Derrida’s Deconstruction of the Sign

(An earlier version of this was posted in (mass)think! in 2008.)


In “Différance” (1968), perhaps the most systematic articulation of something—“literally neither a word nor a concept”—he “has been able to utilize” in previous works, Jacques Derrida begins by highlighting the letter a and attempting to explain the neologism, intended “less [as] a justification […] than an insistent intensification of its play” (3). Derrida argues that what he calls a “neographism” is “a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing” (3), disrupting it. By thus coining différance to highlight the lapse in writing, language, and the order of signs in general, Derrida performs one of the most significant critiques of the structuralist theory of language developed by Saussure, inaugurating the poststructuralist practice known subsequently as deconstruction.

Derrida’s performance takes place in the context of the tradition (of linguistics, of philosophy, of thought) he aims to critique. The Western tradition, as Derrida has argued in previous works, is characterized by a set of hierarchical binary oppositions. Two elements (terms/concepts/things) are distinguished and then one is elevated as primary while the other is relegated as derivative or supplementary. In the philosophy of language, this takes the form of the privileging of speech over writing. In Plato (as in the Phaedrus, read by Derrida in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” interpreted by Christopher Norris in Derrida), for example, writing is considered a “mere inscription” consisting of “alien, arbitrary, lifeless signs” (Norris 30). These written signs serve as “mere substitutes” for speech, which, in contrast, expresses immediately, without contamination, and actively the truth (30). Speech, according to this tradition, is close(r) to the source, the origin. This proximity gives it the character of an “authentic living presence” (33). The Socratic dialogue exemplifies this: the vocal exchange between two speakers—thanks to the powers of reasoning of one (i.e. Socrates)—leads to the truth. In contrast, in writing, “the logos is deflected from its proper, truth-seeking aim and abandoned to a state of hazardous dependence on the vagaries of unauthorized transmission” (33). Such hierarchical logic, Derrida points out, is operative not only in Plato but in the whole Western tradition. This is made evident by binaries such as speech/writing, presence/absence, immediacy/delay, origin/supplement, correspondence/arbitrariness, truth/untruth, reason/unreason …

This order is precisely what Derrida is trying to subvert in the coinage of différance. As a preliminary formulation, it can be said that the choice of différance—with an a instead of an e—is a performance, even a stunt, by Derrida to reinforce his point. In French, the nasal sounds en and an sound exactly the same. Thus in uttering them (as Derrida explains comically on page 4), one cannot tell whether one is saying différence or différance. Thus, with a word like différe/ance, the word’s meaning can only be gleaned, apprehended, and understood by looking at the graphic inscription, i.e. by looking at writing. As Derrida says, the “marked difference between two apparently vocal notations, [… the difference in which their meaning consist,] remains purely graphic: it is read, or it is written, but it cannot be heard” (3). The same motivation underlies Derrida’s choice of neographism instead of neologism, logos being associated with reason and speech, graph with the written sign. In other words, différe/ance is one of those revelatory instances in which the order where speech supposedly expresses or manifests instantly and immediately—without delay, without confusion, without detachment (no remove)—self-present meaning or truth (as discerned by reason) is disrupted. What more, it is writing—supposedly but derivative—that performs the function that speech can’t. What was thus thought to be secondary—supposedly alien, lifeless, late; mere inscription, mere substitute, but supplementary—is revealed to have the primary function in the system, on which it turns.

Derrida goes further. He asserts that “a written text [… always and already] keeps watch over my discourse [including spoken discourse]” (4). “We will be able neither to do without the passage through a written text [i.e. we need to pass through writing], nor to avoid the order of the disorder produced within it” (4). That is to say, contrary to the suggestion that speech precedes writing, Derrida claims that speech, in fact, is immersed in an economy of writing. As Norris explains, “speech […] is already inscribed in a differential system which must always be in place before communication begins. And this system is very much like writing, in the sense that written signs have traditionally been thought of as marks of difference, supplementarity or non-self-present meaning” (92). Derrida is hinting here at Saussure’s theory of signs, in particular at Saussure’s assertion that individual units derive their meaning by virtue of their difference from other units, an assertion that has gained Saussure’s theory the appellation “differential.” Derrida, however, refers to this differential system not as language or semiotics, but as writing, based on the tradition’s own derogatory descriptions of this supposed derivative of speech. In the process, Derrida blurs the distinction between the two terms: speech/writing. More importantly, the hierarchy between them is overturned, as writing turns out to be the unexplored yet key term in the opposition (hence Derrida’s call to substitute grammatology for Saussurean semiotics, which is yet different from Deleuze and Guattari’s pragmatics.) After all, as Norris explains, “if language is always and everywhere a system of differential signs, […] then the classical definition of writing would apply to every form of language whatsoever [including speech]. ‘From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs” (85).

