Episode 51: Semiotics and Structuralism (Saussure, et al)

SaussureOn Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1916) (Part I and Part II, Ch. 4), Claude Levi-Strauss's "The Structural Study of Myth" (1955), and Jacques Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966).

What is language? What is the relation between language and reality? Saussure argued that a language at a given time has a structure, where you can only really understand the meaning (or "value") of a word by contrasting it with other words. Structuralists like Levi-Strauss generalized this to all of culture, and Derrida, while rejecting the structuralist project, takes the notion of "difference" between words to uproot all meaning from any non-linguistic reality. (Probably... even our guest C. Derick Varn who's read the Derrida essay dozens of times isn't sure what it means.) Learn more about the topic and get the readings.

End song: "Slipped into Words," written and recorded by Mark in 1991, released on The MayTricks, which you can freely download in full.

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  1. dmf says

    well done, lots of resonances there; Darwin vs Aristotle, philology in Heidegger and Nietzsche, is social-science an oxymoron, what if anything secures meaning/correctness, emergence, background/foreground gestalts, do words get their meaning from use?
    The main takeaway may well be the question of how pragmatist is Derrida and my related question is how would “experience” secure a meaning, make something correct or not, outside of the ‘web’ of language/social-practices? have you folks covered the hermeneutic circle and or the linguistic turn in philo?
    Wittgenstein on how language is like a game, familial resemblances, rule following, and such might be a nice follow up to this discussion, as would:

  2. dmf says

    there is a good argument to be made that Derrida rather than denying the existence of things is a kind of hyper-realist who (in the spirit but not the Word of John Duns Scotus via Heidegger) does not believe that the world is pre-divided into categories, classes, geniuses, or species, but only unique individuals, an ethos of thisness (this will become important later for ethics/Levinas)
    I would second skipping Lacan and the idea of the unconscious being structured like Language (at least until after Marx) but how language use, memory, visual perceptions, and all emerge out of neural patterns/behaviors, and how as Noe, Chalmers and others point to this mind-ing is extended bodily into the world is worth investigating.

  3. David Buchanan says

    I’m not done listening to the episode yet but was struck by the notion of arbitrary origins for sound images and had to hit the pause button. The following quote from James popped into my mind. I think he was almost elegant in expressing this idea…

    “All human thinking gets discursified; we exchange ideas; we lend and borrow verifications, get them from one another by means of social intercourse. All truth thus gets verbally built out, stored up, and made available for everyone. Hence, we must TALK consistently just as we must THINK consistently: for both in talk and thought we deal with kinds. Names are arbitrary, but once understood they must be kept to. We mustn’t now call Abel ‘Cain’ or Cain ‘Abel.’ If we do, we ungear ourselves from the whole book of Genesis, and from all its connexions with the universe of speech and fact down to the present time. We throw ourselves out of whatever truth that entire system of speech and fact may embody.” (William James, Pragmatism, 1906)

  4. Ryan says

    I find this passage out of the Derrida piece to be imperative toward an understanding of his work. In this way deconstruction as the petulant method of closing out other projects becomes very misleading:
    ‘There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics. We have no language-no syntax and no lexicon-which is alien to this history; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest. To pick out one example from many: the metaphysics of presence is attacked with the help of the concept of the sign. But from the moment anyone wishes this to show, as I suggested a moment ago, that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or the interplay of signification has, henceforth, no limit, he ought to extend his refusal to the concept and to the word sign itself-which is precisely what cannot be done. For the signification “sign” has always been comprehended and determined, in its sense, as sign-of, signifier referring to a signified, signifier different from its signified. If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word signifier itself which ought to be abandoned as a metaphysical concept.’

