Because of this, Derrida says, the centre is a weird part of a system or structure - it's part of the structure, but not part of it, because it is the governing element; as he puts it (84) the centre is the part of the structure which "escapes structurality." In the Puritan example, God creates the world and rules it, and is responsible for it, but isn't part of it. The centre is thus, paradoxically, both within the structure and outside it. The centre is the centre but not part of what Derrida calls "the totality," i.e. the structure. So the centre is not the centre. The concept of the centred structure, according to Derrida, is "contradictorily coherent." The idea of a centre is useful because it limits play (which Derrida associates with "desire." Don't worry about this now. We'll talk about desire when we get to Freud and Lacan). Derrida says all systems want ultimately to be fixed, to have no play at all, to be stable and become "fully present."

A Derrida History of Philosophy

So, before this "rupture" he talks about (which happened pretty much with the advent of structuralism in the 1950s), what happened in the history of philosophy was a continual substitution of one centred system for other centred systems. Briefly, if Derrida were to write a history of western philosophy (which of course he wouldn't, because a history also implies a kind of linear ordered system, and Derrida likes play too much to do that), his history would look like this.

1. Early Christian era to eighteenth century: a single god posited as the centre and cause of all things

2. Eighteenth century/Enlightenment to late nineteenth century: God is kicked out of the centre, and human thought (rationality) posited as the centre and cause of all things.

3. Late nineteenth century-1966: rationality is booted out of the centre, and the unconscious, or irrationality, or desire, posited as the centre and cause of all things.

4. 1966: Derrida writes Structure, Sign, and Play and deconstructs the idea of a centre.

Structuralism made it possible to see philosophical systems as all insisting on a centre, though a different kind of centre; the event or rupture Derrida talks about is the moment when it was possible to see for the first time that the centre was a construct, rather than something that was simply true or there. The assumption that the centre (God, rationality) is the basis or origin for all things in the system makes the centre irreplaceable and special, and gives the centre what Derrida calls "central presence" or "full presence," i.e. something never defined in relation to other things, by negative value. Then he names the idea of a centre as a "transcendental signified" - in semiotic terms, the ultimate source of meaning, which cannot be represented (or substituted) by any adequate signifier. Again, the idea of God is probably the best example of a transcendental signified. (Note: this is also sometimes called a "transcendental signifier.") God cannot be represented by any signifier (in some religions, there is no speakable or writable name for God), yet God is the thing that all signifiers in a system ultimately refer to (because God created the whole system).

Then Derrida starts (p. 85a) to wonder about how we can think and talk about systems and centres, without making a new system with a centre. He mentions here Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger as all trying to do this, and failing to some extent because they all posited their own new systems (with centres). In other words, he says, you can't talk about any system without using the terms of that system: "We have no language - no syntax and no lexicon - which is foreign" to a system; "we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest." (85a)

His example is to think about the concept of "sign" - as soon as you try to say that all signs are equal, that there is no transcendental signified that holds any semiotic system together, that signifying systems have no centres, and that therefore all signs have infinite play, or infinite ranges of meaning, you have to say that the only way you can even talk about signs is by using the word "sign", and assuming it has some fixed meaning. And then you're back in the system you're trying to "deconstruct." On p. 85b he

Previous chapter/page Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter/page
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.