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Signature Event Context notes

These are some notes on Derrida’s ‘Signature Event Context’, the essay that kicked off the Derrida-Searle debate I mentioned in my last post. I actually liked this essay a lot, enough to work through it paragraph by paragraph with a fine-toothed comb, so this has ended up quite long.

The structure of the essay is kind of rambly and circuitous but the examples and analysis are very good, and overall it felt more accessible than most of Derrida’s writing, though still far from easy to read. (I’m wondering if this is why it provoked so much controversy - maybe it was just readable enough for analytic philosophers to bother with it at all.)

Anyway here are the notes.


Derrida starts with ‘communication’ as an example word. Can this be pinned down to mean one thing?

Notes that it can be used to mean semantic transport or non-semantic transport. We can talk of communicating over the phone, where we are talking about transporting meaning from one person to another. Or we can say that your foot communicates force to a stone it kicks, or that a passage communicates between two rooms.

So is the non-semantic meaning of ‘transporting or transmitting’ the root, literal one, and the semantic one a metaphor built on top of it? Derrida says no. First because he’s suspicious of this idea of literal meanings, and second because the concept of ‘metaphor’ itself has this same idea of transportation, from one meaning to another, so it’s all already pretty tangled together. Not the clearest answer, but fine.

He points out that ‘it seems self-evident’ that the ambiguity of ‘communication’ can be reduced by assuming a particular context for it. So in the context of a philosophy colloquium, communications are going to be semantic ones. He describes this consensus of what the context is as ‘implicit but structurally vague’. We know it when we see it.

Now he asks if the conditions of a context are ever ‘absolutely determinable’. He says no again. The aim of the paper is to demonstrate that determining a context ‘can never be entirely certain or saturated’. And also that this non-saturation gives rise to ‘a certain generalisation and a certain displacement of the concept of writing’. Writing will be seen to not just consist of a transmission of meaning.

[Sidenote: this is the ‘breaching’ function of language that Bearn writes about.]

That’s the intro done, now we’re on to the first main section. It’s long and I bogged down quickly last time I tried it, let’s see if I can do better this time.

Writing and Telecommunication

Starts with the idea of writing as a way of extending the scope of oral communication without fundamentally changing it. It’s still transmitting semantic meaning, but over longer distances in space and time.

The example he gives of this conception of writing is some philosopher Condillac in his Essay of the Origin of Human Knowledge, where he reflects on the origin and purpose of writing. His view is that the purpose of writing is to communicate their “thought” and “ideas” (Derrida scare-quotes these). The thought precedes the writing, and the writing just transfers it to the reader. A quote from Condillac:

Men in a state of communicating their thoughts by means of sounds, felt the necessity of imagining new signs capable of perpetuating those thoughts and of making them known to persons who are absent


Thus, the imagination will represent to them only the very same images that they had already expressed through actions and words, and which had, from the very beginning, rendered language figural and metaphorical. The most natural means was thus to depict [dessiner] images of things. To express the idea of a man or of a horse, one represented the form of the one or of the other, and the first attempt at writing was nothing but a simple painting.

So writing starts as a picture representing its content, and this is slowly refined to make the representation more economical, with hieroglyphs and alphabets, but the basic idea of transporting a pre-existing meaning is untouched.

Now Derrida considers the ‘persons who are absent’ part of the Condillac quote. This is absence in the sense that the addressee isn’t right there, and also absence in the sense of representation supplanting direct presence.

Derrida introduces another of his favourite words: tracing. This used by Condillac too (maybe this is where he first got it from?), to mean something like ‘rendering present’: “Thus painting probably owes its origin to the necessity of tracing our thoughts…” Think tracing paper. The thing already exists, and the representation is drawing over it without altering it.

Tracing is linked to memory - you need it when the thing you’re thinking of is out of direct, present perception.

Condillac also uses ‘retracing’ to mean (I think) reversing this process, going from representation back to simple presence.

Condillac’s ideas are (according to Derrida) the standard, background understanding of representation in some wider French tradition. Signs are a representation of an idea, which itself represents the object perceived.

Now Derrida gives two ‘propositions or hypotheses’:

  1. Every sign presupposes a certain absence, so ‘absence’ doesn’t pin down writing specifically. So if we want to narrow down to writing we’d have to identify an absence of a particular type.
  2. If we then discovered that this type of absence that we’d introduced to be specific to writing could actually be used for any type of sign, then [lots of big claims about everything changing]

I didn’t find those particularly useful so let’s go on.

