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ANTHRO 1795: LANGUAGE AND POLITICS IN LATIN AMERICA

CONNECTIONS BETWEEN SAUSSURE, DERRIDA AND LEVI-STRAUSS


PREPARED BY EDWARD AKINTOLA HUBBARD

SAUSSURE: Linguistic Value

The notion of relations between signs is indispensable to Saussurean


linguistics. Saussure argues that the sign is an arbitrary association between a
sound-image (signifier) and a corresponding concept (signified).
language is a system of differing entities that relate to each other in order for
meaning to be achieved in communication. Linguistic entities contain no positive
meaning onto themselves. All these entities have is their formal difference from
each other, and a set of definite relations that govern their use in the production
of meaning.

The linguistic entity may be said to contain two levels of value:


(a) the entity always stands for something else (representational value); and
(b) each item differs and relates to another, making the process of meaning-
making realizeable only through contrast and co-operation.

Saussure isolates the specific relations that determine how difference/contrast


produce meaning:

(a) syntagmatic relations between entities in succession; and


(b) paradigmatic relations relations that exist in the subjects memory
and can operate by substitution

SCARF

THE ZOMBIE IS KNOCKING ON THE TABLE

MAN

syntagmatic

paradigmatic
In the above diagram, the sytagmatic value of zombie is discernible by its
relation to the other words and values that come before and after it (The is
knocking on the & table)
The paradigmatic value of zombie is discernible by its relation to man or
scarf items outside of the context of the sentence, but which can be
substituted for zombie.

DERRIDA: Overview of Deconstruction

Deconstruction (by nature an extremely slippery term under definition) can be


described as a critical reading method devised by Derrida of reading texts in
a way that exposes the often concealed metaphysical operations that
compose the texts claims to truth, accuracy, completeness and authenticity.
One can say that deconstruction is a revelatory method, but it is at best
described as a method of shifting around the basic premises of a text to
ultimately expose how those premises are always malleable, and that their
malleability is actually what produces the effect of Truth. And, yes, Truth is
always only an effect for Derrida. One Truth, by manipulating its basic
premises, can be transformed into another, completely different, Truth.

All of Western philosophical thought depends on oppositional hierarchies. The


achievement of the effect of Truth, scientific or otherwise, is through the
operation of a logos (a transcendental idea) that is held up over a corresponding
appurtenance (an opposing, de-privileged idea). Logocentrism is the privileging,
or centring, of one aspect of a binary opposite, and the creation of an
appurtenance out of the other, corresponding aspect. So, theological treatises
depend on manipulating the category of GOOD over EVIL; patriarchal
discourses rely on elevating MALENESS over FEMALENESS; Euro-centric
writing and scholarship, as Said argues, depends on the construction of an
ORIENT over and against which the OCCIDENT stands complete and culturally
superior.

The task of deconstructing involves first pinpointing the binary opposite(s) at


work in the text, exposing the logos on which the truth is based, and exposing
the appurtenance. The next move is to flip the binary around: to show how the
binary can still produce a valid truth claim even if the logos is decentred and the
appurtenance becomes privileged. In this way, deconstruction aims to render
binary separations and logocentrism completely obsolete, submitting all meaning
and truth to the chaos of free play.

The free play of signifiers and meanings in language-reality, as far as Derrida is


concerned, is the natural state-of-things. Disagreeing with Saussure, Derrida
seeks to destroy the logic of the linguistic sign (Of Grammatology 1997, p. 7) by
showing that meaning is not composed by a simple binary connection between
signifier and signified, but that ever signified (every concept denoted by a
signifier) is always already a signifier in another system.[the famous dictionary
example]so meaning is always partially-lost in a chain of signification. The
meaning of something never really arrives at a given moment of comprehension,
but is always deferred unto another set of things, for which that initial meaning
has opened up a portal. Signifiers, always in a state of free play along a chain,
can only be fixed by violence, by logocentrism.

