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Saturday, October 09, 2004

Jacques Derrida, requiescat in pace, and may his work trouble us all

A reader writes in to ask whether I might not be less glib on the occasion of Jacques Derrida’s death.  Well, actually, I might not, depending on whether I have an extended free moment for such things on a weekend-- never a given in my household.  Usually, I have to wait until everyone’s asleep but me.  Like now!

And then I find in my trackbacks that even Simon over at the Blogging of the President has been touched by this death but isn’t quite sure what this Derrida fellow was on about.  So maybe it might make sense for me to post here the first intro-to-Derrida I wrote for advanced undergraduates, in a postmodernism-and-literature seminar I taught way back in 1991.  It’s not a comprehensive introduction to everything Derridean; it’s just a guide to one difficult and important essay, “Signature Event Context.” But here goes.

(Warning:  If I have any readers out there who want to complain that this intro gives short shrift to John Searle’s reply to “Signature Event Context” and to Derrida’s reply to John Searle’s reply, I want to suggest in advance that such readers would do better to go register new Democratic voters in Ohio, New Mexico, Missouri, and Florida.)

So then, here’s the intro.  Remember, it dates from 1991, so add a decade or so to all the decade references:

Part of the reason nonacademic readers dismiss deconstruction is that they don’t understand it, and part of the reason they don’t understand it is that it is indeed quite difficult to understand.  I will never comprehend why it is, however, that so many critics of Anglo-American modernist literature condemn contemporary literary theory for being too abstruse, impenetrable, self-delighting and perverse.  These are, after all, precisely the charges that were brought against modern literature seventy years ago; when defenders of modernism (which is itself now “classic,” and can therefore be defended as such, just as “classic rock” is defended by the thirtysomething crowd against punk, hardcore, rap, and other kinds of contemporary noise) turn against the kinds of writing which are in some sense descended from modernism (ask me sometime about the stylistic link between Beckett and Derrida!), well, I’m just confused.  Anyway, reading “Signature Event Context” will be for you, perhaps, something like what reading excerpts of Finnegans Wake was for me in 1982, my senior year in college.  Not everything here is going to make sense, and even the stuff that’s fairly sensible is going to be phrased strangely enough to make its apprehension rather difficult.  Hence this handy user’s guide.

Derrida’s purpose here is to inquire into, and undo, common-sense theories of meaning, writing, and “communication.” He begins with some characteristically bewildering wordplay, by noting that the word “communication” can be used in a “non-semiotic” sense, to describe (for example) adjoining rooms connected by a doorway or other passage:  our classroom communicates with the English Building’s atrium.  Is it the case, asks Derrida, that the linguistic sense of “communication” is derived from this nonlinguistic sense?  --that physical communication (through passageways) is the “literal” meaning of communication, and semiotic communications (like the one I’m writing) are merely metaphors of physical communication?  No, says Derrida, partly because

the value of displacement, of transport, etc., is precisely constitutive of the concept of metaphor with which one claims to comprehend the semantic displacement that is brought about from communication as a non-semiotic phenomenon to communication as a semio-linguistic phenomenon.

Clear as mud, no?  In more ordinary language, Derrida’s point is that we can’t very well speak of linguistic communication as a “metaphor” for physical communication, because we would therefore be assuming that “metaphor” itself is a communication, a passageway, between “literal” and “figurative” meanings of things; and if we assume that, then we assume we know what the literal meaning of something is, what its figurative ("metaphorical") meaning is, and-- most of all-- how we get from one to other and back again.

Of course, we make these assumptions all the time:  we think that we all have “mouths” in a literal sense, that there are “mouths” of rivers or bottles in a figurative sense, and all we have to do to shuttle from one meaning to the other is to get on the metaphor bus that communicates between the two.  (But the problem here is:  did I just use “shuttle” and “bus” to communicate figuratively the meaning of metaphor as communication?  And if so, then how did I do that?) Derrida goes on to argue that this theory of meaning rests on some fundamental, and fundamentally shaky, assumptions about writing and intention.  Our first example here is Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, an eighteenth-century French philosopher whom Derrida takes (correctly) as a representative example of the Western philosophical tradition in these matters.  According to Condillac, people write because they have something to express and to communicate-- namely, thoughts-- to other people who aren’t around at the moment.  In the philosophical tradition inaugurated by Plato, “writing” is merely a derivative of speech, which is immediate, present, and direct, whereas writing is predicated on the absence of its receiver, and, worse, on the absence of its sender as well.  The idea of Western philosophy, then, is that we (including Western philosophers) have ideas, intentions, and thoughts; we want to represent these in language; and we would do so in speech but for the fact that all our addressees aren’t here right now, so we have to use writing instead.

OK, so far so good:  Condillac’s theory is that writing is a representation of speech, which is in turn a representation ("expression") of thought.  For Condillac, it doesn’t matter whether we use pictures, hieroglyphs, or language to communicate, because each kind of transcription is a communication.  Language, like all signs, refers to objects and to thoughts.

