Différance: Reflex and Double Articulation – The concept  of “différance” was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida. He came to it by way of a lineage of reflexive thinkers beginning with Nietzsche, the thinker who’s so reflexive, he posits that even emptiness, death, the abyss, gazes back. (And calls the world to itself: Abyssus abyssum invocat.)

What do we mean by reflexive? Examine first the parts of the word, its morphemes (blocks of sound with linguistic meaning), which are themselves semantemes (units of meaning). Re implies do again, do over; also, relevant, related. Flex means to bend, to move.

Think of its hip hop meaning. To flex, to stun/stunt, to shine. This is already a symbolic movement, flexing as moving from the self to others. Reflexing would be a recursion, a moving back from the others to the self. Reverb. But, more generally, flexing, especially in the hip hop usage, implies a flexing of something, of a type of power, a force. Signification of force. And resignification. Signs go out and return back. To flex is to act. To act, to carry a force. To do a thing. There must be a subject (or must there?), and an object. Reflex, re-act, but carrying the first action back upon the second. The word implies in-folding/en-folding. The recursion of consciousness on consciousness: This is what is meant by reflexivity.

Orage defines human consciousness as exactly this, in opposition both to animal consciousness (which is consciousness, true, but without recursion) and to supra- or ur-human (divine) consciousness, which is consciousness that is somehow re-refolded, adding a dimensionality we humans cannot (yet? generally?) grasp—though “grasping,” tracing, solidifying is already an impossibility, a nega-action which negates folding, flexing, holding and letting go of (consciousness, force, signification). Reflexing, reflection, these are related terms.

The mirror of consciousness is, however, only one example. It is one example of what Deleuze and Guattari call double articulation. This is a great term, because:

  1. Articulation means exactly what it is: Articulate means to make clear, to literally sculpt so as to be self-movable, jointed.
  2. Articulation comes from lobsters’ joints. Keep them in mind, as image of a thing that folds back to touch itself, a hand built of hands. It also comes from geology, from the shifting/compositing/enfolding strata of the live magmal earth. Keep that in mind because it sets up for a us a territory that is also an order of refolding, building a rhizome instead of an “out there,” gallery-ified piece of art.

Where else do we see double articulation, and how does this help us understand différance, or the play (jeu) of signification that creates not only semantic meaning, but consciousness, at least on the order of the human?

Answering the first should be easy. What is doubly articulate?  Language, the sign. We have the articulation of the sign itself: One thing, the signifier, stands in place of, speaks for, articulates on behalf of, another—the so-called signified. I write the word chair because I cannot email you a chair, when I want to speak of chairs. Even if I could send you a chair, I would have to speak of it; I would have to think of it. Thinking already implies that I hold concepts which are not themselves final, but are somehow representative. Mentalese, words—they stand-in for (articulate for) things. Symbolic. From an early age, we are trapped in the order of the symbolic, which is equal to the order of the human (Lacan). We represent our thoughts to ourselves, as thoughts.

This adds the second articulation: We never represent “true” objects “out there” using signs; it is not possible for mean to say “chair” and mean exactly “chair.” Instead, “chair” always means much more than chair. It means a tree, a rest, solidity, familiarity, dentistry, offices, and so on, and so forth. When you hear “chair,” you, the object, substitute for “chair” (the signifier) not, in the end, the “real thing,” but a play of new signifiers. Each signifier is doubly articulate. It means more than it means. This is what Derrida means by jeu, play: Consciousness is a play of language upon itself. We cannot seem to escape this double articulation, everywhere. We cannot escape our purely substitutional ability to think.

Différance steps in at this molecular-signal level. We do not consciously feel the substitutions occurring. We feel our world is solid; our self, formed. But at the level of the unconscious—which is real, despite the anti-scientific bent I’ve notice in many Gen-Y humanities students—différance takes over. Derrida means by différance a pun in French which works reasonably well in English, too; “defer,” deference, waiting-for, waiting-to-come-into-being, suddenly and unexpectedly encounters “differ,” difference, being-different-from, never-being-same-as. That signifiers defer their meanings is already apparent.

Ultimately, Derrida locates différance in philosophy with death, in that we each have only one utter, unique singularity, and that is our mortality. It is the one fact, our personal ability to die, that cannot be stripped from us and that we cannot give away, but can only give. Everything else we can give. We can give falsely. Derrida is very concerned with gifts and false revelation (dissimulation). He thinks only death can provide the moral and ethical basis of existence: We recognize in the other’s death our own, and so we can choose to be responsible and give ourselves, literally give our deaths, to the other; it is all we can give; it is the source of Goodness.

In différance, we return to the molecular level. Here we are seeing how signifiers give themselves away, immediately, upon apprehension (which is their only existence; they are hyperreal, in the sense they have no solidity, no object; they are adjective only). When we find a signifier and think we have decoded it, it populates more, different signifiers, which delays the signified.

Thus différance is the engine of meaning, consciousness, and language: To delay forever the signified, the transcendent, the logos, the absolute, the total, the universal, in the name of the immanent/imminent, the signifiers-en-jeu, the unconscious—which denies not only one particular totality, but the possibility of the total.

This is why deconstruction is the apex of structuralism: The creation of more and more stable and deeper strata of structuralisms, investigating the mind and language and social institutions and myths about society and foundations of responsibility (cf Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault) eventually resulted in an examination of the molecular and of the eschatological, both of which are un-totalizable and even un-representable, both of which reveal this same break, this same process of substitution. In both cases, we must rest our ability to “know,” however temporarily, on a shifting plane of play, not on some absolute that is discoverable.

The signified will never arrive. Meaning is a net of para-meanings. This is not a theory, so much as a description of human thought and language. It actually is very old; the best translations I have read of zen texts, for example, ask the mind to go through similar convolutions. But Derrida is my homeslice in part because he is not an old monk talking about grasshoppers and kites; he is a philosopher talking about our shared, global, complex modernity.

Derrida’s concept of différance also plays into his idea, borrowed from Heidegger, of putting representations of “real” things (things with Being) into erasure. He crosses them out. He does not say Being, because Being is not something you can say. It is the quality of realness (reality, ipseity, esse). It is beyond the order of the symbolic. Différance moves signifiers permanently away from Being, from the signified. Différance is the total break with Saussure’s semiology, his neat linking of how we symbolize/sign our ideas, our “real” things in language.

What has been articulated? We bend back upon the self. We double articulate our thoughts. If we were merely or straightforwardly representational, we would be neon signs; we would be robots. Instead, our attempts at signification result in a game with no end, and the possibilities of language and of thought are forever renewed.

Likewise, at the level of the organism, we attempt to locate a Finality and a Goodness outside ourselves, but we must confront the fact that it is from an articulation of our limits, and an articulation of the limits of those limits, that we construct not only responsibility and society, but even our identity as “selves,” that is, as individuals with personal abilities to make decisions, to behave responsibly, and to think.

I think that one reason Derrida is taught less often and less thoroughly than he should be is that (exoterically, traditionally) religious instructors are uncomfortable with how nicely his earlier work on language (the play of différance, its delaying/differing double articulation, out of which arises the sign and language) mirrors his later work on the gift and on ethics (and on death, the limit from which we divide self/other, after which we can act responsibly and give the gift or fail to give the gift).

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