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.