    No important division of language or individual research program is going to be met with some sudden end as each of the philosophical programs in the 20th century had separately hoped to perform against one another. Instead, historically relevant concepts should be reappropriated when needed, and tempered with further reference to signifier and signified, or maybe also in accordance with those notions developed in recent episodes: Ponty’s embodied intentionality, Foucault’s examination of power, Pirsig’s Quality (more dubious). What this means ontologically I think Derrida is careful, and probably wrong, to try to avoid speculating on. This seems to lead to a proliferation of metaphysical concepts, and it is the hope of deconstruction that they may all still be subjected to some normative order, say as the regularly generated theoretical precursors to creative acts, or novel scientific experiments, or further philosophical investigations, and abandoned whereever it is found unnecessary that they be employed.

    It’s very amusing to hear deconstruction being deconstructed. Maybe some of the overt smarm we’re encountering has always previously gone unchecked in the history of philosophy. I’ve never in my life heard Derrida compared with pragmaticists so I guess that is an interesting line of inquiry although I am almost certain he would have hated being aligned with them in any way, believing themselves to have successfully whittled down their ideas in to self-contained useful philosophies beyond the scope of any further sufficient deconstruction. The only idealists today are those who think things can go on for very much longer in anything like the way they happen to be going for right now, and in that sense the pragmaticists are much more radical in their beliefs than Derrida.

    • Profile photo of Dylan Casey says

      Thanks for posting this link to Rorty on Derrida, dmf. I’ve felt similarly “in the middle” between philosophy (especially postmodern philosophy) and science (at least some interpretations of it) since I studied philosophy as an undergrad, turned to physics, and then continued on in physics for grad school. Rorty condenses the irritation I have with Derrida rather nicely:

      What pragmatists find most foreign in Derrida is his suspicion of empiricism, and naturalism-his assumption that these are forms of metaphysics, rather than replacements for metaphysics. To put it another way: they cannot understand why Derrida wants to sound transcendental, why he persists in taking the project of finding conditions of possibility seriously. So when pragmatists are told by ‘deconstructionists’ that Derrida has ‘demonstrated’ that Y, the condition of the possibility of X, is also the condition of the impossibility of X, they feel that this is an unnecessarily high-faluting way of putting a point which could be put a lot more simply: viz., that you cannot use the word ‘A’ without being able to use the word ‘B’, and vice versa, even though nothing can be both an A and an B.

      • dmf says

        my pleasure, I came the other way from lab life to antifoundationalist philosophy but share the concerns (have you read any of Hacking or Pickering?) and was with Rorty against Critchley and co. back in the day but as someone who has seen time and again the crippling tyranny of the means, and the limits of calculation, can appreciate Derrida’s desire to keep our feet to the fire, to remind us that we are always in media res.
        here is a bit of Andy Pickering who was a serious physicist before leaving to write among other things a very good book on The Mangle of Practice.

      • David Buchanan says

        I’m looking at the Rorty quote and thinking of the point you were making about 30 minutes from the end, Dylan. In describing Derrida’s view, you said that structure is not an indication of there being something “outside”. People get irritated by slogans that say there is “nothing outside text”, I think, because of the way they seem to de-realize reality. The world as we know it becomes something like a free-floating web of signifiers with no intelligible relation to anything but itself. Without any “center”, much less empirical restraints, meanings can just slip and slide endlessly. There’s no way to get any traction or foothold. This picture can cause a certain kind of existential sea-sickness. Realists, theists and anyone who’s fond of eternal certainties or universal truths are the most likely to react negatively or otherwise freak out. As they see it, this is dangerous, nihilistic relativism. I’m not one of those, but I can sympathize.

        In the same way that structure doesn’t necessarily mean essential structure or universal structure, we don’t have to be physicalists in order to admit that there are empirical restraints. In other words, the restraints we find in experience don’t have to be explained in terms of a reality “outside” of experience itself. That is the sort of thing that Derrida will see as metaphysical. The empiricism and naturalism of scientific realists is very often a metaphysics that doesn’t know it’s a metaphysics. (I even suspect Rorty is guilty of this. He has to posit an external reality in order to deny that we can have epistemic access to it. As he puts it, our relationship with this reality is causal, not epistemic.)

