Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural — or structuralist — thought to reduce or to suspect.
– Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” 1966
Derrida begins by contrasting structure with event, stability with “rupture.” Historically, structures have been constructed around a center, a fixed point of origin. The center serves as the basis for coherence and balance within the structure. Having a fixed center makes it possible to “play” with the elements of the structure, but this play is also limited by needing to remain compatible with the center. The center, while giving shape to both the form and the freedom of the structure that surrounds it, isn’t really part of the structure.
Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing 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 center is not the center.
Derrida goes on to say that, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire. What is the nature of that desire? It’s the possibility of safe play, of playing within a framework of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude. The fixed center is what attachment theorists in developmental psychology refer to as a “secure base,” giving the child a sense of certainty that enables her to master the anxiety inherent in exploring strange situations. What’s important is that there be a reliable presence at the center of the exploratorium.
The rupture, says Derrida, came with the realization that the center was not the center, that the actual center was the desire for security rather than the specific presence on which this desire happened to land. The presence, whether it existed or not, wasn’t part of the structure — it was free of the structure. The center was not a fixed locus but a function. This stabilizing function, rather than being part of the structure, permeates the structure as a system of signs that together constitute the principle of structuration. This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse.
…and now it’s time to pack my Derrida book into the box because the movers are on their way. I’d wanted to post on this essay for a week but couldn’t quite get around to it, so now it’ll have to be a half-post. (Several hours later…) The movers have come and gone, taking the boxes away with them. And now I see that Derrida’s essay can be found on-line. And so I can finish after all…
Paradoxically, the event of decentering cannot occur without assuming the architecture in which center and structure make sense. When Nietzsche replaces being with play, truth with interpretation, he does so from inside a metaphysics of being and truty. Freud can’t replace consciousness with the unconscious except by consciously accepting the distinction. The opposition is part of the system.
“Human nature” is premised on the idea of universality, that across cultures human beings share certain common features. But what happens when language, education, law, technology, art, are universal? Nature is decentered, displaced by culture. But the conceptual distinction between nature and culture remains useful as a method in studying human societies, even if the truth of this distinction can no longer be sustained. Nature as a concept thus becomes a convenient myth sustained by science. Nature is a myth produced by culture.
This too is a decentering procedure in the human sciences, with truth being displaced by method. Levi-Strauss refers to this particular decentering as bricolage — borrowing techniques on an as-needed basis without regard for their original context or application. He contrasts the bricoleur with the engineer, who presumably follows a systematic and integrated praxis. But all praxes have been assembled from various sources. The engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur.
Is it possible then to make myth the original condition and the center of all cultural endeavor? No, because there is no way of identifying the original myth, or the original source of myths. Myth is always already part of a structure of discourse that contrasts myth with fact. And the fact of the original myth can never be found, because the whole contrast between fact and myth is also part of this same structure. Neither can ever become the center because each always already presumes the other.
It’s not possible to build an all-inclusive structural discourse on anything because the whole endeavor of structuration is always being undermined and inverted. On the other hand, it’s also impossible to construct a complete empirical description of a phenomenon, because it’s always possible that new data will turn up that overturn the prior findings. Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible. The contemporary failure of all totalizing discourses can be lamented as a consequence of the finitude of human perspective. But it’s arguable that totalization is simply inappropriate, that the fields of inquiry simply do not lend themselves to comprehensive and all-inclusive understanding. Language, thought, society, culture — all human activity is characterized by free play: the ability to go outside the collection of all prior empirical instances and every rule of the game. Free play is possible not because of the potentially infinite extension of structures built around a center, but because of the finite and contained flexibility inherent in absence, in lack, in structures without a center. When the elements of the structure are disconnected from the center, then all the interconnections are supplemental to the structure. And human invention insures the continual surplus of supplementarity, the continual ability to restructure the elements in an uncountable number of variants.
One can lament the loss of the center, or one can celebrate it:
As a turning toward the presence, lost or impossible, of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauist facet of the thinking of freeplay of which the Nietzschean affirmation — the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation — would be the other side. This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as loss of the center. And it plays the game without security…
There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of freeplay. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology-in other words, through the history of all of his history-has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game…
There are more than enough indications today to suggest we might perceive that these two interpretations of interpretation — which are absolutely irreconcilable even if we live them simultaneously and reconcile them in an obscure economy — together share the field which we call, in such a problematic fashion, the human sciences. For my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question of choosing — in the first place because here we are in a region (let’s say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference. Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today the conception, the formation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, 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.
This is already a long summary, and I’m too fatigued right now to think about implications for my own projects.