Derrida and Deconstruction


“With the word with, then, begins this text

Whose first line tells the truth.”

                                         (Francis Ponge)



“The Text”


In its most conventional and historical sense the word “text” means:


The actual words of a book, or poem, etc., either in their

original form or any form they have been transmitted in

or transmuted into:  a book of such words:  words set to

music: the main body of matter in a book.


When we speak of a text in English studies we usually mean a particular bound and covered entity such as George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss or Tennyson’s Poetic Works.



Why does text come to mean the same as book?  The word comes from the Latin texere, which means “to weave.”  And “text” still has that meaning for us.  We say textile, which is “woven” or “capable of being woven” or, as a noun, “a woven fabric,” a textile.  So when we use the word “texture” we might mean one of a number of things: “something woven,” or “a web”; we might mean a certain manner of weaving or simply of connecting; the disposition of the parts of a body; or “a structural impression” which might come about through a way of combining parts of a whole, as in music, art, or writing; or, finally, it could mean the quality conveyed to the senses by woven fabrics.



Clearly the use of the word “text” to describe a book is possible on the model of weaving, which, we might assume is appropriate to a certain way of thinking about books, about the way they have been put together, about the way writing is woven into text from the material or the fabric of our language.  After all this, imagine my disappointment at finding the definition for textual-criticism as “critical study directed towards determining the true reading of a text.”



The true reading?  Isn’t it as if the truth had got lost on the way to becoming a text?  As if it was the job of the critic to find it again by reading.  Does this make the text just a vehicle for delivering meaning or a coat that needed to be taken off?  Well this model of the text is as old as our history and our language opposes it systematically to all the things it might represent, like life, the world, the real, anything it refers to, the mind, consciousness, personal or shared experience.  The best text would be one that conveyed the most accurate impressions of these things.  The trouble with the text is that it might not convey the right impression, the true impression, and it might therefore be misleading.  A rhetorical frontier has been drawn between the truth of things and the text.  According to this historical prejudice: the text is on the outside, the truth of things is hidden away on the inside.  However, according to the same logic, the truth of things only remains hidden inside because it is essentially outside the text, in some far off yonder.  Once again we are bound by the rhetorical distinction between the empirical (the text) and the transcendental (its meaning or truth).  This, of course, does not fit the facts.  But it does indicate a pervasive and history-bound prejudice, which for centuries has been instrumental in the way people have thought. 



Deconstruction shakes up a concept like text in a way that provokes questions about the borders, the frontiers, the edges, or the limits that have been drawn to mark out its place in the history of concepts.  Meanings take on their identity, they come to mean what they mean, by just such a marking out of frontiers, opposing concepts to each other, defining terms by their differences.  So deconstructive reading begins by asking, “What are the borders?  What are the limits?  And how do they come about?”  This is the question that Jacques Derrida asks in his article “Living on/Borderlines.” What are the borderlines of a text?  How do they come about?



We fail to read a text at all if we jump straight in from out of nowhere proclaiming our opinions and making rash generalisations.  The text is woven from the same system as the one we each inhabit, the system of concepts that allows us to think the things we do.  So the text, and any given text, demands that we read it first of all in terms of the historical and rhetorical conventions that allow us to understand it, and which, by and large, allow us to agree, more or less, on what it means. 



Derrida’s work


Derrida’s work consists in readings of other texts.  The problem of reading Derrida just is the problem of reading.  Geoff Bennington gives the following account of why his introduction to Derrida’s work (“Derridabase”) is from the beginning and always caught up with the problem of reading (while at the same time mentioning many of Derrida’s key topics):


All the questions to which this type of book must habitually presuppose replies, around for instance the practice of quotation, the relationship between commentary and interpretation, the identification and delimitation of a corpus or a work, the respect owed to the singularity or the event of a work in its idiom, its signature, its date and its context, without simply making them into examples or cases ... are already put to us by the texts we have to read, not as preliminary or marginal to the true work of thought, but as this work itself in its most pressing and formidable aspects. (Bennington 9-10)


We cannot first solve the problem of how to read Derrida and then read him.  The problems of reading and of reading protocols are already the whole problem.  Bennington also tells us that “only Derrida can give us the means to understand this situation” (8).   Why, then, am I introducing Derrida through the writing of his representative?  The answer lies in a certain concept of repetition.  A repetition must be more or less the same as what it repeats but it cannot be identical.  My reading of Bennington’s reading of Derrida’s reading of the metaphysical tradition’s reading of … constitutes a series of non-identical repetitions of the same text.  In Derrida it is in this same repetition, this “repetition of the same,” that there is the possibility of something new (what he will call an invention of the other).  The following sections are intended to clarify these points by subtly repeating them in slightly differing contexts.



Presence and Absence


The metaphysical tradition (or philosophy) can be characterised by two basic desires or trends, admittedly manifested in various different forms.  As we have seen in other sections, there is a consistent desire to reconstruct the transcendental realm, which is otherwise radically absent.  The lost origin of our finite or fallen state drives us to continuously reconstruct our beginnings.  Second, the ideal of presence turns up everywhere.  All aspects of experience and/or existence are relegated to a moment called the present.   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.  In this way gaps, absences and deficiencies of all imaginable kinds are subordinate 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.  This is what we must try to think with regard to the sign, and with the notion of text:


          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 (vehicle or coat).


          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 (vehicle or coat).  Therefore there is no beginning.



The Way We Think


We can understand how deconstruction operates if we examine Jacques Derrida’s reading of Levi-Strauss, which is exemplary.  A much-republished essay from 1968, called “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” has contributed to a widespread understanding of Derrida as a key “poststructuralist” thinker.  Derrida’s writing has certainly contributed to the critical revision of structuralism that has occurred over the years, but his own work is more wide ranging than the term “poststructuralism” suggests. 



In The Savage Mind Levi-Strauss had made the following statement: “Science as a whole is based on the distinction between the contingent and the necessary, this being also what distinguishes event and structure” (21).  Derrida begins “Structure, Sign and Play” with the following observation: “Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural--or structuralist--thought to reduce or suspect” (278).  So Derrida begins by drawing attention to the popularity of structuralism (in the 1960s) as an event in the history of the concept of structure.  But the meaning of the word event is something that structuralism would need to contain as an element within a structure or at least exhaustively determined by a structure.  In the same way that science must contain all contingencies (chances, accidents and secondary causes) within the thought of what is necessary, all events should be contained as parts of a comprehensive structure.  The reference is to the structuralist model that contrasts La Langue (the system or structure) to parole (the event of speech or the utterance).  So strictly speaking, and according to Levi-Strauss, the concept “event” is opposed to the concept “structure.”  Once again the model is a version of empirical/ transcendental difference.



The logic is as follows: The event of structuralism is a “rupture” in so far as the break between classical thinking in the human sciences and structuralism is like an overturning of old ways of thinking by new ones.  But the concept of structure is itself a classical concept and its meaning belongs to ordinary ways of speaking.  Furthermore its meaning is something like “that which determines and makes possible all events.”  The concepts “event” and “structure” must have been determined by the field that structuralism sets out to explore and explain, that is, structure (rather than event).




An episteme is an ancient Greek term denoting the field of scientific knowledge.  Scientific knowledge is necessary knowledge and best characterised by the cool rational certainty of mathematics.  Derrida accepts the more elaborate meaning of episteme, which refers to the age of western science and philosophy that extends--in some fits and starts--from the Greeks to the late twentieth century (three thousand odd years).  The word episteme thus refers to the fact that the concepts we use have a historicity (the condition of being historical) and belong to a system of thinking that is at least three thousand years old.  This is the system that structuralism hopes to overturn.






