I reread this classic essay, and it holds up as well now as when I was in graduate school. If you read only one Derrida essay to understand deconstruction (a term today misapplied indiscriminately to almost any kind of analysis or interpretation) this would be the essay to read.
Derrida begins by discussing how thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger radically critiqued the very disciplines they worked in. The problem with all three, however, was that they critiqued the discipline by using the structure (the way the discipline organizes its thinking) of the discipline they were critiquing. Nietzsche, for example, might have undone philosophy as we understood it to that point, but he did it within the structure of philosophical thought.
That would be like a radio announcer announcing the death of radio but only ever using the radio as his medium or a person announcing the death of smoke signals a a medium of communication using only smoke signals. What we need, Derrida, is a rupture.
Derrida finds that rupture in the work of ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He owes a great debt to Levi-Strauss's self conscious understanding and articulation of the limits of his own discipline. What happened was that Levi-Strauss (and almost everyone else in his field), in studying cultures from around the world, used a binary model of pitting "nature" against "culture." If a practice cut across all cultures, Levi-Strauss (and other anthropologists and ethnologists) called it "natural." If a practice was specific to one or only a few cultures, it was called "cultural." What Levi-Strauss noticed was that incest taboos were both universal (all cultures have them) and yet specific (the rules vary from culture to culture.) They were thus both "natural" and "cultural." Yet how could that be? That would be like saying a person was both a man and a woman. The binary rules of the game said that a practice (or person) was either one OR the other.
Levi-Strauss solved this problem by arguing that the structures we use to understand our disciplines are not perfect, transcendent, Platonic forms, but kluges: tools that serve a purpose. We use binary thinking as a tool to help us understand ethnography, but the tool itself is a flawed improvisation. We use, so to speak, whatever we can find on our junk truck to hold the building up. Levi-Strauss and Derrida called the tool at hand a bricolage.
From there, Derrida makes his leap: there is no transcendent signifier, no perfect structure that stands outside of the mess of language and reality. We want a perfect form, a perfect structure, a perfect system, perfect stasis, perfect presence but we can't have it. Instead we have freeplay, large areas of indeterminacy in sign systems where meanings are fluid and changing.
Derrida notes that Levi-Strauss gives up the idea that we can pinpoint or determine a moment when the first word develops in the human consciousness. We jump, says Levi-Strauss, from no language to language fully formed. There is no determinate point of origin. We also create grammars of language based on small samples: we can never encompass an entire language in its totality in any one grammar because meanings are always changing and we know, too, that in the future, language will add words, and we can't know now what those words will be. This inability to totalize a system is called indeterminacy. So Levi-Strauss shows again that our structures are imperfect, punctuated by freeplay. Likewise, Levi-Strauss says we can't capture the mythology of a culture completely and the mythology we construct as we gather mythologies itself creates a new mythology. We also can't locate an original, first myth: myths are ever changing. This structural fluidity is true, says Derrida, not just for ethnography, but for all disciplines. Our sign systems (be they spoken languages or the dialect of a particular discipline or mythologies) are open-ended and indeterminate and the structures we use to understand them are imperfect as well. Locating the contradictions or inconsistencies in a structure (such as where binaries dissolve, as in the case of the incest taboo) is the work of deconstruction.
According to Derrida, we can keep trying to impose rigid structures on our disciplines to attempt to create what he deems an "impossible" presence or we can accept and enjoy what "freeplay" (or play) has to offer us.
Questions: What is a binary opposition? Give an example from Levi-Strauss.
What does Derrida say about the transcendent signifier?
Anywhere in life, what are some examples of bricolage?
How might Derrida's emphasis on indeterminacy make us uncomfortable?