This week I take my turn to introduce our readings. In response to:
J K Austin, “How to do Things with Words”, 1962
We are now reading:
J Derrida, “Signature Event Context”, 1971
J Searle, “Reiterating the Differences”, 1977
To be followed next week by:
J Derrida, “Limited a b c”, 1977
J Derrida, “Afterword”, 1987
I will start with a summary of this week’s readings, followed by some remarks of a more critical nature. I ask to be excused from the lengthy nature of the summary of Derrida’s article in particular. This is partly due to some difficulties we had in following his argument through (with some some ambiguities and confusion resulting in our discussion…), but also because it is relevant both to Searle’s critique and Derrida’s subsequent replies.
“Signature Event Context” is composed of three parts and an introduction. The introduction presents the problem of the defineability of communication, and relates this to context on the basis “that the ambiguous field of the word ‘communication’ can be massively reduced by the limits of what is called a context” (p.2). This in turn defers the problem to that of whether “the conditions of a context are ever absolutely determinable?” (p.2). There is then a hint of the deconstructive strategy to be employed ahead: not only is there a “theoretical inadequacy of the current concept of context (linguistic or nonlinguistic)” but also working through the question of determinability of context will require “a certain generalisation and a certain displacement of the concept of writing” (3).
In the first section, “Writing and Telecommunication”, Derrida examines some canonical statements concerning writing. Over a number of pages, Derrida follows Condillac to demonstrate the “classical concept of writing”. This concept focusses on the “representational character” of writing, which develops in complexity over time: “[Representation] will become the representation of a representation in various systems of writing, hieroglyphic, ideographic or phonetic-alphabetical” (5). Derrida claims this analysis is “ideological”, in the sense that signs function “as representation of the idea which itself represented the object perceived”. Writing is a “species” of a communicative system of signs “which circulates a representation as an ideal content (meaning)” (6). Within any such system, there is a notion of absence: signs refer to ideas which may refer to a potentially absent referent. Derrida writes “every sign… presupposes a certain absence” (7). Writing however has another notion of absence: “the absence of the receiver” (7). With writing, “My communication must be repeatable – iterable – in the absolute absence of the receiver or any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers” (7). Crucially for a theory of communication, writing as one particular species, because its marks are “repeatable – iterable” in a multitude of contexts, is “cut off from all absolute responsibility, from consciousness as the ultimate authority” (8). From species back to genre, Derrida now wishes to generalise back from writing to communication in general: “I would like to demonstate that the traits that can be recognised in the classical, narrowly defined concept of writing, are generalisable. They are valid not only for all orders of ‘signs’… but moreover… for the entire field of what philosophy would call experience, even the experience of being: the above-mentioned ‘presence'” (9). This is quite an extraordinary move – Derrida claims what is “classically” regarded as one technique among many, and by no means one essential for human communication, demonstrates characteristics that characterise, in turn, “all orders of ‘signs'”, “experience” and “presence”.
What are these all-important “traits”?
- A written sign can iterate in the absence of an author (or the “empirically determined subject who, in given context, has emitted or produced it”).
- Due to its iterability, writing can always be read out of context (away from its author).
- More elliptically, the rupture of context is “tied to the spacing that constitutes the written sign” (9), a spacing which is “the emergence of the mark” (10).
Now since speech, experience and presence similarly admit the possibility exemplified by writing, of being separated from not only a “referent” but also of a “determinate signified”, and the “intention to signify”. Granted speech may work this way; but experience? Only “if it is conceded that there is no experience consisting of pure presence but only chains of differential marks” (10). In other words, experience itself comprises a significatory system, with the same “traits” as writing – this is (probably) a rather large concession, with further elaboration tantalisingly absent.
In support of this, Derrida discusses Husserl’s analysis of the possibility of absent referents and signified. In the case of absent referents, a statement like “The sky is blue” can be understood even if a) the hearer cannot see the sky, b) the speaker cannot see the sky, c) poor visibility of the sky, d) the speaker being mistaken or e) the speaker being deceptive. In these cases the referent is absent, but the statement can still be understood. In the case of absent signifieds, there are three possible kinds of utterances: a) random symbol manipulation, which can still permit the sign to function, to be understood; b) the lack of objective signifieds – what are sometimes called analytic contradictions – such as “The circle is squared”; and c) agrammatical utterances, like “the green is either” which – precisely because it can function as an “example of agrammaticality” – still can be interpreted in some way. And it is precisely this ability for the most meaningless of utterances to have meaning, in the context of being used as an example, cited as an example, that highlights the ability of signs to “engender an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable” (12). Derrida concludes be asking rhetorically: “What would a mark be that could not be cited?” (12). So much for part one.