        As I understand it, this sort of linguistic idealism can be corrected by empiricism, but without resorting to the metaphysics of substance. What the realist really wants, I think, is some way to acknowledge the empirical fact that reality does not bend to our whims and wishes. External realities were invented to explain these empirical facts. WE say the rock and the knife are “outside” myself but “hard” and “sharp” mean what they mean in relation to you, in relation to human flesh. And these things are known within experience. There is nothing transcendent or radically external. The so-called external reality is a result of the way we sort experience according to these kinds of relations. Imaginary water won’t help you put out a “real” fire but with “real” water you stand a chance, for example. Inner and outer are categories of relations, so to speak. Words can’t start a chemical reaction and ideas cannot be clarified with soap and water. But none of this is “outside” in any metaphysical sense. As James put it, all these things come to life within the tissue of experience. This is empiricism without the metaphysics, the kind of empiricism wherein reality and experience amount to the same thing.

        • Profile photo of Dylan Casey says

          Part of the difficulty is the use of the word experience. While I’m deeply sympathetic with it, it can also tilt the inquiry radically inward, funneling the whole world through me as an individual. Now, some of that is true, but it is easy to go too far. Science may be a product of experience, but it is also a product of interaction — it is not fundamentally directed inward even if it scientific conclusions might be leavened and constrained by the experience of the scientists. (And even if part of the activity of being a scientist involves thinking through some of one’s own activity and pre-dispositions.) Part of what I like about pragmatism (and why I think it jives so well with science in general) is that allows for figuring things out about the world (which we certainly do) without getting too hung up on either it being “absolutely true” or it being “merely a text.” It maintains the inquiry without wallowing in skepticism or being sterilized by dogmatic certainty.

          • David Buchanan says

            Yea, Dylan, I know what you mean. The term “experience” is traditionally associated with some kind of subjectivism and that can easily degenerate into subjective idealism or some kind of solipsism. But, as I mentioned in my post on the pragmatists, guys like James, Dewey and Pirsig use the term “experience” in a very different way. As John Stuhr says, “It cannot be overemphasized that Dewey is not using the word ‘experience’ in its conventional sense. For Dewey, experience is not to be understood in terms of the experiencing subject, or as the interaction of a subject and object that exist separate from their interaction. Instead, Dewey’s view is radically empirical.”

            Objectivity takes a hit here too, as well as subjectivity, but this doesn’t do any damage to empirical science. Dropping the attitudes of objectivity doesn’t give the scientist permission to ignore the empirical data, of course, but he’ll be more sensitive to his own interests and the role they play in interpreting or framing the data.

            As you pointed out during the podcast, it’s a very curious thing that Levi-Stauss picked up his structuralism and went looking for the structure of a myth and found – surprise – the structure of structuralism. Narcissus unwittingly fell in love with own reflection.

            Structures, archetypes, Forms. That’s not science. It’s just more Platonism, which is anti-empirical and otherworldly. The trick is to realize that we ADD these forms and structures. They are the abstract products of experience, provisional concepts that will eventually change as new data comes in. Experience is the ultimate bullshit detector and that’s what makes empirical science work. Whatever we say about the data, about those empirical restraints, has to be consistent with the conceptual order within which the scientists works – even in the case of scientific revolutions. This work doesn’t work at all, of course, if the scientist is conceptually or linguistically “ungeared” from his cultural context. Thus truths are “wedged and controlled” between the empirical restraints and the limits of the conceptual. Then our truths are knowable and verifiable and stable enough to be useful but these truths are not posited with any eternal or universal ambitions.

  5. David Buchanan says

    I’m thinking that Derrida was attacking Levi-Strauss in the same sort of way that Rorty attacked the quasi-scientific pretensions in analytic philosophy.

    Consider the fact that Levi-Stauss was working the area of mythology, a visual, visceral, symbolic language of affect, in such a way that it come out looking like algebra or some kind of taxonomy. He’s looking at stories about motherfuckers who gouge their own eyes out but he wants it to look like abstract mathematics. It seems to me that this is a clear case of scientism, of the inappropriate application of scientific methods and procedures.

