What are some of Jacques Derrida's points in "Structure, Sign, and Play"? What are good questions for a class discussion?

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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.


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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? 

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In "Structure, Sign, and Play," Jacques Derrida discusses the tendency of scholars (such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger) to denounce each other. He is particularly concerned with metaphysics. Ultimately, Derrida borrows a term from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss - bricoleurs - to describe how all thinkers, and all people in general, are creative tinkerers who must use the language and tools available to them, no matter how flawed or inevitably problematic. Our analyses will always be troubled, as language itself is troubled, and we do not have access to perfect media. The solution, then, is not only to use language, but to accept, exploit, and explore the ruptures of said language.

There are many examples which one could use to illustrate Derrida's point. For example, one could imagine a painter who, despite his best intentions, has only a supply of cheap, dirty paint. If he does not use these materials, he will create absolutely nothing; if he does use them, however, he can not only create a work of art, but learn how to use his imperfect tools in the best and most innovative way possible. If another painter were to critique him for his use of dirty paint, he would not only be missing the point (that is, the impetus to search, and to create), but also a fine opportunity to study the ways in which the painter's specific tools function, and what their imperfections may reveal.

We could also take the example of a dancer who is extremely upset with her teacher for what she perceives to be sloppy technique. However, if she were to disavow her teacher entirely, she would be unable to dance; she would have to forget everything she has learned, or rely solely on moves she has learned from others. She could theoretically develop her own form of dance, but this would be incredibly time-consuming, and she would almost certainly wind up borrowing from another imperfect teacher. Thus, in Derrida's view, the dancer should not abandon her teacher, but use the tools she has been given. Her dance may be sloppy, but it will still exist, and she will be able to work with, and study, the holes in her technique.

Last, we can use an example from Derrida's own scholarship. In later work, Derrida posits the notion of différance, or the way in which language is marked by a simultaneous difference and deferral of meaning. Words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, and so they only take on meaning via deferral to additional words; also, words take on meaning through their difference in relation to broader webs of language. Hence, language is a necessarily imperfect and chaotic medium, and it cannot be escaped. There is no perfect language, only différance.

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