Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” is not only concerned with changing the manner of discourse in human sciences, but is also deeply invested in completely destroying underlying assumptions and implied structures inherent in structuralism. To be sure, Derrida’s aim in this essay is to reconsider what has become known as structuralism, particularly the kind found in Levi-Strauss’s nature/culture binaries. Though Levi-Strauss was a cultural anthropologist, the connections he made between nature and culture have become critical to structuralism as a discipline, one that is built upon the ever-presence of structures. This is at the core of the discourse of the human sciences, which is precisely what Derrida is focused on. But, more importantly, Derrida’s task is not just an attack on Levi-Strauss, but on the whole of structuralism. That means, then, a reconsideration of Foucault’s structuralist approach in The Order of Things, as well as a rethinking of Heidegger’s notion of being as based on a primordial understanding of “Being” and, even Plato’s Forms. Granted, though these may not be explicit in Derrida’s essay, it is certainly in the background to Derrida’s overall metaphysical understanding of what structuralism is—Foucault, Heidegger, and Plato are important representative figures, by which Derrida constructs his own semiotic discipline that has come to known as deconstruction. Of course, “deconstruction” is not a term that Derrida uses in this essay, nor is it a term he would have been comfortable subscribing to. Surely, his method is, if anything, “deconstructionist,” since, above all, it encounters structuralism as something that must be deconstructed. That is, structuralism is grounded by inherent structures. In Derrida’s view, these structures are problematic and constrictive, since meaning should not be structural or narrowed at all. It is this sentiment that directly confronts Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, but more poignantly, Heidegger and Plato.
Common in Heidegger’s notion of being and Plato’s Forms is the transcendental signifier: a signifier that is a fixed frame of reference that always has a referred meaning to something signified. For Heidegger, “being” is oriented towards “Being” through an onto-theological relationship—this relationship is predicated on the structural imperative of Dasein. In Plato, the “Forms” contain a structural imperative, one that, as we see in The Republic, becomes the means by which a society is structured, organized, and ordered in terms of who can perceive those “Forms.” In both Heidegger and Plato, and even Foucault, there is the sense that certain ontological structures lend the possibility for metaphysical structures, especially in relation to a definite center from which everything that is ontological is delineated. This “center” is what Derrida is arguing against. His argument is that there should a reconsideration of the role that the “center” plays in the structure. As Derrida proposes, “the function of the center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure…but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure.”
“Play,” as Derrida has coins it, is analogous to tolerance or give. That is, “the play of the structure” is the tolerance/give of the structure. This is decidedly arguing against the notion that a structure is complete in itself and that referred meaning—for example, between the signified and a transcendental signifier—is a closed-ended, absolutist endeavor. The completeness of the structure and referred meaning, as Derrida points out, is in the form of presence: the identity of a thing as it is. This identity, as it were, is grounded on a center and this concept of center lies in the possibility of “play.” What we see from the identity of a thing, as a form of presence, is the direct result of “play” predicated on a system of differences. In effect, “play” makes both presence and absence possible, since presence cannot be as it is without absence. Because of this, Derrida argues that “there is also the tension between play and presence [since] play is the disruption of presence.” In this regard, then, Derrida comes to the conclusion that: “Being must be conceived as presence or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not the other way around.”