[Topics: Genetics, Literary Theory, Philosophy of Language]
The Discourse of the Scientific Humans:

Exploring an Analogy Between Genetics and Language via Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction


Jacques Derrida - genetics - deconstruction - critical theory - literary theory


Perhaps only with the recent theoretical developments in such fields as ecocriticism, the digital humanities, posthumanism, and elsewhere has literary theory attained the content or the form of scientific autonomy as desired by the Russian Formalists. This is not a particularly surprising development, however, as the European theoretical schools which followed the period of Russian Formalism, as well as Russian Formalism itself, drew heavily from the highly technical social sciences of linguistics and, later, anthropology.

Yet even the New Criticism, with its avowed (partially cultural) distaste for the distinctly denotative and ‘un-poetic’ nature of scientific discourse, clearly borrowed in its scrutiny—and in its testing of theoretical modes—from post-Enlightenment scientific methodologies. In fact, one may contend that scientific endeavors and theoretical philosophies share far more than either discipline readily admits, not only in methodologies but in the implications and applications of theoretical knowledge (where ‘theoretical’ here refers to the sense of the term in both the sciences and the humanities).

Taking up just one salient, demonstrative analogy, there is a curious parallel between the implications of much of the scientific understanding of genetics and those of the theoretical underpinnings of deconstruction as formulated by Jacques Derrida. Indeed, one may find that, using either Derridean deconstructive theory or genetics[1] as a starting point, one is led down the familiar roads toward poststructural theory and cultural criticism (broadly construed).

Derrida’s Structures:

Jacques Derrida’s critique of language, structuralist theory, and meaning proceeds from a place of irony in an acknowledgment of the inadequacy of his own language to fully express his critique, and from a place of playfulness regarding meaning which derives from a denial of the transcendental signified.

Found in his influential essay on “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” a characteristic statement of what might be termed his ‘thesis,’ and which also serves as a potent instance of his style, runs as follows:

This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions. (Derrida “Structure” 365)

The oxymoron of the infinite-because-finite is especially important here; that which is restricted from the set, a defining totalization or an originating point of true meaning, showcases the lack of restrictions on that set.

In lacking an origin or “center,” the linguistic landscape must be envisioned with some modifications from the structuralist picture: where de Saussure painted a river of signifieds corresponding arbitrarily, yet immutably to a river of signifiers, Derrida acknowledges humanity’s total lack of interface with anything like an objective signified, and so sees only signifiers indicating innumerable other signifiers. This “field of infinite substitutions,” then, seems strongly correlated to any instance of a linguistic system.

Scientific Structures:

In the field of genetics, the correspondence between genotypes (with chromosomal structure) and phenotypes presents a cursory analogy to a structuralist conception of linguistics, where the genes map to signifiers and the corresponding organic structures map to signifieds. Yet, however identical the genotypes of two individuals, environmental and behavioral influences will cause phenotypical variations.

This context-dependence of individual ‘signifieds’ would be enough on its own to shake the analogy of genes to signifiers and corresponding organic structures to signifieds. But, in fact, the analogy breaks in a much more fundamental and much more interesting way. The different reactions of different cultures to any given phenotype is a small-scale indication of a more basic aspect of natural selection: the retention of the arbitrary in the survival of the fittest.

That is, if one considers, for instance, a species of brown moths split into two groups, where one group lives in a brown forest and one group lives in a snowy tundra, predators of the latter group will much more easily find and consume the moths prior to procreative success. In effect, the genetic sequences and their corresponding structures should not be considered as a concept and a sound-image, but as one bipartite signifier in interaction with a field of environmental signification.

There is nothing essential or transcendental about the survival or utility of the brownness of a moth, only an infinite ‘play’ against the spectra of naturally occurring colors and contexts.

Reading Genes:

Indeed, similar to Jacques Derrida’s commentary on linguistics, genetics provides a legible linguistic system with its own infinitude of potentiality and its own self-imposed limitations. The last key similarity between a deconstructive notion of language and a scientific understanding of genetics comes from attention to nucleotides and nucleobases, which may be thought of as the phonemes of the genetic system.

