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Jan 30, 2014

Structure, Sign, and Play: Derrida

Structure, Sign, and Play
The essay “Structure, Sign and Play” begins with an attempt to find perhaps “something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an event” and asks the question “what would this event be then?” and, “Where the structure does occur?” (2) And answer is that the structure occurs in “the centre... (which) permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form.” (1) It is a process of giving structure a center or a fixed origin. In doing so, Derrida rejects the old notion which says that the center is “within the structure and outside it”. He draws a relation between philosophical concepts like “center”, “subject”, and “event”. In addition, he offers a dichotomy of ways to think: “classical” v/s “poststructuralist.” Beside he thinks the center is not center as its totality lies elsewhere called “the origin.”

For Derrida, structure is a “rupture” or “series of substitution... a linked chain of determinations.” (1) If we look at the structure of Anand’s “Untouchable” we find the structure rooted not in poverty but in caste system which is result of hierarchal society based on old notion of history. Thus, structure is a thought or law to govern the human societies. “When everything became a system where the center is signified, the original or transcendental, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences.” (2)

Derrida studies various concepts such as “an event,”  “center,” “bricolage,” (the necessity of borrowing concepts from other texts which leads to myth) and “totalization” to show the relationship between writers such as Nietzsche (concept of being and truth substituted with play, interpretation and sign), Freud (critique of self possession) and Heidegger (destruction of metaphysics). Bricolage is not only as an intellectual activity but also as a mythopoetical activity,” (6) which can be applied to almost word for word to criticism, and especially to literary criticism.

Derrida (in defining sign) says, the relation between metaphysics and destruction of metaphysics describes a unique circle. The metaphysics is attacked with the help of sign which is the result of “opposition between the sensible and the intelligible.” (3) He introduces the two ways to erase the difference: first, submitting the sign to thought; second, going against the first. Derrida writes, “If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word signifier itself which ought to be abandoned as a metaphysical concept.” (3)

Freeplay (organising the structure) is “centered structure” (1) and “notion of a  structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.” (1)

Derrida attacks all western for the hierarchy in speech/ writing, nature/ culture etc.  He undermines the concept of hierarchy created by Strauss that is between nature and culture and says that nature is superior to culture; speech is natural and writing is culture so speech is superior to writing. Structuralists believe that speech is primary and superior to writing but Derrida opposes by saying that the vagueness of speech is clarified by the writing. The writing has the pictorial quality of the speech, both are equally important, there is no hierarchy. Derrida breaks this hierarchy bringing the example of incest prohibition. Strauss says that “incest prohibition” (5) is natural and the outcome of culture; hence it becomes a norm, therefore, it belongs to culture.

This is the state to which he calls “scandal.” Both nature and culture go side by side, so we can't claim nature as superior to culture, both are interrelated and something can occupy the nature and culture at the same time. We can say that without female the concept of male can't exist. Here he thinks, “The whole of philosophical conceptualisation ... is designed to leave in the domain of unthinkable.” (5) Structuralists believe that from much binary opposition, single meaning comes but Derrida says each pair of binary oppositions produces separate meanings. So, in a text, there are multi meanings. Similarly, Levi-Strauss has made the hierarchy between artist and critic. He claims artist is originator but critic comes later. Likewise artist uses first hand raw materials as engineer does but critics use second hand raw materials. In contrary to him Derrida argues that neither artists nor critic works on first hand materials, rather both of them use the materials that were already existed and used. In this sense, there is no hierarchy between them. The binary opposition between literary and non-literary language is an illusion.

In short, Derrida means to say that meaning is just like peeling the onion and never getting a kernel. The prime objective of deconstruction is not to destroy the meaning of text but is to show how the text deconstructs itself. In future, Derrida’s ideas heavily influenced theories like psychoanalysis, new historicism, cultural studies, post colonialism, feminism and so on.

Here Derrida defines not only the structure a “rather structurality of structure.”(1) The opening makes it clear that the quarrel is between “western science and western philosophy—and ... the soil of ordinary language.” (1) Most of the concept are taken from the syntax of Levi-Strauss, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Rousseau and Husserl and “every particular borrowing drags along with ... the whole of metaphysics.” (3) The question of reltationship between the language and the relation between the human science is a always “a problem of economy and strategy” (4) which oppose nature to law, to education, to art and technics—and also to liberty, to the arbitrary, to history, to society, to the mind and so on.” (4)


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