Derrida’s Quarrel: “La Différance” at 50

By Birger VanwesenbeeckJanuary 27, 2018

Derrida’s Quarrel: “La Différance” at 50
EXACTLY 50 YEARS AGO on this day, on Saturday, January 27, 1968, Jacques Derrida, then maître assistant at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, delivered his lecture “La Différance” before the Société française de Philosophie at the Sorbonne. The invitation for this memorable evening — it has been preserved in the Derrida archives at the University of California, Irvine — indicates that the lecture was held at the Amphithéâtre Michelet, an altogether fitting locale. For just as the father of French modern historiography had revolutionized his discipline a century earlier, so Derrida was about to unravel and remake the history and practice of Western philosophy from the ground up. The opening sentence of “La Différance” is innocent and straightforward enough. “I will talk tonight about a letter,” so Derrida’s lecture notes for that evening state, “the first letter if the alphabet is to believed.” What follows, however, is a bravura performance without precedent, a one-act play with this very letter <a> at the core, a jazz improvisation whose tonic is sounded and returned to time and again no matter how far the music score has traveled.

Except that this <a> is silent. “Il ne s’entend pas,” Derrida writes, meaning both that one cannot hear it and — in idiomatic French — that it does not get along. This quarrelsome quality of the <a>, its resistance to harmony and rapport if you will, is what reveals itself in the titular word différrance, a neologism that constitutes a homophone of the French term for “difference,” différence (with an <e>). This coinage or “word” — Derrida will go on to say that différance is neither a word nor a concept — in turn becomes the mute (non-)sounding board for the philosopher’s inquiry into, and dismantling of, some of the central tenets of Western philosophical thought: its reliance on binary oppositions, its privileging of spoken over written language, its inability, ultimately, to think the unstable and the provisional. For not only does the silence of the <a> in différance condemn it to a spectral existence on the page — only in writing can it be detected, in speech it remains indistinguishable from its homophone “différence” — but its particular lexical and semantic properties similarly upset the linguistic and philosophical status quo. Grammar and morphology, let alone French grammar and morphology, never looked so exciting and revelatory as they do here, in Derrida’s painstaking analysis of the various morphemes and derivations that make up his titular term. The <ance> suffix of différance, so he notes, carries a meaning that falls between the active and the passive voice, as it also does in a word such as resonance. The latter is neither the act of resonating nor does it posit something altogether passive, as does its English equivalence “resonance.” (In English, the suffix that corresponds most closely to <ance> would appear to be <(t)ure>, as in “failure,” “erasure” or “posture.” If “a failing” is the nominal derivation that carries, most distinctly, the active meaning of the verb and if in “fault” that active meaning has all but disappeared, then the word “failure” appears to fall in between the two. One could therefore also translate Derrida’s term, albeit obviously inelegantly, as “differture.”) By the same token, Derrida notes that even though the French verb at the root of his coinage — différer — means both “to differ” and “to defer,” this dual meaning has somehow, mysteriously, disappeared in its established nominal derivation, the French word for “difference,” différence (with an <e>), which means only that. His coinage, différance, so Derrida ruminates, should then be seen as the nominal derivation that would maintain both meanings of the verb: both “a differing” and a “deferring.” Put differently, différance, is a deferral with a difference, a putting off that is at the same time subject to change, or, as a later version of the essay puts it, “a sameness that is not identical.”

By the time of the Parisian delivery of “La Différance,” Derrida’s writings and ideas had only just begun to take hold in the United States. American academics had made their first acquaintance of the charismatic philosopher with the puffy hair and the puffing pipe at a symposium held at Johns Hopkins two years earlier. Here Derrida was featured as one of the speakers at a scholarly gathering meant to introduce (and champion) the recent achievements of (French) structuralism to American academics. The literary critics Roland Barthes, Georges Poulet, and Tzvetan Todorov presented papers, so did the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the philosopher René Girard. Many of them, although not all, extolled the values of structuralism. Derrida’s contribution, however, struck a markedly different chord. Rather than celebrating the achievements of structuralism, he used the opportunity to read out an obituary of sorts. “Perhaps something occurred in the history of the concept of structure,” so he hypothesized, “that could be called an ‘event,’ if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural — or structuralist — thought to reduce or to suspect.” Structuralism’s eponymous reliance on structures, on that which by definition is permanent, stable, and universal, made it so that it had no lexicon, no methodology, to deal with “events,” i.e., with that which is singular, wholly other, non-repeatable. Put differently: Structuralism had missed the news of its own passing. That’s the ironic subtext of Derrida’s Hopkins lecture, an obituary read out years too late, after the fact, not unlike the belated death notice received by the character Oedipa Maas in a novel published that same year, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

Copy of an original in the Dpt. of Special Collections, UCI Libraries, University of California, Irvine.

Copy of an original in the Dpt. of Special Collections, UCI Libraries, University of California, Irvine.

