A Guide to Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
John W P Phillips
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 several well publicised accounts, claimed to have surpassed. In this way Derrida does not make an argument as such. Rather, he puts the arguments of the most recent and radical elements of contemporary thought into a relation with themselves. His own principle, which is touched on but not much explored in this essay, is said to be at the ground—before and beyond—the oppositions that dominate both the classical conception of conception and those of post-structuralism, too.
1. Classical Thought (the Classical Style or the Classic Way)
The epistēmē (axiomatic knowledge)
Gives “structure” a centre
Neutralizes the “structurality” of structure
Limits the “play” of structure
The centre is outside the structure
Privilege: the signified, presence, the statement: the intentional role of agents, authors, subjects etc.
The centre = the form of presence (origin and end in repetition, substitution, transformation, permutation).
Substitution of metaphors and metonymies (different forms or names)
The “matrix” of the history of metaphysics = the determination of being as presence
Matrix: the womb; the cavity in which anything is formed; that in which anything is embedded, as ground-mass, gangue, intercellular substance, cementing material; the bed on which a thing rests, as the cutis under the nail, the hollow in a slab to receive a monumental brass; a mould; a rectangular array of quantities or symbols (math.); pl. matrices; adv. Matrical [Latin matrix, a breeding animal, later, the womb—mater, mother]
Fundamentals or principles designating presence: eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia, alethēia [form, origin, end, act, substance, truth] transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth [par-ousia actually means “presence” in Greek].
The difference between the sensible and the intelligible (empirical and ideal, matter and spirit, nature and culture/law/thought)
[JWP note: The difference between nature and culture is also the difference between a womb and a child or the seed that impregnates the womb (so for metaphysics, a male child)
2. The Event
Begins to think the structurality of structure
The names: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud
(Qui genuit Foucault, Lacan, Barthes and structuralism/poststructuralism)
Saussure, structuralist linguistics and Lévi-Strauss
Ethnology (and the human or social sciences)
Undoing the classical privilege: absent centre, author, agent, subject (or at least decentred subjects, authors, agents etc.)
The law of structuralism:
Structure (matrix, syntax, grammar, etc.) → event (utterance, process)
Applied to Structuralism:
History of Western Metaphysics → structuralism/poststructuralism
The history of western metaphysics is already the destruction of the history of metaphysics. For instance: Empiricists destroy idealists, sophists destroy truth, dialectics destroys literary inspiration, materialists destroy ideology, and philosophers in response destroy the skeptics yet are destroyed by them (see Montaigne and Descartes).
Repeats the epistēmē (axiomatic knowledge)
Gives “structure” a centre (absence)
Neutralizes the “structurality” of structure
Limits the “play” of structure
The centre is outside the structure
Privilege: the signifier, the enunciation, absence: the unintentional role of agents, authors, subjects etc.
The Two Kinds
A. Two heterogeneous ways of erasing the difference between the signifier and the signified (281):
The “classic way” and the “way we are using against the first way”
B. “Language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique” (284)
The two paths or “manners” by which this critique may be undertaken:
“A first action” is systematic and rigorous questioning
“A second choice” (Lévi-Strauss): conserving the old concepts but denouncing their limits
Within the second choice: Holds onto the opposition but proposes a bricolage (on the one hand/on the other)
C. The limit of totalization (288-9)
The classical style: finite richness (too much, more than one can say)
From the standpoint of the concept of play: infinite substitutions in a finite field (something missing)
D. History (291):
History as the detour of presence
Bracketing or neutralizing history (failing to posit the problem of the transition from one structure to another)
E. Interpretation (presence and play)
Two interpretations of interpretation …
… of structure,
… of sign,
… of play
… of “Structure, Sign and Play”
Interpretation: (Plato, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss)
Backwards looking (absent past)
Forwards looking (unforeseeable future)
The différance of their irreducible difference (as when you are drunk or the earth is shaking or as it appears in cartoons when this happens—when you are seeing double) two elements are the same element in its division.