    As Rorty frames it in “Lumps and Texts”, the chemist and his lump posses a kind of scientific respectability that the literary critic sorely envies and so the even the crit-lit department adopts their methods. He wants to say, “don’t do that”. The one who analyzes physical phenomena does not have any more access to the “truth” than those who analyze poetry.

    So Levi-Struass’s notion that mythological thinking was a “bricologe”, was a claim about it’s inferiority to his own scientific approach to human culture. This is treating a text as if it were a lump. He was saying that mythological thinking was just cobbled together from whatever was lying around, so to speak, unlike science. And Derrida is saying it ain’t so. He’s saying that scientists and philosophers can only ever work with whatever’s lying around in the culture, that they too can only cobble and tinker with the available materials.

  6. dmf says

    Tim Ingold offers a post-structuralist anthro that is along the lines of M-Ponty and Dreyfus, here he is on “transmission”:

  7. Ryan says

    David Buchanan :
    Objectivity takes a hit here too, as well as subjectivity, but this doesn’t do any damage to empirical science.

    Doesn’t it though? The empirical sciences would have us believe that they are picking out actual structures in the world (or of experience, however you’d like to have it), but referring to this simply as a remnant of platonism makes it curious how they can ever be remotely successful when experimenting with a strictly dynamic, chaotic flux. What are forms and structures being added to, and what is doing the adding, if there are not subjects acting on objects? What makes for a concrete product of experience as opposed to an abstract one?

    What are knowable, verifiable, stable truths useful for if not to act on (however posited as it may be) an eternal nature? I think what makes empirical science work is that there is a world outside of us with structures present in it, were this not the case there would be no empirical science to perform as an activity. How does the radical empiricist decide whether they’ve obtained workable data, or that they’ve been inadequately sensitive toward their experiment? This is what hopefully separates empiricists from idealists and solipsists, as to them the results of every single experiment have no observable difference from a personal failure in collecting data objectively.

    • David Buchanan says

      I realize that it’s hard to swallow, Ryan, but these radical empiricists really are rejecting the common sense realism you’re defending. It takes some getting used to and I don’t blame you one bit for thinking that it sounds too incredible. But if you imagine that “actual structures” and “the world outside” are concepts invented to explain the regularities found in experience rather than the realities that cause the regularities, then it just a matter of realizing that ideas are ideas and not ontological realities. They are abstractions that can refer to any number of particular, concrete experiences. Those experienced resistances and regularities are the concrete empirical facts, whereas external objects are posited as explanations for that fact. And it’s a very powerful and fabulously successful idea, one that scientists have used quite fruitfully and it works well in rush hour traffic too. But still, its just an idea. What you get is realism and naturalism without physicalism or reductionism. It un-reifies some very key concepts and in fact all concepts are demoted to secondary status so that all metaphysical posits are treated as either hypotheses for more work or as feckless fancies to be abandoned.

  8. Tim says

    If there was to be another Derrida episode, it would be interesting if it dealt with one of his later works: Specters of Marx, The Beast and the Sovereign, Politics of Friendship, Of Hospitality, The Work of Mourning… not only are they easier to read (well, what I’ve read from them seems to be), but he actually puts forward some sort of positive conception of politics/ethics (even if it is super vague) instead of just tearing everyone else to bits

  9. Ryan says

    David Buchanan :
    It un-reifies some very key concepts and in fact all concepts are demoted to secondary status so that all metaphysical posits are treated as either hypotheses for more work or as feckless fancies to be abandoned.

    I don’t see why that should be the case, concepts are things that do work in the world just as much as anything else, otherwise they are epiphenomenon. What is at stake here is exactly whether actual structures or the world outside should be put in to quotations, and if so, why we would even bother to posit their difference from ideas and the subject. I realize that this sort of perspective is often successful in the history of science, but it is also sometimes depersonalizing and an inherently constricting theoretical presupposition to begin from. Why treat your work with any seriousness if there is always an infantile equal and opposite way of reframing everything that would render it all false, incorrect, irrational, grossly abstract? While I’m all for paying respect to a plurality of perspectives, the observed and inexplicable fact of the matter is that experimental sciences have been met with unparalleled success in their ends, however ethical they may inconsistently be. And I suppose this is the other problem, as a radical empiricist may suggest sensitivity, but they have no reason to demand it: any old experiment will always be met with some kind of creative event. It is only the physicalist for which further sensitivity paid to the experiment will result in greater accuracy of results.

