Commentary on the incipit to Derrida’s essay, originally a talk given in October 1966,
STRUCTURE, SIGN AND PLAY IN THE DISCOURSE OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES
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” [begins 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, 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 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. Here Foucault says: ” 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].
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.
NB: I was moved to do this little analysis of one of the texts of Derrida’s that I like the most on reading Adam Kotsko’s humoristic annotation of Derrida’s text as if he were commenting on a student’s essay.