joyeux anniversaire – remembering Jacques Derrida and de-centered center on his B-Day

Like many graduate students in the humanities since the 1980’s, our lives have been thoroughly deconstructed thanks to Jacques Derrida. His birthday was on July 15th and it seems fitting to honor him at Theology KungFu with a brief reflection on the notion of ‘center as power’ from the paper that launched him into superstardom in America – “Structure, Sign and Paly in the Human Sciences” which was published in 1978 in the collection Writing and Difference. I will admit that I was certainly overwhemled in the early days with reading Derrida in relation to religion. Frankly, many theologians in the 80s and 90s wrote off Derrida as a threat yet never actually bothered to read his work – how typical… fear first, ask questions later. Two great pieces to start with if you are interested in the way Derrida reflected on the challenge of religious discourse: The Gift of Death (University of Chicago press, 1995) and Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin (Stanford University Press, 1997). The need to break through religious discuourse and find new ways of emboding belief has never been more important. In his 1990 lecture published in Granta entitled “Is Nothing Sacred?” Salman Rushdie discusses the irony whereby traditionally ‘religious’ writing seems to be anything but religious, whilst those who dwell in the space of fiction seem to find openings where the possibility of the sacred is seen. As he compares the genres of ‘religion’ and ‘literature’ he notes that “Between religion and literature … there is a linguistically based dispute. But it is not a dispute of simple opposites. Because whereas religion seeks to privilege one language above all others, one set of values above all others, one text above all others, the novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them, which are relations of power. The novel does not seek to establish a privileged language, but it insists upon the freedom to portray and analyse the struggle between the different contestants for such privileges.”

Much of Rushdie’s discussion rests on the aftermath of Derrida’s grand moment of deconstructing the ‘center’ in his paper “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences” given at John Hopkins in the 1970’s and later published in Writing and Difference in 1978. While Rushdie is not acknowledging this heritage, it is evident in Derrida’s notion of deconstructing the ‘center’.

For Derrida’s definitions of “the center” constitute abstracted definitions of a political center: “The center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing that structure escapes structurality”. The center “governs” and is “constituted” and the implications of Derrida’s terms here are very important. We are all familiar with how centers manage to escape structurality: when pressed, the center says that power was always elsewhere. In this sense, then, “the center is not the center”. Or, as Derrida also says, “the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it” . Like a governmental center, the “center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form”, even as it also “closes off the freeplay it opens up and makes possible”. Some possibilities cannot be considered even by the freest of centers.

According to “Structure, Sign, and Play,” this comparative narrowness of possibilities is the result of centering: “The structurality of structure… has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin”. The center thus controls, in the sense of “containing,” the structurality of the structure, reducing it; the extremes are neutralized by the center. For many people (although “Structure, Sign, and Play” might say, for “the structure”), this containment is a good thing: “the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude”. Limiting freeplay is reassuring, “and on the basis of this certitude anxiety can be mastered”. The center, which governs, allows certain freedoms, and even if allowing these closes off others, it is considered preferable to the absence of centering because with it a reassuring certitude, through which anxiety can be reduced, is implied.

As Derrida emphasizes in “Structure, Sign, and Play” the center is “not a fixed locus but a function”. In one sense, then, power as function need not be put in one place; the function can be distributed throughout the structure. This is another way of understanding that the center is not the center; the center of power need not be at the central place. Even decentralized power functions as power. Moreover, if the center is a function, not a place, then it is highly variable; not only can the function be fulfilled from different places, but different centers can fulfill the same function. “If this is so,” according to “Structure, Sign, and Play,” “the entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center”. Whether we speak in governmental or religious terms, whatever fulfills the function of the center is itself just a substitute for a (previous) center; the function remains the same even if the center has moved, i.e., is not a fixed locus.

In what ways have we sought after a ‘center’ in our life and been merely seeking power? control? Perhaps Jesus was right to acknowledge that that which we truly seek after is found on the margins and rarely at the center….

I think Derrida would have loved the sermon on the mount… I hope he gets a chance to meet the author of it…

RIP Jacques… and joyeux anniversaire, mon professeur

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  1. I’m not sure I understand Derrida at all, but if, as you indicate, his point is that the “center” is “‘not a fixed locus but a function’… the function can be distributed throughout the structure…” and “if the center is a function, not a place, then it is highly variable…” then it seems rather difficult to say when we are truly living at the margins. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with “St. Jacques” 🙂 but I am not convinced that, in human terms, it is possible to break free from the need for centering. It seems that is a necessary function of our existence.

    I suppose the Christian answer might be that the Spirit of Christ transforms us so that we can truly live on the margins, but I’m not sure what that really means, unless we describe it in purely practical terms, which may be all that we can do. I wonder if you can elaborate on how he suggests that we might break free of the “substitution of center for center”? Or maybe I just need to read the book! 🙂

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