So Derrida is concerned in this paper to examine what he calls the “shared ground” of two otherwise incompatible attitudes towards interpretation in knowledge. He calls these attitudes to interpretation “interpretations of interpretation.” The phrase “interpretation of interpretation” is worth dwelling on. Derrida had used it before in a short essay from 1964 on the Jewish writer and poet Edmond Jabès, “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book” (also in Writing and Difference), where it is question of a fundamental difference between the response of an exegetical kind of interpretation (that of the Rabbi) and a poetic one (that of the poet):
The necessity of commentary, like poetic necessity, is the very form of exiled speech. In the beginning is hermeneutics. But the shared necessity of exegesis, the interpretive imperative, is interpreted differently by the rabbi and the poet. The difference between the horizon of the original text and exegetic writing makes the difference between the rabbi and the poet irreducible. Forever unable to reunite with each other, yet so close to each other, how could they ever regain the realm? The original opening of interpretation essentially signifies that there will always be rabbis and poets. And two interpretations of interpretation. (Writing and Difference 67).
The first kind looks back to a lost truth, which it is the task of the exegete to rediscover. The second kind looks forward to an unforeseeable future of poetic rhapsody. This distinction bears an uncanny resemblance to one made by Socrates in an apparently early dialogue by Plato, The Ion. Ion is literally a “rhapsode,” a “stitcher of lays,” that is, he is a performer of poetry. The rhapsodes would perform at public functions and competitions, enchanting their audiences with performances from famous sections of Homer or Hesiod. Socrates establishes a fundamental distinction between the inspiration of poets and rhapsodes and the rational skills (the techne) of experts. If the poet composes out of divine inspiration then the rhapsode recites the poem under the influence of this same inspiration, which he in turn passes on to his audience, who are themselves, in turn, inspired. The rhapsode is, therefore, an interpreter of an interpreter. Plato uses two senses of the word hermeneus: 1) to signify the work of the inspired “mouthpiece”; and 2) to signify the hermeneutic role of the literary critic. Ion claims to be able to acquit himself of both tasks. Socrates shows in his dialectic that he could not possible have the knowledge required for interpretation in this second sense. So first clue: interpretation differs from itself.
Either interpretation can be an explanation of something (a representation of the truth of some fact or some text); or it can be a process of further signification. In the first case, the explanation would slip out of sight, thus allowing the things to be explained to emerge into view. Here the key terms would be Origin, Truth, and End. Or the interpretation itself would act as a kind of supplement or substitute for the thing itself, whilst the thing itself remains out of the frame of observation. Here the key terms would be Structure, Sign, Play, and Substitution. In each case the interpretation of interpretation falls out on one side or the other of the ancient metaphysical opposition between truth and rhetoric or science and humanism. Furthermore, in the current milieu (i.e., “today”), there is an acknowledgement on both sides of the absence of the centre that would otherwise guide our search for truth via interpretation.
Traditionally, Science privileges the mathematical purity of the abstract form, which ought to have the power to render facts of the universe and the world in clarity and good order. Humanism is against this and prefers instead the non-scientific, literary, sceptical, rhetorical mode of address.
Here’s the kicker: the two interpretations of interpretation are incompatible because if one chooses the former (science) then one is condemned to regard even interpretation as if it was something that could be explained; and if one chooses the latter then one is condemned to forever be supplementing one’s sense of what interpretation means with further signifying productions, without end, ad infinitum. So what, then, is this “shared ground” that Derrida calls “différance”?
Derrida’s examples are arranged around the concept of structure. There emerges a new attitude to the concept of structure towards the end of the nineteenth century with Heidegger, Nietzsche and Freud; but this has been intensified in a certain way by the new language based sciences of structuralism. This “new attitude” Derrida suggests might be regarded (“perhaps”) as an event. If so then it would be a rupture. The roles of event and rupture, respectively, are complex. We’ll come back to them.
For Heidegger the “Structure of Being” for “us” (whoever “we” may be—but this is the point!) just is interpretation (the Human Being begins as a Dasein, which means “being there” in German but people tend not to translate it); and its “situated” state is always immediately (or as we sometimes say “always already”) covered over with “interpretations.” To do good ontological work (the study of being) we need to uncover our situated state. To be situated is to be, as we say (grasping for an interpretation), in time. To be in time is always to be not as one is but as and what one was. The only thing that allows us to carry on being is, therefore, the future.
Because our situated state is basically covered up by interpretations these need to undergo destruction. The structure of being is what is left after this destruction of the inherited interpretations has been fulfilled. What do you suppose would be left of our being if we succeeded in this task of destruction? Heidegger thinks that it is our “care” and our “being-towards-death.”
