Derrida, Differance, and the Fundamental Unknowability of the Human Subject

To give an account of Derrida’s Differance is to do what many scholars consistently fail to achieve. Indeed, there is much about Differance that must be elucidated outside of an academic context as much of Derrida’s work defies the conventional academic register. However, to what extent Derrida’s playfulness is necessary to the larger point at hand.

What immediately becomes clear in reading this text is that Derrida is intent on being playful. He repeats phrases as incantations rather than explanations (“Differance is neither a word nor a concept”), he toys with words meanings, and often combines these two types of play — just mark all the time “present” and “presence” are used throughout the essay.

A key function of the non-word/non-concept Differance is that of temporalizing. Differance describes the process of signification where an object, idea, word, or concept is supplanted — putting it off into the distance, but a visible distance none the less. The movement involves the passage of time, the effaced “item” is reachable across a certain measurement of time. Differance also collapses notions of time and space, as the reach can be measured in both temporal and spatial terms. For conventional signification, that which is represented leads down a “rabbit-hole” where each item in the distance, when reached, leads to yet another item in the distance. This is the chain of reference Derrida describes. Differance, itself, functions differently however. It supplants nothing, and stands as itself, representing in a moment all of its possible meanings.

The process of “signification” for Differance (indeed, Differance is not a word or a concept so it does not signify as such) is fundamentally different than that of all other words. Differance does not engage the referential chain that Derrida elucidates as the functionary of signification more generally, wherein a signifier represents a signified through such a chain. Instead, Differance “is neither simply active nor simply passive … it speaks of an operation which is not an operation.”

Derrida is shackled by the lack of specificity offered by language in all his work. Much of his complexity is derived from the deliberate abandonment of notions of discrete meaning. “Differance” is an example of how Derrida deploys language, as “Differance can refer to the whole complex of its meanings at once, for it is immediately and irreducibly multivalent, something which will be important for the discourse I am trying to develop. It refers to this whole complex of meanings not only when it is supported by a language or interpretive context (like any signification), but it already does so somehow of itself.” To translate in brief, Differance represents each of its possible meanings at once regardless of context, unlike other language which is defined by its context. Differance is multivalent in such a way through a process, as stated, independent from signifying as such by existing outside of (because it is “older than”) the referential chain of signification. Differance is the model for how Derrida wishes language functioned. For language to function similarly to Differance, one need not deploy the same symbol for multiple distinction meanings or deploy a symbol with an incomplete or unclear meaning. Differance serves to bridge the gap between the fundamental unknowability of the human subject by another as a result of language’s lack of specificity or lack of demonstrative content.

Derrida asserts that, in the case of Differance, he is simply representing a concept that has appeared in the work of Saussure, Hegel, Heidigger, Nietzsche, and others. Differance exists outside of the problems of language precisely because of the age and necessity of the concept to facilitate language, presence, the present, Being, and beings. It’s a process that underpins metaphysical and ontological structures which produce language. Differance, however, is unrelated to presence and absence and defies such dichotomies in a way other language does not, thus explaining Derrida’s assertion that it is not a word or concept.

The trace which is Differance means that Differance as a process is constantly effaced and this essay is Derrida’s attempt at excavating that which is unnamable. Derrida’s deliberate carelessness (a non-paradox, Derrida is selective and precise in the ways he opts to be careless) in regard to language complicates the reader’s understanding of what exactly is being said. “Differance” is a unit on a page, but it isn’t a word. “Differance” cannot be named, and yet the unit on the page exists to represent something else. This representation is not signification as such, because the process is different and what is being represented is far more vast and outside of conventional systems of representation. Through the process of naming, a certain function is enacted and because Differance is outside of that function (the function that produces a referential chain) it cannot be named.

Still, Differance is not the transcendental signified which Derrida so loathes. When he uses a word like “origin” or speaks of the “age” of Differance, he is again being careless. He has collapsed temporality and spatiality yet again, and what would be more accurate would be say that Differance is behind or apart from processes of naming, representation, reference, and systems of language. Names are substitutions but Differance is that which needs no representation and simply is. A language model of such linguistic objects, perhaps, would enhance communication and depth of knowledge between human beings.


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