The classical concept of structure has what Derrida calls a “contradictory coherence.”  In other words it is only coherent while it is suppressing a contradiction on which it is based.  A structure is an organisation (like a literary text for instance) and takes the form of law or institution.  Structures of this kind are always instituted, which means that an establishment through inclusions, exclusions and various means of cancelling out contradictions has been necessary from (or at) the beginning.  Beginnings of this kind, which are not really beginnings at all but modifications, are often conveniently forgotten or shrouded in mystery.



All notions of structure have a centre--a point of presence, as Derrida puts it--a place where the structure originates.  Thus any organised thing must have a point that can be regarded as its centre, and which limits the play that structures may be subject to.  With a text any number of possible readings, based upon the substitutions that the language of literature particularly suggest, can be limited and qualified by the notion of its centre.  Typical concepts of centre in literary criticism, for instance, would include the author, the historical context, the reader, the ideology of a political economy, each of which provide a ground outside the text for limiting interpretation.  The centre is in each case unique.  It is a place where substitutions are no longer possible and in fact it escapes structurality (i.e. the author of the text is outside the structure of the text itself).  So the centre is not in the centre.  The centre is outside the structure.  This is why the coherence of the concept of structure is contradictory.  It rests upon a paradox.





Derrida here borrows a notion from psychoanalysis—desire—suggesting that the fact of a contradiction indicates a semi-repressed desire.  Anxiety is caused by a desire that is unacceptable.  In the case of the concept of structure the desire is for “immobility” beyond the reach of play.  An origin or an end beyond the play of a structure has throughout the history of this concept (and all other metaphysical concepts) been mythologised as a point of full presence beyond play.  Play (in all its senses, e.g. games, alternative to work, elasticity, gap between word and thing, word and meaning, wordplay etc.) puts off full presence (e.g. of the world to my senses) in order for me to get a sense of the fact that it is there--even if not fully present.  My access to the world is an access to traces of a world, in the same way that my access to a text is to the traces that the writer has left for me to decipher.  The trace (an original and permanently necessary absence) cannot of course be made present to my senses but without it there’d be nothing of the world for me.  The only way to master the anxiety about this absent outside is to hide the contradiction involved in saying that the centre of a structure is outside the structure.  The Ancient Greeks used the word arche for origin and an end was called a telos.  From these words we derive archaeology (which digs back to the beginnings of man) and teleology (which dreams of a final purpose to all this scattered and contingent life).  Scientists think that without teleology science would mean nothing.  That is, all these facts must add up to something one day--they must have a final purpose that right now we cannot even guess at.  However this belief--which a scientist holds as strongly as the pre-Socratic Greeks held to their belief in Zeus--has neither justification nor support in the facts themselves.  It is just a dream.  No one ever knows what is to come.  



Philosophy demands that its concepts have single naked positive meanings beyond the play of substitutions (metaphors and metonymies) that are possible for all concepts, as elements of a structure.  If the sun can stand for the truth of reason then where does the play of possible substitutions end?  As we saw with Plato we never actually reach the end.  This single (unique) meaning must therefore be outside the structure itself (and outside the text--whether the text is literary, mythological, philosophical or scientific).  But all the names for the centre (God, Man, History, the Subject, Mind etc.) are themselves subject to play because they must each be thought of as absolutely unique when in fact they are historically substituted for one another.  In order for the concept of an author to limit the play of the text an attempt must be made to play down or efface the influence on interpretation that the reader, or the historical and ideological context, have upon it.  The centre is itself a concept among the concepts that it would limit from outside.



The way of the text


Derrida names three influential authors who have each been seen as challenging the history of metaphysics: Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger.  But he points out that the tools they use for the destruction of the history of metaphysics are themselves derived from the concepts of that history.  Any one who tries to “step outside” philosophy is trapped in a circle:


     history of metaphysics                                                   

ì                                     î


ë      its destruction    í



No language is absolutely foreign to it.  So all criticism slips into the form that it is contesting.  Absolute foreignness (alterity, exteriority, or more colloquially, the other, the outside) can never be made present to sensible or intellectual intuition.  But without this absent aspect we’d have no presence or absence at all.  The tendency is to name or otherwise characterise this outsideness that gives origin, meaning and purpose to everything.  But whatever the privileged term gets called it must remain an outsider (infinite, necessary and missing from the beginning) or always to come like a Messiah or Mr Right.



Structuralism, on the other hand--and here is its radical promise--appears to operate without a privileged term that belongs outside the structure itself (unlike other forms of theory/philosophy).  Structuralism says that there is no outside to the structure.  However its privileged term--the sign--is a metaphysical concept.  For metaphysics Sign always means sign of ... (something). Thus a signifier always has a signified And they are related in the same way that the sensible is related to the intelligible. One is visible while the other is invisible (and supposedly immortal).  The sign in other words is always reduced by metaphysical thinking to the “content” it signifies.  Structuralism, against this (classical) conception, begins with the concept of the sign in an attempt to put the system, in which the opposition sign/content (signifier/signified) functions, into question.  In other words, Levi-Strauss uses the concepts of metaphysics without subscribing to their “truth value.”  They function as signs only without a grounding centre outside the structure (of historical concepts).



Bricoleur and Engineer


One would therefore be led to think that structuralism has made a breakthrough by giving up on the thought of the eternal outside.  However Derrida’s reading of Levi-Strauss reveals that such a thought remains a central part of his thinking.  Levi-Strauss contrasts the primitive science, “the science of the concrete,” with modern technical science (the science of the conceptual) by making an analogy on the basis of the difference between engineering and what he calls bricolage.  Bricolage is a skill that involves using bits of whatever is to be found and recombining them to create something new.  In French the word is used to describe the very skilful professional DIY expert.  Levi-Strauss suggests that the model of the bricoleur is a good way of characterising the primitive scientist (medicine-men etc.) as well as the one who makes up the mythological narratives (the story-teller).  He says “the elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on the freedom of manoeuvre” (SM 19).  Doesn’t this sound like the structure (i.e., the language system) out of which the utterance must be drawn?  Nonetheless, Levi-Strauss still finds something to contrast the bricoleur to.  “The engineer questions the universe, while the bricoleur addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture” (19).  Yes, the engineer, who questions the universe, who is, according to Levi-Strauss, “always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization,” can be contrasted to the bricoleur, in so far as the latter “by inclination or necessity always remains within them” (19).  Levi-Strauss makes the opposition even clearer by saying that the engineer works by means of concepts and the bricoleur by means of signs.  You should already be able to see the trap he has (amazingly) fallen into here.  How could a structuralist have considered a concept as being separable from a sign--or thought the sign without the concept?  Derrida’s answer is the one we all ought to be able to have given by now.  He says:


If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage that is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.  The engineer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon.  In this sense the engineer is a myth.  A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse . . . would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself.  [Listen for the echo--in the beginning was the verb]  The notion of the bricoleur who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. (SSP 285).


There are many implications that would have to be drawn from this statement--concerning the discourse of ethnology (the anthropologist’s mythopoetic bricolage), the inability to get outside the text of metaphysical oppositions, etc. but one thing must be made clear at this stage.  Derrida is not saying that we are all doomed to mythopoetic recombination.  Here and elsewhere he continues to affirm the locus previously reserved for the truth but this is now to be thought as the necessary alterity (otherness, outsideness, absence) of the trace.  One of the terms he applies to his reading of the ethnologist’s paradox is supplement.  This has to be understood in a special way--but once this special way has been grasped it will provide access to many other aspects of Derrida’s writing strategies.





