Derrida sought to subvert structuralism. He pointed out that if signifiers acquire meaning through their differences from one another, there is no reason why this process shouldn’t go on forever. Each signifier points to a signified, its meaning, that is itself another signifier, and so on ad infinitum. There is no stable halting point in language, but only what Derrida called ‘infinite play’, the endless slippages through which meaning is sought but never found.
The only way to stop this play of difference would be if there were what Derrida called a ‘transcendental signified’ – a meaning that exists outside language and that therefore isn’t liable to this constant process of subversion inherent in signification. But the transcendental signified is nothing but an illusion, sustained by the ‘metaphysics of presence’, the belief at the heart of the western philosophical tradition that we can gain direct access to the world independently of the different ways in which we talk about and act on it. With this argument what came to be known as post-structuralism first took shape.
Derrida’s most famous saying must be understood in this context. It was translated into English (rather misleadingly) as, ‘There is nothing outside the text.’ In fact, Derrida wasn’t, like some ultra-idealists, reducing everything to language (in the French original he actually wrote “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” – ‘There is no outside-text’). Rather he was saying that once you see language as a constant movement of differences in which there is no stable resting point, you can no longer appeal to reality as a refuge independent of language. Everything acquires the instability and ambiguity that Derrida claimed to be inherent in language.
Callinicos, A. (2004). Obituary: The Infinite Search.
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