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Episode 4: Derrida and Post-structuralism / September 18, 2020

With Dr David Baker

Hosted by Hamish Stewart

Edited by Signe Emilie Eriksen

Posted in Main feed History of Philosophy

Derrida is a notoriously difficult philosopher to understand. Some love him, others loathe him, and everyone struggles to comprehend him. Today, we decide to embark on a journey of discovery with Derridean thought and the wider Post-structuralist movement. Joining us again is David Baker, distinguished professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hamish Stewart and Max Forster speak with him.

In this episode, we discuss some of the key concepts that Derrida engages with. We talk about structure, the centre, and meaning, as well as the signified and signifier. We also talk about the pollical implications of deconstruction and where deconstruction is now.

01:50 – the Baltimore Conference

04:45 – Derrida’s contribution to the Conference

07:20 – Derrida on ‘Structure’

10:20 – How is meaning produced by ‘Structure’?

15:22 – Derridean thought and politics

20:05 – Deconstruction’s demise

Further Reading:

Derrida, Jacques. (1966). “Structure, Sign and Play”. as printed/translated by Macksey & Donato (1970)


Dr. David Baker: I actually saw Derrida once at…

Hamish Stewart: Wow!


Hamish Stewart: Hello everybody, welcome back to Thoughts. We are doing part 2 of our discussion on postmodernism and Derrida. I’m Hamish Stewart…

Max Forster: I’m Max Forster…

HS: And we are with Dr. David Baker. Hello David.

Dr. David Baker: Hello, good to be here again, I’m looking forward to it.

HS: Thank you, thank you. And, without further ado, Max would you like to recap part 1.

MF: The last episode was on postmodernism and we talked about different definitions of postmodernism; we talked a little bit about Lyotard; we talked about Kwame Appiah. And we focused on the relation between modernism and postmodernism. And, if you haven’t listened to it, feel free to do so, if you have you know that the question came up what the intellectual profile of postmodernism was. And we kind of dodged that question a little bit because as we heard it’s not much of a movement but a condition of sorts. So, we promised an answer – a better answer – to that question, and today we’re going to deliver. Um, we are going to talk about poststructuralism, a contemporaneous movement of postmodernism, which is different from postmodernism in that it has its own, more worked out, intellectual profile. To get right into it, I think, David, we couldn’t talk about poststructuralism without talking about Derrida and talking about his appearance at the Baltimore conference which was sort of the founding event, or the inaugural event, for poststructuralism. Is that right?

Dr. DB: Yeah that’s right. And you’re talking about the conference that took place in the Humanities Centre at John Hopkins University on October 18th through 21, 1966. It really was a, you know, sometimes these things are gradual and sometimes they’re explosive. Yeah, in that case, these things are just radically changed. The person who changed it was really Jacques Derrida who was the last speaker. And uh, after he left a French critic who’d been there named Georges Poulet was walking around the campus and talked to one of the faculty at Hopkins and he (Poulet) said “we just heard a paper that destroys everything I stand for, but it was a very important paper”. So people a the time knew that something big had happened. And that’s typically thought of as the sort of inaugurating event in the arrival of poststructuralism, generally, Derrida, and deconstruction to the United States.

MF: So what was radical about what Derrida said in that talk at that conference?

Dr. DB: Well, I may preface this by saying – because you encouraged me to say this – that I actually saw Derrida once…

HS: Wow!

Dr. DB: …at John Hopkins. This was a few years, some few years, quite a few years after 1966. Derrida used to make annual visits to the Humanities Centre, so in other words that conference established an ongoing relationship between Derrida, the American critical scene and particularly John Hopkins. I went there, I went to a large auditorium, Derrida came on. He looked distinguished with his white hair swept back. I remember he thanked all those who honoured him with their presence. And then he talked, as he said he would, for a long time. I think an hour and a half, maybe two, and I don’t remember what he said.


