Jacques Derrida

Structure, Sign, and Play

Derrida's essay begins with the word "perhaps," which signifies that in deconstruction, everything is provisional; you cannot make positive/definitive statements in this area of Criticism. Nevertheless, we'll proceed as if you can. This is another key to deconstruction - even as you come to understand that nothing is stable, that meaning is always contingent and ambiguous: you continue to act as if nothing's wrong. Derrida then introduces the idea that some "event" has occurred. This "event" is some sort of "rupture" or break. What he is talking about is what he sees as a major shift or break in the fundamental structure of western philosophy (the episteme). This break is a moment where the whole way philosophy thought about itself shifted. That shift, or rupture, was when it became possible to think about "the structurality of structure." In other words, this is the moment when structuralism pointed out that language was indeed a structure, when it became possible to think (abstractly) about the idea of structure itself, and how every system - whether language, or philosophy itself - had a structure.

An analogy might be (to paraphrase Plato) to think about being in a room. At first, you think about how to decorate that room: what to put up on the walls, what trinkets, where the bed and desk and dresser go, and so on. Then one day you might think about the room, not as your room, but as one room in a whole building, as part of a structure; then you might think about the "roomness" of your room, the qualities that (apart from your specific decorations) make it a room, and then about how it relates to other rooms in the structure (my room is my room because it's not the room next door). Anyway, the moment when you start thinking about the roomness of your room is the moment or "event" Derrida is talking about - the moment when philosophers began to see their philosophical systems, not as absolute truth, but as systems, as constructs, as structures. Unlike Saussure, who just looked at structure as linear, Derrida insists that all structures have some sort of centre. He's talking mostly about philosophical systems or structures, but the idea applies to almost any structure. There is something that all the elements in the structure refer to, connect to, something that makes the structure hold its shape, keeps all the parts together. (You should note, though, that this model does not work so well for language - or not for Saussure's idea of language - where it is difficult to locate or name what "centre" might hold the whole structure together).

The Centre

The centre, while it holds the whole structure together, limits the movement of the elements in the structure - this movement is what Derrida calls "play." Think again of a building. A central shaft may hold all the wings and floors of a building together, limiting how much the structure as a whole, and any single element, can move - say, in a tornado or hurricane. In a building, this lack of "play" is good. In a philosophical or signifying system, Derrida says, it's not so good. You might also think about a kindergarten classroom. The teacher is the centre. When he or she is there, all the kids behave - they act the way the centre dictates. When the teacher leaves the room, the kids go crazy - they "play" wildly. Derrida says the centre is the crucial part of any structure. It's the point where you can't substitute anything. In the rest of the structure (think of tinker toys) you could substitute blue rods for red, or one size of connector for another. At the centre, only the unit that is the centre can be there; none of the other units of the system can take the place of the centre.

A less concrete example of a system with a centre would be a philosophical or belief system - say, the Puritan mindset. In the Puritan system of belief, God was the centre of everything - anything that happened in the world (i.e. any event, or "unit", of the system) could be referred back to God as the central cause of that event. And nothing in the system was the equivalent of God - nothing could replace God at the centre as the cause of all things. Refer this back to Saussure's idea that value comes from difference; that idea is based on the exchangeability between units (verbs are not nouns, but both are words, and could be exchanged for each other). The centre of a system is something that has no equivalent value, nothing can replace it or be exchanged for it, it is the cause and ultimate referent for everything in the system.

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