Commentary on the incipit to Derrida’s essay, originally a talk given in October 1966,


La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines

(Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence, Editions du Seuil 1967, page 409)

« Il y a plus affaire à interpréter les interprétations qu’à interpréter les choses » Michel de Montaigne

« Peut-être s’est-il produit dans l’histoire du concept de structure quelque chose qu’on pourrait appeler un «événement» si ce mot n’importait avec lui une charge de sens que l’exigence structurale — ou structuraliste — a justement pour fonction de réduire ou de suspecter. Disons néanmoins un «événement» et prenons ce mot avec précautions entre des guillemets. Quel serait donc cet événement? Il aurait la forme extérieure d’une rupture et d’un redoublement ».

Title: « Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences » [with the title we begin in the semiotic element « discourse » and the modality of uncertainty rather than in things and the modality of certainty that structuralist scientism adopts, the tension between epistemic (« sciences ») and semiotic (« discourse »), the sign is the suture, the bridge and the gap between structure and play]

Epigraph: « There is more need to interpret interpretations than to interpret things » – Montaigne

[Against the hegemony of the referential use of language, the need for hermeneutics, even of the discourse of the sciences. A hermeneutics of things is posited too. A unified approach to words and things in terms of interpretation is possible, an indirect allusion to Foucault’s LES MOTS ET LES CHOSES (literally « Words and Things », published in April 1966). Derrida is perhaps also responding to Foucault’s famous talk « Nietzsche, Freud, Marx », published in 1967, but given at Royaumont in 1964. Foucault asserts:

« si l’interprétation ne peut jamais s’achever, c’est tout simplement qu’il n’y a rien à interpréter. Il n’y a rien d’absolument premier à interpréter, car au fond, tout est déjà interprétation, chaque signe est en lui – même non pas la chose qui s’offre à l’interprétation, mais interprétation d’autres signes »

(« if interpretation can never be finished, it’s simply that there is nothing to interpret. There is nothing absolutely primary to interpret, because at bottom everything is already interpretation, each sign is in itself not the thing that is offered up to interpretation, but interpretation of other signs »).

Derrida alludes to this whole problematic with great economy, by means of a citation from Montaigne. Foucault also tells us: « The existence always being approached of an absolute point (that Foucault later calls the « centre ») of interpretation would be at the same time that of a point of rupture »].

« Perhaps [good use of modalising adverb, staying in the element of uncertainty and interpretation introduced by the title and by the Montaigne quote. In the same year (1966) Godard said he made his films not to criticise Foucault’s theses but to introduce a little more doubt into his way of expounding them] something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could [conditional, coherence in modalisation] be called an “event,” [one thinks of Heidegger and Ereignis, and of the debate Sartre/Levi-Strauss/Foucault. Sartre’s famous reply also came out in October 1966 in L’Arc] if this word did not entail a load of meaning which it is precisely the function of structural–or structuralist–thought [good use of « or » to introduce a hesitation between the two adjectives, to raise the question of their possible identity or not, and to question the self-evidence and universality of structural thought, which may be only that of a movement localised in space and time] to reduce or to suspect [« reduce » – phenomenology, « suspect » – the masters of suspicion, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche (he alludes again to Foucault’s talk (1964) and to Ricoeur’s book DE L’INTERPRETATION, published in 1965), structuralism is both progressive and regressive for Derrida. In the French text, the word is not « loaded », but it’s meaning is loaded with presuppositions that it is according to Derrida the mission of structural analysis to unpack, and not to just dismiss]. But let me use the word “event” anyway, employing it with caution in quotation marks. But what would this event be? [conditional, often used in French with the sense of reported but unconfirmed: « But what is this event supposed to be? »,  It would [conditional again, these last two conditionals are missing in the English translation, thus mitigating the modal coherence of the text. They are replaced by a single « will »] have the exterior form of a rupture [allusion to Foucault’s text] and a redoubling [this is the opposite of a rupture. It means intensification, but also repeating a year at school, and also in linguistics it means reduplication, a repetition of a syllable producing a tense, modal, or aspectual effect].

Conclusion: this incipit is very well written, giving us a sense of the philosophical context and of the problematic that Derrida is trying to transform and to make a contribution to.