Written signs are proffered in the absence of the receiver. Is this just a distant presence? i.e. it’s delayed, but the receiver is still somewhere or other.

(Sidenote: at this point he calls the delay or deferral ‘differance’. This seems a bit different to how I’ve seen it used before? It sort of fits if we just take it to mean distance in space + delay in time, but maybe he means something more specific.)

This differance must be capable of being carried ‘to a certain absoluteness of absence’. He’s probably about to start talking about the death of the author or receiver.

OK, now we get ‘iterability’ for the first time in this essay:

My communication must be repeatable - iterable - in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers. Such iterability - (iter, again, probably comes from itara, other in Sanskrit, and everything that follows can be read as the working out of the logic that ties repetition to alterity) structures the mark of writing itself, no matter what particular type of writing is involved (whether pictographical, hieroglyphic, ideographic, phonetic, alphabetic, to cite the old categories). A writing that is not structurally readable - iterable -beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing

This feels like a key part. I’ve definitely seen it quoted more than once in secondary sources.

Objection/edge case: imagine two people shared a written code between them, and nobody else could read it, and then both of them died. Are the marks still writing?

Derrida says yes, to the extent that these marks still have some organising principle of being generated by a code. It has some repeating elements, where the same symbols or clusters of symbols in the code can be used in multiple situations. (E.g. maybe there’s a cluster that means ‘dog’, which can refer to many dogs). This repetition (iterability) means that it is in principle decipherable by another user… at least in part, enough to recognise it as a kind of writing.

(This makes sense to me, and agrees with common usage too. An undeciphered ancient script is still writing. We’d apply the term to anything that ‘looked like writing’, with discrete, well-defined symbols, but not to random scratches on a wall.)

Real iterability holds for the sender as well as the receiver. Writing ‘produces a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn’. I can disappear and the machine keeps on going.

Now for one gigantic run-on sentence. First he summarises the properties of writing he’s been talking about…

  • The break with presence. Not an immediate conversation between two conscious speakers, the sender may be absent or even dead
  • [Some other similar-looking thing I don’t understand the importance of]
  • ‘The necessity of disengaging from the concept of polysemy which I have elsewhere called dissemination’. This is the thing where you can’t tame the complexity of a word by saying it has some finite number of different meanings, like dictionary definitions, which completely exhaust its use. A new context could introduce a new use.
  • Similarly, the way that ‘context’ as a concept is not exhausted by some rigorous theory. Can’t just enumerate all the possible contexts

… and then says that before elaborating on the consequences of these, he’d like to demonstrate that they generalise beyond writing. Valid not just for language but for ‘the entire field of what philosophy would call experience’

[This sounds like a link back to his ideas in Voice and Phenomenon, where he picks apart Husserl’s ‘pure presence’.]

‘Essential predicates’ of the classical conception of writing:

  1. Written signs persist, they don’t disappear straight after inscription like speech does. The sender doesn’t have to be present for them to work.
  2. Written signs break their context. The signs are still readable even if we no longer know what the author was intending at the time of writing. Can be ‘detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning’, and can be grafted on to other chains.
  3. Something about ‘spacing’, another of Derrida’s terms which I’m less familiar with. It means separation in the sense of a bit of text being separable from its original chain of text, and also from its present referents. ‘This spacing is not the simple negativity of a lacuna but rather the emergence of the mark. It does not remain, however, as the labor of the negative in the service of meaning, of the living concept, of the telos, supersedable and reducible in the Aufhebung of a dialectic.’ Haha that’s exactly the sort of thing that people like to quote when they call Derrida bogus. The first sentence makes perfect sense to me but I can’t parse the second.

Now we’re back to considering whether these three predicates are limited strictly to written communication, or whether they exist in all language and all experience. (I feel like we keep circling round and round here.)

Take any element of spoken language. (I like examples so will stick with the word ‘dog’). Each repetition of the word will be somewhat different in terms of voice, tone, accent, but there’s still a recognisable commonality, we can recognise their shared identity. But there is also division/dissociation connected to this identity, because they can only be identified as the same by pulling them a bit out of their original context, so that ‘dog’ spoken by one person can be recognised as the same as ‘dog’ spoken by another, rather than some one-off context-locked emanation of sound.

(This is getting ahead of myself, but in Searle’s reply he starts missing the point early by talking about ‘the type-token distinction’. Derrida is interested in something prior to this distinction, the raw material that both types and tokens are carved out of.)

