Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Re-irritating the Differences: Missives from the Mis-reading Group (I)

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”?

  1. 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”).
  2. Due to its iterability, writing can always be read out of context (away from its author).
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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…

6 responses to “Re-irritating the Differences: Missives from the Mis-reading Group (I)

  1. Zapaper December 12, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    Hello imagee, N. Pepperell, and others. I really don’t have any right to comment, probably, but I was intrigued by this summary. I have not read the works involved, but based on what you have here, I thought I might say a few things anyway–pleasae ignore if they offend.

    On the “classical concept of writing” (which I assume is summarized up in the third big paragraph): it might be interesting for you all to look at, if you haven’t already, some work by people who study the actual origin of the world’s writing systems. (I say this of course because I did an entire generals field on it…) The “classical concept of writing” (as represented above) is by no means wholly accepted by people who study how it originated. A good place to start might be a volume edited by Stephen Houston, entitled The First Writing and especially the essay in it by Robert Bagley, which is quite readable and interesting I think. But also consider the cuneiformists, who argue that the earliest writing developed not to represent speech or ideas but as an accounting technique to keep track of beer and cheese and cows and stuff.

    I’m not sure if this is relevant to the discussion, but I guess the summary just left me wondering about this “classical conception of writing” and how much weight it can really be made to bear.

    When you say “ungrammatical utterances are in fact used and understood as meaningful” are you talking about the grammar mistakes that people make in everday speech (like “there’s things I got to do”, one of my pet peeves)? Or do you mean sentences that are so ungrammatical that you can’t decipher them, such as “green is either” cited above? I think Searle must be talking about the latter case, though I agree, he should have said so. If you are talking about the latter case, you must mean something like, we are in a debate, and to make some point about ungrammaticality, you say, “green is either” and nothing else. Although that does have meaning to me (because of the context), you are still mentioning it, not using it.

    “speech act theory and deconstruction, as two kinds of investigation into language, seem to share some common concerns”
    I assumed this was part of the point behind saying that it’s “not confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions”–that they’re not sufficiently different to each represent a tradition? Or does he mean that it’s not a true confrontation because they’re talking past each other?

    I confess, I’m a Searle fan, folks, even when you think he may have gone astray. I can’t read “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…” and NOT miss the point. I can’t even understand why this is proof that Searle missed the point.

    But I admit that I am better at Chinese than at theory dialect, so please do not take anything I say too seriously. Overall, I found this discussion really interesting and I wish I could actually be there. 🙂

  2. N Pepperell December 12, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    I’ll try to write a longer response to everyone a bit later. Just wanted to say that you absolutely have the right to comment: we decided to open a parallel discussion online precisely so we could hear from other people.

    I should also indicate that I don’t think that anyone in the group is hostile to Searle in the abstract – this exchange wasn’t Searle at his best… I have to admit that I share with LMagee the sense that Searle went into this exchange more lightly than he should have – missing some obvious criticisms I think he could have made, and undercooking some of the criticisms he does make… LMagee can speak for himself, of course, but I think the group as a whole was a bit disappointed that the dispute didn’t seem to operate on a more fundamental level, with the two sides taking one another more seriously. (I should note that I actually do think Derrida takes Austin reasonably seriously in the piece that sparked this exchange – whatever one thinks of Derrida’s critique of Austin, it is, at least, an attempt at something arguably immanent to the tradition being criticised…)

    And thanks for the reference on origins of writing – we have talked periodically about looking into historical materials of this sort. Derrida is, I suspect, limiting his discussion to understandings of writing that are “classical” within a certain intellectual history/philosophy tradition – which doesn’t mean we can’t reach outside that in this discussion: Derrida’s text (or Searle’s) doesn’t have to define the parameters here. It just means that we need to understand that Derrida’s “target”, so to speak, is that philosophical tradition, and how it perpetuates a certain understanding of writing as a mechanism of communication – while also perpetuating a certain understanding of communication as a means for transmitting meaning… It then becomes an issue of whether his argument “connects” with his target, as well as figuring out how we can make our arguments “connect” with him…

    The most difficult part of reading across traditions the way this group has done, is trying to keep track of the very different things identical terms means when you shift registers and start reading another tradition. I’m also still experiencing a bit of epistemology shock from moving from writing the piece on the Chomsky-Pinker debate a couple of days ago – where I got to channel a bit of good ol’ fashioned positivism – to now trying to write about this. So hopefully you and LM will forgive me if my more substantive response waits until tomorrow or so…

  3. L Magee December 12, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    Yes, I would reiterate N Pepperell’s thanks – all such comments are most welcome. Hopefully my responses might at least clarify some ambiguities you’ve noticed.