Derrida’s use of différance has been described as a performance, even a stunt. This is not to say that the operation Derrida uncovers is somehow unique to the word différance. Derrida asserts that what is at work in différance is at work in signs in general, that, in other words, différance is at work in language all the time, perhaps as a “natural” operation, or the way in which it works. This is illustrated by différance itself, a “new” term that, as Derrida points out, is in fact barely a neologism. The a of différance simply comes from the present participle of the French verb différer, différant (8). In English, this is tantamount to saying, instead of difference, differing (as in the differing of opinions, the –ing form of the verb functioning as a noun, a gerund). Différance, the word, is thus not a radically new term invented from nowhere but is, like différance itself (the mechanism Derrida uncovers), an essential part of how language works, which has been at work in the tradition—albeit hidden, buried—all this time. Take, for example, the assertion, long held in the tradition, that language (especially Western languages) is a phonetic system, i.e. a linguistic system premised on the correspondence between symbols and sounds. With regards to this, Derrida boldly claims that “there is no phonetic writing” (5). “There is,” Derrida argues, “no purely and rigorously phonetic writing. So-called phonetic writing, by all rights and in principle, and not only due to an empirical or technical insufficiency, can function only by admitting into its system nonphonetic ‘signs’ (punctuation, spacing, etc.). And an examination of the structure and necessity of these nonphonetic signs quickly reveals that they can barely tolerate the concept of the [phonetic] sign itself” (5). As with writing and speech, what was supposedly secondary, the nonphonetic, turns out to underlie what was held as primary, the phonetic. In fact, even Saussure’s play of difference between signs in which their meaning consist “is in itself a silent play,” i.e. is nonphonetic, not unlike the graphic difference between the letters (5).

In highlighting différance, Derrida’s goal is not merely to invert the hierarchy, say by putting writing over speech, and undermine the primacy of the privileged elements, e.g. truth and reason. Derrida’s target is not any particular element, but the order of binary oppositions itself. Thus after he undermines speech, spoken language, and phonetic writing, Derrida notes that “graphic difference itself [as discerned in the written text] vanishes into the night [literally, since without light, it cannot be seen], can never be sensed as a full term” (5). Derrida points out the way in which “the difference marked in the ‘differ( )nce’ between the e and the a eludes both vision and hearing” (5). Rather than asserting a différance that writing somehow has privileged access to, Derrida points toward “a différance which belongs neither to the voice nor to writing in the usual sense, [… but] between speech and writing, and beyond the tranquil familiarity which links us to one and the other, occasionally reassuring us in our illusion that they are two” (5).

This is the move that would be characteristic of Derridean deconstruction. Explaining the term, Norris (following Derrida, repudiating some of the latter’s most vehement Anglo-American disciples) clarifies that deconstruction is not primarily a matter of structures or laws (14). It is not “a ‘method,’ a ‘technique’ or a species of ‘critique’” (18). It is rather what can be called a move, an act that has some of the characteristics of the terms previously mentioned but is nonetheless separate—différant—from them. More specifically, deconstruction “consist[s] in […] the dismantling of conceptual oppositions, the taking apart of hierarchical systems of thought which can then be reinscribed within a different order of textual signification” (19). Norris elaborates:

Deconstruction is the vigilant seeking-out of those ‘aporias,’ blindspots or moments of self-contradiction where a text [or a discourse] voluntarily betrays the tension between rhetoric and logic, between what it manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean. To ‘deconstruct’ a piece of writing [or a discourse, such as the dominant discourse of the Western tradition] is therefore to operate a kind of strategic reversal, seizing on precisely those unregarded details (casual metaphors, footnotes, incidental turns of argument) [or the non-phonetic elements in so-called phonetic writing] which are always, and necessarily, passed over by interpreters of a more orthodox persuasion. For it is here, in the margins of the text—the ‘margins,’ that is, as defined by a powerful normative consensus—that deconstruction discovers those same unsettling forces at work. (19)

Going hand in hand with this attention paid to the margins of discourse is Derrida’s notion of the supplement. It will be recalled that according to the tradition, speech manifests as close as possible the self-presence of truth (or of a thing, of “reality”), only after which, perhaps as an addition, writing comes. Since speech—even though the closest, most direct medium to it—is itself a symbol, a supplement to the (unmediated) self-presence of truth, writing is really but the “supplement of supplement [i.e. of speech], sign of sign”—twice removed from presence, reason, truth: the supplement par excellence (65). Derrida counters that, in fact, the word supplement means both something that “may or may not be added as required” and something that “is required to complete or fill up some existing lack” (66). As Derrida demonstrates in the role of non-phonetic elements in so-called phonetic writing, the role of the written symbol in différance, what is considered supplementary turns out to be necessary. This, according to Derrida, is the logic of supplementarity that carries out “this strange reversal of values whereby an apparently derivative or secondary term takes on the crucial role in determining an entire structure of assumptions” (67). In contrast, then, to the traditional assumption that the system of signs is definitively determined by phonetics and speech—supposedly primary, self-sufficient, and not needing supplementation—Derrida points out how the supplement, e.g. marginal features such as non-phonetic elements—including the supplement par excellence, i.e. writing itself—is actually what is key to the system functioning and producing meaning.