The sequence of base pairs constituting a given genome (alongside, in keeping with the above, the organism’s phenotypical expression) is analogous to a piece of writing in any given language. The non-random, yet arbitrary selection detailed above with the moths follows a round of recombination and mutation resulting from reproduction.

These recombinations and mutations across time are analogous to Derrida’s urge to constantly rephrase what he has just written: they are that infinite play itself, with no limits on how long or short a given sequence may be (provided organic survival is not given as an unjustified, indeed impossible, requirement for the constitution of a genome). Yet there is only so much change that can theoretically occur between one generation and the next, implying a chronology which parallels Derrida’s consideration of theories tied to the existing metaphysics:

There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest. (Derrida “Structure” 354)

Just as Derrida proposes not a new linguistic system, but a new approach to the linguistic system and accompanying metaphysics already extant, so a geneticist may see in his or her work the germ of a new ‘reading’ of genetics.

After Deconstruction:

From here, in a way relevant to a modern reconsideration of genetics, Jacques Derrida considers methods of interpretation in a way that opens the door for the cultural criticism that followed. Near the close of his talk on “Structure, Sign, and Play,” Derrida distinguishes between two meta-interpretive, theoretical modes:

There are thus 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, 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 and humanism. (Derrida “Structure” 369-70)

This latter, affirmative mode, which Derrida soon after identifies as basically Nietzschean, embraces the issue which for many centuries philosophers vehemently aimed to defeat or work around: namely, the apparent unverifiability of reality, with its irreconcilable (in Kant’s phrase, ‘scandalous’) disconnect between human experience and human knowledge.

Nietzsche’s unfulfilled desire to present a transvaluation of human values in his declining years seems to find a natural ally in any mode which “tries to pass beyond man and humanism.” Although this can be read in purely metaphysical and metacritical terms, Derrida leaves the door wide open for a displacement of the privileging of humanity’s (and, in a literal sense, man’s—i.e. male’s) traditional understanding of itself, as fruitfully undertaken by later cultural criticism of every form, from postcolonial to feminist to ecocritical.

After Evolutionary Biology:

There is a tremendously powerful evocation of the same reevaluation of traditional understandings in the implications of the above tour through genetics. From a vantage point whereat the prominence, importance, and even existence of a given genetic sequence has no claim to providence, superiority, or truth, the path is lit toward a new way of embodying and interpreting a genome from within. As Jacques Derrida puts it,

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it. (Derrida “The End” 24)

This ironic, constant self-awareness can combine with the aforementioned equivalent worth of the genetic and environmental significations to present genetic variation among humans, as it manifests in everything from biological sex to skin color to body type, as decentered from preexisting interpretations.

This line of thought lends itself to the rethinking of those interpretations which sits at the heart of postcolonial, racial, queer, feminist, and other cultural or phenotypically delineated categorical studies.

Further, this transformation of interpretation of what once was hierarchical to what is now merely differential also lends itself to the more general cultural criticism of thinkers like Michel Foucault, whose work reconsidering cultural bounds for disease and madness follow a similar pattern.[2]

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche - Jacques Derrida - genetics - deconstruction - critical theory - literary theory

Beyond Humanity:

So interpretatively rich is this exploration of genetic systems as analogous to linguistic systems that a path could be traced even further, from genomes as plays of signifiers with substitutions to considerations outside of humanity: to animal theory, ecocriticism, and finally posthumanism.

The move from the prior set of considerations to those more generally relevant to animals and the environment is relatively predictable. Just as the value assigned to any one faction of humanity relative to any other takes on a baselessness in the face of attention to genetics, so the value assigned to humans over any other species acquires the same baselessness.

In view of this (and even discounting that Jacques Derrida might say no one has an incontrovertible epistemic justification for any linguistically expressed belief), no one has an incontrovertible epistemic justification for seeing one genome as more valuable than another.

The path from here to posthumanism is only slightly abstracted. Where genetics can be encountered as a sort of language, artificial intelligence could be thought of as arising from an alternative genetics, i.e. an alternative language. This is not to say that no value judgments are ever possible; rather, this is to say that such judgments are open to a play of infinite substitutions in much the same way that Derrida renders writing open.


