You are here : Home Page / Theories / Derrida / Deconstruction and différance

Available Languages

Follow us on

SignoSemio's Facebook SignoSemio's Twitter

Deconstruction and différance

By Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

1. Abstract


Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida's theory of the sign fits into the poststructuralist movement, which runs counter to Saussurean structuralism (the legacy of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure). Maintaining that the signifier (the form of a sign) refers directly to the signified (the content of a sign), structuralist theory has passed down a whole current of logocentric (speech-centred) thought that originated in the time of Plato. With writing as his basis (the written sign), Derrida has taken on the task of disrupting the entire stream of metaphysical thought predicated on oppositions. He has elaborated a theory of deconstruction (of discourse, and therefore of the world) that challenges the idea of a frozen structure and advances the notion that there is no structure or centre, no univocal meaning. The notion of a direct relationship between signifier and signified is no longer tenable, and instead we have infinite shifts in meaning relayed from one signifier to another.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette (2006), « Deconstruction and différance », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),



The term "poststructuralism" refers to a critical perspective that emerged during the seventies which has dethroned structuralism as the dominant trend in language and textual theory. In order to understand poststructuralism, we need to examine it in relation to structuralism. Deconstructionist criticism subscribes to the poststructuralist vision of language, wherein the signifier (the form of a sign) does not refer to a definite signified (the content of a sign), but produces other signifiers instead. Derrida (1978, 278) takes issue with the centre inherent in the "structurality of structure". Turning to Claude Lévi-Strauss as a representative of structuralist theory, Derrida uses the prohibition of incest and the oppositions nature/culture and universal/prescriptive to show that this structure can no longer withstand scrutiny: "The incest prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural" (Derrida, 1978, 283).

Derrida thus rejects all of metaphysical history with its hierarchies and dichotomies that have survived to this day, the foundation upon which all of logic (logos, which means language) was laid. Derrida has rejected structuralism, and as a result, the Saussurean schema (the signifier/signified relationship) has been rethought.


What Derrida rejects is binary structure, and this goes beyond the simple opposition signifier/signified. This structure in fact underpins the history of philosophy, which conceives the world in terms of a system of oppositions proliferating without end: logos/pathos, soul/body, self/other, good/evil, culture/nature, man/woman, understanding/perception, inside/outside, memory/oblivion, speech/writing, day/night, etc.)


In order to do justice to Derrida's theory, which applies to both philosophy and semiotics, we need to accurately define the concepts that shape it. Each section will include several concepts, given that many of them are tightly interwoven making it impossible to define one concept without considering the others.


The relationship we find in structuralism between signifier and signified no longer exists. Moreover, there are two ways of erasing the difference between signifier and signified: "one, the classic way, consists in […] submitting the sign to thought; the other, the one we are using here as opposed to the first one, consists in calling into question the system in which the preceding reduction functioned: first and foremost, the opposition between the sensible [perceivable] and the intelligible" (Derrida, 1978, 281).

The Derridian conception of the sign, then, is still tied to the structure of Western philosophy, but the schema in which signifier = signified (the direct relationship between signifier and signified) has been reconceived.

Consider the example of water:


Water drops



Signifier "water"--------------------


H 2 O

swimming pool



Glass of  water






Indefinite Signified

When reading the word "water", we might think of water drops, a lake, the chemical symbol H2O, and so on. We don't necessarily think of a set image of water, a universal mental representation of it. And then, each concept (signifier) to which "water" might refer can trigger another signifier. This infinite chain from signifier to signifier results in a never-ending game and opens the text, displaces it, sets it in motion.


Words naturally refer to or "reference" other words. Derrida's grammatology advances the idea that writing is originary in the same way speech is; there is a perpetual tension without a power struggle. Consequently:

-Writing cannot be a reproduction of spoken language, since neither one (writing nor spoken language) comes first.
-Conceived in this way, writing is far more than the graphie [written form]; it is the articulation and inscription of the trace.

As for the trace, it is originary, not original: it conveys the impossibility of an origin, or centre. It is the non-origin of origin. It is "the absolute origin of sense in general. […]The trace is the differance which opens appearance [l'apparaître] and signification" (Derrida, 1976, 65). "If the trace […] belongs to the very movement of signification, then signification is a priori written, whether inscribed or not, in one form or another, in a 'sensible' and 'spatial' element that is called 'exterior' " (1976, 70).

