What is the concept of différance in deconstruction and how does différance link to literature?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Différance is the term Derrida uses to identify the notion that linguistic signifiers have (1) meaning that is deferred until a future time beyond the time of expression and have (2) meaning that is defined by the relationship between signifiers in a system or a chain of signifiers that can only be defined by what they are not, in other words, defined by the absence of inherent meaning residing in the signifier. For instance, a furry four footed animal that barks does not denote a universal "dog," rather "dog" is a culturally attributed signifier that is defined by not being "cat" or "rabbit" or "running": "dog" is defined by the absence of being, not by the presence of inherent attributes.

Différance combines two words from French, one meaning defer and the other meaning difference. The pronunciation of différance is a homonym (identical in sound) to the French word for "difference," which is différence. Derrida created this neologism (newly coined word) to embody the two concepts above: deferred meaning and the absence of presence in meaning.

It is through différance that Derrida subverts the Western logocentric notion of the primacy of speech over writing (primacy: first occurring and of first importance). He does this by presenting a word and concept that can be identified and distinguished from another only when seen in its written form. Derrida posits that this visual necessity substantiates the primacy of writing and reverses the logocentric binary hierarchy of speech over writing: the homonyms différence/différance, distinguishable only through the -e versus -a spellings, establish a new hierarchical binary order and the true primacy of writing over speech, with writing more broadly defined as ranging from music to cave paintings and beyond.  It is also through différance that Derrida deconstructs Western philosophical constructs of reality that are built upon hierarchically opposing binaries: good/evil, truth/falseness, perfect/imperfect etc. This deconstruction subverts the logocentric notion of fixed, stable reality reflected in and described by words.

Différance, then, links to literature through (a) interpretation in a deferred future moment, (b) stable meaning, (c) author intention, (d) origination of meaning, (e) arche writing that defies the presence of meaning.

  • If meaning is deferred and dependent upon the system of signifiers in relationship between addressee and text at any moment, then interpretation may be always in flux and never static, never stable.
  • If meaning is deferred and only existent in the absence of presence (in the difference between signifiers defined by what is absent from what they are), then the author/speaker cannot have intent of meaning, can grasp and convey no firm, stable, intended meaning that has presence.
  • It can be said that the author/speaker is not the originator of the meaning of a text (text being synonymous with writing and ranging from music to cave paintings).
  • Thus literature is always the result of and exemplar of arche writing, which is defined as the way writing/text can never embody nor express the logocentric notion of stable present meaning that reflects immutable reality and is originated by author intent.