What is at stake here is the question of totalisation.  In common with the natural sciences the assumption is that the field of enquiry is complete in itself and it is the task of knowledge to gradually cover the entire field.  That is, we don’t know everything yet but it is just a matter of time before the scientist reveals it at last.  In the physical sciences the drive for what is called a theory of everything (the TOE) is one symptom of the desire for totalisation.  The idea is that everything (the totality of Being) ought one day to be part of a complete knowledge with nothing escaping (no particular finite thing).  However the dream is always just that, a dream, as certain demonstrable conditions show.  These conditions are revealed in the paradoxical patterns of philosophical and scientific thought.  Derrida uses the term supplement to elaborate the paradox at the heart (the centre) of what was once known as the human sciences.  Levi-Strauss often affirms the lack of totalisation in ethnology but sometimes he sees the project as just useless and at others as impossible.  For Derrida this indicates two different kinds of implicit thesis about the field in question.  By “implicit” I mean that Levi-Strauss is not aware--probably could not be aware--of the paradoxical double-bind that he is operating within.  It is Derrida’s intention to draw out the nature of this double-bind.  There is no question about the fact that there are insurmountable limits to totalisation.  The difference concerns the way the limits are conceived.  Levi-Strauss provides an example of how there are two mutually exclusive interpretations of the way in which the “human” sphere eludes totalisation:


                    1. The world (of people, texts, histories, subjects, particular individuals, etc.) contains a richness and variety that cannot be reduced to any attempts at totalisation (the language of theory).  There is more than one can say.  There is no theoretical language rich or dense enough to capture the finite world of rich particularity.  This is a clue to the endless searching through the variations of particular myths that so much of Levi-Strauss’s work involves.  It is the structural essence that underlies each variant that he is interested in.  On the other hand,


                    2.  It is the character of the field itself (and not its contents) that excludes totalisation: it is a finite field of infinite substitutions, and the centre is missing (there is no centre).  Instead of a centre there is the play of substitutions.  The reference to “something missing” (rather than the more popular reference to play) is crucial for an understanding of the kind of intervention that Derrida is making.  He puts it like this:


But nontotalisation can also be determined in another way: no longer from the standpoint of a concept of finitude as relegation to the empirical, but from the standpoint of the concept of play.  If totalisation no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field--that is language, and a finite language--excludes totalisation.  This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a centre which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions. (289)


What this means is that totalisation is impossible not because of our finitude (we are finite beings limited by space, time and language, such that we’ll never be able to embrace the infinite totality of the universe), but because of unpresentable absence at the very core of experience.  In an earlier article on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas Derrida has already marked out the form of the paradox he is teasing out in this reading of Levi-Strauss.  The paradox concerns the difference between our old friends the empirical and the transcendental.  These two terms, roughly charting the distinction between scientific (finite, empirical) discourses and religious and/or metaphysical (transcendental) ones, are complements of each other in so far as the one attempts to supplement what is deficient in the other (reciprocally).  My finite empirical knowledge is deficient in what I cannot know of the infinite.  My transcendental concepts are deficient in terms of what they cannot make into objects of empirical knowledge (totality, infinity, God, etc.)  It will turn out that these two deficiencies are the same.  We’ll call it “difference” for now and locate it as the difference between the empirical and the transcendental. 



Radical Empiricism


In the article on Levinas, Derrida affirms what in Levinas seems to be reducible to neither empirical nor transcendental determinations of experience.  The determination in Levinas seems to be something like a radical empiricism, in which notions like exteriority, infinity, alterity and the other (names for things that could never be the objects of experience) are privileged.  What Derrida says is this:


By radicalizing the theme of the infinite exteriority of the other, Levinas thereby assumes the aim which has more or less secretly animated all the philosophical gestures which have been called empiricisms in the history of philosophy.


And a little later:


Empiricism has always been determined by philosophy, from Plato to Husserl, as nonphilosophy: as the philosophical pretension to non-philosophy, the inability to justify oneself, to come to one’s own aid as speech. (152).


An empiricism establishes knowledge on the basis of experience alone--including the sensible experiences gained through sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell (this is perhaps more the case in France than in Anglo-American traditions but when the point has been made that will have been irrelevant).  If you are a philosopher, on the other hand, knowledge will have been achieved through some dialectical relationship between experience and theory--determinations of thought, reason, concepts, ideas, ratio, spirit, and who knows what else.  What Derrida affirms in Levinas is his “radical empiricism”:


The experience of the other (of the infinite) is irreducible, and is therefore [quoting Levinas now] “the experience par excellence.”  And, concerning death which is indeed its irreducible resource, Levinas speaks of “an empiricism which is in no way a positivism.”  But can one speak of an experience of the other or of difference?  Has not the concept of experience always been determined by the metaphysics of presence?  Is not experience always the encountering of an irreducible presence, the perception of a phenomenality? (152)


An experience of the infinitely other is what causes the metaphysics of presence (experience considered as a clouded present that needs to be cleared by rational or empirical means) to crack wide open.  “Nothing can so profoundly solicit [‘shake the structure of’] the Greek Logos--philosophy--than this irruption of the totally-other; and nothing can to such an extent reawaken the logos to its origin as to its mortality, its other” (WD 152).  It is actually quite funny (without letting go of the seriousness of the argument of course) to see how an article in 1964 which shows that Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher of infinity and the absolute other, is an empiricist, might have stirred up the intellectual world a little. Well, the fact is, difference and the other are neither sensible nor intelligible (nor are they either just words or concepts).  You cannot see a difference per se (nor taste one).  You cannot think a difference per se.  If one is serious about calling the experience of difference an experience then one has to go beyond both empiricism and metaphysics.  The empiricality of the trace or mark (like written marks, which are a kind of paradigm in Derrida’s work) cannot be reduced to sensible or intelligible experience.  There is now a different concept of experience altogether.



So Derrida says that Empiricism is the name that metaphysics gives for the pure thought of pure difference.  Pure difference, however, could never be the object of a perception.  That’s why empiricism is a transcendental mediation, like all metaphysics.  What in experience could you definitively claim was other, alterity, future as such?  All you have is a horizon (the Greek words horizen and horos, become through a series of transmutations the Hegelian Begriff, or philosophical concept).  The present (and its self-presence) seems always to have been already mediated anyway--that just is experience--experience mediates the pure thought and pure difference--or would do if there was any--but is there any?  Philosophy corresponds to the dream of a univocal concept while empiricism corresponds to the dream of the absolutely idiosyncratic and infinitely plural world of things and objects.  As philosophy since Hegel has known, they’re the same thing. 



“Something Missing”


We have already seen how 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. (You’ll have to take my word for the fact that there is actually a table here that I’m pointing to, that is after all what language makes possible, whether or not there is an actual table--anyway what do you think my computer is sitting on?).  The difference between the word and the thing necessarily involves a gap--this is play--which, as we will go on to see, 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 always absent trace.



What is perhaps not clear from the “Structure, Sign and Play” article, which is specifically concerned with Levi-Strauss and the analysis of myth, is that the formulation does not only concern language.  The total field (the world) is replaced 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 absent 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 calls supplementarity.



