"Derrida’s argument was that Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’. Even Heidegger, a radical critic of metaphysics, had failed to escape its snares. This illusion, according to Derrida, was the corollary of a long history of ‘logocentrism’: a privileging of the spoken word as the repository of ‘presence’, at the expense of writing, which had been denigrated as a ‘dangerous supplement’, alienated from the voice, secondary, parasitic, even deceitful.
Derrida wanted not only to liberate writing from the ‘repression’ of speech, but to demonstrate that speech itself was a form of writing, a way of referring to things that aren’t there. If logocentrism was a ‘metaphysics of presence’, what he proposed was a poetics of absence – a philosophical echo of Mallarmé’s remark that what defines ‘rose’ as a word is ‘l’absence de toute rose’. Derrida, a passionate reader of Mallarmé, made a similar argument about language by drawing on – and radicalising – Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. Saussure had argued that words acquire their meaning through their difference from other words – specifically from the differences between phonemes – rather than from their referents. Derrida went a step further, arguing that meaning itself is subject to what he deliberately misspelled as différance, a pun on the verb différer, which means both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’. (He spelled différance with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘e’ because it could only be read, not heard: a mark of the primacy of writing over speech.) The meaning of what we say, or write (a distinction without a difference, for Derrida), is always ‘undecidable’; it hardly takes shape before it dissolves again in an endless process of differing and deferring."
Excerpt from Not in the Mood by Adam Shatz at London Review of Books.