Heidegger’s interpretation cannot allow a concept of truth that would function for the human being in the way that it does for positive science. Positive science requires a concept of adequation. The concept must be adequate to the thing of which it is the concept. A statement should be adequate to the state of affairs of which it is a statement (e.g., the water boiled at 100 degrees; this vase is red). But Nietzsche had already, from his earliest days as a philosopher, posed terrible problems for this ideal notion in the sciences—especially those that had attempted to establish a “human science” or a “social Science” or a psychology. The study of Man seems permanently unable to find the concept for “man” itself. The problem begins not simply with the question “what is man?” But rather it begins with the very notion of the concept itself, which Nietzsche believes is nothing better than a rhetorical figure of some kind. The concept, as Nietzsche asserts, in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” whether in ordinary language or in science, is “the burial site of perceptions.” It can thus never reveal a perception. Rather it will replace one.
Émile Durkheim (one of Levi-Strauss’s key influences) distinguishes the ordinary language concept, which he calls a “common notion” from the scientific one, which ideally is unaffected by interference from ordinary language use. Nietzsche would probably have laughed at the conceit. All concepts are, for Nietzsche, metaphors:
Originally … it is language which works on building the edifice of concepts; later it is science. Just as the bee simultaneously builds the cells of its comb and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly at that great columbarium of concepts, the burial site of perceptions, builds ever-new, ever-higher tiers, supports, cleans, renews old cells, and strives above all to fill that framework which towers up to vast heights, and to fit into it in an orderly way the whole empirical world, i.e., the anthropomorphic world. (150).
With this quotation from Nietzsche we seem to have inscribed a circle back to the earlier remarks of Montaigne, who Derrida quotes for his epigraph. It might really seem, then, that the question of interpretation, in its western forms at least, is destined to remain in deadlock between two incompatible demands, between the incompatible requirements of representation and production (a recapitulation of the ancient struggle of truth and rhetoric).
Freud, too, had played his part in toppling the scientific concept and the reign of reason from its throne by asserting an irreducibly unconscious ground of human knowledge and interaction. The unconscious, for Freud, is an incessant struggle of incompatible demands: those of a devouring Id (the “IT”) and a stern Superego (the “interpretations” of an internalised social conscience). The unconscious actually operates through processes (displacement, condensation, figurative elements and narrative constructions) that produce thought upon thought in substitutions for a lost or buried prior thought.
So, together, Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger form a powerful trio of names that can be regarded as representative of a move away from structure as a concept with a transcendental “centre” to the question of the structuration of structure: its enunciative or performative basis [enunciation]. Structuralism picks up on this at the level of the sign (the signified—that locus of the concept and thus of truth; and the signifier—that locus of differences, substitutions and play.)
The main section of “Structure, Sign and Play,” is concerned with the trouble that Levi-Strauss gets into when trying simultaneously to operate with scientific principles (empiricism) and those that confirm the “structuration” principles typical of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud (bricolage). He is very clear that neither the “lost” scientific paradigm nor the new “joyous affirmation of play” paradigm (we might call it postmodernism for convenience) is an acceptable option on its own. Some other ground, which both of these incompatibles share, is rather what Derrida chooses to point towards, with some rather enigmatic remarks about monstrous births in the future.
The “Structure” of the essay:
Derrida’s essay can be broken down into discrete sections. It is worth getting to know it in this way, much as one might get to know a large and dusty house (the old European manor houses so beloved of writers and directors of gothic horror narratives and ghost story adaptations): each room is connected via a maze of passageways.
The title, epigraph and opening paragraph can be taken as cluster of entryways, each offering more or less condensed and allusive clues as to the main concerns (see below for an analysis).
Here the history of the concept of structure up to its recent “rupture” is described in a rather dense way, with some heady references indeed (to Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger as well as to Levi-Strauss). The “before the rupture” concept of structure involves the assertion (even legislation) of a centre (an origin, a transcendental determination in the abstract value of presence) that “grounds” the structure. The “after the rupture” concept affirms the absence of such a centre but thinks rather the structure’s “structuration” in the effects of infinite substitution and play independently of the workings of a rational and self-present mind, which is now regarded as something of a myth. At the bottom of 280 a large “BUT” intervenes to point out that as ruptures go this one is not that new after all. Rather, metaphysics, philosophy and science have always moved in a circle of production and destruction. The example on page 281 explains why. The concept of “sign,” which is supposed to allow us to move beyond metaphysics, still requires the concepts of metaphysics in order for us to be able to use them for our critique (the signifier and the signified are only the latest version of the ancient distinction between the sensible and the intelligible, and thus the empirical and the transcendental). The signifier is always a sign of … (thus leaving the signified in the place of origin and truth).
