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  • 40 Years of Structure, Sign and Play
  • Ryan Bishop (bio) and John W P Phillips (bio)


During the week of October 18–21, 1966, an international symposium on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” was held under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Initiated by René Girard, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, the symposium celebrated structuralist theory for the first time in the United States as an interdisciplinary program. By inviting well known representatives from several fields of the humanities and social sciences the organizers sought a meeting of philosophy and literature in connection with linguistic, anthropological and mathematical sciences. Jean Hyppolite, representing phenomenology, and George Poulet and Lucien Goldmann, representing approaches to literature, went up against Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Nicholas Ruwet, representing structuralism. Girard also invited Jacques Lacan, in light of his structuralist revision of Freud, and Jacques Derrida, having in mind a recent critical work by Derrida on Lévi-Strauss.

The “Preface” to the symposium proceedings, which were published as The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1970), gives an account of the event:

The sessions were convened under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, during the week of October 18–21, 1966, when over one hundred humanists and social scientists from the United States and eight other countries gathered in Baltimore. The symposium inaugurated a two-year program of seminars and colloquia which sought to explore the impact of contemporary “structuralist” thought on critical methods in humanistic and social studies. The general title emphasized both the pluralism of the existing modes of discourse and the interaction of disciplines not entirely limited to the conventional rubric of the “humanities.”


Jacques Derrida, the youngest of the European participants (still ostensibly under Hyppolite’s supervision), contributed the enigmatically written “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In the following year Derrida published three volumes: L’écriture et la différence [Writing and Difference], De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) and La voix et le phénomène [Speech and Phenomena], which arguably established him at the front of the avant garde in high theory and helped to inaugurate a fundamental shift in Anglo-American academic practice.

A genuine interest in structuralist method was evident amongst specialists both on the continent and in the US at the time; but the rumblings of an increasingly influential mass media also began to join in the conversation. In France Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses [The Order of Things], published early in 1966, helped establish structuralism as a kind of cultural fashion to both widespread celebration and reactive disapproval. The book drew detailed criticism from traditional corners of academia but also became one of those rare commodities, an academic best seller. In the wake of this burgeoning interest, the Baltimore event signaled several kinds of turning point in intellectual history. Elizabeth Roudinesco captures something of its carnival quality in her book on Lacan: “The Americans thrilled to the sharply Gallic flavor of the exchanges, and the French guests were flattered at being so honored. The structuralist feast remained Latinate—a continental dispute staged as a Western, the local press would say” (411). The English coinage, “post-structuralism,” appeared for the first time shortly afterwards and indicates some of the perceptions that were developing in America in response to the work of Lacan, Barthes and Derrida in particular. Arguably the most enigmatic and apparently hybrid presentations of the event have had the most profound and lasting influences historically.

Nevertheless, the collection Writing and Difference, in which “Structure, Sign and Play” appears, is remarkable for its time in posing an intricate and closely argued distance between Derrida’s modes of writing and what was most current in contemporary thinking, including the works of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot, Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas and Georges Bataille, as well as the various re-elaborations by Foucault, Lacan, and Barthes, of the masters of modern critical theory, Nietzsche, Freud and de Saussure. Allying himself instead with what remained most classically “purist” in contemporary thought, Derrida sets out a fundamental radicalization of classical philosophy. The fate of metaphysics...

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