Borrowing Heidegger’s move in his later works when he crosses out (puts an X over) the word being to call attention to the nothing at the center of being, Derrida elaborates on the supplementary way in which différance works by elaborating on what it makes possible (the “meaning” supposedly possessed by the primary) through its effacement, i.e. through it being a supplement. Derrida writes:

Différance is [with the is crossed out] what makes possible the presentation of being-present, it is never presented as such. […] It exceeds the order of truth at a certain precise point, but without dissimulating itself as something, as a mysterious being, in the occult of a nonknowledge or in a hole with indeterminable borders. […] Différance is not, does not exist, is not a present-being in any form; [… it is different from] everything [i.e. from every substantial thing]; and consequently […] it has neither existence nor essence. It derives from no category of being, whether present or absent. (6)

Différance is not a thing, is different from everything, has no essence or existence, and yet is what “makes possible the presentation of being-present,” what makes possible for things to be present, what makes possible presencing itself—these assertions make sense in the context of the Derrida’s attempt to draw from Saussure’s differential theory of language (hence the term différance) and Heidegger’s phenomenology (translated as the logic of supplementarity) in order to deconstruct the tradition. Différance has no essence because, as Saussure claims, the connections made in the system are completely arbitrary and there is no standard determining how the elements differ from each other. Différance has no existence because, as Saussure claims, rather than the elements themselves, what différance “refers” to are the differences between those elements. Yet, akin to what Heidegger calls being that makes possible the appearance/perception of particular beings but which itself does not appear, différance is that which makes possible for particular elements to be distinguished.

All this relies on the first meaning or dimension of différance, in which it functions as the noun form of the verb différer (in French) which means (in English) to differ, “to be not identical, to be other, discernible, etc.” (8). Derrida employs this sense of différance to call attention to “an interval, a distance, spacing, […] produced between the elements other, and […] produced with a certain perseverance in repetition” (8). Différance, thus, as spacing: differing. Differing that makes it possible for the elements to have any identity and produce meaning. Différance (in a Heideggerian move) not as a thing but as that which makes possible the presencing of things, the producing of meanings, the opening up of infinite possibilities. Différance not as a system but as the lack that sets a system in motion. Thus, in translating Heidegger’s being and inscribing Saussure’s notion of difference into différance, Derrida develops a deconstructive theory of signs, deconstructing the theory of language implicit in the Western tradition.

There is, however, yet another meaning or dimension to différance, through which Derrida goes beyond Saussure, in particular the latter’s structuralism, perhaps through Heidegger’s emphasis on temporality. Playing with the French verb différer (from the Latin differre), which means both to differ (in the above sense) and to defer, Derrida invokes in différance a second meaning. Here the choice of différance (with an a) proves fortuitous because (as Derrida says on footnote 9 on p. 8) the regular French word différence (with an e) is not the noun form of the verb to defer. In addition, it also does not capture the “sense of active polemical difference, actively differing with someone or something” (8). By coining a quasi-neologism, then, Derrida is able to economically invoke in one term—différance—both senses of the French verb différer: to differ and to defer. And what does the second sense of différer—to defer—mean? Derrida describes it as:

The action of putting off until later, of taking into account, of taking account of time and of the forces of an operation that implies an economical calculation, a detour, a delay, a relay, a reserve, a representation. […] Différer in this sense is to temporize, to take recourse, consciously or unconsciously, in the temporal and temporizing mediation of a detour that suspends that accomplishment or fulfillment of “desire” or “will” effect. (8)

To defer, then, literally means to delay, to put off, to not come until later, to be delayed—the second meaning of différance through which Derrida critiques and extends the structural linguistics of Saussure. It will be recalled that, in talking about difference, Saussure’s primary concern is with the difference between elements in a system (e.g. language) that then allows these elements to have meaning and some identity. Difference for Saussure is thus a matter of relation, i.e. it has to do with the relations between elements in a closed, synchronic system. This system may change over time, but these changes come very slowly and do not change the notion of difference itself. In fact, in Saussure, difference in a new system would pertain to how elements in that new system differ from each other, and not with how elements in the new system differ from those of the old. Difference in Saussure thus has a static, synchronic character, like the system itself in which it is inscribed.

