NOTE: for some weird reason this post disappeared for a while. It’s back now. It’s actually really old. I don’t understand computers and software and all that. Obviously.

ANOTHER NOTE: As it turns out, the reappearance of this post makes it post number six hundred and sixty six. Spookier and spookier…

As a result of the recent arguments at Long Sunday, and a general exposure to people who I like and respect who take the guy seriously (said ‘people’ includes but is not limited to some of the Sundayistas), I’ve decided to read a bit of Derrida.

I’m starting with Limited Inc. These are my notes on the first piece, “Signature Event Context”.

After a quote from Austin, JD begins, “Is it certain that to the word communication corresponds a concept that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable: in a word, communicable?” (p1)

This strikes me as rushed. The implied premise here is “communicable means ‘unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable'”. From here the argument is derived that ”communication” is not communicable. But for whom is this the standard of what one means by communicable? Why should it be so? The argument seems likely to be ‘look, nothing is communicable as defined in this sense’. Fair enough. But then, if nothing is such then it is only trivially true that “communication” is not communicable in this sense.

JD continues, “If communication possessed several meanings and if this plurality should prove to be irreducible, it would not be justifiable to define communication a priori as the transmission of a meaning“. This doesn’t seem to follow, except trivially. Now, if “communication” has multiple meanings and we recognize this, then we simply wouldn’t reductively define communication solely via the single meaning of “transmission of meaning” (for to do so would not admit of a multiplicity of meaning).

I initially read this to mean “if, in an act of communication, several meanings are conveyed, then it is the case that we can not say that communication is the conveying of meaning.” That would be wrong. It would mean that the communication of meaning is volatile, in the sense that it is hard to limit what is conveyed to one selected meaning, but it would not mean that meaning conveyance does not take place.

It also struck me that while “communication” is scrutinized, we get no attention to the concept of “justification”. We don’t even get a reason why pluralty renders this definition of meaning lacking in justification.

JD continues, noting that there are multiple uses of the word “communication” – the communication of forces, two chambes communicating via a tunnel between them, etc. This striks me as uninteresting. There is no a priori reason why these sense of communicate should be rendered in (or out) of any concept of “communication” – they could be treated as part of an expanded concept or they could be treated as metaphorical uses of a term, or they could be simply treated as homophones (a la the name of the breakfast cereal company Post, post- as in post-modern, post as in “don’t leave your post! that’s an order!”, post as in “this post is about Derrida”, post as in “Griff kindly dropped a copy of the KLF record in the post for me” and post as in “I tied my bike to the lamp post”.

On p2 JD writes abot “determining how writing relates to context in general”. I can respect that he wants to pay attention to how the term “context” is used. That’s fair. But it sounds here like he wants a general theory – an account true for all contexts – of how writing relates to the relevant context. That would render the concept of context, which is basically a type of relativizing procedure, utterly contextless and void, as the point of the idea of context is to deflate universals. I think.

I like that he says that contexts are never fully determinable. Good stuff.

p7, On the centrality of absence… the writing-ness or written-ness of writing requires that it “retain its (…) readability (…) despite the absolute disappearance of any receiver, determined in general.” This seems wrongheaded to me. Writing is not predicated on the presence of the writer, clearly. The writer can change the writing, though, by saying/writing things like “I didn’t mean it! I was drugged/threatened!”, for instance. But also, there must be some receiver for writing to be writing. If all humans die off, in what way does writing meaningfully remain writing? If I carve my name into a rock face in a way that looks a great deal like a random assortment of cracks, then I and everyone I taught the code to is killed, then the assortment of cracks ceases to be writing. Unless, of course, someone else decides to treat it as writing. That is I think the crux of the matter: treating as writing, and who decides and on what criteria.

p8, “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine that is productive in its turn, and which my future disappearance will note, in principle, hinder in its functioning”. I don’t like the way this is phrased. Words don’t act. People do.

p10, “consider any element of spoken language, (…) a certain self-identity of this element is required to permit its recognition and repetition. Through empirical variations (…) we must be able to recognize the identity, roughly speaking, of a signifying form.” Well, but … is this a quality of the element, or one in the categories of speakers? Do the elements have any identity beyond the fact that we group them together into an identity? (Think of a police lineup – what do the people have in common beyond being grouped there together and the fact that we can, perhaps, afterward point to participants and say “that person was part of the police line up!”) Which is to say, JD seems to emphasize the artifact, the linguistic component, more than those who use construct or use the artifacts, ie, people and their actions. Perhaps he remedies this in the later account of Austin?

He continues, p12, “the possibility of disengagement and citational graft (…) belongs to the structure of ever mark, spoken or written (…) Every sign (…) can be cited (…) in doing so it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new context in a manner which is absolutely illimitable.” Why talk of this as a quality of words, instead of as a quality of the acts people are capable of? Words don’t break with a context or otherwise. They’re used to, they serve to, do one or the other in a setting of activity.


Derrida claims (p13) that Austin considers speech acts solely as acts of communication, regardless of whether they be il- or per-locutionary. I don’t see this in Austin at all. Particularly with regard to perlocutionary acts: if I embarass you, or delight you, I have not communicated anything to you, in the sense of transferring something from me to you (and least of all something that was in me in some way – an internal mental event, say – to you).