    Firstly, I am not particularly well informed about the history of writing per se. But I think Derrida’s target here is, as N Pepperell points out, the concept of writing put forward by classical philosophy, which may very well be quite updated.

    Regarding “ungrammatical utterance” – it seems to me, even in a case like “the green is either”, that this can still be both used and mentioned. The relation of grammaticality to interpretability is more one of a set of heuristics for helping to determine meaning, rather than a set of rules without which meaning cannot function. Given the strident and dismissive form of Searle’s objection, this still seems a remarkably open question.

    Searle, I think, believes the extent of Derrida’s misinterpretation of Austin is such that no “confrontation” is possible – a claim which, if true, is only exacerbated by Searle’s reading in turn. So in this sense, for Searle, the traditions are not even talking past each other – one of the traditions (represented by Derrida) fails to understand the other (represented by Austin). Of course Searle may not even take Derrida to represent a tradition at all…

    Finally, the quote I chose does not perhaps highlight the point clearly, particularly out of context. The point is just that Derrida is *not* saying that iterability is opposed to intention, or that intention is not found in speech acts – which is what Searle alleges. Rather, the iterability of an utterance makes it difficult to assign a single and fixed intention to the utterance. Certainly I think it is possible to dispute the lengths Derrida takes this argument, but it is a qualitatively different argument to the one Searle attacks.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  4. N Pepperell December 13, 2006 at 10:20 am

    I’ll say at the outset to this comment that I am far less conversant with Derrida’s work than LM – or, likely, most readers who might wander through this thread… During the reading group discussion, I found that I kept pointing to elements of this text and drawing (very polite) blank stares, as I tried to ask what was the underlying strategy behind certain kinds of claims, and learned that my questions were confusing, because I was perceiving claims in the text that other group members weren’t sure were there. It is very, very likely that their reaction was well-informed – as I mentioned in my comment above, one of the great difficulties of jumping randomly into a tradition is an immense potential for projection, misinterpretation, and sheer beside-the-pointness… I need therefore to position my contribution here in an even more tentative light than usual, as I suspect I am being struck by aspects of the text that are at best tangential to the main argument – and that risk being traces of my own interests, rather than intrinsic or important dimensions of this text…

    Because experience suggests that my reading may be off the mark, I’ll backtrack over some of the ground LM has covered – not with the intention of connecting directly with LM’s reading, but in the interests of making it easier for other people to understand what parts of the text I’m talking about, and therefore correcting odd missteps in my own approach to this text. To prevent this comment from growing cancerous, I’ll bracket most of Derrida’s text, and focus here on a close reading of the first several pages, in order to draw out some concepts of particular interest to me – particularly something that I take to be Derrida’s argument about what I might call a “standpoint of critique”.

    The article begins with a question about whether the concept of communication can be said to have a determinate content. The next few passages, to me, sound as though they recapitulate the logic of a movement within intellectual history (but then, perhaps they would sound that way, given my training as an intellectual historian… ;-P): although Derrida presents what sound like conceptual objections to specific positions, to me, these conceptual objections sound as though they map onto historical shifts within traditional philosophical thinking about communication… Derrida begins by pointing out that content of the term “communication” cannot be fixed easily at a definitional level, given that the term encompasses not only the transmission of meaning, but the non-semiotic transmission of other phenomena that lack semantic or conceptual content. The term “communication” therefore escapes precise definition as as linguistic exchange. This ambiguity appears to be resolved when we restrict ourselves to considering the term “communication” in the context of ordinary language. This move, however, generates further ambiguities – ambiguities which we might be tempted to try to resolve by focussing attention on how communication unfolds within a specific context. (pp. 1-2)

    Derrida positions this piece as an attempt to demonstrate that even this move to context does not resolve the underlying problem, because context itself cannot be absolutely determined. Derrida characterises this fundamental indeterminacy of context as a structural matter, and argues that it undermines the theoretical adequacy of the common concept of “context”, and that it also necessitates a rethinking of the concept of writing – at least to the degree that writing is understood as a mechanism of communication, and communication is understood, in turn, as a process for transmitting meaning. (pp. 2-3)

    Derrida next turns to an analysis of what he characterises as the classic conception of writing – intending, as discussed in the comments above, the concept expressed in a particular philosophical tradition. He argues that this classic representation of writing – exemplified in Condillac – visualises writing as taking place in something like a “homogeneous space of communication” – as though writing is simply the use of specific technologies to effect the quantitative extension through time and space of a shared communicative field, with no consequences for “the unity and wholeness of meaning” (p. 3). This vision of writing, Derrida argues, is associated with a vision of communication that understands communication itself as transmission system for ideas or thoughts that precede the communicative process. This vision of communication then facilitates the interpretation that writing is nothing more than a mechanical convenience for this process of transmission. Within this framework, the development of writing can then easily come to be conceptualised in terms of a linear series of progressively more effcient mechanical tools to faciltate the quantitative expansion of a qualitatively constant process. (pp. 4-5)

