s.e.c. digital art copyright 2005 by steven streight
Signature, Event, Context
by Jacques Derrida.
A communication to the Congrès international des
Sociétés de philosophie de langue francaise, Montreal, August 1971.
From Margins of Philosophy, (Marges de la philosophie. Paris: Editions de Minuit.) Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 307-330.
From Derrida Online.
"Still confining ourselves, for simplicity, to spoken utterance."
--Austin, How to Do Things with Words, p. 113 n.2.
Is it certain that there corresponds to the word "communication" a unique, univocalconcept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted: a communicable concept?
Following a strange figure of discourse, one first must ask whether the word or signifier "communication" communicates a determined content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value.
But in order to articulate and to propose this question, I already had to anticipate the meaning of the word "communication": I have had to predetermine "communication" as the vehicle, transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one.
If communication had several meanings, and if this plurality could not be reduced, then from the outset it would not be justified to define communication itself as the transmission of a meaning, assuming that we are capable of understanding one another as concerns each of these words (transmission, meaning, etc.).
Now, the word communication, which nothing initially authorizes us to overlook as a word, and to impoverish as a polysemic word, opens a semantic field which precisely is not limited to semantics, semiotics, and even less to linguistics.
To the semantic field of the word communication belongs the fact that it also des- ignates nonsemantic movements. Here at least provisional recourse to ordinary language and to the equivocalities of natural language teaches us that one may, for example, communicate a movement or that a tremor, a shock, a displacement of force can be communicated that is, propagated, transmitted.
It is also said that different or distant places can communicate between each other by means of a given passageway or opening.
What happens in this case, what is transmitted or communicated are not phenomena of meaning or signification. In these cases we are dealing neither with a semantic or conceptual content, nor with a semiotic operation, and even less with a linguistic exchange. Nevertheless, we will not say that this nonsemiotic sense of the word communication such as it is at work in ordinary language, in one or several of the so-called natural languages, constitutes the proper or primitive meaning, and that consequently the semantic, semiotic, or linguistic meaning corresponds to a derivation, an extension or a reduction, a metaphoric displacement. We will not say, as one might be tempted to do, that semiolinguistic communication is more metaphorico entitled "communication," because by analogy with "physical" or "real" communication it gives passage, transports, transmits something, gives access to something. We will not say so:
1. because the value of literal, proper meaning appears more problematical than ever,
2. because the value of displacement, of transport, etc., is constitutive of the very concept of metaphor by means of which one allegedly understands the semantic displacement which is operated from communication as a nonsemiolinguistic phenomenon to communication as a semiolinguistic phenomenon.
(I note here between parentheses that in this communication the issue will be, already is, the problem of polysemia and communication, of dissemination which I will oppose to polysemiaand communication. In a moment, a certain concept of writing is bound to intervene, in order to transform itself, and perhaps in order to transform the problematic.)
It seems to go without saying that the field of equivocality covered by the word communication permits itself to be reduced massively by the limits of what is called a context (and I announce, again between parentheses, that the issue will be, in this communication, the problem of context, and of finding out about writing as concerns context in general).
For example, in a colloquium of philosophy in the French language, a conventional context, produced by a kind of implicit but structurally vague consensus, seems to prescribe that one propose "communications" on communication, communications in discursive form, colloquial, oral communications destined to be understood and to open or pursue dialogues within the horizon of an intelligibility and truth of meaning, such that in principle a general agreement may finally be established.
These communications are to remain within the element of a determined "natural" language, which is called French, and which commands certain very particular uses of the word communication. Above all, the object of these communications should be organized, by ' priority or by privilege, around communication as discourse, or in any event as signification.
Without exhausting all the implications and the entire structure of an "event" like this one, which would merit a very long preliminary analysis, the prerequisite I have just recalled appears evident; and for anyone who doubts this, it would suffice to consult our schedule in order to be certain of it. But are the prerequisites of a context ever absolutely determinable?
Fundamentally, this is the most general question I would like to attempt to elaborate.
Is there a rigorous and scientific concept of the context? Does not the notion of context harbor, behind a certain confusion, very determined philosophical presuppositions?
To state it now in the most summary fashion, I would like to demonstrate why a context is never absolutely determinable, or rather in what way its determination is never certain or saturated.
This structural nonsaturation would have as its double effect:
1. a marking of the theoretical insufficiency of the usual concept of (the linguistic or nonlinguistic) context such as it is accepted in numerous fields of investigation, along with all the other concepts with which it is systematically associated;
2. a rendering necessary of a certain generalization and a certain displacement of the concept of writing. The latter could no longer, henceforth, be included in the category of communication, at least if communication is understood in the restricted sense of the transmission of meaning.
Conversely, it is within the general field of writing thus defined that the effects of semantic communication will be able to be determined as particular, secondary; inscribed, supplementary effects.
Writing and Telecommunication
If one takes the notion of writing in its usually accepted sense which above all does not mean an innocent, primitive, or natural senseone indeed must see it as a means of communication.
One must even acknowledge it as a powerful means of communication which extends very far, if not infinitely, the field of oral or gestural communication. This is banally self-evident, and agreement on the matter seems easy.
I will not describe all the modes of this extension in time and in space. On the other hand I will pause over the value of extension to which I have just had recourse.
When we say that writing extends the field and powers of a locutionary or gestural communication, are we not presupposing a kind of homogenous space of communication?
The range of the voice or of gesture certainly appears to encounter a factual limit here, an empirical boundary in the form of space and time; and writing, within the same time, within the same space, manages to loosen the limits, to open the same field to a much greater range.
Meaning, the content of the semantic message, is thus transmitted, communicated, by different means, by technically more powerful mediations, over a much greater distance, but within a milieu that fundamentally continuous and equal to itself, within a homogenous element across which the unity and integrity of meaning is not affected in an essential way. Here, all affection is accidental.
