English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Remarks about Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play
in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Nietzsche's deconstructive analysis of the relation between words and the world leads smoothly to Derrida's comments about the problem with the structuralist enterprise of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Structuralism, after all, has at least partly borrowed its concepts from Saussurean linguistics. At base, Derrida's criticism is that the very concept of "structure" is a metaphor; it is not a given reality that might be said to ground the whole project of structuralism, guaranteeing order and intelligibility to its objects of study. (I am using the word "metaphor" in the Nietzschean sense that it is a word used to impose order and intelligibility on a world we cannot access directly.) If the system is based upon structure as a ground or "center," how can one evade the philosophical baggage that kind of term carries with it? To say that something is the "center" of the system and that this center is itself beyond analysis or "play" is more or less to repeat the gesture made by theologians and philosophers who made their center concepts like "the Forms," "God," "Reason," and so forth.

The way to begin dealing with Derrida's critique is to examine his statements about Levi-Strauss' use of the traditional binary opposition between "nature" and "culture." This aspect of Levi-Strauss' work shows both his astuteness as an anthropologist and the philosophical problems he ends up re-invoking in his attempt to avoid certain road-blocks that his own subject throws up before him. Levi-Strauss himself is by no means simplistic or naïve: he is well aware of the problem with the oppositional relation nature/culture. As he points out in a passage that Derrida cites at length, the practice of incest creates a scandal for the anthropologist in that it is both universal (which means incest should belong to the realm of "nature") and particular (which means that it ought to be considered an affair of "culture"). There are many different cultural ways of prohibiting incest, and yet the prohibition in general appears to be something universal and thus natural. So as Levi-Strauss knows, the two terms "nature" and "culture" are not mutually exclusive and stable; they are instead somehow implicated the one in the other. It is going to be difficult, then, to take such an opposition and use it as the solid foundation for one's anthropological project.

What is an anthropologist to do? Levi-Strauss' answer is practical: he fashions an intellectual activity or discourse he calls "bricolage," with the one practicing it to be called a "bricoleur." The word is an interesting one-the French verb "bricoler" means "to do odd jobs," i.e. to serve as a handyman of sorts and make things out of the materials one has lying about. This kind of activity Levi-Strauss opposes to the more systematic operations of an engineer who draws up his plans with a sense of the whole and only afterwards goes to work on the specific tasks of construction. In essence, the bricoleur will use an opposition such as "nature/culture" as a tool while not accepting it as philosophical truth.

The most important example of bricolage that Derrida examines is Levi-Strauss' analysis of the Bororo Myth. It has less to do with the above binary set of terms as with the notion of structure itself: Levi-Strauss, Derrida points out, is willing to take as his starting point a certain myth, but he admits that there is no particular reason for treating this myth as a key to understanding how myth works. Levi-Strauss, reflecting upon his own methodology, openly acknowledges the need to abandon (in Derrida's words) "all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin…. (1121). Levi-Strauss' way of explaining his methodology here is to say that his book on myth "is itself a kind of myth" (1122). In other words, like myth, it does not try to go back to the absolute source of the thing in question-there is no central myth, and no truly "centering" way of dealing with myth, which is after all prolific in its endless variations and anonymity of authorship. The main problem that Derrida associates with this move on Levi-Strauss' part is that in his failure to pose questions of epistemology (literally "the theory of knowledge")-questions that would deal with the first principles or ground of anthropological discourse about myth-the anthropologist risks becoming a mere empiricist in the specific sense of one who doesn't think through the reasons for which an activity is being undertaken and the methods by which it is to be undertaken. The validity of one's methods doesn't come into sharp enough focus, in other words, and one just goes about the practical tasks and experiments called for by the field of anthropology or some other discipline.

But perhaps more important is Derrida's commentary about Levi-Strauss's employment of variants on the term "supplementarity" because it gets to the basis of Derrida's broader critique of structuralism. Levi-Strauss, as Derrida cites him, seems not to be in despair over the inability to exhaust his subject matter, myth, to "totalize" it: "In his endeavor to understand the world, man therefore always has at his disposal a surplus of signification. . . . This distribution of a supplementary allowance . . . is absolutely necessary in order that on the whole the available signifier and the signified it aims at may remain in the relationship of complementarity which is the very condition of the use of symbolic thought" (1124). Yet this "supplementarity" is a curious and contradictory movement, as Derrida points out on page 1123: it appears both to refer back to something lacking and to add something new. Levi-Strauss' thought, in attempting to follow this "overabundance" of signification, comes to depend heavily on concepts like "play," "discontinuity," and "chance." In a sense, says, Derrida, Levi-Strauss is rightly rejecting the traditional alignment between what Derrida (following Martin Heidegger) calls "the determination of Being as presence" and history, which latter endeavor is oriented toward "the appropriation of truth in presence and self-presence, toward knowledge in consciousness-of-self" (1124). The above phrases would take much time to explain adequately, but let's just remind ourselves from our previous readings in structuralism that it tends to put aside or bracket out notions of development through time, favoring rather the "synchronic" element of structure. If you study the structure of something without concern for how it came to be structured as it is, you can't account for changes in the structure. Derrida's ultimate point about Levi-Strauss' endeavors as a structuralist is that he remains caught up in a kind of nostalgia for an absent center or origin or presence: "he must always conceive of the origin of a new structure on the model of catastrophe" (1125). So even in his advocacy of a structurality that may be analyzed by means of terms like "supplement" and "play," Levi-Strauss is compelled by the hidden complexities and contradictions within such terms to conceive of his project in nostalgic terms-a longing for an anterior and pure society motivates his researches into ancient cultures and their myths.

This nostalgia Derrida calls "the structuralist thematic of broken immediacy" and "the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play" (1125). So much for structuralism as a radical break with traditional philosophy. To this he opposes "the Nietzschean affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation." This part of the essay is quite complex in that it seems Derrida is aligning himself, choosing, the second way of thinking about "play." But is he? Remember that one of the names he associates with the "rupture" in the thinking about structure is Nietzsche, the author of that remarkable deconstructive essay we read in a previous class. In writing about this supposed rupture, Derrida places the word "event" (i.e. the rupture) in quotation marks and refuses to describe it as a clean break with traditional philosophy. If there is one thread running all through the essay, it is that attempts to jettison traditional concepts like that of the sign, the center, and so forth have always involved the attempter in traditional philosophical quandaries. Affirming a concept like "play," that is, over against rigid older ways of conceiving a thing, does not necessarily result in perpetual affirmation of the "incredible non-centeredness of being" (to adapt a phrase from a film title). For that matter, even the joyous Nietzschean affirmation of which Derrida writes would not necessarily come without consequence or philosophical predicaments of its own. You cannot even offer a critique of, say, "structure" or "the sign" without making use of these concepts, which in fact open up the intellectual space within which the deconstructionist must work. Note that the essay ends on anything but an affirmative note-it seems almost fearful of what may follow the "region of historicity" (the sixties, scandalously reductive though my use of such a standard historical term may be) within which the piece is written.