Derrida begins his text with a reference to a recent event in the history of the concept of structure, but immediately retreats to question the use of the word “event.” He is concerned that the word “event” is too loaded with meaning. This is a problem because the function of thinking about structure is to reduce the notion of events. Why is it so? The reason is: thinking about structure must be abstract and exclude concretes such as events. Still, Derrida wants to report on something that happened, which is relevant to the concept of structure, so he allows the event to be admitted into the discussion, provided it is enclosed in quotation marks, as a word and not an actual event. The event is now identified as that of “rupture” and “redoubling.” Of what? The reader will not find out until the end of the essay. Derrida writes: “The appearance of a new structure, of an original system, always comes about–and this is the very condition of its structural specificity–by a rupture with its past, its origin, and its cause” (290). Then this is what has recently happened in the history of the concept of structure: a nascent structure is struggling to be born out of the old one, and it collides with the old structure—its origin and cause. The reader, however, is still in the beginning of the essay and has no clue what the rupture is about.
In the beginning of the essay, Derrida proceeds to talk about the center of a structure, which controls the structure by orienting and organizing it. Derrida admits that an unorganized structure is unconceivable and that a structure without a center is unthinkable, but he contends that the center delimits and diminishes the possible play within the structure. Play, then, is whatever goes against the organization and coherence of the structure. Derrida now points out the paradox that the center of the structure must be both inside and outside the structure. It must be a part of the structure, but also independent of it, in order to control it. Derrida appears to delight in refuting the Law of Identity. He exclaims that since the center is both inside and outside the structure, “the center is not the center” (279). Nevertheless, he continues to write about the center, confident that it can exist and function while not being itself. This is therefore a clear rebuttal of Aristotle’s valorization of identity.
Next Derrida surveys the entire history of the concept of structure, up to the recent, still-mysterious, rupture, as a series of substituting one center for another. Never was there a structure without a center, full of nothing but play. What types of centers were there so far? Derrida names a few: essence, existence, substance, subject, consciousness, God, and man. The structure, then, is not just any structure, but a structure of concepts, that is, philosophy, with one central concept that controls it. According to Derrida, the event of the rupture occurred when there was a disruption in the series of substituting one center for another. This disruption occurred when the very idea of the structurality of the structure became the subject of somebody’s thought. However, according to Derrida, a center cannot substitute itself; it cannot be repeated. The old center could not stay and there was no new one. Then, for the first time in the history of the structure, “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center.” Instead, “an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (280). In the absence of a center, play finally had its chance. What does play consist of? Derrida describes how, once there was no center, language invaded the scene and everything became discourse. (Instead of a structure of concepts, and philosophy, there was only a collection of signs and language.) The signified became indistinguishable from the signifier, and the play became “a play of signification.” Signs, that is, words, could have any meaning, in a boundless, infinite play. In a half-hearted admission of historical events, Derrida points out several individuals who contributed to the historical elimination of the center (who must have been the ones to rethink the notion of the center). Nietzsche’s critique of the concepts of “being” and “truth”; Freud’s critique of self-presence, consciousness, self-identity, and the subject himself; and finally, Heidegger’s radical destruction of metaphysics. Still, Derrida stops short of embracing Nihilism. He admits that it is impossible to destroy a concept without using it. It is impossible to pronounce a proposition without using the form, the logic, and the postulations of what it attempts to contest. He points out that signs must signify something. Once the signified is eliminated, the very notion of signs must be rejected as well. The endless, boundless play is over.