The system of this interpretation (which is also in a way the system of interpretation, or in any event of an entire interpretation of hermeneutics), although it is the usual one, or to the extent that it is as usual as common sense, has been represented in the entire history of philosophy.
I will say that it is even, fundamentally, the properly philosophical interpretation of writing. I will take a single example, but I do not believe one could find, in the entire history of philosophy as such, a single counterexample, a single analysis that essentially contradicts the one proposed by Condillac, inspired, strictly speaking, by Warburton, in the Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines, Paris: Galilée 1973).
I have chosen this example because an explicit reflection on the origin and function of the written (this explicitness is not encountered in all philosophy, and one should examine the conditions of its emergence or occultation) is organized within a philosophical discourse which like all philosophy presupposes the simplicity of the origin and the continuity of every derivation, every production, every analysis, the homogeneity of all orders.
Analogy is a major concept in Condillac's thought.
I choose this example also because the analysis which "retraces" the origin and function of writing is placed, in a kind of noncritical way, under the authority of the category of communication.
If men write, it is (1) because they have something to communicate; (2) because what they have to communicate is their "thought," their "ideas," their representations.
Representative thought precedes and governs communication which transports the "idea", the signified content; (3) because men are already capable of communicating and of communicating their thought to each other when, in continuous fashion, they invent the means of communication that is writing.
Here is a passage from chapter 13 of part 2 ("On Language and On Method"), section ("On the Origin and Progress of Language"), (writing is thus a modality of language and marks a continuous progress in a communication of linguistic essence), section 13, "On Writing":
"Men capable of communicating their thoughts to each other by sounds felt the necessity of imagining new signs apt to perpetuate them and to make them known to absent persons"
(I italicize this value of absence, which, if newly reexamined, will risk introducing a certain break in the homogeneity of the system).
As soon as men are capable of "communicating their thoughts," and of doing so by sounds (which is, according to Condillac, a secondary stage, articulated language coming to "supplement" the language of action, the unique and radical principle of all language), the birth and progress of writing will follow a direct, simple, and continuous line.
The history of writing will conform to a law of mechanical economy: to gain the most space and time by means of the most convenient abbreviation; it will never have the least effect on the structure and content of the meaning (of ideas) that it will have to vehiculate.
The same content, previously communicated by gestures and sounds, henceforth will be transmitted by writing, and successively by different modes of notation, from pictographic writing up to alphabetic writing, passing through the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians and the ideographic writing of the Chinese.
Condillac continues: "Imagination then will represent but the same images that they had already expressed by actions and words, and which had, from the beginnings, made language figurative and metaphoric.
The most natural means was therefore to draw the pictures of things. To express the idea of a man or a horse the form of one or the other will be represented, and the first attempt at writing was but a simple painting" (p. 252; my italics).
The representative character of written communicationwriting as picture, reproduction, imitation of its contentwill be the invariable trait of all the progress to come.
The concept of representation is indissociable here from the concepts of communication and expression that I have underlined in Condillac's text.
Representation, certainly, will be complicated, will be given supplementary waystations and stages, will become the representation of representation in hieroglyphic and ideographic writing, and then in phonetic-alphabetic writing, but the representative structure which marks the first stage of expressive communication, the idea/sign relationship, will never be suppressed or transformed.
Describing the history of the kinds of writing, their continuous derivation on the basis of a common radical which is never displaced and which procures a kind of community of analogical participation between all the forms of writing, Condillac concludes (and this is practically a citation of Warburton, as is almost the entire chapter): "This is the general history of writing conveyed by a simple gradation from the state of painting through that of the letter; for letters are the last steps which remain to be taken after the Chinese marks, which partake of letters precisely as hieroglyphs partake equally of Mexican paintings and of Chinese characters. These characters are so close to our writing that an alphabet simply diminishes the confusion of their number, and is their succinct abbreviation" (pp. 254-53)
Having placed in evidence the motif of the economic, homogenous, and mechanical reduction, let us now come back to the notion of absence that I noted in Condillac's text. How is it determined?
1. First, it is the absence of the addressee. One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent. The absence of the sender, the addressor, from the marks that he abandons, which are cut off from him and continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is, beyond his life itself,this absence, which however belongs to the structure of all writing and I will add, further on, of all language in generalthis absence is never examined by Condillac.
2. The absence of which Condillac speaks is determined in the most classical fashion as a continuous modification, a progressive extenuation of presence. Representation regularly supplements presence . But this operation of supplementation ("To supplement" is one of the most decisive and frequently employed operative concepts on Condillac's Essai) is not exhibited as a break in presence, but rather as a reparation and a continuous, homogenous modification of presence in representation.
Here, I cannot analyze everything that this concept of absence as a modification of presence presupposes, in Condillac's philosophy and elsewhere. Let us note merely that it governs another equally decisive operative concept (here I am classically, and for convenience, opposing operative to thematic) of the Essai: to trace and to retrace.
Like the concept of supplementing, the concept of trace could be determined otherwise than in the way Condillac determines it. According to him, to trace means "to express," "to represent," "to recall," "to make present" ("in all likelihood painting owes its origin to the necessity of thus tracing our thoughts, and this necessity has doubtless contributed to conserving the language of action, as that which could paint the most easily," p. 253).
The sign is born "at the same time as imagination and memory, at the moment when it is demanded by the absence of the object for present perception (Memory, as we have seen, consists only in the power of reminding ourselves of the signs of our ideas, or the circumstances which accompanied them; and this capacity occurs only by virtue of the analogy of signs (my italics; this concept of analogy, which organizes Condillac's entire system, in general makes certain all the continuities, particularly the continuity of presence to absence) that we have chosen, and by virtue of the order that we have put between our ideas, the objects that we wish to retrace have to do with several of our present needs" (p. 129).
This is true of all the orders of signs distinguished by Condillac (arbitrary, accidental, and even natural signs, a distinction which Condillac nuances, and on certain points, puts back into question in his Letters to Cramer).