    It is interesting how the philosophy of language has really pervaded the discourse (haha!) to such an extent that it holds consequences for all other kinds of philosophy not always immediately associated with it.

    • David Buchanan says

      I can see where you’re coming from, I think. It’s unsettling or even disturbing for a scientific realist to contemplate the claims of these radical empiricists. And this is even more true for the claims of Derrida, or at least the deconstructive method that been taken from his work. You asked one question that seems quite key.

      “Why treat your work with any seriousness if there is always an infantile equal and opposite way of reframing everything that would render it all false, incorrect, irrational, grossly abstract?” Apparently, you feel that important and valuable things are threatened by these views. I really don’t think that’s the case. Maybe you can’t have eternal certainties, but c’mon. Is that a realistic or reasonable expectation? I think not.

      How does that old saying go? Truth is that brief moment in the life of an idea, just after it was a heresy and just before it became a platitude.

      • Ryan says

        The Derrida in me would respond that there is still one eternal certainty remaining under that conception, that being the utter lack of center to anything. I find the opposition between the posited and the real not so much unsettling as it is productive, and this in what may honestly end up being a sort of overly roundabout, ad-hoc political sense: no matter how much thought we perform or structure we apply to the world, we will never have arrived at the real totality, and this is necessary for the possibility of creative experience to always continue changing things. That’s not to say the related Lovecraftian element of this idea you were hinting at is lacking in its own… aesthetic merit.

        “Apparently, you feel that important and valuable things are threatened by these views.”

        I think if this were correct, the method would be more threatened by heretics than it happens to be, but instead as a matter of chance it has presented itself among many attempted projects as being more important and valuable. Look at the difference in action now between particle accelerators, and crazed old men spouting off counter-truths from street corners. I like to explore those circumstances to their fullest extent, rather than ignore its reality. Maybe it is in fact a result of some abstract mutualism between the performance of science and capital? Maybe rather science is a method which with quantifiable accuracy can work to show us how the world really is, no ironiquotes necessary, and unlike other kinds of claims, can always be repeated by anyone on earth with the right kinds of tools, even while it is always subject to the constraints of finite human reasoning, historical context, and capitalist diversions?

        As an aside, as much as I am interested in them and hope we end up taking a good long look at emergence etc., I’ve never personally found a convincing non-reductivist ontology, and I know it does sometimes make for the best empirical explanation. To this difference I attribute the age old Kantian transcendental, in addition to recent findings that render holistic statistical methods sometimes more amenable to physical computation than direct reduction as an impractical theory of everything would call for.

  10. Brent Voelker says

    I’d like to suggest you read Mike Fortun and Herbert Bernstein’s Muddling Through: Pursuing Science and Truth in the 21st Century (See link to on-line version below). Fortun is a Harvard-trained historian of science and practicing cultural anthropologist; Bernstein a physicist. This book should be read as an affirmation of science on the one hand, as a critique on the other. By critique (as opposed to criticism), I mean an effort to clarify concepts, to evaluate the relation between their logical grounds and their degree of validity; that is, how well our concepts map on to the way things really work in the world. This book may help explain what Derrida meant when he famously said, “There is nothing outside the text.” Derrida is not denying a reality out there, but he is denying that our knowledge and our discourse relate to it in anything like a direct way. Rather, our sciences are dense articulations referring to other dense articulations, some of which have been settled as “fact,” but none of which derive their truth value directly from objective reality without reference to other text and context. Take “Dark Matter/Energy” for example: Dark Matter is nothing but text. Nevertheless, it is not only very real for most physicists today but wildly generative of new experimental systems and of knowledge.

