found its analogies in linguistics and semiotics. Claude Lévi-Strauss provides some
acknowledgements. Abundantly to Marcel Mauss in his Introduction to Sociologie et
anthropologie: “. . . . inspiring ourselves by Mauss’s precept that all social phenomena may
be assimilated into language, we see . . . [in them] the conscious expression of a semantic
formation.”59 Here to Troubetzkoy (for Derrida’s own discussion of this passage we should
turn to pages 151 f. [Io2 f.] of Of Grammatology) :
Structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social
sciences that nuclear physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences. In what does
this revolution consist :.. ? N. Troubetzkoy, the illustrious founder of structural linguistics, . . .
reduced the structural method to four basic operations. First, structural linguistics shifts from
the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure;
second, it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis
the relations between terms; third, it introduces the concept of system—“. . . it shows concrete
phonemic systems and elucidates their structure”—; finally, structuralist linguistics aims at
discovering general laws. . . . In the study of kinship problems (and, no doubt, the study of
other problems as well), the anthropologist finds himself in a situation which formally
resembles that of the structural linguist. Like phonemes, kinship terms are elements of
meaning; like phonemes, they acquire meaning only if they are integrated into systems.
“Kinship systems,” like “phonemic systems,” are built by the mind on the level of
unconscious thought. Finally, the recurrence of kinship patterns .. . in scattered regions of the
globe and in fundamentally different societies, leads us to believe that, in the case of kinship
as well as linguistics, the observable phenomena result from the action of laws which are
general but implicit.60
Roman Jakobson, a member of the Prague School of Formalism, encountered Claude Lévi-
Strauss in the United States in the 1950s. One account of the rise of “structuralism” is that
what is recognized today as the main-stream structuralist method of the interpretation of texts
arose out of this temporary conjunction.61
I indulge in this sort of sweeping historical fiction because, as I have sug-
gested, Derrida’s criticism of “structuralism,” even as he inhabits it, would be a sweeping one.
It would relate to the possibility of a general law. The law of differance is that any law is
constituted by postponement and self-difference. The possibility of a general law is threatened
on so general a level.
Derrida would also problematize the possibility of objective description. A structuralist
statement of structuralist objectives bases itself on the distinction between subject and object.
Structuralist conclusions are the object illuminated by the subject: “The goal of all
structuralist activity, whether reflexive or poetic, is to reconstruct (reconstituer) an ‘object’ in
such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of its functioning (the ‘functions’) of this object.
Structure is therefore actually a simulacrum of the object, but a directed interested
simulacrum, since the imitated object makes some-thing appear which remained invisible or, .
. . unintelligible in the natural object.”62 For Derrida, however, a text, as we recall, whether
“literary,” “psychic,” “anthropological,” or otherwise, is a play of presence and absence, a
place of the effaced trace. (“If it is to be radically conceived, [the play] must be thought of
true of the “object” of study but also true of the “subject” that studies. It effaces the neat
distinction between subject and object. The grammatological structure as a tool of description
is that structure which forever eludes answering the question “what is . . . ?”—the basis of
objective description. Even as it re-mains legible as a structure, it erases the aim of
structuralism—to provide objective descriptions.
Speaking generally again, it may be said that the method of structuralism takes into account
that its objects of study cannot have had simple origins in the sovereign subject of an “author.”
But the power of the investigating subject, which brings intelligibility to the natural object by
imitating it as a structure, in spite of the many delicate argumentations around it, cannot
ultimately be denied within the framework of structural study. A structure, it must be repeated,
is the natural object plus the subjective intelligence of the structuralist: “the simulacrum is
intellect added to object, and this addition has an anthropological value, in that it is man
himself, his history, his situation, his freedom, and the very resistance which nature offers to
The notion of “communication” (a “function” of human structures), important to structuralism
as a tool of investigation, also carries with it the notion of unified subjects, of meaning as
portable property: “. . . . communication, which, in fact, implies the transmission charged
(Pos F 34).
Derrida finds the concept of the binary sign itself, in its role as the guide of this objective
enterprise, committed to a science of presence. Barthes writes eloquently: “The sign is not
only the object of a particular knowledge, but also the object of a vision, analogous to the
vision of the celestial spheres in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis or related to the molecular repre-
sentations used by chemists; the semiologist sees the sign moving in the field of signification,
he enumerates its valences, traces their configuration: the sign is, for him, a sensous idea.”64
And Derrida, diagnosing the symptoms of this longing for presence, writes: “. . . a semiology .
. . whose .. . concepts and fundamental presuppositions are most precisely locatable from
Plato to Husserl, passing by way of Aristotle, Rousseau, Hegel, etc.” (PosF 33)
Yet since, as I have argued, the structure of the grammè is the sign under erasure—both
conserving and effacing the sign, Derrida must make use of the concept of the sign. His
relationship to structuralism is therefore intimate. In an interview with Julia Kristeva, Derrida
points out that Saussure’s binary concept of the sign, questioning the separable primacy of
meaning—the transcendental signified—pointed a way out of the metaphysics of presence:
Saussurian semiology noted, against tradition, that the signified was inseparable from the
signifier, that [they] are the two faces of one and the same production. . . . By showing that “it
is impossible for sound alone, the material element, to belong to the language” and that “[in
its essence the linguistic signifier] is in no way phonic” (p. 164)65; by desubstantializing at
once the signified content and the “substance of expression”—which is therefore no longer
exclusively the phone—.... Saussure contributed greatly to turning against the metaphysical
tradition the concept of the sign that he borrowed from it. (Pos F 28)