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


                    1.  It is a replacement (e.g. replacing the 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


The easiest way into an understanding of différance is (paradoxically) through the concept of the same.  The notion of the same concerns a problem with identity, ideality, and concept.  In an article called “Plato’s Pharmacy,” from Disseminations, Derrida provides a commentary on the law that governs the truth of the eidos (Plato’s word for the idea).  If this reading concerns the specifically Socratic version of the law (from The Crito) it can nonetheless easily be generalized.  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 as follows: 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.  But the principle and the medium of this dissociation and repetition of the same just is writing.  (Which is why Derrida is led to call everything by the paradoxical formulation arche-writing).  Elsewhere, in “Signature, Event, Context” and in “Mes Chances” particularly, the law of repetition is developed 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.


                    1. Différence

                                        } to differ from something and to defer full identity and presence

                    2. Deférence


If I was 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.  (Because the term has passed into the English language, at least in theoretical registers, I’ll not be maintaining the italicised and accented French form from now on).  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.  Differance just is what differance 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 (sorry!) 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 the “Differance” article to draw our attention to the permanently absent, inaudible and invisible trace. 



So we can say that Differance 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.  Differance 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.  It is a powerful modification of the ordinary notions of identity and difference.  We need to explore this logic further.



Difference a priori


Let me put the implications of the differance argument into a formulation: it is possible to speak of things, words and concepts because it is not possible to present the absence that differance (which is supposedly neither a word nor a concept) designates.  Absence = difference a priori = the condition of being different of all possible differences.  I called this, under the rubric of the same, differentiality.  Derrida claims that this is not the same as the differences between letters.  It is not the same as the difference between grapheme and phoneme.  Nor is it the difference between word and concept.  Rather he says that it is the vehicle of all those differences.  But because such an a priori difference/absence can only be named by a word that is itself subject to the effects of differentiality that it is trying to name, then differance is precisely both a word and concept designating its own condition of possibility (and impossibility).



When reading Derrida it is useful to get a sense early on of what he is trying to say.  The first thing to come to terms with is the fact that what he is trying to say cannot in any ordinary sense be said.  To say the unsayable is impossible.  However the general message is that without this missing unsayable thing--there would be nothing to say at all ever and no possibility of saying it anyway.  This is the possibility that Derrida calls (with characteristic perversity but also for very good historical reasons) writing.



A commentary on “Differance”


The following paragraphs present a commentary and a reading of the opening remarks to the essay just called “Differance.”  Here’s a clue: unless you can see that there is something permanently and necessarily missing from your understanding you’ll be missing something important.  If you need something to hold onto you could do worse than think through the implications of what Derrida has to say for the concept of identity.  Identity is conventionally opposed to the concept of difference.  But the opposition can take contrasting forms.  Identity can be considered as an essential and integrated unity (my identity involves my name, my status, my hair colour and the number of my fingers, among many other things).  The idea of a unity broken into differences is one possible traditional idea.  Another one would be the idea of an identity that could be contrasted to other identities as its differences (and for which it too would be different).  I am different from my colleagues, my students, my family and friends and my enemies.  Any notion of difference (whether subordinated to unity or subordinated to identity) is always a difference subordinated, in fact, to some notion of presence (present at the origin or a present identity).  Even the notion of an absent presence (someone or something was indeed here once but now they are gone) is subordinated to the concept of presence (if only the having been or will one day be--in the case of the Messiah and Mr. or Mrs. Right).  The whole notion of Being is in fact subordinated to the concept of presence.  What has been, is now, or will one day be present adds up to Being as a whole, according to the traditional assumptions.  The arguments concerning Derrida’s made-up word differance show, however, that without a notion of absolute absence--a negative that must be logically prior to any presence whatsoever (like God, certainly, but nothing actually)--there would be neither presence nor absence as we experience them.  It is easy to demonstrate with language, but the implications reach far into the ethical, political and practical realms of intellectual life. 



As we have seen, the identity that is made possible by differance (as repeatability and differentiality combined) is the same but not identical.  Neither repeatability nor differentiality can be made present to thought or to senses.  Differentiality does not simply mean differentiation, which is easy to think.  The absent insignificant trace is the mark of a difference a priori.  Difference before unity, before identity.  Unless we can learn to read the necessity of this a priori absent, insignificant difference, Derrida’s writing will remain bewildering.  But this is not because Derrida is a muddled writer.  To the contrary, each sentence illustrates, through a witty play with the French word différer, a silent, insignificant, non-existent, unnoticeable aspect that nonetheless makes it possible to play in the first place.  Without this ( ) it will turn out that nothing could have been possible in the first place.  In other words, what differance names are the conditions that make it possible to play with French words like différence (or any word at all and thus any concept).  The first full paragraph alone systematically sets out the main aspects of the argument.  The paper was originally given as a talk and the relation between talking (phonemic sounds) and writing (graphematic marks) is a key one for the argument.  In the spoken version of the paper Derrida begins by promising to speak of something: “I will speak, then, of a letter, the first one, if we are to believe the alphabet and most of the speculations that have concerned themselves with it.”  The first letter of the alphabet, the letter “a” and the alpha of the Greeks, has a special place in the tradition.  It is supposed to be the original letter of writing, the first written mark.  What luck that it is this letter that performs the punning effect that Derrida has found!  This is an important point--it is just luck and not anything grand or mysterious.  At this stage we should be aware that this something (the letter “A”) might be more obscure than we’d have imagined.  Surely it is the most obvious and evident thing, a simple letter.  But consider this: are we talking about the sound we make when voicing the letter “a” or are we talking about the visible inscription of the mark?  They are two quite different things as we know and related to each other only by virtue of deep-seated historical and conventional usage (repetition).   The relation has chance at its basis.  Yet Derrida’s promise is to speak (in phonemes) about a written letter (a grapheme).    



Have a look at the next sentence:


I will speak, therefore, of the letter a, this initial letter which it has apparently been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word “difference”; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writing whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly.


This sentence is yet more systematic in its idiomatic French of course but differance also names the possibility of this less than perfect translation.  This sentence which begins by promising speech on writing goes on in its main clause to set out what is at stake.  This is important and each section of “Differance” will return to it.  It is the relationship between at least two forces that will later on come to characterize a play of forces (a writing on writing and a writing within writing).  On the one hand there is a writing that regulates and on the other there is a writing (a writing that is both on and in writing) that apparently capitalizes on the possibility of accidents (lapses, mistakes).  Differance represents this play in its insinuation of the letter “a” where it does not belong.  The naughty “a” is a meeting point between two forces: a writing that regulates through the application of discipline, law and convention and a writing that reveals the accidental, the chance, the mistake, as a necessary possibility (for all writing whatsoever).  This possibility is undoubtedly one of the key aspects.  The next sentence is as follows:


One can always, de facto or de jure, erase or reduce this lapse in spelling, and find it (according to situations to be analyzed each time, although amounting to the same), grave or unseemly, that is, to follow the most ingenuous hypothesis, amusing.


What is always possible?  Correction or trivialisation (especially in this case!).  It is after all just a joke.  No good trying to make a mystery of this little letter.  It just happens to be the first letter of the alphabet.  All the different effects of the play on différer are just accidental.  They are trivial.  It is always possible to correct the mistake or to laugh it off as a joke.  Notice the parenthesis has already introduced the topic of the same as differences in repetition, all the finite particulars adding up incessantly to repetitions of each other.  Is this what is so scandalous about Differance?  There is nothing special or important about it at all.  It is a jokey play with language.  It names nothing but the possibility of jokey plays with language.  But this possibility, as Derrida hints in the next sentence, in its silence and its trivial insignificance, just is possibility.  Let’s take another look:


Thus, even if one seeks to pass over such an infraction in silence [notice the parodic repetition of Wittgenstein], the interest that one takes in it can be recognized and situated in advance as prescribed by the mute irony, the inaudible misplacement, of this literal permutation.


