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Differance is a French word coined by the French philosopher and deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida. The word is a play on several other words that illustrate Derrida’s meaning. The concept of differance is a complex theory that tries to illuminate the way words are used and how their specific meaning is derived. Derrida called differance a "neographism," meaning a term that is neither a word nor a concept and is used to describe a literary idea.
To create and illustrate the term, Derrida deliberately misspelled the French word difference although the two words are pronounced identically. Although some later critics returned to the original spelling, Derrida did this intentionally, to highlight the idea that hearing a word does not give the complete picture or meaning of it and that appearances can be deceiving. In his theory of deconstruction, Derrida claimed that because each person has different moods, backgrounds, and ways of experiencing things, a word or choice of words will not conjure up the same idea to every person.
Differance is a play on the French verb differer, which means both “to defer” and “to differ.” Derrida uses both of these meanings to describe his concept. With words, Derrida suggests, the meaning is always “deferred” as a single word cannot give a complete description. A word needs other words to give it context; therefore its meaning is deferred until more information is given. One example of the “defer” argument is the word “house.” On its own, the word gives an incomplete definition. If you say “my house,” “White House,” or “dog house,” the picture becomes more complete.
In the second description of the term, “to differ,” Derrida claims that specific words are used to differentiate specific ideas. “House,” for example, brings up a different picture than alternate words with similar meaning, such as “shack” or “mansion.” The specific words we use have an effect on the picture we create, causing it “to differ” from anyone else’s version of the same picture.
Derrida introduced the concept of differance in his book, Speech and Phenomena, in a discussion of philosopher Edmund Husserl. The concept of differance was one Derrida continued to explore, expanding its meanings in interviews and essays. Differance is also intricately connected to Derrida’s philosophical theories of deconstruction, which basically states that there is no fixed universal viewpoint, and meaning shifts based on individual perspective.
Stanley Fish, one of the developers of Reader Response Criticism, also used the term to describe how individual readers or groups of readers, might have very contrary readings of a text. For example, there are readers who view Huckleberry Finn as an anti-slavery tale, that offers a strong argument for emancipation of slaves. Other readers, or other discourse communities, feel the tale is exactly the opposite, and have worked intensely to have the book banned from libraries, and high school reading lists. How each word is taken, read, or understood is going to make extraordinary difference in final analysis. According to Derrida, all interpretations are valid, though they can create frustration among users of the same word or words.