[An example of a signifier that différance slides]
[Presented in François Raffoul’s class on Contemporary French Philosophy at LSU in the fall of 2008; contains his additions and corrections]
Jacques Derrida begins the essay “Différance” (perhaps the most systematic articulation of the non-concept that, according to Derrida, he “ha[s] been able to utilize” in previous works) by talking about the letter a and trying to explain (though not justify; instead perform an “insistent intensification of its play”) the neologism that he developed (3). In the first few paragraphs of the essay, he talks about writing and how the neologism (“neographism” he calls it) is “a lapse in the discipline and law” of that system, a sort of disruption in writing and, if I may add, in language and the order of signs in general (3).
To understand the operation that Derrida performs, we have to go back to the tradition (of linguistics, of philosophy, of thought) that he is critiquing. The tradition, as Derrida has argued in previous works, has set up a hierarchy of binary oppositions. Two things/concepts/terms are distinguished from one another and then one of the elements is considered primary while the other is relegated to a mere derivative, supplementary, and inferior position.
In the philosophy of language, this has taken the form of the privileging of speech over writing. In Plato (as in the Phaedrus, read by Derrida in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” explained by Christopher Norris in Derrida), for example, writing is considered a “mere inscription” consisting of “alien, arbitrary, lifeless signs” (30). These written signs, according to Plato, serve as “mere substitutes” for speech, which, in contrast (i.e. unlike writing), expresses immediately, without contamination, and actively (lively happening in the moment) the truth (30). This is demonstrated by the Socratic dialogue where the exchange between two speakers—thanks to the powers of reasoning of one of them (i.e. Socrates)—leads to the utterance of truth. As opposed to this operation contemporary of and close to the source—the origin (giving speech the character of an “authentic living presence”)—through writing, Plato argues, “the logos is deflected from its proper, truth-seeking aim and abandoned to a state of hazardous dependence on the vagaries of unauthorized transmission” (33). Thus writing, a mere derivative of speech, is not only inferior: it is dangerous.
Such logical operations as Plato performs, Derrida argues, have set up a series of hierarchical oppositions in the tradition. This takes place not only in language as speech/writing (as is evident in Plato’s argument) necessarily implies presence/absence, immediacy/delay, origin/supplement, correspondence/arbitrariness, truth/untruth, reason/unreason—hierarchical binary distinctions that have been at work in Western thought throughout its history.
This order is precisely what Derrida is trying to subvert by using the word différance. As a preliminary formulation, we can say that the choice of différance—with an a instead of an e—is a performance by Derrida (a stunt, even) to reinforce the point he is trying to make. In French, the nasal sounds en and an sound exactly the same. Thus in uttering them (as Derrida explains comically on page 4 of his essay), one cannot tell whether one is saying différence (with an e) or différance (with an a). Thus, with a word like différe/ance, the word’s meaning can only be gleaned, apprehended, understood by looking at the graphic inscription, i.e. by looking at writing. As Derrida says, the “marked difference between two apparently vocal notations, [. . . the difference in which their meaning consist,] remains purely graphic: it is read, or it is written, but it cannot be heard” (3). (The same motivation underlies Derrida’s choice of neographism instead of neologism, logos being associated with reason and speech, graph with the written sign.)
In other words, différe/ance is one of those instances in which the order where speech expresses or manifests instantly and immediately—without delay, without confusion, without detachment (no remove)—self-present meaning or truth (as discerned by reason) is disrupted. What more, it is writing—supposedly but its derivative—that performs the function that speech is unable to. What was thus thought to be secondary—supposedly alien, lifeless, late; mere inscription, mere substitute, but supplementary—is revealed to have the primary function in the system—on which relies its very working.
What more, as Derrida observes, “a written text [. . . always and already] keeps watch over my discourse [including spoken discourse]” (4). “We will be able neither to do without the passage through a written text [i.e. we need to pass through writing], nor to avoid the order of the disorder produced within it” (4). That is to say, contrary to the suggestion that speech precedes writing, what Derrida claims is that speech is, in fact, in an economy of writing. As Norris explains,
Speech [. . .] is already inscribed in a differential system which must always be in place before communication begins. And this system is very like writing, in the sense that written signs have traditionally been thought of as marks of difference, supplementarity or non-self-present meaning. (92)
Thus, the distinction between the two terms of the binary opposition—speech and writing—is blurred. More importantly, the hierarchy between them is (at least for now) overturned, as writing turns out to be the unexplored yet key term in the opposition (hence Derrida’s call to substitute grammatology for Saussurean semiotics; which is of course yet different from Deleuze and Guattari’s pragmatics). After all, as Norris explains, “if language is always and everywhere a system of differential signs, [. . .] then the classical definition of writing would apply to every form of language whatsoever [including speech]. ‘From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs’” (85).
