Jacques Derrida: Transcendental Signified

Upholding the notion of decentering, Derrida asserts that a “fixed” structure is a myth, and that all structures desire “immobility” beyond free play, which is impossible. The assumption of a centre expresses the desire for a “reassuring certitude” which stands beyond the subversive or threatening reach of any play which might disrupt the structure. The centre, that which gives stability, unity and closure to the structure, can be conceived as an “origin”, or a “purpose” — terms which invoke the notion of presence or logos that guarantee such stability and closure.

Thus, logocentrism or the metaphysics of presence is motivated by the desire for a centre that is stable and permanent and that faultlessly governs the structure. Derrida calls such a centre, the “transcendental signified” because it is a signified that transcends all signifiers, and is a meaning that transcends all signs. Various examples of such logocentrism or hitherto transcendental signifiers can be found in Plato’s notion of “eidos” or “form“, Hegel’s concept of the “absolute idea” or Kant’s categories of the understanding.

In western society, its equivalents could be democracy, freedom and so on. All these terms function as what Derrida calls the “transcendental signified” or concepts invested with absolute authority, which places them beyond questioning or examination.

Deconstruction endeavours to show the operation of logocentrism in all its forms, and to show that the transcendental signifieds are constructed within the province of language and textuality in relation to other concepts. Such concepts move from being a reality beyond language to concepts within language. They become discourses. By virtue of the Derridean concept of differance, meanings become infinitely elusive as they differ and defer in an endless chain of signification, moving from one signifier to another, giving rise to innumerable meanings in the “traces” that are left between signifiers, without ever reaching an absolute signified, thereby deconstructing the myth of the absolute “transcendental signified.”

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