Part two (“Parasites. Iter, of Writing: That It Perhaps Does Not Exist”) commences by announcing it will be focus on the “problematic of the performative” (13), the first announcement of the “main” topic of the essay – Austin’s speech act theory (see the reading group’s previous post). Derrida declares his interest with a four-fold explanation: 1) Austin’s speech acts are explicity acts of communication; 2) the speech act category of communication “is relatively new”; 3) a performative does not refer outside of language – rather it “produces or transforms situation”; 4) consequently performatives are judged not in terms of truth/falsehood, but rather in terms of force. For these reasons speech act theory constitutes a disruptive theory of communication, which is not limited to the transmission of “semantic content”, but produces particular effects. Derrida continues: he would like, following his demonstration of the traits of writing and communication systems in general, to show how these traits can blur the set of oppositions “whose pertinence, purity and rigor Austin has unsuccesfully attempted to establish” (14).
The first step towards this demonstration is to show the speech acts are contingent upon context, and upon the central role of intention. This leads Austin to repeat the steps of the tradition he wishes to avoid: “Austin’s procedure… consists in recognising that the possibility of the negative (in this case, of infelicities) is in fact a structural possility… then, in a move which is almost immediately simultaneous… it excludes that risk as accidental, exterior, one which teaches us nothing about the linguistic phenomenon being considered” (14). The most striking example of this is Austin’s exclusion of the possibility of the “quoted” utterance, on the basis that it “remains abnormal, parasitic” (16). The relevance of the preceding discussion of writing becomes clear: “It is as just such a ‘parasite’ that writing has always been treated by the philosophical tradition” (17). Just as writing can be shown, as a species of communication, to exemplify traits of communication in general, the very possibility of “parasitic” utterance, the quote or citation, exemplifies what characterises any performative speech act at all – “a general citationality – or rather, a general iterability – without which there would not even be a ‘successful’ performative” (17). The common trait of all performatives is therefore the iterability of the utterance, which the citation demonstrates explicity. Derrida mentions those examples used by Austin: “Could a performative utterance succeed… if the formula I pronounce in order to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as conforming with an iterable model…?” (18). This concludes the main part of the deconstructive “account”, which serves to demonstrate that “those effects [of speech] do not exclude what is generally opposed to them, term by term; on the contrary, they presuppose it, in an asymmetrical way, as the general space of their possibility” (19).
The third part, “Signatures”, is a sort of playful coda to the main argument. Here Derrida makes use of Austin’s attempt to use the signature as a stand-in, in the case of written utterances, for the presence of the speaker in spoken utterances. Signatures represent yet another exemplar of the iterability of the sign: “In order to function, that is, to be readable, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production” (20). Derrida concludes with a three-fold statement of writing: firstly, it can be broadened and generalised to cover other acts of communication; secondly, writing is not contained by a “semantic horizon”, rather it is re-interpreted with every reading; and finally, by retaining the concept of “writing” (instead of introducing, for example, a neologism or new term), deconstruction aims to “put in practice a reversal of the classical oppostion and a general displacement of the system” (21). The purpose of this? Among others, to intervene in the historically established hierarchy of oppositions (fact/value, speech/writing, serious/non-serious, pure/parasitic) with greater effect than Austin had attempted to do with speech act theory.
Searle’s critique is considerably smaller and less dense. It in turn has two parts. The first of these, “Writing, Permanence and Iterability”, analyses Derrida’s first part (“Writing and Telecommunication”). Searle charges Derrida with choosing the wrong candidate for distinguishing the salient trait of writing as opposed to speech. It is neither iterability, nor the absence of the sender, but rather the permanence: “it is this phenomenon of the permanence of the text that… distinguishes the written from the spoken word” (200). Derrida’s argument, by contrast, “rests on a simple confusion of iterability with permanence” (201). Searle also charges Derrida with claiming that writing breaks with “the author’s intention” and “intentionality in general” (201), and provides several examples of this. He also points out that in Derrida’s example of agrammaticality above, the utterance is not in fact meaningful – it can be mentioned in a meaningful utterance, but not used in a meaningful utterance. All this is indicative of the fact that: “Derrida has a distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false” (203).
In the second part, “Derrida’s Austin”, Searle goes from Derrida’s analysis of writing to Derrida’s portrayal of Austin and speech act theory, drawing on the second part of Derrida’s essay. Here Searle is no more complimentary: “the internal weaknesses in his arguments are closely tied to these misunderstandings” (203). For the remainder of the critique, he offers five criticisms of Derrida’s reading: 1) Austin’s exclusion of “parasitic” utterances is a “research strategy”, not an ontological or axiological exclusion, and moreover “temporary” – some future elaboration of speech act theory could well include these sorts of utterances; 2) From this exclusion, Derrida mistakenly attributes to Austin a “moral” judgement about such “parasitic” utterances, and moreover that Austin thought of citations as opposed to “ordinary” language; 3) Derrida confuses the use/mention distinction, when for instance in reciting lines of a play, someone may be using the lines, but not mentioning them; further, he incorrectly accuses Austin of ignoring iterability by excluding parasitic discourse; 4) Derrida confuses logical with historical precedence – non-fiction logically precedes fiction, whereas speech historically precedes writing; 5) Derrida claims that “iterability of linguistic forms… militates against the idea that intention is the heart of meaning of communication” (207), whereas in fact this has not be demonstrated by his account.
