If defining something means answering the question of “What is x?”, then naturally, I will fail at defining Derrida's notion of différance. In an effort to articulate what cannot be articulated through the existing Western linguistic system, Derrida deliberately introduces a mistake. He misspells the letter "a'' in the French word “différence” to reflect his ideas about the limitations of our “era.” In his essay "Différance," he starts with the sentence “I will speak, therefore, of a letter.” Starting with a conclusion in the midst of nowhere, this sentence delivers a void of logical connection to the causes prior to this essay while bringing forward an emphasis on the status of the letter “a.” By problematizing the letter “a,” Derrida considers différance as a conceptual playground that both breaks the rule in the systems (since Saussure) that reduce language into a static structure and criticize the assumption that language can find its origin in reality which is self-evidently present to one’s consciousness. Saussure believed that the relationship between reality and symbols could be reduced to rules that govern the two, and those rules functioned and were determined metaphysically outside of such systems. Unlike Saussure, Derrida denies such possibility. He introduces différance as an endless dynamic process replacing Saussure’s static system. This process forms a signifying chain, in which meaning is permanently suspended, and deferred into the future.
Seemingly paradoxical, in order to define différance, we first need to acknowledge the non-definable nature of différance. According to Derrida, différance is not a world, a concept, or any present being in any form. The emphasis does not lie on the “what" is being said, but on the very process of saying it. Once différance is exposed, it becomes a word, an object, or a materialization of logical thinking. As Derrida notes, “Now if différance is (and I also cross out the is) what makes possible the presentation of the being-present, it is never presented as such. It is never offered to the present. Or to anyone. Reserving itself, not exposing itself, in regular fashion it exceeds the order of truth at a certain precise point, but without dissimulating itself-as something, as a mysterious being, in the occult of a nonknowledge or in a hole with indeterminable borders (for example, in a topology of castration).” In other words, différance exemplify the meaning of something always lies in the meaning of the meaning of something. In attempting to articulate a meaning, one has to also articulate the condition of what makes it possible. In doing so, meanings extend into a signifying chain where one can never reach an endpoint of meaning, but only traces of meaning.
Moreover, this non-presentable nature of différance can not be understood without relating it to Heidegger's separation of being and Being. Derrida states, “It is the domination of beings that différance everywhere comes to solicit, in the sense that sollicitare, in old Latin, means to shake as a whole, to make tremble in entirely. Therefore, it is the determination of Being as presence or as beingness that is interrogated by the thought of différance. Such a question could not emerge and be understood unless the difference between Being and beings were somewhere to be broached.” We can see a symbiotic relationship between différance and the separation between being and Being. On the one hand, différance as a deconstructing mechanism prevents Being from objectifying itself. On the other hand, without the separation between Being and being, this contemplation would not be possible in the first place. In other words, once we consider différance as presence or objects, it loses the dynamical forces that separate Being from beings or beingness. Therefore, différance‘s non-presentable nature and Heidegger’s Being are interdependent with each other.
After establishing the non-presentable nature of différance, we can bring back our attention to the status of the letter “a.” According to Derrida, the letter “a” indicates a silence in speaking. Derrida notes, “It is offered by a mute mark, by a tacit monument, I would even say by a pyramid.” From my perspective, this silent pyramid is key to understanding différance. It exists outside of the Western language system as a symbol of mystery, a counterpart to consciousness, or to objectification. It is a tomb, a monument that relates to death. This mysterious monument suggests a possibility of going beyond language. It speaks about the unspeakable. On the other hand, what Derrida is against is the idea of logocentrism, which presupposes the meaning of language has its “origin” in reality that is self-evidence and derived directly from one’s consciousness. Derrida inherited this thinking from Heidegger and believes that this assumption assumes the possibility of “consciousness”-- “Conciousses offers itself to thought only as self- presence, as the perception of self in presence.” This privilege of subjective existence is, in Derrida’s words, “the ether of metaphysics, the element of our thought that is caught in the language of metaphysics.” By introducing différance, the absolutely centralized presence of Being or of consciousness is solicited, replaced by what is called a “determination” and an “effect” of différance. Therefore, associating the silence in the letter "a" with the pyramid is a simple but effective act that placed différance in a discourse against logocentrism and articulation - something from the outside.
We can further understand différance by comparing it to différence (with the letter “e”) on a more general level. Derrida suggests différence (with the letter "e") fails to capture the two potential meanings of the verb différer as a dynamic process, which geometrically shapes and divides in two fields: space and time. The division in space captured a sense of “polemical difference” in dynamics– to divide the whole into two parts. The division in time captured a sense of temporality, dividing the future from its presence. It acts in a way that “suspends the accomplishment or fulfillment of “desire” or “will,” and equally effects this suspension in a mode that annuals or tempers its own effets.”
In relation to Saussure's model of signifier and signified, temporalization refers to when meaning within the temporal chain is perpetually deferred into the future by suspension, leaving a trace behind. Meanwhile, spatialization refers to language or the world appears to be formally divided through the spatialization of each language unit in sequences. We can think of différance as an instant spatialization that divides the temporal dimension. This prevents meaning from its self-realization, with only traces left. Derrida suggests the function of différance is “to compensate for this loss of meaning, for it can refer simultaneously to the entire configuration of its meaning.”
The notion of trace is oftentimes interchangeable to différance. It opens up the closed and static systems to a dynamic realm of relationships that challenges the status of logocentrism. As Derrida notes, “The concept of trace, like that of différance thereby organizes, along the lines of these different traces and differences of traces, in Nietzsche’s sense, in Freud’s sense, in Levinas’s sense– these “name of authors” here being only indicates– the network which reassembles and traverse our “era” as the delimitation of the ontology of present.” Like pyramids, traces are invisible, obscure, and can not be articulated. These traces, and the differences of traces, together form a network that replaces a generation of thinking that is based on “the ontology of present.”
Différance introduces numerous instances of binary separation, opposition, and paradox. For example, the distinction between “a” and “e”, motion and stasis, and presence and non-presence. These binary structures shape Derrida's perspective on language and reality, as he sees the presence of something always accompanied by a counterpart. Derrida uses différance to deconstruct Western traditions that conceive of things as substances within one's subjective consciousness. He does so by breaking down the thinking that there is “objective truth” governing language from outside, and demonstrates language’s dynamic nature. On the other hand, to relate the silence in letter “a” with pyramids also reflects this line of thinking. In many ancient cultures, pyramids have always been associated with the binary counterparts– life vs death, underworld vs upperworld, etc. By connecting différance to pyramids, it becomes explicit that death is a crucial part that constitutes the living. This mysterious power in death proposes an alternative to thinking beyond the logical (in Descartes’s sense) and eventually overthrows our “era.”
Derrida, J., & Bass, A. (1984). Différance. In Margins of Philosophy. essay, University of Chicago Press.