Copy of an original in the Dpt. of Special Collections, UCI Libraries, University of California, Irvine.


Lateness, deferral, “afterness,” Freudian Nachträglichkeit, those would not coincidentally become some of the key concepts within Derrida’s own philosophy of deconstruction. So would, however, a host of other terms that the Hopkins lecture first sounded to large audience: play (jeu), singularity, Other, and the “future to come” (l’avenir). “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” the title of Derrida’s Hopkins lecture, is often cited as a kind of official kick-off for deconstruction in the United States, its near-mythical status enlarged by the many illustrious participants at the conference. But it’s the lecture on “Différance” that more fully embodies the spirit of deconstruction. Call it the difference (the différance?) between telling and showing. If the former lecture merely informed its audience about a new wind blowing through the philosophical ranks of the time (in the essay’s final paragraph Derrida famously hypothesizes about a “birth in the offing,” i.e., a new philosophy being born), then “La Différance” enacted it. Perhaps more so than any other work by Derrida, “La Différance” is a text that must be experienced and undergone rather than being read in any sort of traditional way. And even then the reader will inevitably miss out on the rhetorical effects that would have accompanied Derrida’s original delivery. For the charge of phonocentrism that Derrida here levels at Western thought takes on a distinctly performative quality in a lecture where it would have been impossible for the audience to distinguish between the essay’s titular coinage and the existing French word for difference, différence. And that was precisely the point: the silent <a> différance only appears in writing (écriture), a medium that Derrida now privileges in turn as a space where binary opposites, including the very distinction between writing and speaking, can coexist, can be thought in tandem with each other, as in a temporary juncture. If it’s hard to conceptualize such a space (Derrida’s term for this juncture is the French word faisceau, which literally means “bundle”), then this follows in part from the fact that the binary categories by which we traditionally think about the world have such a strong hold on us. We are poorly equipped to conceptualize an entity that, as Derrida points out, is neither a word nor concept; is neither active nor passive; and is neither present nor absent; but that is rather the mechanism that sets up these distinctions in the first place.

Derrida’s lecture was not the first time that a public address given in Paris sent shock waves through the intellectual community of its day. Precisely 281 years earlier to the day, on January 27, 1687, Charles Perrault, a sometime poet and chronicler of fairy tales (including “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss in Boots”), delivered a similarly provocative lecture a mile or so to the northwest of the Sorbonne, at a gathering of the Académie française. Like the Société française de Philosophie, the Academie française is a particularly eminent institution, one that still exists today. In his poem “Le Siècle de Louis Le Grand,” while ostensibly a eulogy of the ruling monarch, Louis XIV, Perrault also questioned, in passing, the enduring relevance of the poets of ancient Greece and Rome for the practitioners of literature today. “Je vois les anciens, sans plier les genoux,” so Perrault declared. “I see the ancients but without bending the knees.” The ensuing controversy that erupted among members of the Académie and that would soon hold the whole of Europe in its grip would come to be known as the “quarrel” between the Ancients and the Moderns. As would “La Différance” three centuries later, the quarrel pitted those who sided with a more emancipatory approach against those who sought to uphold tradition. Also in its legacy, both quarrels are remarkably akin. As with the development of revolutionary ideals, France turned out to be a much better exporter of innovative goods than it was able to implement them on its home turf. Well into the 18th-century French drama continued to suffer under a stilted adherence to the classical precepts inherited from the time of Aristotle, whereas in neighboring countries, such as Prussia and England, the Moderns had by then already overhauled the art of theater.

Derrida, for his part, would often remark that his influence as a philosopher had been far more pronounced in the United States, where he served as Visiting Professor at a host of institutions throughout the last quarter of the 20th century, than in France, where the academic establishment never really took him to heart. Like Perrault, Derrida was not one to genuflect to his intellectual forebears, but at the same time he too never kept “seeing” (and reading) them. His “ancients” ran the whole gamut of Western philosophy and literature, from Socrates and Plato to Hegel and Joyce, and from Mallarmé to Freud. His preferred vantage point, you might say, is that of the lover’s quarrel, a domestic dispute among spouses that remains deeply aware of the shared ground plan they inhabit. This is no different in “La Différance,” which acknowledges a debt to Saussure, Heidegger, and Freud, among others, while also seeking to move beyond them.

What might one still learn from a rereading of “La Différance” a half-century onward? On the one hand, it is a text that is obviously steeped in the spirit of the times. Delivered midway between the publication of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” with its call to arms that “the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the death of the Author” on the one hand and Michel Foucault’s equally influential 1969 essay “What is an Author?” on the other, Derrida’s lecture breathes the spirit of May ’68. Like Foucault and Barthes, Derrida seeks to unshackle the yoke of traditional thinking and liberate us from the metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical walls that surround our ears (les murs ont des oreilles, nos murs ont des oreilles, was a well-known May ’68 slogan) including the very phonocentrism that may still be structuring these very emancipatory gestures. Indeed, as the lecture’s opening line reminds us, not even the alphabet, coming in under 30 as it may, is to be trusted in this regard.

