Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Reply to a Version of the "Support the Troops" Argument

Fox News picked up on our point that the Stryker vehicles we were protesting are deployed to Iraq before troops are deployed. Unfortunately, they had Colmes say it in a really weak way that was quickly dismissed by Hannity. This is indicative of nearly every professional media outlet or conservative outlet that covered this story. Since the Stryker tanks ship to Iraq first, conservative bloggers like Michelle Malkin are wrong to think we're "hurting" US troops by preventing them from getting their tanks. Even though she's not, let's assume Malkin is right about troops deploying first.

Even if troops were deployed before strykers, it doesn't mean they would be put in the same situations as troops with strykers. Why would we assume that? If they don't have their vehicles they wouldn’t go on certain kinds of missions. Malkin and her friends of the right seem to assume things like that, and hence we'd be "hurting" the troops and preventing them from "doing their duty" which is to protect American liberties and interests by occupying and dictating the political course of foreign nations. And this argument doesn't seem to account

even if troops were deployed before strykers, how many would still be at the port of Tacoma protesting the war and the shipment of war-supplies?

Let me take a firm position. I'm not consenting to the "support" argument in any form. I think Malkin's assumptions about the legality of the war and our anti-war tactics are wrong entirely. To the political right, any protest against the war is basically a subversive act. It challenges the status-quo of military planning. The "support the troops" argument is one example of how a submissive ideological stance has been cemented into the political subconscious. Its slow cementation is aimed at pacifying any subversive elements in the political discourse. This is how I believe it works. Since "the troops" are involved at every level of this war, any level of speaking out against the war involves what the troops are doing. That is to say, any military proposition involves the military. To be unsupportive of the war yet supportive of the military performing war is a contradiction, since the military is involved in the performance of war, and as a voluntary body believes in the justness of its wars.

Further, conservatives have got us thinking that a proposition against the war implies a proposition against troops at an individual level. And since we're not supposed to be against the objectives of individual troops---who are supporting their families, supporting their communities, and fighting for what they believe in---then we're not supposed to be against the objectives of the military as a whole. This has the pacifying effect of promoting pro-war sentiments about the war in general. For those who have studied debate, this ideological stance is the fallacy of composition, (which occurs when we assume something is true about the whole simply because it is true of its compositions.) The argument has even also shifted its original advocacy from under us, from being a moderately neutral stance against troop effacement like in Vietnam, to now a submissive war stance in compliance with war-crimes and foreign occupation.

I don't support what the troops are involved in at any level, since it is unjust war. "Support the troops" plays into the status-quo of military planning. It mentions nothing about the unjustness of the war, doesn't imply any exit strategies, and plays us into a submissive role of war-crimes compliance. It doesn't mean anything to me. Therefore, being against the war in Iraq, I cannot accept "support the troops" as a cogent proposition ideologically.

The whole "support the troops" campaign was designed initially to prevent the public from backlashing like in Vietnam. There will be no draft, so there will be no public outcry. But just in case, the administration used this campaign to quell any anti-war sentiment that might arise out of disgust of what the "troops" are doing.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Yeats from "Fergus and the Druid"

i{Fergus.} This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

i{Druid.} What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

i{Fergus.} This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

i{Druid.} What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

i{Fergus.} A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head.

i{Druid.} What would you, Fergus?

i{Fergus.} Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

i{Druid.} Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman's loved me, no man sought my help.

i{Fergus.} A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another's dream.

i{Druid.} Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

i{Fergus.} I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things --
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold --
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

This poem is expressed in a conversation between King Fergus and a druid. The druid, at first only asks him what he would like to do.

Fergus says that he has followed the druid for the whole day as he changed shapes, and that now he finally holds a human form. He recounts how young Conchubar sat at his side, and seemed so wise that he gave his crown to him, to ease his own sorrows. He tried to become one of the people, but failed, still feeling like a king. Fergus then expresses a desire to be as wise as a druid, despite the druid's warnings that such wisdom severs one from humanity.

