This is a synopsis for my students in ENGL 4F70 of a piece of writing by Jacques Derrida. I apologize for any misrepresentations. -- Professor John Lye

Derrida's piece entitled Différance is, like the rest of Derrida, difficult going: it is subtle, intricate, informed deeply with the philosophical traditions in which Derrida is writing. I would like to just go to a few places in the essay and look at some passages to try to get some of the basic ideas.

You will notice that the essay is about its name, différance: that it uses an alteration in spelling but not in pronunciation to mark a difference which is a difference of writing and of meaning. Différance is that which all signs have, what constitutes them as signs, as signs are not that to which they refer: i) they differ, and hence open a space from that which they represent, and ii) they defer, and hence open up a temporal chain, or, participate in temporality. As well, following de Sassure's famous argument, signs 'mean' by differing from other signs. The coined word "différance" refers to at once the differing and the deferring of signs. Taken to the ontological level, the differing and deferring of signs from what they mean, means that every sign repeats the creation of space and time; and ultimately, that différance is the ultimate phenomenon in the universe, an operation that is not an operation, both active and passive, that which enables and results from Being itself.

At the heart then of existence is différance, not essence.

Things only can be by virtue of differing. Without differing, no time and space; if time and space are constituted through differing/deferring as constitutive of them, there are no absolute identities nothing 'is itself' by virtue of its being, is simple and absolute identity with itself. Any ultimate, transhistorical truth is only a truth by virtue of difference; so that no ultimate 'truth' can be, and be itself, nor can it be outside of time and space, and hence beyond contingency. Any 'truth' exists, then, only continently, and relationally, through différance. Before essence comes existence, the conditionality of space and time: existentialism.

Signs only mean by difference

Meaning includes spatial and temporal aspects; meaning is never itself in the same place as itself but is always just along the line, as meaning is by virtue of that from which it differs. The reality of what meaning is then opens up to radical question all claims for stability of identity or truth; at the same time, it extends the range of meaning and being, making the world into a network of meanings, as he writes:

The first consequence to be drawn [from Saussure and the arbitrariness of the sign and the constitution of meaning by différance] is that the signified concept is neve r present in and of itself, in a sufficient presence that would refer only to itself. Essentially (that is, of its being) and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means o f the systematic play of differences.
Play, or articulation

The word 'play' is important: it means something very similar to what the word "articulation" means, a word I have been using from the beginning of the course. Something is articulated if it is jointed: that is what the word means, etymologically and in some of its current uses. Something that is jointed is attached to something, but in such a way that it has a freedom of movement and so can open up the possibility of manipulation, of working with and in the world. An inarticulate cry is one which is not jointed. Speech as we know it is articulated, that is, jointed, on the level of phonemes, on the level of reference or signification, and on the level of concepts. Only play, or articulation, opens up time and space.

Différance creates as well the idea of the trace

Derrida writes that
It is because of différance that the movement of signification is possible only if each so-called present element, each element appearing on the scene of presence, is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element....
In terms of signs, the trace is that which is constituted in the sign by virtue of the fact that the sign is not other things but itself: if a word means, it means by differing, and what it differs from becomes an inevitable, absent part of its presence.

Exclusions, repressions, oppositions

Taken to various applications, the fact of différance is why exclusions and repressions are so important to the operation of deconstruction: because that which is, or means, is constituted by virtue of the repressions and exclusions of différance, and so 'means'or mutely invokes these repressions and exclusion, and is constructed by virtue of them. So, supplements, those things which are added on to explain something, are in fact more central than that which is supplemented, because they point to the contingency of the central part, a contingency upon the supplement; margins are not peripheral, but central; and so forth. Oppositions also become central, because they necessarily participate in each other, ther e is a fundamental sameness and each must bear the trace of the other:

Thus one could reconsider all of the pairs of opposites on which philosophy is constructed and on which our discourse lives, not in order to see opposition erase itself but to se e what indicates that each of the terms much appear as the différance of the other, as the other different and deferred in the economy of the same (etc...)
As Derrida further writes,
"It is the domination of beings that différance everywhere comes to solicit, in the sense that solicitare , in old Latin, means to shake as a whole, to make tremble in entirety."
While this is in reference to ontology, it is also applicable to the readings of text: there is a homology in Derrida between being and signific ation. A deconstructive reading is a solicitous reading, a reading which shakes things up by uncovering the otherness at the heart of the meaningfulness, the radical dependence of what is taken to be meaning on how that meaning is only meaning through tha t which it displaces, defers, excludes.

Différance makes being and meaning radically historical.

Derrida writes that we will designate as différance the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constitued historically as a weave of differences. T he point here is that history is built in, and is built is as a network of relations, that is differences, displacements, traces, derferrals.

Consciousness and self-presence:

Derrida works many other things in his essay , things which it would be more important to study in a philosophy class than in an English class. He puts into question, for instance, the concept of consciousness, which is based on the idea that we are present to ourselves: we are never exactly presen t, we cannot be, we are deferred and differing always, so our center is not really a centre, our self-presence is a fiction which disguises the play of opposition and displacement within which we live and move and have our beings (not, of course, Derrida s words). Before self-presence, instead of it, is the play of differences, the system of difference which is what he means when he says writing , or "Arche-writing and claims that writing comes before speech (speech is associated with self-presence). He shows that différance is what is at the heart of Freud's construction of human life, that for instance the pleasure principle and the reality principle are united and co-sustained through différance.

The Other

The central 20th century principle of The Other is also inscribed through difference. The Other is central to phenomenological, existential, Lacanian and deconstructive thought: we cannot exist without t he Other, that existence which is not us but through which we are constituted.


We must use words and concepts which are necessarily open to question, such as self : so when we use them, we should put them under erasure, use them and the at the same time be aware that they are open to question, that they can be deconstructed, and so incorporate that potential in our considerations by marking them as "under erasure. " All traces are of their nature under erasure. So is the concept of being or essence itself. When Derrida responds the the question, "What is literature?", the first thing he does is put into question the is : is literature an is ? that is, is it an entity? Is it an essence? At the heart of literture must be différance; it is not an is , it is a field of différance.

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