Signature Event Context English Language Essay

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Derridas essay Signature Event Context" was first delivered in the form of a spoken conference paper in Montreal in 1971 on the theme of Communication, and published initially as an essay as part of the conference' Proceedings. The 'context' of Derrida's essay is relevant in relation to the theme of the paper itself. In its initial form, a spoken essay 'preformed' or 'produced' in the French language, the essay (now in its written English form), discusses the importance and differences of 'context' in both the written language and in speech. [1] 

The essay was then published in 1988 in Graff's collection Limited Inc., which highlighted the differences between Anglo-American and European-Continental towards the theoretical debate on literary analysis. [2] The historical context of the essay is relevant to the themes of original meaning and context which are discussed within the essay. Derrida discusses the distinction between the nature of truth and language, and he presents arguments on the privileging of spoken words, which is deemed as being 'closer' to the speaker and thereby the intended meaning; whereas written words are given a secondary status and the meaning is derived by the understanding of the listener.

Derrida examines the meaning of 'context', and then the significance of 'context' in relation to other factors surrounding a text, such as events, discourses and signature. He argues that these issues all factor into the meaning of the text as it is produced by the writer or speaker, and then understood by the listener or reader.

Derrida begins the essay in a discussion on the nature and definition of "Communication", when Derrida states:

…one must first of all ask oneself whether or not the word or signifier 'communication' communicates a determinate content, an identifiable meaning, or a describable value. (Derrida 1).

The word or signifier communication occurs twice, in the marked form "communication", and again as the verb form "communicates". For the reader the use of the word in this way signifies a question which must be explored in the text of the essay. For Derrida this is a rhetorical question. As readers and as a writer approaching the text, if the word "communication" had a definite or indisputable meaning, there would be no need for a discussion or essay on the subject. This is typical of Derrida's stylistic approach in the rhetorical questioning which occurs throughout the text of the essay.

The essay is then structured into three sections discussing the factors mentioned in the title "Signature Event Context", and Derrida uses examples from other theorists in order to present his arguments for each element. In the first section on "Writing and Communication" Derrida looks at the arguments of Condillac's essay [3] because it :

…contains an explicit reflection on the origin and function of the written text…which organizes itself here within a philosophical discourse that, in this case and throughout philosophy, presupposes the simplicity of the origin, the continuity of all derivation, of all production, of all analysis, and the homogeneity of all dimensions [orders]. (Derrida 4)

In using Condillac Derrida is presenting the philosophical ideas on theories of writing from a classical theoretical perspective, whereby writing is taken as presenting the original ideas of the writer and all contributing factors to the writing such as "origin, production, derivation and analysis" and essentially equal in nature and quality. There is thus no hierarchical system to the elements which form writing, and all contributing factors producing a text, are equal in their importance and relevance to the formation and understanding of the text. Derrida suggests that Condillac's ideas on writing mean that:

…the birth and progress of writing will follow in a line that is direct, simple, and continuous…writing will never have the slightest effect on either the structure or the contents of the meaning (the ideas) that it is supposed to transmit [vehicular]. (Derrida 4)

Here Derrida presents Condillac's analysis, whereby if writing is taken as a higher medium of communication than spoken language, the origin and progression of the writing remains an absolute which is uncomplicated and incorruptible; this therefore means that the written form is also constant in its meaning, and for the understanding of the reader.

Derrida takes issue with the notion of an absolute meaning of the written later in his essay, and instead suggests that the only 'absolute' in writing is the idea of absence. For Condillac, all writing denotes an absence. There is firstly the:

…absence of the addressee. One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent. The absence of the receiver [destinateur], from the mark that he abandons, and which cuts itself off from him and continues to produce effects independently of his presence and of the present actuality of his intentions [vouloir-dire]… (Derrida 5)

The act of writing denotes an absence of the writer (absent at the time of reading), and the absence of the reader (absent at the time of the writing), which means that the writing exists independently of both reader and writer and is yet paradoxically linked to a presence. The writer is present in the writing at the time of reading because his/her intentions are made in the words that are written; the reader is present at the time of writing because the writer is intending to communicate an idea in his/her writing through the act of writing.

