When is the center not the center?

February 4, 2007

Any sense of hope and “hey, I may be starting to get this stuff” taken from Saussure was thoroughly and effectively crushed upon reading Derrida.  I can compare it only to a team who is down 3 games to none in a 4 game series and who wins game 4, keeping hope alive, only to be very badly beaten in the next game and eliminated anyway.

It was hard enough to understand just what Derrida was saying, but I had an even more difficult time trying to figure out what exactly it had to do with language. 

It starts off right from the beginning, on page 915, with what I’m sure will be a topic of discussion in class: “The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere.  The center is not the center.”  So just what is the center?  And does the center even know?

Then there’s incest-prohibition.  Two words, whose definition as I know them, really have no place in a literary discussion.  I did not understand why these words were being used.  Bricolage was another thing that was lost on me.  And seemingly out of nowhere this essay turned into being all about Levi-Strauss.

 After reading this essay, I think I could use some of that freeplay he was talking about.


6 Responses to “When is the center not the center?”

  1. atticfox said

    Hi Ryan,

    I had the same trouble you did. In fact, I quoted the very same sentence about Derrida’s “center” in frustration.

    Try Barry’s Beginning Theory, Chapter 3 before returning to the handout. It is an easy read, quickly skimmed, explaining decentralization of common thought and why there is reference to so much material from old Levi.

    As for decentralization, European empirical views as “the colonizer” were deconstructed by the WWI, the Holocaust, and advances in art and science. This is where Derrida explains that he cannot identify one specific event that sent this into motion. Instead, “it is no doubt part of the totality of an era, our own, but still it has already begun to proclaim itself and begun to work. (916)”

    In other words, new points of view emerged. Cultural structure was developing new and multiple centers based on concepts stemming from outside of the original, normative English point of view. Think of those silly little rhizomes having no discernable point where root meets shoot, yet their many offshoots and roots form their own little cores of existence. It’s the same idea presenting itself in societal structure.

    Barry also describes how Derrida joins his theory with Philosophy, thus his discourse with philosopher Levi-Strauss. Using Levi’s (like I know him personally) example of incest-prohibition, Derrida argues that what seems to be “naturally” rooted in our core being (as it appears to be a universal idea), is really a prohibition set up by cultural society. The best example I can come up with to show that incest is not a “natural” prohibition is with Greek and Roman mythical gods. For them, incest was a necessity as no mortals were equals. Sure, they are Gods, but some human’s accepted the concept in this context. Even throughout English rule, first cousins were often joined because common folk would dilute the royal bloodline. That social system is structured differently than our own. And thus, incest-prohibition is not instinctually “natural,” but constructed by culture.

    As for “bricolage,” Derrida describes Levi in this way. He seems to like the way Levi finds no center to myths but uses the aspects of the myth at hand like tools of a jack-of-all-tradesman to question the myth’s other portions. This system of study offers no concrete point from which to begin, but instead “can always be completed or invalidated by new information” much like Levi’s essays themselves. (922)

    This is MY hypothesis, and like Levi’s essays and the study of myth, it too will either be verified or invalidated by new information in class.

    I hope that gets you started.

  2. joei5 said

    Hey Ryan,

    I was extremely lost after reading Derrida’s piece as well. I think the whole class will agree that where he says “The center is at the center of the totality…” sentence was really confusing. I read that and just shook my head in disbelief.

    But I agree, it is really interesting how Derrida continued to talk about Levi-Strauss.. I think a lot of that confused me as well because I was trying to piece together how their theories were so similar- And since I really don’t understand Derrida’s theory, you can see where I got lost!

  3. kelliem said

    Haha–nice sports metaphor. Very apropos for Superbowl Sunday. It’s always nice to curl up with wings, nachos, and Derrida, don’t you think? Anyway, in all seriousness, I agree. I think I’m going to need quite a bit of clarification on this one, much like Saussure. I, too, at times was wondering what it all had to do with language and literature, but I tried to draw parallels the best I could. And yes–I ended up talking more about Levi-Strauss’ ideas than Derrida’s. Might as well have been his essay, right? Derrida talks a lot about the center just to say later on that (at least for myths) centers don’t exist. Oy.

  4. carawhalen said

    Hey Ryan,
    Derrida’s work was defiantly not a walk in the park by any means! After looking at a couple other people’s blog’s it seems that most of us have questioned the same sentence regarding the center. I’m sure that after some class discussion we will be able to better understand what he was attempting to explain. Derrida’s fascination with Levi-Strauss did influence this literary work, however if it influenced it in a positive way I have yet to discover. I feel that I need to sharpen my understanding on all the theories so that I can better connect them. Also, the reference you made to chapter three was very helpful!!

  5. hey Ryan, haha wow, I think a lot of people had a hard time with the idea of the “center” and I think I felt the same as you did after reading Derrida. AKA-lost! A lot of us quoted the same sentence from the handout dealing with the idea of the center. I’m really hoping tomorrows class discussion will clear all of this up. Besides that, we had very similar ideas regarding the same sections in the piece. Not only does it seem like we were both concerned about the center, but it seems we were both stuck on the idea of incest-prohibition. I wish I could help you out on this one but wow, I was pretty much left in the fog here too. Maybe we will understand it more tomorrow! (I hope so anyway!)

  6. Marina said

    I completely agree. After reading about a 1/4 of this essay I had to stop and think to myself, what the hell is this guy really talking about. I did read Chapter 3 of Barry, as Kim suggested, because it helped some what. It cleared up what he was trying to prove with deconstruction, but I was still lost in his whole discussion of Levi Strauss and what he was trying to prove. I wish I could help you, but unfortunately I’m stuck on the same issue of relavance.

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