Derrida’s “Différance” and “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
We begin tonight where many think we should have already begun, namely with the two most-assigned essays in Derrida’s oeuvre, texts that in most anthologies and classes on what gets called “literary theory” count as a sign that signifies all that Derrida will have written from 1966 (the year of the first publication of “SSP”) and 1968 (the year he gave the lecture “Différance” to the Société française de philosophie) on forward. But these texts, as you’ve now read and reread them, are anything but straightforward, and are hardly the introduction one would want to his thought, to its ultimate meaning, precisely because in these texts he argues against thinking of any ultimate meaning to a text above, below, or beyond its materiality, that is to say, its particular system of signs: this would be a thinking of texts that would reinstate a certain Platonism, that the intelligible (the “meaning” [sens] of the text) lies beyond the sensible (the text itself). The task tonight, though, will be more than to understand what is meant by “différance” but also to link these texts back to the future of Derrida, if you will, to show that his future invocations of the democracy-to-come, to impossible mourning, to the non-economy of the gift, and so on, are not, perhaps, foreseeable in these texts, but are nevertheless foreign to their concerns.
There is little doubt that temporalization is at the heart of these texts, even as we cannot get around that the way they are typically received as an account of an anti-realism, that is, that there is nothing outside of texts and textuality. But this “anti-realism” imputed to Derrida itself presumes a thinking of the sign and semiology wherein there would be an “outside” that language would represent (or fail to represent). No doubt, the “problem of language” was crucial to Derrida during this period, as it was all manner of thinkers in analytic and Continental philosophy. As he wrote at the beginning of Of Grammatology:
However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life (menacé dans sa vie), helpless (désemparé), adrift in the threat of limitlessness (désamarré de n’avoir plus de limites), brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self assured, contained, and guaranteed (bordé) by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it. (OG, 6)
What leads to this, I think, is that the representational or referential view of language had been disrupted by structuralism and in particular the Saussurean view of language that, at least in part, Derrida is willing to give credit. In his Course on General Linguistics (1910-11), Saussure aimed at a science of signs (semiology). This means he is not interested in etymology, philology, or the any specific sign systems, but rather wants to answer: what is a language? (Not, “what is the French language?” etc.). What was essential to language—a point that Derrida will critique—is that it is two-sides: “the acoustic sign [as] linked to an idea.” But any langue (as opposed to parole, the speaking of that language) is social, not the creation of an individual. No one can will language into being. Moreover, language is an inescapable institution. Of course, there is a huge diversity of language systems, heterogeneous to one another, a point crucial for Saussure. For Saussure, any sign is “arbitary”; it has no intrinsic “meaning” or “sense” (sens):
We must not begin with the word, the term, in order to construct the system. This would be to suppose that the terms have an absolute value given in advance, and that you have only to pile them up one on top of the other in order to reach the system. On the contrary, one must start from the system, the interconnected whole; this may be decomposed into particular terms, although these are not so easily distinguished as it seems. Starting from the whole of the system of values, in order to distinguish the various values, it is possible that we shall encounter words as recognisable series of terms. (30 June 1911).
Otherwise put, words only make sense in their difference from other words. Moreover, it’s not just that this is the case because of the syntactical context of a word (the word “decrepit” has a different meaning depending on if its placed before “old man” or a “wall.”) Even simply the word “sun” can mean a “star,” something warms one, etc. Here is the real turn made in Saussure:
Psychologically, what are our ideas, apart from our language? They probably do not exist. Or in a form that may be described as amorphous. We should probably be unable according to philosophers and linguists to distinguish two ideas clearly without the help of a language (internal language naturally). Consequently, in itself, the purely conceptual mass of our ideas, the mass separated from the language, is like a kind of shapeless nebula, in which it is impossible to distinguish anything initially. The same goes, then, for the language: the different ideas represent nothing pre-existing. There are no: a) ideas already established and quite distinct from one another, b) signs for these ideas. But there is nothing at all distinct in thought before the linguistic sign. This is the main thing. On the other hand, it is also worth asking if, beside this entirely indistinct realm of ideas, the realm of sound offers in advance quite distinct ideas (taken in itself apart from the idea). There are no distinct units of sound either, delimited in advance. (4 July 1911)
Thus the “signified element alone is nothing” (4 July 1911). Thus, “To sum up, the word does not exist without a signified as well as a signifying element. But the signified element is only a summary of the linguistic value, presupposing the mutual interaction of terms, in each language system.” The most difficult idea comes here:
[I]n the language (that is, a language state) there are only differences. Difference implies to our mind two positive terms between which the difference is established. But the paradox is that: In the language, there are only differences, without positive terms. That is the paradoxical truth. At least, there are only differences if you are speaking either of meanings, or of signified or signifying elements. When you come to the terms themselves, resulting from relations between signifying and signified elements you can speak of oppositions. Strictly speaking there are no signs but differences between signs. (4 July 1911)
In this way, there are no “positive ideas” given and there are no “determinate acoustic signs that are independent of ideas.” This leads him to the “fundamental principle of the arbitrariness of the sign”: “It is only through the differences between signs that it will be possible to give them a function, a value.”
