So, Is This What You Call “Play” Or Are You Just Messing With Me?:
An analysis of the central concepts in Jacques Derrida’s “Sign, Structure and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”
In “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” Jacques Derrida is responding to the epistéme of his time through deconstructive language. Michel Foucault defines episteme as “the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems of knowledge.” The formalized system of knowledge that Derrida is dealing with is that of thought and discourse, which he approaches through analyzing language.
The main idea that drives Derrida’s deconstruction of language is that the history of thought is the history of language. Derrida functions off the assumption that without language there is no system of thought that we could realistically conceive of, and since all of our knowledge and functions of thought and reasoning are based off of the structure of language, that is what we must examine if we plan to understand discourse in the human sciences. Language is, in effect, a gateway to understanding ourselves as humans.
Derrida claims that the history of a structure of thought is circular, and is necessarily born from the structure it is critiquing, responding to, or engaging in some sort of dialogue with, while still remaining firmly within the structure of thought itself while remaining outside it. This creates a sort of dualism in discourse where the discourse of a certain structure can be outside of the structure of thought at the same time that it is part of that structure; i.e. the two states of being for a discourse are not mutually exclusive. For example, if we want to talk about or critique language, we still must use language in order to transmit meaning and understand. So, while we are taking a step away from language as a structure in order to discuss it, we are still borrowing from that same structure in order to maintain discourse. The example Derrida gives of this is that of phenomenology as opposed to logic. He writes, “the preface to phenomenology is written from out of the end of logic….written prefaces are phenomena external to the concept.”
What allows us to change a structure, add to it, amend it, etc. is what Derrida calls “play.” He explains that the supposed “center” of a structure is what permits play within the limits of the total form. Derrida writes, “the absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.” The idea of a “transcendental signified” is that for any one signifier there is only a single signified. So, when I say “goat,” everyone thinks of the four-legged mammal that climbs mountains and eats just about anything in front of it, and no one thinks of the cranky old man who lived next door to the house where they grew up and seemingly had nothing better to do with his life than sit on the front porch and yell at the kids who were playing outside.
What’s interesting about this concept of structure is that it suggests that the solidarity of a structure is not dependent on its rigidity and constructedness, but on flexibility, malleability, and adaptability. Play is what allows metaphor, simile, analogy, poetry. Without play, language cannot change, grow, or create new meaning. It is also because of play that logic, ideologies, and structures of thought can change and grow, and what allows different perspectives, just as in the phenomenology vs. logic example.
One example of the way in which play within the structure of language can have a real effect in the way we think is in the distinction between physislnomos and physisltechne, or the difference between nature and culture. Dividing knowledge between one or the other is an arbitrary binary opposition, but play within the structure is what allows this difference to happen in the first place.
As for the actual center of a structure of thought, Derrida writes,
It has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing that structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere.
The difficulty in understanding this “explanation” is in the understanding of the terms “totality” and “center.” Derrida is purposefully playing with the structure of language at the same time that he is explaining it.
So the problem here is how do we define “totality?” Is it the whole of the structure? the whole of understanding? the whole of thought? It’s hard to parse this out, but that is part of the point for Derrida. When viewed at through Derrida’s deconstructive lens, language is slippery. Derrida is trying to discuss the inherent slippage or play in the structure of language due to the way that the center and the totality of the structure functions, and he is essentially providing his readers with an example of this in the explanation itself by playing with the meanings of the words “totality” and “center.” Derrida may be difficult, but the difficulty is exactly the point. There is no “transcendental signified” for anything, so even in our discussion of the indirectness and play in the structure of language, we can create no distinct meaning.
