(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1339 words.)