Derrida says that Austin’s speech acts are the communication of intentions, of meaning derived from or just as intention. I don’t see that either. If I marry you, I don’t communicate to you my intent to marry. Nor do I communicate my intent to issue a ruling when I issue a ruling. This is precisely not what Austin says, this would make performatives into reports. As I remember it, for Austin the claim is more simply that certain conventional procedures involve sincerity as one of their conditions – having certain intentions. Others don’t – “I invoke my right to remain silent!” is not contingent upon an intention to invoke the right. It’s just the utterance under the right conditions. (Incidentally, according to a training I went to once, if you’re arrested by cops in the US, always re-invoke your right to remain silent after any time to speak. So, if you say “I want to go to the bathroom, can I go to the bathroom?” upon returning – or upon being denied permission – you must say “I’m invoking my right to remain silent again.”)

“Austin’s analyses at all times require a value of context and even of a context exhaustively determined.” (14) I don’t see how this exhaustive determination is so. Austin does refer to a total speech act and total speech situation, but I see no reason why this can’t be read as an aporetic total – as something open – rather than as a fixed and predefined totality. The total situation is social, it’s just another name for ‘context’ in Austin, such that it’s not exhaustable, particularly in that new conventions can be created which can in turn form part of the context for other speech acts and other conventions.

Derrida writes “The conscious presence of speakers or receivers participating in the accomplishment of a performative (…) implies teleologically that no residue escapes the present totalization.” (14) I don’t understand this claim. Insofar as I do, it strikes me as weird. For instance, I might, in invoking my right to remain silent, frighten a bystander. Or, in begging that the bystander call my loved ones I might sadden or humiliate the bystander, or I might identify the bystander as someone else to be hauled away. None of those would be intentional, and there’s a number of other possible effects the speech act might have. (A neighbor watching out the window might be reminded of a Kafka piece, a taxi driver passing by might be moved to quit his job, a waiter at the outdoor cafe might be inspired to write a dramatic monologue, etc.) And these in turn might have any other number of effects, such that there doesn’t seem any sense in talking about a totalization. I have no idea where one would see a totalization in Austin, except perhaps in his attempt to say there’s a performative component to all constatives, which has nothing to do with the claim to a totalization in Austin’s account of the happening of performatives.

“”Ritual” is not a possible occurrence, but rather (…) a structural characteristic of every mark.” (15) Indeed. All marks are conventional. But we can identify types of conventions, or modes of conventionality. That all marks are conventional or have a ritual component does not mean there’s no difference between (in another sense of conventions and rituals) conventions and nonconventions, rituals and nonrituals. The borders are blurry, but still worth something – a christening is related to conventions. The use of marks in communication and literature is bound up with conventions. Many Star Trek fans attend conventions. These are different senses of the word “conventions”. They’re not absolutely distinct (for instance, each is referred to with a mark that they have in common, which has a certain etymology etc etc), but the difference seems at least as important as the similarity.

I’m not going to take notes on the citation stuff or the literary speech stuff. I read Searle’s response to Derrida on the bus home today (meant to wait and finish my own notes first, but I got impatient). Searle gets it right. Derrida’s simply wrong on some of his characterization of Austin – that Austin looks down on uses of speech like in plays etc.

(18) “In order for a context to be exhaustively determinable, in the sense required by Austin, conscious intention would at the very least have to be totally present and immediately transparent to itself and others”. Austin doesn’t need contexts to be exhaustively determinable. Just determinable such that people can understand how to enact or be in the presence of performatives in a way that they can either succeed or fail. And people do enact performatives. (An assertion to which Derrida responds, p17, “perhaps”, saying we first need to consider the “eventhood of an event that entails (…) the intervention of an utterance that in itself can be only repetitive or citational”. So… we’ll wait and see if people enact performatives?)

What’s with this? “We are witnessing (…) the increasingly powerful historical expansion of a general writing, of which the system of speech, consciousness, meaning, presence, truth, etc, would be only an effect and should be analyzed as such.” This event is happening, such that certain phenomena are only effects of this event? But… when? where? how? And, did those phenomena not exist prior to the event?

And ever more so, what’s with this? “writing, if there is any, perhaps communicates, but certainly does not exist.” (21)

That’s it for this piece. Notes on Searle to follow. I’m going to leave his response to Searle’s response for a while because it’s really, really long and I’m pressed for time, and because … I don’t want to think this, and it will sound snarky when I say it, but … Derrida gets on my nerves. Particularly in what I’ve read of his response to Searle. Ugh. Maybe this volume is not him at his best. I’ll give some other stuff a shot when I get some time.

For instance: “I would like to pose (…) the following question: if a misunderstanding is possible, a mis- in general (“mistake,” “misunderstanding,” “misinterpretation,” “misstatement,” to mention only those included in Sarl’s list of accusations, from the first paragraph on) is possible, what does that imply concerning the structure of speech acts in general?” (37) It implies that speech acts can fail. Austin calls this failure “infelicity”. And, is Derrida suggesting that these mis-‘s are not possible? If so, then what sense does it make for him to complain about Searle saying Derrida’s essay has two parts? If not, then why make with the long rhetorical question and the conditional?

Someone seemed to imply a similar thing in the discussion in the comments section of the post on Berube over at Long Sunday… that’s so weird.