Now he turns to Husserl’s analysis of this situation, in the Logical Investigations:

  1. We can say things that are intelligible even if their referent is missing. E.g. (Husserl’s example) if I look out of the window and say ‘The sky is blue’, then people can understand it even if I’m wrong. Utterances come with a capability of being used in circumstances where their referent is missing.
  2. ‘The absence of the signified.’ I’m not quite sure how this is different to the missing referent case but maybe the examples will help. (Edit: oh yeah, they do - this is absence of intended meaning, rather than absence of the physical referent. Signifier/signified/referent split). Husserl considers these to be sort of inferior/opening up the possibility of a ‘crisis of meaning’, but does allow that they exist:
  3. Manipulating symbols ‘without animating them’ e.g. doing the steps of a maths problem by rote with no understanding
  4. Stuff like ‘The circle is squared’ that has some sort of meaning even though no actual referent fits it
  5. Agrammatical sentences like ‘the green is either’. ‘In such cases Husserl considers that there is no language any more, or at least no “logical” language’. For Husserl language is made out of logic in some sense.

Derrida spends longer on the third, agrammatical case. ‘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 one.’ So he’s thinking in terms of intention, and ‘the green is either’ is unacceptable when considered as intending a logical comparison, because the other ‘X or Y’ slots are missing. But you could still use ‘the green is either’ with the right context, or at the very least you could use it as it’s being used right now, to signify an example of agrammaticality.

Key quote:

… this is the possibility on which I want to insist: the possibility of disengagement and citational graft which belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken or written, and which constitutes every mark in writing before and outside of every horizon of semio-linguistic communication; in writing, which is to say in the possibility of its functioning being cut off, at a certain point, from its “original” desire-to-say-what-one-means and from its participation in a saturable and constraining context.

Every sign can be cited, and shoved into another context.

Parasites. Iter, of Writing: That It Perhaps Does Not Exist

Now we’re on to Austin, specifically, and performative utterances/speech acts. Before this starts I want to remind myself of a bit of Austin’s terminology I always forget, because it’s going to come up:

  • locutionary act: the literal sentence (Wikipedia’s example - ‘is there any salt?’
  • illocutionary act: the thing the literal sentence is being used for. In this case, it’s a request, to pass the salt
  • perlocutionary act: the thing that actually happens. In this case, the salt gets passed.

Austin’s work ‘concerns us here for several reasons’:

  1. Derrida says that Austin ‘appears to consider speech acts only as acts of communication’.
  2. The kind of communication Austin is talking about (illocution and perlocution) isn’t just a transfer of thought-content, but a sort of transfer of force to produce an effect
  3. As opposed to classical true/false assertions, the referent of a performative utterance is not outside of itself - it doesn’t describe something that exists outside of and prior to language.
  4. Austin substitutes the true/false opposition for illocutionary or perlocutionary force. Derrida notices a similarity with Nietzsche.
For these four reasons, at least, it might seem that Austin has shattered the concept of communication as a purely semiotic, linguistic, or symbolic concept.

i.e. the ‘communication’ involved is not longer a passive transfer of some existing semantic context.

Describes Austin’s analysis as ‘patient, open, aporetical, in constant transformation, often more fruitful in the acknowledgement of its impasses than in its positions’, i.e. exactly the sort of thing Derrida likes picking apart.

Austin has not taken account of what - in the structure of locution (thus before any illocutory or perlocutory determination) - already entails that system of predicates I call graphematic in general

To demonstrate this, Derrida will take for granted the fact that each utterance needs a context. This is where all the various ‘infelicities’ that may stop an utterance working come from. (consider e.g. ‘The court is now in session’ said by some rando who just walked in off the street)

One of these essential elements of context for Austin is the conscious presence of intention of the speaker. So performative utterances are still communications of intentional meaning, even if that meaning has no referent in the form of an already existing thing.

Derrida says that this conscious presence means that (according to Austin?) no ‘residue’ escapes the complete definition of the context and the meaning of the words employed - there’s no ‘dissemination’ or unbounded play of meaning.

(Why? I think because the speaker is holding on to one single, specific present intended meaning. We haven’t breached that meaning. Presumably Derrida is about to show us how the breaching function of language sneaks in anyway.)

Then describes Austin’s Second Lecture a bit. (This is one of the ones I’ve read.) Austin talks about conditions of success - correct procedure, carried out correctly, etc. ‘organizing center remains intention’.

