Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was an important French literary theorist and critic. The Wikipedia article about him provides a summary of his ideas, include his ideas about structuralism and its limits (emphasis added):

(…) The post-structuralist movement and the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida were testing the bounds of the structuralist theory that Barthes's work exemplified. Derrida identified the flaw of structuralism as its reliance on a transcendental signifier; a symbol of constant, universal meaning would be essential as an orienting point in such a closed off system. This is to say that without some regular standard of measurement, a system of criticism that references nothing outside of the actual work itself could never prove useful. But since there are no symbols of constant and universal significance, the entire premise of structuralism as a means of evaluating writing (or anything) is hollow.[citation needed]
Such thought led Barthes to consider the limitations not just of signs and symbols, but also of Western culture's dependency on beliefs of constancy and ultimate standards.

The first time I read this, it was not clear to me who had said or concluded that "the entire premise of structuralism (…) is hollow": Barthes or Derrida? The context is a discussion of Barthes's ideas and the last sentence ("Such thought led Barthes …") is unambiguously about Barthes. However, it was Derrida who had questioned structuralism's binary opposition of signifier and signified. Based on this, the sentence with the missing citation most likely refers to Derrida's thought.

Can the claim that requires a citation be traced by to a specific essay by (presumably) Jacques Derrida or (less likely) Roland Barthes? It is not clear to me whether that specific wording in the Wikipedia article is directly inspired by a source or a creative rewording.

1 Answer 1


The essay where Jacques Derrida discusses the limits of structuralism is Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, which was first delivered in French ("La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines") as a conference talk at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. The essay was printed in Derrida's L'écriture et la différence in 1967, and translated into English in a 1970 volume that collected papers from the JHU conference.

The Wikipedia article has a major error, in that Derrida speaks of the transcendental signified, not signifier, as being the locus of all meaning in pre-structuralist and structuralist discourse. Derrida argues that throughout the history of Western thought, inquiry into any structure of meaning (i.e., into signification and significance) always relied on a transcendental signified that was both at the center of and outside the structure; an arché, a telos, God, man, etc.

So to examine what a literary work means, for example, we might seek to talk about its message, or relate it to its author's biography, or to the literary movement it participates in. Meaning is thus located both inside the book (it's what the book has) and outside it (it's explained in terms of something other than the book). Any attempt to explain how meaning is made ends up referring to such a transcendental signified that is both inside and outside the structure that makes meaning.

Structuralism, meanwhile, takes a new approach. It tries to explain meaning via a system of signs, where a sign is both signifier and signified. The word book, for example, is both a signifier (the four letters on the screen, in this case) and a signified (the concept to which those letters refer). But if structuralism seeks to examine how meaning is constructed, and explains it as being constructed by signs, then the sign itself becomes something that is outside the signification system; the sign becomes the transcendental signified.

Further, in structuralism, signs are acknowledged to have meaning only insofar as they are different from other signs. There's no absolute reason that book should refer to what we think of as a book; it's just that the sign (both the word and the concept, the signifier and the signified) is meaningfully distinct in the English language. It's semantically differentiated from pamphlet, for example. Or to take another example, speakers of Marathi don't maintain a distinction between /v/ and /w/, so the words veil and wail would sound the same to them, but those words are phonologically distinct in English. Conversely, Marathi distinguishes aspirated consonants from unaspirated ones, which English doesn't. So the Marathi words phool (flower) and pool (bridge) would sound identical to most American English speakers, but they are phonologically distinct in Marathi. The point is that signs such as book and pamphlet, veil and wail, phool and pool, become meaningful because of their difference from each other on the level of signifier and/or signified, not because of some inherent property of the sounds or the concepts.

So if signs are meaningful only insofar as they are distinct from one another, then by virtue of its being a sign, any transcendental signified is meaningful only insofar as it is different from another transcendental signified. It bears mention that in French, this transcendental signified would not be aurally distinguishable from the transcendental signifier, since signifier (signifier) and signifié (signified) are homonyms. Part of Derrida's point is that pre-structuralist approaches to meaning assumed an identity, an absolute presence where signifier and signified were naturally unified; but structuralism too assumes such an identity, locating it in the sign that is simultaneously signifier and signifié.

Once we realize that this identity is illusory, and that the nature of sign is difference rather than identity, it follows that there is no absolute meaning, just what Derrida calls discourse:

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. (p. 249)

What we are left with, says Derrida, is two possible approaches:

The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology-in other words, through the history of all of his history-has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game. (p. 264–265)

That is, either we try to pin down meaning by saying meaning is absolute (outside the realm of the sign), but retrievable only through necessarily limited interpretations (through signs); or we say that there is no absolute, originary truth, just the free play of signification.

It is impossible to overstate how influential Derrida's essay was. The conference at which he delivered it was called "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man". The volume of papers from that conference that included the English translation was retitled The Structuralist Controversy, because Derrida's paper did in fact call the entire structuralist enterprise into doubt. Either meaning was outside the sign, or meaning was constantly displaced between signs. With its radical argument, Derrida's essay marked the turning point between structuralism and post-structuralism. Barthes, who was at the JHU conference, would not have been alone in being led "to consider the limitations not just of signs and symbols, but also of Western culture's dependency on beliefs of constancy and ultimate standards".


Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences". The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1970. pp. 247–272. Retrieved from archive.com, 7 April 2023.

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