This is the main body of the argument and is taken up entirely with a close reading of the works of Levi-Strauss, with close attention to the aporia of his method, which seems to involve the incompatible demands of a traditional empiricism and those of the new concept of bricolage. The main body itself can be usefully broken down into smaller segments:
292 (middle) to the end:
Levi-Strauss represents the negative side of a thinking, of which the Nietzschean affirmation is just the other side.
The oppositions include:
The Title, Epigraph, and Opening Paragraph
The title can be regarded as a site specific reference (to the conference at which it was first presented), and includes the curious jointing of humanities and science—the “human sciences” (the first of many oxymoronic phrases).
The epigraph: from Montaigne (the pinnacle of humanist scepticism towards the sciences of knowledge): “It is more of a business to interpret the interpretations than it is to interpret the things/texts.”
2. “Perhaps ... ” The provisional nature of the “perhaps” at the opening of the first sentence/paragraph gestures to a future that we cannot possibly completely know (and thus foreshadows the final paragraph of the essay). It also does suggest something rather deep in the relationship posited by the terms structure and event that already problematizes their opposition. It leaves something open: this is “what gives” (give a little, take a little?)—or it is where play will emerge. The undecidable or indeterminacy suggested by the perhaps can be related to moments later in the essay where Derrida talks of the “something missing” in the field of anthropological research and the question of what the shared ground might be between the two incompatible “interpretations of interpretation,” the one that favours structure and the one that favours play.
3. The various oppositions put into play:
Structure (from de strure to build) Rupture (from rupt-, ppl. stem of rumpre to break)
Evenement (event) Redoublement (repetition ad infinitum)
Structuralism operates as a kind of analysis of oppositions (especially in the work of Levi-Strauss). Derrida accepts the oppositions to an extent but right from the beginning he makes sure to find what is undecidable in their relation. Structure implies not only “putting together” but also the principles that are posited as those according to which the relations between parts are determined. So “the structurality of structure” implies the principles according to which parts are related in a whole. If one adds a con (“with”) between the French de (“of” or “to”) and Struire one will get the multi-hybrid “de-con-struire” and ultimately deconstruction. Rupture also carries echoes of dis-ruption and inter-ruption. Deconstruction somehow negotiates between the holding together of the whole and its several ways of coming apart. Perhaps “being apart” is one of the conditions according to which parts may be related. We also established that the most basic and deepest meaning of the word difference implies not simply the differences between things but the difference from itself of anything.
The problematic of the centre shifts the troubling of oppositions to the opposition of inside and outside. To think the outside and the inside of a structure implies a structure that is bounded but perhaps not entirely closed. Perhaps this might remind us of the Universe as it was imagined before Copernicus, whose main contribution to knowledge is understood as a kind of “de-centring” of Man. Freud also claims in several places to have brought about a revolution analogous to the Copernican cosmic one with a psychoanalytic “psychic” decentring of consciousness. Nietzsche had already done this in philosophy and Heidegger with another one, after Nietzsche. A series of decentring events thus begins to take shape.
General Remarks and Glossed Terms
The principle that functions as the shared ground of these incompatible “interpretations of interpretation” (the classical concept of truth and the modern or Nietzschean one) is what we now call, among other names, deconstruction. Deconstruction is not itself a method; but it concerns method. It concerns what allows method and what problematizes it. The only principle that can be designated by deconstruction is the one called, variously, iterability, différance, trace etc. It involves the necessity of an ability or capacity in the groundbreaking or path breaking senses. Specifically it designates the ability of a mark of some kind to be repeated (canonically a written mark but in general this covers everything that is meant by sign or language and, more, everything that can be said to belong to experience but which also gestures beyond it too). It is probably important to note that the “principle of the mark” is not an invention of Derrida’s but can be discovered animating texts everywhere. This ability is not only a possibility but it is also a necessity, for without it we would have no recognisable, communicable sense. So the necessity that a mark can be repeated—its repeatability—operates as a kind of ground for everything that occurs in the classification and dissemination of knowledge. One must, however, distinguish this repeatability of the mark from a classical, even Platonic, notion of eternal abstract form (eidos) and infinitely repeatable copy; the mark or trace is repeatable but only in itself, which thus means that it, a priori, differs from itself. Iterability designates the difference of a mark from itself, which follows necessarily from its repeatability.
