Therefore, any given matrix is as likely to be true as any other by virtue of its coherence.
There is a bit of a religious tinge to this, too, rivaling the Fall of Man, as if somehow Derrida has discovered or is revealing that human beings have never had a real connection to the world, or at least that each successive connection is just a matter of moving one matrix of signifier-sign relations to another and disputes about the truth of different matrices are just so many attempts to get at a world that one can’t really get at it.
Derrida, however, just takes structuralism to its logical conclusion, and so in that sense is still very traditional in his view of language. He does not consider that the major premises of structuralism are false and that a kind of externalist investigation of language, that is, looking at language as being some kind of word-world relation or signifier-signified relation, is kind of a fruitless effort to understand language.
The new picture of language is in one part ontological and one part methodological. The scientific enterprise here begins with the assumption that there must be some rule-governing system internal to human beings that make possible the articulation of expressions in written, spoken, or signed forms. Language is tentatively defined then as an internal, biological, seemingly computational process that might be using, it is hypothesized, recursive procedures that interact with a conceptual interface internal to the brain and an articulatory interface, at least internal to the body, which relays, for example, attempts at expressions to the hands for written or signed language or to the throat and mouth for spoken language. Basically, though, this is all conceived as internal and so the scientific investigation is an internalist investigation.
Seth Crownover says
Derrida is not wrong! You have just consciously and intentionally misread him!
— is what Derrida would say if he were alive. And yes, he would speak in the third person.
I realize I am a little late to the party, but I am just doing some reading for a paper on the possibility that deconstruction hinges on the strict concepts of temporal structures, and so my thinking is skewed atm toward that end.
But I understand Derrida’s underlying intent, as impossible as it likely is to conceive, is to overturn the metaphysics of presence. He freely admits in one of the interviews in Positions (I want to say with Kristeva) that the very difficult, tending toward impossible, task of overcoming the metaphysics of presence is the very justification for the deconstructionist’s continued effort to do so. That is, deconstruction depends wholly upon the existence of a metaphysics of presence. Similar perhaps to Nietzsche’s claim that he is but the messenger of bad news, and that it will be up to philosophers in the future to get the actual dirty work done of overturning the erroneous metaphysics upon which the foundations (reasoned rationality taking rise in Socratic thought and later solidfied by Plato’s theory of Forms) of Western thinking/civilization has been erected, not long after the inception of Western consciousness prior to the pre-Socratic era.
Anyways, is an “event” not simply (too simply perhaps?) the duration in time that elapses while some meaningfully interpreted experience occurs?
Wayne Schroeder says
Like Wittgenstein who talks about the limits of thought and what connote be said, Derrida says that there is no totality with a center to determine interpretation and meaning (episteme). Neither text nor the world reflects what is determined, but emerges from the playful flux of the contextually of the sign.
Signifiers arise in consciousness through the affirmative energy of becoming, not by the negative force of what binds meaning as found in Structuralism and metaphysics. Play is the disruption of presence, of an element “always signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences.” Reality, or Being is the sheer flux of the “presence or absence of play” (Writing and Difference, p. 292)
Derrida stands firmly against Empiricism in that it is impossible to find truth, Being or reality in the immediate contents of consciousness. He also denies the transcendental ideal of superimposed rationalism (Kant, etc.) although he longs for the “perhaps,” the impossibility of justice, etc.
These are the two poles of Derrida’s deconstruction. “Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated.” (Margins of Philosophy, p. 329)
Time and space are thus deconstructed as well, as described in http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida/:
“Because what I experience now can be immediately recalled, it is repeatable and that repeatability therefore motivates me to anticipate the same thing happening again. Therefore, what is happening right now is also not different from every other now I have ever experienced. At the same time, the present experience is an event and it is not an event because it is repeatable. This “at the same time” is the crux of the matter for Derrida. The conclusion is that we can have no experience that does not essentially and inseparably contain these two agencies of event and repeatability.”
“In traditional philosophy we always speak of a kind of first principle or origin and that origin is always conceived as self-identical (again something like a Garden of Eden principle). Yet, here we see that the origin is immediately divided, as if the “fall” into division, accidents, and empirical events has always already taken place. In Of Spirit, Derrida calls this kind of origin “origin-heterogeneous”: the origin is heterogeneous immediately (Of Spirit, pp. 107-108). Third, if the origin is always heterogeneous, then nothing is ever given as such in certainty. Whatever is given is given as other than itself, as already past or as still to come. What becomes foundational therefore in Derrida is this “as”: origin as the heterogeneous “as.” The “as” means that there is no knowledge as such, there is no truth as such, there is no perception as such. Faith, perjury, and language are already there in the origin.”
“Late in his career, Derrida will call this time being out of joint “anachronism” (see for instance On the Name, p. 94). . . anachronism for Derrida is the flip side of what he calls “spacing” (espacement); space is out of place.”
“Catherine Malabou, philosopher and author, talking about Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive concept of life in Faith and Knowledge and The Beast and The Sovereign. In this lecture Catherine Malabou discusses material life as animal life, the Hegelian notion of contradiction, the relationship between religion and technology, the limits of reason, the structure of promises and the redoubling of origins in relationship to Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Martin Heidegger focusing on the real, death drive, self-negation, dialectics, trace, writing, bios, zoe, technology, faith, the Other, biology, fragility, sacrifice and temporality.”
Wayne Schroeder says
Malabou’s lecture is a nice elaboration of Derrida’s concept of the Promise, his view of the common ground of science and religion, technology and human, death and life, which are inextricably united.
glad you like it, part of a recovery effort by many who were close to him of his own style of “radical” empiricism.