We said earlier that this (the use of différance) is a performance (even a stunt) by Derrida. This is not to say that the operation Derrida uncovers is somehow unique to the word différance or is “artificial.” What Derrida claims is that the operation uncovered in différance is the way in which language works, that, in other words, différance is at work in language all the time (as a “natural” operation, as it were). This is illustrated by différance itself, a “new” term that, as Derrida points out, is in fact barely a neologism. The a of différance simply comes from the present participle of the French verb différer, différant (8). In English, this is tantamount to saying, instead of difference: differing (as in the differing of opinions, the –ing form of the verb functioning as a noun, a gerund). Différance, the word, is thus not a radically new term invented from nowhere but is, like différance itself (the phenomenon that Derrida uncovers), an essential part of how language works, which has been at work in the tradition (albeit hidden, buried) all this time.
To illustrate this “natural” working, as it were, of différance, Derrida looks closely at language. Traditionally, language (especially the Western languages) has been thought to be a phonetic system (i.e. a linguistic system premised on the correspondence between symbols and sounds). Boldly enough, Derrida claims that “there is no phonetic writing” (5). In his words,
There is no purely and rigorously phonetic writing. So-called phonetic writing, by all rights and in principle, and not only due to an empirical or technical insufficiency, can function only by admitting into its system nonphonetic “signs” (punctuation, spacing, etc.). And an examination of the structure and necessity of these nonphonetic signs quickly reveals that they can barely tolerate the concept of the [phonetic] sign itself. (5)
(Even Saussure’s play of difference between signs in which their meaning consist, Derrida argues, “is in itself a silent play,” i.e. is nonphonetic (as in the graphic difference between the letters) (5)).
We said a moment ago that what Derrida is trying to do (by the use of différance) is to subvert the order of hierarchical binary oppositions set up by the tradition. This is not to say that he aims merely to invert the hierarchy, i.e. to put writing over speech, undermining the primacy of truth, reason, and all those other concepts assigned a privileged position. Rather, what is to be subverted is the order of the oppositions themselves. This Derrida does by virtue of the technique that he calls deconstruction.
Thus, immediately following Derrida’s undermining of speech, spoken language, and phonetic writing (i.e. after the overturning of the hierarchy spoken of above), is the objection that “graphic difference itself [as discerned in the written text] vanishes into the night [literally, since without light, it cannot be seen], can never be sensed as a full term” (5). In other words, “the difference marked in the ‘differ( )nce’ between the e and the a eludes both vision and hearing” (5). Thus, what Derrida asserts is not a différance that writing somehow has privileged access to but rather “a différance which belongs neither to the voice nor to writing in the usual sense, [. . . but] between speech and writing, and beyond the tranquil familiarity which links us to one and the other, occasionally reassuring us in our illusion that they are two” (5). What Derrida subverts, then, what he undermines and resists, are not necessarily the privileged terms in the hierarchy but the order of oppositions itself, the fact that there are these oppositions in the first place.
This is the move that would be characteristic of Derridean deconstruction. Explaining the term, Norris (following Derrida, repudiating some of the latter’s most vehement Anglo-American disciples) clarifies that deconstruction is not primarily a matter of structures or laws (14). It is not “a ‘method,’ a ‘technique’ or a species of ‘critique’” (18). It is rather what can be called a move, an act that has some of the characteristics of the terms previously mentioned but is nonetheless separate—différant—from them. More specifically, it is a move that “consist[s] in [. . .] the dismantling of conceptual oppositions, the taking apart of hierarchical systems of thought which can then be reinscribed within a different order of textual signification” (19).
