French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘différance’. He explicitly rules out calling it a concept for the condition of possibility for meaning. As he explains in the extremely helpful collection of interviews, Positions (1972), translated as Positions (1981), Derrida conceived this neologism in order to make apparent the way in which the French verb différer has both a temporal and a spatial dimension: on the one hand, it signals delay or reprieve (a deferred payment such as a pension, or a pre-recorded broadcast of a TV program may both be referred to in this way); and on the other hand, it is the movement that separates like from unlike. Derrida adds the third observation to the effect that différance is the process that gives rise to the very differences it announces. As such, différance is an origin one never arrives at (its presence is permanently delayed), a difference one never fully succeeds in making, and the perpetual and necessary attempt to do both these things. The term is difficult to translate because the first of the three senses is not available in the English cognate ‘to differ’, making it hard for Anglophones to ‘hear’ its inner complexity. But if one bears in mind that it refers to a condition of possibility rather than a particular form of causality or even effect then its purpose can be understood relatively easily.
In the interview already mentioned, Derrida goes on to discuss the notion of transgression in a way that illuminates quite helpfully what he is endeavoring to articulate with this notion of différance: transgression, he says, can never be achieved once and for all, because insofar as a law is transgressed it proves itself transgressive and by that measure, the act itself ceases to be a transgression; so transgression must move ceaselessly to restore the integrity of the law it wishes to transgress. For this reason, as Jacques Lacan and other psychoanalysts have pointed out, the supposedly arch-transgressor, namely the Marquis de Sade, is also of necessity an enthusiast of the law. Derrida’s reading strategy, which he calls deconstruction, assumes that différance underpins every aspect of meaning-making.