    Muddling Through is under-appreciated as the definitive introductory text to Science and Technology Studies. I say that not because Mike Fortun is my advisor; rather, Mike is my advisor because of Mudding Through. It far exceeds any notions of simple social constructivism, but views sciences rather as networks of material-semiotic relations. Social constructivism ain’t the half of it, in contradiction to Sabrina Weiss’ characterization of science studies: science studies, done right, are not at all about “going around showing scientists and engineers how all of their knowledge is socially constructed.” Nevertheless, all human thought is much more dependent on language and metaphor than pragmatism would make it out to be; science, necessarily a political activity as all human activities are, is no exception. Understanding this makes the incredible productivity of science all the more astonishing, all the more worthy of our admiration, even as we worry about its effects.

    Other examples of fruitful applications of Derridean thought to science studies include Fortun’s second book, Promising Genomics: Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation and Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication (Timothy Lenoir, ed.). Please do let me know if you have a chance to look at any of these. I would very much enjoy a continuing dialogue: scholarship is, at its root, about community. As a part-time graduate student and full-time engineer, husband, and father in my early forties, your project has been a source of community and inspiration for me. It would be a pleasure to make it more bi-directional. Thanks for your excellent work.


    • Ryan says

      Brent Voelker :
      It far exceeds any notions of simple social constructivism, but views sciences rather as networks of material-semiotic relations. Social constructivism ain’t the half of it, in contradiction to Sabrina Weiss’ characterization of science studies: science studies, done right, are not at all about “going around showing scientists and engineers how all of their knowledge is socially constructed.” Nevertheless, all human thought is much more dependent on language and metaphor than pragmatism would make it out to be; science, necessarily a political activity as all human activities are, is no exception.

      Thank you for the suggestion, I will definitely try and get back in touch once I’ve had time to get my hands on it and dig through a little bit. I believe that networks have been and will become even moreso a major line of inquiry, and I agree completely with your sentiments about the important intersection between language and science, and the too often conflated roles for scientists and social scientists. It’s weird how many people in the 20th century in a direct reaction to modernism often swapped around the commonly recognized heirarchy placing science firmly under the speculatively restrictive domain of social sciences, rather than going through the admittedly difficult motion of making room for these autonomous programs to interdependently affect the course of human life.

      Here’s another (free!) book that I think might be somewhat related ‘Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics’

    • Profile photo of Dylan Casey says

      Thanks for the reading suggestion, Brent. I’ve often used the phrase “muddling through” to describe the big-picture activity of science. Certainly science is a social activity and that much knowledge is “socially constructed,” even “socially held” to the extent that we disseminate knowledge through broadly social/interactive means. However, while it easy is to under-emphasize such things, it’s also quite easy to over-emphasize them. Special relativity doesn’t arise out of considering the mechanical texts of Newton (or even Lagrange or Hamilton), but of demanding a consistency between the physical accounts of mechanics and electricity/magnetism. (Certainly one could argue that Einstein was, in some sense, analyzing the texts in coming to the formulation of special relativity, however, my point is that your don’t get it without the input from E&M, which requires new input.) It wouldn’t be a terrible injustice to reword Galileo as saying that the goal of mathematical/scientific inquiry is to understand the “text of the world,” but I don’t think that’s the way Derrida uses the word “text.” I think he literally means words on a page.

      I’m glad you’ve joined us on the discussion pages here. I expect there will be many future occasions for us to continue the conversation.

    • David Buchanan says

      Brent said, “Derrida is not denying a reality out there, but he is denying that our knowledge and our discourse relate to it in anything like a direct way. Rather, our sciences are dense articulations referring to other dense articulations, some of which have been settled as “fact,” but none of which derive their truth value directly from objective reality without reference to other text and context.”

      Nicely put. I think this is Rorty’s position and for the same sort of reasons too. If memory serves, he said our relationship with the world is causal, not epistemic, because there is no way to peel back the layers of context, the “dense articulations”, as you put it.

      My hunch is that the kind of materiality involved here is political and historical in a quasi-Marxist reading of science as a cultural production – as opposed to defending substance ontology per se. Just a hunch.