Norris explains the methodology involved in this:
Deconstruction is the vigilant seeking-out of those ‘aporias,’ blindspots or moments of self-contradiction where a text [or a discourse] voluntarily betrays the tension between rhetoric and logic, between what it manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean. To ‘deconstruct’ a piece of writing [or a discourse, such as the dominant discourse of the Western tradition] is therefore to operate a kind of strategic reversal, seizing on precisely those unregarded details (casual metaphors, footnotes, incidental turns of argument) [or the non-phonetic elements in so-called phonetic writing] which are always, and necessarily, passed over by interpreters of a more orthodox persuasion. For it is here, in the margins of the text—the ‘margins,’ that is, as defined by a powerful normative consensus—that deconstruction discovers those same unsettling forces at work. (19)
Going hand in hand with this attention paid to the margins of discourse is Derrida’s notion of the supplement. The twist that Derrida performs on this notion derives from the opposition set up between speech and writing where writing is considered the supplement par excellence as it symbolizes (as an addition to it, coming after it) speech, which manifests as close as possible the self-presence of truth (or of a thing, of “reality”). When we factor in the fact that speech itself—even though the closest, most direct medium to it—is itself a symbol, a supplement to the (unmediated) self-presence of truth, we realize (according to this logic) that writing really is but “supplement of supplement [i.e. of speech], sign of sign”—twice removed from presence, reason, truth: the supplement par excellence (65).
Derrida plays with this notion. Asserting that the word supplement means both something that “may or may not be added as required” and something that “is required to complete or fill up some existing lack,” Derrida argues that, oftentimes, what is considered supplementary actually turns out to be necessary, primary (as in the non-phonetic elements in so-called phonetic writing or the role of the written symbol in différance) (66). This is what Derrida calls the logic of supplementarity that carries out “this strange reversal of values whereby an apparently derivative or secondary term takes on the crucial role in determining an entire structure of assumptions” (67).
This is what Derrida does in “Différance” (p. 5) when he points out the necessity of non-phonetic elements (and of writing in general) (supposedly supplementary) in determining (and making function) language. In contrast, then, to the traditional notion that thinks of the system of signs as definitively determined by phonetics (and speech)—supposedly primary, self-sufficient, and not needing any supplement—Derrida points out how the supplement (marginal features such as non-phonetic elements)—including the supplement par excellence (the act of writing itself)—is actually what is key to the system producing any meaning and functioning in the first place.
Derrida then proceeds to a more direct definition of différance. “What is différance?” he asks. Analogous to Heidegger’s move in his later works (when he talks about nihilism and crosses out (puts an X over) the word being to call attention to the nothing at the center of being), Derrida writes,
Différance is [with the is crossed out] what makes possible the presentation of being-present, it is never presented as such. [. . .] It exceeds the order of truth at a certain precise point, but without dissimulating itself as something, as a mysterious being, in the occult of a nonknowledge or in a hole with indeterminable borders. (6)
Différance is not, does not exist, is not a present-being in any form; [. . . it is different from] everything [i.e. from every substantial thing]; and consequently [. . .] it has neither existence nor essence. It derives from no category of being, whether present or absent. (6)
Différance is not a thing, is different from everything, has no essence or existence—yet is (analogous to Heidegger’s (modes of) being) what “makes possible the presentation of being-present,” what makes possible for things to be present, what makes possible presencing itself.
To understand this, we need to go back to Ferdinand de Saussure, to whom Derrida is indebted. Saussure, the father of structuralist linguistics, as recorded in the Course in General Linguistics, theorized that words (specifically: signifiers; generally: elements) have meaning only by virtue of their position in a network of other elements—from which they differ (in some way), from which they are different. Saussure is breaking from the referential theory of language that claims that all significations/utterances are acts of nomenclature in which a word (a signifier) names something (either a thing (a referent) or an idea (a signified)) that in itself already has a specific and secure identity. (This is the differential system mentioned above.)
Thus, for example, according to Saussure, the word cat has meaning (is thought to correspond or refer to something) because it is not the word cute. The thing that cat designates (a noun, a living being) is able to be designated as such by cat (the word) precisely because it is different (sounds different, is written differently) from the other word cute, an adjective that, indeed, can be used to describe a cat but does not relate to the cat referred to in the same way that the word cat does. The claim by Saussure is that this differential mechanism extends to all of language: the word cat is what it is only because it is not the word cute or the word coat or the word dog or the word dig, etc. It is precisely because of these differences—because of difference—that a system of signs (language) is able to function at all. Moreover, the connection between signifier and signified (i.e. the fact that the word cat refers to what we know as a cat) is, Saussure notes, completely arbitrary. There is no “natural” reason why a certain signifier should be connected to a certain signified.
