Decentring in Philosophy and Anthropology: Reading Derrida and Levi-Strauss
“We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things” Derrida begins his Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences from his Writing and Difference (1967) with this quotation from Montaigne (Derrida 1978:278). But this is only half of the sentence. The other half is “we need more books about books than any other subject” followed by a disheartened observation: “The world is swarming with commentaries; of [original] authors there is a great scarcity” (Montaigne 2003:996). The title of the 16th-century author’s essay is Of Experience. Another quotable sentence from the piece is “I judge myself only by actual sensation, not by reasoning” (Montaigne 2003:1024).
Overview of the book and the essay exposes a dilemma: Derrida’s book in many ways is no other than a book about other books, and this particular essay can be viewed as interpretations of Claude Levi-Strauss’ interpretations. A close reading of the essay, however, reveals that the playfulness of this dilemma (among other parallel dilemmas) is exactly the intended effects Derrida wants to create. He begins with this loaded sentence: “…something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’ …” (Derrida 1978:278) The conjunction of “history” and “structure” is intentional. It responds to Levi-Strauss’ sly declaration in the opening chapter of Structural Anthropology:
“ … anthropology cannot remain indifferent to historical process and to the most highly conscious expressions of social phenomenon. But if the anthropologist brings to them the same scrupulous attentions as the historian, it is in order to eliminate … all that they owe to the historical process and to conscious thought.” (Levi-Strauss 1963:23)
Derrida is suggesting here that even when structuralism is eliminating history, it is still in a history of its own. This gives us a chance to clarify the concept of history: Is it socio-political history? Is it cultural history? Is it history of philosophy? An observation is that even when cultural history is becoming more and more part of “history” per se, history of philosophy is often standing on its own feet on a velvet carpet outside “history”. Recalling Montaigne, we realize that the reason for this separation is that “history” is a realm of “actual sensation” while “history of philosophy” is a realm of “reasoning”.
Deconstructing the realm of reasoning, thus, would have to be Derrida’s next step. But where is it? What does it got to do with structure? Here is the answer:
“… the concept of structure and even the word ‘structure” are … 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 episteme plunges in order to gather them up and to make them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement” (Derrida 1978:278)
Yes, “structure” is philosophy, or to be precise, metaphysics’ metaphorical displacement. Since a metaphor is inherently visual – or there will be no point to even use a metaphor – from this point on, Derrida is able to officially begin his journey of discussing visuality, language, structuralism, anthropology and Claude Levi-Strauss with metaphysics or its deconstruction very much at his heart. This is also a journey full of dilemmas.
The first dilemma is a visual one: that between the center of structure and its periphery. Since the focus of this essay is Levi-Strauss, we might as well look at the visual representation of structure in Levi-Strauss’ terms. The first question is: Does structure necessarily contain the opposition between a center and periphery in ethnographical terms? The answer is no. In Do Dual Organization Exist?, chapter VIII of Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss distinguishes two types of dual structure: diametric dualism and concentric dualism. Only in concentric structure in which a core is enclosed by a circle does Derrida’s concept of center exist. Since ethnographically concentric structure is more general a form than the diametric, according to Levi-Strauss (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-166), we can follow Derrida’s argument and discuss it exclusively from now on.
A comparison of different orders in which the philosopher Derrida and the anthropologist Levi-Strauss in discussing the same topic (“structure”/ “metaphysics”) is interesting: Derrida gives the answer right away, while Levi-Strauss works his way up, one ethnographical case after another, in the most painful way – and not being explicit in the end. But their conclusions are supplementary to each other. Here I attempt to synthesize and develop their ideas:
The origin of center, the core of a concentric structure, is its shadow point on any point of the peripheral circle which used to be a continuous straight line until one of its component points breaks away, elevates itself high above to the sky and becomes sacred. This discontinuity, or rupture, creates a central reference point that “limit … the play of the structure” (Derrida 1978:278). Throughout Western history, the center is in various incarnations, the most central and consistent one is probably that of metaphysics while religiosity (Christianity) and para-religious or post-religious essentialism and fundamentalism of all kinds (may I include “human rights” here?) are also crucial. Another incarnation is that of ethnocentrisms, but ethnocentrism only occurs when the decentring process of globalization with its ideological product anthropology appears on the stage of history (Derrida 1978:282). The parallel efforts of decentring outside anthropology are made by Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger. These efforts, if measured by the abandoning of metaphysics, have limited success because all three of them still operate within metaphysics (Derrida 1978:280).
Finally comes Claude Levi-Strauss with his two conceptual breakthroughs. The first is that distinction between nature and culture, the origin of which is incest taboo that is truly universally and older than philosophy – in fact, it is at the roots of philosophy (Derrida 1978:284). This is the first successful attempt, by an anthropologist no less, to step outside philosophy. The second is his introduction of language to anthropology.
Levi-Strauss’ brilliance can also been his admission of his theory’s mythological nature, hence a complete decentring to a non-essentialist position (Derrida 1978:286-287). But the catch here is Levi-Strauss has to rely on endless ethnographical data, or empirical evidences, or bricolage (Derrida 1978:288).
Derrida offers his solution to the catch by introducing history we see in the beginning of his essay: What Levi-Strauss as anthropologist does is looking back for the pre-metaphysical (and prehuman/prehumanistic) origin. What can be done is to participate in the vibrant, abundant and colourful “full presence” (Derrida 1978:292). This participation can be done by “play”, which is a linguistic replacement – a hollowing process – of the once fundamental and essentialist center of the structure (Derrida 1978:289).
Derrida’s project resembles that of Foucault’s. In fact, the opening Montaigne quotation also appears in Foucault’s The Order of Things (Foucault 1994:40), and the ending of the essay resembles Foucault’s erasing of man from the sand (Foucault 1994:387). A thorough discussion of language, particularly the tension between “phonologism” – and excess emphasis on spoken form of language” and its temporal nature – and graphical/spatial presentation of language (e.g. Chinese writing system) as discussed in his 2002 interview with Kristeva connects the two authors more tightly. My big idea is that visual representation, a key anthropological idea since E. B. Tylor’s conception of animism, is far from satisfactory. For the moment, what we can learn from Derrida, is to treat history of ideas as history, and to experience language – words, phrases, sentences – with playful “sensation”. Or as an anthropologist, to embark on an anthropology of texts. After all, Derrida kno890ws what Montaigne means, and follows the older master closely.
1978 . Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.278-293.
2002. Semiology and Grammatology: An Interview with Julia Kristeva. In Positions: Jacques Derrida, Alan Bass trans. London: Continuum, pp.15-36.
1994 . The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.
1963 . Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.
Montaigne, Michel de
2003 . The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf “Everyman’s Library”.