CriticaLink | Spivak: Echo | Terms


In the linguistic model proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, the linguistic sign is composed of a signifier (the "word," or, more precisely, the "sound image") and the signified (the mental concept to which the sound image refers). The word "tree" in English, for example, is a collection of phonemes that has become associated with the mental image of a certain kind of plant. For Saussure, there is no necessary or natural connection between the sound image and the mental image; even onomatopoeitic words differ from language to language. The relationship is "arbitrary," established conventionally within a system of differences: "tree" gets its meaning because it is different from "tee," "trek," "tart," etc.

Jacques Derrida emphasizes the difference between the signifier and the signified, suggesting not only that the sound image (or the written word, the grapheme) is different from the concept, but that it defers the concept, bumps it from its place. For this uncoupling of grapheme and "original" concept Derrida coins the term différance, differing and deferring at once. The structures of discourse--genres, arguments, laws--serve to fix the perpetual slippage of the signified away from the signifer, arresting the "free play" of différance. Partly through identifying aporias in texts, deconstruction aims to uncover this free play and to destablize the authority and power to which many structured discourses lay claim.