on 25 January 2004
This book is a collection of the brilliant (but punningly dry) essay "Signature, Event, Context", among other things a reading of the late Oxford philosopher John Austin's theorization of speech acts, a much longer piece "Limited, Inc. a b c", and a postscript "Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion" written as responses to questions from editor Gerald Graff. The first essay originally appeared in the first issue of _Glyph_ and was angrily answered in that journal's second isse by Austin's "student" John Searle. This and others of Searle's consistently unsuccessful attempts to read Derrida and write in response to his challenges, which escalated into some very unpleasant name calling undertaken by Searle in more journalistic forums, form several phantom members of this book (Searle declined to have his essays reprinted in this collection), virtually reincorporated by way of Derrida's extensive quotations.
Derrida proceeds via a close reading of Austin (largely _How to Do Things with Words_), tracing the latter's study of "performative" linguistic uses in transactions at least as various as wedding vows and the commencement of sporting events. Derrida devotes considerable attention to the specifics of the play of the "metaphysics of presense" in Austin (why, for example, the notion of the performative is advanced under the banner of "speech act" theory) via the topoi of the reading/writing distinction, the privilege granted to intention, and the "parasitic" nature of citation. Following the intimate detail of Austin's text, Derrida shows that, even as it attempts reductionist conclusions, there remains a trace of rigour in the form of highly nuanced considerations capable of radically altering the conclusions proposed by Austin.
The effect is to provide a systematic consideration (and, in Austin's own text an example) of a logic within speech acts that render performative phenomena generally "iterable", members of a series defined equally by repetition and singularity (therefore "events"), defined in part by intention but subject to complete severance from the intentions (never singular themselves) of their authors, both structurally and by the violence of interpretation despite the alleged revirginizing powers of context (which brings us duly to Searle and the second essay). At considerable risk of reducing Derrida's argument, rather than characterizing the various modes of linguistic communication as modes of "togetherness" defined by the presence of the one speaking or writing and that language will be conveyed best closest to both body and mind of the "author", Derrida shows that all forms of language (the signature being a prime example) are bourne by death, by the certain prospect of infinite separation from the "author" (which Austin attempts to characterize as an unfortunate happenstance rather than an inherency), which gives them so to speak a life of their own in the form of interpretation and grafting as non-atomic elements of language which the intention of the first producer cannot itself limit.
As Searle attempts utterly to rubbish Derrida's insights and reappropriate Austin, Derrida replies in "a b c" by painstakingly laying out the implications of his consideration of Austin and scrutinizing the particulars of Searle's argument to show how (not just that) they support Derrida's argument in spite of themselves. As Derrida wishes to demonstrate the infinite attenuation of intention is carried within the structural law of the phenomenon, he also wishes to valorizes close reading and the demands of interpretation to read intentions in their plenitude and plurality. This allows him to argue that Searle has failed either to read him or Austin particularly well (in his case, virtually not at all) and to take pains to make his text available to interpretation by a wider audience, as Searle becomes something of a write-off.
The latter essays are a pedagogical goldmine for those desirous of an introduction to deconstruction, as Derrida not only takes pains to be clear but demonstrates a formidable sense of humour about the whole thing, observing that he is taking humour far more seriously than Searle. Taking his cue from Searle's acknowledgement of the contributions of his wife and discussions with other philosophers (among them the prominent American Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfuss), Derrida highlights the plurality of authorship and intention by renaming Searle Sarl (for société aux reponsablités limitée, more or less LLC: hence "Limited, Inc." but also a corporation for diminished response and responsibility). In a commentary ("Revolutions that have as of yet no model") appearing elsewhere, Gayatri Spivak points out that the "a b c" (Derrida goes letter-by-letter to punctuate his reply) is a pun on the French abaissé (brought low). The bringing low isn't entirely Derrida's work, as we learn that Searle pulls out every bit of nasty from claiming to be Austin's rightful heir (presumably by academic elective male primogeniture) to posthumously attributing to Michel Foucault the characterization of Derrida as an "obscurantiste terroriste", as he takes his argument from _Glyph_ to _The New York Review of Books_ (a publication that has decided to grind some axes against Derrida on numerous fronts, including the so-called Heidegger controversy).
The afterword, "Toward an Ethic of Discussion" is written more than a decade after the first essay was first publicly read (to a French philosophy conference in Montreal) and shows Derrida continuing to reflect on the events in and around what becomes this book and the broadening reception of his work, particularly in English-language translation. Here we find Derrida in something more like an interview format, albeit with an understanding that the answers will be distributed to a far wider audience than Dr. Gerald Graff, who puts an extensive series of questions forward in a good faith effort to "get" Derrida's work. Interesting as well is that Graff is a literature professor and that, particularly in this period, interest in Derrida's work was very strong in literature departments, where the philosophical nature of his work was at times misunderstood, leading to widespread misapplication of his work, in turn making this opportunity to talk openly about the difficulties of his work carry that much more consequence for its arrival.
The format of this book has everything one would ask for in a first encounter with deconstruction: a Derrida essay like many others, followed by a series of brilliant teach-ins on that essay by its author. More generally, this has everything you could want in a book of philosophy: brilliant philosophy lucidly written, fantastic subtle humor, a generous serving of drama, and an earnest concern for the reader's profit. Don't just read it twice.
on 21 May 2007
This is Derrida at his mischievious and playful best and as with all postmodern thought, you do need to approach this text with a fully open mind in order the get the best from it.
This is a difficult text and really has to be read and understood in its full context.
