For a student of modern literary theory, Jacques Derrida’s essay “differance”, given as an address before the “Societe francaise de Philosophie”, poses an immense challenge. Not only does Derrida not deal with a literary text, he does not even examine a critical essay of literature. Moreover, the utterance he chooses to explore, differance, is “neither a word nor a concept”(145a). In spite of Derrida’s protests, it seems that this essay is indeed a philosophical discourse whose subject matter is the concept of “differance” in the language: “in language there are only differences without positive terms”(147a).
Throughout the essay, Derrida is most careful neither to categorize nor to generalize; yet a summary of his ideas will do just that. Derrida has two theoretical sources: linguistic and philosophic. The linguistic basis is Saussure’s work and the philosophical foundations are mainly the theories of Hegel and Heidegger.
Derrida starts discussing differance by looking at its visual attributes; he examines its particular spelling (a) which sounds as if it was spelled with an e and thus this particular l spelling “remains purely graphic; it is read, or it is written, but it cannot be heard”(143). Since the difference between an e and an a is silent, “it cannot be exposed” because it is not “present”(144a.). Differance “does not exist, it is not a present being” and it “has neither existence nor essence”(145).
Although Derrida chooses differance because it is neither a word nor a concept, he still analyzes it semantically. Through inspecting its Greek and Latin roots, he derives support for his insistence on the importance of time and space in discussing differance (146). Finding these two significant elements enables Derrida to argue that the sign refers to the thing itself: “It takes the place of the present” (146a). Derrida goes further, and using Saussureian vocabulary states that: “When the present cannot be presented, we signify, we go through the detour of the sign. We take or give signs. We signal. The sign in this sense is deferred present”(146a).
Drawing on both the linguistic and philosophical traditions, Derrida views language as “ a code supporting a play of forms without a determined and invariable substance and also supposing in the practice of this play a retention and protention of differences, a spacing and a temporization, a play of traces-all this must be a kind of writing before the letter, an archi-writing without a present origin, without archi-. ”(149a).
In this essay, Derrida addresses additional qualities of differance, some related to the linguistic sources like the arbitrary nature of the sign and others pertaining to philosophical questions such as the question of the consciousness and “the essential nature of being” (147a, 150,155). This summary focuses only on some of the simpler yet fascinating points of the essay, since it seems that a full comprehension of Derrida’s train of thought and allusions will require years of studying. Unfortunately, it is too late for this reader to attempt this feat.
Derrida, Jacques.”Differance”. Margins of Philosophy.Trans.Alan Bass.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982