    Derrida wishes to call into question this vision of writing – and, ultimately, the vision of communication that underlies it. I’ll move very quickly here through the text, and suggest that Derrida first begins to undermine this vision of writing by drawing attention to the potential, intrinsic in written communication, for the text to become divorced from its original context. Derrida suggests that writing possesses a specific structural character: it always, at least potentially, suggests the possibility for an absent reader, and therefore cannot be adequately conceptualised as the quantitative expansion of communication in the direct presence of another person. Instead, writing must be analysed for its distinctive qualitative character. The recognition of this distinctive qualitative character, Derrida suggests, then has the potential to react back on the concept of communication as the transmission of meaning, even in the context of face-to-face communications. By making it technically easier for us to recognise the potential to divorce meaning from context, the development of the practice of writing provides a historical condition of possibility for the rise of new critical concepts – concepts that can be used to reveal, not just the classical concept of writing, but also the classical concept of communication and its associated understandings of face-to-face communication, as ideological. (pp. 6-7)

    I’ll break here with the close reading. As I understand Derrida’s text, he moves next to a more extended commentary and elaboration of some of the points I’ve sketched above (pp. 7-12), and then to an engagement with Austin that seeks to apply these critical concepts by showing that, perhaps in spite of appearances, Austin’s work still retains the underlying assumptions of the classical vision of writing and of communication, and therefore continues to replicate the underlying tensions found within that classical tradition (13-19). In the final few pages – and my reading here is much more tentative than in the previous paragraphs, as the text reads a very condensed to me here – Derrida then offers some highly condensed reflections on the implications of what he calls “the increasingly powerful historical expansion of a general writing” (p. 20). He suggests – again, I have to stress the tentativeness of my reading here – that this historical expansion provides a means for rejecting both poles of a dichotomy between a desire for a return to (an impossible) romantic state of communicative immediacy, or a fixed, ideological belief in the possibility for the lockstep and mechanical propagation of uncontested meaning across spatial and temporal barriers (pp. 20-21). Derrida suggests – and I find this quite intriguing – that it is the historical development of the writing process itself that renders visible the metaphysical character of classical philosophical concepts. There are also intriguing references whose implications I would very much like to be able to tease out – e.g.:

    There is no concept that is metaphysical in itself. There is a labor – metaphysical or not – performed on conceptual systems. Deconstruction does not consist in moving from one concept to another, but in reversing and displacing a conceptual order as well as the nonconceptual order with which it is articulated. (p. 21 – italics mine)

    The text frustrates me here – I’m fascinated by what this might mean, but I can’t help but feel teased – what are we talking about here? If the reading I’ve sketched above is correct, the text is in many respects far more “materialist” than I had expected – not in the sense in which I would usually use the word “materialist”, but in the more conventional sense of looking to the development of technology to suggest critical ideals. In this case, the development and historical expansion of writing technologies seem to have made it, to use my standard term, historically plausible that particular kinds of critical sensibilities would arise – the conceptual leap required to reflect critically back on the pretensions of classical philosophy has, for historically-specifiable reasons, become shorter, easier to make. This enables us to make sense, then, of the secular, non-metaphysical basis for the rise of particular forms of critique.

    I may of course be entirely reading this in to the text, as this is the sort of question I focus on in my own work. Even if I’m correct, I’d suggest this text, at least, leaves equally important problems unresolved: explaining the rise of critical ideals is an essential dimension of a critical project – but so also, I believe, is understanding the historical plausibility of the forms of thought being criticised. This isn’t a strong critique, based as it is on a reading of one small text. It is, though, a question to be suspended for consideration when reading more of Derrida’s work.

  5. LMagee December 16, 2006 at 10:24 am

    Just a couple of brief remarks – there are, I think, some comments by Derrida that might elucidate these “intriguing references” – perhaps not to your complete satisfaction – on pages 96-7, and again on 119. The latter remarks in particular make (more?) clear why his “desire or need” for a deconstruction of concepts might have ethical-political ramifications, and indeed, be an ethical-political imperative.

  6. N Pepperell December 16, 2006 at 11:13 am

    Many thanks for that (you can’t tell I’m behind in my reading, can you… ;-P). I felt this was implied – I just wanted to see a clearer development of the point.

    And while I have your attention: were you trying to test trackbacks last night? (The message seemed too polite for spam, so I thought it might have been you…) If so, your attempts got caught by one of my plugins, but they did work.

    And: if you’d like to post any time later today or tomorrow on your project – or anything else that strikes your fancy – it might be a good time, as I’ll likely not post anything, and so won’t clutter the site or push your discussion down the page…

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