The act of writing therefore implies the absence of both reader and writer. The writing is an independent entity which stands on its own merits after it is 'abandoned' by the writer, yet still causes an effect on the reader; this effect is also autonomous from the actual intentions of the writer, as the understanding and interpretation depend on the reader. This brings Derrida to the second absolute in writing, which is the absence of a definitive meaning. As Derrida states:

Representation regularly supplants [supplée] presence…as a continuous and homogenous reparation and modification of presence in the representation. (Derrida 5)

The presence of the writer is therefore denoted in the manner in which the text is received by the reader, whose understanding and interpretation of the text are founded not in the ideas which the writer is trying to communicate, but rather in a more practical system of understanding signs. The systematic rules of writing are based on the understanding of the written word; this is founded in language systems, which according to Derrida are only understandable because of their familiarity. Although signs give a "representation of the idea which itself represented the object perceived" (Derrida 6), it is only the familiarity which makes them understandable. Derrida states:

My communication must be repeatable - iterable - in the absolute absence of the receiver…writing that is not structurally readable - iterable - beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing. (Derrida 7)

The signs (words) must therefore be repeatable and repeated in different circumstances in order to be perceived and understand as to what they are signifying; and more importantly for Derrida what they are denoting or connoting. If the purpose of writing is to convey or communicate the writer's ideas, the nature of language and words are a representation of something which is repeatable, no matter who the reader (or writer). Whereby writing is initially a means of communication, the actual physical marks and the meaning must have iterability, citability or citationality. All writing can be copied, or must be 'copyable' in order to be classified as writing; therefore it must be open to both iteration and reiteration.

For Derrida signs or writing, are essentially infinite in their iterability, in any capacity whether epistemic, grammatical or semiological; thus lies the distinction between "written" and "oral" communication (Derrida 9). Derrida also states that in the classical concept of writing, writing simultaneously "carries with it a force that breaks with its context" (Derrida 9).

Derrida goes on to present an analysis of spoken language/signs from Husserl. [4] Again the iterability of spoken language is essential to the understanding of what is signified, denoted and understood by the listener, because language operates within a

…system of rules of universal grammar, not from a linguistic point of view but from a logical and epistemological one. (Derrida 12).

This means one must be able to make certain other cultural, social and epistemological references which are understood, and thereby enable an understanding of words or spoken language. Derrida once again opens up his discussion of writing into a wider analysis of language, communication and cultural relevance. For Derrida the significance lies in that 'understanding' is thereby taken "…in a context determined by a will to know" (Derrida 12). The understanding of language and words, whether spoken or written lie in the wider context in which they are read or heard, rather a specific literal context of semantic meaning.

This leads to the second section of the essay where Derrida discusses the notion of truth in language, through an examination of the 'event'. Derrida's analysis centres on criticism of Austin's [5] ideas of communication in speech:

…speech acts only as acts of communication….Communicating a force through the impetus [impulsion] of a mark …the performative does not have its referent …outside of itself or any event, before and in front of itself. (Derrida 13)

Derrida suggests here that John Austin's "ordinary language philosophy" is in fact determined and restrictive, working only within a framework of definitively absolute 'unordinary' exclusion; as Austin suggests that the "performative" nature of language takes precedent in communication. Austin analyses all utterances as performative, yet excludes performative speech acts which are quoted, which Derrida finds essentially problematic. This approach is limiting and restrictive, by focussing primarily on analysing the perlocution and illocution, Austin is forced to:

…free the analysis of the performative from the authority of the truth value, from the true/false opposition (Derrida 13).

If language or words take on a performative dimension, this means that the utterances of the words will be placed within a situation (or context) which is independent of either the true essential meaning, or any false interpretation, of the intended meaning. The problem for Derrida is that the meaning of the words are essentially subordinated to the actual utterance or event of the speech, and/or the context within which they are uttered; which in turn produces an 'event' in the meaning as it is understood by the listener.

Derrida's criticism of Austin also raises questions as to the totalising element of context whereby there is emphasis on the:

…conscious presence of the intention of the speaking subject in the totality of his speech act (Derrida 14)

In the event of the speech act the presence of the speaker places an importance and foregrounding to the intention of the speaker; if the intention of the speaker is prominent in the speech act, then it must follow that the understanding of the receiver/listener becomes secondary. This leads to the inevitability that

…performative communication becomes once more the communication of an intentional meaning… (Derrida 14)

This poses a wider philosophical problem for Derrida in the context of literary or language discourse, as Austin also discusses the criterion of what actually constitutes a 'successful' or 'failed' speech act with elements of "correctness and completeness" (Derrida 15). This again is restrictive and finite, and goes against Derrida's general philosophical openness and approach to literary theory.

For Derrida there is an inherent possibility in the success of the 'event' which lays in the possibilities of for example the "infelicities" in the event, and may not in fact be distinguishable from a successful 'event'. For Derrida the 'failure' of the event, whether deliberate or accidental, serves a greater purpose. Derrida suggests that the presence or potential of failure is what in fact constitutes the event as an 'ideal'. The scope for error and the 'negative' impact on the event, whilst it may destroy the idealistic approach to the event, in fact serves the paradoxical purpose of making the event ideal; by in its very nature in introducing an element of danger to the event. A perfect or ideal event would therefore have an element of danger, which is avoided. Although Austin cites theatrical events, recitations of poetry or literature as examples of felicitous speech events, as Derrida points out there is still scope for mistakes or errors in the utterances.

