Tagged: “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

il n’y a pas de hors-texte

In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Jacques Derrida comments on problem of interpretation. The epigram from Montaigne that introduces this essay is curious, a sort of anti-Thesis 11 (Marx):

We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.

We can stop our reading here and ask, why? Why not interpret things? Doesn’t study of human society involve the interpretation of things, the things of society?

Perhaps Derrida answers this question in Of Grammatology, where he discusses the relation of writing and reading:

…the writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer…” (p. 158)

Now Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature:

The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. (Space, p. 16)

Back to Derrida: What, then, is the “task of reading”? Reading involves a doubling commentary, which is unavoidable but is never really a reading of a text; the reading of the text does not involve reaching beyond language to a referent external to the text:

To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language….Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guard rail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading. (Of Grammatology, 158).

Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absense of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]. (Of Grammatology, 158).

Back to the epigram, “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”: What does this mean for the human sciences? Don’t the human sciences attempt to reach through interpretation to the things themselves? Isn’t language really just a tool used to reach the things of reality? Or is Derrida correct to remind us that language, as a system of signs, has its own materiality, its own force and play, its own energia? Should we not see that the contradiction between our concepts and the reality out there (the dualism that haunts Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Gadamer, and numerous others) does not arise at the level of reality but rather at the level of language itself, in the space of textuality?

Or is Foucault’s criticism of Derrida correct:

Today Derrida is the most decisive representative of the [Classical] system in its final brilliance; the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events that are produced there in order to retain nothing but marks for a reading; the invention of voices behind the texts in order not to have to analyze the modes of implication of the subject in discourse; assigning the spoken and the unspoken in the text to an originary place in order not to have to reinstate the discursive practices in the field of transformations where they are effected. (Harari, p. 41, Histoire de la folie, p. 602).

I read Foucault to be saying the following: whereas Derrida thinks force resides in the text, I (Foucault) think force resides in the field of forces in which the text has its effectivity. If Foucault is correct that Derrida’s emphasis on the text and play within the sign or structure of language leaves behind the play of language in practice, is there a way to reinsert Derrida’s critique into this field of transformations? Or should we agree with Derrida, who might have argued that the field its only possible through language?

Perhaps Josué Harari  can provide some clarity: speaking of deconstruction he writes

Deconstruction implies an operation involving the dismantling of something into discrete component parts and suggests the ever-present possibility of putting the object back together in its original form. This is clearly not the case with, nor the aim of, Derridean deconstruction, which consists more of the tracing of a path among textual strata in order to stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning which have accumulated and settled into the text’s fabric. (‘A text always has several epochs and reading must resign itself to this fact’ [Of Grammatology, p. 42]) Thus, deconstruction is really more of a technique of de-sedimentation…a technique of de-sedimenting the text in order to allow what was always already inscribed in its texture to resurface (Harari, Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, p. 36-37)

This makes sense (I think) when speaking of written texts; what does it mean for the possible de-sedimentation of social action? If we treat social action as a text, as does Ricoeur, does deconstruction, de-sedimentation, makes more sense: social scientists would then “stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning”? Is this analogous to stirring up the forgotten – the repressed – social unconscious, that arises from action itself, action qua text?

All that, and we’ve only just finished with the epigram…

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences,” Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-293

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)