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  • Derrida, Algeria, and “Structure, Sign, and Play”
  • Lee Morrissey

More than thirty years after Jacques Derrida first read his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at the Johns Hopkins Conference on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” it may seem redundant to return to the “originary” moment of its spectacularly successful—and simultaneously remarkably simplified—American reception. However, now that, reportedly, “deconstruction... is dead in literature departments today”—as Jeffrey Nealon writes in Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction—it may be possible to reconsider its “birth,” particularly the commonly accepted notion that Derrida’s work avoids, overlooks, or prevents a relationship with history and/or politics (22). While the historicizing approach of this essay is made possible in part by the increasingly explicit treatment of historical and political questions in Derrida’s recent work, such as Spectres of Marx and Jacques Derrida, it is also made possible by a second “interpretation of interpretation” put forward by “Structure, Sign, and Play,” that which “affirms play” (“Structure, Sign, and Play” 292). If, as “Structure, Sign, and Play” contends, “[b]eing must be conceived as presence or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not the other way around,” I am revisiting this early essay to “play” with the possibility that the recent focus on politics, (presence), neglected though it was (absence), is part of its being (play), having been there from the “beginning.” Specifically, I consider Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1966), in terms of the relationship between Paris and Algeria or Francophone North Africa, what the recent History of Structuralism calls “the continental divide of structuralism” (Dosse 264). By “playing” with Derrida’s essay in terms of the “liberation” of Algeria (c. 1962), what emerges is a Derridean argument much more politically and historically aware than his work is generally thought to be, especially in the earlier essays.

During the initial discussion after his reading of “Structure, Sign, and Play,” Derrida stated, “I don’t destroy the subject; I situate it.... It is a question of knowing where it comes from” (Macksey and Donato 271). As he has discussed more frequently in his recent work, Derrida happens to come from Algeria, where he lived until he was 19 years old. He has recently described his experience of Algeria in part in terms of “Vichy, official anti-semitism, the Allied landing at the end of 1942, the terrible colonial repression of Algerian resistance in 1945 at the time of the first serious outbursts heralding the Algerian war” (Derrida and Attridge 38–9). The war in Algeria, which lasted eight years, “toppled six French prime ministers and the Fourth Republic itself,” with casualties of “an estimated one million Muslim Algerians and the expulsion from their homes of approximately the same number of European settlers” (Horne 14). Derrida returned to and lived in Algeria for two years during the war. Where “Structure, Sign, and Play” tentatively claims that “perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an event,” and answers the obvious question—“what would this event be then?”—with the cryptic claim that “its exterior form would be that of a rupture” (278), this essay, on the one hand, treats the Algerian liberation as that rupture, while on the other, considering the cryptic, tentative tone of “Structure, Sign, and Play” as symptomatic.

The fact that this context has not informed the typical response to “Structure, Sign, and Play” over the past thirty years probably has more to with American unfamiliarity with Francophone North Africa than with the famous opacity of Derrida’s writing. When, for example, the editors of the influential anthology Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America (1983) set out “to stimulate serious, careful assessment of [deconstruction] in relation to recent American criticism and to the critical tradition,” they argue that in order “to achieve this initial location, [they] had to refrain from pursuing other important current concerns, such as feminism, semiotics, and ethnic and regional studies” (Martin ix). It is not clear what remains when one excludes so many fields which address so many issues. This rather comprehensive list of exclusions...

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