Perhaps Derrida’s Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences could be understood as a critique of the structuralist ignorance of anxiety. This is not to say that structuralism was ignorant of the concept of anxiety, itself, but is rather to say that, as Derrida shows us, structuralism contained despair over the paradox that “the center is not the center”
(1). This despair
mirrors that of the despair Kierkegaard explores in The Sickness unto Death. Both Derrida and Kierkegaard are
interested in pointing out the despair that finds its home within our thoughts
and actions, but Derrida rejects Kierkegaard’s solution. I intend to point out
the shared critique of both Kierkegaard and Derrida concerning anxiety; but
furthermore, I will apply Derrida’s critique to that Kierkegaard’s solution (realizing
our self through God, the infinite) to reveal that Kierkegaard makes the same
mistake, creating a fundamental ground to stand on by offering God as a center.
Let us first operate under this premise: the concept of anxiety, in this particular case, is based upon uncertainty; existential anxiety, if I may. Kierkegaard’s Sickness is aimed at revealing that the nature of this anxiety is based upon a person’s inability to feel complete, and thus to attain her true self. The existential void within a person is revealed to be infinite, as nothing in this world can fill it because everything is finite. Thus, the only way to fill the hole within a person is for her to recognize God as infinite and therefore the only hope to attain her true self. The beginnings of despair are found in ignorance, according to Kierkegaard, however “the ever increasing intensity of despair depends upon the degree of consciousness or is proportionate to its increase: the greater the degree of consciousness, the more intensive the despair”
(Kierkegaard 42). As one becomes more
aware of the existential void, anxiety and despair increase. As such, this is
why Derrida’s critique of Levi-Strauss in Structure,
Sign, and Play is so devastating. The idea of a centered structure is “incoherent”
because “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” (Derrida 1).
What is revealed further in this is the true reason that such an idea had been
seen as necessary in philosophy: “coherence in contradiction expresses the
force of a desire” (1). Derrida’s critique reveals the existential anxiety
within not simply structuralism, but also the individual.
Just as Kierkegaard postulates that anxiety and despair are repressed by individuals to the point that most of humanity “prefers to live in the basement,” Derrida reveals that even in the most supposedly “conscious” individuals in philosophy there is an underlying existential void that remains the cause of it all (Kierkegaard 43). As with the destructive attacks upon metaphysics by Heidegger and Nietzsche brought with them the continuation of metaphysics, the existential void that drives all of humanity’s need for certainty is brought with those who bring absolutes to the philosophical or theological table. To put it more precisely, if “every particular borrowing drags along with it the whole of metaphysics,” then every particular human attempt at certainty brings with it humanity’s existential void, unrecognized as impossible to fill (Derrida 3). To further an earlier quote from Kierkegaard:
Imagine a house with a basement, first floor, and second floor planned so that there is or is supposed to be a social distinction between the occupants according to floor. Now, if what it means to be a human being is compared with such a house, then all too regrettably the sad and ludicrous truth about the majority of people is that in their own house they prefer to live in the basement. (43)
What Derrida’s critique of structuralism shows us, in Kierkegaardian terms, is that one cannot examine the world from a bird’s eye view when she is trapped in the basement! What is worth noting is that Kierkegaard, in his house, does not give us a roof. We are either in the basement, on the first floor, or on the second, thus connoting that there is no bird’s eye view. Derrida’s criticism of Levi-Strauss’ work as acting as empirical data is all the more enforced by such an understanding. Furthermore, Derrida conveys that discourse on the Human Sciences brings with it the floor of the house that the individual is living. She is never outside of the house.
