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  • The Magic CenterMatrix and Conception in Derrida's La structure, le signe et le jeu
  • John W P Phillips (bio)

Le centre n’est pas le centre

(Jacques Derrida)1

“Structure, Sign and Play” plays a transitional role in Jacques Derrida’s career, not only introducing him to the notoriety of an ambivalent Anglo-American reception, but also mobilizing the role of transition in the philosophical oeuvre, alerting an academic community to powerful resources for epistemological, ethical and political engagement inherent but not always acknowledged as such in Western thought. In “Structure” the situation is staged by its posing a series of paradoxical formulations involving the dissolution of false alternatives—structure and event, signifier and signified, culture and nature, science and myth, etc.— culminating in the opposition of two interpretations of interpretation, two kinds of play, and looking forward to the coming birth of a monstrous form. This movement of “de-construction” follows a cyclic and interminable pattern, a syntax that each time generates concepts (elemental or atomic units of signification) on the basis of either the positive determination of being as presence, or of its negative in the determination of an absence that generates infinite substitutions. Derrida’s text inhabits these discourses of destruction as their often obscure trace, enough to allow to emerge an alternative syntax, that of the trace itself. The trace, the division into a “before” and “after” that divides the element a priori, forms the basis—a theoretical quasi-matrix that has continued to flourish for more than forty years—for the production of supposedly incalculable events. In this article I propose a sober analysis of the matrix and its trace.

1966: Deconstruction and Deconstruction

Eh Sade, encore an effort! Car il y a déconstruction et déconstruction.

(Derrida: 2000, 74)2

The structure of the sign (signifier/signified), in repetition of the structure of the logos (word/idea), condenses in a single unit a complex network of metaphysical problems. Structuralist investigations into the sign, which intend to expose the syntactical rules that govern its generation, promise to explicate a medium for profound critique of philosophical, literary and scientific domains. Pivotal moments of the onto-theological tradition can be reconsidered as versions (each time differing immensely in other ways) of the distinction between sensible image and invisible sense: all symbolize the search for truth in the self-presence of signified sense.3 Against this, attacks on metaphysics throughout its history, by sophists, skeptics and empiricists, and more recently the deconstructive movements of Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and others, are concerned to show that the ideal univocity of the signified is a myth, and that all signified meaning must emerge originally from the opaque and enigmatic domain of the signifier.

Two problems emerge: first, the sign in its bivalent structure does not in fact allow anybody to bring about the downfall of metaphysics, because at best it can only repeat the previous structure; so second, the work of rereading traditional texts is required to mobilize old resources in this new light. Metaphysics, if it does indeed operate within and around the same structure as that of the sign, might already be more sophisticated in its investigations than either structuralist science or poststructuralist play has yet been able to comprehend.

Derrida’s work of the time can be read today as the culmination of the development of a subtle yet serious form of disagreement in relation to contemporary thought. As things stand the relation to truth has become a relation to interpretation, in which the problem of knowledge emerges as a problem of the limits of language, which itself can be comprehended in one of two possible ways: under the sign of the signified and animated by a truth function, a platitude that makes possible events of correspondence; or under the sign of the signifier, in which there is no truth but the relation to other signifiers and the endless possibility of their substitution and mutation. At its most radical “there is no truth” means a complete redefinition of truth so that, for truth as correspondence, or adequatio, we now substitute truth as unconcealing, or alētheia, a kind of concealment in which an originating uncovering...

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