It is precisely the difference between elements (which is what gives them their meaning and identity) that Derrida is trying to hit upon (trying to call our attention to) with the word différance. Hence the description that différance has no essence nor existence: no essence because the connections made in the system are completely arbitrary and because there is no standard that dictates how the elements are going to be different from each other (i.e. how they’re going to differ); no existence because rather than the elements themselves, what différance tries to delineate (what it “refers” to) are (not the things but) the differences between those elements.
Beyond the indebtedness to Saussure, there is also a strategic component to the way in which Derrida “defines” différance. Derrida deliberately resists defining différance as a concept because the concept of concept itself—“th[e] assumption that meaning can always be grasped in the form of some proper, self-identical, [neatly-delineated] concept,” this way of thinking inherited from the tradition—is one of the things that Derrida sets out to deconstruct (Norris 19). This rational, all-illuminating, self-enclosed thing called concept is supposed to have a privileged connection to—in fact developed as a “natural manifestation” of—“a rightful beginning, an absolute point of departure, a principal responsibility” (6). It thus implies and is complicit with the very same foundational thinking (that longs for origins) that it is Derrida’s project—deconstruction—to undermine.
Derrida thus takes Saussure’s concept of difference and inscribes it in his own term, différance. Hence the first meaning of différance where it functions as the noun form of the verb différer (in French) which means (in English) to differ, “to be not identical, to be other, discernible, etc.” (8). This is one use of différance to call attention to “an interval, a distance, spacing, [. . .] produced between the elements other, and [. . .] produced with a certain perseverance in repetition” (8). Différance, thus, as spacing: differing. Differing that makes it possible for the elements to have any identity and produce meaning. Différance (in a Heideggerian move) not as a thing but as that which makes possible the presencing of things, the producing of meanings, the opening up of infinite possibilities. Différance not as a system but as the lack that sets a system in motion.
Derrida goes beyond Saussure (and Heidegger?), however, in inscribing in différance another meaning. Playing on the French verb différer (from the Latin differre), which means both to differ (in the above sense) and to defer, Derrida is able to invoke in the word différance a second meaning. Here the choice of différance (with an a) proves especially ingenious and appropriate because (as Derrida says on footnote 9 on p. 8) the regular French word différence (with an e) is not the noun form of the verb to defer. In addition, it also does not capture the “sense of active polemical difference, actively differing with someone or something” (8). By coining a quasi-neologism, then, Derrida is able to economically invoke in one term—différance—both senses of the French verb différer: to differ and to defer.
What does the second sense of différer—to defer—mean? Derrida describes it as
The action of putting off until later, of taking into account, of taking account of time and of the forces of an operation that implies an economical calculation, a detour, a delay, a relay, a reserve, a representation. [. . .] Différer in this sense is to temporize, to take recourse, consciously or unconsciously, in the temporal and temporizing mediation of a detour that suspends that accomplishment or fulfillment of “desire” or “will” effect. (8)
To defer, then, literally means to delay, to put off, to not come until later, to be delayed—the second meaning of différance in which consists Derrida’s attempt to critique and extend the structural linguistics of Saussure. It will be recalled that, in talking about difference, Saussure’s primary concern is with the difference between elements in a system (of language) that then allows these elements to have meaning (some identity). Difference for Saussure is thus a matter of relation (i.e. has something to do with the relations) between elements in a closed, synchronic system. This system may change over time, but these changes (at least Saussure assumed) come very slowly and do not change the notion of difference itself. In Saussure, difference in a new system would pertain to how elements in that new system (and the new relations therein) differ from each other—not with how elements in the new system differ from those of the old. Difference in Saussure thus has a static, synchronic character (like the system itself in which it is inscribed).
For Derrida, on the other hand, difference—différance—implies in it and takes into account (through deferral) difference through time even while remaining in the same system (of language) (with the same structure and laws). Just like synchronic difference, according to Derrida, deferral—delay, postponement, absence of immediate meaning—is a primary operation of language. That is to say, meaning is—and not only by accident, not artificially—necessarily and always already deferred, absent in the present. Difference thus gains (in addition to space) a time element. Différance as temporization.
Unlike Saussure, Derrida thought it important to call attention to this second meaning of différance (already in it, as indicated by différer having two meanings, even though the second one has been buried over by the tradition) to complete the critique of the tradition, as it were. To be precise, the notion of deferral enables Derrida to finish the move by which he deconstructs presence/absence, origin/supplement, thing/sign. In this way, différance enables Derrida not only to assert spatial difference but to link that up with the deconstruction of binary oppositions that he aims to perform.
