Introduction to Derrida:


Presence and Absence

The metaphysical tradition can be characterised by two basic desires or trends, admittedly manifested in various different forms, with many complex and subtle inflections and widely differing doctrines, particular styles, tones and contents.  First there is a consistently manifested desire to reconstruct a transcendental realm, which is otherwise radically absent.  The lost origin of our finite or fallen state drives us to continuously reconstruct our beginnings.  Second, in the search for lost origins the ideal and supreme value of presence turns up everywhere.  All aspects of experience and/or existence are relegated to a moment of presence.   But the ideal of presence always implies more than one moment:


1.  Presence, we assume, describes an original state, a state that must have come first.  As I gaze out into the world I can say the world is present to my observing eye.  If that is the case, then my observing consciousness must be present to my own self-reflection.  It thus follows that meaning, in its most pure sense, as conscious thought, must be present to me as I gaze out onto the world.  Presence is, therefore, the main predicate for a text’s meaning (its sense or its reference), despite the fact that this meaning is always absent and in need of reconstruction through reading or interpretation.


2. For this reason, a second moment of presence invades consciousness as absence--the disappearance of the world behind the veils of language, consciousness going astray, the reign of death, non-sense, irrationality.  In this way gaps, absences and deficiencies of all imaginable kinds (the structurality or play of a structure) are subordinated to a principle of presence.  Is it possible to imagine an absence without reference to the principle of presence?  It would be a radical absence, something always and from the beginning absent, missing, lost to experience.  If there was such an absence, how could we glimpse it?


3. We glimpse it between repetitions as their repeatability.  If the present moment can be repeated (i.e. remembered) then, preceding the present moment, is the possibility of its being repeated in memory (i.e., memory itself as repeatability).  So memory precedes and exceeds the present moment, which we will have remembered.  Memory, as traditional accounts make clear, gets associated with death and the memorialising of the dead, or mourning, in a way that gets us back, always and from the beginning, to the second moment (absence).


Derrida’s much-cited statement, “there is nothing outside the text,” suggests an absence that has never been, nor could ever be, present (in which case it would not strictly be absent either).  It might be helpful to summarise here an exemplary argument, derived from Derrida’s reading of the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure:


1) The sign is irreducibly secondary.  It always refers to something else.  Sometimes the something else that a sign refers to is actually itself (e.g., this sign here) but this doesn’t mean that the sign’s meaning (its reference to itself by virtue of its sense—sign = signifying unit) is primary.  What is primary is the signifying aspect of it.  The sign comes before its referent (sign) in so far as this sign means this sign.  And that, of course, is secondary.  It also illustrates that signs are necessarily always divided.  Their principle is the repeatability that allows them to apparently jump out of themselves to refer back.  However, in the repetition the sign is irremediably changed.  It is no longer the sign it was.  Disconcertingly, this kind of punning cannot be dismissed as a kind of sophistic rhetorical game.  Or rather, it can be dismissed.  But the principle of your ability to dismiss it (your ability to ignore basic rhetorical processes and pass over them in silence) is in fact the same principle that allows meaning to arise in the first place, cancelling out the rhetorical dimension, the secondary text (giving rise to metaphors suggesting that the text was like a vehicle of transport for meaning or truth, which might therefore be driven astray, or like a coat that covered meaning or truth and which might therefore be revealed only in a kind of hermeneutic strip-tease). 


2) So the sign is at the beginning.  We never arrive at a meaning independently of some aspect of text, through which we must pass before cancelling it out as unwanted rhetoric.  Therefore there is no beginning.


“Something Missing”

According to Saussure, language functions by virtue of the fact that the signifying element (called signifier) relates to its signified by way of a perpetually undetermined aspect, an absent trace, which allows the fleeting and transient phenomena called reference to occur.  I refer to this table here by virtue of what remains undetermined in the word table.  The difference between the word and the thing necessarily involves a gap--this is play—which involves both differentiality (the condition for there being differences) and repeatability—the condition according to which a sign can signify again and again and again, each time in a different context, potentially infinitely.  Derrida’s formulation reveals a solution to the age-old problem of the relation between the finite and the infinite too.  The finite field (of theory, knowledge and experience generally) is finite owing to the absent, unpresentable “something missing” that leaves it groundless.  For this same reason it is infinite too.  A sign is always a substitution for another sign, with no anchoring point, except the “something missing,” the differentiality and infinite repeatability of the trace, which, as a principle of structuration cannot be thought of as either present or absent. 


What is perhaps not clear from the “Structure, Sign and Play” article, which is specifically concerned with structural anthropology, is that the formulation does not only concern language.  The total perceptual field (the world) can be replaced or supplemented by a signifying structure (signs) in the same way that one sign replaces another (cat = chat = feline mammal).  The singular condition that allows us to represent the world to ourselves at all is the trace, the gap between word and thing, the differences between signs, etc.  Our experience of presence is mediated by an absence that we can never experience as such.  This is the crucial limitation to science and to knowledge generally.  However, once the nature of the limitation has been recognised a new implication can be affirmed.  If a sign is produced as an attempt to make up for a deficiency in the field (the “something missing” of one-to-one representation, the gap between sign and thing) then the addition of the sign is in fact the production of a new signifying structure that cannot itself be reduced to that which it is supposed to signify.  Another way of putting this would be to point out that structuralism doesn’t simply discover underlying structures.  Rather, it adds more signifying structure.  The pattern follows what Derrida has called supplementarity.


