Derrida, Language, Context

Derrida, Language, Context

Someone much cleverer than I am once said that thinking about the entirety of the enigmatic, mysterious, elusive philosophy of Jacques Derrida is just about impossible.  It’s much better to think about it in pieces, to manage the details, and try to be satisfied if that leads to anything at all.

So, let’s talk about a little piece of Derrida.

d_jaques_derrida_15281830The first part of Derrida’s Signature Event Context outlines what he considers to be the essential aspects of any form of writing and, by eventual extension, of all communication. Firstly, a written sign can continue existing as itself with or without the subject who produces it. Secondly, writing possesses meaning even if it is removed from the context from which it originated. Thirdly, the written sign is constituted by its separation from other written signs, which then enables it to be removed from its original contextual structure. The second “rule” is, perhaps, the most debatable, and therefore, worth exploring. Since, for Derrida, writing is representative of communication in general, then any expression or statement ought to be removable from the context that produces it and insertable into an entirely different context without wholly losing its meaning. This results in the inevitable conclusion that any particular communication is not, as it has been traditionally thought, primarily the representation of the event which constituted it in the first place. In simpler terms, communication is not the movement of a meaning from one subject to another. However, this does not always seem to be the case. There seem to be occasions in which expressions cannot survive without their constituting context.

Derrida states: “By virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely.” He qualifies by adding, “One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing it… onto other chains. No context can entirely enclose it.” Thus, a communicative expression, no matter how specific and seemingly context-dependent it is, ought to have some ability to function in other contexts. What is important to consider is to what extent such a removed expression can survive the stripping away of its context in order to function in other contexts. Is it just words that can function in other contexts, or the expression itself?

Let us consider expression A, which is constituted by context X. Let us then place expression A into context Y. If all the expression retains is some semblance of correct grammar, is that proof that the expression itself is indeed functioning as expression A, or does it merely point to the universality (and subsequent recognizability) of grammar itself? If the latter is the case, then all one can say is that grammar is an example of a structure by which we recognize the fact that an expression exists, and no more. This, however, seems to be such a small remainder of our original expression A, that it seems almost negligible. But it seems that if Derrida’s second rule means an iterability, or a survivability, of the expression, it implies that any particular expression can maintain some measure of its integrity beyond the borders that constituted it, which suggests that expression A can maintain some of its “A-ness” even in context Y.

Perhaps some examples are in order. Derrida briefly considers the ceremony of marriage as an example of a performative utterance. He maintains that it exists as such a performative primarily by virtue of the fact that, for example, the phrase “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is citable, or iterable. However, to what extent is this repeatable in other contexts, without referencing its original context? If one examines the “performative” aspect of the expression, then one might argue that in contexts other than marriage ceremonies, the expression does not perform the act of marrying anyone, and therefore, is no longer performative. But perhaps this is because the expression did not survive the displacement from its original context, and is therefore prevented from performing as itself.

One could say that the expression “I now pronounce you husband and wife” would still function in other contexts because words such as “pronounce” and “husband” possess recognizability even in the absence of marriage ceremonies. But let us imagine that a new marriage law is passed and “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” which is indeed a collection of recognizable signs that are capable of functioning separately, were to be changed to the phrase, “Blook.” Ministers or government officials who perform marriage ceremonies no longer say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” but rather they begin to say, “Blook.” This becomes an expression that pertains only to the conclusions of marriage ceremonies. After this expression is used for a while, it is easy to imagine that it would be mentioned in casual conversation and not solely during marriage ceremonies. However, the only way that “Blook” would make sense in such a casual conversation is by an instantaneous and even unintentional reference to marriage. If one of the participants of the casual conversation were out of touch with the times or ignorant of the shifting of legal practices, one would be quick to ask what “blook” means. He would be told that it is an expression utilized to grant credence to marriage ceremonies. After the explanation, the previous conversation would then make sense to him. But the explanation necessarily involved a pointing towards the originating context of the expression. Without such a pointing, the expression would be recognizable only as a word, and nothing more.