Austin's procedure is rather remarkable and typical of that philosophical tradition with which he would like to have so few ties. It consists in recognizing that the possibility of the negative (in this case, of infelicities) is in fact a structural possibility, that failure is an essential risk of the operations under consideration; then, in a move which is almost immediately simultaneous, in the name of a kind of ideal regulation, it excludes that risk as accidental, exterior, one which teaches us nothing about the linguistic phenomenon being considered. This is all the more curious-and, strictly speaking, untenable-in view of Austin's ironic denunciation of the "fetishized" opposition: value/fact.

Derrida notes:

  1. Austin considers the conventionality of the circumstance of the utterance, but not the conventionality of the utterance (the locution) itself. There’s also a conventionality to exactly what it said in that particular situation (and further down to the arbitrariness of the underlying signs). Ritual as ‘structural characteristic of every mark’. (Reusability implies a certain arbitrariness, a breaching of the original context)
  2. Austin recognises that all performative utterances have a risk of infelicity, but doesn’t pursue the consequences of this.

To Derrida, Austin’s success/failure classification seems

quite insufficient and extremely secondary [derivee]. It presupposes a general and systematic elaboration of the structure of locution that would avoid an endless alternation of essence and accident.

Now he quotes a passage from Austin where he rules out considering various performative utterances that seem ‘void’ because the speaker was under duress or otherwise not considered to be speaking seriously.

In particular Derrida focuses on the case where Austin wants to rule out utterances where someone is just quoting the words (e.g. as lines in a play). Austin labels these as ‘parasitic’ and excludes them, while at the same time acknowledging that quoting can be  applied to any utterance.

Derrida on his usual hobbyhorse about writing:

It is as just such a "parasite" that writing has always been treated by the philosophical tradition, and the connection in this case is by no means coincidental.

Talks about citation being a necessary part of iterability, without which there would not even be a ‘successful’ performance.

This is the ‘broaching’ function of iterability, which as Bearn points out Derrida doesn’t spend much time on. Maybe he’s going to say something brief about it now though:

would a performative utterance be possible if a citational doubling did not come to split and dissociate from itself the pure singularity of the event?

i.e. (this is what I expect Derrida will elaborate on) to be usable as a convention, it must be dissociable from a single event. ‘The court is in session’ must apply to multiple courts, ‘in session’ must have a meaning that applies to many events, etc. If I instead shout ‘argle bargle bleurgh!’ intending to mean ‘this particular court right now is in session in a particular esoteric way that I just made up’, then it’s not much good, because nobody else has the resources to understand what the hell I mean, because I’m not using any shared convention that can broach that meaning.

Anticipates an objection: you can’t deny that some/most performatives succeed… why is the failure case so important? Why is it somehow fundamental/constitutive, rather than a case of ‘well, shit happens sometimes’?

On successful events:

It would seem that such events have occurred. And even if only one had taken place only once, we would still be obliged to account for it.

Now he investigates this idea of a ‘one-off’ event in more detail. As I expected, he points out that this doesn’t work if it doesn’t somehow repeat conventions from previous events:

Could a performative utterance succeed if its formulation did not repeat a “coded” or iterable utterance, or in other words, if the formula I pronounce in order to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as conforming with an iterable model, if it were not then identifiable in some way as a “citation”?

This repetition is a kind of citation. It’s true that it’s not the ‘parasitic’ kind you get in saying lines in a play, but it does already indicate that the boundary should be between ‘good’ kinds of citation with the intention left in and ‘bad’ unthinking kinds of citation, rather than between citation and noncitation.

Above all, at that point, we will be dealing with different iterable marks or chains of iterable marks and not with an opposition between citational utterances, on the one hand, and singular and original event-utterances, on the other.

“Wait, it’s all iterability?” “Always has been”

Derrida says this means that given that every performative utterance is iterable, the intention animating the utterance will never be fully present to itself. The non-serious can’t be excluded.

Related - Bearn talks about things like unintentional puns - they aren’t part of the speaker’s intended meaning, and they aren’t connected to the speaker’s current context either - they just turn up because the word sounds like another word, or otherwise has an unintended meaning. So more meaning comes out than you intentionally put in. Maybe this is the sort of situation Derrida means when he says the intention ‘will never be fully present to itself’?

At this point he mentions différance.

Points out that he’s not saying that there’s no effect of presence/intention on meaning. Just that it doesn’t exhaust meaning, and that in fact deferral of intention is ‘the general space of their possibility’. As Bearn puts it ‘what broaches breaches’, or backwards I could say ‘what cannot breach cannot broach’.


Right, I’ve finally reached the last section (which is quite short). Talks about Austin’s Fifth Lecture which I haven’t read yet.

‘…spacing as a disruption of presence in a mark, what I here call writing.’