Derrida offers a few revealing remarks on the methodology of deconstruction in the interview “Positions,” which, owing to the untranslatable peculiarity of its key term, entame, leaves enough open to question for some discusssion:
The incision [L’entame] of deconstruction, which is not a voluntary decision or an absolute beginning, does not take place just anywhere, or in an absolute elsewhere. An incision [entame], precisely [in translation this “precisely” is automatically ironised], can be made only according to lines of force and forces of rupture that are localisable in the discourse to be deconstructed. The topical and technical determination of the most necessary sites and operators—beginnings, holds, levers, etc.—in a given situation depends upon an historical analysis. This analysis is made in the general movement of the field, and is never exhausted by the conscious calculation of a “subject.”
The problem—when considering this as a statement of method—is one, again, of translation. One can see why Alan Bass has chosen “incision” here to translate entame. There is no word in the English language that begins to approximate the subtle nuances of the French term and incision is far enough away from most of them to avoid muddle. It also retains in its alien idiom the key sense of broaching, or cutting into, which entame also suggests (aligning it with the “path-breaking” sense of method). Furthermore the surgical connotations fit well with the technical analytic vocabulary of holds, levers, hooks and operators.
What is missing is the colloquial range of the term, its association with the mouth (the first slice of bread or ham, the opening of the bottle, the commencement of discussions, negotiations) or the opening indeed of hostilities (invasions, attacks). It is primarily un terme du bouche (implying to cut off a first part of a whole to eat it). It is descended, after all, not from technical official but popular Latin, in which the senses of defilement or violation are turned, in a vulgar form of affirmation, to the good: the entame is the beginning of something good (a meal or feast whether of food or words).
Deconstruction enters into a discourse, then, not simply to run up against it but, more to the point, to begin feasting upon it. The “rupture” [also evoking the via-rupture—or path-breaking] of a counter-movement or counter-discourse would become clear only through “historical analysis.” Bass’s choice is justified also by its semantic opposition to decision (which is collocated in the passage with absolute beginning and the conscious “subject”). Deconstruction would not be the movement of opening implied by a conscious decision, but its incision would nonetheless be guided by historical trends or movements in the field. This signals a first rather important methodological issue. The point of incision, the entame, remains both quite technical (in the medical sense) and quite unmethodical—and anti-technical—in its connotations. Certain procedures must be followed before one can make a slice into a discourse yet, and here our own methods are in agreement with (along the same lines as) Derrida’s remarks suggest, there seems to be considerable flexibility in the choice of where one takes this “first slice.”
It is worth recalling Kierkegaard’s warning, though, about “what the philosophers say about actuality,” which, he says, “is as disappointing as when you see a sign in a second hand store that reads: Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed you would be fooled: the sign is for sale” (E/O 50). Accordingly, if the first approach requires attention to what is said, the second requires a shift in focus, an emptying out of the statement itself, what we might call a paleonymic procedure that retains the old concept but allows its conventional or traditional designations—its sense and the conceptual or syntactic space around it—to become loosened before it can be firmed up in a new, more powerful, designation. “Paleonymy” is a coinage by Jacques Derrida, designating the method according to which old names can be utilized in novel circumstances where existing terms are inadequate. Derrida, of course, does not invent the procedure but rather discovers it at work covertly in the texts of the tradition at significant moments.
Différance is a term that Derrida coins on the basis of a pun that the French language makes possible. An understanding of this term is helpful because it can explain a lot about Derrida’s apparently “mischievous” playing with language and ideas. I put “mischievous” in quotation marks because many people have misunderstood the powerful implications of his witty strategy. The pun is possible because in French the word différer can mean either to differ or to defer, depending on context.