The philosophical operation that Condillac also calls "to retrace" consists in traveling back, by way of analysis and continuous decomposition, along the movement of genetic derivation which leads from simple sensation and present perception to the complex edifice of representation: from original presence to the most formal language of calculation.
It would be simple to show that, essentially, this kind of analysis of written signification neither begins nor ends with Condillac. If we say now that this analysis is "ideological," it is not primarily in order to contrast its notions to "scientific" concepts, or in order to refer to the often dogmaticone could also say "ideological"use made of the word ideology, which today is so rarely examined for its possibility and history.
If I define notions of Condillac's kind as ideological, it is that against the background of a vast, powerful, and systematic philosophical tradition dominated by the self-evidence of the idea (eidos, idea), they delineate the field of reflection of the French "ideologues" who, in Condillac's wake, elaborated a theory of the sign as a representation of the idea, which itself represents the perceived thing.
Communication, hence, vehiculates a representation as an ideal content (which will be called meaning); and writing is a species of this general communication. A species: a communication having a relative specificity within a genus.
If we ask ourselves now what, in this analysis, is the essential predicate of this specific difference, we once again. find absence.
Here I advance the following two propositions or hypotheses:
1. Since every sign, as much in the "language of action" as in articulated language (even before the intervention of writing in the classical sense), supposes a certain absence (to be determined), it must be because absence in the field of writing is of an original kind if any specificity whatsoever of the written sign is to be acknowledged.
2. If, perchance, the predicate thus assumed to characterize the absence proper to writing were itself found to suit every species of sign and communication, there would follow a general displacement: writing no longer would be a species of communication, and all the concepts to whose generality writing was subordinated (the concept itself as meaning, idea, or grasp of meaning and idea, the concept of communication, of sign, etc.) would appear as noncritical, illformed concepts, or rather as concepts destined to ensure the authority and force of a certain historic discourse.
Let us attempt then, while continuing to take our point of departure from this classical discourse, to characterize the absence which seems to intervene in a fashion specific to the functioning of writing.
A written sign is proffered in the absence of the addressee. How is this absence to be qualified? One might say that at the moment when I write, the addressee may be absent from my field of present perception.
But is not this absence only a presence that is distant, delayed, or in one form or another idealized in its representation?
It does not seem so, or at very least this distance, division, delay, diffé rance must be capable of being brought to a certain absolute degree of absence for the structure of writing, supposing that writing exists, to be constituted. It is here that diffé rance as writing could no longer (be) an (ontological) modification of presence.
My "written communication" must, if you will, remain legible despite the absolute appearance of every determined addressee in general for it to function as writing, that is, for it to be legible.
It must be repeatableiterablein the absolute absence of the addressee or of the empirically determinable set of addressees.
This iterability (iter, once again, comes from itara, other in Sanskrit, and everything that follows may be read as the exploitation of the logic which links repetition to alterity), structures the mark of writing itself, and does so moreover for no matter what type of writing (pictographic, hieroglyphic, ideographic, phonetic, alphabetic, to use the old categories).
A writing that was not structurally legibleiterablebeyond the death of the addressee would not be writing.
Although all this appears selfevident, I do not want it to be assumed as such, and will examine the ultimate objection that might be made to this proposition.
Let us imagine a writing with a code idiomatic enough to have been founded and known, as a secret cipher, only by two "subjects."
Can it still be said that upon the death of the addressee, that is, of the two partners, the mark left by one of them is still a writing?
Yes, to the extent to which, governed by a code, even if unknown and nonlinguistic, it is constituted, in its identity as a mark, by its iterability in the absence of whoever, and therefore ultimately in the absence of every empirically determinable "subject."
This implies that there is no code- an organon of iterability that is structurally secret.
The possibility of repeating, and therefore of identifying, marks is implied in every code, making of it a communicable, transmittable, decipherable grid that is iterable for a third party, and thus for any possible user in general.
All writing, therefore, in order to be what it is, must be able to function in the radical absence of every empirically determined addressee in general.
And this absence is not a continuous modification of presence; it is a break in presence, "death," or the possibility of the "death" of the addressee, inscribed in the structure of the mark (and it is at this point, I note in passing, that the value or effect of transcendentality is linked necessarily to the possibility of writing and of "death" analyzed in this ,way).
A perhaps paradoxical consequence of the recourse I am taking to iteration and to the code: the disruption, in the last analysis, of the authority of the code as a finite system of rules; the radical destruction, by the same token, of every context as a protocol of a code.
We will come to this in a moment.
What holds for the addressee holds also, for the same reasons, for the sender or the producer. To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that is in turn productive, that my future disappearance in principle will not prevent from functioning and from yielding, and yielding itself to, reading and rewriting. When I say "my future disappearance," I do so to make this proposition more immediately acceptable.
I must be able simply to say my disappearance, my nonpresence in general, for example the nonpresence of my meaning, of my intention-to-signify, of my wanting-to-communicate-this, from the emission or production of the mark.
For the written to be the written, it must continue to "act" and to be legible even if what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written, for what he seems to have signed, whether he is provisionally absent, or if he is dead, or if in general he does not support, with his absolutely current and present intention or attention, the plenitude of his meaning, of that very thing which seems to be written "in his name."
Here, we could reelaborate the analysis sketched out above for the addressee. The situation of the scribe and of the subscriber, as concerns the written, is fundamentally the same as that of the reader.
This essential drifting, due to writing as an iterative structure cut off from all absolute responsibility, from consciousness as the authority of the last analysis, writing orphaned, and separated at birth from the assistance of its father, is indeed what Plato con- demned in the Phaedrus.
If Plato's gesture is, as I believe, the philosophical movement par excellence, one realizes what is at stake here.
