How Is Différance Related to The Semiology of Ferdinand De Saussure? – English Essay
Derrida and Deleuze are considered to be philosophers of difference. Difference philosophers, following Nietzsche, worked from the idea that history is filled with struggles and contradictions, history is understood as
contradictory, not a culminating reconciliation such as Hegel’s Modernity. Philosophy has historically privileged unity and sameness over difference, philosophers of difference undermine this hiercharchical binary relation by denying a privileged space for sameness and developing philosophy that works with processes of difference. A new type of difference was to be developed, a self-reflexive difference that incorporates difference into itself, a new way of thinking about things.
Derrida wants to continually draw attention to the impossibility of being able to occupy definite positions in meaning. Points are constructed and there is no ultimate fixed meaning at the base of things. When we have “presence”, that is, a moment in time when understanding seems most clear, we are not letting in the essence of meaning, but rather, at the moment of understanding we are in a state that blocks out other possible meanings, the effect being apparent clarity. We are not letting in the essence of meaning, for there no essential meaning, there is just interpretation of symbols within a constructed system. In Saussure’s theory of signs the relationship between sign and signifier is arbitrary and it is differential: meanings of things are produced from their difference to other things within a same network of signs. The principle of difference is a necessary condition for signification to take place. The system works in an arbitrary way because elements take on meaning not through any weight of their ‘plenitude’, but rather through a ‘network of oppositions’ which distinguishes and relates elements to one another.
If a system of signs works as a system of differences, how then do signs hold their meaning? By a process of hierarchical binary opposition. Signs are split into opposing sides, and one side is always privileged over the other. Man over woman, presence over absence, universal over private, etc. Meaning is held in place by weaving the relationship of privileged signs through a text, and here the meanings of the signs work together enforcing one another and the arbitrary ethical system from which they originate.
Working with Saussure’s semiology, différance attempts to identify the play of differences, and within this interplay to defer meaning, to resist fixing signs in a limiting “meaning” that comes from an arbitrary system that continually re-enforces its own hierarchical oppositions. Différance is to differ and to defer. To differ is to identify the play of differences within the relations of signs; to defer is to resist fixing the signs, to defer any ultimate interpretation or presence, which is really just textual interplay of privileged signs that effectively blocks out other possible interpretations and meanings.
So for example, if we were to examine Hegel’s history of Mankind culminating sometime around the time of Modernity, the presence of history, we can identify certain privileged elements working together within a system of opposition: a white male eurocentric tradition, the most powerful at the time, compared to female or non-human animal positions of power; presence over absence; and the privileging of the universal over the private. If the presence of history appears when we incorporate these dominant concepts, Man, Presence and Universality, into our understanding of a resolution or a final reconciliation, we re-enforce their privileged positions in opposition to other concepts and we interpret our meaning based on their privileged relations.
Différance understands these things differently. Rather than fix our signs we need to identify the play of differences (differ) and we need to defer our meaning, resist presence (defer) for once we lock in the meaning, contextualise it, we lock out other possible meanings. So for male dominance over female, we see that its meaning is relative to female and apparent differences within: part of our contextualised understanding of male dominance is how it relates to female dominance, in this context one is present where the other is not. When we look at the presence of surviving cultures, or elements of, we see that these are perceived in this context as being successful and for this they are the “right” types of societies, compared to cultures, or elements of, which did not survive, the unsuccessful experiments of history: the difference here, that is, between success or not, relies upon whether a thing is present or not, presence is privileged over absence. And what does modern western democracy mean? Within this context we take its meaning in relation to what it is not: modern western democracy is supposed to incorporate all the enlightened ideals of universality, it is supposed to take a universal stance rather than a private one, a universal forum is privileged over private domains. If it is all “right” and history is “present” then our meanings seem to rest upon privileged oppositions between what is and what is not present. But this won’t do because such determination upon a differential system has an arbitrary nature, and it is possible to alter our meanings if we recontextualise the elements. So we must defer our interpretations, acknowledge that these are singular within the one context. By continuing to defer our meanings of things we remain open to recontextualisation, to other possible meanings, we resist fixing meaning to a limited understanding and we invite the other in and with it the possibility of limitless understanding.
Historically, philosophy has privileged unity and sameness over difference. Philosophers of difference undermine the opposition that exists between sameness and difference by denying a privileged space for sameness and developing philosophy that works with processes of difference. A self-reflexive difference was developed that incorporates the notion of difference into itself. For Derrida, it is important to continually draw attention to the impossibility of being able to occupy definite positions in meaning, meanings are constructed within a limiting system of signs that is arbitrary in nature. Différance is to differ and to defer. Working with Saussure’s semiology, différance attempts to identify the play of differences, and within this interplay to defer meaning, to resist fixing signs in a limiting structure and to invite the other for limitless possibility.