Searle then concludes with a brief encapsulation of (revised) speech act theory. Speech acts are events with distinct properties; by virtue of recursive application of a set of linguistic rules, speakers with finite vocabularies can produce an infinity of intentioned speech acts, and hearers can understand them; iterability applies both not only to signs but to rules; and finally “Iterability [of both word and rule]… is the necessary presupposition of the forms which that intentionality takes” (208).
Having spent considerable time in exegetical mode, I will offer a few points. Prima facie what headway I’ve made with Derrida’s analysis is fairly provisional, and I possibly have some sympathy with one of Searle’s points. But:
- One of Searle’s few incontrovertible points is that “it would be a mistake… to regard Derrida’s discussion of Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions” (198). Searle’s response is frustrating precisely because from its first words it renounces the possibility of what might well be a profitable “confrontation” – or at least a discussion, debate or conversation. The tone of his article is not that of one colleague politely trying to interpret, understand or reconcile traditions with another – not that there is an onus to do so, but certainly it is an opportunity lost.
- In Searle’s critique of Derrida’s account of writing, there are several logical errors: firstly, Derrida does not claim to find the salient distinctions between writing and other forms of communication himself – instead he is looking at the “classical concept of writing”. Any resulting confusion regarding iterability, permanence, etc is either a) some confusion in the classical concept, b) Derrida’s misreading of the classical concept, or c) Searle’s misreading of Derrida’s reading. Furthermore, iterability, the possible absence of the sender, etc., are traits among others, not necessarily those which uniquely identify writing (indeed, for Derrida’s argument, they cannot). Secondly, Derrida at no point explicitly states that writing necessarily is separated from the author’s intention – Searle’s subsequent argument effectively argues against a straw man here. Thirdly, Searle’s claim that ungrammatical utterances can be mentioned but not used is quite strange – ungrammatical utterances are in fact used and understood as meaningful all the time, sometimes as examples of ungrammaticality, but most often not. Indeed Derrida’s own point here is only to tease out and explore another example of “classical” concepts, this time of meaningless statements. The question of what constitutes meaningful statements remains open for modern-day semantics; it is far from clear Derrida’s position is “obviously false” (203).
- Of the five points Searle raises in relation to “Derrida’s Austin”, I have some sympathy with the first two. Indeed it is a common criticism of Derrida that he over-dramatises an author’s strategic or rhetorical ploys to draw out points of “metaphysical” significance. However this is indeed part of his broader critique of Western metaphysics, that its metaphors, literary devices and tropes serve to undermine its overt philosophical categories and oppositions. In my view one can choose to find such a critique useful or not. However it is certainly not a “confusion” or “mistake” on Derrida’s part, but rather a conscious and explicit strategy. The fourth objection is quite strange – surely there is no logical precedence between non-fiction and fiction? Derrida’s argument is any case by my reading more a case of analogy (“see what has happened hisorically with the speech/writing opposition? We can see the same moves being made by Austin in relation to the ‘serious’/’not-serious’ opposition…”), and the ontological status of the opposition is not particularly relevant. The fifth objection misses the point of Derrida’s argument entirely. Rather the effects of iterability mean that writing, speech etc can never be reducible to intentionality: “By no means do I draw the conclusion that there is no relative specificity of effects of consciousness, or effects of speech… no efect of presence or of discursive event (speech act)… It is simply that those effects do not exclude what is generally opposed to them, term by term…” (19). Whether this is demonstrated is another matter; again it seems Searle is fighting against a straw man here.
- Needless to say (and Derrida’s subsequent essays go into considerable detail on this note), there is a striking irony of Searle’s privileging of the ‘serious’ against the ‘non-serious’ (in both content and tone), which falls prey to the very critique Derrida is making of Austin.
- Surely there are other, more accurate criticisms of Derrida’s reading of Austin? N Pepperell suggested in a similar vein that Derrida over-plays the significance for Austin of the “total context” for determining the success of a performative. No doubt subsequent readings and criticism have explored this as well.
- In short, it seems to me Searle systematically and wilfully misinterprets Derrida, as he suggests he might. But this up-front caveat strangely introduces no note of caution, no hesitancy when Searle proceeds in his attempt to dismantle Derrida. This prompts the obvious question: given Searle’s interest and thoroughness elsewhere, what could possibly motivate such a lazy effort? A “confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions” might explain certain differences in approach, method, terms, strategies etc. – however the motivation here seems distinctly more personal. This is all the more irritating for the fact that speech act theory and deconstruction, as two kinds of investigation into language, seem to share some common concerns – a point Derrida underlines on several occasions.
Much too long, no doubt – next week I’ll endeavour to abreviate…