Perhaps the imaginary legalization of “blooks” is entirely unnecessary. The expression “I now pronounce you husband and wife” itself references a specific constituting context, even if it is uttered in an entirely different context. If one wanders into a room full of strangers and declares, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” nobody in the room, of course, could understand precisely what the speaker meant. Nevertheless, the phrase would carry recognizability by virtue of the listeners’ automatic reference to marriage ceremonies. The declarer need not add, “That phrase regards marriage.” The expression carries the context of marriage as inextricable from the phrase itself. If, within the room of strangers, one had never heard of marriage, he would recognize the expression only as a collection of recognizable words. In such a case, as far as the ignorant listener is concerned, they could be absolutely any words in a grammatically correct chain, because the expression does not mean to him what it means to everyone else in the room. Without the context of marriage, he hears only a grammatically correct sentence. He could accidentally substitute “platypus” for “husband,” and it would make very little difference to the listener. Of course, one may well point out that a platypus is certainly not a husband. Certainly not. Nevertheless, without any reference to a context of marriage, none of the integrity of the expression remains. The expression of marriage does not survive without the constituting context. All that remains is an expression. Is this enough for an expression to be considered iterable?

It is likely that many would assert that the force of Derrida’s claim lies precisely, and only, in that. An expression always remains an expression. But if this is the case, the insight is obvious, at best. It is a little bit like saying that an object which possesses physical properties will always be an object, even if it is moved from room to room. Heidegger explores the scenario of himself and a Senegal Negro gazing at the same lectern. If Heidegger were to conclude that both he and the Senegal Negro, despite their vastly differing contexts, both see an object, there would be very little to say about the scenario. There is no denying that both viewers see a physical shape, which subsists regardless of context. Heidegger seems to suggest, however, that their differing contexts alter the meaning of the object so much, that the object itself changes. It is easy imagine someone interrupting with, “Aha! You misunderstand! You’ve just proven Derrida’s point, because you’ve shown how the lectern has different meanings in different contexts. Therefore, meaning is not derived from the expression, but from the context in which one encounters it.” If this is the case, it shows only that in each different context, the object is different. Or, to return to communication, in each different context, each expression is different. Then, it is not the same expression. In which case, nothing survived. No expression is re-iterated, nothing survives, other than a recognizable alphabet and the rules of grammar. All that remains is an expression which is still an expression, but this means that it can be any expression possessing alphabetical marks and the rules of grammar, and not the survivor of the original context.

But if Derrida’s claim lies only in the fact that an expression is still an expression, regardless of where it’s placed, there is nothing to think about and explore. One will say, “Sure,” turn out the lights, and go home. But Derrida goes further. He suggests that because of this ability of expressions to endure context-swapping, communication is then not primarily a transmitter of meaning. No matter the context, and therefore no matter the meaning, the expression remains the same, and can bear the weight of an infinite number of meanings in an infinite number of contexts. But in some cases, the expression does not seem to remain the same. It is still a collection of symbols, to be sure. But the fact that they are very specific symbols occasionally gives rise to the question of whether or not, in certain cases, the specificity of the expression perhaps relies so much (not completely, but so much) upon the originating context, that unless one performs great feats of mental acrobatics, the expression cannot function in other contexts in any meaningful way at all, and the likelihood of its doing so is so small, as to be negligible.
Other examples may prove useful. To borrow an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky , let us consider the expression “frumious Bandersnatch.” If one is wandering down a city street and accidentally overhears this expression from a window, several things may occur. If one is aware of the poem, the expression carries meaning, and one perhaps thinks, “Ah, what a lovely book.” One references the context in which the Bandersnatch originated, and makes sense of the expression. If one is not aware of the context in which the Bandersnatch originated, one cannot possibly begin to grasp any meaning in the expression. One might conclude that he overheard a different language, or simply nonsense.

