Derrida's "Signature Event Context"

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 1475-1490. Print.

Derrida begins by discussing the term communication, noting that the meaning includes semantic and nonsemantic communication, and that this is an example of “the problem of polysemy” (1475).  Derrida notes that the multiple meanings of words can undermine a writer or speaker’s point, potentially changing the meaning the writer intends (1475).  Derrida also notes the problem of context with writing, as it presupposes a space outside itself where meaning can still exist (1476).

To investigate this further, Derrida turns to Condillac and the representation of writing as a medium that can share the ideas of absent writers and “supplant” action or presences (1477). Derrida notices that “suppleer” can mean “supplant” or “supplement,” so Condillac’s text contradicts itself by suggesting that representation both replaces and adds to presence (1478).

Derrida notes that “retracing” involves “a process of analysis and continuous decomposition . . . from ordinary presence to the language of the most formal calculus” (1479). Derrida is playing with this idea throughout. Derrida explains differance as difference and deferral, and that this deferral, results in “distance, divergence, delay” that suggests absence rather than a “modification of presence” (1479). Derrida defers meaning with the structure of his own writing in this piece, quite playfully. He returns to this concept later, noting a lack of effects—and that these effects “do not exclude what is generally opposed to them . . . they presuppose it . . . in the general space of their possibility” (1488).

Next, Derrida moves on to iterability and readability, and the role of an audience or receiver (1479-80). Derrida examines the concept of code, suggesting that while it would have all the information within itself necessary to “crack” it, the point of it is to conceal meaning, so its purpose defeats itself in what he calls a “paradoxical consequence” (1480).

Derrida evacuates the representation of himself as an author: “I ought to be able to say my disappearance, pure and simple, my non-presence in general, for instance the non-presence of my intention of saying something meaningful” (1480). Elaborating further on the consequences of writing, he notes that writing is not presence and not meaning, and wishes to disengage from polysemics and context (1480).

The absence at the heart of the structure of writing leads Derrida to refer to as “the essential drift” in meaning, and “the labor of the negative” as representation requires the removal of the represented (1481). This includes the absence of the referent (which he enacts beautifully) and the absence of the signified (e.g., “mathematical meaning” and “agrammaticality”) (1482).  To develop the idea of the problem of context, Derrida explores the “citationality” of text—that though it starts in one context, it can travel to another, and this “duplication or duplicity” is an essential feature of the mark (1483-4).

In the next section, Derrida explores another paradoxical conclusion regarding the performative (1484-8). He critiques Austin by examining the idea of the “parasitic” nature of writing as Austin calls it, comparing it with “ordinary” language which Austin holds has an element of presence (1487).

Finally, Derrida discusses the idea of presence and absence in signatures, and the idea of the “source” as the author who makes a mark of presence and yet remains absent when signing a signature (1489). He uses this to raise the idea of logocentrism, the idea that speech is falsely shown preference over writing (1489). Derrida states the goal of deconstruction is to reverse hierarchies like this, revising the “conceptual order” through calling attention to the “displacement of the system” (1490).

RhetoricKatie Ancheta