It remains important, however, to note the couple of relevant disanalogies between the systems under study.

First, the reproductive process by which recombination and mutation occur is not accurately represented as a field of infinite substitutions, unless one stretches into the purely hypothetical, nor is it strictly accurate to see the epistemological embodiment of an arbitrary genome as susceptible to self-reflexive intervention beyond self-reflexive reinterpretation. Yet Jacques Derrida asserts that

The quality and fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relation to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought. [. . .] It is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself. (Derrida “Structure” 356-57)

The self-overcoming (with that phrase’s obvious Nietzschean overtones) implicit in deconstruction’s confrontation of language is something which genetics could only reach through significant (and philosophically harrowing) advancement in genetic engineering. In effect, the play of substitutions happens with very little input by humans, at least for the present.

Second, the physical process whereby stable hydrogen bonds form a double-helical structure constitutes yet another check against a true centerless infinitude of substitutions; a tangible structure, however imposed, always results in tangible limitations. And other elements of physicality (or at least stubborn physical signifiers), such as molecular structures, molecular interactions, and the presence or absence of various possible environmental conditions on this planet impose similarly stubborn limitations.

Granting, however, that it is conceivable that both could someday be (at least in part) overcome by transhumanist efforts or genetic engineering, one can see that the analogy remains largely intact. At any rate, it ultimately raises a concern also raised by Derrida’s work: if the entirety of one’s knowledge is constituted by linguistic (or genetic-linguistic) play, then the notion of play itself takes on a further Derridean irony as itself a context-dependent signification.

Derrida acknowledges this in his constant self-conscious renaming of the concepts related to the abstraction of meaning (e.g. différance, supplementarity, intertext, etc.), but genetics, more often tied to older modes of traditional scientific conceptions of inductive truth as ultimate truth, bears no such professional irony.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Inamori Foundation) - Jacques Derrida - genetics - deconstruction - critical theory - literary theory

Photo courtesy of the Inamori Foundation

Still, it is remarkable the degree to which, by dint of just considering an analogy, one can see how genetics sets the stage for a mapping of theoretical territory strikingly similar to that mapped by Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive mode.

Whereas deconstruction prepared the field of theory for a return to considerations of culture and history through its Nietzschean, reevaluative, reinterpretive interpretational schema (with an accompanying awareness that the other mode of interpretation remains an integral part of the whole undecidable system), genetics offered the final nail in the coffin of many older materialist notions of human value such as physiognomy and phrenology, inviting reevaluations and reinterpretations of its own.

In this way, both were cognitively revolutionary, just as both follow poststructural theoretical linguistic patterns. There are relevant disanalogies between the two, but the physical limitations of the signification of genetics may finally be as nebulous as the grand transcendental signifieds of yesteryear.

Indeed, what is fascinating is not how fundamentally different the ‘sterile,’ empirical scientific method is from the radical, new formalisms undergirding twentieth century literary theory, but with what fervent aplomb the observational and rational practices associated with science can lead even science itself far afield from its traditional background and understandings, into the verdurous playfield of theory.[3]


[1] This essay will proceed naturally (though perhaps with insufficient humility) from the position of a commenter who has considerably more experience in literature and philosophy than experience with the particulars of molecular biology.

[2] As detailed further along, there is a notable complication to the ratification of Foucault’s theses in the inherent relationship between a structure given as physical and (at least some) imposition of limitation or definition.

[3] I would like to extend a special thank you to Professor Alan Liu, eminent in the field of Digital Humanities and among advocates for the Humanities more generally, without whose brilliant instruction this article would not have been possible. This is not intended in any way to indicate the Professor’s endorsement of any of my ideas.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. 2nd ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978. 351-70. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing.” Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 2nd ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976. 6-26. Print.

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[Topics: Genetics, Literary Theory, Philosophy of Language]
The Discourse of the Scientific Humans:

Exploring an Analogy Between Genetics and Language via Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction

was last modified: January 10th, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski
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