The druid gives him a bag of dreams to open. Fergus sees what he has been in his life, but sees it all as a web of sorrow. Knowing all, he is filled with sadness.

This poem primarily treats the isolation of a king who is weary of his rule and his social role. King Fergus is an Irish historical figure who figures in the Tain. Fergus fell in love with Ness, and gave up his throne to Conchubar, who was the son of Ness by another marriage. Myths look on this variously as an usurption and as a source of great happiness for Fergus, who did not enjoy being king.

Yeats's version of the myth is somewhat consistent with both interpretations. Fergus is ambivalent about whether he did the right thing in surrendering his throne. He has not assimilated into non-royal society. He seeks the help of a druid, an ancient healing or religious figure in Celtic societies, to clarify whether he has made the right choice.

The druid's help, which comes in the form of a "slate-colored thing" which refers both to the bag of dreams and, perhaps, to the grave. With the help of this bag of dreams, Fergus "know[s] all" at the poem's end. But this knowledge does not quell his anxiety; rather, it sinks him into depression. By knowing all, he has robbed himself of the hope that comes with uncertainty. He is as sure as death, and as futureless.

Yeats from "A Prayer for my Daughter"

Poem lyrics of A Prayer For My Daughter by William Butler Yeats.

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind.
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And-under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of plenty is undone.
In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise.
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

Here, Yeats says "horn" again. He uses it like the way I had thought before. A horn is something to hold fruit. Plenty of fruit. It represents prosperity. There is no obstacle for Yeats' daughter except Gregory's forest on a bare hill. By this, Yeats might be talking about the gloom that everyone faces. That is his daughter's only obstacle, gloom. Yeats himself faces gloom. It all comes from the murderous innocence of the sea. The world is naive, and yet it makes us feel so gloomy. Yet, we are adventurous while we are young. His daughter will be a rose among thorns, more beautiful than all the other maidens. Yeats says this is a sufficient end? Perhaps this is a genetic desire to have one's genes spread throughout the earth. And beauty is a sufficient means to that end?

Helen, the Greek Helen of Troy, found life flat and dull. But the great Queen (who is that?) being fatherless, could have it her way.

It's certain that fine women eat a crazy salad with their meat... What a crazy thing to say! What if Yeats' daughter turned out vegetarian? And what makes salad crazy? Is it unusual?

Hearts are earned by those who are not entirely beautiful. I find this true myself. Beauty is hard to speak to, hard to please. It is not because I do not value beauty. But beauty befuddles. It makes men weak. I can speak easier to beauty when I do not notice it, when I am wrapped up in some academic pursuit. But as soon as sex enters the question, I begin to notice my flaws. I am sexually insecure then. It is difficult to be aware of one's own beauty, and remain intellectually in one's highest capacity. For some reason. It is rooted in insecurity. But I have seen people I admire who are beautiful, and aware of their beauty, but not insecure about their mental faculties.

I have realized that beauty of woman befuddles man. But beauty of man also befuddles man himself. This is peculiar.

Is man not supposed to be as beautiful as woman? Does he want to be? The Greeks thought differently. Americans believe women are beautiful, but this is trivial, and sickens me. Women are engrossed with themselves, their own beauty, and men cannot be. Otherwise we are faggots. Someone called me a faggot on YouTube. That does not surprise me. Americans are disgustingly crude, unwise, and unenlightened.

I am rambling. But this is part of my enlightenment. So let me continue to analyze Yeats.

Many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes

Yeats' daughter must be like the women I am thinking of. Men who are poor in quality, poor in manner, poor in class, poor in romance, poor in conversation, think they are beloved by a woman who is all those things. Sometimes I hesitate whether I am one of those men. But I don't think so. I don't try to hard to get women, in fact. I think most times I let women come to me. When I do approach a woman, I sometimes am that fool. But as long as I don't make it sexual then I am fine with myself. I play hard to get in some ways. Usually I am not trying to. At times I have even thought I was post-sexual. But then a enlivening experience brings me back into the fold.