Différence: to differ from something and to defer full identity and presence
If I were comparing two different objects of the same generic type (this hat is different from this one) I’d use différer just as I would if I was putting off an appointment (let’s defer it until a time when we’ll both be free). The one, take note, implies spatiality (difference) while the other implies temporality (deferral). What Derrida is asking us to do is to combine both, normally mutually exclusive, meanings in the one new term différance. The pun involves the use of the little letter a. The French différence might mean either difference or deferral. Derrida’s new term, spelt with an “a” instead of an “e,” should be taken to mean both difference and deferral simultaneously. The first part of the pun we can call the performative--or auto-referential--aspect. What this means is that by both differing from itself (it means two different things at once) and deferring until infinity any final meaning (it cannot at any one time mean both differ and defer) the word itself is a performance of its meaning. Différance just is what différance means. The second part of the pun involves the fact that Derrida’s misspelling is only noticeable when the word is written. Saying différence and différance makes no difference in French. It is pronounced the same way with or without the alteration. What this brings to our attention is the difference between phoneme (audible mark) and grapheme (written, visible mark) and a certain imperceptibility of this particular difference. It is this imperceptible difference that Derrida is using in his article “Différance” to draw our attention to the simultaneously absent and present trace, which as a structuring principle is both inaudible and invisible but which allows for the supplement of the audible for the visible and vice versa. In that article, he then goes on to show the same structurality at work in the relation between language and ideas, and between the sensible and intelligible fields of experience, too—that is, thoughts and sensible intuitions turn out to be related as repetitions of the same in a mutually parasitical structure.
So we can say that Différance is the word that Derrida coins to describe and perform the way in which any single meaning of a concept or text arises only by the effacement of other possible meanings, which are themselves only deferred, left over, for their possible activation in other contexts. Différance thus both describes and performs the situation, or the conditions, under which all identities and meanings can occur—so that any text can be repeated in an infinite number of possible contexts for an infinite number of potential but undetermined addressees. The term operates as a powerful modification of the ordinary notions of identity and difference.
The French linguist Emile Benveniste is responsible for outlining the need to make a distinction between what he calls the subject of the énoncé and subject of the énunciation. In two influential arguments Benveniste focuses on the role and implications of the ubiquitous first person pronoun (and its reciprocal second person), used at least implicitly in every language known to man and woman. In “On the Nature of Pronouns” he notes that the first person, “I,” operates in a way quite unlike other pronouns because it is essentially linked to the exercise of language. In other words, the sign I links Saussure’s two dimensions of language, the collective intelligence of langue and the ephemeral individual acts of parole: “it is this property that establishes the basis for individual discourse, in which each speaker takes over all the resources of language for his own behalf” (220). In fact the I not only links the otherwise heterogeneous dimensions of langue and parole but it also keeps its speakers unaware of this profound difference. What is peculiar about the signs I and you is that they are essentially empty of meaning except when they are being used. So the reality to which I or you refers is solely a reality of discourse. They refer to nothing but the fact that someone is speaking or has spoken (and nothing changes when we consider fictional or reported dialogue). Benveniste states the precise definition for I as follows: “I is the individual who utters the present instance of discourse containing the linguistic instance I” (218). By taking the always implicit and often explicit situation of “address” into account, one has the symmetrical definition for you: “the individual spoken to in the present instance of discourse containing the instance you.” Now after Saussure we know that all signs are intrinsically empty of meaning, which is determined only in the repetitions of institutions, systems and events. However, I and you are instances of signs that lack even the possibility of material reference. These signs cannot be misused because they “do not assert anything, they are not subject to the condition of truth and escape all denial” (220). The implications are far reaching. First by indicating the situation of the speaker yet by escaping the conditions normally attributed to language (especially when it is regarded as an instrument of communication), the pronoun tells us something about the relation of the human animal to the language she speaks. Language is not something the human subject uses (as Rene Descartes and the traditions of modernity that follow his lead had always asserted), but rather, the human subject is something only made possible by language. In his 1958 article, “Subjectivity in Language,” Benveniste underlines this point:
We are always inclined to that naïve concept of a primordial period in which a complete man discovered another one, equally complete, and between the two of them language was worked out little by little. This is pure fiction. We can never get back to man separated by language and we shall never see him inventing it … It is a speaking man whom we find in the world, a man speaking to another man, and language provides the very definition of man. (224).
We probably should be a little careful here, because when Benveniste says that language provides the very definition of man, we mustn’t assume, with theoretical linguistics, that we know what language is. At this stage language provides us with the definition of man only because of the peculiarity of personal pronouns. The foundation of “subjectivity” is determined, according to him, by the linguistic status of the person:
Consciousness of self is only possible if it is experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address. It is this condition of dialogue that is constitutive of person, for it implies that reciprocally I becomes you in the address of the one who in his turn designates himself as I” (224-225).
