Saussure and Derrida

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; . . . I shall call it semiology (from Greek semeion ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be. . . . (Saussure, 1960:16) In this statement Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the twentieth-century father of the science of signs, presents his theory about language and gives a Greek name. This enterprise has considerably affected most discussions about language and of interpretation since its inauguration.
Saussure presents the linguistic system as the place of the sign. Signs don’t exist apart from a system. And it is every time a system of differences. Unavoidably, the theory of signs leads Saussure to the theory of language as system. Later, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) discovers the logocentric dynamic in Saussure’s new theory. Referring to the father of structural linguistics and semiology, Derrida leads readers beyond Saussure toward a poststructuralist future. It is this logocentrism which, limiting the internal system of language in general by a bad abstraction, prevents Saussure and the majority of his successors from determining fully and explicitly that which is called ‘the integral and concrete object of linguistics” (Cours 23). Both Ferdinand de Saussure – father of 20th-century linguistics and Jacques Derrida – founder of deconstruction made profound impact upon language theory; their ideas laid the basis for considerable developments in linguistics in the 20th century. Saussure on Language
In itself, thought is like a swirling cloud, where no shape is intrinsically determinate. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure. […] Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought, or thought from sound. To separate the two for theoretical purposes takes us into either pure psychology or pure phonetics, not linguistics.

Linguistics, then, operates along this margin, where sound and thought meet. The contact between them gives rise to a form, not a substance (Cours 155-7). This impressive statement from the posthumously published Cours de linguistique generale of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) introduces readers in what was later called as a ‘Copernican revolution’ in Western thought relating to language. Why ‘Copernican’? Because just as Copernicus had asserted that the Earth revolved around the Sun, instead of the Sun revolving around the Earth, Saussure asserts something similar on the subject of language.
His theory claimed that languages are the instruments that give human beings opportunity to achieve a rational understanding of the world in which they live. Rather than considering words as mere addition to human comprehension of reality, Saussure considered comprehension of reality as depending substantially upon human use of the verbal signs that form the language people use. Language is not secondary but, quite the reverse, central to human life. As a result, human life is linguistically constructed life. Saussure’s theory goes far beyond the traditional theory of language as something communicated.
It also goes beyond Locke’s theory of words as symbols that stand for ideas. Many linguistic philosophers had claimed that without language human reason would be lacking its principal instrument of transformation ideas into words. But Saussure’s theory goes further and deeper. Saussure indicates the phonetic and conceptual aspects of language. Linguistics was for Saussure only one subdivision of a relating to various branches science of signs that he proposed to call ‘semiology’ (semiologie). Each branch of semiology had a theory of the signs which it studied.
Consequently, linguistics would need a theory of the linguistic sign, the fundamental unit of langue. Such a theory of language Saussure proceeds to offer. As his paper-cutting analogy shows, he deals with the linguistic sign as a unit determined merely by its form. Its form has two facets, or ‘opposite sides’. The Saussurean technical identifications for these two facets of the sign are signifiant and signifie (the ‘signifying’ plane and the ‘signified’ plane) (Matthews 21). Every langue includes semiological system of bi-planar signs. Each sign has its signifiant and its signifie.
Despite the fact that each plane may, for convenience, be analyzed one by one, no linguistic sign can be determined without considering both planes that are equally important. The published in 1916 text of the Cours faithfully reflects Saussure’s theory about language. That text became the subsequent chapter in the history of ideas about language theory. The text became a cornerstone of modern linguistic theory, as well as the public declaration of a more general intellectual movement of the 20th century that had effect on such diverse disciplines as psychology, social anthropology and literary criticism.
This all-round movement is today known as ‘structuralism’. The whole question that the Saussurean theory of linguistic structure gives rise is this: ‘If our langue is a structure, then a structure of what exactly? ‘ (Matthews 69) Saussure’s answer to this question is problematic. He identified langue as being at the same time a structure of the mental operations of the human beings, and also a structure of the communicational processes by means of which human beings perform their roles as a cultural constitution.
So langue is finally supra-individual in the relation that it is placed in society and depends for its existence on cultural relations; yet it assumes in each individual the power of an internally created system of linguistic signs. More exactly, langue, Saussure claims, ‘is never complete in any single individual, but exists perfectly only in the collectivity’ (Cours 30). Derrida’s Theory of Language The theory of language to which Derrida wants to turn attention is connected with the method linguistic meaning is produced.
More exactly, the method what there is of linguistic meaning and nonmeaning in their interconnection is presented. Derrida, in his theory of deconstruction, presents the same structure for both the process of nonaesthetic negativity and the process of aesthetic negativity. “Deconstruction” is connected with an analysis of the theory of language that, similar to the process of aesthetic negativity, discovers within this theory the seeds of its own downfall. Derrida presents a theory of meaning that reflects the idea of the “iterability” of signs and what he calls their “supplementary” status.