The poor schmuck who thinks Yeats' daughter loves him is only fooling himself. He depends on women like her to make him feel good about himself.

Yeats from "A Poet to his Beloved"

Poem lyrics of A Poet To His Beloved by William Butler Yeats.

I bring you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams,
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-grey sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams,
I bring you my passionate rhyme.

Passion has worn this woman. She is the object of the poet's imploring gaze. In his eyes, she is white, dreamy, and glowing on the dove-grey sands of time. This poem has wonderful imagination. I am confused about "with heart more old than the horn". Is that some kind of chalice? The good thing about poetry is that when you read it again years later, it has different meanings. Right now I think Yeats is talking about some kind of romantic chalice, but in a few years I will probably think it is a metaphor for something more meaningful.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Mind

It's a mixture of insight and shortcoming. He had an idea that he wouldn't have called behavioristic, but it became behavioristic as it later developed. (It was supplanted by better work by Fodor and Lewis.)

Philosophical problems in general, and of the mind in particular, have the character of depth and run as deep as the forms of language and thought that set philosophers on the road to confusion. Wittgenstein makes mention of “illusions”, "bewitchment" and “conjuring tricks” performed on our thinking by our forms of language, and tries to break their spell by attending to differences between superficially similar aspects of language which he feels leads to this type of confusion. For much of the Investigations, Wittgenstein tries to show how philosophers are led away from the ordinary world of language in use by misleading aspects of language itself. He does this by looking at the role language plays in the development of various philosophical problems, from some general problems involving language itself, then at the notions of rules and rule following, and then on to some more specific problems in philosophy of mind. Throughout these investigations, the style of writing is conversational with Wittgenstein taking the role of the puzzled philosopher (on either or both sides of traditional philosophical debates), and that of the guide attempting to show the puzzled philosopher the way back: the “way out of the fly bottle.”

Much of the Investigations, then, consists of examples of how philosophical confusion is generated and how, by a close examination of the actual workings of everyday language, the first false steps towards philosophical puzzlement can be avoided. By avoiding these first false steps, philosophical problems themselves simply no longer arise and are therefore dissolved rather than solved. As Wittgenstein puts it; "the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear."

Wittgenstein offers no traditional solutions to problems of the mind. His solutions are more like linguistic hat-tricks that some how or another "change the subject" from minds to languages about minds. But minds are still going to perplex us even if our language could explain everything. This is a realist argument against the Wittgensteinian account, and I see no way around it.

Why Be Anti-Behaviorist

Behaviorism is unpopular. It is dismissed by cognitive scientists developing intricate internal information processing models. It is neglected by cognitive ethologists and ecological psychologists convinced that its methods are irrelevant to studying how animals and persons behave in their natural and social environment. It is rejected by neuroscientists sure that direct study of the brain is the only way to understand the causes of behavior.

Remnants of behaviorism survive in both behavior therapy and laboratory-based animal learning theory. In the metaphysics of mind, too, behavioristic themes survive in the approach to mind known as functionalism. Functionalism defines states of mind as states that play particular causal-functional roles in animals or systems in which they occur. Paul Churchland writes of functionalism as follows: “The essential or defining feature of any type of mental states is the set of causal relations it bears to … bodily behavior” (1984, p. 36). This functionalist notion is similiar to the behaviorist idea that reference to behavior and to stimulus/response relations enters centrally and essentially into any account of what it means for a creature to behave or to be subject, in the scheme of analytical behaviorism, to the attribution of mental states.

Remnants, however, are remnants. Behaviorism has lost strength and influence. Why?