Derrida also discusses the trace as arche-writing, "at first the possibility of the spoken word, then of the graphie" (1976, 70).

The concept of the "graphie", or written form, relies on the trace for its existence, and it implies "the framework of the instituted trace, as the possibility common to all systems of signification" (1976, 46). When we associate the trace with the graph (gestural, visual, pictorial, musical or verbal), this trace becomes a gram (letter). Only at this instant does the outside appear (as opposed to the inside), as a "'spatial' and 'objective' exteriority" (1976, 70).

The arche-writing that Derrida is talking about is in fact a broader notion of writing conceptualized in terms of différance. This différance (the a is a trace, a gram) as temporalization is the trace [track] of the written language in the spoken. For instance, punctuation signs are supplemental to speech, not a reproduction of it.


According to Derrida, the text cannot be explained by its origins (author, society, history; in other words, context) since repetition is the origin. The text is writing, and writing is langue (non-intention). It is langue relative to the discourse that implements it.

However, reading is what makes text and writing possible. Arche-writing is reading that includes writing. Writing is characterized by textuality, which is at once the closure and non-closure of the text: "But one can conceive of the closure of that which is without end. Closure is the circular limit within which the repetition of difference infinitely repeats itself. That is to say, closure is its playing space. This movement is the movement of the world as play…" (1978, 250).


Derrida has been interested in one particular opposition: the opposition between writing and speech [voix]. Derrida's critical approach to deconstruction shows us that dualisms are never equivalent; they are always hierarchically ranked. One pole (presence, good, truth, man, etc.) is privileged at the expense of the second (absence, evil, lie, woman, etc.).

In the case of speech and writing, we have attributed to speech the positive qualities of originality, centre and presence, whereas writing has been relegated to a secondary or derived status. Ever since Plato, the written word has been considered as a mere representation of the spoken word: this is what Derrida calls the logocentric tradition of Western thought.

"Deconstruction refers to all of the techniques and strategies used by Derrida in order to destabilize, crack open and displace texts that are explicitly or invisibly idealistic" (Hottois, 1998).

However, to deconstruct is not to destroy, and deconstruction is achieved in two steps:

1. A reversal phase: Since the pair was hierarchically ranked, we must first extinguish the power struggle. During this first phase, then, writing must dominate speech, other must prevail over self, absence over presence, perception over understanding, and so on.

2. A neutralization phase: The term favoured during the first phase must be uprooted from binary logic. In this way, we leave behind all of the previous significations anchored in dualistic thinking. This phase gives rise to androgyny, super-speech, and arche-writing. The deconstructed term thus becomes undecidable (Hottois, 1998, 306).

Deconstruction is being applied to texts, most of which are taken from the history of Western philosophy. The new terms become undecidable, then, rendering them unclassifiable, and causing two previously opposed poles to become merged.


Derrida conducted a deconstructionist reading of a famous text by Plato in which there is a merging of opposite poles; according to this reading, the pharmakon, "this 'medicine', this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence. This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be - alternately or simultaneously - beneficent or maleficent" (1981, 70). He adds that "'If the pharmakon is ambivalent, it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (soul/body, good/evil, inside/outside, memory/forgetfulness, speech/writing, etc.)" (1981, 127).

This theory has been taken up by literary scholars and writers, most notably the feminists, who have used the deconstructionist approach and the strategy of différance to give birth to new terms that bypass dualisms in general, but more pointedly, the feminine/masculine dualism founded on pathos/logos and other/self.

To deconstruct is to bypass all rigid conceptual oppositions (masculine/feminine, nature/culture, subject/object, perception/understanding, past/present, and so on) and to not treat concepts as if some were different from others. Each category preserves a trace of the opposite category. (For example, androgyny carries traces of masculine and feminine; the traces of the observer remain in an objectively pursued scientific experiment; in nature, the law of survival of the fittest has repercussions in social organization and structures.)


The term différance originated at a seminar given by Derrida in 1968 at the Société française de philosophie. The term in itself represents a synthesis of Derrida's semiotic and philosophical thinking. All of the concepts defined earlier are active in this theory.

The grapheme a represents several features in the application of this theory:

1. Différance is the difference that shatters the cult of identity and the dominance of Self over Other; it means that there is no origin (originary unit). Différer [to differ] is to not be identical.