This semiological difference will be put alongside ontico-ontological difference, crossing over one another, if one will, in différance, which is “neither a word nor a concept” (M, 3). To use Derrida’s language, any sign is but a trace of a trace of trace…ad infinitum. As is well known, the text of “Différance,” as presented orally, was to overturn the traditional view that speaking is to be privileged over writing, since the speaker, present to herself, can answer questions and provide reasons, that is, the meaning behind the speech, whereas writing is the symbol of death itself, since the speaking subject is not there to provide the meaning beneath or behind the text. Nevertheless the meaning, for the auditor in the room in 1968, is deferred until she has seen the written text and can see the difference written between différence and différance, and therefore take up just what Derrida was getting at in his oral work. The term différance, first found in his “Cogito and the History of Madness” (1963) differs from difference in that it can mean both to differ and to defer, to put off, to send off, and in this way, différance is the the becoming-space of time (defer) and the becoming time of space (difference). [Note the story of Derrida’s mother when she discovered this term was in updated French dictionaries.]
In sum, what is not to be missed is not that this means that, yes, any ultimate meaning of a language—even one that asks after the meaning of the Being of beings, as we saw last week—will have to be put off, deferred, but is structured precisely the becoming text of textuality, which requires time and space (there is no writing without time; to sketch a line or a point, to type them, requires it, and thus to attempt to think the impossible itself). Derrida writes:
I would summarize here in I have never used but that could be inscribed in this chain: temporization. Différer in this sense is to temporize, to take recourse, consciously or unconsciously, in the temporal and temporizing mediation of a detour that suspends the accomplishment or fulfillment of “desire” or “will,” and equally effects this suspension in a mode that annuls or tempers its own effect. And we will see, later, how this temporization is also temporalization and spacing, the becoming-time of space and the becoming-space of time, the “originary constitution” of time and space, as metaphysics or transcendental phenomenology would say, to use the language that here is criticized and displaced. The other sense of differer is the more common and identifiable one: to be not identical, to be other, discernible, etc. When dealing with differen(ts)(ds), a word that can be written with a final ts or a final ds, as you will, whether it is a question of dissimilar otherness or of allergic and polemical otherness, an interval, a distance, spacing, must be produced between the elements other, and be produced with a certain perseverence in repetition. (M, 8)
The sign is not to thought as having a “deferred presence,” since that deferral is a like a letter that never arrives, in the same way that the meaning of the Being of beings never arrives, is never made present to the subject. Semiology, which was always something of a fallen science, since it represents that which is not present, thus comes in Derrida to have a deeply “ontological” meaning, since signification is the “différance of temporization” (M, 9). That is to say, any “meaning” would be given over to this deferral and differentiation, which is precisely what is meant, simply, when we say that any “meaning” is contextual, historical, and thus never fully arrives in the presence of the present. Derrida writes:
[T]hereby one puts into question the authority of presence, or of its simple symmetrical opposite, absence or lack. Thus one questions the limit which has always constrained us, which still constrains us—as inhabitants of a language and a system of thought—to formulate the meaning of Being in as presence or absence, in the categories of being or beingness (ousia). Already it appears that the type of question to which we are redirected is, let us say, of the Heideggerian type, and that différance seems to lead back to the ontico-ontological difference. I will be permitted to hold off on this reference. I can no longer be conceived within the horizon of the present, and what Heidegger says in Being and Time about temporalization as the transcendental horizon of the question of Being, which must be liberated from its traditional, metaphysical domination by the present and the now. (10)
What we get, then, is a recitation, by Derrida, of previous figures who have attempted to displace the metaphysics of the presence, whether Nietzsche, whose critique of philosophy was that it was “an active indifference to difference, as the system of adiaphoristic reduction or repression,” and always thought force as differential (there is only force in a differential field of forces and counter-forces) (17); Freud, whose notion of the unconscious points the way to that productive element of each of us that precisely that cannot be made present (even if Freud himself seems to think the symptoms as a sign in the classical sense of referring beyond itself, and thus Lacan’s whole career will be to think the relation of the unconscious and language differently); Levinas, who thought of the trace points us to a past that has never been present and towards that which can never be presented as such, namely the alterity of the Other; and of course, Heidegger, whose thinking of the meaning of Being as temporalization was meant precisely to defer any presentable