For Derrida, on the other hand, difference—différance—implies in it and takes into account (through deferral) difference through time even while remaining in the same system (of language), within the same structure and laws. Just like synchronic difference, according to Derrida, deferral—delay, postponement, absence of immediate meaning—is a primary operation of language. That is to say, meaning is—and not only by accident, not artificially—necessarily and always already deferred, absent in the present. Difference thus gains (in addition to space) a time element. Différance as temporization.

Unlike Saussure, Derrida highlights the importance of this second meaning of différance—already in it, as indicated by différer having two meanings, even though the second one has been buried—to complete the critique of the tradition. That is, in addition to spatial difference, the notion of deferral enables Derrida to finish the move by which he deconstructs presence/absence, origin/supplement, thing/sign. Once again, this makes sense in the context of the tradition. As Derrida explains, in the tradition:

The sign is […] said to be put in the place of the thing itself, the present thing, ‘thing’ here standing equally for meaning [i.e. signified] or referent. The sign represents the present in its absence. […] The sign [… as] deferred presence [… deferring] the moment in which we can encounter the thing itself, [whatever we want to do with it. …] Signification [in other words] as the différance of temporization … in a] structure [that] presupposes that the sign, which defers presence, is conceivable only on the basis of the presence that it defers and moving toward the deferred presence that it aims to reappropriate. [… In this] classical semiology, [then,] the substitution of the sign for the thing itself is both secondary and provisional: secondary due to an original and lost presence from which the sign thus derives; provisional as concerns this final and missing presence toward which the sign in this sense is a movement of mediation. (9)

Describing how the traditional conception privileges presence over absence, origin over supplement, the “thing” over its signification/representation, Derrida stresses how these hierarchical binary oppositions rely on the assumption of some foundational origin as the basis of all signifying acts. It is this origin that Derrida—with the second meaning of différance—now sets out to deconstruct. Derrida performs this by way of a two-step move. First, he draws on Saussure to make use of spatial difference: differing. Derrida explains:

Language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. […] Every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, [i.e. to what is different from it,] by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, différance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and system in general. (11)

Thus, via Saussure, Derrida is able to assert that the (spatial) différance of signs, rather than secondary and provisional, is in fact the source of conceptuality itself, the very possibility of (the) presencing (of something with an identity, a meaning). Différance is thus originary. “Originary” différance. Derrida describes différance as “originary” with the caveat, however, that différance is not something that exists before the differences themselves but is rather the play of differences and its effects themselves (11). That is to say, différance—which deconstructs origins—is itself not an originary concept that can be grasped, but is simply the opening up of an open-ended history whereby the play and operation by which (some) meaning emerges takes place. As Derrida writes, “[the] differences have been produced, are produced effects, but they are effects which do not find their cause in a subject or a substance, in a thing in general, a being that is somewhere present, thereby eluding the play of différance” (11). Thus, “there is no presence before and outside semiological difference” (12). In other words, “différance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences” (11). Since différance is the activity itself (including its effects), “the name ‘origin’ [thus] no longer suits it” (11).

Key to this second part of the move is the second meaning of différance that pertains to “the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted ‘historically’ as a weave of differences” (which thus makes “différance […] no more static than it is genetic, no more structural than historical”) (12). In this way, Derrida is able to invoke (in his deconstruction of origins and presence) elements of time other than the present (i.e. the past and the future) and examine the connection between them through the second meaning of différance, i.e. through the operation of deferral. Derrida explains:

Signification is possible only if each so-called “present” element […] 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, this trace being related no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and constituting what is called the present by means of this very relation to what it is not: what it is absolutely not, not even a past or a future as a modified present. An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself. (13) (my emphasis)

Presence and origin are thus, by virtue of what Derrida does to them, now terms unable to stand by themselves, on their own, as primary entities. The present, thought to be a self-sufficient entity, is shown to be really but the meeting place of different “times” as it contains traces of pasts that have gone by and futures that are to come, i.e. of pasts and futures that are absent—i.e. of what is not present—in which consists its meaning. Time, like space, thus becomes a place of haunting. Time, like space, becomes undecidable. In the process, the assumption of foundational origin on which rests all the other hierarchical binary oppositions nurtured by the tradition is itself deconstructed. Deconstructed by the interval that separates an element from what it is different from—the same interval that Derrida calls spacing, which, in this instance (time being what is considered) can just as well also be called temporization.

In this move, then, that enables Derrida to complete the process of deconstruction, Derrida is able to link both notions of spacing and temporization—synchronic difference and deferral in time—to each other, an interval that he describes as “the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space” (13). This interval (in both space and time) that makes possible all this is what Derrida calls “archi-writing, archi-trace, or [quite simply,] différance” (13).


Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 1-27.

Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

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