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Différance for Dummies: what is différance and does it mean?


For some reason, over the past few days, I have been thinking a lot about Jacques Derrida and différance. In fact, he’s featured in some of why tweets @jackprobynbooks. (Apologies, a little plug here and there never hurt anyone did it?) I don’t know why Mr. Derrida is coming back to me in such force. I once studied différance many moons ago (in fact, I could probably count the number of full moons on both hands, but that is beside the point), at university. It was in one of my introductory lectures, specialising in literary theory. When we studied it, I absolutely loathed it.

It was tedious and to be quite frank it didn’t make much sense to me nor did I care for it. (Sorry, lecturers, if you’re reading this). But that all changed when it came to coursework and exams; Derrida became my closest acquaintance and his delightful différance was my best friend.

I mock it, and to this day, I can’t tell you what branch of theoretical literature it applies to without having to do a quick search of Google (Pah! the answers are not here for that, my friend). It could be structuralism, or post-structuralism, Marxism, modernism or even feminist theory. But that’s not the point. The point is, is that out of all the above that I have listed, différance is the only one I can remember the concept of properly – or, at least, enough detail to get me by.

Firstly, I should start off by briefly introducing the legend,derrida the man himself. Jacques Derrida was a French man. He was also a philosopher and did lots of other great things that you’ll be able to find out for yourself here. But what I can tell you for sure, is how much he loved to smoke. I mean, just look at the image here on the right. You can just imagine him sat contemplatively on a deep sofa, puffing on his pipe and thinking, “I wonder what concept I can come up with that will completely confuse the world?”

And that’s what he did: confuse the world. Albeit, my world, but a world nonetheless.

So then, let us ask the billion dollar question: WTF is différance?

Well, it isn’t a real word. Duh. At least, not in the conventional sense. But then again, what is a word? Does it have to be dictionary defined, or can it be common knowledge, with each person’s inference different to the last?

That is what différance sets out to determine.

At its most basic level, différance is the merging of the two words “difference” and “defer” (for the which the dictionary definitions will be supplied in due course… just in case).

Sounds pretty straightforward so far, right? And it is, in essence.

Firstly, to understand différance in more depth, we need to know what these two words mean. Let us look! But bear in mind the definitions for which will be given at their most basic:

  1. Difference: Difference
  2. Defer: Defer

There they are. Pretty straightforward, right? Still with me? We all know the meaning of these words, or at least, we have a vague understanding of them.

So then let us define the term différance, as determined by Derrida himself (but with the aid of wikipedia):


The difference and deferral of meaning.

Whaaaatttt? I hear you asking silently inside your head.

But do not fear. I can explain.

The difference and deferral of meaning is, when you think about it, really simple. (And I mean really think about it).

For dummies, it means we are always deferring to different meanings.

But it’s easier to explain using an example:

Let us take the definition of the word “difference”. As above, it is ‘a point or way in which people or things are dissimilar’. Here, it does not give us a concrete answer (aside from the fact there is more than one definition). This is where the deferral of meaning comes into action.

Taking the same definition, we are given some deciphering to do. To truly understand the meaning of “difference”, we need to know the meaning of all the other words that make up the original meaning. In this example, we’ll look at the big word: dissimilar

So, to know the meaning of “difference”, we need to know the meaning of “dissimilar”:


Again, we aren’t given one concrete answer. Even though one part of the definition is three words long, it still requires some unearthing. The word “same” may mean one thing to you and I, but may mean something completely different to someone else, or your mum, or your dad.

So let us determine the meaning of the word “same”:


Look at that one: there are unknown words littered all over the place. Identical. Something. Previously. Mentioned. Characteristics. Type. The list goes on. And so, we would have to define all of those other words just to define one. Hence, language is always deferring from meaning through different words.

Just to recap, we’ve gone from ‘difference’ –> ‘dissimilar’ –> ‘same’ –> endless possibilities. There is a seemingly infinite chain of deferral in order to find the real meaning.

Just like that, it has been explained to you. Just like that, it should be easy to remember. Just like that, you will be able to tell all your friends about it!

But before we go: what does différance mean for life and for the world?

The short (and only) answer: In its broadest interpretation, there is no meaning. And I like that definition (is it a definition – who knows anymore?!) so we will leave it at that.



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