The deepest and most complex reason for behaviorism's demise is its commitment to the thesis that behavior can be explained without reference to non-behavioral mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity. Behavior can be explained just by reference to its “functional” (Skinner's term) relation to or co-variation with the environment and to the animal's history of environmental interaction. Neurophysiological and neurobiological conditions, for Skinner, sustain or implement these functional relations. They do not serve as ultimate or independent sources of behavior. Behavior, Skinner (1953) wrote, cannot be accounted for “while staying wholly inside [an animal]; eventually we must turn to forces operating upon the organism from without.” “Unless there is a weak spot in our causal chain so that the second [neurological] link is not lawfully determined by the first [environmental stimuli], or the third [behavior] by the second, the first and third links must be lawfully related.” (p. 35) “Valid information about the second link may throw light on this relationship but can in no way alter it.” (ibid.) It is “external variables of which behavior is a function.” (ibid.)

Skinner was no triumphalist about neuroscience. Neuroscience, for him, more or less just identifies organismic physical processes that underlie animal/environment interactions. Therein, it rides epistemic piggyback on radical behaviorism's prior description of those interactions. “The organism”, he says, “is not empty, and it cannot adequately be treated simply as a black box” (1976, p. 233). “Something is done today which affects the behavior of the organism tomorrow” (p. 233). Neuroscience describes inside-the-box mechanisms that permit today's reinforcing stimulus to affect tomorrow's behavior. The neural box is not empty, but it is unable, except in cases of malfunction or breakdown, to disengage the animal from past patterns of behavior that have been reinforced. It cannot exercise independent or non-environmentally countervailing authority over behavior.

For many critics of behaviorism it seems obvious that, at a minimum, the occurrence and character of behavior (especially human behavior) does not depend primarily upon an individual's reinforcement history, although that is a factor, but on the fact that the environment or learning history is represented and how (the manner in which) it is represented. The fact that the environment is represented by me, to me, constrains or informs the functional relations that hold between my behavior and the environment and may, from an anti-behaviorist perspective, partially disengage my behavior from its reinforcement history. No matter, for example, how tirelessly and repeatedly I have been reinforced for pointing to or eating ice cream, such a history is impotent if I just don't see a potential stimulus as ice cream or represent it to myself as ice cream or if I desire to hide the fact that something is ice cream from others. My conditioning history, narrowly understood as unrepresented by me, is behaviorally less important than the environment or my learning history as represented to me.

Similarly, for many critics of behaviorism, if representationality comes between environment and behavior, this implies that Skinner is too restrictive or limited in his attitude towards the role of neurophysiological mechanisms in producing or controlling behavior. The brain is no mere passive memory bank of behavior/environment interactions (see Roediger and Goff 1998). The central nervous system, which otherwise sustains my reinforcement history, contains systems or sub-systems that implement or encode whatever representational content the environment has for me. It is also an active interpretation machine or semantic engine, often critically performing environmentally untethered and behavior controlling tasks. Such talk of representation or interpretation, however, is a perspective from which behaviorism—most certainly in Skinner—wished to depart.

One defining feature of traditional behaviorism is that it tried to free psychology from having to theorize about how animals and persons represent their environment. This was important, historically, because it seemed that behavior/environment connections are a lot clearer and more manageable experimentally than internal representations. Unfortunately, for behaviorism, it's hard to imagine a more restrictive rule for psychology than one which prohibits hypotheses about representational storage and processing. Stich, for example, complains against Skinner that “we now have an enormous collection of experimental data which, it would seem, simply cannot be made sense of unless we postulate something like” information processing mechanisms in the heads of organisms (1998, p. 649).

A second reason for rejecting behaviorism is that some features of mentality—some elements in the inner processing of persons—have characteristic ‘qualia’ or presentationally immediate or phenomenal qualities. To be in pain, for example, is not merely to produce appropriate pain behavior under the right environmental circumstances, it is to experience a ‘like-thisness’ to the pain (as something dull or sharp, perhaps). Behaviorist creatures may engage in pain behavior, including beneath the skin pain responses, yet completely lack whatever is qualitatively distinctive of and proper to pain (its painfulness). (See also Graham 1998, pp. 47-51 and Graham and Horgan 2000. On the scope of the phenomenal in human mentality, see Graham, Horgan, and Tienson forthcoming).

