The Discourse of the Human Sciences

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‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ (Derrida, 1978: 278 –293) may be read as the document of an event, although Derrida actually commences the essay with a reservation regarding the word “event”, as it entails a meaning “which it is precisely the function of structural – or structuralist – thought to reduce or suspect” (278). This, I infer, refers to the emphasis within structuralist discourse on the synchronous analysis of systems and relations within them, as opposed to a diachronic schemata occupied with uncovering genetic and teleological content in the transformations of history.

The event which the essay documents is that of a definitive epistemological break with structuralist thought, of the ushering in of post-structuralism as a movement critically engaging with structuralism, but also traditional humanism and empiricism – here it becomes the “structurality of structure” (278) itself which begins to be thought. Immediately however, Derrida notes that he is not presuming to place himself ‘outside’ of the critical circle or totality in order to so criticise. While the function of the centre of the structure is identified as that which reduces the possibility of thinking this structurality of structure, even though “it has always been at work” (278), that is, it has always been an economic and economising factor within Western philosophy limiting the play of the structure – where I understand play to be associated with “uneconomic” deconstructive notions such as supplementarity, the trace, and differánce, Derrida notes that “even today the notion of a structure lacking any center [sic] represents the unthinkable itself” (279).

This appears to present a conundrum. For while the centre closes off play, it apparently cannot be done without, at least, it cannot be simply discarded without it re-emerging somewhere else within the totality. The conundrum is in fact a paradox and a coherent contradiction of classical thought, which echoes the Freudian theory of neurotic symptoms where a symbol at once expresses the desire to fulfil and suppress a given impulse (339). Hence, “the contradiction expresses the force of a desire” (279). The centre is, according to Derrida, both within and without the totality – it is an elsewhere (Derrida’s italics) of the totality. It is also a difficult and paradoxical concept to grasp.

The notion of a full presence informs metaphysical discourses in movements aiming to uncover origins or to decode, prophesy even, the aims of philosophical and metaphysical thought.

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"The Discourse of the Human Sciences." 29 May 2017
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Derrida then makes what I read as an important statement: that “the entire history of the concept of structure…must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center [sic] for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center ” (279) and the centre thus receives many different forms or names. The name here refers to the name as primary concept grounding the subject in the immediate self-presence of the I, rather than as signifier – as part of the constitution of the subject as self-present, and here is reflected the Lacanian observation in ‘The insistence of the letter in the unconscious’ (1988: 79 - 106). Lacan writes that not only here is “no meaning…sustained by anything other than a reference to another meaning” (83), but like the substitutions of centre for centre, “We are forced, then, to accept the notion of an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier” (87). Echoing Derrida’s linked chain of determinations, Lacan here also writes that, “namely, the signifying chain, gives an approximate idea: rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings” (86).

Derrida continues on to propose a decentring, which refers to thinking the structurality of structure, and offers several “names”, not echoing Foucaultian author-functions but as hints or signals – these names being those of Nietzsche, who substituted Being and Truth with play and sign refusing Truth, the name of Freud who placed the Descartian consciousness qua “I think therefore I am” under critique by the construction of the unconscious; and that of Heidegger and the placing under suspicion of “the determination of being as presence” (280)

Conscious of limited space, I will move on to Derrida’s “central” (aware that this word entails a certain paradox) concern in this text, which is a deconstruction of certain passages by the structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The “guiding thread” Derrida chooses is Levi-Strauss’ opposition between nature and culture. (I am in parts paraphrasing elements from page 282 – 287). Derrida writes that Levi-Strauss encounters a scandal, which is the “incest prohibition” (283). The scandal is in that the prohibition is simultaneously universal and thus natural, while also at the same time as “a system of norms and interdicts” (283): it is cultural. The contradiction encountered by Levi-Strauss is that the difference established in the nature/culture binary opposition is erased or at least questioned. Due to this erasure of difference the origin of this prohibition becomes unthinkable as the “whole of philosophical conceptualisation…is designed…” (283/284) to leave the possibility of the conceptualisation unthinkable, that is, the meaning of the construction of meaning, difference having been erased, becomes itself impossible to bring to account.

Levi-Strauss, by way of this realization, is forced to move from metaphysics to metacommentary (cf. Jameson, 1988) because even though he criticises the truth-value of the nature/culture distinction, he affirms a certain logic thereof, fully justifying the use of this logic as a methodological tool. Here Derrida claims a double-intention (284) on Levi-Strauss’ part. Whilst continuing (eg in The Savage Mind) to challenge the worth of the opposition, he nonetheless presents in the same work the notion of bricolage – a type of borrowing of concepts of a ruined text, which borrowing may even be critical language itself.

Derrida’s following comments on Levi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked highlight two points:

1. The “reference myth” of the book is an arbitrary choice. Levi-Strauss himself states that he could have taken any one myth as his starting point. But he has chosen this one because of its irregular position (286).
2. “There is no unity or absolute source of the myth” (286). It all begins with an already given structure – hence we cannot invoke an absolute source or centre. Indeed “structural discourse on myths – mythological discourse – must itself be mythomorphic. Derrida quoting from The Raw and the Cooked: “It follows that this book on myths is itself a kind of myth.”

An important sentence follows shortly thereafter: “The musical model chosen by Levi-Strauss for the composition (my italics) of his book is apparently justified by this absence of any real or fixed center [sic] of the mythical or mythological discourse” (287). Musical composition like mathematical calculation is primarily, in post-modern culture even exclusively so I would argue, concerned with form – the absence of a centre foreshadows the dissolution of the concept, of referential meaning breaching the bar between form and content.

Here Derrida notes that Levi-Strauss cannot answer the question whether all discourses on myth are finally equivalent. The result of this is that even though structuralism critiques empiricism, Levi-Strauss always presents his works as empirical essays open to future invalidation, and this makes the location of a centre impossible

Two more points will have to suffice here:
1. The nature of the linguistic field inevitably excludes totalisation. The field is one of play (289).
2. A surplus effect occurs as a supplement, which refuses determination of the centre (289).

Levi-Strauss articulates this field of play in terms of a certain nostalgia (see pp. 291/292), for it makes a totalising aim useless. It is thus negative where Derrida rather proposes a Nietzschian “joyous affirmation of the play of the world and the innocence of becoming” (292). It is a determination of the non-centre in terms other than those of loss, guilt, or nostalgia.

In summary, Derrida “sees Levi-Strauss as making [the] disconcerting discovery [that there is no centre, no secure philosophical ground] in the discovery of his researches and then retreating [into guilt or nostalgia] from a full recognition of its implications” (Lodge, 1988: 107)

Derrida concludes with the question of the “differánce of this irreducible difference” (293) between the above, noting that it takes the “terrifying form of monstrosity” (293), which would be a good point from which to move to the deconstruction of the monster as both the terrifying but that which also (de)monstrates – as monstrance, explored in the essay ‘Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand’ (Derrida, 1987: 161 –196).

Derrida, J (1978) ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass. London: Routledge, pp 278-294.
________ (1987) ‘Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand’ in Deconstruction and Philosophy, ed. J Sallis. University of Chicago Press, pp 161 – 196.
Jameson, F (1988) ‘Metacommentary’ in The Ideologies of Theory, Vol I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp 3 – 16.
Lacan, J (1988) ‘The insistence of the letter in the unconscious’ in Modern Criticism and Theory, ed. D Lodge. Essex: Longman Group, pp 79 – 106.
Lodge, D (1988) ‘Jacques Derrida’ in Modern Criticism and Theory, ed. D Lodge. Essex: Longman Group, pp 107 - 108.

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