Let’s reconstitute the sentence that this last sentence ironically inscribes within itself: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”  The famous and often quoted final proposition from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.  It’s a joke again, of course, and refers us to the first words of the talk (repeated again at the start of the paragraph).  “I will speak . . .,”  but that which Derrida will speak about cannot be spoken.  It is the mute a that occurs only for vision as an accidental effect of the graphematic mark (but not the phonetic one).  I will speak about what we cannot speak about.  But that is not just a joke.  That is the topic of the essay and the aspect of it that we still find Derrida worrying away at in much more recent works.  The word-concept “differance” is an attempt to reveal the kind of thing that is made possible by what cannot be spoken about. 



A little later, Derrida anticipates an objection. Let’s have a look at the summing up section of the paragraph preceding “it will be objected”:


The play of difference, which, as Saussure reminded us, is the condition for the possibility and functioning of every sign, is in itself a silent play.  Inaudible is the difference between two phonemes which alone permits them to be and to operate as such.  The inaudible opens up the apprehension of two present phonemes such as they present themselves.  If there is no purely phonetic writing, it is that there is no purely phonetic phone.  The difference which establishes phonemes and lets them be heard remains in and of itself inaudible, in every sense of the word.


Phonemes operate as differentiated sounds because of an inaudible element that comes between them as the difference between them.  The difference is inaudible (no possibility of anybody ever hearing it).  What Derrida is trying to do here is to draw attention to the function of the inaudible as difference and to show why the inaudible difference that makes it possible to distinguish between two different sounds cannot be reduced to any present sound whatsoever.  This inaudible difference must be possible a priori as the possibility of all the empirical differences, the apparent differences between sensible experiences of sound.  Derrida’s proof of this is rather simple.  When you write phonetically you must incorporate lots of marks (punctuation etc.) that are not phonetic.  These are graphic (and we are back with the difference between phoneme and grapheme).  That is precisely the concern of the potential objection.  Let’s have a look:


It will be objected, for the same reasons, that graphic difference itself vanishes into the night, can never be sensed as a full term, but rather extends an invisible relationship, the mark of an inapparent relationship between two spectacles.


Derrida has just about reached the point where he has said everything he needs to say.  The graphic play does, certainly, act as a kind of revenge against the primacy of speech in all those texts he has already looked at.  But the implications are greater.  Speech is not now to be simply replaced by writing (sound is not going to simply be replaced by graphic marks).  No.  Difference eludes both hearing and vision.  No one has ever been able to see or to hear a difference as such.  The objection--but writing depends on invisible differences too--in fact anticipates by repeating a generally acknowledged truism about writing in so far as it pertains to speech too (which even then in the 1960s was not generally acknowledged).  Derrida is not privileging writing now over speech but showing that the conditions that apply to the one apply to other just as much.  As we’re just about to find out, furthermore, the conditions in question constitute the very relationship between speech and writing per se.



So here is the argument so far.  Differance, with its peculiar, inaudible, illegal a, refers us to that which cannot be spoken--inaudible difference as such without which there would be no differences for our experience (and no spoken language).  But for all the reasons that have been given it will be objected that this applies to graphic difference too.  Well yes it does:


Doubtless.  But, from this point of view, that the difference marked in the

differ( )nce between the e and the a eludes both vision and hearing perhaps happily suggests that here we must be permitted to refer to an order which no longer belongs to sensibility.


It is the inaudible.  It is the blank.  This is what Differance is about. It is about nothing else.  But at this stage the stakes are in one move raised (a move almost identical to what has just gone before):


But neither can it belong to intelligibility, to the ideality which is not fortuitously affiliated with the objectivity of theorein or understanding.  Here, therefore, we must let ourselves refer to an order that resists the opposition, one of the founding oppositions of philosophy, between the sensible and the intelligible.


The move that disrupts the stable hierarchy of speech and writing is now repeated in a way that disrupts the hierarchy of ideality and sensibility.  What this means is that the inaudible aspect that makes speech possible and its relation to the invisible aspect that makes writing possible is the same as the invisible/inaudible aspect that makes perceptions and conceptions (intuitions, images, ideas and thoughts) possible too.  A series of affiliations are evoked, which repeat another series:


concept/word                                                 sound/vision

mind/body                                                     speech/writing

intelligible/sensible                                          phoneme/grapheme

signified/signifier                                            form/matter


The translator, Alan Bass adds a footnote here that may be a little misleading, which just shows how difficult it is to get this stuff across.  He says:


A play of words has been lost in translation here, a loss that makes this sentence difficult to understand.  In the previous sentence Derrida says that the difference between the e and the a of difference/differance can neither be seen nor heard.  It is not a sensible--that is, relating to the senses--difference.  But, he goes on to explain, neither is this an intelligible difference, for the very names by which we conceive of objective intelligibility are already in complicity with sensibility.  Theorein--the Greek origin of “theory”--literally means “to look at,” to see; and the word that Derrida uses for “understanding” here is entendement, the noun form of entendre, to hear.


The reason this may not necessarily be helpful is that it suggests the order of differance (inaudible, invisible difference) cannot be intelligible because of these untranslatable semantic or literal affiliations (theory = seeing/understanding = hearing).  Derrida’s point is in fact much more devastating.  The “order that resists these oppositions” does so because “it transports them.”  Differance is the possibility of the affiliation.  It refers to that which is neither sensible nor intelligible because 1) it cannot be seen or heard (or tasted or smelled or felt); and 2) it cannot be thought, understood, theorized, made the object of an empirical science, or analyzed either.  But you would have no sensible experience and no thought whatsoever without the differentiating differance that can be neither sensed nor thought.  That’s the argument.  And we’re only on the third page.



To sum up: there are always at least two writings, one within and on the other.  The one regulates, disciplines and forces its way by convention and rule.  The other plays, gives rise to mistakes, accidents, jokes, puns and witty manipulations.  The absent ( ) of Differ( )nce reveals that the possibility of the latter is necessary for the former.  A correction, a trivialisation, a passing by in silence is always possible in the face of such accidents basically because such accidents (and such silences) must always be possible.



The order of this differ( )nce is inaudible, invisible, unthinkable but its effects are always on each occasion among us.  Traditionally this order would be something like God.  But differance is an example of these necessary effects and does not itself escape them.  Is Derrida replacing the divine being (or just Being as opposed to beings) with the possibility of accidents?  Could be.  But then everything changes.  There is an unthinkable, invisible, inaudible trace without which there would be no differentiation.  That is the argument.  Differance attempts to think it, to make it visible, something that one can hear.  And it fails to do this.  But its failure does illustrate its necessity.  It’s a paradoxical ground in the necessary possibility of failure.



What to Look for


In the “Differance” essay there are a series of repetitions each involving the following characteristics:



Differance designates the effects that it is itself effected by.  The word-concept that explains the possibility of all words-concepts cannot escape the effects it designates.  Theological word/concepts, on the other hand, are supposed to be able to escape the effects that they make possible.  Differance is a self-dramatization.



After-effects that must be presupposed not before the discourse as such but as after-effect that retrospectively has to be presupposed.  A secondariness that then has to be presupposed as being necessary a priori, that is before any postulated beginning.  The “thing” (concept, referent) precedes the sign.  But the differentiality and repeatability of the sign precedes the presence of the “thing” (concept, referent).


