The Metaphysics of Structuralism


Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences (1966)

Jacques Derrida’s (1921-2004) full frontal attack on the movement that had just ended the reign of Existentialism, was not only on the Structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he also had to dismantle the founder of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure himself. In order to do so, Derrida examined what would be the the weak points on any argument–its assumptions–and found problems. Structuralism is based upon language which makes it possible for humans to speak and the most significant contribution of Structuralism is the realization the first, language is structured, and second, that this language is arbitrary and is comprehensible only through the network of relationships, and third, that people do not speak language, language speaks the person. Human thought itself is likewise structured by language and this structure is based upon binaries or opposite pairs. To put it simply, in terms of words, we understand “day” because it is arranged in the network opposite “night.” But, that said, what a Structuralist analysis is interested in is not content but the structure itself. This distinction between content and structure is the difference between a formalist reading of a text, which focuses on the intention of the artist in terms of content, and Structuralism which proposes a structured communication.

In his four volume Mythologies, Lévi-Strauss was unconcerned with the “meaning” of myths and more interested in the universality of how myths are put together. Regardless of origin a myth revolves around pairs who are set in opposing relationships to each other. The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss’s second book in his series linked the distinction between “raw” and “cooked” to the distinction between “nature” and “culture.” This paired/opposite arrangement is significant and will be one of Derrida’s main targets of the Structuralist method. The main first problem is, as he pointed out in “Structure, Sign and Play,” is the idea of the structure itself and that problem is that “structure” is a figural concept or a definitive “shape,” if you will. And, if that is the case, which it is, then any structure has to have a center. As Derrida noted,

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme -that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy-and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistemé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure-or rather the structurality of structure-although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.

The idea of the center proposed many problems for Derrida. First that the structure denies its own “structurality” in other words the structure is not conscious of itself and “neutralizes” the very fact that maintains its existence, namely the center. The center, Derrida maintained has a “presence” and an “origin,” both highly problematic for the philosopher. First, the “center” is not located “within” any particular “structure” but is part of the “totality” itself or the entire system of thought, what Derrida called “the condition of the épistemé.” This center contains, in the literal and figurative sense, “free play,” and this governing of free play or uncertainty, creates a feeling of certainty. In other words, the structure of the binary oppositions limits any play in-between or outside of or beyond that set of pairs. Derrida explained,

The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay. With this certitude anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were from the very beginning at stake in the game. From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arché as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions. the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens]-that is, a history, period-whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence.

Derrida was pointing out a nearly unsolvable problem in Structuralism, the fact of the Structure itself. An integral part of the Structure, the center is a structural matrix that is “kept out of play,” that is, the center is unacknowledged on one hand but on the other hand, the analysis itself is dependent upon the balance and coherence and organization that is deployed around a controlled point, the center. Therefore, the center is the origin or the fixed subject, the absolute archia, meaning that without the center there would be on foundation (archia) and this archia is what Derrida called, the “essential operation of metaphysics.” The purpose of the centered structure is to limit the possibility of the kind of play that might interfere with the neat placement of opposing elements in interpretation. The center, therefore, is protection against what Derrida called “freeplay,” and in fact rules out play. But, and here Derrida made one of signature moves, he asserts that “play” precedes the operations of structuralism. The point that Derrida made is that the structure is so rigid and bounded and so pointedly centered, that this will toward boundary must have a purpose. And if that purpose is to control play (and it is) then, play has to have existed otherwise there would have been no need to asset and impose a structure.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida’s room of his published books in his home in Ris Orange, France, 2001

It should be stated at this point that “structure” does not necessarily mean a little box that contains play which is bouncing round inside, but any structuring device, from thesis, anti-thesis, thesis, beginning, middle, end, or Freudian modeling, such as id, ego, superego or consciousness and unconsciousness. As Jean-François Lyotard pointed out in Discourse, figure (1971), the “figure” lies at the heart of discourse. The fact that Lyotard wrote this book five years after Derrida’s paper indicates the impact of the essay. Lyotard, echoing Derrida, pointed to the fundamental contradiction between two disparate elements. Derrida would call this internal discrepancy a “scandal,” and he located this scandal at the heart of the writings of Lévi-Strauss, specifically on the thorny issue of incest.” According to Derrida,

