The Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was a prolific writer whose influence extended to such varied fields as literary theory and semiotics as well as philosophy. Among the many issues addressed in his work is the concept of time. Noteworthy for his pervasive use of irony, Derrida is a master of playfulness. There is, for instance, an element of risk in his philosophy because he contends that his thought might not mean anything. Overall, Derrida offers no thesis and no philosophical position, because any distinctions that he makes he also undermines at the same time. Even though he leaves a reader with no identifiable philosophical position, he does adopt a method that he calls deconstruction.
Derrida’s method promises to undo what he calls onto-theology, which can be identified with metaphysics, or what he calls logocentrism, which Derrida defines as the subordination of writing to the spoken word (logos). He equates logocentrism with the metaphysics of presence, which is the archenemy of deconstruction. As an expression of the metaphysics of presence, the fundamental error of logocentrism represents an illusion that reality and its categories are directly present to the mind.
Deconstruction is a method that does not produce anything, but it does reveal what is already present in a text. It is possible to grasp deconstruction as a simultaneous dismantling and building up because whatever position is taken is immediately negated. Deconstruction is exorbitant in the sense of exceeding the track of its orb. By passing through the line that it traces, deconstruction is a double crossing: a breaking through and a violation. Its exorbitant nature also means going beyond what is reasonable, just, or proper. In this regard, deconstruction undermines the propriety of reason.
Deconstruction is also a kind of double reading because it retraces a text to its limits, and it also marks the limits of a text. It is the trace that exposes the blank spaces of the text, that indicates what the text fails to constrain. At the same time, the process of deconstruction leaves tracks in the text in the form of remarks, that are like memory. This suggests that a track is already in a text, and it is only revealed by deconstruction, a process that also leaves a track in the original text. This implies that deconstruction leaves a text not dissimilar from its condition prior to deconstruction, but yet it is not the same. The remarks cut the text, and they perform an act of castration, so to speak, by clipping the logos of the text. The basic aim of deconstruction is to return to the metaphoric, poetic language where the power of signification has not been exhausted, in a process that leads to greater self-awareness. Being the deconstructionist, Derrida performs like a mime who occupies a position outside, or on the edges of the logocentric Western tradition. The mime’s actions allude to nothing, reflect no reality, and produce merely effects of reality.
Because the concept of time is connected intimately with metaphysics and its concomitant presence, there is no alternative notion of time possible from the viewpoint of Derrida. As this is the case for Derrida, an alternative approach to the problem of time and its metaphysics of presence is his neologism differance, which is a finite movement preceding and structuring all opposition, that possesses a spatiotemporal significance for Derrida. Differance originates before all differences, and its “ance” ending indicates that it is neither simply a word nor a concept; it is neither active nor passive; and it is neither existence nor essence. It makes no appearance because it is not a phenomenal entity, whereas its movement represents a play of traces. This play of traces possesses no sense, because by presenting itself, a trace simultaneously effaces itself.
Differance is etymologically associated with the English term differing, which suggests a kind of spacing, and its association with deferring implies a temporalizing in the sense of a delay or postponement. Being simultaneously spacing and tem- poralizing, differance precedes time conceived as presence because the nothing of differance takes priority over being or time. This implies that absence precedes the presence of the present moment or being present, which suggests that presence is always deferred.
By thinking from the standpoint of differance, Derrida opposes any unity between being and time or place and time because their unity represents sameness, which suggests something static and unchanging. As Derrida thinks that there is no realm of differance because it subverts every realm, including its own, this implies that space and time are not intrinsically interconnected because spacing designates no presence, which is an irreducible exterior and a displacement indicating an irreducible otherness.
Because differance is in a constant state of flux, neither presence nor the present moment has a privileged place in Derrida’s philosophy. This constant movement represents the play of traces, which is devoid of sense because the traces constantly efface themselves. The trace compromises the present moment and any residue of a past experience. In other words, the trace makes it impossible for a person to ever be located in a selfcontained present moment.
Derrida’s notion of time is also characterized by deferral, which suggests that what is happening is always to come. This implies that time is always slipping away. Nothing is ever stable or static; everything is subject to a process of change. Consequently, all past change can be recognized only from the perspective of the future, which is also subject to a process of transformation. For Derrida, the future is not something that will become present, but the future is rather that which makes all presence possible and at the same time impossible. A major consequence is that a self cannot become present to itself. Even though our existence is temporal, the experience of selfpresence always eludes us. Instead of self-presence we must wait, or our experience is deferred, which Derrida refers to as messianic.
Derrida’s notion of messianic must not be confused with the historical faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because these monotheistic religions expect a Messiah with certain characteristics, such as maleness. Derrida calls and waits for the wholly other, or Messiah, to arrive. Derrida’s Messiah, however, can never actually arrive, which is true even if the Messiah does come.
Because the futuristic Messiah is a completely ungraspable and unknowable other, we cannot truly know him even when he is present. Derrida thinks that our existence involves waiting expectantly for a messianic future event. We can wait actively or passively, but we must have openness toward a future that is noncircumscribable by any prior horizons of meaning that we impose upon the possible future. This is not a future that can ever become a present moment; it is forever deferred. We must thus remain open to an unknown and ungraspable futurity. For Derrida, time thus represents a disunity and uncertainty.
See also Deleuze, Gilles; Futurology; Metaphysics; Postmodernism
Derrida, J. (1981). Dissemination (B. Johnson, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J. (1988). Speech and phenomena and other essays on Husserl’s theory of signs. (D. B. Allison, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Derrida, J. (1992). Given time: I. Counterfeit money (P. Kamuf, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.