Derridan différance: Lessons in meaning, and the pursuit thereof

Soldier, French Revolution, from World's Smokers series (N33) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes
Soldier, French Revolution, from World’s Smokers series (N33) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes by Allen & Ginter is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Jacques Derrida is a leading figure in 20th-century French thought. His work, controversial and enthralling, spread through much of the world at the close of a century unlike any other–one packed with war, institutional transformation and a deep reformation of societies everywhere. The sceptical outlook as reaction and in its own right, that fills much of this moment’s contemporary thought, is the first important principle in reading Derrida. 

Additionally, one learns that it is almost impossible to read Derrida without some knowledge of the minds whose frameworks he speaks against. One must first find the “sign” he dedicates volumes to deconstructing, and this we can trace to Ferdinand de Saussure’s1 focus on language, on the relationships between signifiers and signified that Derrida finds wanting, and so complicates. Saussure delineates the frameworks of language as containing some shared signified–a form of a car, a form of a book–that is shared among speakers of a language. This form perseveres through minds as the thing that allows us to communicate that we speak of the same things–the ‘car-ness’ or ‘book-ness’ of a thing and to Saussure, meaning is created in the shared signs that allow communication (in words) between individuals. To Saussure, speech is molten, flowing and natural. Rousseau, writing closely to Saussure, adds to this thinking in arguing that there is a concreteness to things that is to be found, and writing, words, exist working within this system of some objective shared understanding. Words capture a concreteness that speech slips from in embracing feeling, emotion and the other flitting human objects. Writing is the mode for communicating ideas, a thing speech fails to do as cleanly.

Road sign at Silvington
Road sign at Silvington by Philip Halling is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Derrida makes an unexpected leap in naming the concept of différance: he suggests that these signs also act in the same manner Saussure describes speech: that they too exist in a networked and interlinked web. Key to this understanding is the subtle fact that both the signifiers and signified are defined in terms of other signs also: that to know a tree, we must use other things that it is and is not; a bush is not a tree, a tree is a plant, not all plants are trees and some are green but not all. Bush, green, and plant… are all also signs in their own right, yet exist with a relationship between their ‘signs’ that helps define a tree. The essence of these other things is contained in the sign of a tree, (this relationship is referred to as the trace–frequently analogized by the fact that a dictionary has the meaning of words demonstrated, communicated only by using other words with definitions too) and meaning exists not in any of these signs alone, but in the space between them. In the difference between things. To Derrida then, words have a meaning always deffered, always in relation to other words that themselves are also defined in relation to others… and on and on in some infinite chain. The marriage of these two things–difference and deferral–births the concept of Derridan différance.

There is a famous quote attributed to Derrida: il n’y a pas de hors-texte(There is no outside text). Given this introduction to Derrida, one would not think themselves mistaken to understand Derrida as saying that a text’s true meaning can only be found within a text by understanding the words as the writer meant them, with the context they are written in giving a specific and particular meaning to the words. This is, however, an incomplete understanding. Derrida is claiming something more radical here–that there is in fact no specific and particular meaning to a text at all! To Derrida, the act of reading is no different from that of writing–it too is a creative process that births a différance in meaning, producing an infinite set of understandings each with a reader attached.

Analysis of Derrida’s Archive Fever

Such a thing is not so wild to consider when reading Kant, Hegel, Hume, Locke–popular texts have been through history used to support meanings and pursuits so facially disparate that we may decide they have none of their own separate from that imbued by a reader. But deconstruction does not leave us here in the wild. Derrida warns early on that an ahistorical deconstruction fails in some measure to get to the core of the issue. We have a history to attach to a text when deconstructing it. Deconstruction itself is a historical exercise–in lending us the prior accepted meanings that have been attached to a text. This, I think, reflects the scepticism of the times Derrida’s philosophy is birthed in. Deconstruction is a postmodernism, I would think Derrida is saying. It is a resistance, and so it cannot be ahistorical.

There is more, much more, to be gleaned from Derrida’s works and words. But I have only read so much. Is it not thrilling, though, that there is such a depth to be found here? I must say so to myself, lest I wander. Derrida seeks to find meaning, and journeying with him is an exercise in just that. It is strange that his words have been many a time deemed a nihilist exposition. All I have found is a search for meaning continuing to the end of his days and, if we let it, starting our own.

1An earlier version mistakenly assigned this point to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I watched a rather long and winding Youtube video with a host of characters that clearly didn’t help me, not one bit.

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