Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Breaking with Modernity

Jacques Derrida ( 1930-) was born in Algiers. He studied in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure and at Harvard ( 1956-1957). From 1960 to 1964, he taught at the Sorbonne. The following year, he became professor of the history of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. Derrida has lectured and taught around the world and is particularly well regarded in the United States, where he has held irregular professorships at Yale, Johns Hopkins, New York University, and the University of California at Irvine. Derrida's many writings include Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology--all three appeared in France in 1967, the year following his famous 1966 presentation at Johns Hopkins, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." He has written many books since, but these were the texts in which the first and clearest outlines of deconstructionism appeared. The 1966 paper, from which the selection is taken, is sometimes considered, in retrospect, the event Derrida referred to in the work's first sentence--an event in the history of structuralism, the beginning of poststructuralism; an event in the history of world structures. Given his clear critique of the philosophy of the Center, it is unlikely that he meant that he himself caused this event. Even if he did, that is not the point. Deconstructionism concerns itself with problems of this sort.


The Decentering Event in Social Thought

Jacques Derrida ( 1966)

Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an "event," if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural--or structuralist--thought to reduce or to suspect. Let us speak of an "event," nevertheless, and let us use quotation marks to serve as a precaution. What would this event be then? Its exterior form would be that of a rupture and a redoubling.

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word "structure" itself are as old as the epistémé--that is to say, as old as Western science and Western philosophy--and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistémé plunges in order to gather them up and to make them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement. Nevertheless, up

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Excerpt from "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Alan Bass, trans., Writing and Difference ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978 [ 1966]), pp. 278-282.

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