HS: Yeah, to be expected, to be expected. I listened to another podcast which said that he was one of the last philosophers that was part of a generation of philosophers that were kind of famous, playboy, badasses. Did that persona come off?

Dr. DB: No, not when he was standing on the podium. Though I guess you’d have to say that he wanted to extrapolate from the kind of charisma that he had…it wouldn’t surprise you to know that he was actually, as you put it, something of a playboy, um. Yeah, without getting into specifics that was very much a part of his persona, and…

HS: The specifics will be part 3!


HS: I’m joking! Ok, no, that’s very interesting, that’s very interesting. Ok yeah, so, Max, you were wanting to know what was so radical about what Derrida actually said in that original conference.

MF: Right, yeah.

Dr. DB: Well the conference itself was sort of a chaotic affair. Interestingly, Foucault – Michel Foucault – was invited and didn’t come. Others claim it was Levi-Strauss who was invited and didn’t come, um, you know, but in any case there was a hole in the schedule and Derrida was invited. He was 36 years old at the time, he was invited at the last minute to fill in the hole and give the last talk. So it was so radical…if you look at the talk that he gave – Structure, Sign and Play – a lot of it’s given over to a close reading, critique, of Levi-Strauss. So, the parts that people tend to remember in the first pages or two he establishes the basic notions of what was to become deconstruction. Derrida had the task, really, of taking on one of the giants of structuralism and showing that his own critique of structuralism could be launched within the field of Levi-Strauss’ thought, and he did that at some considerable length. What people understood, including Georges Poulet, was that, um, well, I guess they understood 2 things: one they understood that structuralism would no longer be as dominant a discourse as it had been, in a straightforward way, and said it would be the operations within structuralism that would be prominent. And what’s also noticeable if you go back and look at the sort of transcript – what we have of it at that meeting – is that…it’s hard to put your finger on this but it’s a matter of intellectual style and temperament. And there were several fairly traditional scholars at the Baltimore conference and they just went off on Derrida. And in the process, re-articulated what we still today recognise as some of the standard assumptions of humanist scholarship – text, poetry, literature, and so on – they got that this whole traditionist scholarly ethos had just been punctured. It was an event where people like Georges Poulet suddenly grasped that their futures were going to be very different than the ones they had planned for themselves.

MF: So what was structuralism, for Derrida?

Dr. DB: Yeah, so for Derrida of course he was thinking primarily of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, whom we mentioned last time. Um, for Derrida structure was writ on several levels. He took the linguistic model of Saussure and then as others had he extrapolated to fairly large scale structures of meaning. That’s why Levi-Strauss is at the centre of his critique because he did that in anthropology more convincingly than anyone else. But what Derrida said was that within these structures, whether they be linguistic structures or larger structures, we can always locate a certain play. And here was the sort of germ of the notion of ‘différance’. If you think in terms of structure, said Saussure, and then Derrida agreed, what differentiates the elements in any system is simply that they are different, you know, and so Saussure talked about the phoneme, the sound that we use in order to form larger groups of sound, there’s nothing…take for instance the ‘p’ sound, there’s nothing intrinsic---there’s no intrinsic ‘p’-ness to it, what it is it’s not a ‘t’ sound or it’s not an ‘r’ sound or it’s not an ‘s’ sound, there’s a difference between these different phonemes. So, what Derrida said was that difference destabilises and defines the structure, always.

MF: In this inaugural Speech, Structure, Sign and Play, Derrida talks about structure – it’s a criticism of structuralism after all – so he defines structure as a system that is organised around a centre.

Dr. DB: He if said the structure is – thinking in very large terms – the structure is simply the totality of what can be thought in any given era, um, there’s always something, said Derrida, which is implied by the structure but not included in that structure, and that is the centre: the thing that underwrites everything else but that is not reducible to everything else.