Jonathan Culler summarized Derrida’s central idea in this regard in the following way: Our earlier formula, “meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless,” helps us recall why both projects fail: meaning is context-bound, so intentions do not in fact suffice to determine meaning; context must be mobilized. But context is boundless, so accounts of context never provide full determinations of meaning. Against any set of formulations, one can imagine further possibilities of context, including the expansion of context produced by reinscription within a context of the description of it (Menke 96).
Considering Culler’s interpretation, Derrida’s thesis of the uncircumventable proclivity of language for crisis is based on the difference between what one expects context to offer and what it can really do, when correctly viewed. The nonetheless inevitable recourse to context in the determination of meaning thus results in a crisis for every attempt to comprehend language. What is supposed to generate definitiveness is itself unlimited and thus the source of unmanaged difference. Derrida’s general thesis thus is based on the idea that the understanding of the meaning of signs can only function in a context-bound way.
At the same time that contexts cannot define the meaning of signs since they are themselves boundless. The boundlessness that meaning opens itself to in its context-boundedness is in no way eo ipso the boundlessness of a difference that is inconsistent with any identity of meaning (Menke 90). Derrida himself realizes his argument that a “thousand possibilities will always remain open even if one understands something in this phrase that makes sense” (Menke 96) in an equivocal fashion. On the one hand this idea means: every sign can function in different and boundlessly many contexts.
This is precisely what determines the iterability of signs: their reusability in contexts that are not actually those in which they were first placed. The usability of signs in boundlessly many contexts in itself, though, in no way is opposite to the definitiveness of its use and meaning as determined by rules of language. Although one might note, with Derrida, that the deconstruction of logocentrism is a search for “the other of language” (Derrida 1984, 123), this does not contribute to the statement that deconstruction is originally concerned with a linguistic theory.
This is first and foremost the question of the concrete instance, of “the other, which is beyond language” (Derrida 1984,123). Far, then, from being a philosophy that according to its critics, states that there is nothing beyond language and that one is confined within language, deconstruction can be considered as a response. “Deconstruction is, in itself, a positive response to an alterity which necessarily calls, summons or motivates it. Deconstruction is therefore vocation – a response to a call” (Derrida 1984,118).
Derrida claims that the character of deconstruction is not solely positive, that is not merely an assertion of what already exists and is known, but that it is an assertion of what is wholly other (tout autre) (Derrida 1992, 27). Derrida claims that difference is not something that can appear in logocentric discourse: “differance is not,” Derrida explains, “preceded by the originary and indivisible unity of a present possibility that I could reserve…. What defers presence, on the contrary, is the very basis on which presence is announced or desired in what represents it, its sign, its trace…. Differance is “that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all the oppositional concepts that mark our language… ” (Positions, 89).
Differance is neither structure nor origin, “such an alternative itself being an ‘effect’ of differance. ” Even so, studying the operations of differance requires that the writer use such concepts as structure and origin and “borrow the syntaxic and lexical resources of the language of metaphysics” even if the writer wishes to deconstruct this language ( Positions, pp. -10). Derrida indicates that differance is not an origin. Neither language nor writing springs in differance. Instead, Derrida says, differance allows the play of absence and presence, writing and thought, structure and force by means of which the question of origin comes to know itself. Saussure and Derrida Exactly at this point one is faced with one of the most problematic though fascinating dimensions of Derrida’s theory.
The problem, stated above, is that, as soon as it is recognized that there are no simple, unsignified, transcendental signifiers that fix and warrant the meaning of the words, that there exist no originals to which the words can be attributed, one comes to conditions where even this acknowledgement itself seems to have become “floating” (May 125). Derrida resolves this difficult situation with the help of above discussed theory of signs and of language developed by Ferdinand de Saussure.
Despite the idea that language is in a fundamental way a naming process, attaching words to things, Saussure had claimed that language is a system, or a structure. In the structure any individual element is meaningless outside the boundaries of that structure. In language, he asserts, there are only differences. But – and here the ideas of Saussure are basic for Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence – these differences are not differences between positive terms, that is between terms that in and by themselves are connected with objects or things outside the system.
Accordingly, in language, Saussure indicates, there are only differences without positive terms (May 127). But if this is true, if there are no positive terms, then it means that one can no longer define the differential position of language itself by means of a positive term either. Difference without positive terms indicates that this dimension must itself always be left unperceived for, roughly speaking, it is unconceptualizable. It is a difference that cannot be returned into the order of the same and, through a signifier, given individual characteristics.
