Writing and Difference

by Jacques Derrida

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1339

The first five essays of Writing and Difference make constant reference to the notion of presence, especially as developed by the two philosophers Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl. Derrida’s project is the deconstruction of logocentrism, the critical undoing of oppositions such as that between a word’s signifier, or sound image, and signified, or concept. In the first essay, “Force and Signification,” Derrida asks the rhetorical question, What if “the meaning of meaning (in the general sense of meaning and not in the sense of signalization) is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier?” For Derrida, the signified is never present in writing, but always postponed and separated from the signifier through the movement of differance. The meaning of a word is so ambiguous that its connotations extend to include all the words in the dictionary. Each word comprises a chain of signifiers in which the “transcendental signified” or ultimate meaning is infinitely deferred.

Derrida does not imply, however, that any interpretation of a text is acceptable. Meaning is always determined by its context, but the context itself is boundless. Each word functions by virtue of its repeatability in the context of different sentences, which may in turn be cited within the texts of different writers, with each citation resulting in a change of meaning. Although the combination of boundless context and contextual meaning has led to the deconstructive theory of the openness or indeterminacy of writing, Derrida does not feel excused from the responsibility to interpret texts or to formulate a coherent theory of language.

Nevertheless, the excess of the signifier results in a residue of meaning that the writer’s intended meaning cannot totalize, or fully contain. In “Force and Signification,” Derrida calls this lack of totalization the “force” of language—a result of differance. Deconstructive theory does not propose, however, that differance and indeterminacy make meaning the reader’s invention, for even the reader must operate within a greater community. In the second essay, “Cogito and the History of Madness,” Derrida writes that “this violent liberation of speech,” found “at the greatest possible proximity to the abuse that is the usage of speech,” creates a madness, or excess, that is outside the totality of history. According to Derrida, therefore, language constitutes a force in its own right that generates meaning spontaneously and largely independently of the speaker.

In his famous essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida elaborates on the deconstruction of the sign, the referent (or that to which the sign refers), and the speaker, each of which has been defined by logocentrism. The sign was traditionally thought to consist of a natural bond between word and meaning, signifier and signified. The word “horse,” for example, was thought to refer naturally to horse as a thing and a concept. In the second decade of the twentieth century, however, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure developed a new science called semiology, the study of signs. He argued that the bond between signifier and signified is not natural but arbitrary, since different signifiers are used across languages to refer to the same signified. For example, the words ashvah, cheval, and “horse,” in Sanskrit, French, and English respectively, refer to the same thing or concept. Saussure argued that the sign is not a positive naming of a thing but operates through the difference between words within a language system. The word “cat” thus acquires meaning through its difference from the word “mat,” not through its relation to a feline animal. As Saussure says in Cours de linguistique generale (1916; Course in General Linguistics , 1960),...

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“in a language there are only differences, and no positive terms.”

Building upon Saussurean semiology, Derrida describes an event in the history of the idea of structure that resulted in a split between structuralism and poststructuralism. Structuralism, which developed from semiology, is a mode of literary interpretation that flourished in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It holds that the meaning of a text results not from a correspondence between sign and referent but from the relations among the elements of the structure of the text itself. The speaker, traditionally thought to be the source of meaning, is replaced by the structure of binary oppositions, such as those between signifier and signified, nature and culture, transcendental and empirical. Structuralism, then, divides the sign from the thing, or referent.

Poststructuralism, initiated in 1966 with Derrida’s presentation of “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” divides the signifier from the signified, a division that results in the dispersion of meaning along a chain of signifiers. In analyzing this play of the signifier in the works of other writers, Derrida undermines the logocentric notion of “center,” both as the source of meaning, such as the speaker, and as the goal of meaning, such as the transcendental signified. The problem with structuralism for Derrida was that it retained a center which was paradoxically both inside and outside the structure, organizing the structure while somehow escaping structurality itself. Because it is neither inside nor outside, this center can also be called the origin or the end, and it can always be reawakened as a presence.

Although Derrida deconstructs all these logocentric principles, he grants that they are indispensable for unsettling the heritage of logocentrism, for in order to represent deconstruction as superior, the deconstructionist has to appeal to the logocentric values of argument and persuasion. By undermining the structure of philosophical oppositions, Derrida tries to show that logocentric notions of a central presence must be treated as “under erasure,” or as though they had methodological importance but no reality.

In the deconstructive argument of “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” the first opposition to be problematized is that between signifier and signified. As Derrida notes, the sign traditionally has derived its meaning as a sign-of-something, a signifier referring to a signified. In the play of signification, however, the difference between signifier and signified is erased, with the signifier itself substituting for the signified. Without the opposition between the intelligible and the sensible, the sign cannot exist. As Derrida puts it, “Play is the disruption of presence.” Yet the deconstructionist cannot dispense with the concept of the sign. The effect of this paradox is that the sign is read as if it were still supported by an opposition between sensible and intelligible, still referring to a signified, when apparently this opposition has collapsed and the sign functions only self-referentially within a system of differences.

Derrida discusses two ways of understanding this limit to the totalization of meaning implied by the deconstruction of logocentric values. In the first way, which is classical and thus irrelevant to deconstruction, the infinity of the field of knowledge precludes unification by the finite intellect. In the second way, it is not the infinity of knowledge but the finite nature of language itself that excludes totalization, or the complete containment of meaning. The linguistic field, therefore, must be understood as a field of play, a field of infinite substitutions resulting not from an infinite source but from the absence or lack of a center. Derrida calls this activity “the play of the world.”

This movement of play, Derrida says, can also be called the “movement of supplementarity”; on the one hand, it supplies something lacking—an absent center—and on the other, it supplies something additional. That which is lacking is supplemented by a form of discourse that moves the subject beyond his or her finitude to something greater. This vicarious addition of a supplement results in a “floating” signifier. That is, the signified’s lack of material form necessitates the “overabundance of the signifier,” or the play of signification, by means of which the reader transcends the boundaries of conventional meaning. That the concept is quantitatively poorer than the signifier is the result of its being qualitatively deficient or, what amounts to the same thing, so divorced from its material form that it cannot effectively unite the referent and the reader.


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