So the basis of subjectivity, if we take language as a model, would not be those aspects that constitute either its lexical content (meaning) or its formal and grammatical rules, but it would only be discoverable in the exercise of language. It thus becomes necessary to recognize an irreducible division corresponding to that between enunciation and statement (énoncé). The subject of the statement seems fixed in time, a snapshot of a moment that has immediately passed, already fading in its enunciation. The speaker is already in principle out of the picture and all that remains is his representative in language. What this means is simply that subjectivity comes into being in language alone and that, in speaking, the human subject is irreconcilably divided in himself. A temporal disjunction between the subject speaking (enunciation) and the subject represented in speech (statement) implies that with the single pronoun I, there are always at least two subjects: a subject who is speaking and a subject represented in speech. By focusing on one we necessarily lose sight of the other. There are instances that bring this situation to light rather obviously. The old paradox of the Cretan Liar provides a fine example. When someone says “I am lying,” the I must refer to a different subject than the one who makes the statement. When someone says “I am dead” a similar situation arises. The I in principle (and thus in fact) lives on beyond the I who speaks. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that the meaning of the statement is the same whether it is true or false at the moment of utterance and is destined to be true anyway independently of any individual speaker or writer. But it is this “at the moment of utterance” that loses its anchor once we begin to focus on the modality of personal address. Benveniste reminds us that “linguistic time is self-referential” (227). The eternally present moment is an illusion that covers up or sutures the fundamental disjunction in language according to which a present moment (the moment of utterance) can only ever appear as a representation (the statement).
Benveniste’s distinction plays a decisive role in the work of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Michel Foucault, who are some of the “names” we associate with the category of critical theory called poststructuralism. For Lacan this distinction in language corresponds exactly to Freud’s distinction between consciousness and the unconscious. For Lacan, since the subject comes into being through language he does so through the exercise of signifying articulation—the act of enunciation. As soon as he comes into being he finds himself not as he is (what Lacan would call the truth of his being) but as he imagines himself to be—that is as a representation (at the level of the statement). In order to discover the subject of the unconscious the analyst must focus on the level of enunciation (performance, expression)—in order to recognize the truth of the subject in the articulation of language—its enunciation. Lacan puts it like this: “In order to be situated in the locus of the Other, the presence of the unconscious is to be sought in any discourse in its enunciation” (Ecrits 834). So the relation between statement and enunciation (the said and the saying) actualizes the divided structure of the psychoanalytic subject and helps us further to grasp the difference between the imaginary (fixed and complete image of person) and the symbolic (the constitutive function of language).
Roland Barthes explicitly draws attention to the imaginary function of the I in classic realist fiction in his S/Z. He draws attention to the use of the personal pronoun as character forming and rethinks the distinction énoncé/enunciation as that between a character (for traditional readings) and a figure:
In principle, the character who says “I” has no name (Proust’s narrator is an outstanding example); in fact, however, I immediately becomes a name, his name. In the story (and in many conversations), I is no longer a pronoun, but a name, the best of names: to say I is inevitably to attribute signifieds to oneself; further, it gives one a biographical duration, it enables one to undergo, in one’s imagination, an intelligible “evolution,” to signify oneself as an object with a destiny, to give a meaning to time. On this level, I (and notably the narrator of Sarrasine) is therefore a character. The figure is altogether different: it is not a combination of semes concentrated on a legal name, nor can biography, psychology, or time encompass it: it is an illegals, impersonal, anachronistic configuration of symbolic relationships. As figure, the character can oscillate between two roles, without this oscillation having any meaning, for it occurs outside biographical time (outside chronology): the symbolic structure is completely reversible: it can be read in any direction … As a symbolic ideality, the character has no Name; he is nothing but a site for the passage (and return) of the figure. (S/Z 68).
All of S/Z’s polarities can be situated on the model of énoncé/enunciation. What is revealed, if anything, is that, above the bar (on the level of the statement) we find the sum total of determinations, institutions, codes and systematizations—the whole sedimented world of the statement and its theoretical conditions of truth and falsity. Beneath the bar, however, we find the conditions of discourse itself in an essentially empty sign.