The philosopher-psychologist U. T. Place, although otherwise sympathetic to application of behaviorist ideas to matters of mind, argued that qualia cannot be analyzed in behaviorist terms. He claimed that qualia are neither behavior nor dispositions to behave. “They make themselves felt,” he said, “from the very moment that the experience of whose qualia they are” comes into existence (2000, p. 191; reprinted in Graham and Valentine 2004). They are instantaneous features of processes or events rather than dispositions manifested over time. Qualitative mental events (such as sensations, perceptual experiences, and so on), for Place, undergird dispositions to behave rather than count as dispositions. Indeed, it is tempting to postulate that the qualitative aspects of mentality affect non-qualitative elements of internal processing, and that they, for example, contribute to arousal, attention, and receptivity to associative conditioning.

The third reason for rejecting behaviorism is connected with Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has been one of behaviorism's most successful and damaging critics. In a review of Skinner's book on verbal behavior (see above), Chomsky (1959) charged that behaviorist models of language learning cannot explain various facts about language acquisition, such as the rapid acquisition of language by young children, which is sometimes referred to as the phenomenon of “lexical explosion.” A child's linguistic abilities appear to be radically underdetermined by the evidence of verbal behavior offered to the child in the short period in which he or she expresses those abilities. By the age of four or five (normal) children have an almost limitless capacity to understand and produce sentences which they have never heard before. Chomsky also argued that it seems just not to be true that language learning depends on the application of reinforcement. A child does not, as an English speaker in the presence of a house, utter “house” repeatedly in the presence of reinforcing elders. Language as such seems to be learned without, in a sense, being taught, and behaviorism doesn't offer an account of how this could be so. Chomsky's own speculations about the psychological realities underlying language development included the hypothesis that the rules or principles underlying linguisitic behavior are abstract (applying to all human languages) and innate (part of our native psychological endowment as human beings). When put to the test of uttering a grammatical sentence, a person, for Chomsky, has a virtually infinite number of possible responses available, and the only way in which to understand this virtually infinite generative capacity is to suppose that a person possesses a powerful and abstract innate grammar (underlying whatever competence he or she may have in one or more particular natural languages).

The problem to which Chomsky refers, which is the problem of behavioral competence and thus performance outstripping individual learning histories, seems to go beyond merely the issue of linguistic behavior in young children. It appears to be a fundamental fact about human beings that our behavior and behavioral capacities often surpass the limitations of our individual reinforcement histories. Our history of reinforcement often is too impoverished to determine uniquely what we do or how we do it. Much learning, therefore, seems to require pre-existing or innate representational structures or principled constraints within which learning occurs. (See also Brewer 1974, but compare with Bates et al. 1998 and Cowie 1998).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Modernist Music with a Bang: Rite of Spring

Stravinsky was born into a musical family, but despite his musical roots his father really wnatted him to become a lawyer. Stravinsky even got a law degree, while taking lessons from the great Korsakov.

Rite of Spring was intended to suggest ritual sacrifice and dance on stage. The idea of a pagan Russia really titillated people. It was intended to shock and horrify people. This was not about being beautiful but, shocking, brute force. It makes use of, like other nationalistic pieces of music, folk styles. The idea is that Stravinsky would actually have some folk materials embedded into this piece as kinds of musical archaeological artifacts.

The choreography as you might imagine was, well, brutal, spasmodic, jerking, crazy. The Rite of Spring launches modernism in the same way Picasso does with Cubism. Its a perfect musical analogy. Picasso was in fact used by the impressario to design some sets for ballet-rich productinos.

In the opening of the Rite of Spring, there's an interesting instrument which sounds ancient. I would have guessed a clarinet or a flute, but in fact, its a bassoon. Stravinsky has the bassoon playing in the highest extreme registry. This might strike fear in the heart of the bassoon player. In this opening tune, a Lithuanian folk tune, is played so high, it automatically puts us somewhere exotic and distant.

