At the outset, I'm relieved that we have an agenda, and that we can be up front about it; that is, we are reading Derrida after the so-called "ethical turn" in cultural theory with the assumption that Derrida has always been in engaged in questions of an ethical and political nature; furthermore, that we are doing theory in the academy, a context in which Derrida's ideas (and guiding "concepts") are simultaneously muted and omnipresent, most often presented as ahistorical givens. In other words, Derrida is an emblem for many impulses and there's no getting around it.
Many such impulses can be located in Derrida's essay on différance. I first read this essay in an undergraduate course on postmodern philosophy and I'm glad to have this chance to reread it four years later. Indeed, one of the best things about reading Derrida is the fact that his texts are so multivalent, so thick, that one always sees something new and exciting upon a rereading. In the course of this exercise, a number of significant moves (many of which were highlighted in our class) emerged that had previously eluded me (perhaps this had something to do with the fact that I was in my second year, and was only beginning to "get it"). The rest of this post is an attempt to highlight several of these instances.
In this essay, each of Derrida's interlocutors acts as a precursor to differance; in their respective work philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Levinas have anticipated Derrida's argument. Derrida is effectively picking up on certain ruptures in the Western tradition in order to justify his own tendencies, to make good on their promises, to carry forward what has already begun. For example, Derrida draws on Nietzche's indifference to difference (exemplified in the eternal recurrence of the same) and Freud's language of the unconscious refers to deferral and delay (a temporality invoked by differance); differance also picks up on Heidegger's distinctions between Being (Dasein) and being and between presence and the present, as well as Levinas' interest in radical alterity and Saussure's construal of language as a differential system of negatively related terms.
But within this towering tradition of serious (and intimidating) intellectual work, Derrida is quick to point out the importance of "play." Misreadings of Derrida tend to emphasize the anarchy implicit in this concept, but it is far more multivalent than often gets suggested: it is a performance, it is imaginative, joyful, but it also suggests the movement, the shakiness, the potential for disturbance, that one finds in a loose bolt.
Those familiar with Derrida's critique of phonocentrism and logocentrism will recognise that the graphic importance of the "a" in differance demonstrates that signification (whether in speech or in writing) is never present to itself. Indeed, one sees this worked out through many of Derrida's writings. It is the nature of writing (and the nature of the academic institution) to make differance present; or, to put it slightly differently, it is always an outcome of our scholarly context that differance is turned into a concept, a method, or a potential application (however, one sees this most often with regard to deconstruction). Thus, part of Derrida's strategy throughout his career is to continuously displace differance with new terms (such as pharmakos, spectrality, etc.) to frustrate this constant sedimentation.
Another somewhat obvious (but no less crucial) element in "Differance" is Derrida's occasional gesture towards a negative politics. Differance
governs nothing, reigns over nothing, and nowhere exercises any authority. It is not announced by any capital letter. Not only is there no kingdom of differance, but differance instigates the subversion of every kingdom. Which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom. (Margins of Philosophy, 22)In much the same way Derrida describes the "a" of differance as an Egyptian Pyramid: "This stone -- provided that no one knows how to decipher its inscription -- is not far from announcing the death of the tyrant" (4). This abdication of mastery is offset by a closing affirmation ("in a certain laughter and a certain step of the dance"), but the politics of differance are clearly premised on a certain kind of violence done from inside the text, and from the inside of Derrida's inherited tradition. As we move further into Derrida's more overtly political work, I'm expecting that questions of violence and responsibility will be at the forefront of our engagement.