Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Star is Born: Derrida was a last-minute substitute

at the 1966 structuralism meeting, it would seem, that made him a star. That's what it says in an article in Johns Hopkins Magazine, and those folks should know, since it was Hopkins that hosted the meeting. I was a sophomore at Hopkins at the time, but I didn't know of the conference and much of it wouldn't have made sense, if only because I dont' speak French. But I studied an English translation of Derrida's talk a year or two later and it's all marked up in my copy The Languages of Criticism and Sciences of Man, the book that came out of the conference.

Here's the core:
Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch was invited to attend but couldn’t, and the organizers needed to find a replacement at short notice. Invitee Hyppolite suggested a 36-year-old former student. His name was Jacques Derrida. “I’m not sure how clear we were about where this guy was going,” Macksey says. “Hyppolite just said, ‘I think he would be somebody who would come.’ So we got in touch with him, and Jacques, on fairly short notice, said yes, he would come. I hadn’t realized that he was going to be the Samson to tear down the temple of structuralism.”

With “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida impishly but effectively identified flaws in the organizational thrust of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work in kinship and mythologies, work that formed a critical base for structuralist theory. It struck at the heart of the work of some of the assembled guests, and Derrida’s responses to interventions were deft deflections. For example, his former teacher Hyppolite introduced algebraic examples to discuss Derrida’s arguments, and then asked him if that was what he was going for. Derrida responded, “I was wondering myself where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.”

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