What difference does it make, if I write it with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘e’? Is it, like Derrida suggested, just “a kind of gross spelling mistake”, an inaudible misplacement of some negligible letter? At least this is what the automatic spell checker of my word processing programme thinks of it. The software promptly corrects me and – being programmed to obey the orthographic rules – instantly exchanges my supposedly wrong spelling of differance 1 with the correct version of difference.
Again and Again
One can always act as if it made no difference. And my spell checker certainly does. No sooner have I written differance than it disappears, its place having been taken by difference. I have to write over and over again, insisting on my differ()nce, if I am to make one. The irony of a programme being designed to process words, is that it recognizes a different word not without removing it straightaway.
Being between Presence and Absence
Back then in 1968, when French philosopher Jacques Derrida first hit the pun and let himself be inspired by an innovative spelling to establish deconstruction as a new way of doing philosophy, there was no automatic spell checker. But what did exist – and still does so – were the checkers of a metaphysical tradition that ever since Plato construed being as presence.
And it is this notion of being in terms of presence, founding the Western understanding of society, history, culture and politics that Derrida’s différance is implying to deconstruct. Différance has since become a popular coinage that was highly able to disturb the peace of the philosophical community, as one can tell from the “Open letter against Derrida receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University”.2
As if it makes no difference
One can always act as if it made no difference. For the literal permutation is inaudible: nobody hears the differ*nce (between difference and differance). Not only is it impossible to capture this differ()nce by the spoken word, but – even worse for a phonocentric logic – the double sense of differ and defer, as implied by the French différer, cannot become manifest in speech. Instead, differance calls for recourse to writing, or as Derrida puts it: “différance is in writing”. Thus, we have to look closely to see the differ()nce and learn to look at the same from another perspective to discover it’s not, the same.
I am far away…
An inherent feature of written communication lies in the absence of the original author. By the time you read this text, I am far away. The text thus, in a sense, stops to be my text and becomes yours. It opens itself up to a movement of self-dissociation in time and space, which is to say that it becomes a different text with each new reader. For Plato, this differentiating force of written communication posed a threat to the eternal identity of the ideas, and to the speaking subject’s full control over their meaning and significance.
Leading the Philosopher Astray
Compared to verbal communication, written words imply a certain detour and harbour the danger of leading the philosopher astray through misunderstandings. Plato, in his Phaedo, thus condemned the demonic force of written communication and thought to make a clear distinction between the spoken and the written word. Against this, Derrida indicates that différance is always already at play when we communicate and that the possibility to misunderstand at the same time is the necessary condition to understand at all.
Rethinking the Traditional Relations between Speech and Writing
Look at language as a generative structure at work everywhere there is a relation to something else. From the DNA code to the phenomena of mimicry, communication can be seen as a moving structure, or a structured movement, of differences. The meaning of something, then, is given only in a context in which the different elements at play relate to each other in a certain way. Since the context has to be actualized again and again, the resulting meaning always differs from another and is always in deferral.
A Different Identity
The living cell interacts with the conditions in its surrounding. Likewise with words: there is no single word that functions self-sufficiently. When I say “this old man” – you are referred to and silently reminded of a “young woman”; when I say “here” – it implies “there”. Every presence refers to and is marked by an absence. Everything requires and includes its opposite. Everything owes its identity to differance.
Traces of the Unsaid
A perpetual play of differences constitutes communication by leaving it open. With both the senses of differ and defer at play in différance, Derrida points to the irreducibility of a movement both of spacing and temporalization within language, thereby emphasizing the fundamental openness of language. As long as we speak, the meaning of what is spoken changes permanently. Meaning is fundamentally preliminary, open, postponed and never fully present. Being subject to the traces of all that is left unsaid – from where it comes and to where it silently returns – it keeps our desire to communicate and understand each other alive.
Differance and Life
One can always act as if it made no difference. But Derrida’s endeavour to discharge the history of metaphysics is inscribed in the cultural memory of global philosophy and has certainly changed the way we approach texts and encounter life. His différance, if it is to be understood as “the very opening of the space”, calls us to disturb the all too perfect silence of those seemly stable notions we ascribe to the world and us. The productive and constantly operative force of the differences we encounter, invites us to intensify its endless play of creative displacement. Until then perhaps we discover différance as the differing and deferral of life itself.
1 The notion of “différance” goes back to Jacques Derrida’s lecture of January 1968 in front of the Société française de philosophie. Later on he published his ideas in “La différance” (Marges de la philosophie. Paris: Minuit 1972).
2 Published in: The Times, London, May 9, 1992.