Derrida Essay

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A Guide to Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” John W P Phillips Revised 17/03/09 Play is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Play is always play of absence and presence, but if it is to be thought radically, play must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence (SSP 292). Derrida wrote “Structure, Sign and Play” to present at a conference in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. He wrote it very quickly (apparently it took him 15 days) and as a result it presents an almost magically condensed account of the previous seven years of philosophical activity, and in its language and vocabulary alone engages with the most current and controversial discourses of the time, particularly those of Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, although the ostensible topic of the main part of the paper is the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. The paper sets up rather consistently, but most obviously at some key moments, a distinction between what are called “classical” or “classic” ways of thinking, on one hand, and more recent “post-structuralist” ways of thinking, on the other. But it does this from within the framework of the newer ways of thinking, which involve diverse attempts to understand the generation of knowledge according to a broadly structuralist matrix, against the classical point of view. Derrida, still ostensibly within this frame, then puts the frame itself (structuralism) into a further frame that includes the classical way of thinking too, so that structuralism should now be seen as an event, according to its own laws, in a wider structure, the history of metaphysics, which it had, in

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