I can sympathise with the negative view below, but would stress that this is not really a text that should be given to under graduate students who are not being taught full on postmodern or post-stucturalist courses. Lets face it, being 'forced' to read a text of this nature is not a good foot to get off on. I suspect that the presence of such reading material on an under-graduate course is the outcome of a lecturer who does everything she can to show off her postmodern black belt - rather than being any valid essential reading.
Derrida is generally hard to read and this is part of a point he is trying to convey about the difficluties involved in interpreting texts. I feel amibivalent about this approach, it does serve to illustrate his point, however the downside is that it massively reduces the possiblity of the receptability of his thinking to the 'normal' academic reader.
In this respect, in living up to his principles, Derrida was very much his own worst rod-backing enemy - consequently he is always inevitably misunderstood. Thats the price you pay for turning up the heat in your own kitchen I guess.
Having said that, this is probably the easiest and most entertaining of his texts as the conflict between Searle and Derrida is a clash of two titans of modernist and postmodern approaches to philosophy. Most critics do not criticize Derrida directly, but usually 'dare' to take on ancillary writers or commentators around his thoughts (Habermas for example). John Searle was the brave exception to this rule and from the difficiencies Derrida shows in his arguments, was made to pay a pretty heavy reputational price for it.
Basically whether you will like this book or not is a question of how you like your thinking and understanding, by which I mean that your reaction to this book will be largely dependent on your own personal psychology.
If like John Searle you like highly reductive biblical reasoning where everything is always reduced or magically 'revealed' as three basic simple truths or explanations in order to model and stabilise your 'understanding' - you will hate this book.
If on the other hand, you refuse to accept such simple explanations and will admit that things are always more complicated and start to delight in the playful grey areas and massive complications of both writing and textual interpretation - you will start to grasp and indeed if you're not careful 'live' Derrida's point.
In terms of philosophy, politics and ethics, there is a hell of a lot at stake here and you may not instinctively like its implications, but then again if like Searle, you dogmatically reject Derrida out of hand and do not seriously consider Derrida's positions - this necessarily places you in conventionally determined state of 'ignorance' - largely derived from a fundamental educational principle or imperative to render the world 'easier' to understand and academic courses as more 'do-able' and 'manageable'.
This text throws up questions of just about every level. Like John Lennon's statement that the Beatles meant more to young people than Jesus, then Derrida found himself similarly entangled following a short essay of his on a book by J. Austin entitled 'How to do things with Words' which gave rise to a strange academic pursuit that calls itself 'Speech Act Theory'.
Its all very unlikely and as Derrida expresses, its hard to see how such a seemingly inconsequential subject can effectively be blown up out of all reasonable proportions. That's essentially where all the fun in this book is to be had - in working out why and how it matters.
The most famous line illustrates the problematics beautifully when Derrida picks up on Austins evaluation of 'non-fiction' as being a form of 'parasitism'.
What logician who deduced that 'B' is dependent on 'A', would then go on to infer that B is 'parasitic' on A?
Searle's defense on this point is to suggest that the use of the term 'parasite' is not perjorative and is either accidental or just a case of poor writing. Derrida's base line winning return is that like a Freudian slip, accidents cannot be dismissed as being innocently 'accidental' and that when Austin states that 'fiction' is 'parasitic' on 'non-fiction', or even more amazingly to decide to classify 'Speech Acts' as 'Happy' or 'Not Happy' - or to make the assumption that the promise is the most important form of speech act - then such textual occurences are a deconstructive alert to the serious reader that indicate massive underlying complications to any simple interpretation of Austin's statements and whatever moral and ethical assumptions were involved in his making them.
For example, Austin was trained as a lawyer, so to this extent, the foundation for his taking the promise (oath/contract) as being the most important form of speech act is clearly derived from his formative years and this legal 'education'. No suprise then that the more contractually verafiable (or more promise-like) a speech act is - the happier it becomes!
Perhaps the ultimate question for all of us in reading this text is to decide which of the opponents is giving their 'subject' and the rules by which they would open themselves to 'evaluation' or 'criticism' - the most 'serious' consideration and in turn, how 'seriously' we should take it...or even to contemplate whether a speech act could be too happy or to determine at what point a speech act ceases to be merely happy and finds itself in the realm of ecstasy?
This text is 'hard work' but can and should be discussed 'appropriately' and at your 'leisure', but only if you like that sort of thing and if you're happy at the idea of having a bit of fun. Nuff said?
on 1 June 1999
Anyone interested in the philosophy of language will find Derrida's deconstructionist take on J.L. Austin's "How to Do Things With Words" quite interesting, and, at times, enlightening. But the real fun in this book is when Derrida begins to attack John Searle's response to Derrida's take on Austin. He takes off his gloves and really goes after him and if anything, you'll be left questioning your assumptions about the maturity levels of renowned academics.
on 7 November 2005
This is one of the worst and most incalculably difficult, narcissistic texts I have ever tried to read. And I only tried to read it because I had to. Derrida, like many poststructuralists, was something of a madman, in my view. What on earth is he trying to convey? Writing 'about' speech acts? How can you attempt anything so insane? Writing words about words? Text about text? And then have the temerity to suggest that your text actually has some kind of 'transcendental' status conferred upon it by...God? No, because according to poststructuralism God doesn't exist. So who? Ah, Derrida himself. Hence my use of the phrase 'narcissistic' which I can't spell and won't even try to.
I would only recommend reading Derrida if you're in the mood for mental frolicking, and generally want to screw up the way your mind works. Honestly, he takes it for a spin-dry, and the thing is it doesn't feel like it's come out in the wash. There are much better ways.
Derrida's philosophy, in my view, is a frivolous waste of time and not worth bothering with IN ANY SENSE. But, if you have to for an undergraduate course...