Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
Alan Bass, tr. Writing and Difference (1966), pp. 278-95
Derrida begins his essay by noting that structures have always informed Western thinking but have not been paid sufficient attention due to the very nature of the structure themselves: because they are essential to the very process of thought, they have been viewed as natural and inevitable and therefore more or less unquestionable. Derrida takes up as his subject matter the largely unexamined structurality of these structures, and he begins by noting that “By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form… Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which is opens up and makes possible. As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible” (196).
This notion of the center is essential for Derrida’s analysis of the structure of language (which Derrida argues is the structure of all existence). However, because “the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality,” Derrida asserts that, within classical thought, “the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it… the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center” (196). Derrida pushes this destabilized notion of the center to the point of a “rupture” in the history of thought on structurality where “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (197). This rupture, this deconstruction of the center thus created a world where “the absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (197). In this move, Derrida has not just taken a new step in a known field but has invented a new way to walk on a piece of land that is both undiscovered and omnipresent.
Therefore, even the most radical thinkers in the past – Derrida cites Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger – have offered only limited critiques of operations within the traditionally centered structure. Derrida asserts that “there are two heterogeneous ways of erasing the difference between the signifier and the signified: one, the classic way [of the aforementioned thinkers], consists in reducing or deriving the signifier, that is to say, ultimately in submitting the sign to thought; the other, the one we are using here against the first one, consists in putting into question the system in which the preceding reduction functioned” (198). This second way is ultimately characteristic of all of Derrida’s work in this excerpt: without fail, he seeks to move to a new and entirely different mode of thinking instead of simply moving to new thoughts within the same old system.
Derrida goes on to consider a number of areas in which this destabilization, this internal decentering takes place. He first demonstrates how “the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he denounces them” as a general illustration of his principle that the application of his critique to the sciences “is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself” (199). In short, he seeks “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he criticizes” (201), which is exactly what Derrida has done with language and discourse (and in so doing has done to every other field, scientific, linguistic, philosophical or otherwise, because, after all, everything is discourse). Or, rather, what Derrida has shown language and discourse to be doing to themselves: “No longer is any truth value attributed to [these old concepts of empirical discovery]; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. This is how the language of the social sciences criticizes itself” (201).
The remainder of the essay consists of Derrida explaining three key terms that flow from his deconstruction of the structure of discourse: bricolage, play, and supplementary.
Bricolage is a technique that “uses ‘the means at hand’, that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which that are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appear necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogeneous – and so forth” (202). That is, because any sort of concrete link between signifier and signified has been shown to be impossible, one is therefore free to use whatever tools in whatever ways and in whatever combination one wishes to discuss the matter at hand.
Bricolage is permitted by that which Derrida terms “play,” and which he explains in the following quote: “If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field – that is, language and a finite language – excludes totalization. The field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite… instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions” (206). Play is Derrida’s way of simultaneously recognizing the infinite range of deconstruction is possible not because there is an infinite range of information but because the inherent quality of all information is to be lacking and for there to be no suitable material (information) with which to fill that lack. This leads to the notion of the supplementary: “The overabundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be supplemented” (207). Because positive, concrete definition is impossible for any term, every term necessarily requires a supplement or supplements, something or some things which help(s) it exist and be understood. Yet, at the same time, the object(s) which the supplement is (are) supplementing is (are) (a) supplements itself. Extend this web in all directions and the relationship between bricolage, play, and the supplementary begins to make sense.
And there you have it: discourse, destabilization, language critiquing itself, bricolage, play, the supplementary. Of course, the discussion here barely begins to scratch the surface of the implications made by Derrida, for within not even a full fourteen pages of text, has established the foundation of one of the most significant revolutions in the history of thought. Of course, saying that Derrida demonstrated how the history of thought contradicted itself and in so doing imploded the foundation of Western philosophy would certainly fit better with a deconstructionist view of the world. Yet, there is scant little chance of denying that Derrida himself holds some special place in this development: if not as its father then at least as its catalyst.