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).

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political economy

Enclosure, Reversal, Restoration

(An earlier version of this post came out in Common Rhetoric in 6/2014.)

In a collection of essays on the commons called Stop, Thief! (2014), historian Peter Linebaugh begins by citing an anonymous English poem. It goes:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common,

But lets the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

How is this quatrain potentially revolutionary, but also problematic? What does it point to? What is it doing? The poem performs the classic Marxist move of demystification, even though its composer may not have self-identified as Marxist. First, what is happening, at least apparently? “The man or woman […] steals the goose”—a criminal act justly punished by “the law” that “locks up” this man or woman. This is what it looks like. This is what is seen. As the chant goes on, however, something else takes place: a call for reversal that, as hinted at, is more just than the law owing to the fact that the relation was reversed to begin with; as such, only a subsequent reversal, the one invoked by the last two lines, would set things right.

It looked as though the unqualified “man or woman,” i.e. the common man or woman, was stealing goose from off the common, that this man or woman was taking what’s not his, what she has no right to, from “the common” protected by the law. But this is contradictory: How can the common be designated by the law? How can the common be guarded by the law? The common is prior to the law, and, in many ways, is the opposite of the law. In fact, this contradictory enclosure of the common by the law is the act of the “greater villain” or, more precisely, the greater and more villainous act that “steals the common from the goose,” an act sanctioned precisely because it is done by means of the law.

As it turns out, it is not the man or woman who steals, but the greater villain behind the law, through the law. It is not the common who steals the goose from off the common, but the law that steals the common from the goose. What looked like the primary theft of the goose turns out to be secondary to the primal theft of the common, rendering the subsequent theft just, the truly just act that is the only thing that can set right the original and greater theft. As the common is stolen from the goose, it looks as though the man or woman is stealing the goose from off the common when, in fact, the goose is merely recovering the goose (nothing to do with goods), putting herself back in the common, in which he belongs. At the same time, this process, the poem suggests, involves difficulty and incommensurability. Something is irreparably lost in the original theft that cannot be recovered, as the common has become goose, dupe, fool, which, it seems, is the subjectivity given to man or woman in the theft of the common, and which s/he has to take in taking back the common.

What the quatrain points to, then, is the enclosure of the commons, done legally but unjustly through the expropriation of the common and the containment and disempowerment of the commoner, what in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, as Linebaugh points out, takes the form of privatization and incarceration. The quatrain likewise directs attention to duplicity, that is, the doubleness that marks every rhetorical move, in this case criminal, namely: (1). the act itself (theft); and (2). the discourse (law) that, by imposing the perpetrator’s point of view (position, presuppositions, and frame) and reversing the original relation, justifies the act; in the law’s own terms, the crime and the cover-up. What does this imply? What solution to the injustice and its legitimation is proposed by the quatrain, if only indirectly? In positing the primal theft as a duplicitous move, the quatrain implies that dupes can only and must reverse enclosure to restore the commons.

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