MF: In looking at the list right now here, he has: God, man, essence, existence, substance (indecipherable) consciousness, and so on…

Dr. DB: So, it’s important to stress, this is what he called the history of the metaphysics, um, of the west. It’s really important to stress that Derrida was much more interested in initiating, or at least observing, the play of elements within structure than he was in the notion that it could be escaped. In fact, he fundamentally did not believe that structures could be escaped; they were always encompassing. The most that could be done was to operate within them and to some extent against them.

MF: That’s, uh, maybe we could talk a little bit more about that, about how meaning is produced by structure, about the productive force of structure, because I feel like there’s two ways to understand that. There’s a sort of pre-poststructuralist way of understanding how meaning is produced, and then there’s a poststructuralist way of how meaning is produced. Before Derrida, the centre was thought of as something that was constitutive and productive of meaning. It’s God, or it’s existence and existentialism; it’s essence, before existentialism, it’s man in the Enlightenment and so on and so on. Um, but then Derrida refutes this idea that a centre self-sufficiently can provide meaning. Is that a fair statement?

Dr. DB: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. So, uh, if the centre is going to be that which authorises all the rest of it, in most traditional modes of thought the centre itself has to be that which cannot be questioned, that which underwrites everything. Um, by putting out that it’s the structure that produces the centre and then vice versa, Derrida showed that centres are not oppositional or outside or transcending structures but they’re kind of an effect of structure.

MF: So I feel like there are two modes of analysis of those, of structure and centre and so on, perhaps sort of metaphysical analysis where you have the centre as God, or those historical centres, and there’s a semiotic way to look at all these…where the centre is the transcendental signified that purportedly provides meaning but doesn’t actually provide meaning. Meaning is produced intralinguistically in an intralinguistic play.

HS: I should probably say here actually, or explain what the signifier and the signified is. So very briefly, the signifier is the word or the picture, and the signified is the idea, the emotion or the object that the expression is associated with. So, for example, take a tree. The word ‘tree’, the way you express the word ‘tree’ is the signifier, and the actual tree itself, the object of the tree, is the signified. So, when Max talks about the transcendental signified, he’s talking about the centre point which fixes everything else.

MF: What really helped me to understand the sort of preceding semiotic theory, according to which, you know, there is something prelinguistic, there are certain objects or things that we signify with words. So, and then, those objects we take and they provide words and language with meaning. And that’s something that Saussure and Derrida, of course, oppose, right? I was looking in the, I think the epilogue of Of Grammatology where Derrida talks about signified and signifier, and as you said David, he doesn’t deny or refute the existence of something such as the signified. I mean, he refutes the existence of something such as the pre-linguistic signified, but he does admit that there are signified and signifier, only that both of these things – whatever they are – were inside language. So language is a circle of, sort of, a system, a play, a dynamic play of signified and signifier that are self-referential, sort of.

Dr. DB: Yes, I think that’s entirely right. Um, you know, I guess both what Derrida and structuralists before him are reacting against is a deeper, almost theological sense, that words and things attach somehow to one another. That he holds not to be true at all. You know, it’s language, rather, that defines things which allows us to think of them as distinct things. But you’re right, um, it’s not a form of idealism, it’s a kind of quasi-theological investigation of Western metaphysics through the structuralist thinking of Ferdinand de Saussure and others.

MF: So we’ve talked quite a bit about how the centre and identity and meaning is produced by differences and play and intralinguistic dyanmics, sort of, rather than by a transcendental signified, but we haven’t really talked about another consequence of this play which difference as a productive force. That is a politically explosive thing, right? Any sort of identity, any representation, any sort of identity politics, whenever you formulate a political entity there will always be something on the outside that provides the identity of such. So, um, that’s where I think Derrida’s fascination with marginality, with periphery, with difference, also has a political dimension.