Before specifying the inevitable consequences of these nuclear traits of all writingto wit:
(1) the break with the horizon of communication as the com- munication of consciousnesses or presences, and as the linguistic or semantic transport of meaning;
(2) the subtraction of all writing from the semantic horizon or the hermeneutic horizon which, at least as a horizon of meaning, lets itself be punctured by writing;
(3) the necessity of, in a way, separating the concept of polysemia from the concept I have elsewhere named dissemination, which is also the concept of writing;
(4) the disqualification or the limit of the concept of the "real" or "linguistic" context, whose theoretical determination or empirical saturation are, strictly speaking, rendered impossible or insufficient by writing I would like to demonstrate that the recognizable traits of the classicaland narrowly defined concept of writing are generalizable.
They would be valid not only for all the orders of "signs" and for all languages in general, but even, beyond semiolinguistic communication, for the entire field of what philosophy would call experience, that is, the experience of Being: so-called "presence."
In effect, what are the essential predicates in a minimal determination of the classical concept of writing?
1. A written sign, in the usual sense of the word, is therefore a mark which remains, which is not exhausted in the present of its inscription~ and which can give rise to an iteration both in the absence of and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who, in a given context, has emitted or produced it. This is how, traditionally at least, "written communication" is distinguished from "spoken communication."
2. By the same token, a written sign carries with it a force of breaking with its context, that is, the set of presences which organize the moment of its inscription.
This force of breaking is not an accidental predicate, but the very structure of the written. If the issue is one of the so-called "real" context, what I have just proposed is too obvious.
Are part of this alleged real context a certain "present" of inscription, the presence of the scriptor in what he has written, the entire environment and horizon of his experience, and above all the intention, the meaning which at a given moment would animate his inscription.
By all rights, it belongs to the sign to be legible, even if the moment of its production is irremediably lost, and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor meant consciously and intentionally at the moment he wrote it, that is abandoned it to its essential drifting.
Turning now to the semiotic and internal context, there is no less a force of breaking by virtue of its essential iterability; one can always lift a written syntagma from the interlocking chain in which it is caught or given without making it lose every possibility of functioning, if not every possibility of "communicating," precisely.
Eventually, one may recognize other such possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it into other chains. No context can enclose it. Nor can any code, the code being here both the possibility and impossibility of writing, of its essential iterability (repetition/alterity).
3. This force of rupture is due to the spacing which constitutes the written sign: the spacing which separates it from other elements of the internal contextual chain (the always open possibility of its extraction and grafting), but also from all the forms of a present referent (past or to come in the modified form of the present past or to come) that is objective or subjective.
This spacing is not the simple negativity of a lack, but the emergence of the mark. However, it is not the work of the negative in the service of meaning, or of the living concept, the telos, which remains relevable and reducible in the Aufhebung of a dialectics.
Are these three predicates, along with the entire system joined to them, reserved, as is so often believed, for "written" communication, in the narrow sense of the word? Are they not also to be found in all language, for example in spoken language, and ultimately in the totality of "experience," to the extent that it is not separated from the field of the mark, that is, the grid of erasure and of difference-of unities of iterability, of unities separable from their internal or external context, and separable from themselves, to the extent that the very iterability which constitutes their identity never permits them to be a unity of self-identity?
Let us consider any element of spoken language, a large or small unity. First condition for it to function: its situation as concerns a certain code; but I prefer not to get too involved here with the concept of code, which does not appear certain to me; let us say that a certain self-identity of this element (mark, sign, etc.) must permit its recognition and repetition.
Across empirical variations of tone, of voice, etc., eventually of a certain accent, for example, one must be able to recognize the identity, shall we say, of a signifying form. Why is this identity paradoxically the division or dissociation from itself which will make of this phonic sign a grapheme?
It is because this unity of the signifying form is constituted only by its iterability, by the possibility of being repeated in the absence not only of its referent, which goes without saying, but of a determined signified or current intention of signification, as of every present intention of communication.
This structural possibility of being severed from its referent or signified (and therefore from communication and its context) seems to me to make of every mark, even if oral, a grapheme in general, that is, as we have seen, the nonpresent remaining of a differential mark cut off from its alleged "production" or origin. And I will extend this law even to all "experience" in general, if it is granted that there is no experience of pure presence, but only chains of differential marks.
Let us remain at this point for a while, and come back to the absence of the referent and even of the signified sense, and therefore of the correlative intention of signification.
The absence of the referent is a possibility rather easily admitted today. This possibility is not only an empirical eventuality. It constructs the mark; and the eventual presence of the referent at the moment when it is designated changes nothing about the structure of a mark which implies that it can do without the referent.
Husserl, in the Logical Investigations, had very rigorously analyzed this possibility. It is double:
1. A statement whose object is not impossible but only possible might very well be proffered and understood without its real object (its referent) being present, whether for the person who produces the statement, or for the one who receives it.
If I say, while looking out the window, "The sky is blue," the statement will be intelligible (let us provisionally say, if you will, communicable), even if the interlocutor does not see the sky; even if I do not see it myself, if I see it poorly, if I am mistaken, or if I wish to trick my interlocutor.
Not that it is always thus; but the structure of possibility of this statement includes the capability of being formed and of functioning either as an empty reference, or cut off from its referent.
Without this possibility, which is also the general. generalizable, and generalizing iteration of every mark, there would be no statements.
2. The absence of the signified. Husserl analyzes this too. He considers it always possible, even if, according to the axiology and teleology which govern his analysis, he deems this possibility inferior, dangerous, or "critical": it opens the phenomenon of the crisis of meaning. This absence of meaning can be layered according to three forms:
a. I can manipulate symbols without in active and current fashion animating them with my attention and intention to signify (the crisis of mathematical symbolism, according to Husserl). Husserl indeed stresses the fact that this does not prevent the sign from functioning: the crisis or vacuity of mathematical meaning does not limit technical progress. (The intervention of writing is decisive here, as Husserl himself notes in The Origin of Geometry.)
b. Certain statements can have a meaning, although they are without objective signification.
