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Posts Tagged ‘Jacques Derrida’

  1. Decentring in Philosophy and Anthropology: Reading Derrida and Levi-Strauss

    October 1, 2012 by Fan


    Decentring in Philosophy and Anthropology: Reading Derrida and Levi-Strauss

    Fan Zhang


    “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.





    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. 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.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    2002. Semiology and Grammatology: An Interview with Julia Kristeva. In Positions: Jacques Derrida, Alan Bass trans. London: Continuum, pp.15-36.


    Foucault, Michel,

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Montaigne, Michel de

    2003 [1592]. The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf  “Everyman’s Library”.



  2. Look, Listen, Dream and Become: Chuang-Tzu and Derrida

    January 30, 2012 by Fan


    Look, Listen, Dream and Become

    Fan Zhang


    “Once upon a time, I, … dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man, dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called Metempsychosis.” (Chuang Tzu 1926:32)


    Chuang Tzu concludes The Identity of Contraries with a dream. Derrida begins his deliberation on – in my humble opinion – similar subject with a gaze. In dream, one becomes the other. In looking, one is opposing the other. Dream is the conclusion. Looking is the beginning.

    Looking is the beginning of a humanism that produces “the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words” (Foucault 1994:386). This is a humanism Derrida intends to transcend – with a proliferation of words, equivalences, characters, differences and identities – after the gaze, and after the shame.

    But why shame? Is it really about “[the] impropriety of a certain animal nude before the other animal” (Derrida 2008:4)? I believe the word “animal” is only a trope. After all, “animals”, in common sense use, are not ashamed of being nude in front of each other. Only humans do. What he actually means, is cat the human person. The initial shame comes from his realization that a cat is a human who looks back. This moment of shame is a moment of transcendence over the human-animal distinction. It is to be celebrated. The second wave of shame, “ashamed for being ashamed” (Derrida 2008:4), however, comes from the realization that by treating the cat as human he only transcends humanism on humanism’s terms – it is not a real transcendence. Foucault’s quotes from Montaingne is never more salient: “There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things; and more books about books than on any other subject; we do nothing but write glosses on one another (Facault 1994:40). The gaze prompts the shame, and the shames prompts the proliferation of interpretations and words, many of them in an incestuous relationship.

    Hence Haraway’s criticism of Derrida, that he “missed a possible invitation, a possible introduction to other-worlding” (Haraway 2008:20), a participation in animals’ socio-cultural world(s) as Barbara Smuts did in her interaction with baboons (Haraway 2008:23-25). By allowing himself dwelling in canonic thoughts and language, Derrida stays comfortably in “this world”. And by ignoring “philosophical thinking that goes in popular idioms” and people “who are not shaped by the institutionalized Western … canon” (2008:21), Derrida missed other humanistic ways to approach the “other world”.

    What is happening here and now might have happened there and then. The gist of the present is probably in the past. Chuang Tzu’s dream concludes a text – it also concludes, tentatively, a period of humanism (or in Chinese, ren 仁 with an individual on the left and a “two” on the right) the farthest extension of which to animals came when Mencious praised a king for his kindness to spare animals because he heard their whining on their way to the slaughter house: “If you have the sympathy for cows and sheep, you will have sympathy for your people”. Sympathy – and empathy – is one of the foundational concepts proposed by contemporary human rights writers (Ignatieff 2001:95). The domination of a Confucian humanism in the next two thousands years indicates that it might not work.

    It’s not enough to listen, to look, to read and to write. What may be needed, is to dream, and to become.





    Chuang Tzu

    1926 [286 BC] Chuang Tzu. Herbert A. Giles, transl. Shanghai:Kelly & Walsh Limited.


    Derrida, Jaques

    2008 [2006] The Animal That Therefore I Am. David Wills, trans. New York: Fordham University Press.


    Foucault, Michel

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Haraway, Donna Jeanne

    2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnisota Press.


    Ignatieff, Michael

    2001. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.





    1. Derrida’s cat emerges as a real cat, not part of “Kafka’s vast zoopoetics” (Derrida 2008:6). But in “Eating Well”, when asked “why do you … limit yourself simply to the animal?”, he answers “nothing shall be excluded. I said ‘animal’ for the sake of convenience and to use a [classical reference]” (Derrida 1995:269). Is there any contradiction here?
    2. Upon Derrida’s death, both the New York Times and the Economist published negative obituaries. The criticism is focused on his obscure style. What’s your opinion?