Jacques Derrida initiated a seismic wave throughout the field of literary criticism with the essays collected in Writing and Difference, in particular with the essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” which was first presented at a conference at Johns Hopkins University in October, 1966. Through his challenges to structuralism, Derrida helped give rise to the movement in literary theory known as poststructuralism.
The book presents a series of loosely affiliated essays from earlier presentations and publications, and it ends with a new essay titled “Ellipsis.” Taken together, the essays explore the key strategies of what came to be called deconstruction, despite Derrida’s own insistence that he created no system or school of thought. The essays in the collection reflect an ongoing effort to avoid closure by introducing and then changing the vocabulary through which Derrida interprets a variety of writers, from philosophers to poets. The essays both discuss and demonstrate in various ways the role that writing plays in creating difference.
This crucial term, “difference,” gives rise to the Derridean alternative, “differance.” The change from difference to differance can be read but not heard—that is, while they appear differently on the page, the two words have the same pronunciation, so the neologism can be specified orally only by reference to written language (by uttering a phrase such as “differance with an a”). The French verb différer means “to differ” (as a thing differs from another thing), “to disagree” (as in the phrase “I beg to differ”), and “to defer.” The noun form, différence, creates a substantive noun from only the first of those meanings. Thus, in the transition from verb to noun, meanings fall out of the language. Derrida invents the French word différance for two reasons: to create a noun that bears those lost meanings (disagreement and deferral, as well as difference) and to demonstrate the importance of writing over speaking as a way to destabilize fixed meanings and to create spaces in apparently closed structures.
Each of the essays in Writing and Difference works with specific texts and examples to find the spaces of differance that are covered up by the surface coherence of writing. Derrida breaks with the philosophical tradition of privileging the spoken word as the marker of absolute metaphysical presence when he turns to writing as the field that initiates human history.
The first essay, “Force and Signification,” reads literary critic Jean Rousset’s Forme et signification: Essais sur les structures littéraires de Corneille à Claudel (1962; form and meaning: essays on literary structures from Corneille to Claudel) in order to destabilize the binary opposition between form and meaning. Derrida’s own title evokes the idea of force, which he identifies as the element absent from Rousset’s structuralist ordering of the authors whom he discusses. Derrida takes pains to reproduce portions of Rousset’s arguments before making his own claim that those arguments rely on external, pseudoscientific systems that constrain rather than interpret the works.
This specific critique of Rousset entails a general critique of structuralist approaches to literature, which privilege the synchrony of form and meaning over the historical force that constantly opens up new readings. Derrida admits that his desire to avoid binary opposition is utopian, but he nonetheless insists that the attempt is necessary. He closes the essay by evoking Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s writing on the union of the Apollonian with the Dionysian, comparing Nietzsche’s use of “Dionysian” to his own use of the term “force.”
In “Cogito and the History of Madness,” Derrida takes on another giant of twentieth century cultural theory, Michel Foucault. This essay works to open up and critique the understanding of Descartes proposed by Foucault in Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1965). Derrida introduces the idea of excess, or extravagance, another key term for evading closure.
“Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book” reads the work of poet Edmond Jabès, taking specific examples from Le Livre des questions (1963; The Book of Questions, 1976). Derrida approaches the connection between the Jewish heritage Jabès draws on in his poems and the...
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