Theories of language: difference/diffimnce
Weedon maintains that the basis of much poststructuralist thought can be traced back to a number of theoretical strands, including those of structural linguistics, particularly those of Ferdinand de Saussure. She (1987:23) notes that ‘An understanding of Saussure’s theory of the “sign” is fundamental to all poststructuralism. It is Saussure’s insistence on a pre-given fixed structuring of language, prior to its realization in speech or writing, which earns his linguistics the title “structural”.’ These theories, as Kemp (1995:63) notes, challenge the dominant ‘positivist view of language as expressing universal truths linguistically’. He maintains that the ‘positivist view of language centres around a referential view of meaning i. e. that words get their meaning by referring to objects in the real world’ (ibid.). He goes on to note that ‘the truth of a linguistic proposition is dependent on whether the objects referred to actually exist in the relations in which they are described’ (ibid; see also Weedon 1987:24).
Saussure undermines this view of language by arguing that the meaning of language is constituted in difference. Weedon points out that, for Saussure,
meaning is produced within language rather than reflected by language, and that individual signs do not have intrinsic meaning but acquire meaning through the language chain and their difference within it from other signs. These principles are important because they make language truly social and a site of political struggle.
She states that Saussure conceived of and understood language as a network of signs, each sign containing two parts. The first part is the signifier, which is a written or aural symbol, and ‘The second is the signified, which is the component of meaning’ (ibid.). Saussure maintained that signs gain their meaning, not from any individual’s use of language but from being elements in a linguistic network (ibid.).
Weedon (1987:25) notes that Derrida developed Saussure’s notion of difference to create a poststructuralist theory. He developed the concepts of difference and differance: the first concept entails difference, the second deferral. However, as Kemp (1995:64) notes, because the two words are pronounced the same, the difference can only be understood when the words are written and this reflects Derrida’s view that the written word has greater importance than the spoken.