The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Presence and absence
Presence and absence: Words given a special literary application by French theorist of deconstruction Jacques Derrida in De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967) when he used them to make a distinction between speech and writing. An individual speaking words is typically present at the time they are heard, Derrida pointed out, whereas an individual writing words is usually absent at the time they are read. Associating presence with “logos” (the creating spoken Word of a present God who “In the beginning” said “Let there be light”), Derrida argued that the Western concept of language is logocentric: grounded in “the metaphysics of presence,” the belief that any linguistic system has a basic foundation, or “ultimate referent,” making possible an identifiable and correct meaning or meanings for any potential statement within that system. Far from supporting this logocentric view of language, however, Derrida argued that presence is not an “ultimate referent” and that it does not guarantee determinable (capable of being determined) — much less determinate (fixed and reliably correct) — meaning. He thus called into question the privileging of speech and presence over writing and absence in Western thought.