This is absolutely not tonal. Now, in Debussy, I see the language of the tonality, but tried very hard to thwart it. Things like exotic scales, parallel motion, sought to erase the stronghold of the tonic. With Wagner, I see tonality pushed to its limits. I cannot tell what the tonic of Wagner's Prelude to Tristan is. But its still clearly a tonal piece, we're still hearing the language of dominant cords pushing towards a tonic, even if don't get that tonic. In fact, that piece works because we know that language, and if we're denied the tonic, we know we're being denied something, and we want it. With Stravinsky we're not hearing tonal music. But this Lithuanian tune could be in a tonal context. What makes it not tonal is the vertical aspect of this piece. And this is what makes this piece interesting. Horizontally, we actually get a lot of tunes in the piece. But these tunes are often lost, because vertically, this piece is very dissonant. And there is no, ZERO, goal-directed harmony in this piece.

We hear instruments moving up and down like primordial ooze, not really going anywhere, and in fact moving up and down like parallel intervals--but they're dissonant parallel intervals.
The bassoon melody seems stuck in one place, in fact, its meandering in one spot. We have a great deal of forward motion. We have layers being added. This is a technique that Stravinsky uses, layers being added that are static, and no tonal language. This piece moves forward by accumulation, not by development. The piece builds in excitement, but by sheer mass, by layers being added on and on.

All the layers start coming together in swarming, atonal masses, until the opening bassoon solo returns. This introduction is called the Adoration of the Earth. The second part is the Sacrifice itself. Its as if we're editing a film together. Imagine we had different reels of film, each one with fairly static material. We take a little snip of reel A, and add a little snip of reel B. We just keep snapping between them. It's like a cut and splice technique. And these snapping reels have no forward tonal motion.

This piece does, however, have rhythm. Stravinksy has a way to treat the orchestra as a giant percussion machine. After the bassoon solo, Stravinsky gives us a pulse. And again, new layers are added on top of that. Every so often, we hear a little bit of folk tunes. This is mixed throughout the entire piece with a certain kind of dissonance.

Usually when people say that a piece is dissonant, they mean that it is ugly, and this is really a shame. Dissonance and beauty or ugliness really have nothing to do with each other. Dissonance simply means that two pitches vibrate strongly against one another. Any two pitches can be more or less dissonant, but it doesn't mean they're more or less beautiful. When people say they don't like dissonant music, it really doesn't make sense, because even in Brahms we have consonance and dissonance, and we need it because that's what moves his pieces forward. Without dissonance, the world would be pretty boring.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Derrida Killed Structuralism?

Derrida first received major attention outside France with his lecture, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1966 (and subsequently included in Writing and Difference). The conference at which this paper was delivered was concerned with structuralism, then at the peak of its influence in France, but only beginning to gain attention in the U.S.. Derrida differed from other participants by his lack of explicit commitment to structuralism, having already been critical of the movement. He praised the accomplishments of structuralism but also maintained reservations about its internal limitations, thus leading to the notion that his thought was a form of post-structuralism. Near the beginning of the essay, Derrida argued:

(...) 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, as a linked chain of determinations of the center. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the center receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix (...) is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archē, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) alētheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth.

—"Structure, Sign and Play" in Writing and Difference, p. 353.

Derrida, the progenitor of what is now referred to as deconstruction, seeks to explode the notion that there is any necessary, a priori, transcendent "center" of any structure. The notion of structure is, for Derrida, "as old as Western science and Western philosophy." Derrida announces an event which he terms a "rupture" in the concept of structure. "Up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure . . . has always been neutralized or reduced . . . by a process of giving it a center . . . . The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure . . . but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure."