Dr. DB: Yeah, that’s right Max. I mean I think Derrida really was consistently interested in the marginal, the oppressed, the ways in which a system could function to put very real human beings at a disadvantage to others. At the same time it’s consistent with what I was saying earlier that Derrida did not think that, um, all exclusions and all hierarchies altogether were on the one hand escapable and on the other hand, you know, noxious in and of themselves. So, you know, famously he says in a wonderfully pithy little, you know, claim: “a red light is not repressive”. In the same paragraph he says “the law, the tribunal, or the police as political powers are not primarily repressive in themselves. Every police is not repressive.” He acknowledged the role of structuring agencies in human affairs, and he also knew that those structuring agencies could dispossess and humiliate and harm people, but he did not imagine that those kinds of structuring agencies could be rejected just because they exerted some kind of repression. A red light is tells you to stop the car, it is not repressing you when it does that.

MF: Structure is a necessary condition for intelligibility. I mean, you need…

Dr. DB: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. Intelligibility depends on structure, and, um, without it, I mean if you remove the literal sign of the red light then cars are proceeding in a completely unstructured way. Intelligibility in and of itself makes distinctions, established hierarchies, and from all that can be extrapolated, you know, ‘the police’ as he calls it, using the term in a kind of larger French sense, I think. I think, you know, what deconstruction in Derrida’s hands implies is that you cannot escape from Western metaphysics – it is always the larger project within which you must operate.

HS: Presumably there were some people that were saying you could escape structuralism.

Dr. DB: Yeah, so, ever since, I guess the advent of postmodernist and poststructuralist cultural movements, there have been those who in a more, sort of, romantic vein have wanted to claim that we can transcend or escape or evade or overthrow, um, structures, which they sometimes think of as structures of power, you know, societal structures and so on. Derrida had in his thought a really sort of rigorous anti-romantic line that pointed to the impossibility of finally doing that. He said that, you know, it’s the structures, the ground on which meaning emerges and you cannot get yourself off that ground. You can…play will happen, oppositions can be framed but transcendence is impossible.

HS: So, in the final section let’s talk about deconstructions legacy. Deconstruction is clearly not as big as it used to be: what happened to deconstruction, I mean where did it go?

Dr. DB: Um, so, today in 2020, deconstruction is sort of like Freudianism. It’s been repudiated everywhere but it’s [indecipherable] in how we think. Deconstruction, though, I don’t think there are today very many people who would explicitly identify themselves as deconstructionists. What happened to deconstruction? Well, in part I think it just ran its course. People had exploited the nuances of Derrida’s thinking just about as well as they could. What also happened was that the kind of opposition that Derrida got at the Baltimore conference in ’66 never kind of went anywhere. I mean scholars like Angus Fletcher and Charles Singleton who assailed him at that conference represented deeply entrenched scholarly traditions that never accepted deconstruction, didn’t think it was compatible with what they did, and actually regarded  it as one large flash in the pan. So, um, deconstruction was really cool and happenin’ for a while but it was never without opposition. I have to say I don’t think most of that opposition was very principled or thoughtful; I don’t think people were really reading Derrida seriously. But they were right, that even in some sort of deep intuitive way, just as Georges Poulet said, it was deconstruction or them. So, anyway, deconstruction had run its course but there was no obvious successor. And then the Paul de Man scandal happened. Paul de Man was a very prominent deconstructionist at Yale, he had actually been at the Baltimore conference with Derrida which is where they met and became very good friends. And then de Man, it emerged, had written some anti-semitic pamphlets for Le Soir when he was a younger man; he also turned out to be kind of an unpleasant person. In any case, deconstruction became tagged with all sorts of unsavoury historical influences. And at that point I think the burden of boredom and antipathy and misreading, et cetera, et cetera, just became too much to sustain the deconstructive enterprise. And it kind of collapsed, I think, leaving behind the kind of ideas we’ve been talking about today. Just as powerful as they were, though now being deployed within a very different sort of political context.

HS: That’s amazing, that’s such a great concluding remark.

Dr. DB: Thanks, it’s been really good talking with you guys.

MF: Thank you to David, thank you for those last words. Thank you to everyone for tuning in and we’ll hope to talk to you next time.

Transcript written by Frances Darling