Différance

John Phillips

30/10/06

 

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

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), 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 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 the difference. It is this imperceptible difference that Derrida is using, in his “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. The Derridean process can be made visible however.

 

A commentary on “Différance”
The following paragraphs will present a commentary and a reading of the opening remarks to the essay just called “Différance.” 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, the colour of my hair 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 which then would 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 différance 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 neither be 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 différance (as repeatability and differentiality combined) is the same but not identical. Neither repeatability nor differentiality (not simply differentiation, which is easy to think) can be made present (to thought or to senses). 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 differer, 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 “différance” names are the conditions that make it possible to play with French words like difference (or any word at all and thus any concept).

The first full paragraph sets out the main aspects of the argument in a way that is as systematic as it could possibly be.  I will follow the translation by Alan Bass from Margins of Philosophy because it is more sensitive to the precise philosophical and colloquial nuances that Derrida exploits. The paper was originally given as a talk and the relation between talking (phonemic sound) and writing (graphematic traces) is a key relation 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, as we’ll see.  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 it is a promise 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 différance 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 “Différance” will return to it. It is the relationship between at least two forces that will later on come to characterize the so called 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). Différance 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. (Freud would have pricked up his ears here). 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 "Différance"?  There is nothing special or important about it at all. It is a comic play with language. It names nothing but the possibility of comic 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 [you recognise what this is a parodic repetition of], the interest that one takes in it can be recognised 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 find Derrida worrying away at in much more recent works like Specters of Marx, "The Force of Law" and The Gift of Death. 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 slow patient 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 has just been 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. Différance, 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:


form + matter                           signified + signifier

          concept + word                        sound + vision

          mind + body                             speech + writing

          intelligible + sensible                 phoneme + grapheme

 

The translator, Alan Bass, adds a footnote here that may be quite useful. 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/différance 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.

 

This is not, of course, to suggests the order of différance (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.”  Différance 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, analyzed transcendentally either. But you would have no sensible experience and no thought whatsoever without the differentiating différance 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 différance 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. Différance 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.

 

What to Look for
In the “Différance” essay there are a series of repetitions each involving the following characteristics:

 

Performance: Différance 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. Différance is a self-dramatization.

 

Delay
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 from my section about “the same.”

 

Deconstruction
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 totalizing 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 to conceptualization 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. So deconstruction names something rather more tricky. It names the conditions according to which it is possible for events to occur. 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 makes possible. In other words, in order for structuralism to have been an event at all (something surprising, unpredictable, that eludes the conceptualizations 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 is thus concerned with making or allowing 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 (the engineer-god as origin of his own language!).

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.