      The advantage of retaining empiricism while also giving up physicalism is that it makes room for plural truths without degenerating into relativism. It imposes empirical restraints but it also asks us to be epistemological pluralist. This stance opposes scientific reductionism by insisting that the various subjects of inquiry demand a variety of investigative methods. This is just a matter of using tools that are most appropriate to the object of investigation. Whether it’s chemicals or cultures, each kind of phenomena has to be handled with the methods that make sense. This is not opposed to empirical science, but to scientism and reductionism.

  11. dmf says

    It’s probably worth noting that Derrida wasn’t very interested in science, or even social constructivism (or as Heidegger would say “mere” anthropology), but was primarily a man of letters, and like many in his generation (Foucault, Kristeva, et al) taken with the avant garde possibilities of writing, so the primary meaning of there being nothing outside of the text is likely the interpretive/critic’s point that there is nothing that can’t be read/written back into the text.

    • Brent Voelker says

      I’m sure you’re right. I find Derrida almost impenetrable and rely on secondary uses of his work for any kind of understanding, so I’m in no position to dispute your claim. But from its modern inception at the beginning of the Enlightenment, technologies of writing or, better, inscription – illustrations, charts, graphs, laboratory traces, data, and prose, all of which are forms of text – have been intentionally located at the core of science. (See Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump.) To the extent, then, that Derrida had something to say about writing, text, and human thought, he had something to say about science. It seemed to me that Dylan noticed this connection, the source of a good deal of frustration toward the end of this episode as he struggled to reconcile what the authors were saying with what he knows as a scientist. But maybe that’s just my own reading of the “text” the podcast!

      If Derrida never uttered the word science, he has still been usefully extended in science studies. Avital’s Test Drive is another good example; thanks for that reminder and post. Test Drive is a hard read, though not as hard as Derrida himself. Foucault’s conscription, on the other hand, may have gone in the other direction. Although he was very interested in literature, many of Foucault’s major works are histories of psychology (Madness and Civilization), medicine (The Birth of the Clinic), and the human sciences (The Order of Things). Even The History of Sexuality is less about sex than it is about struggles over the authority to produce knowledge of the human body.

      As for Derrida, another text you might consider reading for a podcast is Limited Inc. It is the product of an encounter between Derrida and John Searle, who has come up during several podcasts. Searle declined to have his response to Derrida published in this book – I’m sure he thought he would be cast in an unflattering light – but it is summarized by the editor and extensively quoted in the second essay by Derrida. Searle’s essay was previously published in the journal Glyph, so you might find it interesting to read the original and see whether Derrida did it justice. I have this book on my reading list for the semester; I am both eager and filled with dread at the prospect of reading it. I could use some company in the effort!

      • dmf says

        as much as I owe Rorty I think it is important to keep separate (to the degree that we can) what an author said (I think that Derrida is too dense for pulling apart in this kind of forum) and what we may find useful in him/her and if you have a chance to roam about here some you will see that I’m a fan of the turn in science studies (and the “practice” turn in general) after post-structuralism, but Derrida would have likely seen this as not being a properly philosophical line of inquiry, as not being fundamental enough, and in some sense derivative of a deeper investigation of the event-uality of khora.
        As for Foucault there was a serious shift in his thinking in relation to Ecriture, if you’re interested check out Rajchman’s freedom of philo book.
        For PEL purposes might be better to look into folks like Hacking and or Rabinow than go too far thru the looking Glas.

  12. dmf says

    here is Derrida protege Avital Ronell riffing on the Test Drive, just to give you a sense of the practice/thought-process of deconstruction:

  13. shane says

    This episode was hit and miss generally, but you should all be embarrassed by the “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” section. Your ego is showing.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      A bit protective of Derrida (whom we owe a whole episode, as we’ve acknowledged), or just objecting on aesthetic grounds? I’d be happy to hear what specifically you would add to enrich the conversation, if you’ve got time to spell it out.