Here, perhaps, Derrida might suggest that “frumious Bandersnatch” is an example of agrammaticality which nevertheless can be cited, or put between quotation marks. This action will then “engender an infinity of new contexts.” However, the very act of putting “frumious Bandersnatch” into quotation marks references a context which, although possibly unknown, then lends meaning to the expression. The quotation marks seem to say, “We are here because this expression is largely inaccessible within this particular context, but there is a context somewhere from which this expression originated, and within which it makes complete sense.” So the agrammatical expression, even if within the confines of quotation marks, is still tied to a meaning-engendering context, and it is by virtue of this tying that the expression makes sense. There is also the example of highly complex and remote expressions, such as those encountered in abstract mathematics. Mathematics is itself a strange and complicated language, featuring expressions such as “holonomic” and “quaquaversal.” Within the context of abstract mathematics, these expressions carry the weight of very specific meanings. And to those who are deeply engaged with abstract mathematics, or, in more relevant words, to those who operate within the context of abstract mathematics, such expressions are quite usual and useful. To return to a previous example, if one walked into a room of non-mathematicians and announced, “Quaquaversal tiling of Euclidian 3-space,” nobody in the room would understand the expression. However, if the announcer then added, “From the Abstract Mathematics Handbook,” the listeners would be provided with a context in which such an expression holds meaning. They would require no further explanation. They need not learn what the definition of “quaquaversal” is. A context is enough to provide the listeners with meaning and subsequent understanding. Only reference to a context would preclude the expression from becoming nonsense.

A very useful illustration of context-dependency lies within the domain of art. In a very popular television show, Gilmore Girls, the main character is assigned to write a newspaper article covering the grand opening of an art exhibit. In the midst of the exhibit, she gets thirsty and approaches a drinking fountain. Just as she is about to take a drink, a girl suddenly appears and cries, “Don’t touch my artwork!” The main character steps back, puzzled, and the “artist” laughs, telling her, “I’m kidding. It’s just a water fountain.” Although, in this particular case, the water fountain was only a water fountain, it is completely conceivable that a water fountain may be an installation in an art exhibit. Within the context of the art exhibit, it is not a water fountain but a work of art, not to be touched, only admired from a respectable distance. But let us imagine the exact same object in the hallway of a university. Suddenly, it is back to being merely a water fountain. Of course, the object is recognizable as a water fountain, but it is no longer recognizable as art. In order for it to function as an expression of art, it must be placed within the context of an art exhibit.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted Fountain, a signed urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists. It is hardly possible that, in the 1600s, such a submission could have been conceived as a work of art by anybody, no matter how revolutionary. The urinal, in order to engender the controversy it did, had to be constituted by the cultural Dadaist context of the early 1900s to exist as an expression of art. If it is removed from this context and placed, instead, into the 1600s, it loses the expression of controversial-potential-work-of-art and becomes, instead, a urinal. Without the context that transforms water fountains and urinals into expressions of art, they remain water fountains and urinals. Of course, they are still capable of being recognized as objects. But this is obvious. Is this, then, enough to constitute iterability, and the ability to survive outside their contexts? They function as objects, certainly, but the object that is a work of art, and the object that is a drinking fountain, are two such distinct objects that it seems they are not the same object at all. In other words, the work of art does not seem to survive the displacement of context and emerge as a new potentiality. It is not the same object that emerges. An expression of art is transformed into a mundane object. Surely, this does not constitute survival, or iterability?

In fact, one could even go on to suggest that all abstract art is constituted by the creation of expressions that have meaning only within a very specific original context. Beyond the context of abstract art, the works become either nonsense, decoration, or simply mundane objects. For certain works of art to function and be understood as works of art, the background of abstract art is required.

In some cases, if no reference to a constituting context is possible, it seems that the expression is recognizable only as an expression, surviving with none of what made it that expression, and not any other. To return to an earlier example, the expression A does not, in fact, retain any of its “A-ness” beyond its context X. Therefore, the expression A does not survive, and is not iterable. If all Derrida’s second “rule” implies is that such expressions survive with only their existence as an expression intact, the insight seems slightly obvious for some cases.

Overall, the above examples could mean several things. Perhaps one would say that the examples provided are not examples of communication. Or, perhaps, in certain cases, context, and therefore intentionality, is an irrevocable aspect of communication.

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