"The circle is square" is a proposition invested with meaning. It has enough meaning for me to be able to judge it false or contradictory (wider- sinnig and not sinnlos, says Husserl).
I am placing this example under the category of the absence of the signified, although the tripartition signifier/signified/referent does not pertinently account for Husserl's analysis. "Square circle" marks the absence of a referent, certainly, and also the absence of a certain signified, but not the absence of meaning. In these two cases, the crisis of meaning (nonpresence in general, absence as the absence of the referentof perception or of meaningof the actual intention to signify) is always linked to the essential possibility of writing; and this crisis is not an accident, a factual and empirical anomaly of spoken language, but also the positive possibility and "internal" structure of spoken language, from a certain outside.
c. Finally there is what Husserl calls Sinnlosigkeit or agrammaticality. For example, "green is or" or "abracadabra."
In the latter cases, as far as Husserl is concerned, there is no more language, or at least no more "logical" language, no more language of knowledge as Husserl understands it in teleological fashion, no more language attuned to the possibility of the intuition of objects given in person and signified in truth.
Here, we are confronted with a decisive difficulty.
Before pausing over it, I note, as a point which touches upon our debate on communication, that the primary interest of the Husserlian analysis to which I am referring here (precisely by extracting it, up to a certain point, from its teleological and metaphysical context and horizon, an operation about which we must ask how and why it is always possible) is that it alleges, and it seems to me arrives at, a rigorous dissociation of the analysis of the sign or expression (Ausdruck) as a signifying sign, a sign meaning something (bedeutsame Zeichen from all phenomena of communication.
Let us take once more the case of agrammatical Sinnlosigkeit. What interests Husserl in the Logical Investigations is the system of rules of a universal grammar, not from a linguistic point of view, but from a logical and epistemological point of view.
In an important note from the second edition,7 he specifies that from his point of view the issue is indeed one of a purely logical grammar, that is the universal conditions of possibility for a morphology of significations in the re- lation of knowledge to a possible object, and not of a pure grammar in general, considered from a psychological or linguistic point of view.
Therefore, it is only in a context determined by a will to know, by an epistemic intention, by a "conscious relation to the object as an object of knowledge within a horizon of truth it is in this oriented contextual field that "green is or" is unacceptable.
But, since "green is or" or "abracadabra" do not constitute their context in themselves, nothing prevents their functioning in another context as signifying marks (or indices, as Husserl would say).
Not only in the contingent case in which, by means of the translation of German into French "le vert est ou" might be endowed with grammaticality, ou (oder, or) becoming when heard où ' (where, the mark of place):
"Where has the green (of the grass) gone (le vert est où )?," "Where has the glass in which I wished to give you something to drink gone (le verre est où )." But even "green is or" still signifies an example of agrammaticality.
This is the possibility on which I wish to insist: the possibility of extraction and of citational grafting which belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken or written, and which constitutes every mark as writing even before and outside every horizon of semiolinguistic communication; as writing, that is, as a pos- sibility of functioning cut off, at a certain point, from its "original" meaning and from its belonging to a saturable and constraining context.
Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the usual sense of this opposition), as a small or large unity, can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion.
This does not suppose that the mark is valid outside its context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring. This citationality, duplication, or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or an anomaly, but is that (normal/ abnormal) without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called "normal" functioning.
What would a mark be that one could not cite? And whose origin could not be lost on the way?
The Parasites. Iter, of Writing: That Perhaps It Does Not Exist
I now propose to elaborate this question a little further with help from - but in order to go beyond it too - the problematic of the performative. It has several claims to our interest here.
1. Austin, by his emphasis on the analysis of perlocution and especially illocution, indeed seems to consider acts of discourse only as acts of communication. This is what his French translator notes, citing Austin himself:
"It is by comparing the constative utterance (that is, the classical 'assertion,' most often conceived as a true or false 'description' of the facts) with the performative utterance (from the English performative, that is, the utterance which allows us to do something by means of speech itself) that Austin has been led to consider every utterance worthy of the name (that is, destined to communicate which would exclude, for example, reflex-exclamations) as being first and foremost a speech act produced in the total situation in which the interlocutors find themselves ( How to Do Things With Words, p. 147)" .
2. This category of communication is relatively original.
Austin's notions of illocution and perlocution do not designate the transport or passage of a content of meaning, but in a way the communication of an original movement (to be defined in a general theory of action), an operation, and the production of an effect.
To communicate, in the case of the performative, if in all rigor and purity some such thing exists (for the moment I am placing myself within this hypothesis and at this stage of the analysis), would be to communicate a force by the impetus of a mark.
3. Differing from the classical assertion, from the constative utterance, the performative's referent (although the word is inappropriate here, no doubt, such is the interest of Austin's finding) is not outside it, or in any case preceding it or before it.
It does not describe something which exists outside and before language.
It produces or transforms a situation, it operates; and if it can be said that a constative utterance also effectuates something and always transforms a situation, it cannot be said that this constitutes its internal structure, its manifest function or destination, as in the case of the performative.
4. Austin had to free the analysis of the performative from the authority of the value of truth, from the opposition true/false, at least in its classical form, occasionally substituting for it the value of force, of difference of force (illocutionary or perlocutionary force).
(It is this, in a thought which is nothing less than Nietzschean, which seems to me to beckon toward Nietzsche; who often recognized in himself a certain affinity with a vein of English thought.)
For these four reasons, at least, it could appear that Austin has exploded the concept of communication as a purely semiotic, linguistic, or symbolic concept. The performative is a "communication" which does not essentially limit itself to transporting an already constituted semantic content guarded by its own aiming at truth (truth as an unveiling of that which is in its Being, or as an adequation between a judicative statement and the thing itself).
