Difference and Differance

I didn’t know it back then but I had been a structuralist in high school.

It was during my mid-teens that I had stumbled upon a truth: that good meant nothing except when seen against evil. Put another way good can only exist if evil existed. By being brought up in a Catholic school meant I had to think about these things. Sad but true.

So if we look at the Christian God his whole existence really depends on the existence of the devil. Even though this doesn’t make sense because God is suppose be the first, even preceeding time. But really God and the devil could be said to have come into existence simultaneously. This of course is looking at God and the devil as logos, symbols or words which represent an idea and not really at God from the Christian believer point of view (I do not believe in God or gods). And that these logos have only meaning in relation to each other without internally stable meanings.

So the view I had back then was really a Saussurean structuralist outlook but did not know until much much later (like until a couple of days ago). Saussure saw words or signifiers as a system of difference. Signifiers as one half of the sign (the other half being the signified) were in Saussure’s words arbitrary. This means any combination of letters chosen to be put together in a way to represent something only had significance when it was contrasted to (every) other combinations of letters within the system. So ‘bat’ and ‘bet’ by its difference of one letter represents two entities. But it needn’t be a difference of one letter. ‘Bat’ and ‘esophagus’ are different not only in the number of letters they have but also by the distance of how completely different these two signifiers are.

Later Jacques Derrida, the French theorist, chose to use the word differance instead of difference to further develop on Saussure’s discovery. While Saussure had already stated that signifiers are both arbitrary and without meaning (or “meaning” is only made through differences to all other signifiers) he failed to see the radicalness of it and follow through on its implications. By choosing to use a different signifier ‘differance’ instead of the normal ‘difference’ Derrida wanted first to highlight a nuance. Differance served as the ground for play of pronunication (difference and differance do not differ in their pronunciation, thus highlighting their sameness) as well as serving as the ground for play of similarity between ‘differ’ (as in difference) and ‘defer’ (that meaning is always delayed, never fully being there because signifiers are always empty in meaning).

Critics have accused Derrida of being clever without real substance. Yet there is nothing wrong with being clever while still having something significant to say. Some thinkers miss the point and attempt to play in the Derridean manner but lack his substance, and therefore give Postmodernism a bad name. While others forego the cleverness all together and get to the point but perhaps boring their readers somewhat.

In the best tradition of the sutras of the Buddha I will give you the four possible combinations, from worst to best. You can lack cleverness and have no substance. You can be clever but have no substance. You can lack cleverness but have substance, or you can be clever and also have substance.

Derrida was definitely the last. Most good theorist are probably second from last. Bad postmodernists who hide behind their cleverness fit in the second category. And we won’t even bother to mention who goes into the first category.

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