Yet for all its obvious iconoclastic fervor Derrida’s quarrel in “La Différance” is ultimately directed inward rather than to the society he inhabits. Rereading the essay 50 years onward, I’m struck by how much the twin themes of mourning and translation, which were to become staples of the later Derrida, are already in evidence here. “Like a tomb,” so Derrida describes the silence of the <a> in différance, drawing attention to the pyramid-like shape of the letter in its capital form. In an essay that is otherwise relatively devoid of figurative speech, the simile stands out. It draws attention to a melancholic undercurrent in “La Différance,” one that is easy to miss in an essay that puts so much emphasis on the concept of play, not to mention the writer’s own playfulness. But already here Derrida is exploring the questions of mourning and of loss and the difficult labor that the “work of mourning” (a Freudian coinage that he considered problematic even as he used it) urges from us. When discussing the aforementioned curiosity that the French word for difference, différence, should no longer have the double meaning of “deferral” and “difference” inherent in the verb that it derives from, for instance, Derrida specifically uses the terms “loss” (déperdition) and “compensating” (compenser): “It is this loss of sense that the word difference (with an a) will have to schematically compensate for.” Différance, so it now seems, is a coping mechanism of sorts, one that not only seeks to reinstate a lost ambivalence and multiplicity but which is also deeply tied to the medium of writing as such. The sense of loss which speech inflicts is recuperated and “worked through” by writing. The latter is a medium that has been tied to mourning ever since the Mesopotamian societies that invented it: the world’s oldest epic — The Epic of Gilgamesh — is not coincidentally a story of mourning and of loss.

In thus highlighting the deep kinship between mourning and writing, Derrida shows himself, more so even than Heidegger, to be philosophy’s primordial poet of the ontology of loss. If Heidegger’s own notion of being-toward-death is ultimately all too abstract to merit the term mourning (a process whose “work,” as Derrida reminds us, is always singular), then Derrida, in essay after essay, explored the architecture of loss. He often did this in explicit disagreement with the Freudian model of mourning as an “interiorization” and its suggestion that, in mourning, we symbolically ingest the deceased so that he may live on inside of us, in our thoughts and prayers. Such a “cannibalist” measure (the metaphor is Freud’s own), so Derrida suggests, hinges on an annexation of the deceased that violates the singularity of the Other. Instead, he proposes a reverse model: what if in mourning we place ourselves inside the imagined gaze of the deceased Other? In “La Différance,” however, Derrida proposes yet another model for mourning, one that stays loyal to the spirit of Freud’s interiorization paradigm even as it moves its anchoring points elsewhere. Here mourning takes us inside of language, into what the Derrida scholar Rodolphe Gasché has called “infrastructures,” those unstable entities that set up the very differences that make language possible. It is here, too, that our losses can be mourned and compensated for in a way that avoids the logic of annexation.

Such a “going inside of language,” however, is, ultimately, but another term for translation. And it’s not a coincidence that translation, an act that Derrida would later frequently associate with deconstruction as such, is also already present in “La Différance.” Part of the difficulties posed by the neologism différance originate after all in the translation from the Greek verb diapharein (“to differ”) to the Latin differre (“to differ,” “to defer”): “this fact will not be without consequence for us in tying our discussion to a particular language, one that passes for being less philosophical, less primordially philosophical, than the other.” It is in the act of translation that we are being made aware of those infrastructures underwriting a particular language, including how that language allows us to think and conceptualize the Other. Now that the deceased Other is no longer there, we are thrown back unto those infrastructures, translating him or her back into a linguistically mediated presence.

We translate as we mourn. Contrary to the received wisdom that translation is an agent of loss — as in the cliché formula “lost in translation” — it is also that which helps us to cope with loss. Mourning and translation are indeed deeply related activities that both face an impossible challenge, hence the terms “task” and “work” frequently associated with them. (In so far as différance has its etymological origin in the same Latin root word for “carrying” [di-ferre] as translation [which derives from trans-ferre, meaning “carrying across”] it has this notion of task or effort [or even “weight”] inscribed into it.) It is only by bargaining that the mourner and the translator may engage in an interiorization of, respectively, the deceased and the source text, that, however, will always by definition remain incomplete and unstable. In this predicament, too, they resemble Derrida’s neologism différance. It thus follows that to Derrida’s pyramid tomb we may add yet one more ancient structure that captures the outlook of the <a> of “différance,” that of the dilapidated tower of Babel, which can only be rebuilt by us venturing across language. This Derrida did time and again. And with a difference.


Birger Vanwesenbeeck is associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is completing a monograph on loss and translation.


Banner image by jane cornwell.

LARB Contributor

Birger Vanwesenbeeck is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia.


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