And yet - at least this is what I would like to attempt to indicate now - all the difficulties encountered by Austin in an analysis that is patient, open, aporetic, in constant transformation, often more fruitful in the recognition of its impasses than in its positions, seem to me to have a common root.
It is this: Austin has not taken into account that which in the structure of locution (and therefore before any illocutory or perlocutory determination) already bears within itself the system of predicates that I call graphematic in general, which therefore confuses all the ulterior oppositions whose pertinence, purity, and rigor Austin sought to establish in vain.
In order to show this, I must take as known and granted that Austin's analyses permanently demand a value of context, and even of an exhaustively determinable context, whether de jure or teleologically; and the long list of "infelicities" of variable type which might affect the event of the performative always returns to an element of what Austin calls the total context.
One of these essential elementsand not one among othersclassically remains consciousness, the conscious presence of the intention of the speaking subject, for the totality of his locutory act.
Thereby, performative communication once more becomes the communication of an intentional meaning, even if this meaning has no referent in the form of a prior or exterior thing or state of things.
This conscious presence of the speakers or receivers who participate in the effecting of a performative, their conscious and intentional presence in the totality of the operation, implies teleologically that no remainder escapes the present totalization.
No remainder, whether in the definition of the requisite conventions, or the internal and linguistic context, or the grammatical form or semantic determination of the words used; no irreducible polysemia, that is no "dissemination" escaping the horizon of the unity of meaning.
I cite the first two lectures of How to Do Things with Words: "Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate, and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether 'physical' or 'mental' actions or even acts of uttering further words.
Thus, for naming the ship, it is essential that I should be the person appointed to name her, for (Christian) marrying, it is essential that I should not be already married with a wife living, sane and undivorced, and so on; for a bet to have been made, it is generally necessary for the offer of the bet to have been accepted by a taker (who must have done something, such as to say 'Done'), and it is hardly a gift if I say 'I give it you' but never hand it over. So far, well and good" (pp. 8-9).
In the Second Lecture, after having in his habitual fashion set aside the grammatical criterion, Austin examines the possibility and origin of the failures or "infelicities" of the performative utterance. He then defines the six indispensable, if not sufficient, conditions for success.
Through the values of "conventionality," "correctness," and "completeness" that intervene in the definition, we necessarily again find those of an exhaustively definable context, of a free consciousness present for the totality of the operation, of an absolutely full meaning that is master of itself: the teleological jurisdiction of a total field whose intention remains the organizing center (pp. 12-16).
Austin's procedure is rather remarkable, and typical of the philosophical tradition that he prefers to have little to do with. It consists in recognizing that.the possibility of the negative (here, the infelicities) is certainly a structural possibility, that failure is an essential risk in the operations under consideration; and then, with an almost immediately simultaneous gesture made in the name of a kind of ideal regulation, an exclusion of this risk as an accidental, exterior one that teaches us nothing about the language phenomenon under consideration.
This is all the more curious, and actually rigorously untenable, in that Austin denounces with irony the "fetish" of opposition value/fact.
Thus, for example, concerning the conventionality without which there is no performative, Austin recognizes that all conventional acts are exposed to failure:
"It seems clear in the first place that, although it has excited us (or failed to excite us) in connexion with certain acts which are or are in part acts of uttering words, infelicity is an ill to which all acts are heir which have the general character of ritual or ceremonial, all conventional acts: not indeed that every/ ritual is liable to every form of infelicity (but then nor is every performative utterance)" (pp. 18-19).
Aside from all the questions posed by the very historically sedimented notion of "convention," we must notice here:
(1) That in this specific place Austin seems to consider only the conventionality that forms the circumstance of the statement, its contextual surroundings, and not a certain intrinsic conventionality of that which constitutes locution itself, that is, everything that might quickly be summarized under the problematic heading of the "arbitrariness of the sign" extends, aggravates, and radicalizes the difficulty. Ritual is not an eventuality, but, as iterability, is a structural characteristic of every mark.
(2) That the value of risk or of being open to failure, although it might, as Austin recognizes, affect the totality of conventional acts, is not examined as an essential predicate or law.
Austin does not ask himself what consequences derive from the fact that something possiblea possible riskis always possible, is somehow a necessary possibility. And if, such a necessary possibility of failure being granted, it still constitutes an accident.
What is a success when the possibility of failure continues to constitute its structure?
Therefore the opposition of the success/failure of illocution or perlocution here seems quite insufficient or derivative.
It presupposes a general and systematic elaboration of the structure of locution which avoids the endless alternation of essence and accident.
Now, it is very significant that Austin rejects this "general theory," defers it on two occasions, notably in the Second Lecture.
I leave aside the first exclusion. ("I am not going into the general doctrine here: in many such cases we may even say the act was 'void' (or voidable for duress or undue influence) and so forth.
Now I suppose that some very general high-level doctrine might embrace both what we have called infelicities and these other 'unhappy' features of the doing of actionsin our case actions containing a performative utterancein a single doctrine: but we are not including this kind of unhappinesswe must just remember, though, that features of this sort can and do constantly obtrude into any case we are discussing. Features of this sort would normally come under the heading of 'extenuating circumstances' or of 'factors reducing or abrogating the agent's responsibility,' and so on"; p. 21; my italics).
The second gesture of exclusion concerns us more directly here. In question, precisely, is the possibility that every performative utterance (and a priori every other utterance) may be "cited."
Now, Austin excludes this eventuality (and the general doctrine which would account for it) with a kind of lateral persistence, all the more significant in its off-sidedness. He insists upon the fact that this possibility remains abnormal, parasitical, that it constitutes a kind of extenuation, that is an agony of language that must firmly be kept at a distance, or from which one must resolutely turn away. And the concept of the "ordinary," and therefore of "ordinary language," to which he then has recourse is indeed marked by this exclusion.
