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.