This suggests, then, that “the play of difference, which, as Saussure reminded us, is the condition for the possibility and functioning of every sign, is in itself a silent play” (Derrida 1982, 5). If, however, one wants to articulate that – one must first of all admit that there can never be a word or a concept to correspond to this silent play. One must also admit that this play cannot merely be exposed, for “one can expose only that which at a certain moment can become present” (Derrida 1982, 5).
And one must ultimately admit that there is nowhere to begin, “for what is put into question is precisely the quest for a rightful beginning, an absolute point of departure” (Derrida 1982, 6). All this, and more, is acknowledged in the new “word” or “concept” – “which is neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982:7) but a “neographism” (Derrida 1982:13) – of differance. The motive why Derrida uses “what is written as difference” (Derrida 1982, 11) is not difficult to understand.
For although “the play of difference” (Derrida 1982, 11) is introduced as something for the opportunity of all conceptuality, one should not make the mistaken opinion to think that one has finally discovered the real origin of conceptuality. That, expressing the same idea but differently, this play is a playful but despite that transcendental signified. Strictly speaking, in order to avoid this mistake one must acknowledge that the differences that make up the play of difference “are themselves effects” (Derrida 1982:11, original emphasis).
As Derrida claims, What is written as differance, then, will be the playing movement that “produces” – by means of something that is not simply an activity – these differences, these effects of difference. This does not mean that the differance that produces differences is somehow before them, in a simple and unmodified – in-different – present. Differance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.
Thus, the name “origin” no longer suits. (Derrida 1982, 11) Although differance is straightforwardly connected with a structuralist idea of meaning – that Derrida recognizes when he indicates that he sees no reason to question the truth of what Saussure proposes (Derrida 1976, 39), there is one important aspect in which differance is outside the scope of structuralism. The point here is that Derrida clearly refuses to accept the primary character of structure itself.
Structure is not a transcendental represented (for which reason Derrida notes that he does not want to question the truth of what Saussure proposes “on the level on which he says it [original emphasis] “but does want to question the logocentric way in which Saussure says it (Derrida 1976, 39). Structure is even less the effect of an original presence coming before and causing it (Derrida 1978, 278-9). What differance tries to express is the differential character of the “origin” of structure itself.
It is in this relation that one might observe that Derrida’s writing is poststructural. To some degree, surely, differance appears when Saussure’s examination of how language operates. “In language,” Saussure indicates, “there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms” (Positions, 120). Derrida’s differance in an obvious manner is like Saussure’s differences.
At the end of Positions, for instance, Derrida specifies “as differance the movement according to which language, or any other code, any system of reference in general, is constituted ‘historically’ as a tissue of differences” (Positions, 104). But Derrida makes an effort to go further. Whereas Saussure considers the differences in a semiotic system as the set of constantly changing relationships the speaker manipulates in order to produce meaning, Derrida defines differance as the boundless disappearance of either an origin of or a final place for meaning.
When Derrida describes differance, he always does so by examining what it is not. Rather than considering language in the traditional way, as a set of external signs of already farmed internal thoughts (characteristic of “logocentrism”), Derrida, like Saussure and modern linguistics, thinks of users of language producing coded, that is, repeatable, marks or traces that originate from within certain unities of meaning as “effects” of the code. These traces are not fundamentally meaningful in themselves but “arbitrary” and “conventional” (Menke 96).
Thus there is no difference whether one says “rex,” “rol,” or “king” so long as “we” – those who share these conventions – can tell the difference between rex and lex, roi and loi, and king and sing (Menke 96). The meaning – is a process of the difference, of the distance or the “spacing” between the traces, what is called, in an absolutely serious way, the “play” of differences or traces. By the “play of differences” Derrida defines the differential spacing, the recognized distance, the recognized (heard, seen) intervals between traces first analyzed in structural linguistics (Menke 97). Conclusion
A comprehensive historical examination of deconstruction would necessarily include numerous precursors and forerunners: Freud, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Marx, Nietzsche, Saussure. . . . However, it can be said that the history of contemporary deconstruction begins with Jacques Derrida De la grammatologie (1967) that opens with a critique of Saussure. Saussure’s theory of language is here framed within a metaphysical system that extends from Plato and Aristotle to Heidegger and Levi-Strauss. By Derrida this theory is called “logocentric. ” Saussure marks a concluding stage of the long logocentric epoch.
Derrida indicates that logocentrism imposed itself upon the world and controlled the theory of language. Derrida’s contributions laid ground for future epoch. In the role of prophet, Derrida concludes his “Exergue” indicating: “The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity. For that future world and for that within it which will have put into question the values of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, there is as yet no exergue” (Derrida 1967).

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