... 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. One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing it or grafting it onto other chains. No context can entirely close it. Nor any code, the code here being both the possibility and impossibility of writing, of its essential iterability (repetition/alterity)1

Iterability, according to Jacques Derrida in his essay Signature Event Context, is the possibility of linguistic configurations, such as familiar expressions (“I love you”, “you can say that again!”), performative utterances (naming something, making a promise, declaring your intent to act in a certain way), and even signatures, to be repeated, cited and/or quoted by anyone over and over again. The possibility of iteration includes the possibility of deviation from the so-called “intended meaning” of linguistic expressions. While this may appear to be common sense, the spin Derrida puts on it illustrates how signifiers may not necessarily correspond to their “intended” signified. This puts the received view of linguistic communication as intentional into question. If, for example, someone on stage in a play makes a promise to do a certain thing, the traditional validity/invalidity opposition of intentionality doesn’t render it a failure because it was uttered out of a context where it might have had an actual effect . To clarify, John L. Austin (in Derrida’s evaluation- I haven’t read Austin’s work yet2) might say that a promise made within the script of a play is an “unsuccessful” performative utterance because it does not meet the criteria necessary (i.e. an actual promise to be fulfilled) to make it work. Austin would designate such expressions as “parasitic” because they are logically (and semantically) dependent on actual non-fictional (“normal”) speech acts - those which actually “get things done”. In essence, iterated, fictional, or cited utterances are subjugated to “valid” speech acts because they are only references to those speech acts. Austin’s claim is not that such utterances mean nothing, merely that they do not fit into true/false and success/failure parameters properly.

Derrida, on the other hand, says that success/failure and true/false dichotomies are not even relevant to the functioning of language. By separating utterances or writings from the intentions of their authors, meaning becomes something that is drawn out in use and interpretation. Original or intended contexts cannot limit the meaning of language, says Derrida. This is the quality of iterability: that language is decentralized (that is to say that it is not necessarily grounded in the communication of true and false statements or in the communication of intended meaning) and undergoes transformation with every repetition of its different configurations. Utterances have significance within whatever contexts they find themselves in, yet they are not limited to those contexts and are certainly not confined within them. Iterability is breaking out of contexts. Contexts, however, are an ill-defined thing; as a matter of fact, Derrida refers to them as not only indeterminate, but indeterminable! On the surface, this can make one shake his head and go “huh?”, because it seems to be saying that while linguistic expression finds its meaning in its use (i.e. its contextual placement), contexts themselves cannot be defined, which puts them in a poor position to actually provide any definition of content (utterances and the like).

I don’t think that Derrida is saying that, though. I think he simply wants to avoid rigourous definitions, distinctions and categorizations with regards to language and meaning. The context-content relation should is and should be recognized as something that is fluid in its nature, because the nature of communication involves such a large degree of interpretation. This interpretation can involve interpretation on the part of the reader, interpretation on the part of the speaker, who may use puns, jokes or even etymological breakdowns to manipulate the words he is using and collide meanings together (or tear them apart), or even misinterpretation and miscommunication. The fact that language and communication is so indeterminate should be a hint that we might want to move away from attempting to pin everything down in an analytical manner and try to be more intuitive about language.

Perhaps it is better to not box everything into categories like true or false, right or wrong, successful or unsuccesful and better or worse. Of course, I don’t think that the philosophy of language is a waste of time, and that such inquiries are fruitless, but when we reach a point that things become so elusive that we cannot pin down a definite answer, we cannot simply keep frustrating ourselves by bashing our heads off the same wall. I think that Derrida is offering some sort of therapy here, in the same vein as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The concept of iterability (which is very closely related to deconstruction, citationality, and so on and so forth) represents that move toward fluidity, change and endless reinterpretation that Derrida offers as an escape from more analytic accounts of meaning.


1Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, in Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff, trans. Alan Bass(1972; Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000) 9.
2Derrida's essay is a look at Austin's work, especially in his book How To Do Things With Words. You might want to have a look at it, I'm going to at any rate. He does outline Austin's argument pretty well, so you don't absolutely have to read it to understand SEC, but it's probably a good idea to absorb it first hand and decide for yourself.

What does Derrida mean by ‘iterability’ in his essay "Signature, Event, Context"?




Iterability is the possibility of removing a mark from its context and placing it in another. Derrida believes that iterability is something that fundamentally structures all marks (written, oral or otherwise). Thus, every mark has the inherent possibility of being ‘cited’, ‘quoted’ or ‘grafted’ (to use Derrida’s terms). Derrida states that:

…communication must be repeatable —iterable— in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any determinable collectivity of receievers. 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… A writing that is not structurally readable—iterable—beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing (SEC 7).

So for Derrida the possibility of iteration is a (if not the) defining characteristic of any mark. If it is not iterable (repeatable, even in the radical absence of any receiver) it is not a written mark.

This is all very well and good, but it doesn't really seem that problematic yet. And Derrida isn't Derrida without some pressing problematic. We discover the problems that this iterability contains when Derrida applies it to John Austin's version of speech act theory, specifically the version exhibited in Austin's How To Do Things With Words.

So just what problems does iterability pose (if any) for Austin’s speech act theory? Well, after taking iterability as an inherent structure or quality of any mark, Derrida applies this structure to Austin’s speech-act theory and asks:

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 conforming with an iterable model, if it were not then identifiable in some way as a “citation”? (SEC 18).

Just before the above quotation, Derrida has illustrated Austin’s exclusion from his analysis of speech acts precisely the sort of speech act that Derrida is talking about: those made in plays, in jest, in poetry, or in fiction (ie: those that are obviously iterated/repeated). What Derrida wants to ask us is: does this sort of exclusion ignore (or discount) the very structure of the thing that it sets out to analyze? Or: Does the exclusion of these ‘parasitic’ speech acts (which are cited/repeated/iterated speech acts) ignore/discount the fact that all marks are fundamentally iterable. Derrida will argue that it does, and that such an exclusion is, for that reason, a metaphysical and dangerous one.


Since, unlike my friend frankdeluxe above, I've read and own a copy of How To Do Things With Words I think that I will do a writeup on its basic principles. Its rather helpful in understanding what Derrida is getting at with all this. And its also helpful in being critical of Derrida's reading of Austin...

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.