But, Derrida replies, Condillac’s theory itself, like Plato’s, requires that writing (and all signs) be iterable, that is, repeatable in any context whatsoever, just as this very introduction to Derrida I’m writing now must be able to signify as an introduction to Derrida after this semester is over [hey! like now!], after I’m dead, after you cease to read it, after the expiration of every element of the context in which I am composing it now.  That, writes Derrida, is the very condition of writing itself, without which we simply do not recognize writing as such:  if the writing is not “iterable,” it is not writing.

But does the writing “mean the same thing” each time it is iterated? Do my thoughts, represented in my writing for my current purpose, persist unmodified in other, as yet unimaginable contexts?  That’s what Derrida sets out to ask, and his answer, in brief, is that “every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written . . . can be cited, put in quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable.” I imagine that the applicability of this formulation to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is pretty obvious, but we can discuss it further in class, since it’s not a simple proposition by any means.

[Though I should add that anyone who’s stayed with this blog through the hyperreal Tristero/Killian Memo moment has already experienced this principle in action.]

And now let’s move on to example number two, who’s much more interesting.

Our next guest is J. L. Austin, whom Derrida discusses in the second half of the essay.  In 1960, Austin published a series of lectures entitled How to Do Things with Words, which has contributed significantly to the recent rethinking of most of Western philosophy’s theory of language.  Austin points out that when we think of language as reference or representation, we are thinking only of “descriptive” sentences like “the sky is blue” or “the cat is on the mat”; we are usually not thinking of sentences like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or “we hereby declare this contract null and void,” which are different kinds of sentence altogether.  When, for example, the Federal Reserve Bank declares that “this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private,” you do not take your $20 bill to the Federal Reserve and ask, “but how do you know?”.  This is the kind of utterance Austin calls “performative,” because it does not describe; it just does, and it just so happens that John Searle has dined out on the example of the $20 bill many a time.  Descriptive utterances, on the other hand, are what Austin calls “constative”: think of a reporter in the courtroom who tells us, after a judge has sentenced a defendant, that the judge has sentenced the defendant.  The difference between a judge’s utterance and a reporter’s is the difference between performative and constantive utterances in Austin’s theory.

This is one of the few theories of language in Western thought that does not depend on reference and intentionality:  I don’t have to intend a performative to utter one; all I have to do is recite a formula, plug in the rules, make sure all the context is in order, and presto!  I’ve married someone.  But is it really that simple?  What if I was joking when I pronounced you husband and wife?  What if someone in a play says “I hereby condemn you to death”?  Are these properly executed performative utterances?  No, writes Austin; if I am to utter a performative and make it work, I must do so with a proper intention as well as in the proper context: “I must not be joking, for example, or writing a poem” (Austin 9).  Well, that makes sense.  But then Austin goes and does something odd-- he refers to the nonserious performative as being somehow “parasitic” on the serious performative.  Parasitic?  Derrida says-- oh, you mean it’s marginal and unimportant but also somehow dangerous and . . . supplemental?  Now Derrida’s going to have some fun.  Just as he danced around Jean-Jacques Rousseau for referring to writing (and masturbation!) as “that dangerous supplement,” showing that the “supplement” is at once (a) the unnecessary, extraneous thing and (b) the absolutely necessary thing that completes something, and just as he showed in “Plato’s Pharmacy” that the pharmakon is at once (a) a poison and (b) a cure, so now he’s going to do that deft slicing-and-dicing with the idea of the “parasitical,” arguing-- hold onto your armrests-- that the serious performative can be understood as a “special case” of the nonserious performative and that for all his admirable inattention to intention, Austin’s serious performatives finally depend on a single thinking subject who intends things to happen.  This, Derrida suggests, poses more problems for Austin’s “speech act” theory than he lets on. 

At the close of the essay Derrida discusses signatures; it turns out that Austin tends to prefer performative utterances in the first person, present tense, indicative mood, active voice ("I hereby declare"), because they seem to be so clearly and unambiguously intentional (there’s another problem here, which Austin does acknowledge-- namely, that affixing “I hereby declare that” to any sentence can transform your boring garden-variety constantive utterance into an exciting, dynamic performative:  I hereby declare that the sky is blue!).  And Austin writes that even writing can secure the intention of its author in this way-- if we take, for example, the kind of writing known as the signature.  Surely, the signature is concrete evidence of intention, the trace of someone’s intent to authorize and to sign?  Surely when we sign something, we have a thought that is present to our consciousness, a thought we deliberately represent in language, and which we “put in writing” for all time?  To get a handle on Derrida’s dramatic answer-- and his own counterfeited signature, signed by himself at the very end of the essay-- think of how curious it is (as Jonathan Culler points out) that you can cash paychecks signed by a machine, a machine reproducing the signature of a person who most likely never had a specific mental event that we could call an “intention” to “pay to the order of you” any sum at all.

Questions, anyone?  Once again, Charles Krauthammer has first dibs.

(Corrected for clarity and late-night fatigue.)

Posted by Michael on 10/09 at 07:01 PM
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