2. Différance marks a divergence that is written: the a that we can see, but not hear.

3. Différer [to defer] is to displace, shift, or elude.

4. Différance is the future in progress (the fight against frozen meanings); it is the displacement of signifying signifiers to the fringe, since there is no organizing, original, transcendental signified.

The writing of différance refers to itself, because it breaks with the concepts of signified and referent. The emphasis on the theme of writing functions as an antidote against idealism, metaphysics and ontology.


French-Canadian writer Nicole Brossard uses the strategies of deconstruction and différance in a feminist novel that takes issue with patriarchy and logocentrism. With an onomastic analysis, we can see how différance is present and what possibilities it opens up.

Baroque at Dawn (1995) tells the story of Cybil Noland, an English novelist planning to write a work of fiction. The narrative opens with a lesbian sex scene between Cybil and a young woman whose surname is Sixtine. Différance is in play from the very first lines: "Dé, vaste-moi. M’ange moi" (1995, 13). "M'ange moi", rather than "mange-moi", brings to light the word "ange", which introduces a sweet, celestial element into a sexual imperative, and thereby a shift in meaning. The same applies to "vaste-moi", which connotes spaciousness, conquest, an expanse stretching as far as the eye can see, and diverts the meaning of "dévaster", which, according to Le Robert, means to lay waste (a country) by systematically destroying, and whose synonyms are "désoler, détruire, raser, ravager, ruiner".

Initially a simple character of diegesis, from the Hotel Rafale to Buenos Aires, from occasionally appearing as "tu", she becomes a "je", an utterer in virtual reality, when "reality superimposed itself on reality" (1997, 170). However, Cybil seems to have difficulty defining herself, and this is where différance comes into play: While her name out loud sounds like "Nolan", a fairly common name, "Noland" is what springs up from the signs. Therefore, an onomastic reading yields Cybil no land, a woman with no land and no roots. This idea is further reinforced by the fact that the character becomes an "I" who takes charge of the narrative on the very page where "virtual reality" comes in, with no anchor in the real world. This process is also directly linked to the idea that, other than in the world of fiction (the world of writing), there is nothing to provide women a way out of the fiction, created by men over many years, in which women are perceived as unfathomable. This adherence to a "reality" belonging to Western philosophy is what Derrida is attempting to transcend.

A deconstructionist approach, then, can establish a constant tension between reality and fiction (another dualism), now on equal footing: words whose différance is perceptible only in writing ("m’ange moi", "vaste-moi", etc.) become undecidable and untranslatable terms that take us beyond binary thinking.

4. List of works CITED

BROSSARD, Nicole, Baroque at Dawn, trans. Patricia Claxton, Toronto: MClelland & Stewart, 1997.
DERRIDA, Jacques, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
DERRIDA, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
DERRIDA, Jacques, Plato's Pharmacy, in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 61-84.
HOTTOIS, Gilbert, De la Renaissance à la Postmodernité. Une histoire de la philosophie moderne et contemporaine, Paris and Brussels: De Boeck and Larcier, 1998.
JOYCE, James, Finnegans Wake, New York: Viking Press, 1976 [1939].
POITRAS, Anique, La Deuxième vie, Montreal: Québec Amérique Jeunesse, "Titan", 1994.


Interpret the shifts in meaning introduced into the text by différance that cause the signifier to come unravelled, to be thrown into play and shifted. What possibilities are opened up with the deconstruction of the words in bold face? What dualisms are merged? The following excerpts are all taken from: James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, New York: Viking Press, 1976 [1939].

1. "Disrobe clothed in the strictest secrecy privacy can afford." (p. 586)

2. "Bygmester Finnegan [...] lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy [...]" (p. 4)

3. "But all they are all there scraping along to sneeze out a likelihood that will solve and salve life's robulous rebus [...]" (p. 12)

4. "Scant hope theirs or ours to escape life's high carnage of semperidentity by subsisting peasemeal upon variables." (p. 582)

5. "[...] in the park where the oranges have been laid to rust upon the green [...]" (p. 3)

6. "To anyone who knew and loved the christlikeness of the big cleanminded giant H. C. Earwicker throughout his excellency long vicefreegal existence the mere suggestion of him as a lustsleuth nosing for trouble in a boobytrap rings particularly preposterous." (p. 33)

Share this page