What is this center? Before Derrida takes on the question of what, he takes on the question of where. Where is this center located? "It has always been thought that the center . . . constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. [Here it may be helpful to remember the paradoxical notion of a divinity which is both immanent and transcendent, present within creation yet not contained by it--within the structure and outside it.] 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." OK, what does that mean? Behind the impressive pyrotechnical display of verbiage and anti-metaphysics metaphysics lies this concept: the "center," though it has long been thought to comprise and determine the "totality" of a structure, is in fact a posited entity with no necessary ontological status. Put more simply, the center is a function of the way we perceive and organize the data of the sensuous manifold (the universe). We think, and in so doing, we organize. We posit structure. We posit order and rationality. We create god and the cosmos in our own image.

Derrida takes this concept--the absence of any transcendentally conceived, determined, and imposed center--and runs with it. "The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of play." This fundamental immobility has been traditionally conceived of as the Divine, the Unmoved Mover, the God who is eternal and whose attributes do not change. The reassuring certitude has been the human feeling of security grounded in a dependent and protected relationship with this fixed, unmoveable, and permanently reliable transcendent figure.

The concept of a center, of a centrally determinative and constitutive reality, has been long conceived of as a presence. Here the theological and mythological grounding of Derrida's thought is clear: "The entire history of the concept of structure . . . must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center. Successively . . . the center receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix . . . is the determination of Being as a presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence--eidos, arche, telos, energia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) [the Biblical term for presence--meaning the direct presence of Divinity, and the indirect presence through the Scriptural word--parousia, also fits here], aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth."

The "rupture" of which Derrida speaks, came about "when the strucurality of structure had to begin to be thought . . . . It became necessary to think both the law which somehow governed the desire for a center in the constitution of structure, and the process of signification which orders the displacements and substitutions for this law of central presence." This "rupture" is, among other things, a part of the long process of losing faith in the traditional moralities, images of the Divine, and conceptions of humanity's relationship to the universe which marked the transition from Romanticism to Modernism. A universe which had seemed ordered, cared for, and maintained by some transcendent figure or principle, no longer seemed so. What had once seemed a "total" experience of the cosmos now seemed fragmentary, incomplete, and fictional.

Derrida writes of an end to "totalization," an end to the concept that we can contain the entire sensuous manifold in our conceptual frameworks, or structures. "If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field--that is, language and a finite language--excludes totalization." Why does this field exclude totalization? Because there is "something missing from it ; a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions." If the infinite sensuous manifold is not the field, but the finitude of language is the field, then play, substitution, supplementarity, and differance necessarily preclude a center to the field. Why? For precisely the reason that Derrida earlier denied applicability in the realm of language--infiniteness. No language--even one as large and flexible as English, much less one as relatively small and circumscribed as French--can contain within itself the infinite richness of the sensuous phenomena available all around each one of us. No language can completely structure sensuous "reality"; therefore, no language is, on those terms, capable of having a center which is necessarily, transcendently and--in its most complete sense--ontologically present.

Derrida gives us two choices at the end of his essay, two "interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign [various versions of acknowledged, or unacknowledged, seekings after God], and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man . . . that being who . . . has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play." The shadow and the echo of Nietzsche hangs over and reverberates in these last words. God is dead, and we are his executioners. In banishing the dream of presence what are we banishing? What kind of clarity are we gaining, and at what cost? Perhaps we banish only the notion of a provided center, thus reaffirming the notion of a self-created, self-maintained, and necessarily provisional center. We cannot do without myths, but we cannot survive long if we forget that our myths are not ontological fact. If we forget that "all Deities reside in the human breast," that all centers are constructions, practically but not ontologically necessary, then we are perhaps in as much danger from a surfeit of belief as we would be from a lack of belief. This reminder is perhaps the primary value of deconstruction.

The effect of Derrida's paper was such that by the time the conference proceedings were published in 1970, the title of the collection had become The Structuralist Controversy. The conference was also where he met Paul de Man, who would be a close friend and source of great controversy, as well as where he first met Lacan.