Repetitions of the same

Couples of a certain kind (body/soul, word/concept, grapheme/phoneme, signifier/signified) generally have hanging off them a third, hardly significant aspect, that is as it were added to the binary coupling but which turns out to be the very principle of the coupling itself (in this instance, writing).  The formula is as follows: (concept + speech) + writing = writing + writing (governed by repeatability and differentiality).  The secondariness of writing is as it were doubly secondary (tertiary?).


The Law of Repetition

You know this one.





Deconstruction is the term that has been used to describe Derrida’s “method.”  If we accept this provisionally as an acceptable usage (we will qualify it later) we must take note of some important features.  Like all Derrida’s terms it has two mutually exclusive (and contradictory) meanings: to destroy/construct.  Deconstruction does intuitively sound like a form of destruction, of taking apart, perhaps, of undoing some construction.   Many people have agreed that some deconstruction (thought of in this way) was necessary.  The totalitarian projects of western metaphysics, the ethical, aesthetic, epistemological projects of post-enlightenment science, the imperialism of European countries as they carved out their empires throughout the colonised world, the great patriarchal domination over women--all of these structures and institutions, people agree, need to be taken down to their foundations in order to expose their contradictory logic.  But now, the argument goes, we need some reconstruction.  We need to put things together again in some new, more democratic order.  However this consoling sense of reconstruction is anathema to any rigorous sense of deconstruction.  Deconstruction actually names the impossibility of setting up “perfect” or “ideal” structures.  That which cannot be presented for conception or perception takes its determination from things like the future and from the radical alterity of the other (which in its permanent absence guarantees the particularity of all of us finite particulars).  No law could be set up to take that into its consideration--that is the very condition of the law.  Deconstruction does indicate a certain amount of what Derrida calls “de-sedimentation,” which would imply undoing the work of sedimentation, the consolidation that occurs with systems of thought.  But this is not simply with the aim of destroying the systems or ensembles in question.  Rather, deconstruction implies reconstituting them according to the conditions (previously hidden or made mysterious) of their institution.   In giving an account of his use of the word deconstruction Derrida gives the following explanation: “The undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures, in a certain sense more historical than the structuralist movement it called into question, was not a negative operation.  Rather than destroying it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end.”  So deconstruction names something rather more powerful than simply undoing.  It names the conditions according to which it is possible for events to occur and for institutions to be constituted.  We have seen at the beginning of this chapter that Derrida has seized upon the word “event” in the work of Levi-Strauss and his reading of Levi-Strauss affirms the radical alterity, the “something missing,” that Levi-Strauss’s peculiar ethnology allows us to read.  In other words, in order for structuralism to have been an event at all (something surprising, unpredictable, that eludes the conceptions of existing orders), it was necessary to find this “negative” space.  There is no escape from the “odds and ends” (as Levi-Strauss puts it) that make up a cultural inheritance and, more determinedly, the historicity of metaphysical oppositions, but one can open up this space (alterity, futurity, negativity) in such a way that an event is welcomed and the law, the institution, the structure, the whole conceptual apparatus, undergoes a change.  So deconstruction is never the closing down of one institution in order to set up another in its place.  Rather it is the persistent opening up of institutions to their own alterity, towards which they are hopefully forced to adapt.  Deconstruction names the conditions upon which it is possible for things to change.  If there is a strategy, or a method to deconstruction then it would involve opening boundaries up to an alterity—almost literally making a negative space—that welcomes the surprise of future events.  It makes or allows things to happen.  The triumphal part of the structuralist project, hinting at its escape from the bounds of metaphysical thought, is treated with extreme vigilance by Derrida for, as we have seen, the metaphysics tends to rush back in just when you’re least expecting it (like the engineer-god as origin of his own language).  What kind of term can replace the recourse to metaphysical concepts?  Can you have theory, or even thought, without concepts?  As we have suggested the notion of alterity, the other, that “something missing,” which is obviously not a concept, can nonetheless act against the solidifying, or sedimenting of dogmatic thought. 



Alterity and Writing


Alterity is still quite a trendy word in critical discourse but not one that is always well understood.  The reason for this is not because it is particularly difficult to understand—it is not a complex concept in the theoretical sense—it is just that it is supposed to designate a structural condition that cannot in itself be understood.  Alterity designates nothing real or actual.  But as a condition we could not do without it.  It is a necessary condition.  In the first instance it is a necessary condition for what we experience in the most basic sense as writing.  Let’s stop and have a look at the word first.  It’s not yet in every English dictionary.  But there is a word that seems to provide its root: alter.



We get the word alter from the Middle English, and that comes from Middle French, alterer, and from Medieval Latin alterare, and that has passed over from the Latin alter meaning other (of two) as in “this one and the other one”); akin to Latin alius, meaning other.  When I take on an alias I assume a different identity.



Current transitive senses are:


1: to make different without changing into something else

2: castrate; spay

The intransitive sense is: to become different


Thus alterity, which takes all of the above into consideration (as well, please note, as the possibility of these permutations in etymological passage), is the condition of otherness, difference, or change.  Words ending in –ity or –ability usually designate conditions that can only be grasped in terms of the effects they describe and are supposed to make possible.  So we know that texts are translatable because we have translations and can speak in more than one language.  We also know that pure or simple or literal translation is strictly impossible.  Translatability is implicated in that impossibility (because a pure or literal translation would be literally the same in the sense of being identical).  So translation implies as a basic condition of possibility a certain notion of altered-ness—the translation will be different or in some way changed from its pre-translation form.  Alterity doesn’t just mean other, then, in the Latin sense (e.g. this burger is nicer than the other one), which would imply a contrast between two actual discrete entities.  Rather it designates the conditions upon which different discrete entities can be compared and contrasted at all.  One of the basic conditions of a text (of any kind) is, then, that it can be translated into different languages (languages that its author, for instance, may not know).  The text is permanently affected by this alterity, which in other sections we’ve isolated as “something missing” of its complete meaning (thus enabling further contexts and translations).  It takes up the space of the otherwise absent referent, and/or sense (or signified if you are still attached to Saussure).  It gestures forward to the future of randomly determined addressees, and backwards to the absent origin of the text—in so far as such an origin would be in some sense (yet to be determined) “outside the text.”  Alterity can also be considered in this way as the always-not-yet-determined sense of a text.  The fact is, of course, that texts usually have both a sense and can be attributed with a referent (even a fictional one).  But this is only because of their essential alterity—leaving those possibilities open.  So when Saussure tells us that “language is a system of differences with no positive terms,” what he implies without actually being explicit about it is that language relies, as one of its most basic conditions of possibility, on a certain alterity—a structure that grants difference to its entities, the individual signs.



Repetition and Writing


Unlike Saussure, Derrida focuses on this sense of alterity in its relation to repetition.  In Derrida the senses of alterity and repeatability are combined to form the notion of iterability.  Iterum (likewise in Latin), which generally composes the central moment in analogical constructions also means altered.  It signifies the combination of a repetition (which implies sameness) and difference (which implies alteration).  A repetition is an altered version of that which it repeats.  Another one of the main conditions for our basic sense of writing is that it be composed of repeatable marks.  A written mark must always be identifiable as such.  Sometimes cloud formations or rock formations look as if they are composed of repeatable marks.  But for something to be considered as writing we must be able to recognise the marks (re-cognize/re-mark).  The same, rather obviously—yet the implications of this are profound—must be the case for that which the marks signify as sense, signified, referent or whatever, as and when a mark actually does signify something definite.  That definite meaning—a definition (de-fining or making temporarily finite) is provisional and, again rather obviously, made possible only by the fact that the mark of its meaning be repeatable.  The consequence is that the meaning, as a repetition of whatever minimal sense it always has, is in fact a usually slight but potentially quite extreme alteration of what it means in other repetitions, other incarnations.  So, you see, deconstruction would not concern simply all the different interpretations that clever readers can manipulate by critical reading, but—perhaps more than that—it concerns the minimal ideality of signs and texts—that which makes more or less repeatable meanings possible.  The name he gives for that possibility is iterability.  A minimal ideality ensures that a text maintains a singularity that contests any attempt to subsume it as an example.  Literary texts more than any other kind draw attention to this—George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss would not be adequately described as an “example of the nineteenth century novel.”