The supplement can be thought of as having two mutually exclusive meanings:


                         1.  It is a replacement (e.g. replacing an absent centre).

                         2.  And it is an addition, adding something new to the structure itself.


The point is, for Derrida, that there is a remainder (an excess) of signification always remaining “unsignified” (a lack of signification) which allows new readings in new contexts.  So Derrida comes down neither on the side of structure, nor on the side of play, but locates at the absent centre a process that he names différance.


The Same

As a way of arriving at the term différance it is worth examining the workings of another substitutable but non-synonymous term, the same.  Derrida’s notion of the same emerges from a question about concepts like identity, ideality, and the concept itself.  In famous reading of Plato, called “Plato’s Pharmacy,” from Dissemination, Derrida provides a commentary on the law that governs the truth of the eidos (Plato’s word for the idea).  If the reading concerns the specifically Socratic version of the law (from The Crito) it can nonetheless be inserted into the series of substitutions, thus conferring a kind of exemplarity on it.  According to The Crito the most worthy object of the philosophical dialogue is:


The truth of eidos as that which is identical to itself, always the same as itself and always simple, eidos, undecomposable, invariable.  The eidos is that which can always be repeated as the same. The ideality and invisibility of the eidos are its power-to-be-repeated. Now, law is always a law of repetition, and repetition is always submission to a law (D 125)


A bit later on it turns out that this law of repetition (already paradoxical in the last sentence) involves a double participation in which the two parts (e.g., body and soul) are related to each other not through their being separate but by the one referring back to the other as a repetition of the same.  This is a law that governs the relationship between writing and idea: “This double participation, once again, does not mix together two previously separate elements; it refers back to a same that is not the identical, to the common element or medium of any dissociation” (D 127).


The law can be outlined in this way: if there is repetition there is sameness, and there is only repetition if it is of the same, but the repetition of the same can never be identical.  This dissociation of the same from itself is the principle that governs the identity of the idea (its ideality and invisibility).  The idea must be able to be repeated in order for it to always be the same idea.  Because the principle and the medium of this dissociation and repetition of the same has always been isolated by the tradition, quite correctly and uncontroversially, as writing, Derrida is led to call everything by the paradoxical formulation arche-writing (writing at the origin).  Elsewhere, in the famous “Signature, Event, Context” (which inspired a lamentably ill-informed and thus ill-advised response from the Speech Act theorist John Searle, and in a brief article called “My Chances/Mes Chances,” Derrida develops this law of repetition as the iterability of the written mark.  The identifiability of the mark in its repetition and its differentiality is what allows it to hop about from context to context (in fact condemns it to perpetual hopping about).  So the same in Derrida is a combination of identity and difference governed by a simultaneous repeatability and differentiality.



Différance is a term that Derrida coins on the basis of a pun that the French language makes possible.  An understanding of this term is helpful because it can explain a lot about Derrida’s apparently “mischievous” playing with language and ideas.  I put “mischievous” in quotation marks because many people have misunderstood the powerful implications of his witty strategy.  The pun is possible because in French the word différer can mean either to differ or to defer, depending on context.


             Différence: to differ from something and to defer full identity and presence


If I were comparing two different objects of the same generic type (this hat is different from this one) I’d use différer just as I would if I was putting off an appointment (let’s defer it until a time when we’ll both be free).  The one, take note, implies spatiality (difference) while the other implies temporality (deferral).  What Derrida is asking us to do is to combine both, normally mutually exclusive, meanings in the one new term différance.  The pun involves the use of the little letter a.  The French différence might mean either difference or deferral.  Derrida’s new term, spelt with an “a” instead of an “e,” should be taken to mean both difference and deferral simultaneously.  The first part of the pun we can call the performative--or auto-referential--aspect.  What this means is that by both differing from itself (it means two different things at once) and deferring until infinity any final meaning (it cannot at any one time mean both differ and defer) the word itself is a performance of its meaning.  Différance just is what différance means.  The second part of the pun involves the fact that Derrida’s misspelling is only noticeable when the word is written.  Saying différence and différance makes no difference in French.  It is pronounced the same way with or without the alteration.  What this brings to our attention is the difference between phoneme (audible mark) and grapheme (written, visible mark) and a certain imperceptibility of this particular difference.  It is this imperceptible difference that Derrida is using in his article “Différance” to draw our attention to the simultaneously absent and present trace, which as a structuring principle is both inaudible and invisible but which allows for the supplement of the audible for the visible and vice versa.  In that article, he then goes on to show the same structurality at work in the relation between language and ideas, and between the sensible and intelligible fields of experience, too—that is, thoughts and sensible intuitions turn out to be related as repetitions of the same in a mutually parasitical structure.  


So we can say that Différance is the word that Derrida coins to describe and perform the way in which any single meaning of a concept or text arises only by the effacement of other possible meanings, which are themselves only deferred, left over, for their possible activation in other contexts.  Différance thus both describes and performs the situation, or the conditions, under which all identities and meanings can occur—so that any text can be repeated in an infinite number of possible contexts for an infinite number of potential but undetermined addressees.  The term operates as a powerful modification of the ordinary notions of identity and difference. 


Introduction to Derrida:










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