Writing and Difference

by Jacques Derrida

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

Writing and Difference, as a part of Derrida’s first set of major publications in 1967, set the stage for the second set in 1972, consisting of Positions, La Dissemination (Dissemination, 1981), and Marges de la philosophie (Margins of Philosophy, 1982). In all these works, Derrida’s project is to question the assumptions of traditional thematic criticism, which determines the values of a work according to the value of its theme. In Dissemination, Derrida says that he rejects the traditional kind of criticism that “makes the text into a form of expression . . . [and] reduces it to its signified theme.”

Derridean deconstruction, as the main philosophical tenet of poststructuralism, has led the way in broadening the scope of literary criticism in the second half of the twentieth century, affecting disciplines as diverse as law, theology, and feminism, each of which has become more open in the reading of texts. In his critique of the metaphysics of presence, Derrida deprives the text of its status as a full object and defines it instead as an effect of differance. Because he deconstructs meaning as what the author intends, as what codes and conventions determine, and as what the reader experiences either individually or collectively, Derrida has been criticized as being ahistorical, especially by Marxist critics such as Terry Eagleton. Derrida, however, never separates deconstruction from history; he even helped to found an organization in France to ensure that traditional philosophy will continue to be taught in high schools. Deconstruction has also been criticized for being conservative. In his essay “What Does Deconstruction Contribute to Theory of Criticism?” John Ellis argues that in retaining traditional concepts, deconstruction only subverts the old without providing a new theoretical departure.

Derrida’s notion of differance, in which presence becomes only a trace, has been called a transcendental signified in its own right. Indeed, deconstruction points to a field of unbounded meaning corresponding to a level of language which in Indian aesthetics is called pashyanti. At this level of language, the reader experiences the meaning-whole, or sphota, of a word as a unity of sound and meaning which, like Derrida’s notion of differance, is beyond the intelligible and sensible as ordinarily understood. This experience, however, can occur only on the level of transcendental consciousness. Such a state is perhaps more familiar to the artist than to the literary critic, especially the deconstructive critic, who would undermine consciousness itself.

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