Structure, Sign and Play in the Digital

Posted by Anirudh Sridhar at Mar 28, 2014 08:49 AM |
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I have come to realize, in my research, that I have been looking for and staring at the various entry points of the Digital Humanities by looking at the primordial lighting arrangements and formative forces that are in play in it. So far, there have been some clear emergent patterns like the fact that the Digital Humanities is the story of the University itself and a condition of the socio-political and economic forces shaping our education system.

In the previous blog post, we inferred from Derrida’s comparison of the University to a language act that the Digital Humanities are a mere reorganization of the Humanities faculty to curate more power in a self serving way.

I’m going to now push further in the direction of Derrida’s treatment of language and take it a few steps back to his ideas on semiotics (signs and meaning) itself in his Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (SSPDHS). In this paper, Derrida is just beginning to lay out his deconstructive ideas of play and sign in language. To understand this work one could turn to Terry Eagleton, who explains in “Literary Theory: An Introduction (1996)”, “Western Philosophy…. has also been in a broader sense, ‘logocentric’, committed to a belief in some ultimate ‘word’, presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation for all our thought, language and experience. It has yearned for the sign which will give meaning to all others, – ‘the transcendental signifier’ – and for the anchoring, unquestioning meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point (the transcendental signified’).”

Many philosophers have attempted to explain the phenomena of changing epochs in humanity’s construction of meaning and given these structures of consciousness (as Jean Gebser calls it) or Beings (as Heidegger calls it) different names. Peter Sloterdalls this structure a macrosphere and Jean Gebser calls it an integral sphere where semiotic capture occurs. Derrida, in SSijk cPDHS starts off by talking about a center that has always existed through the ages as eidos (essence), arche (first cause), telos (ultimate purpose), God, Family, Democracy, the World Spirit and so forth in these structure of consciousness that have been the transcendental signifiers of all the meaning that was signified. However, since each of these concepts founded whole systems of thought, language and consciousness, they were never themselves part of the matrix of meaning that its metaphysical presence engendered and remained untainted by the play of linguistic differences. These concepts alone were always indisputable so ultimately ended up limiting the amount of free play that could exist. We can think of the idea of the Resurrection as being an iconotype in the Middle Ages at the center which allowed many meanings of ascension and mythic stories to be constructed around the metaphor but the Resurrection itself was never something that was immutable, remaining the “point at which substitution of contents, elements and terms was no longer possible”. However, until now this center always got displaced at the end of an epoch to be replaced by a different center or set of transcendental signifiers. Derrida says "the entire history of the concept of structure must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center."[1]

He, however, speaks of a rupture that happens in fin-de-siècle and early 20th century thought where there is a break in tradition. He says "From then on it was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center would not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the center had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non- locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse-provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum." This collapse of the previous structures of consciousness marked by the assimilation of all signifiers into the domain of what Derrida calls "play" essentially makes the word sign itself obsolete and thus begins to lay out the architecture for the digital (non) structure. When the digital humanities attempt to infuse meaning into the world, they do so in networks of information that don’t have one central source and travel freely, unfettered by coagulations of immutable signifiers. The digital space of meaning construction is essentially the archetypal domain of Derrida’s free play. Without authority, it is a domain where knowledge is created by the self, collaboratively and from peer to peer. In this semiotically vacant world, the walls of Gebser’s integral sphere have collapsed and even the virtual walls that once existed among archives and libraries are broken by the digitization of materials. Through the quantum quarks and leaps of the free play between the signifiers and the signified (which are constantly interchanging roles) there is a cluttering of the digital space of forms appearing through a mish mash of interdisciplinarity, multi-institutional, multi-stakeholder learning and teaching and openness which includes several age groups and socio-economic groups previously left out of these semiotic praxes.

Derrida says in SSPDHS about new discourses in the human sciences that "since these concepts are not elements or atoms and since they are taken from a syntax and a system, every particular borrowing drags along with it the whole of metaphysics." This recent rupture, however, has produced new forms in the Digital that is disconnected with the whole of metaphysics through a process that he calls "supplementarity". "This movement of the free play, permitted by the lack, the absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarily. One cannot determine the center, the sign which supplements it, which takes its place in its absence-because this sign adds itself, occurs in addition, over and above, comes as a supplement." Basically, the absence of the center is compensated by infinite substitutions in the movement of play which do two mutually exclusive things:

  1. Replace the absent center
  2. In doing so, add new things to the structure itself.

Derrida says that the field, or lets supplant Digital Humanities where he is talking about ethnology, is a finite one, but because of the founding nature of the absent centre, it allows for infinite substitutions, leaving us with a "superabundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be supplemented." Put differently, the interdisciplinarity, the blogosphere and the many headed countenance machines of the digital space leave us with a skewed ratio of signifiers. Wikipedia is a great example of this phenomenon where the lack of a semiotic centre that exists allows infinite substitutions by various signifying entities (editors, both man and machine) and things are added in the process to the structure itself making it a great example of supplementarity in a new discourse. Through the concept of hyper-links, it forms a sort of infinite structure of freeplay in a (non) structure that has no beginning or end. This is indeed only possible because of the vacancy at the centre of our consciousness. If we were to look at something like Conrad Gesner’s Bibliotheca Universalis in 1545[2]to contrast, it was only ever able to list all known books ever printed within the semiotic structure of the day and didn’t perform a supplementary act in quite the same way.

Another point of departure is in Derrida’s reading of Levi-Strauss’s analogy of the Bricoleur. Bricolage is a skill which involves taking bits and forms that exist and refashioning them to create something new. Derrida says, "the elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on the freedom of manoeuvre… The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth." In the Digital Age, the myth of the engineer is resurrected, to borrow an iconotype. Using a programmatic language of her own, the engineer creates customized spaces of knowledge production and learning like MOOCs or Knowledge Commons that house discourses that are remotely connected to the other world and sometimes as Ian Bogost[3]states, even find the connection undesirable.

Although there has clearly been a rupture from the metaphysical age, there will exist a constant need to look back at our history for philosophical answers about the digital as we are still using the same tools (language, semiotics) of the past to explain a break with the past. Indeed, "the quality and the fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relationship to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought."

[1]. Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, J Derrida, 1966.

[2]. Print Culture and Enlightenment Thought, Elizabeth Eisenstein, 1988.


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