The Nature of Structure: On Jacques Derrida’s ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’

Postmodernism and Critical Theory
August 2018

Jacques Derrida’s ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’ is a critique of structuralism, and the very idea of “structurality” and its rigid facticity, restricting and limiting the freedom to ‘play’. ‘Play’ or ‘freeplay’ refers to the idea that whilst there is a degree of freedom within an organised structure of interior elements, it is always limited, as a structure by definition must have boundaries; an “unorganised structure” is oxymoronic and “inconceivable”. The very notion of a structure and its limitations carries salient implications which Derrida criticises.

For instance, a structure in itself maintains its own logical coherence and integrity, as its entire ontology falls within its interior system of signs. What then can be said of something which may exist exterior to the structure? Who has the power and authority to delimit a structure? And therefore, is structure of a rigid or flexible amoeboid shape? Structuralism is an attempt at unification under a single universal system, and therefore a sign cannot refer to nor can it represent an ‘external reality’: it is meaningful only from within. That which is incomprehensible or ineffable can be said to fall outside the system and its logic, and cannot be accounted for. This is what Derrida addresses, for unity assumes a foundation; a first principle. The consequent implication is that within this structure, despite its shape, there is a fundamental logocentric concept of a ‘center’ in which all elements of the system refer back to; a “fundamental and immobile … origin … [a] transcendental signified”. And although this ‘centre’ exists as the necessary hinge of the structure, it “escapes structurality” and is “beyond the reach of play” due to its transcendental nature. A ‘centre’ is therefore paradoxically both in and out, organising structure yet un-organisable itself. This tension between centrality and play situates individuals between presence and absence.

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Derrida deems this historical fascination with a structural centre to be erroneous. Referring to Lévi-Strauss’ synthesis of structural linguistics and anthropology, social existence is delineated as an organised structure, “where existence is ordered in terms of opposition”, and man is anthropocentrically in the centre, which superseded a theocentric view. Supported by a descriptive account, Derrida highlights the distinct attempts made by Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger to ‘decentralise’ structure via “destructive discourse”, framing a critique of the concept of a ‘centre’. These discourses nevertheless failed to totally escape the very structure they critiqued, for they relied upon “inherited concepts of metaphysics”, themselves regressing and falling back into a structure, and therefore never wholly rejecting the concepts they attacked. One cannot discriminately look at a part of a structure in isolation, for it necessarily drags its whole metaphysical system along with it, insofar that “every concept is inscribed in an [endless] chain or in a [network-like] system that refers to the other”, for elements of a structure have no single point of origin.

This introduces a crucial interrogation of how change is accounted for in a structure. According to the structuralist view, it seems to imply that new elements cannot arrive from the outside of a system. Perhaps they emerge from within a structure, between two points. Alternatively, dispensing of such emergentism, perhaps a structure is non-reductive with a considerable complexity of arrangement. Both explanations avoid appealing to an exterior. Nevertheless, these pumps reiterate Derrida’s poststructural argument, suggesting that structure has merely rearranged throughout “the history of metaphysics”, as a “series of substitutions of [the] centre” where each transitory “event” introduces a new centre. Emphasising ‘substitution’, this raises two salient points: strictly defined, ‘substitution’ implies something that takes another’s place, reiterating the question of how change can occur in a structure without appealing to an external impetus. This also recalls the paradox of the centre, which is at once the centre and not the centre, elusive and estranged from absolute presence.

In light of this, Derrida’s prefatory discussion of a rapturous “event” highlights a unique transition “in the history of the concept of structure”. Derrida implicitly forms a hermeneutical argument similar to that made by Gadamer: that is, the question of transcending and emancipating oneself from the confines of a set structure. A Gadamerian mode of thought is to argue the possibility of transcending one’s limits of understanding and prejudices; of broadening one’s “horizon” beyond the limits of their “tradition” with an optimistic slant. Where Gadamer would argue that there is a fixed limit-qua-limit, Derrida on the contrary advances the idea of disrupting a set metaphysical structure by questioning the system itself and the possibility of transcendance; an apparent meta-ontological manoeuvre. This Derridean poststructural turn avoids relying on a grounding metaphysical foundation, instead advocating for its unavoidable instability. This is realised and achieved through ‘freeplay’ and operationalising Derrida’s notion of ‘différance’, which “disrupts presence” within a system, “unsettling it” and diminishes the concept of an originating centre. As a result, the centre is demonstrated to be not as fixed as it may appear prima facie.

Derrida instrumentalises language as the means of this rapturous undoing, not through the difficult means of stepping “outside philosophy” and its ontological matrix, but by using language as the very means of critique itself. This is where the theorists preceding Derrida fell short, falling into the trap of a vicious circle. Derrida is inspired by Lévi-Strauss in two ways. Firstly, Derrida takes inspiration from Lévi-Strauss’ themes of “decentering” in his discussion of the ‘myth’. Myth is reflexive, and self-debasing whilst being “elusive” and of empty signification ad infinitum, with a centre that is “impossible to determine” Secondly, the ‘bricoleur’ makes use of that which is ready-to-hand from within, discriminately utilising language as a means to play with the interiority of a structure, for language is always manifest in play – it never strictly adheres to, nor is it compatible with a centralising concept. Under a Saussurean model, language is a differentiated system of signs in opposition with each other, which do not refer to an external reality. The sign which constitutes language is “deferred presence”. Before the sign is ever fully elucidated, or its absolute presence crystallises, it defers its final meaning to an endless chain of signifiers. Hence, language in play (by way of employing the deconstructive notion of ‘différance’) is inherently indicative of a tension from within a structure, as it denotes the tension between adequacy and inadequacy of meaning, unsettling the metaphysics of presence and exposing ‘traces’: a rupture in this metaphysics. The sign itself contains an “unconscious” trace of what it does not mean, and therefore the trace is an absence in the meaning of a sign. The crucial caveat of the bricoleur is that whatever may be the “means at hand” are to be “abandoned … should other instruments appear more useful”, privileging that which is most efficacious and readily available. The bricoleur stands in contrast to the “Engineer”, who “constructs the totality of his language”, but Lévi-Strauss and Derrida both dismiss the “engineer” as a mere myth, and perhaps an impossible idealisation, for there is no escaping one’s metaphysical or linguistic tradition.

Of the two possible “interpretations of interpretation” Derrida presents in his conclusion, Derrida eschews the quest to “deciphering … an origin” (cf. centre), rather turning away from the origin and affirms play. Derrida seems to suggest not that structuralisation will end, nor does he produce a teleological argument, but projects the continued transformation of structures that are more and more free, approaching but never reaching the point of absolute and limitless freeplay. For Derrida, this is achieved through endless deconstruction, erasing structure and signs whilst retaining play, therefore changing how one relates to metaphysics. This interpretation dissolves the worries of a centre, heralding in, perhaps tremulously and with great trepidation, a “formless” structure.


References:

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: RKP, 1978), 278.  

Jacques Derrida, “Differance”, in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 11.  

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Jacques Derrida,” accessed August 8, 2018, <https://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH3d&gt;

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 2004), 268-78.

David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000)

Yale, “Lecture 10 – Deconstruction I” (video lecture), 2018, accessed August 5, 2018, <https://oyc.yale.edu/english/engl-300/lecture-10&gt;.

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