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Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002

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Heidegger's and Derrida's Notions of Language and Difference
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Derrida has moved on from this Saussurian sense of difference and arbitrariness to unveil a greater uncertainty in language through his notion of trace, in which all signs bear the traces of other signs from which they are differentiated – such as “pig” from “big”, the trace of “p” or “b” – in order to be meaningful. It is the idea of the trace that points towards a kind of ambiguity in the origin of meaning. What I am doing here, by tracing a link from Saussure’s sense of difference in language’s signification to Derrida’s idea of trace, is to show how both philosophers point to an overall sense of ambiguity in language, an arbitrariness, a definite uncertainty that is intrinsic, even necessary, for language to function. It is an uncertainty that goes against conventional ideas of language – that language is capable of carrying the full presence of any reality or meaning. This uncertainty strikes at the heart of logocentric Western metaphysics.

I just want to conclude for now with the emphasis upon how both Derrida and Heidegger have a similar agenda in their de(con)struction of language and its perceived stability. Heidgger, in 'Language', seems to me to be making a phenomenological point about language. Phenomenology, first as a superficial introduction, is a philosophy of consciousness based highly on intuition and is concerned with phenomena – the appearances of things and our awareness of those appearances, an awareness that cannot be grasped singularly by rational proofs and scientific data. This philosophy, in its Heideggerian sense, is committed to the exploration of what he calls the Seinsfrage, or question of Being, an investigation into what it means for something to be and into the very Being of beings. The question of the meaning of Being seeks an account of how it is that beings come about in terms of their Being or existence. This question is framed in terms of presence and presencing. If any being is existent, is present to us, how does this presence arise? In 'Language', when Heidegger deals with what language is, it would seem he is attempting to get at the possibilities of presence in language itself. It seems like a close to impossible task when Heidegger falls back on tautologies in his essay, or when he resorts to elaborate metaphors – by way of the poem, for instance – to, at the very least, hint at what language really is. However, one major feature in the essay, as well as in Heidegger’s major attempts to get at the possibilities within this presencing, is the event of differentiation, which I shall talk about and compare simultaneously with Derrida’s own différance later on.

Heidegger has been known for the opacity of his writings, their “abstruseness, impenetrability and obscurity... [full] of mysticisms and obfuscations; sham tautologies...”. Heidegger goes on about what “is” is, and raises questions about the nature of Being, which A. J. Ayer, British analytic philosopher, dismisses as a “senseless querying of what must be an absolute presupposition... Heidegger has displays of surprising ignorance, unscrupulous distortion and what can fairly be described as charlatanism.” Heidegger himself recognises his own “empty tautology” when he talks about how “language itself is language”. I have assiduously copied out these criticisms, like Ayer’s, here in my essay not to reveal my own disgruntlement with Heidegger’s writing, but to show that, perhaps, Heidegger intentionally goes beyond rational, philosophical argumentation because what he is trying to say about the actual nature of Being is, in itself, unanswerable by way of traditional logic and conventional ways of looking at the world. Moreover, I doubt very much if Heidegger can be easily dismissed as senseless when one is capable of tracing a link from Heidegger to Saussure’s own version of what difference is, and later, to Derrida’s take on difference as well. In particular, I will deal with both Derrida’s and Heidegger’s notions of difference.

I am assuming that the “dif-ference” in 'Language' is the same idea that is derived from much of Heidegger’s phenomenological discourses about the event of differentiation – the workings of difference – that is central to the issue of the possibility of presence. The concept of difference here refers to that between Being as presence and beings as present, which creates a situation where these two elements are held together at the same time of their departure from each other. It is through setting apart that both elements are held together, brought to a presence. In 'Language', Heidegger describes it as such: The unifying scission [difference] gathers together the two [differentiated elements] out of itself, insofar as it calls them into the fissure (Riss) which it itself is.

These notions of Being as presence and beings as present come into 'Language', as they appear to me to be, as notions of World and Things, an inter-penetration – not a fusion, as Heidegger himself would emphasise – between the two, with dif-ference as the threshold that sets them apart, yet providing them with their presence. This is the way dif-ference, or difference, unfolds terms into presence, and “the very mechanism of difference itself” is what Heidegger terms Ereignis, or appropriation, where terms like World and Things, like Being as presence and beings as present, “relate to, or appropriate, one another across the difference... to the extent that the event of differentiation is nothing other than the event signifying the coming about of this mutual situation”.

Derrida, in 'Signature Event Context', goes about undermining the idea that a context is a major determining force in the framing of full presence and stable meanings in writing, and also speech (both falling under the general rubric of telecommunication, as mentioned previously in this essay). At one point, he writes about how because writing is repeatable – iterable – “in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers”, a rupture in the idea that the context of a writing can claim that very writing for itself occurs. He says that it is a “radical destruction of any context as the protocol of code”. This also brings about a rupture in the notion of a continuous modification of presence. But what I want to stress here is that this rupture is related to Derrida’s notion of différance, as he talks about how “différance [difference and deferral, trans.] as writing could no longer [be] an [ontological] modification of presence”. But how does différance bring about this rupture? In his essay 'Différance', Derrida notes:

Différance is what makes the movement of signification possible only if each element that is said to be “present,” appearing on the stage of presence, is related to something other than itself but retains the mark of a past element and already lets itself be hollowed out by the mark of its relation to a future element.

Derrida also goes on to write, “This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but... there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring (ancrage)”, revealing a sense of contingency in the mark, in its signification – a presence of meaning that is seemingly whole like a reflection on the surface of water, but which fractures when one tries to pin it down with a pebble or stone. But it is the seemingly whole that allows language, or writing, to function. Derrida’s point, in my view, is that we must stop believing in this absolutism, in any kind of “anchoring”, and accept the seemingly whole as necessarily temporary, as an illusion of wholeness and of stability, where the instabilities generated by différance are essential for any kind of stability to exist and to see how one is necessary in order for the other to operate. This is because if language were merely stable, and words had pure or fixed and fully stable meanings, words would not be “normal” and would lose their flexibility to function in a variety of contexts.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002


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  Other Essay in this Issue

Familial and Erotic Love
Eddie Tay surveys Li-Young Lee.

Related Links

Heidegger links page
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Brief Heidegger biography
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Derrida: Online
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Derrida links
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