Superfluity and Writing


Writing always seems to be added.  I have a thought.  I write it down.  My thought has thus got a vehicle that allows it to roam from its starting point to some other time and place, to you perhaps, who are now free to take it over.  However that starting point would remain first of all a silence, a nothing, if I didn’t find some way to express it.  Thus the expression, which is added to the thought, is not only superfluous.  It is also in some sense necessary.  Let’s stop and think about that.  I’m using writing now a little more in Derrida’s extended sense in so far is he has shown that all language functions on the same conditions as writing does (iterability).  So by speaking the thought I’m repeating it in a perhaps rather different form than the one it started in.  By writing it down I repeat it again.  But then the thought too must have emerged on the same conditions as the spoken and the written word, the conditions of iterability.  It must have been repeatable (if I have repeated it in some form) from the beginning.  So the superfluous parts of expression turn out to be the necessary—essential—parts of the expression.



Alterity and Transcendence


I have already pointed out that iterability, as the double action of repeatability and alterity, cannot be considered as anything actual or real.  Yet the very nature of alterity as a condition suggests, even conjures up, the thought of the transcendental reality, the fabulous yonder of much religious thought.  Iterability implies or suggests or evokes a past (the original before repetition) that never was and is already on the way to a future that is also nothing actual (rather obviously but against ideas of predestination etc.), but which structures the experience of the present.  This is why Derrida’s concepts are, as he says, quasi-transcendental.  That is, they are not to be taken as actually transcendental but they do indicate that all thought and action must pass through an apparently transcendental alterity in order to have been possible in the first place.  



Writing and Interpretation


Language is one of the phenomena that Derrida attempts to generalize by the term “arche-Writing.”  Arche” is the Greek word for origin or beginning.  It is one phenomenon among others where marks, interpretations and meanings of all kinds, as well as actions and the experience of things in the world generally would constitute other phenomena.  So, for Derrida, there is an originary writing (on the model of certain essential predicates attached to writing in the ordinary sense) without which there’d be no phenomena for us at all.   Because language functions according to the conditions of its possibility—that is, arche- or originary- writing—then it is easy to see why writing is open to often similar though never identical interpretations.  The very concept of interpretation already assumes this.  It has always been well known that interpretation involves seeing a text differently.  That is why there have been numerous attempts to close down the possibilities, that is, to legislate over interpretations.  Sometimes these legislations are explicit (e.g. with certain types of biblical or religious text exegesis) and, at other times, they are internalized rules or laws like implicit assumptions, the things one always takes for granted as “natural” or as being “common sense” yet are thoroughly institutionalized.  They are like a kind of framework that we use to contain a picture but without actually seeing the framework itself.  When you look at the frame you no longer see the picture in any natural-feeling way (which spoils things for lots of people).  Derrida is permanently focused on the hinges of the frames.  This is just a metaphor but it is a metaphor for the possibility of metaphor in general too.  Most frameworks of knowledge and understanding function on the principles that allow the literary text and figurative expressions to function as well.  So if we want to concentrate on the openness to interpretations of texts we must also acknowledge the institutions that have deeply, historically, already imposed powerful interpretative strategies upon our everyday reading practices.  In other words this “openness” is hard to achieve (despite appearances) as most people tend to read the same text under the institutionalized illusion of humanistic or democratic differences of interpretation, which is not at all the point.  All interpretations, whatsoever, are overdetermined by multiple causes, never fully controllable or systematisable.  A responsible reading would acknowledge this beginning in overdetermination as a basic starting point.  It leads to slow and patient readings and a range of self-reflexive considerations about reading protocols, assumptions and presuppositions, which certain aspects of all texts, by the very fact of their being texts, escape, contest, resist and subvert. 




Transcendental Contraband


The only proof of a text is one that can be grounded in a certain notion of text.  In other words all appeals to textual truth that gesture beyond the text itself must assert a transcendental origin, system, pattern, cause or whatever.  A transcendental system is one in which at least one key concept in that system cannot be explained within the system itself.  Derrida calls this “transcendental contraband.”  It can take numerous forms: the empirical, the context, the divine, the mathematical, history, authorship, the work.  These have all—as has been voluminously documented—been used as anchor or center for various modes of textual interpretation.  But they ground interpretation each time in an unverifiable assumption determined only within a system, as its outside.  The notion of text—in Derrida’s expanded sense, that is, meaning not only language but all of what we call experience (and “experience” is one of those transcendental contrabands too)—can be relied upon as a ground because of its quasi-transcendental properties.  It always refers beyond what it is but never to anything actual or real or asserted to be actual or real even though supposedly existing in some “fabulous yonder.”  What is essential for a text to be a text is that it always remains undetermined with regard to what we might call its future contexts.  Thus the predicates of writing include repeatability and that sameness or minimal identity that Derrida calls difference.  They stand as verifiable conditions of a general textuality, according to which each text has a certain singularity also, its minimal identity in repetition that cannot be compromised by any institution, interpretation or law of any kind, but which also stands as an example of what makes laws possible in the first place too.   What in principle must remain absent is anything that would aim to complete or to close—even implicitly—that potential space.  What was always traditionally perceived as a deficiency (the problem of interpretable texts or situations, the problem of justice and law, for instance) could never be “made good.”  Derrida mobilizes this apparent deficiency as an impossibility to be affirmed.   It is that which makes provisional justice and interpretations of all kinds possible at all.  So it is demonstrable that the transcendental opening is nothing transcendental but a necessary “something missing” that allows interpretations and experiences of what is to come.  By “demonstrable” I mean grounded in demonstrable aspects of texts and textuality.  So a deconstructive reading might read according to the conditions of possibility for reading as opposed to some extra-textual interpretive motive that can always be put up against others.



Derrida works within and upon a tradition, several traditions in fact, which he repeats in certain ways.  These traditions provide the vocabulary and terminology that we find stretched beyond their limits in Derrida’s texts.  It is important to understand the double-bind of responsibility that his texts consistently present.  A reading could hardly be considered responsible unless it could:


1)     regard the text in its full complexity, even to the extent of the regressus ad infinitum (if you consider everything that must be considered in order to provide a truly responsible reading of a text, you will never be finished), and


2)     respond to what is exorbitant in it—the beyond of interpretation that makes interpretation both necessary and possible—though impossible according to criterion (1)—with an exorbitance that goes beyond the text, that reads what is missing in it, its inadequacy, its “something missing,” in a way that maintains the sense of that “something missing.”   In other words a responsible reading should fail resolutely and exorbitantly to complete a text by interpretation.     


