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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886

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,...

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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 significance of writing as the mark of human entry into history. For Derrida, the entry into history marks the entry into difference. In this essay, Derrida plays with the term “fold,” or “wrinkle,” to suggest the multiple layers of meaning that accompany humans’ existence within history.

The longest essay in the collection, “Violence and Metaphysics: Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” takes on the arguments of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas on metaphysics and ethics. Derrida traces a distinguished lineage of philosophers for Levinas, and implicitly for himself, from Plato through Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. Derrida suggests that the project Levinas undertakes—to reintroduce ethics into the discourse of metaphysics—can be seen as the conjunction of messianic and Hellenistic traditions. Derrida argues that Levinas, in his drive to acknowledge otherness, constricts the nature of language and misreads his own relationship to phenomenology and ontology. Derrida closes with a quotation from James Joyce, which he glosses as saying that humans live in the difference between Greeks and Jews, a difference that Derrida names “history,” returning to the dialogue between the messianic and the Hellenistic that he reads in Levinas.

The fifth essay, “’Genesis and Structure’ and Phenomenology,” offers a reading of the use of these two terms by philosopher Edmund Husserl. Though they appear to function as a binary opposition, Derrida argues that they are fluid terms which do not succumb to a form of structuralist totalitarian reading such as the one he found in Jean Rousset.

In “The Whispered Word,” Derrida elucidates the dialogue between psychoanalytic and literary critical discourses, citing Maurice Blanchot’s literary exegesis of Friedrich Hölderlin as a mad poet and closing with a discussion of Antonin Artaud’s theory of theater. The essay’s title plays on the French term souffleur, which literally means “whisperer” but which is also the word for a prompter on the stage. Artaud, as another mad poet, seeks to evade all such prompting, and for Derrida this constitutes the evasion of the spoken word and the absolute presence of that word. Theater can therefore be seen as a form of writing.

An extended discussion of the Derridean term “writing” appears in “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Derrida finds his main point in Sigmund Freud’s “Notiz Über Den ’Wunderblock’” (1925; “A Note upon the ’Mystic Writing-Pad,’” 1940). The mystic writing-pad can be written upon and then reused after the top plastic sheet is lifted, but traces of the original writing will always remain in the substrate. Freud uses this device as a metaphor for the production of new neural pathways that create memories, and Derrida sees in it a useful metaphor for writing itself, which is pathbreaking and which leaves traces. The substrate represents the original writing, archi-écriture, which sets difference and history into motion.

Derrida deepens his reading of Artaud in “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation.” Derrida emphasizes that Artaud’s Le Théâtre et son double (1938; The Theatre and Its Double, 1958) projects a drama that takes gesture as primary and spoken word as secondary. Derrida sees this projection as a useful illustration of his own interpretation of writing as the site of the supplement and the marker of the absence of an origin. Artaud stresses the unscripted, unrepeatable performance in the moment, which provides a powerful illustration of the limits of representation. Derrida sees in Artaud’s notion of the “theater of cruelty” a corollary to Nietzsche’s description of the Dionysian force in Greek tragedy. Though this theater can only exist as a future possibility, Derrida claims for it the power of making possible a mode of thought about the history of theater that will open up new spaces.

Derrida turns his project of reading for differences to the work of French critic Georges Bataille in “From the Economy of Restraint to the General Economy: A Hegelianism Without Reservation.” He interrogates the ways in which Bataille displaces Hegel’s seminal theory of the master-slave dialectic, a displacement that figures as difference in the Derridean sense. The key term is this essay is sovereignty, which must be distinguished from mastery. Bataille claims this sovereignty for poetry, which is willing to exceed the realm of sense and accept nonsense. Mastery, in contrast, requires the making of meaning. Derrida makes his move by suggesting that, in reading Hegel, Bataille reaches an understanding that is less than Hegelian.

“Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” is perhaps the most widely disseminated of the essays in Writing and Difference. In it, Derrida returns to a critique of structuralism similar to the one offered in the opening essay, but he articulates the need to decenter all structures while acknowledging the need to write as if structural centers exist. In this sense, Derrida sees all philosophical discourse as enmeshed in history.

For Derrida, the illusion of a stable center allows humans to control their deep-seated anguish and to extrapolate a comforting origin of being in absolute presence. He deems the history of philosophy a history of metaphoric and metonymic substitutions of centers. Derrida’s ideas here provide powerful means for critiquing the dominance of Western traditions in philosophy and literature by offering a critical reading of concepts that were previously assumed to be true.

Derrida demonstrates this process of critique in the work of French structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss himself broke down the binary opposition between nature and culture by identifying the incest taboo as belonging to both categories, and he openly acknowledged his own work as a form of myth-making. Levi-Strauss coined the term bricoleur, or “tinkerer,” to explain the way in which he took whatever tool, part, or device came to hand to achieve his goal. Derrida links this activity to his own attempt to locate and reveal differences.

In Derrida’s analysis, Levi-Strauss remains bound by empiricism in his work, and his abandonment of the search for a center may simply be the result of an empiricist’s frustration in the face of infinite diversity. Derrida proposes as an alternative that the search for a center should yield to the infinite process of free play, which escapes all totalizing discourse. He again invokes the ideas of excess and the supplement to figure this realm of play. At the time he published the essay, Derrida saw human history as occupying the contested ground between frustration and play.

The book closes with “Ellipsis,” a title that can itself be seen as part of the Derridean vocabulary of differance, suggesting omission, circumlocution, the distortion of the circle, and the orbital path of a planet. In this gesture of opening rather than ending, Derrida returns to the last two volumes of The Book of Questions by Edmond Jabès, Le Livre de Yukel (1964; The Book of Yukel, 1977) and Le Retour au livre (1965; Return to the Book, 1977). Through readings of various poems, Derrida reemphasizes the role of writing in opening up spaces and once again stresses the absence of a center as an affirmation of play, an infinite deferral of a totalitarian closure.

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