Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Différance

Différance

Jacques Derrida

It would have been difficult for [Joseph] Priestly, contemplating that tenacious sprig of mint in the lab on Bansinghall Street, to perceive that a Kuhnian revolution was at hand, not just because the concept didn’t exist yet, but more important because there was no ‘dominant paradigm’ for him to overturn. The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate:  the world was filled with stuff—people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint—and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff

—Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, 66

Bibliography

Derrida, J. (1968). Différance. Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Philosophie, 73-101.

Biography[1]

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was the founder of “deconstruction,” a way of criticizing not only both literary and philosophical texts but also political institutions. Derrida entered college (École Normale) at a time when a remarkable generation of philosophers and thinkers was coming of age:  Deleuze, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard, Barthes, and Marin. Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, deBeauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Ricœur, Blanchot, and Levinas were also still alive. Derrida was largely influenced by Nietzche, Hidegger, and Saussure and, in turn, influenced Irigaray, Cixous, Deleuze, and Lyotard.

Deconstruction[2]

The term deconstruction signifies certain strategies for reading and writing texts. The term was introduced into philosophical literature in 1967, with the publication of three texts by Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology (1974), Writing and Difference (1978), and Speech and Phenomena (1973). Derrida and deconstruction are routinely associated with postmodernism, although like Deleuze and Foucault, he does not use the term and would resist affiliation with “-isms” of any sort. Of the three books from 1967, Of Grammatology is the more comprehensive in laying out the background for deconstruction as a way of reading modern theories of language, especially structuralism, and Heidegger’s meditations on the non-presence of being. It also sets out Derrida’s difference with Heidegger over Nietzsche.

Just as in the essay “On the Question of Being” (Heidegger 1998, 291-322) Heidegger sees fit to cross out the word “being,” leaving it visible, nevertheless, under the mark, Derrida takes the closure of metaphysics to be its “erasure,” where it does not entirely disappear, but remains inscribed as one side of a difference, and where the mark of deletion is itself a trace of the difference that joins and separates this mark and what it crosses out. Derrida calls this joining and separating of signs différance (Derrida 1974, 23), a device that can only be read and not heard when différance and différence are pronounced in French. The “a” is a written mark that differentiates independently of the voice, the privileged medium of metaphysics. In this sense, différance as the spacing of difference, as archi-writing, would be the gram of grammatology. However, as Derrida remarks: “There cannot be a science of difference itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of presence itself, that is to say of a certain non-origin” (Derrida 1974, 63). Instead, there is only the marking of the trace of difference, that is, deconstruction.

For Derrida, written marks or signifiers do not arrange themselves within natural limits, but form chains of signification that radiate in all directions. As Derrida famously remarks, “there is no outside-text” (Derrida 1974, 158), that is, the text includes the difference between any “inside” or “outside.” A text, then, is not a book, and does not, strictly speaking, have an author. On the contrary, the name of the author is a signifier linked with others, and there is no master signifier (such as the phallus in Lacan) present or even absent in a text. This goes for the term “différance” as well, which can only serve as a supplement for the productive spacing between signs. Therefore, Derrida insists that “différance is literally neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982, 3). Instead, it can only be marked as a wandering play of differences that is both a spacing of signifiers in relation to one another and a deferral of meaning or presence when they are read.

Summary

Derrida illustrates one key concept of différance by drawing the reader’s attention to the word itself. Juxtaposing the French word différer (“to differ”) with the Greek word diapherein, Derrida reinforces the dual nature of différance as noted earlier in “Différance.” Diapherein, Derrida writes, refers to the common meaning of difference, indicating that two things are dissimilar; this form of difference for Derrida can be conceptualized as a sort of horizontal/spatial relationship as two things must necessarily exist simultaneously (albeit in different spaces). To this Derrida adds in a dimension of time through his reading of différance as a verb that can also indicate a deferral—on the most basic level, this implies a single thing at two points in time.

Difference, for Derrida, does not imply “separate,” however as différance speaks to a way in which difference contains an element of sameness:  in order to compare things (a necessary positioning that must occur before difference can be established), there must be a dimension on which they are comparable. As example, the American expression “It’s like comparing apples to oranges” is often used to suggest widely disparate elements but Derrida might point out that both objects belong to a number of similar categories (e.g., fruit, round, edible, etc.) and thus the very establishment of difference in one respect serves to reinforce sameness in another.

Abstracting the apple and orange example, Derrida referred to the system of connections between objects of difference as an assemblage. It is important to note that Derrida did not view this construction as a static system but rather, in a nod to Saussure and the infinite chain of meanings formed as signs became signifiers for other signs, urged readers to consider that the configuration of the assemblage was always in flux. Derrida cites Saussure on page 285 of Literary Theory to put forth the idea that “in language there are only differences” but, perhaps more significant, is Saussure’s reminder that “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither idea nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.”

Drawing upon Hegel, différance, then, is what makes presentation (i.e., distinction) possible for Derrida, as things are only brought into being through difference and, as such, identity is always based in a thing’s relationship to other things and concepts like authenticity do not apply. To help clarify this concept we can return to the apple and orange example noted earlier:  in order for an “apple” and an “orange” to exist, Derrida argues that we must first determine that a difference exists between that which we would then call an apple or an orange. This difference does not merely refer to the creation of separate words but instead that these two things are in fact different enough to be separated from each other. As suggested by the epigraph to this summary, difference/différance is an inherent part of classification/order and stands in contrast to nothingness.

Finally, one conclusion draws from Saussure is that “the signified concept is never present in itself, in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself” (285). Consequentially, although it might be difficult to grasp initially, Derrida also argues that différance is not a concept or a word that itself exists inside of the assemblage.


[1] Adapted from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[2] Adapted from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Deconstruction is not directly mentioned in “Différance” but the concept is important to an understanding of différance and Derrida.

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