There have throughout the long history of written texts (i.e. all of history) been consistent attempts to fix or to pin down meanings against the evident fact that texts tend to be interpreted in different ways.  In the past this evident fact was more proof of the fallen nature of “Man” and the imperfect nature of finite mortal existence.  The fact had correspondences in politics, ethics and epistemology (knowledge) as well as in ontology (the enquiry into the basic grounds of being).  Derrida points out that language is the way it is because that is the way that it works, as part of a system of powers or forces that produce the phenomena that are seen to be limitations on it (finite and translatable language).  These limitations (no perfect translation, no simple interpretation) are the resources by which language works.  The perfect and the simple turn out to be myths based on the failure to understand why language works in that way.  Why should such a failure to understand come about?  It is probably—but here we get speculative—an anxiety about finitude and death.  If language is the way it is (blocking us from its dreamed of transcendental attributes against which language acts as a limitation) then it must be considered as just one example of many such systems.  The whole dreamed up transcendental realm of perfection, eternity, infinity, omniscience, omnipotence, essence of existence, transcendental cause functions on behalf of the refusal to grasp the most basic facts of finite existence—that finitude positively produces the “something missing” as an inherent structural component of experience.  It is a limitation that produces what is limited (the dream of a perfect knowledge or a perfect morality).





So the non-present space of possibility cannot ever be made present as such--otherwise nothing would happen.  But deconstruction has become a kind of strategy (or a number of strategies occurring among many domains and dimensions) for outlining such a space.  At this stage we must return to the issue of exemplification.  How does it work?  How does deconstruction change things?



There are two ways in which a text can exemplify deconstruction.  Both cases may be understood if we shift our focus to the level of address.


Standard Communication Model:     

Addresser    ®      Message      ®      Addressee


A text would need to be considered not simply as a message alone, standing independently of the level of address (someone addresses a message to someone else).  Rather the level of address is a major component of the message.  A message can be regarded both at the level of statement (it says something) and at the level of enunciation (someone addresses someone else).  Most messages have both sense (they mean something) and a plane of reference (they refer to some specific thing).  At the level of address (or enunciation) a text can be analysed in its self-referential aspects, as referring to itself.  Some texts do this in obvious ways.  The mainstream cinema release Mrs Doubtfire is an interesting instance of self-conscious auto-referentiality.  The story is, at the level of its statement, a sentimental tale of a father (Robin Williams) who would do anything to carry on seeing his three children after having been estranged from them after divorce.  He takes on the persona of a female housekeeper/governess/childminder, heavily yet convincingly disguised in professional costume and make-up, and gets the job.  In the meantime he works lugging canisters of film for a TV company, though gets a break when the company director over-hears him rehearsing his ideas for an informative yet entertaining children’s show.  He is eventually found out in his Mrs. Doubtfire guise while attempting to play both roles (housekeeper at one table and aspiring TV actor at another during a restaurant farce).  So he loses access to the children but gains a job as a TV presenter in his Mrs Doubtfire role.  Needless to say he eventually returns to the kids in the role of their father as a full time carer.  The cinema rhetoric is fairly dancing all this time and issues of cross-dressing, gender and sexuality, the roles of mothers and fathers etc., intrude constantly.  It comes together at the level of enunciation, the level of address.  The lingering shots of the entertainment world, his gay brother and friend who labour to produce his Doubtfire persona, the quickfire wit of Williams in all his personae, all serve to draw attention to the fact that this is about show business and thus the address is at all times an appeal to the audience on behalf of the product itself, that is, entertainment.  The Doubtfire character 1) succeeds (where husband and wife failed) to produce fulfilled children who improve steadily at school, and 2) his programme is responsibly educational as well as being entertaining.  These dramatic presentations draw attention to the responsible yet entertaining role of the media in relation to its spectators (the children).  It is a message that builds in an evaluation of itself.  It also, in grounding the absent real as the father beneath the disguise, appeals to a transcendental concept of truth but only in so far as it is contained in the form of the product, that is, theatrical entertaining fiction.  The false persona and the real father are one and the same thing, a responsible and entertaining parent.  In this sense we should be able to see that the text attempts to legislate, in its own way, over its own conditions (of production and reception).  However the “something missing” intervenes when we see that the film operates as a consistent claim to responsibility only by inscribing its addressee—the spectator—as passive child, at the mercy of good or bad parents. 



In this case a message attempts to legislate over its own conditions.  In the second kind we would witness a message that is responsible to its own conditions (the alterity of origins and addressees).  In each case the message can be said to exemplify its own condition, its own laws and the rules of its constitution.   In the first case the constitution can be deconstructed (and there’s barely a text that cannot).  In the second case one should be able to see, at the level of enunciation, that the text is already so constituted as to exemplify its conditions of construction.  It would in that case simulate a presentation of its own singularity, the alterity of its origin and the alterity of its addressee, with no appeal to a transcendental concept that would otherwise ground it.



This logic is intricately related to the “ideal objects” like literature and the artwork, where the examples each tend towards a powerful singularity.  In the case of literature this singularity is so powerful that it allows Derrida to formulate the questions and, thus, the laws that govern iterable singularities (the laws that govern the iterability of singularities generally--which is already a paradox).  In an interview with Derek Attridge, first published in Acts of Literature, Derrida says:


What is fascinating is perhaps the event of a singularity powerful enough to formalize the questions and theoretical laws concerning it.  [He comes back to the word power later in the interview].  The “power” that language is capable of, the power that there is, as language or as writing, is that a singular mark should also be repeatable, iterable, as mark.  It then begins to differ from itself sufficiently to become exemplary and thus involve a certain generality.  This economy of exemplary iterability is of itself formalizing.  It also formalizes or condenses history.


A text by Shakespeare or Joyce is a powerful condensation of history (i.e., an example on the paradigmatic axis) but it is also an absolutely singular event.  There is an absolutely singular and untranslatable uniqueness, which because it is iterable as such, “both does and does not form part of the marked set.”  The implications of this fact are directed here to science.   In learning to understand these laws (which may be something like learning to read Derrida’s texts) one ought to recognize that their formalization can never be finished, brought to an end, closed down or completed.  He points out that “to insist on this paradox is not an antiscientific gesture.”  It is done in the name of a kind of science that would refuse to ignore the paradoxes of its own common sense or reason.


Suggested reading for Derrida and Deconstruction:


Introductory Reading:

Wolfreys, Julian. Deconstruction.Derrida. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Bennington, Geoff and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Trans. Geoff Bennington. Chicago: CUP, 1993.

Payne, Michael, Reading Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.


For Derrida’s reading of Saussure see “Linguistics and Grammatology” in

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology  Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1974.

For “Structure, Sign and Play,” look in Writing and Difference and for “Différance” look in Margins of Philosophy (both listed below).


Texts by Derrida:

Derrida, Jacques.  Positions. Trans. Alan Bass.  London:  Athlone, 1987.

---. The Other Heading.  Indiana University Press, 1992.

---.Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Brighton: Harvester, 1988.

---The Truth in Painting. Trans Geoff Bennington. Chicago: CUP, 1987.

---.Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, 1980.



Peggy Kamuf, ed.  Derrida:  A Reader  Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1992.     

Attridge, Derek, ed.  Acts of Literature. London:  Routledge, 1992.

A collection of essays (including one by Derrida himself) about  Derrida may be found in

Wood, David, ed.  Derrida:  A Critical Reader. London:  Blackwell, 1992.


Other Texts About Derrida

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Indiana: IUP, 1993.

Cornell, Drucilla. Philosophy of the Limit. London: Routledge, 1992.

Gasche, Rudolph. The Tain of the Mirror. Harvard University Press, 1988.


Check out these Web Sites:

Derrida, the Pop Culture Derrida Site, with lots of useful links

Jacques Derrida: more good links for Derrida

My own engagement continues with the NEW Deconstruction in Terms

And there’s always the notorious Lemmata