In this way, Kierkegaard brings to mind the notion of the bricoleur. The bricoleur uses “the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them” (Derrida 5). Since the individual brings with her the house and the floor she lives, she understands things through the tools she has at her disposal in her house, on her floor. Thus it is impossible to not be the bricoleur. What Derrida explains through language, Kierkegaard illustrates through metaphor. Each person is the house, but they are inside it, inside of their own idea of themselves, unable to fully see what floor they are on. There is only an imaginary opposition to the bricoleur, the engineer. Such a subject would be “the absolute origin of his own discourse, and would supposedly construct it ‘out of nothing,’ ‘out of whole cloth,’ would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself” (Derrida 5). This is something unobtainable for the person. The person is not the builder of the house, she is constructed, whether physically by biology, or through language when she perceives “who she is.”
This is where, using Derrida’s critique, Kierkegaard is contradictory. Kierkegaard reveals the existential void within people and examines the ways in which it presents itself. He stays wonderfully coherent in his ideas of subjectivity and truth. However, in his response to the existential void he maintains the centered structure that Derrida reveals as incoherent. For Kierkegaard, as mentioned earlier, the existential void is created in the infinite hole that is created within us by our connection to God. As explained by Kierkegaard, “[a] human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis” (13). We therefore require something infinite to fill the existential void left by our synthesis that left us the infinite within the finite. The only way to fill this void, for Kierkegaard, to realize our true selves, is for us to exist before God (“before” used not as conveying time, but as subjects before a king). However, this creates an issue that Derrida exposes in Structure, Sign, and Play.
God, for Kierkegaard, acts as the center of a structure, and thus acts as a notion of certainty to cover up the existential void. God, for Kierkegaard, becomes a band-aid of sorts, forced into coherence by a desire to overcome anxiety and despair. It becomes a tool with which “anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being” (Derrida 1). Kierkegaard’s God becomes the perfect example of a “center at the center of the totality, and yet… does not belong to the totality” (1). Kierkegaard finds himself committing the error he condemns by creating for the self, “an imaginatively constructed god” (Kierkegaard 69). No doubt Kierkegaard would disagree with Derrida that there is no engineer. Now Kierkegaard becomes the structuralist who “seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from play and from the order of the sign” (Derrida 10). Kierkegaard affirms the subjective over the absolute, yet finds that he is unable to make “the Nietzschean affirmation- the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation” (10). Kierkegaard cannot bring himself to take the leap of faith into this affirmation of play. Even down to Kierkegaard’s explanation of human’s synthesis of infinitude and finitude he bases all reasoning upon the fundamental center of everything that is yet outside of it all: God.
If play is “always and interplay of absence and presence” then a further answer as to why Kierkegaard’s God has not withstood a Derridian critique is revealed to be that this center does not allow for play (Derrida 10). This Kierkegaardian God is one of absolute presence. There is nothing in which it does not abide. In fact, it goes so far as to abide outside of everything as well, as it is something that Kierkegaard says we must exist before. Play, however, “is the disruption of presence” and proves itself as a necessity of existence through language (10). If God is to be found, it will be as something that occurs in bricolage because that is all that is real, it is all that can be affirmed, it is what so clearly pronounces that there is play. We must affirm play to “pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology… has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game” (10). To go beyond metaphysics, certainty, and origins is the Nietzschean cry for a world beyond good and evil and a beginning of a world that exists out from under the shadow of God.Going beyond such a world is what philosophy has strived for, and thus turning the page, or as Derrida puts it, taking a “step outside philosophy” becomes no simple task (4). Every critique has taken within it what it critiqued. The task becomes how to leave the shadow of what was and cross over into something new. Kierkegaard’s work on anxiety becomes lacking not because of the problem it addresses, but because of the solution it offers. To think outside of philosophy is perhaps to offer new solutions to problems. Kierkegaard’s solution does not take the step. It presents a wonderful opportunity to, though, and that it is its new value. It is not that we must discontinue reading such philosophers, it is that we must “read philosophers in a certain way” (Derrida 7). The seemingly vague idea put forth here by Derrida is quite vital. It represents a new way of thinking about old ideas that refuses black and white for the more viable gray. Maybe in this Nietzschean affirmation, we experience something divine.