"Differance" in Differance
(* Derrida, Jacques. La Différance. Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie 62, 3, September 1968. et Théorie d’ensemble, Éeditions du Seuil, 1968.
* Derrida, Jacques. Differance. In Speech and Phenomena, translated by David B. Allison, Northwestern Universitiy Press, 1973)
“Differance” would be situated somewhere in the middle: it would be situated somewhere between: differ and defer (the two senses of the French verb différer), the e and the a, active and passive, presence and absence. I will here attempt to discuss each of these in turn. Should I be able to give them sufficient treatment, we will have arrived at a reading of “differance” within Derrida’s Differance. I will, if you know the text already, be leaving “trace” and certain other substitutions to the side, as well as the reference to the historical figures which motivate differance (Saussure, Nietzsche, Freud, Levinas, Heidegger); this of course not without some degree of residual loss.
Differentiation and Deferral. Derrida invokes two senses of the French verb. There is the sense (corresponding in the English “to differ”) in which différer provides a differing: by what Derrida names a certain spacing, a separation of one identity from another, the imposition of an inequality. There is the sense (corresponding in the English “to defer”) in which différer provides a deferral: by what Derrida names a certain temporalizing, a delay or putting off of one, before, or after the other, this is also the imposition of an inequality. We have two inequalities: spatial and temporal: both are inherent in differance. This is the point from which differance would begin: it is suggested in the very word found in Derrida’s language, and in the Latin root, which is also the origin of the English verbs “differ” and “defer”: differre, which has two senses in Chambers Murray Latin-English: A. dispersal or dissemination, with ref. to time, to defer or to delay; B. to differ or be distinguished from.
Differance, then, suggests at once the spatial separation of differing and the temporal separation of deferring. Differance institutes a divide within identity.
The e and the a. In French, the words différence and differance are homophones, but certainly not synonyms. Their nonidentity is entirely graphic.
“This marked difference between two apparently vocalic notations, between vowels, remains purely graphic: it is written or read, but it is not heard” (132).
Differance, then, also names the divide between speech and writing that cannot always be heard, a difference that is always on the side of the written, but nevertheless infects the intelligibility of the spoken. Derrida, in describing the a, refers to his analysis of phonetic writing in Of Grammatology: similar to his strategy in that book, with differance he hopes to situate the text within the written, reversing the classic philosophical subordination of writing to speech (writing as a supplement to speech), which Derrida says, is the philosophical move par excellence: philosophy is the institution of phonocentrism. The essay entitled Differance, we must note, was first publicized or distributed (interestingly enough 'publication' is in entry 2b under “differo”, “differre” in Chambers Murray) in a lecture before the Société Français de Philosophie in January of 1968. That Derrida would take a public speaking occasion to discuss his introduction of a homophonical word is a demonstration of the silence of the a, within speech. The a’s thorough infection of the text is unobfuscated in the printed version-—the confusion which this lecture could produce would only be in speech and could only be due to the very possibility of a homophone, which speech would not allow. Derrida writes and then says:
When I say “with an e” or with an ”a”-—this will refer irreducibly to a written text, a text governing my talk, a text I keep in front of me, that I will read, and toward which I shall have to try to lead your hands eyes. We cannot refrain here from going by way of a written text, from ordering ourselves by the disorder that is produced therein—and this is what matters to me first of all (132-3).
The Active and the Passive. Within the essay, Derrida makes numerous references to the fact that differance would be neither passive nor active. It would neither be an operation of letting-oneself-be-deconstructed nor an operation of deconstructing-something. Derrida names differance the middle, between these two. In his first reference to differance at work within this opposition, Derrida writes that differance precedes this opposition, it is as such the horizon in which any such opposition could be a possibility (but, as we will see later, the concept of the horizon is already excluded by differance):
(Differance) indicates the middle voice, it precedes and sets up the opposition between passivity and activity (130).
Differance does not abolish a distinction between the passive and the active, but it is itself prior to that distinction, it comes before it. It is the very earth on which a contest between passive and active could be enacted. Thinking of differance itself as either passive or active would be like thinking of a baseball field as winning or losing, as in the field or up to bat. Derrida insists that, although differance is a phenomenon (it is ‘produced’, 145), it cannot be interrogated by existential questions of its origin or essence (145). Derrida discusses questions such as ‘What differs? Who differs? What is differance’ (145). If these questions could be answered, they would control differance as something which is derivative of another, something that would be preceded by a general horizon of possibility: such as being, or existence, or ideality. For instant, we cannot conceive of differance as being produced by a consciousness prior to the differing and deferral of signs. The positing of such a consciousness would be the metaphysical move par excellence, as exhibited by Husserl’s phenomenology. The positing of a present and present-in-absence consciousness is, for Derrida, the final citadel of metaphysics, the most likely candidate within which to ground a general notion such as differance.
Presence and Absence. The philosophical tradition has always, Derrida tells us, posited presence as the absolute horizon of being-—he also notes, and this situation is important, that ‘the being-next-to-itself of consciousness’ is the particular form of this that concerns him. Against this tradition, Derrida asserts the absolute effectedness of presence, as a derivation of differance. Presence is provenance of a horizon of differance. And yet… this would not be possible according to difference.
On Freud’s reduction of presence within differance, Derrida wrote:
With the alterity of the “unconscious”, we have to deal not with the horizons of modified presents—past or future—but with a “past” that has never been nor will ever be present, whose “future” will never be produced or reproduced in the form of presence (152).
Differance, then, will never be a production of presence, but neither will it be itself reproduced within presence, nor could it itself produce presence, or determine it entirely within itself. In these ways, differance is the unconscious as Freud named it, with an interpretation of the unconscious as neither a manufacturing nor a factory, but rather a trace: the unconscious trace substitutes, differentiates, retains, and hollows itself out (142). Differance does not produce or reproduce any more than an equation or an algorithm produces. Differance is also not a site in which any such production or manufacture would take place any more than the mark “=” produces a result. It differentiates itself from another presence by substituting for another past which it retains, leaving itself open to the coming-into-being of another which will hollow it out, devoid it.
Derrida calls the trace a ‘simulacrum of a presence’ (156), because it mocks what it solicits, it destroys what it reproduces, and it also reproduces itself. As such it is effacement, but it is not. The trace is pure auto-effacement. The trace is ‘simultaneously alive and dead’ (156). The work that is its life is its death. Differance could not be anything: either as a presence or a horizon of presentation itself. Differance could not determine presence, although presence would, Derrida writes, be a trembling before it. Derrida writes that differance could not be named in our language, could not be within our language (159). We must remain within this aporia: within the ‘difficulty of this passage’ (154). And so, I would end by representing Derrida’s description of the trembling or presence before differance:
Differance is not. It is not a being-present, however excellent, unique, principal or transcendent one makes it. It commands nothing, rules over nothing, and nowhere does it exercise any authority. It is not marked by a capital letter. not only is there no realm of differance, but differance is even the subversion of every realm. This is obviously what makes it threatening and necessarily dreaded by everything in us that desires a realm, the past or future presence of a realm. And it is always in the name of a realm that, believing one sees it ascend to the capital letter, one can reproach it for wanting to rule (153).