To make sense of this, we need, once again, to look back to the tradition. In the tradition, Derrida explains,
The sign is [. . .] said to be put in the place of the thing itself, the present thing, ‘thing’ here standing equally for meaning [i.e. signified] or referent. The sign represents the present in its absence. [. . .] The sign [. . . as] deferred presence [. . . deferring] the moment in which we can encounter the thing itself, [whatever we want to do with it. . . .] Signification [in other words] as the différance of temporization [. . . in a] structure [that] presupposes that the sign, which defers presence, is conceivable only on the basis of the presence that it defers and moving toward the deferred presence that it aims to reappropriate. [. . . In this] classical semiology, [then,] the substitution of the sign for the thing itself is both secondary and provisional: secondary due to an original and lost presence from which the sign thus derives; provisional as concerns this final and missing presence toward which the sign in this sense is a movement of mediation. (9)
This is the traditional conception, then, that privileges presence over absence, origin over supplement, the “thing” over its signification/representation (as elaborated above). Here, however, Derrida puts the stress on how these hierarchical binary oppositions rely on the assumption of some foundational origin as the basis of all signifying acts. It is this origin that Derrida—with the second meaning of différance—now sets out to deconstruct.
In order to do this, Derrida performs a two-step move. First, he draws from Saussure to make use of spatial difference: differing. Derrida explains,
Language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. [. . .] Every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, [i.e. to what is different from it,] by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, différance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and system in general. (11)
Thus, via Saussure, Derrida is able to assert that the (spatial) différance of signs, rather than secondary and provisional, is in fact the source of conceptuality itself, the very possibility of (the) presencing (of something with an identity, a meaning). Différance is thus originary. “Originary” différance.
Derrida describes différance as “originary” with the caveat, however, that différance is not something that exists before the differences themselves but is rather the play of differences and its effects themselves (11). That is to say, with the caveat that différance—which deconstructs origins—is itself not an originary concept that can be grasped but is simply the (originary) opening up of an open-ended history whereby the play and operation by which (some) meaning emerges takes place. In Derrida’s words,
[The] differences have been produced, are produced effects, but they are effects which do not find their cause in a subject or a substance, in a thing in general, a being that is somewhere present, thereby eluding the play of différance. (11)
There is, thus, Derrida asserts, “no presence before and outside semiological difference” (12). In other words, “différance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences” (11). Since différance is the activity itself (including its effects), “the name ‘origin’ [thus] no longer suits it” (11).
Key to this second part of the move is the second meaning of différance that pertains to “the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted ‘historically’ as a weave of differences” (which thus makes “différance [. . .] no more static than it is genetic, no more structural than historical”) (12). In this way, Derrida is able to invoke (in his deconstruction of origins and presence) elements of time other than the present (i.e. the past and the future) and examine the connection between them through the second meaning of différance, i.e. through the operation of deferral. Derrida explains:
Signification is possible only if each so-called “present” element [. . .] is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element, this trace being related no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and constituting what is called the present by means of this very relation to what it is not: what it is absolutely not, not even a past or a future as a modified present. An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself. (13) (my emphasis)
Presence and origin are thus, by virtue of what Derrida does to them, now terms unable to stand by themselves, on their own, as primary entities. The present, thought to be a self-sufficient entity, is shown to be really but the meeting place of different “times” as it contains traces of pasts that have gone by and futures that are to come, i.e. of pasts and futures that are absent—i.e. of what is not present—in which consists its meaning. Time, like space, thus becomes a place of haunting. Time, like space, becomes undecidable. In the process, the assumption of foundational origin on which rests all the other hierarchical binary oppositions nurtured by the tradition is itself deconstructed. Deconstructed by the interval that separates an element from what it is different from—the same interval that Derrida calls spacing, which, in this instance (time being what is considered) can just as well also be called temporization.
In this move, then, that enables Derrida to complete the process of deconstruction, Derrida is able to link both notions of spacing and temporization—synchronic difference and deferral in time—to each other, an interval that he describes as “the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space” (13). This interval (in both space and time) that makes possible all this is what Derrida calls “archi-writing, archi-trace, or [quite simply,] différance” (13).
Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” In Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass, 1-27. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.