First, let’s talk about the structurality of structure itself. It is, first and foremost, a concept. This concept of what structure is is in itself a structure, and so, like any other structure, it is subject to the “rules” of structurality, and thus, is also subject to play, especially in its totality and center. The structure of thought by which we understands structures are constantly in motion, just like any other structure. Thus, the concept of structure is inherently unstructured and non-fixed. Or, at least, what we think of as “unstructured.” Well, that is, in the sense that we understand what “structure.” Or rather, what we arbitrarily define as a structure in accordance with the way in which we define structure. Of course, that is only in the way that we are able to conceptualize and communicate ideas about the concept of structure through language, which is itself a structure, and subject to these same rules of structurality, and on and on and on. Since the way in which we communicate about structure is through another structure, and at once apart from and a part of the structure that we are talking about (the concept of structure itself), it is difficult to explain in clear and easy-to-understand ways. Which, oddly enough, is exactly Derrida’s point, and the reason why he writes the way he does.
The simplest way to describe this concept would be that the center of a structure is non-fixed. First of all, what we think of as a distinct totality, language for example, is in effect an arbitrary distinction. So, what we believe to be the totality may not be the totality at all, since it is only based upon what we decide it is. Where, after all, can we say language ends? Or thought? Or logic and reasoning?
Secondly, the center of this supposed totality is likewise an arbitrary distinction. The center of a structure of thought is the core concept or distinction that a structure of thought is based upon. Derrida provides the example of ethnology, which is based upon the distinction between nature and culture. This supposed center of this structure of thought is an arbitrary distinction that really only exists because our language makes it so.
I believe Derrida means to suggest through his interpretations of totalities, structures, and his analysis of Leví-Strausses’s ethnological studies is that what we think of as the totality of a structure and what we think of as the center of that structure are inherently linked to the epistéme that exists at the time at which the structure was created. The epistéme arbitrarily “agrees upon” a totality and center of the structure in question.
What allows for these new epistémes to augment old structures of thought or to create new ones, though, is the idea of play. Since there is play and slippage in the center of a structure, the center can be changed, or a new structure can be born from it. However, the new structure that is responding to or augmenting the old structure is still necessarily part of the old structure because it is engaging in a discourse with that structure, and so must be part of that structure in order to get outside of it. Being apart from a structure is dependent on being a part of it. For Derrida, you cannot get outside the structure without being a part of it. This is where the circularity of a structure of thought comes into effect. The structure that is formed in rejection of one structure is necessarily born from it.
Despite Derrida’s criticism about the sign, signifier, signified dynamic by which we interpret the world and base our language, Derrida still believes that there is no doing without these concepts, as we have no language, and no other structures of thought by which we can understand anything. The entire history of human thought is based off of these dynamics, and there is simply no going back. We can, however, understand that the centers of these structures are unfixed, subject to play, allowing us to revise, add, and create new meaning by which we can understand the world around us.
Derrida is remarkably confusing and difficult to pin down in any sort of theoretical way. This is why the second half of the essay is incredibly helpful. Conceptually, his ideas are very hard to grasp. Actually, I’d argue that the fact that these concepts are nigh-ungraspable is exactly the point. However, his concepts are rather easy to put into practice, and actually these concepts serve very well in performing deconstructive criticism.
Basically (always a scary word to use when talking about anything related to Derrida), Derridian deconstruction involves identifying what is being used as the center of the structure in question, and revealing the arbitrary binary opposition that the argument is built off of. Derrida provides a clear demonstration of this himself in his deconstructive analysis of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s ethnography, where Derrida reveals that the structure of ethnography is based off of the distinction between what is nature and what is culture. Since this is a distinction that is in fact merely one that is created by the language we use to talk about these different concepts, the very foundation that Lévi-Strauss is basing his work is called into question.
These concepts may be difficult to explain in words, but it is still important that we do, and through attempting and failing to understand these concepts, we understand (or perhaps internalize is a better word) them. And despite Derrida’s grand efforts to remain completely unintelligible, his methods are relatively easy to put to practical use, and have been more or less internalized in the ways in which we do analysis in the Humanities now. This is why studying Derrida remains important, because we at least need to be aware of where these methods and deconstructive techniques came from and how they function in terms of discourse.