This makes it all the more problematic, and before demonstrating this, it would be better to read a paragraph from this Second Lecture:
"(ii) Secondly, as utterances our performatives are also heir to certain other kinds of ill which infect all utterances. And these likewise, though again they might be brought into a more general account, we are deliberately at present excluding. I mean, for example, the following: a performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. This applies in a similar manner to any and every utterancea sea-change in special circumstances. Language in such circumstances is in special waysintelligiblyused not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal useways which fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language. All this we are excluding from consideration. Our performative utterances, felicitous or not, are to be understood as issued in ordinary circumstances" (pp. 21-22).
Austin therefore excludes, along with what he calls the sea-change, the "non-serious," the "parasitic," the "etiolations," the "non-ordinary" (and with them the general theory which in accounting for these oppositions no longer would be governed by them), which he nevertheless recognizes as the possibility to which every utterance is open.
It is also as a "parasite" that writing has always been treated by the philosophical tradition, and the rapprochement, here, is not at all fortuitous.
Therefore, I ask the following question: is this general possibility necessarily that of a failure or a trap into which language might fall, or in which language might lose itself, as if in an abyss situated outside or in front of it?
What about parasitism? In other words, does the generality of the risk admitted by Austin surround language like a kind of ditch, a place of external perdition into which locution might never venture, that it might avoid by remaining at home, in itself, sheltered by its essence or telos?
Or indeed is this risk, on the contrary, its internal and positive condition of possibility? this outside its inside? the very force and law of its emergence?
In this last case, what would an "ordinary" language defined by the very law of language signify?
Is it that in excluding tile general theory of this structural parasitism, Austin, who nevertheless pretends to describe the facts and events of ordinary language, makes us accept as ordinary a teleological and ethical determination (the univocality of the statement which he recognizes elsewhere remains a philosophical "ideal," pp. 72-73 the self-presence of a total context, the transparency of intentions, the presence of meaning for the absolutely singular oneness of a speech act, etc.)?
For, finally, is not what Austin excludes as anomalous, exceptional, "nonserious," that is , citation (on the stage, in a poem, or in a soliloquy), the determined modification of a general citationality - or rather, a general iterability - without which there would not even be a "successful" performative?
Such that - a paradoxical, but inevitable consequence - a successful performative is necessarily an "impure" performative, to use the word that Austin will employ later on when he recognizes that there is no "pure" performative.
Now I will take things from the side of positive possibility, and no longer only from the side of failure: would a performative statement be possible if a citational doubling did not eventually split, dissociate from itself the pure singularity of the event?
I am asking the question in this form in order to forestall an objection. In effect, it might be said to me: you cannot allege that you account for the so- called graphematic structure of locution solely on the basis of the occurrence of failures of the performative, however real these failures might be, and however effective or general their possibility.
You cannot deny that there are also performatives that succeed, and they must be accounted for: sessions are opened, as Paul Ricoeur did yesterday, one says "I ask a question," one bets, one challenges, boats are launched, and one even marries occasionally.
Such events, it appears, have occurred.
And were a single one of them to have taken place a single time, it would still have to be accounted for.
I will say "perhaps." Here, we must first agree upon what the "occurring" or the eventhood of an event consists in, when the event supposes in its allegedly present and singular intervention a statement which in itself can be only of a repetitive or citational structure, or rather, since these last words lead to confusion, of an iterable structure.
Therefore, I come back to the point which seems fundamental to me, and which now concerns the status of the event in general, of the event of speech or by speech, of the strange logic it supposes, and which often remains unperceived.
Could a performative statement succeed if its formulation did not repeat a "coded" or iterable statement, in other words if the expressions I use to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as conforming to an iterable model, and therefore if they were not identifiable in a way as "citation"?
Not that citationality here is of the same type as in a play, a philosophical reference, or the recitation of a poem.
This is why there is a relative specificity, as Austin says, a "relative purity" of performatives.
But this relative purity is not constructed against citationality or iterability, but against other kinds of iteration within a general iterability which is the effraction into the allegedly rigorous purity of every event of discourse or every speech act.
Thus, one must less oppose citation or iteration to the noniteration of an event, than construct a differential typology of citation, supposing that this is a tenable project that can give rise to an exhaustive program, a question I am holding off on here.
In this typology, the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from this place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and the entire system of utterances.
Above all, one then would be concerned with different types of marks or chains of iterable marks, and not with an opposition between citational statements on the one hand, and singular and original statement-events on the other.
The first consequence of this would be the following: given this structure of iteration, the intention which animates utterance will never be completely present in itself and its content. The iteration which structures it a priori introduces an essential dehiscence and demarcation.
One will no longer be able to exclude, as Austin wishes, the "non-serious," the oratio obliqua, from "ordinary" language. And if it is alleged that ordinary language, or the ordinary circumstance of language, excludes citationality or general iterability, does this not signify that the "ordinariness" in question, the thing and the notion, harbors a lure, the teleological lure of consciousness whose motivations, indestructible necessity, .and systematic. effects remain to be analyzed?
Especially since this essential absence of intention for the actuality of the statement, this structural unconsciousness if you will, prohibits every saturation of a context.
For a context to be exhaustively determinable, in the sense demanded by Austin, it at least would be necessary for the conscious intention to be totally present and actually transparent for itself and others, since it is a determining focal point of the context.
The concept of or quest for the "context" therefore seems to suffer here from the same theoretical and motivated uncertainty as the concept of the "ordinary," from the same metaphysical origins: an ethical and teleological discourse of consciousness. This time, a reading of the connotations of Austin's text would confirm the reading of its descriptions; I have just indicated the principle of this reading.
Diffé rance, the irreducible absence of intention or assistance from the performative statement, from the most "event-like" statement possible, is what authorizes me, taking into account the predicates mentioned just now, to posit the general graphematic structure of every "communication."