In the Elementary Structures, he begins from this axiom or definition: that belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm. That belongs to culture, on the other hand, which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. These two definitions are of the traditional type. But, in the very first pages of theElementary Structures, Levi-Strauss, who has begun to give these concepts an acceptable standing, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted and which seems to require at one and the same time the predicates of nature and those of culture. This scandal is the incest-prohibition. The incest-prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural.

Clearly, Derrida uncovered a hidden or unacknowledged problem within Lévi-Strauss’s writing on incest, that is Lévi-Strauss “confused” universal with natural and disregarded the “prohibition” part which is, of necessity, an aspect of the cultural. This critique exposed the reason for the existence of a center, which, once again, should not be thought of as one of think of the bull’s eye on a target, but as the agent of “structuality” itself or the organizing principle around which the structure organizes itself. Nature and culture are opposites and that (binary arrangement) structure is made possible by the center which controls any intervening third or uncontrollable term. Witheringly, Derrida chided Lévi-Strauss for not thinking through his own philosophical system, “Once the limit of nature/culture opposition makes itself felt, one might want to question systematically and rigorously the history of these concepts. This is a first action.” To be fair to Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist was attempting to finding a way to organize his materials, but Derrida’s criticism was quite devastating, for he uncovered a process that worked, until it failed to examine itself or do what he advised: “to step outside of philosophy.”

Then Derrida took up the subject of the myth makers themselves, those whom Lévi-Strauss called bricoleurs or those who constructed culture from what the anthropologist called <“the means at hand.” Lévi-Strauss, who was pretty handy with mechanics, borrowed the idea of bricoulage from the language of people like his father who worked with their hands, making, repairing, fixing, inventing, all he while using the tools and the elements at their disposal. In thinking of myth, Lévi-Strauss was making point that myths are preexisting and that storytellers retell preexisting stories, sometimes rearranging the elements already ready. Now Derrida himself will later find this idea of preexisting materials important but for this essay, “Structure, Sign and Play,” he noted that the bricoleur was opposed, by Lévi-Strauss to another sort of creator, the engineer. It is at this point that Derrida will attack a second troubling aspect of Structuralism, the idea of an “origin.” He wrote,

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. The engieer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse and would supposedly construct it “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself. The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that thee engineer is a myth produced by the From the moment that we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse breaking with the received historical discourse, as soon as it is admitted that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage, and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning decomposes.

Derrida had pointed to a far more obvious problem, the metaphysics that lurked at the heart of Structuralism. As noted previously, Structuralism moved away from the unique and subjective human mind that creates independently. But as Derrida found, the Structuralist philosophers had assumed a “metaphysics of presence”–that the human being can spontaneously express her/himself–and that language is a transparent medium for an inner truth. The continuing criticism of Lévi-Strauss as a thinker is far more severe than any criticism of his work as an anthropologist could be. First, Lévi-Strauss had already been called out by specialists in anthropology for errors in data and second, if, as he affirmed, his sole concern was a way to structure his data and not the content itself, then, when Derrida picked holes in the method, the entire notion of “structure” collapsed. As Derrida explained his own impact, “For lack of expressly posing this problem, we condemn ourselves to transforming the claimed transgression of philosophy into an unperceived fault in the interior of the philosophical field.”

