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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Saussure’s Theory of the Sign

(This expository post first came out in (mass)think! in 6/2007.)

Saussure Sign

In contrast to linguistics in his time, which made language secondary to some other object of inquiry, in the Course in General Linguistics (1916; published posthumously), Ferdinand de Saussure treats language itself as the object of study by “tak[ing] the study of linguistic structure as his primary concern” (16, 9). Linguistic structure, “only one part of language,” albeit essential, is, according to Saussure, both “a social product of our language faculty” and “a body of necessary conventions adopted by society to enable [its] members […] to use their language faculty” (9-10). It is “language minus speech, […] the whole set of linguistic habits which enables the speaker to understand and to make himself understood” (77). That is, linguistic structure refers to the rules of (a) language, minus its specific articulation (speech). A language, in turn, is a “well-defined entity, […] locali[zable],” i.e. “ha[ving] a particular place in the realm of human affairs,” “in that particular section of the speech circuit where sound patterns [signifiers] are associated with concepts [signifieds]” (14, 15). Language, in other words, comprises the whole system of signifiers and signifieds and the linguistic structure, the rules of their association.

Saussure asserts that it is “the social part of language, external to the individual, […] exist[ing] in virtue of a kind of contract agreed between the members of a community,” in which the individual needs apprenticeship (if she wants to be able to use it) (14, 15). This social part is a specific, hence homogeneous, compartment/region of language in general (or “the totality of facts of language”), which is heterogeneous (14). Linguistic signs are therefore “not abstractions. The associations, ratified by collective agreement, which go to make up the language are realities localized in the brain” (15). Moreover, they are “tangible,” fixable by writing in “conventional images” since “there is only the sound pattern, and this can be represented by one constant visual image” (15). A language, while not the same as language in general, is also not simply speech, which “is an individual act of the will and the intelligence,” i.e. the particular application of an individual’s apprenticeship, a particular articulation of language (14). In laying out all these components and relations, Saussure portrays language as a social institution.

Rather than a nomenclature (i.e. language as the naming of things/ideas), for Saussure, language is a sign system. Linguistics (Saussurian linguistics = semiotics) is thus but a part of the study of signs (their nature, the laws governing them) in general, semiology; inversely, semiology is the application of the techniques of semiotics to other cultural domains, treating them as a system of signs (15). A linguistic sign, Saussure claims, is a link between the signifier and the signified. The signifier refers to the sound pattern, “not actually a sound [… but] the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses” (66). That is, the signifier is the word, or, more precisely, the sound one hears, or the sound image that registers in one’s brain, when a word (such as tree) is uttered. The signified, on the other hand, refers to the concept or the idea linked to (not just conveyed by and not that which causes) the sound pattern, i.e. the idea of the tree one forms in his head. These two are yet different from the referent, i.e. the thing linked to the signifier and/or the signified, e.g. the “actual” tree one can see, touch … The signifier and the signified together make up the sign.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking assertion that Saussure makes has to do with the arbitrariness of the sign. Saussure claims that “the link between [signifier] and [signified] is arbitrary,” i.e. there is no internal connection between the two (67). This means, first, that there is no (natural) reason why a particular signifier is related to a particular signified. The signifier, in other words, is unmotivated (69). There is no reason, for example, why we call a tree (or, more precisely: why we refer to the idea of a tree) tree. “This is demonstrated by differences between languages, and even by the existence of different languages” (68). Secondly, this means that signifieds themselves are arbitrary. Certain things, or, more accurately, certain signifieds (e.g. colors, or the signifieds of fleuve/rivière in French, two different things, depending on the direction of the flow) exist in some languages, but not in others (in English, there is only the signified for river). In other words, there is no given universal set of ideas. The linguistic system itself creates the “meaning.”

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