onto-theological meaning (Being as ultimately God, as ousia, as this or that representation based on a thinking of time in the “vulgar sense” as a series of nows). Democracy, if you recall, was precisely to be thought in terms of its differantial “nature,” that it is always differing and defering itself any final meaning, and thus its heritage is always to come, is not yet, even if it will never be presented or representable, without destroying its promise in terms of this openness. Death, too, is always differing and deferred; it is never in the present, not because of the Stoic dictum that if it is here, then we are not, which sticks to the logic of presence/absence, but because it is not some x to be present, to be given a meaning. This is what the death penalty seeks to do: to master not just death, but to master time down to the now, to the instant of death itself. It is why all manner of techniques (legal, medical, the ticking of the clock, etc.) are to be used to save the condemned until that last moment; the condemned is to be kept alive—whatever it takes—until that moment.
How then to think différance given that as always differing and deferring, “the trace is never as it is in the presentation of itself” (23). This means solliciting (used in the archaic sense of making tremble, shaking) a whole epoch of thinking of thought as making present, as representation, and therefore as based on a model of time the very “thinking” of différance puts into question. (And as Derrida notes, this is not merely a metaphysical question, since “metaphysics normalizes Western discourse, and not only in the texts of the ‘history of philosophy.’” ). Let me quote him at length as he pays his dues, so to speak, to those whose work were the historical conditions of possibility for this “trembling” (sollicitare) of the tradition:
The structure of delay (Nachträglichkeit) in effect forbids that one make of temporalization (temporization) a simple dialectical complication of the living present as an originary and unceasing synthesis—a synthesis constantly directed back on itself, gathered in on itself and gathering—of retentional traces and protentional openings. The alterity of the “unconscious” makes us concerned not with horizons of modified—past or future—presents, but with a “past” that has never been present, and which never will be, whose future to come will never be a production or a reproduction in the form of presence. Therefore the concept of trace is incompatible with the concept of retention, of the becoming past of what has been present. One cannot think the trace—and therefore, différance—on the basis of the present, or of the presence of the present. A past that has never been present: this formula is the one that Emmanuel Levinas uses, although certainly in a nonpsychoanalytic way, to qualify the trace and enigma of absolute alterity: the Other. Within these limits, and from this point of view at least, the thought of differance implies the entire critique of classical ontology undertaken by Levinas. And the concept of the trace, like that of différance thereby organizes, along the lines of these different traces and differences of traces, in Nietzsche’s sense, in Freud’s sense, in Levinas’s sense— these “names of authors” here being only indices-the network which reassembles and traverses our “era” as the delimitation of the ontology of presence. Which is to say the ontology of beings and beingness. It is the domination of beings that différance everywhere comes to solicit, in the sense that sollicitare, in old Latin, means to shake as a whole, to make tremble in entirety. Therefore, it is the determination of Being as presence or as beingness that is interrogated by the thought of différance. Such a question could not emerge and be understood unless the difference between Being and beings were somewhere to be broached. First consequence: différance is not. It is not a present being, however excellent, unique, principal, or transcendent. It governs nothing, reigns over nothing…. Which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom. [Here we can read his whole later critique of sovereignty.] And it is always in the name of a kingdom that one may reproach difference with wishing to reign, believing that one sees it aggrandize itself with a capital letter. Can difference, for these reasons, settle down into the division of the ontico-ontological difference, such as it is thought, such as its “epoch” in particular is thought, “through,” if it may still be expressed such, Heidegger’s uncircumventable meditation? There is no simple answer to such a question. (21-2)
We have seen why this is not so simple, since he will critique Heidegger for ultimately asking after the singular meaning of Being, or thinking access to the meaning of the animal, death, and so on “as such,” since that would always be differed and deferred, which of course what Heidegger begins to undertake in rethinking essence or Wesen as an historical swaying. This brings us to the deconstructive upshot that the structure that we call “Western metaphysics” itself can also be differed and deferred as to its meaning. Indeed, if we are to think a beyond of “philosophy” and “metaphysics,” it is only from out of that tradition that one can do so. What Derrida sets out in “Différance,” then is the following:
- There is no single meaning beneath metaphysics, which would presume that one can arrest its meaning and its reception: we would always already know what is to be found in its texts, as if it could be presented to us. This was precisely what was at stake in “Ousia and Grammê” last week.