Derrida noted that the concept of the structure, as the “interior of the philosophical field,” was “totalizing.” Either Structuralism was empirical or it was not. If it was empirical and aspired to totalization, then the transplanting the techniques of linguistics to the field of anthropology is a reflection of the desire to totalize the materials of anthropology. If the structure provided a means of controlling (through an unacknowledged center) the vast data of anthropological materials, then it is totalizing. However, Derrida located the whiff of metaphysics at the heart of the method which was supposed to be empirical. This presence of metaphysics at the heart of empirical science was another “scandal.” The “center” had always always been a factor in human philosophy: in the spiritual age, it was God, who “organized” the world, in the scientific worlds, the center was rational thought, and with Structuralism, it was revealed, in some sense, that the center was constructed or was a deliberate, not transcendent, construct. This revelation of the constructed nature of human thought was, as Derrida put it, a “rupture” or an “event” in the field of philosophy.

The “rupture” was an acknowledgement that totalization, i.e., the structure, was driven by desire to control all elements. Desire is “irrational” or unconscious and cannot be accounted for and like God stands outside the Structure. Desire drives not just the structurally of the structure but also the way in which it contains its interior elements. Derrida noted that Structuralist anthropology began as a comparison of cultures with the West as the “center” or the point of “origin” being the standard by which all other societies are measured and evaluated. The West may be a convenient starting point for Western anthropologists and it may be a useful center, but by establishing European cultures as the center, there is a suggestion of superiority and Eurocentricism sneaks in, contaminating the work. The possible contamination of the research is not at issue here: the problem is that this center or what Derrida called “the central presence” cannot be accounted for or escapes evaluation and cannot be compared to anything else.

In contrast to classical philosophy, which privileged the “presence” and the “intention” of the speaker which indicates a conscious subject creating the signified, Structuralism stressed the signifier which rendered the “speaker” unconscious or acted upon by language. Derrida acknowledged that it is impossible to do without structures or without centers and, what is important to acknowledge is that the role of the structure is to manage the freeplay or the excess. However, the excess, the supplementaries of the Structure need to be taken into account. Given that here are elements that escape control, it is important to consider the possibly of “freeplay” or excesses to proscribe interpretation. As Derrida pointed out, Lévi-Strauss was quite aware of the internal problems within his system. He “named” this problem as excess or supplementary–elements that could not be contained within the structure. But for Lévi-Strauss these “supplementals” a term he also used, were interesting but not important to his entire project. Derrida, however, pounced upon these elements that could not be contained by the system–“freeplay”–and argued for allowing all aspects of the discourse to be mobilized.

The “rupture” of which Derrida spoke was the realization that “the center is not the center,” in other words the center is conceived of as inside the Structure but in order to function, it must not be “seen” or acknowledged and therefore must exist outside the structure/system. The Structure contains the play and play is integral to the structure itself. Given the importance of play all meaning becomes discourse. The transmutation of fixed and centered (transcendental) meaning into discourse or constructed meaning. The signs which operate within the discourse point to other signs which, in turn, indicate other signs, and so on until meaning is unfixed and unbounded and de-centered. What has been recognized by the play among signs is “history” itself, as Derrida explained,

Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternativeof presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around.

The assertion of the importance of the Other to the Center–Play which should be free was also the expression of an outsider to the entire edifice of Western philosophy. The role of Outside temperamentally suited the young Derrida, still being supervised by Jean Hippolyte, in his relative youth and in his status as one of the “colonized” from Algeria. The method Derrida deployed against Lévi-Strauss was that of what was then called “close reading,” which would be named later as Deconstruction. Derrida, in order to remain Outside, became a writer who read the works of others, analyzed the texts and found buried or unrealized inconsistencies within the writing and, as if under his spell, these discourse gave up their buried surpluses, their hidden excesses, and were allowed their moment of freeplay. Derrida had no wish to de-construct in terms of destruction. He was quite able to come to terms with the “irreducible differences,” he found in the works of Lévi-Strauss. Derrida argued “..we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference..” a statement that predicted the direction his own take on philosophy which would be based on what he would call “différance,” “difference” misspelled with a “silent” “a.” In the end he gave the listeners at the Symposium a prelude of things to come,

I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing-but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

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