Forty Years of Structure, Sign and Play:

Critical Method in the Humanities and Sciences

23-24 April 2007


Workshop Venue: USP Conference Room, Block ADM, 7th Floor


Workshop Program


Monday 23 April


9:20 - 9:40                                coffee and tea


9:40 - 10:00                               introductory remarks John Phillips


10:00 - 11:00                             Sarah Wood and Chris Stokes


11:00 - 11:30                             coffee


11:30 - 12:30                             Saranindranath Tagore and Barry Stocker


12:30 - 1:30                               lunch


1:30 - 2:30                                Forbes Morlock and Tania Roy/Ingrid Hoofd


2:30 - 3:00                                coffee


3:00 - 4:00                                Jin Huimin  and Andrew Benjamin


4.00 - 4:30                                general discussion + future plans


Transport to Hotel 4:45


Dinner night of the 23rd at Moti Mahal Restaurant, Murray Street


Tuesday 24 April


9:20 - 9:40                                coffee and tea


9:40 - 10:00:                              introductory remarks: Ryan Bishop


10:00 - 11:00                             Chen Xiaoming and Irving Goh


11:00 - 11:30                             coffee


11:30 - 12:30                             Clare Connors and Ma Shaoling


12:30 - 1:30                               lunch


1:30 - 2:30                                Cecilia Lim and Rajeev Patke


2:30 - 3:00                                coffee


3:00 - 4:00                                Graham Allen and Martin McQuillan


4:00 - 4:30                                general discussion


Transport at 4:45




Secure Website with Draft Papers: Structure, Sign and Play



A little over 40 years ago, during the week of October 18-21, 1966, an international and interdisciplinary symposium on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” was held at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  The “Preface” to the symposium proceedings, which were published as The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1970), gives an account of the event:


The sessions were convened under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, during the week of October 18-21, 1966, when over one hundred humanists and social scientists from the United States and eight other countries gathered in Baltimore.  The symposium inaugurated a two-year program of seminars and colloquia which sought to explore the impact of contemporary “structuralist” thought on critical methods in humanistic and social studies.  The general title emphasized both the pluralism of the existing modes of discourse and the interaction of disciplines not entirely limited to the conventional rubric of the “humanities.” (xv).


Among the papers at the symposium, which included presentations by Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov and others, was Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”  In the following year Derrida published three volumes: L’Écriture et la différence (Writing and Difference), De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) and La Voix et le phénomène (Speech and Phenomena).

 “Forty Years of Structure, Sign and Play” is the fifth in a series of international gatherings—in Denmark, Ireland, Oxford, London and now in Singapore—each around a text by Jacques Derrida, concerned with questioning institutions (the university, disciplines, psychoanalysis, politics) and their relation to practices of reading, writing, learning, teaching and thinking.  The intention this year is to return to a text that has become notorious.  “Structure, Sign and Play” has been taken as exemplifying what is still often called the poststructuralist movement, and is possibly the most overexposed of Derrida’s texts.  Yet on returning to this text, and the major publications of the following year, we may now perhaps find ways of rereading Derrida with an eye for what is genuinely lasting in his heritage.  Participants for the NUS workshop include scholars from several disciplines and from different parts of the world.  They are invited to address specific aspects of Derrida’s works published in 1967 in relation to concerns across the humanities and social sciences. 

The collection Writing and Difference, in which “Structure, Sign and Play” appears, is remarkable for its time in posing an intricate and closely argued distance between Derrida’s modes of reading and what was at the time most current in critical thought (notions of structure and play introduced by late nineteenth/early twentieth century thinkers and writers like Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger).  Distancing himself from his closest contemporaries, like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas and Georges Bataille and allying himself instead with what remained most classically “purist” in contemporary thought, Derrida sets out in quasi-systematic, yet in each case singular, fashion a fundamental radicalization of classical philosophy. The fate of metaphysics in light of the increasingly marked division between the humanities and the sciences is thus brought into focus.  Derrida’s writings therefore help to interrogate the meaning of this division, which is ambivalently and often problematically occupied by social (or what has been called human) sciences.

In “Structure, Sign and Play,” Derrida responds to the 1966 conference call in what is to become a characteristically intricate yet direct way.  The paper is concerned with the relationship between the humanities and the sciences and indicates a shared ground, a pattern of common reference, for otherwise incompatible approaches to knowledge: the first, exemplified by Claude Lévi-Strauss as representative of the “structuralist” moment, bears the traces of a classical concern with truth and representation; the second, bearing the names of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud, has given up on the classical and empirical notions of truth (truth as correspondence) and instead affirms the “play” of substitutions and a different kind of truth, as Heidegger had put it, of aletheia, the “covering up” that “uncovers” (the sign or phenomenon).  One could easily reconstitute beneath the particularity of Derrida’s references a lengthier historicity including the texts of Petrarca and Ibn Rushd as well as Montaigne and Descartes.  There is no doubt that Derrida has Montaigne in mind, in fact, for the famous quotation from de l’experience acts as an epigraph: “it is more of a business to interpret the interpretations than it is to interpret the texts” (278).  It is the concern of this colloquium, taking strength from the epigraph, to return as far as is possible to the texts of Derrida. 


The following topics more or less recommend themselves (but are far from exhaustive):

·        Hearing oneself speak: Auto-relation, auto-affection and the theatricality of phenomenology

·        Education and Institutions

·        Exemplarity: logic and aporia

·        Distancing through close reading (philosophy, psychoanalysis, art, literature)

·        The question of method

·        The singularity of the work

·        The concept of structure and structurality

·        The humanities and the sciences

·        The connections between literary works and philosophical inquiry

·        The “avant-garde” and the philosophical tradition

·        The Anglo-American reception of Derrida and the hazards of translation


Derrida’s close reading of Lévi-Strauss and structural anthropology, both in “Structure Sign and Play” and De la grammatologie, has had undeniable impact on the development of knowledge in the humanities and its modes of reading and education.  Yet the key problem he uncovers, of the relation between empirical sciences and their irreducibly productive methodologies, has not been acknowledged to the same extent in those fields.  The problem reaches back into the historicity of the institutions and methods of knowledge that form the not always visible backdrop to Lévi-Strauss’s project: those traditions that in addition to the more obvious grounds in Structuralist Analysis and Anthropology include the positivist sociological endeavors of Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim.  The limitations on social science implied by Derrida’s close readings may be more often recognized than his main insight on this, which is that these limitations turn out to be the very resources of sociological and scientific research generally.  The interdisciplinary aspect of the workshop is partly focused therefore on the question of productive methodology.