- Writing is exemplary of différance given that one can see in its sketching precisely the becoming space of time and the becoming time of space. But because beingness has always been thought of in the mode of the present, we cannot, in the traditional way, given an ontology of différance, which precisely as thought in terms of semiological difference (the nullity that each word is without any other) and the nullity that is the ekstatico projection that is ontological difference in Heidegger, is not (yet).
- Because there is no lost origin, as in Heidegger seems to think in his readings of the Greeks, philosophy is not, pace Heidegger’s claim in the ‘29-30 course a form of “nostalgia,” since there is never a lost home or ground to begin with.
- Deconstruction as an attunement to the mouvance of différance is affirmative in the Nietzschean sense: it affirms the play of meaning within any given structure, and thus gives it over to a future worthy of name. Let me pull two quotations. One from the last lines of “Différance” and the other from the last lines of “SSP” (thought I would get to it, huh?):
From the vantage of this laughter and this dance, from the vantage of this affirmation foreign to all dialectics, the other side of nostalgia, what I will call Heideggerian hope, comes into question. I am not unaware how shocking this word might seem here. [He then quotes Heidegger on seeking to Being and finding the unique or right word for it, a task he deems not impossible since “since Being speaks always and everywhere throughout language”—that is, it is the house of Being (das Haus des Seins], which is both near and far from everything undertaken in “Différance” (comment)] Such is the question: the alliance of speech and Being in the unique word, in the finally proper name. And such is the question inscribed in the simulated affirmation of différance [simulated because not truly affirmed in seeking Being’s final and proper name]. It bears (on) each member of this sentence: “Being/ speaks/ always and everywhere / throughout / language.” (M, 27)
Now from “SSP”:
There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no structure, sign and play longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology—in other words, throughout his entire history—has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play. … For my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question of choosing—in the first place because here we are in a region (let us say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the différance of this irreducible difference. Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (WD, 292-3)
- There is hence a relation between différance and the future beyond the present, the future unforeseen, that would be like a birth and thus, outside the structures that have structured us, would appear to us mute, and certainly, from all of our categories, monstrous.
- Ever Seiendes, every being, then is a trace or sign of Being and beings in their dissimulation through difference and deferral.
What then to make of this thinking of time, which could not be presented or represented? The trace is from a past that cannot be made present and defers us to a future worthy of the name that, too, can’t be presented, precisely since it is to come, to arrive, and is inalterable in its alterity. Such a thinking of time would be as evental, as “always” (if this term has any meaning anymore given what is to come in this sentence) open to its finitude: time can always be otherwise. Especially since “time” as a signifier would attempt to signify, to present to itself, a meaning of time not given over to it, always in the present of the now, eternally. Speaking in terms of a Western language that has always wanted to master time from the eternal, to render it always the same, “time’ then has a meaning that is on its own terms, so to speak, a differing, deferring relation, even as we can’t help but borrow the tools of a tradition that would have defined it in terms of sameness and identity (the repetition of nows). It is past time we think time differently, not least since it gives us over to a thinking of a hope in the games of chance hidden in the structures of our thinking, of another tomorrow.