Derrida’s Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, a paper he presented at the John Hopkins University in 1966, launched poststructuralism into literary theory.
In this essay, Derrida attempts to 1) characterise certain features of the history of Western metaphysics; as issuing from the fundamental concepts of “structure” and “centre”,
2) To announce an “event” — in effect, a complex series of historical movements, whereby these central notions were challenged, which Derrida explicates using the work of Levi Strauss. The “event” or the ‘rupture” in the history of thought metaphorically refers to the series of deconstructions pioneered by thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger. 3) To suggest the ways in which current and future modes of thought and language might deploy and adapt Strauss’ insights in articulating their own relations to metaphysics.
According to Derrida, the concept of structure that has dominated Western science and philosophy has always referred to a “centre… or a point of presence, a fixed origin. The function of such a centre has been to organise the structure and to limit the free play of terms and concepts within it.” The centre, says Derrida, is “the point where any substitution or permutation of elements or terms is no longer possible.” Although the structure thereby depends on the centre, the centre itself is fixed and “escapes structurality”, since it is beyond the transformative reach of other elements in the structure. Hence the centre is paradoxically, outside the structure, and the very concept of a centred structure is “contradictorily coherent”.
Analysing Strauss’ mythological studies, Derrida points out the weaknesses of the epistemological search for unity of a structure. Derrida criticizes structuralism as it becomes the critique of itself, and cites Strauss’ work The Raw and the Cooked where Strauss uses the concept of a “reference myth,” the Bororo myth, which is supposedly the centre of the structure of his mythology. However, Derrida observes that the Bororo myth deserves no more than any other myth the privilege of being a reference. Then, he surmises that the Bororo myth was favoured by Strauss not because of its special character but rather by its irregular position in the midst of a group of myths. This is in itself a criticism of the concept of a structure for in the search of a centre, it was shown that there is no valid basis for choosing a particular centre. The choice of a centre is ultimately still an arbitrary choice.
In his discussion of the origins of the critique of a centre, Derrida also notes that words are. but mere signifiers void of any real content. The sign does not have a presence. Language could no longer demand for a unifying centre; the centre becomes an impossibility not just because of the breadth of the reality that it tries to signify, but also because of language’s characteristic “freeplay”. Signs are polysemic and their signification is unlimited or undefined, as it is the inherent nature of language to defy pre-defined signification. These ideas introduced in Structure, Sign and Play became the founding principles of poststructuralism and postmodernism, and were later taken up by other theorists.