      • max says

        I was taking notes on this episode to keep track… at that nanny nanny boo boo section I left a footnote of my own: “bullshit.” I love the philosophy of Derrida and other similar French assholes of that time… I simply have encountered that angry, frustrated attitude toward Derrida. I see it as being constrictive. That’s why I really want you guys to do another episode, as I think this one didn’t give Derrida, and postmodernism in general, a fair shake.

        I’ve found these philosophers to be by far the most entertaining, interesting, relevant and pragmatic for “our times.” Fun stuff.

        So I can see the “nanny nanny boo boo” criticism, however I see it as a positive thing. It is pragmatic ,and there are many nuances to the philosophy that weren’t discussed here, especially, it would seem… in the philosophy of Deleuze.

        • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

          Yep, Deleuze and more Derrida are on our list… Though not w/in the next few episodes. As I used to say when I worked in the software biz, “planned but not yet scheduled.”

          I think Dylan’s swipe there has gotten us considerable grief, but I’ll defend not editing it out: whether re objectivism or Dennett’s Consciousness Explained or New Age Philosophy Lite or lazy undergrad student relativism or patently circular conceptions of faith or critical theory or logicism, there are plenty of things that each of us comes to the table with some beef about that will color our intake of the subjects we discuss. In many of these cases, we do get around to serious and direct discussion of the actual topic; in others, it remains a bogey man that comes up periodically for whipping. Either way, it’s probably better to get these preconceptions on the table, and we can’t really engage a point unless we’ve actually, as a group, read some of the relevant material. So put this in the “shooting the shit” category for the moment.

          • max says

            Totally agreed. The conflict/controversy over that philosophy is essential to a genuine understanding. Much more enjoyable to hear honest opinions and argument!

  14. Billie Pritchett says

    I enjoyed listening to this episode, having no real knowledge of structuralism. This episode made it more clear for me just how Derrida’s deconstructionism is really a position militating against structuralism. I think without that context it is unclear why Derrida has the view he does.

    There’s a piece by John Searle entitled “Literary Theory and Its Discontents” that argues, among other things, that Derrida’s position is an inadequate theory of language precisely because, even though Derrida positions himself contrary to structuralism, he appears to adopt a lot of the trappings of structuralism by taking the categories and definitions of structuralism seriously rather than abandoning them altogether. I don’t know if I’m articulating this as well as I would like but I do think it is fair to say that discussions of ‘signifier’ and ‘the signified,’ for example, and talk of signs generally went on to occupy no place in linguistics formally because the use of this terminology presented the wrong kind of picture of the way language works.

  15. Setherson says

    My favorite episode, methinks. I put my hat in the ring re: a Derrida episode. I can’t stand reading him or talking about him, but for some reason I love hearing other people explain him to me.

  16. max says

    I would love a more “postmodern” episode. Focus on Deleuze and Derrida, who were quite similar and apparently respected each other.

    I would love to see what you guys think of their philosophy, perhaps the intro chapter to A Thousand Plateaus, as well as Spectres of Marx or Of Grammatology? Something like that.

    But yeah, something by Deleuze and something by Derrida would be brilliant for a postmodern focus. I don’t know many people who have focused and clarified these philosophies. I think you guys should DEFINITELY do that intro chapter to A Thousand Plateaus.

    Fuck Lacan though, boring bullshit. So yeah, give peace a chance.

  17. says

    Thanks for posting these illuminating podcasts and notes. I’m wondering if I can have your permission to record a one-minute portion of your Episode 51 (starting at around 1:20:00, on bricolage) and post it with full attribution and of course a link to your site, on a Deconstruction module I’m making openly available here: http://622module-a3.blogspot.ca/ . Either way, many thanks once again.

  18. Brian says

    You guys cover the territory well. However…

    One long circuitous conversation later, mythology as it is explained as discussed here is impenetrable, while not the usual mashup resulting from how confused Freud was, there is a far better way of understanding mythology – even granting that the methodology of mythology itself changes. Allow me to introduce you to the school of poetic meaning. That is probably my own name for essentially the work of Jane Harrison and Robert Graves.


    My ongoing general mythology post on the matter can be followed here:


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