DERRIDA & LEVI-STRAUSS: The Violence of the Letter in The Writing


Lesson

Derrida argues here that phonologism (the privileging of speech over writing)
creates the legitimacy on which the master science of anthropology. i.e.,
anthropologys claim to scientific authority rests on its privileging speech
(spoken data) over writing. Levi-Strauss is guilty of abasing writing and
emplying phonologism as his self-authorizing principle.

Derrida reads Levi-Strauss alongside Rousseau because L-S sees himself as the
great heir to Rousseaus ideas about nature and culture. Rousseau posits the
problem of anthropology as the passage from nature (the state-of-nature) to
culture (fallen state). Rousseau sees a progression from figurative language
(closer to nature) to proper meaning (culture). Derrida sets about to sxplore
the question of proper meaning with relation to L-Ss The Writing Lesson.

In the essay, L-S presents writing as evil, as a sudden, accidental intrusion upon
the Nambikwaras innocent speech-based community. Writing cultures of the
West, to L-S, are borne out of mans exploitation by man. (p, 121)

L-S reports that the Nambikwara are an innocent people without writing. His
tale revolves around a moment when he provides them with pencils and paper.
They draw only wavy lines across the paper, and L-S concludes that they were
thus merely emulating his own act of writing, innocently acting out the means of
their own cultural demise. Violence is associated with the intrusion of writing as
the embodiment of a corrosive modernity. The forced self-assimilation of the
Nambikwara leader into the perverse sphere of the modern is dramatized by his
using his newly acquired writing skills as a means toward consolidating more
power over his people who cannot write as he now can.

As far as Derrida is concerned, L-S implies that writing has some kind of
metaphoric kernel lost on the Nambikwara. They only draw lines L-S
denies them writing because they have no word that approximates HIS definition
of it. (p. 123). L-S isolates only an aesthetic perception of writing among the
Nambikwara, meanwhile his notion of aesthetic value exists outside of linguistic
value. Had L-S a different, perhaps larger, conception of writing, maybe he
would not conclude that the Nambikwara had no writing.

But the conceit of the anthropologist lies in his belief that his project is an anti-
ethnocentric one. L-Ss anti-ethnocentrism amounts to an anti-Westernism,
which is, ironically, rooted in an already ethnocentric classification of the
Nambikwara as a primitive, speech-only community to writing. What is more, as
Derrida points out, L-Ss preposterous suggestion that writing signalled the
advent of violence among the Nambikwara is easily refutable by his own
ethnographic observations: Round about the Lesson, it suffices to open Tristes
Tropiques and the thesis at any page to find the striking evidence to the contrary.
We are dealing here not only with a strongly hierarchized society, but with a
society where relationships are marked with a spectacular violence. (p. 135)

Derridas overall concern lies with the structure of morality inhering in


anthropological discourse: the anthropologists job is to locate levels of
authenticity in culture (p. 137). Writing (being the inauthentic, perversely
modern supplement to speech) is necessarily excluded from the objects of
anthropological inquiry, in favour of the perceived authenticity understood as
immediacy, self presence, proximity and face-to-face interaction presumed to be
the mainstay of the primitive.

Derrida, in subsequent chapters, then reorients the problematic hierarchy


between writing and speech: he argues that writing can be seen to encompass
and comprehend the entire concept of language (both writing and speaking).
Speaking, in this formulation, can be seen as a form of vocalized writing, and
writing, as he states, should define the domain of a science (p. 27).
Grammatology is Derridas prescriptive for approaching language a kind of
meta-writing that encompasses all uses of language and therefore, can be
employed as an analytic tool in all discursive fields.

The science of writing should therefore look for its object at the roots of
scientificity. The history of writing should turn back toward the origin of
historicity. A science of the possibility of science? A science of science which
would no longer have the form of logic but that of grammatics? A history of the
possibility of history which would no longer be an archaeology, a philosophy of
history or a history of philosophy? (pp. 27-28)