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  1. Nice, especially in connection to Kotsko’s comments. Your comment shows that one can read such texts only when paying attention to the many silent references that they contain. And also your attention to modality is a good eye-opener.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    Yes, unfortunately the English translation blurs over some of the modalisation. I think that in the 60s the Parisian philosophers were all very much aware of each other, and conducting indirect conversations, even if they didn’t want to overtly mention rival ideas and thinkers.


  3. I posted this:

    « It’s just a theoretical elaboration on structuralist concepts of that period. You’re supposed to know, or use your imagination to infer, the context. To be honest, one could problematise anything at all, Quine, Davidson, whoever. If you don’t like it, but an MFI self-assembly bookcase & read the instruction manual, it might be more to your taste. »

    on the Adam Kotsko article.

    Just got up, so a bit grumpy. Fed up of malicious stupidity, masquerading as criticism.


  4. terenceblake dit :

    I thought the post could pass as humorous letting off steam, but the Searle references made me want to respond, and to show some of what Derrida accomplishes in so few words. For these philosophers writing or « écriture » was no mere aesthetic affectation, but an integral part of their philosophising. One advantage of alluding to without specifying various contexts is that Derrida produced a text that still resonates today, and incites us to look at for example Badiou with less dogmatic eyes.


  5. Yes, Terence, your piece is very good, but have only scanned it quickly, so far. Derrida was writing & thinking at the edge of multiple discourses, as you say, By writing in the interstitial space created by readings of those discourses, he can utilise their resources without being governed by them, in short, he can continue questioning.

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  6. I posted this, on « Adam Kotsko provides helpful feedback to Derrida »:

    «  »Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless. » Derrida

    A reading that emphasises hypothesised authorial ‘positions’, & the sedimentation of earlier ‘detractions’: restricted to an oscillating ambiguity between such ‘hypothetics’ & sedi-mentation: this circulation, under the sign of ‘Satire’: in what way is this circulation not the nervous laughter of a a domesticating contextualisation that Derrida’s name solicits?: the reductive & contrived aporetics ‘thrown up’ around Derrida’s text, not actually an ontological demand for the ‘Same’, preventing any reading that ‘differs’? Of such ‘satires’, one tires…  »

    They haven’t let it through. lol

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  7. terenceblake dit :

    Your comment has now been published, and mine is waiting for moderation:

    « I think Artxell’s point is that the satire is doing as little work here as the the stereotypes that it is satirising. The ambiguity here is otiose and so backward looking, or as Artxell says caught up in sedimented stereotyped detactions. Whether what is being satirised is pretentious grading annotations or portentous oracular formulations, or both, one is oscillating between two domesticated subjective positions. Derrida’s ambiguity is dynamic, making use of modalisation and intertextuality to disrupt subjective certainties and to hinder the formation of a new set of stereotypes. The fecundity of such strong ambiguity is that the extract in question still works today, to destabilise for example Badiou’s doctrine of the event, or to provide reinforcement for Latour’s idea of a hermeneutics of performance. I tried to unpack some of the work being done in the first paragraph of the extract (but you chose not to reference my reply: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/on-the-incipit-to-derridas-structure-sign-and-play/) ».


  8. A good reading, Terence!
    I’m going to run with it, a bit.

    « Derrida’s ambiguity is dynamic, making use of modalisation and intertextuality to disrupt subjective certainties and to hinder the formation of a new set of stereotypes. »

    When you say « subjective certainties », Terence, are you suggesting ‘objective’ certitude is immune to disruption?
    If Derrida’s differance is a questioning of limits, it questions the limitations which constitute the ontological, too. Thus, at one level, along with the problematisation of ‘Being’, the constitution of ‘Subject/Object’ is rendered questionable, too. Furthermore, when navigating the implications of this, the distinction between ‘certitude’ & ‘ambiguity’ becomes suspect. There are different forms of ‘certainty’ that are available, but they are always contingent on founding metaphors, e.g., ‘world’.
    Your use of « otiose » suggests the need for ‘practical action’: I would say, the question as to what is or isn’t ‘practical’ is very much contingent on questions of ‘cultural teleology’, as it were, such ‘cultural teleology’ being an open question. In addition, to the distinction between ‘practice’ & ‘theory’, being variable.


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