Derrida ends the section on "Event" by taking an opposing view to Austin, in the similar vein to his opposition to Condillac's views and refers to the itability of the sign in general. Derrida states that speech utterances, or events have an itability. Austin's view of the ""relative purity" of performatives" (Derrida 18) must be taken not:

…in opposition to citationality or iterability, but in opposition to other kinds of iteration within a general iterability which constitutes a violation of the allegedly rigorous purity of every event of discourse or every speech act. (Derrida 18)

Derrida's view on the event of the speech act is that there is a background to the iterability or possible repetition of an utterance, which means that each utterance or speech act must be taken in the context in which it is said. This has an inevitable effect on the operation or understanding of the words which are spoken and what they signify. Contrary to Austin's view that emphasise understanding of "the thing and the notion" (Derrida 18), Derrida stresses that we must also consider that the:

…motivations, indestructible necessity and systematic effects would be subject to analysis… (Derrida 18)

Here the importance of context is fore grounded in relation to the event and is subject to the same "metaphysical origins" (Derrida 18) which Austin appropriates to the event. Derrida concludes by suggesting that in order to understand context, the conscious intentions of the speaker (and receiver) must be definite. However consciousness is not a definite and is open to discussion and discourse. Therefore although utterances may be specific, the specificity is not exclusive to having an opposite or "contrary" effect on the listener and thus the event is open to further metaphysical debate.

In the final section of the essay Derrida focuses on "Signature'" as an indicator and measure of the presence of the writer or author. The signature denotes the writer as the source of the text, or the speaker of an utterance, and they hold the form of regulation for the sign or words which are spoken or written. Derrida illustrates that the possibility and inevitability of repetition and iterability is essential to the signature; as with earlier discussions on the nature of signs and language.

By its very nature the signature is iterable, as it must be, and is always repeated in order to be recognisable as a signature specific to the author. As Derrida points out although a signature is singular to the author, yet again paradoxically, there is an inevitable plurality to its production; in that it is repeated time and again as a sign of the presence of the writer. Derrida refers back to earlier arguments stating that:

By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. (Derrida 20)

The signature thereby signifies the absence of the writer, while at the same time denoting the presence of the signer in the past, and can be taken as a 'substitute' for their physical presence; it also implies the presence of the reader in the future or present.

Derrida also rather playfully adds his own signature to the end of the essay, as a performative example of an event. As readers we are made aware that Derrida must have at some point made the signature to the paper, however the printed copy of the signature in front of us is not the 'original' or 'authentic' mark/sign made by Derrida, it is an repeated printed copy of the same. This act highlights key elements of Derrida's arguments from the essay, as to the nature of iterability, repetition, absence and context. The communication of Derrida's ideas in the preceding essay are somehow signified as more genuine, or sincere because he has placed his signature at the end of the essay and placed a mark/sign of 'authenticity' to the essay. Derrida's conclusions to the essay tie in with this idea, in that while language can be philosophised in an 'ordinary' manner, as a means of communicating semantics, there is always an underlying and infinite possibility to other factors such as presence, knowledge, representation, and truth. For Derrida the practice of communication and the spoken word or writing must be inclusive of these elements in order for a text to be understood or communicated in its entirety.

Derrida's stylistic presence is evident in the title and structure of the essay, in the use of questions, often at times rhetorical, and the proposition of paradoxes. The essay is actually structured in the reverse order of the title "Signature Event Context": 'Context' is discussed first in presentation of Condillac's ideas, followed by Austin's arguments on the 'Event', and the essay ends with Derrida's thoughts on 'Signature'. [6] This playing with the order of the elements which Derrida is discussing is somewhat typical of Derrida's stylistic and consciously 'playful' approach to writing.

At times the language and style is analogous to the spoken word or a speech; which again is self-referential to the form of the text, as it was initially a spoken text/utterance. The form and structure of the essay reiterates the ideas and arguments that Derrida presents. The essay is structured in a fairly accessible yet formal manner whereby Derrida at times breaks arguments or ideas down into listed or numbered sections. Although the complexity of the ideas and concepts presented are perhaps more complicated than the stylistic form of the written language.

Derrida repeats certain points and arguments, by presenting his theories in a manner which reiterates the essence of his arguments, and by repeating the same central arguments in a slightly altered form. He uses repetition of the arguments to make the ideas that he is presenting familiar and understandable to the reader, and this is his general approach to the function and understanding of language, signs and words - the more familiar we become with words, the easier they are to understand in their 'true' meaning. The meaning lies in the repetition and iterability not only of the words, but also in the concepts and ideas which lie beneath the semantics of the sentences and content of the essay. Derrida's arguments are therefore communicated to us as readers when we read and understand the text in the context of the structure of the essay, and experience the text as part of a wider cultural discourse.

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