Meaning-Breaking with Derrida

A basic introduction to Derrida's ideas of desconstruction and "différance"

All structures of power exist in and are executed by the most mundane and quotidian parts of our social reality. These structures of power, despite their looming presence, are merely composed of the everyday: people, telephone numbers, histories, assemblages, networks, websites, connections, buildings, and text. Power, expressed through this social text, is an assemblage of micro-articulations, expressed by signifiers that are themselves the articulations of a network of differences — what Derrida called différance. All this is to say that power is articulated in the everyday through the transmission of hegemonic meaning: through the transmission and transmutation of "truth." But meaning is not a unity, a truth, at all; it is an assemblage: a historical, perspectival, and multivalent multiplicity. Meaning is always becoming. At bottom, it is an act of synthesis, a crystallization, for just a moment, of time. However, the history of Western thought focuses on meaning as being signified through static and binary oppositions: good and bad, light and dark. These oppositions impose on the world a strict hierarchical ontology: good is better, more true, than bad; light is better than dark. In semiotic terms, this ontology always posits the signified over the signifier; in metaphysical terms, it privileges essences over things. This ontology yields to hegemony when expressed through the mundanity of the everyday, as well as (at a larger scale) to abusive power structures and to the recruitment of individuals by sublimated ideologies (which can only be revealed through the means of analyzing their trace). Humankind has transformed meaning into an object that can be singularly pinned down and controlled, as an extension of our "modernity." Through the deconstructive operation, Derrida hoped to dismantle this hegemony by inverting and subsequently leveling the ontology that models these hegemonic structures in society.

But how can analyzing text provide any relief to our Cartesian, hegemonic-ontologicalHegemontological? nightmare? Derrida himself put this idea best, describing the purpose of deconstruction:

The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue... the idea is to disarm the bombs... of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants.Quoted in John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 231.

At its core, deconstruction is a method of dismantling hegemony in its everyday occurrences. How does this work? Key to the deconstructive method is the notion of the trace, which Derrida returns to time and time again.

The system of language is composed only of differences, of oppositions. Thus other signs are always present in the meaning of a single sign by virtue of their trace. The trace marks that absence which is signified by a presence —the hidden differential network of signs evoked by a given signifier. For example, in the sign "man" is evoked the signified opposite "woman," which in turn evokes its own signified concepts that differentiate it; in the sign of the sun is evoked the signifiers "moon," "day," "not night," "light," "warm," and so on and so forth. Another way to look at the trace is as originally conceived by Freud: the trace is like the invisible imprint left on the next page when you make a mark in pencil. The trace is unconscious, but nevertheless present in any sign. It never actually existed or took place, but it is its non-existence that defines the existence of an actual sign. The trace does not point to a single originary opposite, a hidden essence to the appearance of a sign; rather, the trace points to différance, to the long lineage and network of differed and deferred signified concepts that give rise to the meaning of a sign. As Derrida puts it, "The elements of signification function not by virtue of the compact force of their cores but by the network of oppositions that distinguish them and relate them to one another."Jacques Derrida, "Difference" in The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2008), 133. Because the meaning of a sign is signified through differentiation from other signs in a closed system, the deconstructive operation allows us to identify the network of differences in this closed system, pointing to the trace of these differences that exists in a given sign. This archeological operation allows us to destabilize the grounds for hegemonic power structures by critiquing them in such a way that brings out their hidden ideological underpinnings, allowing the invisible to become visible and provoking the visible to recede.

This brings us to the notion of the tomb, and subsequently to différance. Derrida writes in "Différance" that the letter "a" in différance is like a tomb: silent, secret, and discreet.Ibid., 128. It can only be revealed through the written text, and even then its meaning cannot be pinned down. In terms of interpreting Derrida's work, this indefinability and transience is frustrating to say the least. But when we take différance as a whole concept, regardless of its philosophical underpinnings, we see that it can be useful in the project of extinguishing and unbalancing hegemony in the everyday. Derrida alludes to this briefly with the notion of the tomb: "It is a tomb that (provided one knows how to decipher its legend) is not far from signaling the death of the king."Ibid. This line seems to me to indicate the idea that, for Derrida, deconstruction itself is intended to destabilize oppositional ontologies: to destabilize notions of truth by subverting language itself and its expressions (signs and symbols) in the quotidian. The fact that the very term itself, différance, is indefinable and completely unstable, is astonishing and proves the possibility of deconstruction to destabilize notions of truth and categorical imperatives. Nevertheless, I will try to define my conception of différance for the sake of clarity and argumentation: Différance is the space between signs that gives each sign its meaning — the constructed difference between signs when we recognize that they only have meaning because we are able to differentiate one sign from another. This implies that meaning itself resides not in signs but in the space between them. What's more, différance supersedes language inasmuch as it is possible for anything to exist "outside" the text: différance can be interpreted or expressed as the unstable opposition of forces that constitutes being and presence — something like the unstable dialectic of entropy and syntropy. In terms of linguistics, this means that despite sharing a common language, a society cannot share common or categorical truths based on this language, because even the letter itself — the most basic unit of written language — is entirely subjective in its infinite interpretability, interoperability, and interpolatability.

The letter, for Derrida, seems to exist between speech and writing as a unifying tie rather than a separating line. This draws into question the very notion of the truth of language: the truth that Western philosophers have inscribed into it throughout history through the metaphysical operation. This leads to a collapse of the notion that ideas in any form can be permanent, universal, or true, because all words and symbols are infinitely interpretable through analysis of the way in which their very interpretation is constructed — through looking at the différance that constitutes any given interpretation of a symbol. In doing so, the deconstructive operation reveals the trace, or the invisible signifieds hidden in the interpretation of any given signifier — the essences to the appearance, if you will (I think Derrida would roll in his grave at this description). By looking at the trace, we are able to reveal hidden ideological underpinnings in empires, buildings, photographs, aesthetic frameworks, and texts — we are able, for the first time, to make the tomb resonate.

Reference Notes

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  • ↑ 2

    Quoted in John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 231.

  • ↑ 3

    Jacques Derrida, "Difference" in The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2008), 133.

  • ↑ 4

    Ibid., 128.

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