I’m writing a little book on Derrida which is intended to be accessible to non-philosophers, and one of the challenges is to explain Derrida’s thought both faithfully and clearly. I have decided to use diagrams as one way of helping readers to grasp what Derrida is saying and, equally importantly, what he isn’t saying. I am aware that there are both advantages and disadvantages to diagramming a thinker like Derrida, the disadvantages lying not least in the way that diagrams force a spatializating paradigm on ideas and privilege their expression in terms of relations between distinct territories on a static, two-dimensional surface. Nevertheless, I am convinced that, on balance, the approach will help more people to understand more of Derrida than would otherwise be the case.
In this series of posts I want to share a number of these diagrams, both in the hope that readers of these posts might find them helpful in grappling with Derrida’s thought, and also in the hope of receiving readerly feedback to help me refine them further.
In this post I will introduce the diagrams I use to explain what Derrida does not mean by différance (and, in the final diagram, what he does mean).
Let’s back up and start with the relation between speech and writing. In the traditional Western understanding (most saliently for Derrida: Plato, Rousseau, Saussure), the meaning of speech is immediate and present, whereas the meaning of writing is distant and imperfect. We can represent this hierarchy by situating speech to the left of writing (i.e. before it, if we read from left to right) and above writing (i.e. privileged over it).
Derrida has sometimes wrongly been understood simply to be reversing the hierarchy between the two terms, putting writing in a place of privilege over speech. Such a reversal would, to be sure, change the content of the hierarchy, but it would do nothing to challenge or disrupt the hierarchical structure itself: there would still be a privileged and underprivileged term which would need deconstructing.
So Derrida does not simply privilege writing over speech. Nor, to take things a stage further, does he merely deny any difference whatsoever between the two terms, as if “speech” and “writing” could be used interchangeably:
What Derrida claims instead is that “différance” (a term I shall explain at the end of this post) is a condition of both of speech and writing (in other words: they couldn’t exist without it), but not in the sense of being something outside, anterior or separate from them, so this next diagram is still a misunderstanding of Derridean différance:
Différance does not precede the elements of the opposition it makes possible; it is their mode of existence, just as in traditional Western metaphysics presence itself does not precede that which is present but is rather the way in which things appear to an all-knowing consciousness: things are completely present to a God-like consciousness, without any shadows or ambiguities. It is important for us to grasp, therefore, that différance is not a thing in itself, as Derrida is at pains to stress:
What we note as différance will thus be the movement of play that “produces” (and not by something that is simply an activity) these differences, these effects of difference. This does not mean that the différance which produces differences is before them in a simple and in itself unmodified and indifferent present. Différance is the nonfull, nonsimple “origin”; it is the structured and differing origin of differences. (Speech and Phenomena, 141)
It is also important to grasp one further nuance. For traditional metaphysics, presence is how everything exists: whatever exists exists in so far as it can be immediately present to my consciousness. In the same way, différance for Derrida is the condition of possibility of my experiencing anything at all. We could think of presence and différance as the contrast not between two things but between two adverbs: according to traditional Western metaphysics, truth and meaning exist “presently,” but according to Derrida they exist “différantly.” Différance is not what there is, but how everything is:
A further point to make about this final diagram is that we do not first of all experience empty différance and then fill it with speech and writing (any more than, on the traditional view, we first experience empty presence and then fill it with things that are present). The condition of différance is retrojected from our experience of things that exist “différantly”.
So then, for Derrida everything that exists exists “différantly.” Jolly good. But what is différance? It is the condition of being according to which “there is no experience of pure presence, but only chains of differential marks” (Limited Inc, 10). Derrida coins the neologism différance to indicate that “presence” is always different from itself and deferred with relation to itself. Nothing is ever fully and exhaustively present, as if we had a God’s-eye view or a God’s-mind understanding of it, in other words as if we could see or understand it perfetly and exhaustively. Everything always has a shadow side, more to discover, an excess over and above what we can grasp of it. Derrida is not claiming, please note, that everything is always absolutely absent from our consciousness, or that we can never know or discern anything in the world in a way that is adequate for many purposes. Nor is he claiming that the objects of our experience have no meaning at all. He is claiming that everything that exists exists différantly.
The French verb différer can mean both “to differ” and “to defer,” and by changing the usual spelling of différence to différance Derrida introduces a distinction that is only discernible in writing (for the two spellings are pronounced identically). This is a challenge to the traditional Western idea that meaning is always completely present in speech but dislocated and distant in writing: in this case the nuance is only discernible in the written form. Elsewhere, Derrida calls différance an “arche-writing” (from the Greek arche, meaning “beginning” or “origin”, French: archi-écriture), the condition of non-self-presence from which both speech and writing are derived. Arche-writing is not the same as writing as opposed to speech, and différance is not the same as difference as opposed to identity; arche-writing is the condition of possibility both of speech and writing (in other words it makes them both possible in the first place), and différance is the condition of possibility both of difference and identity.
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CC Image courtesy of Sean MacEntee on Flickr