At this point, Derrida asks: “What is the relevance of this formal scheme when we turn to what are called the ‘human sciences’”? Derrida brings up ethnology as the human science that can benefit from his discussion in part one. He draws out a parallel between the history of ethnology and the history of the concept of structure. Ethnology emerged as science when European culture lost its ethnocentric notion of itself—when the central idea in Western culture, ethnocentrism, lost its control over Western culture. The critique of European ethnocentrism coincided with the destruction of the inherited metaphysics by Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger. Ethnology is caught up in a similar paradox as the metaphysics of deconstruction. It depends on that which it seeks to destroy. It originated in Europe and uses European concepts, but it attempts to destroy the notion of European ethnocentrism. At this point, Derrida brings up the opposition between nature and culture, which is an ancient philosophical issue. He uses the ethnological writings of Claude Levi-Strauss as an example of the study of this opposition. Levi-Strauss discovered a scandalous paradox inherent in the nature/culture opposition. The taboo on incest, as Levi-Strauss observed, was both natural and cultural: It was a universal taboo, not particular to a specific culture, but still a part of each culture. The problem, obviously, is not with the taboo on incest, but with Levi-Strauss’s interpretation of its universality as “natural.” As Will Thomas observed his essay, the natural and the universal are not synonymous. Still, Derrida uses this “paradox” in order to commend Levi-Strauss for continuing to use the nature/culture opposition in his ethnological studies while criticizing its inherent paradox. This is an example of deconstruction, which must continue to use what it is deconstructing. The “scandal” of this paradox is like a storm in a teacup, but it is sufficient for Derrida to require that the nature/culture opposition be questioned. Derrida proceeds to claim that once the opposition between nature and culture is questioned, there is no way to separate nature and culture, and they become indistinguishable. Another successful deconstruction has taken place. At this point, Derrida proceeds to search for the origin, or originator, of language. In a conglomeration of linguistic musings, he hypothesizes that if there was such an originator, he must be a myth, because he would be “the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ‘out of nothing” (285). However, Derrida admitted before that signs could not exist independently of what they signify. The logical conclusion would be that language came into existence out of nothing, but was preceded by the concepts it was about to name. In Objectivist terms, man developed a conceptual capacity before he developed language. Nevertheless, Derrida continues to use Levi-Strauss’s writings to explain that language was preceded and created by mythology. He describes mythology as a structure with no center, that is, no origin or cause. But wasn’t “center” defined before as an overruling concept, which mythology certainly has? In an application of the deconstructing play, the meaning of the word “center” has shifted to “origin.” The origin of mythology is indeed unknown, which qualifies it as a center-less structure. Similarly, the musical works of the archaic societies studied by Levi-Strauss have no known composers, so music qualifies as a center-less structure as well. In another shift of the meaning of “origin,” Derrida quotes Levi-Strauss’s claim that the audience of a musical performance is like “a silent performer,” so the origin of the music is indeterminate. It is in the conductor, the performers, and the audience, everywhere and nowhere. The reader may think that mythology and music still have an overruling concept, they have a meaning, but once they are defined as center-less, their meaning is doomed to be deconstructed as well: “‘Music and mythology bring man face to face with potential objects of which only the shadows are actualized”.
After stating that the mythological discourse has no center, Derrida leaps to the conclusion that the philosophical or epistemological requirements of a center appear as no more than a historical illusion. Philosophy never had a real center, only an illusory one, because it depends on language, which depends on mythology, which, in turn, never had a center. Again, Derrida recoils from the inevitable Nihilism of this conclusion. He prefers to leave open the question of the relationship between philosophy and mythology, so that philosophy may still have a center. He acknowledges that the possibility that philosophy never had a center is a problem that cannot be dismissed, because it may become a fault within the philosophical realm. Such a fault, however, is a species of Empiricism, a doctrine that Derrida obviously holds in great disregard. Derrida is concerned that Empiricism is a menace to the discourse he attempts to formulate here. Derrida wants to save philosophy for the same purpose he wanted to save the sign: for endless deconstruction. He stresses that it is impossible to actually turn the page on philosophy. Even “transphilosophical” concepts that attempt to go beyond philosophy can only amount to reading philosophers in a certain way. There is nothing to be studied beyond philosophy (and there will be nothing left to study once philosophy is completely deconstructed.)
Derrida proceeds to deconstruct Empiricism, the one philosophy he will not miss. He attempts to invalidate the Empiricist critique of Levi-Strauss’s ethnological theories. Levi-Strauss was criticized for not conducting an exhaustive inventory of South American myths before proceeding to write about South American mythology. He defended himself by claiming that a linguist can decipher grammar from only a few sentences and does not need to collect all the sentences of a language. Derrida obviously agrees with him. However, grammar and mythology are not analogous. Each myth is unique and can add more to the study of mythology, whereas all the sentences in a language use the same grammar, so only a sample of sentences is needed for the study of grammar. However, this is empirical evidence, which Derrida disregards. He uses Levi-Strauss’s example of the study of grammar to prove that “totalization” is both useless and impossible. It is useless and impossible to encompass the totality of language in order to study its grammar. In the absence of totalization, what emerges is “nontotalization,” which is again defined as “play.” This time, it is language, not the structure that loses its coherence to “play.” However, the play remains the same: words can now have any meaning.