Austin reaching an ‘impasse’ while searching for a criterion for distinguishing between performative and constative utterances, saying that ‘we are floundering here’.

He then attempts to justify, with nonlinguistic reasons, the preference he has shown in the analysis of performatives for the forms of the first person, the present indicative, the active voice.

Austin likes these because what he calls the ‘source’ of the utterance is present. Then he gives an example involving signatures. He’s talking about sentences that don’t contain words like ‘I’ but are somehow still tied to the person doing the uttering. For speech this can be done easily, just by being the person who says the thing. In writting utterances, this has to be done by appending their signature (Austin: “this has to be done because, of course, written utterances are not tethered to their origin in the way spoken ones are”)

He also considers the formula ‘hereby’ in official documents.

Now Derrida analyses the signature example. A written signature implies the nonpresence of the signer, or at least the possibility of nonpresence (otherwise you could just say ‘yep I agree with this’). But the signature also marks that the signer has been present at some point, to sign the thing in the first place. Also, the convention of signatures is that they continue to apply after the signer has finished signing, so there’s also an implied maintenance of that presence.

That general maintenance is in some way inscribed, pinpointed in the always evident and singular present punctuality of the form of the signature.

It’s a coming together of a singular event - the one-off action of signing the signature - and a conventional form - a reproducible set of marks that can be seen as ‘the same’ every time.

In order for the tethering to the source to occur, what must be retained is the absolute singularity of a signature-event and a signature-form: the pure reproducibility of a pure event’

(Derrida generally uses the term ‘event’ for one-off occurrences, something like what Searle would call a ‘token’, and normally Derrida says something like ‘form’ or ‘rule’ or ‘code’ for what Searle would call a ‘type’. But Derrida is always interested in what’s prior to this distinction, in the conditions of possibility for both. Elsewhere he talks about ‘thinking at once both the rule and the event’.)

Now he asks, is this possible? are there signature?

Yes, of course, every day. Effects of signature are the most common thing in the world. But the conditions of those effects is simultaneously, once again, the condition of their impossibility, of the impossibility of their rigorous purity. In order to function, that is, to be readable, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production.

You can’t have a signature that is so pure that it can only be written once, completely locked to one particular situation. To recognise it as your signature, you need multiple copies, and these copies will never be exactly the same - they will be written differently, or at least occur in different contexts. To broach the meaning of being a signature you need to breach the context of any one signature.

Finally, a conclusion with some numbered points.

  1. Writing is not the means of directly transferring meaning and intention, of the ‘communication of consciousnesses’. Mentions McLuhan, says we’re not returning to some ‘end of writing’ condition with immediate transparent social relations. Instead we’re seeing ‘an increasingly powerful historical expansion of a general writing’. He wants to perform a sort of flip where this ‘general writing’ is considered first, and speech, present meaning, intention etc is considered as ‘only an effect’. This is the Of Grammatology type stuff.
  2. Communication in the sense of semantic transfer between people is split or exceeded by writing. Writing leaks out meaning in all directions, and this dissemination is not reducible to polysemy (a countable number of distinct meanings), it’s a lot more messy than that.
  3. This concept of writing displaces the old concept, but ‘it seems necessary to retain, provisionally and strategically, the old name’. He says he can only sketch out why here, but it’s something to do with the speech/writing opposition being hierarchical, with speech as the ‘better’, ‘dominant’ one. ‘Deconstruction cannot be restricted or immediately pass to a neutralization: it must, through a double gesture, a double science, a double writing - put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system.’ Practically, this is how deconstruction is supposed to be able to intervene in the thing it criticises, by using the existing terminology and then flipping it outwards. This is supposed to bring out parts of the opposition that were squashed down in the old hierarchy and energise them, give them freedom to expand and move. (I’m seeing this as one of those Voronoi force diagrams snapping into a new configuration. I think the idea is that you mostly want to keep the old network of terminology, and just change it a bit, and see what the whole thing does in response to that.)

I don’t know what I think of 3. 2. seems straightforwardly correct. 1. is the kind of overblown ‘this changes everything!’ thing that Derrida likes to say, but also I think basically correct? Computers and the expansion of bureaucratic and industrial systems have produced masses of ‘generalised writing’, conventional repeatable inscriptions. And also, this is the ground somehow, the more meaningful intentional stuff needs to be built out of our lower-level ability to discriminate perceptually between different marks, to tell that some are ‘the same’ and some are ‘different’.

And now we’re finally at the end. And of course Derrida finishes by adding his signature.

Derrida's signature