Above all, I will not conclude from this that there is no relative specificity of the effects of consciousness, of the effects of speech (in opposition to writing in the traditional sense), that there is no effect of. the performative, no effect of ordinary language, no effect of presence and of speech acts It is simply that these effects do not exclude what is generally opposed to them term by term, but on the contrary presuppose it in dyssemtrical fashion, as the general space of their possibility.
This general space is first of all spacing as the disruption of presence in the mark, what here I am calling writing That all the difficulties encountered by Austin intersect at the point at which both presence and writing are in question, is indicated for me by a passage from the Fifth Lecture in which the divided agency of the legal signature emerges.
Is it by chance that Austin must note at this point:
"I must explain again that we are floundering here To feel the firm ground of prejudice slipping away is exhilarating, but brings its revenges" (p 61)
Only a little earlier an "impasse" had appeared, the impasse one comes to each time "any single simple criterion of grammar or vocabulary" is sought in order to distinguish between performative or constative statements.
(I must say that this critique of linguisticism and of the authority of the code, a critique executed on the basis of an analysis of language, is what most interested me and convinced me in Austin's enterprise.)
He then attempts to justify, with nonlinguistic reasons, the preference he has shown until now for the forms of the first-person present indicative in the active voice in the analysis of the performative.
The justification of last appeal is that in these forms reference is made to what Austin calls the source (origin) of the utterance.
This notion of the source whose stakes are so evidentoften reappears in what follows, and it governs the entire analysis in the phase we are examining.
Not only does Austin not doubt that the source of an oral statement in the first person present indicative (active voice) is present in the utterance and in the statement, (I have attempted to explain why we had reasons not to believe so), but he no more doubts that the equivalent of this link to the source in written utterances is simply evident and ascertained in the signature:
"Where there is not, in the verbal formulation of the utterance, a reference to the person doing the uttering, and so the acting, by means of the pronoun 'I' (or by his personal name), then in fact he will be 'referred to' in one of two ways:
"(a) In verbal utterances, by his being the person who does the utteringwhat we may call the-utterance-origin which is used generally in any system of verbal reference-co-ordinates.
"(b) In written utterances (or 'inscriptions'), by his appending his signature (this has to be done because, of course, written utterances are not tethered to their origin in the way spoken ones are)" (pp. 60-61).
Austin acknowledges an analogous function in the expression "hereby" used in official protocols.
Let us attempt to analyze the signature from this point of view, its relation to the present and to the source. I take it as henceforth implied in this analysis, that all the established predicates will hold also for the oral "signature" that is or allegedly is, the presence of the "author" as the "person who does the uttering," as the "origin," the source, in the production of the statement.
By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But, it will be said, it also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now, which will remain a future now, and therefore in a now in general, in the transcendental form of nowness (maintenance).
This general maintenance is somehow inscribed, stapled to present punctuality, always evident and always singular, in the form of the signature.
This is the enigmatic originality of every paraph. For the attachment to the source to occur, the absolute singularity of an event of the signature and of a form of the signature must be retained: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.
Is there some such thing? Does the absolute singularity of an event of the signature ever occur? Are there signatures?
Yes, of course, every day.
The effects of signature are the most ordinary thing in the world. The condition of possibility for these effects is simultaneously once again, the condition of their impossibility, of the impossibility of their rigorous purity.
In order to function, that is, in order to be legible, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to detach itself from the present and singular intention of its production.
It is its sameness which, in altering its identity and singularity, divides the seal.
I have already indicated the principle of the analysis above.
To conclude this very dry discourse:
1. As writing, communication, if one insists upon maintaining the word, is not the means of transport of sense, the exchange of intentions and meanings, the discourse and "communication of consciousnesses."
We are not witnessing an end of writing which, to follow McLuhan's ideological representation, would restore a transparency or immediacy of social relations; but indeed a more and more powerful historical unfolding of a general writing of which the system of speech, consciousness, meaning, presence, truth, etc., would only be an effect, to be analyzed as such.
It is this questioned effect that I have elsewhere called logocentrism.
2. The semantic horizon which habitually governs the notion of communication is exceeded or punctured by the intervention of writing, that is of a dissemination which cannot be reduced to a polysemia. Writing is read, and "in the last analysis" does not give rise to a hermeneutic deciphering, to the decoding of a meaning or truth.
3. Despite the general displacement of the classical, "philosophical," Western, etc., concept of writing, it appears necessary, provisionally and strategically, to conserve the old name.
This implies an entire logic of paleonymy which I do not wish to elaborate here. Very schematically: an opposition of metaphysical concepts (for example, speech/writing, presence/absence, etc.) is never the face-to-face of two terms, but a hierarchy and an order of subordination.
Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces.
Each concept, moreover, belongs to a systematic chain, and itself constitutes a system of predicates. There is no metaphysical concept in and of itself. There is a work - metaphysical or not - on conceptual systems.
Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated.
For example, writing, as a classical concept, carries with it predicates which have been subordinated, excluded, or held in reserve by forces and according to necessities to be analyzed.
It is these predicates (I have mentioned some) whose force of generality, generalization, and generativity find themselves liberated, grafted onto a "new" concept of writing which also corresponds to whatever always has resisted the former organization of forces, which always has constituted the remainder irreducible to the dominant force which organized the - to say it quickly - logocentric hierarchy.
To leave to this new concept the old name of writing is to maintain the structure of the graft, the transition and indispensable adherence to an effective intervention in the constituted historic field.
And it is also to give their chance and their force, their power of communication, to everything played out in the operations of deconstruction.
But what goes without saying will quickly have been understood, especially in a philosophical colloquium: as a disseminating operation separated from presence (of Being) according to all its modifications, writing, if there is any, perhaps communicates, but does not exist, surely.
Or barely, hereby, in the form of the most improbable signature.
(Remark: the - written - text of this - oral - communication was to have been addressed to the Association of French Speaking Societies of Philosophy before the meeting. Such a missive therefore had to be signed. Which I did, and counterfeit here. Where? There. J.D )