Limited Inc.

A book by FrenchdeconstructionistJacques Derrida (possibly his most straightforward, and amusing) in which he responds to John Searle’s response to an earlier article of his (Derrida’s) called “Signature, Event, Context”.

Signature, Event, Context” (SEC) is (among other things) an evaluation of Austin’s speech act theory. Essentially, Derrida latches onto Austin’s initial choice to exclude ‘parasiticspeech acts (those made in a play, in a work of fiction, quotations, poetry etc.) from his discussion of speech acts in general. Derrida’s contention in SEC is that this preliminary exclusion is a metaphysical one (as opposed to merely a practical, pragmatic concern). Derrida proposes that this exclusion is problematic because it ignores the general structure of iterability that languagealways already” has. Which is to say that: because all language is based on the fact that a particular sign (or, in Austin’s case, a particular ‘speech act’) is always able to be iterated (and thus cited/quoted/repeated/etc.), an analysis which to exclude, from the very beginning, such forms as ‘parasitic’ would be (in Derrida’s eyes) to ignore the very thing to be analyzed (language).

Searle’s reply to SEC (“Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida”) is a rather polemical attack on Derrida’s appropriation of Austin’s speech act theory (of which Searle is a major adherent/developer). Basically, Searle’s argument (extracted from his insults, my favourite is: “Derrida’s Austin, which is almost unrecognizable…”) runs like this:

Parasitical speech acts are logically dependant upon non-parasitical speech acts. Which is to say that we can only understand a fictional promise based on the model of an ‘actual’ promise. Thus, Austin’s exclusion, even if it were a metaphysical one (which Searle thinks it obviously is not) is not troubling. As the relationship between so-called parasitical speech acts and ‘normal’ speech acts is a linear one: we cannot have a parasitical speech act before (or without) its equivalenthost’ speech act.

Now, to put the sheer absurdity of Derrida’s reply to Searle’s reply to Derrida (i.e. Limited Inc): “Signature, Event, Context” is about 20 or so pages, at the most. Searle’s reply is about the same. “Limited Inc’ is around 100 pages. It is a mass of jokes, puns, and it quotes almost the entire text of both SEC and Searle’s reply. It is more than a simple reply to Searle’s arguments (though it is that as well), it is a full out ‘assault’ (a problematic term considering Derrida’s later remarks on the form of academic/philosophical ‘debates’…) on speech act theory’s (Searle’s version of speech act theory in particular) ability to cope with certain forms of writing. A complete recapitulation of Derrida’s ‘arguments’ (if they can really be considered arguments) would take up as much space as Limited Inc, so I’ll simply gloss two of the points I find most amusing.

Derrida refers to the manuscript (or editor’s copy, I can’t recall at the moment, and I don’t have the book handy) of Searle’s reply which he has received. In the top right corner, above the title, there is a little scrawled addition by Searle that says “Copyright 1977 John R. Searle”. Derrida makes much of this. To begin with he places it in ever increasing numbers of quotation marks, ending up with something like “““ Copyright 1977 John R. Searle”””. At first, this may seem like a rather childish game, poking fun at Searle’s self-assurance that his manuscript won’t be stolen out from under him. It is that, but it is also a serious ‘argument’ in the sense that this sort of multiple quotation poses problems for Searle’s speech act theory, which is based (this is a general summary here…) on the idea that all speech acts are fundamentally intentional. What Derrida wants us to ask is, what can the intention be behind writing “““ Copyright 1977 John R. Searle”””? What sort of speech act is this?

The other amusing point which I’d like to discuss is related to Derrida’s reference not to Searle, but to SARL (which is, in French, an acronym similar to the English Ltd. Inc., hence the title). His justification for this is in Searle’s acknowledgements which state (roughly, I can’t quote exactly without the book at hand): I am indebted to D. Searle and two other people (one of which is a friend of Derrida’s) for their invaluable thoughts on this essay, etc etc.”. Derrida takes this to mean that the essay was not solely written by Searle himself, but by a Limited Liability Corporation, involving Searle, the three people he mentions, and (indirectly) Derrida himself, who is responsible through his friendship and conversations with one of Searle’s acknowledgees. Thus, throughout the essay, Derrida cloaks his polemic against Searle himself by referring only to SARL when he makes a particularly damaging point. Again, one might ask: mere childishness? It seems to me that we can see this rhetorical tactic as yet another valid objection to Searle’s speech act theory. If there are multiple authors (speakers?) then who is intending? Where do we locate the intention for this Searle’s speech act (i.e. his reply?)

Both of these glosses can be developed into further points, but my purpose in this writeup is only to highlight the things that I enjoyed about Limited Inc., not to provide a full critique or exposition of the book. (I might TRY and provide at least a partial critique of it later on…but that’s another writeup!)


Limited Inc. Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Quote during the writing of this writeup: “Especially not Jeremy Felker. We only dress up for Andrew Sowerby.”

Jacques Derrida is well-known for his numerous deconstructions of the concept of the original as, for example, it imprints itself in painting, history, psychoanalysis, and economics. In his now-famous essay "Signature Event Context" (reprinted in his book Limited Inc) Derrida examines a certain privileging of speech, a privileging whereby writing is enslaved to speech, and held to be an imitation or citation of the original phonetic logos (phonocentrism). As the communication of ideal content, speech is privileged because it is the originary form of communication.

Derrida addresses particularly a claim made by Plato (this is a familiar trope for Derrida, btw). Writing, said Plato in the Phaedrus, is only a copy of speech. Speech is, said Plato (but actually Socrates said it, but actually Plato wrote it, and it is these writings that we read and not the Socratic speeches which may, in fact, only exist as a literary device, a device that certainly functions to defer (and not only by a series of repetitions parenthetically inscribed) that which the writing imitates or represents; which is the speech of Socrates which is, writes Plato, the:) original. According to the Platonic theory, writing is necessarily a citation of speech. A definition is given, which has defined, thinks Derrida, the tradition of philosophic discourse and assumption regarding this subject: "Speech is the original of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image" (Plato, Phaedrus, 276a).

The fact of its' citedness is essential to the art of writing, says Plato, and this is the basis of the philosophic critique of writing. On the philosophic view, the fact that writing is a citation reveals a certain impurity in its function as a form of expression of ideational or Formal content. Speech is the master, writing is its slave.

If oral poetry was to be banned in the ideal Republic (see Plato's Attack on Poetry), then written poetry wasn't even important enough to condemn, it didn't even deserve the breath of spoken condemnation. The Platonic tendency to not take writing serious as a philosophical example, this distribution of writing to the margins, continues within the philosophic tradition right up to contemporary analytic philosophy. Philosophy dismisses writing, considering it not even important enough for serious consideration. Derrida copies Austin's famous dismissal: "Still confining ourselves, for simplicity, to spoken utterance" (J. L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words quoted as epigraph to Derrida's "Signature Event Context"). Austin is copying too: "Nothing that has ever been written merits much serious attention" (Plato, Phaedrus, 277e).

Derrida thinks that the philosophers have systematically ignored the citationality of forms of communication other than writing. Writing is, in a very real sense, always citable. It is also, generally, a copy of another writing. But is the same not also true of speech? Speech, writes Derrida, is also intimate with repetition and reproduction. What would a speech be that one could not cite? What is a pronouncement that cannot be repeated? Our institutions are deeply dependent upon the citability of our speeches. "I pronounce you married." Can we not ask the minister to repeat herself? "What did you say?" "I said, 'I pronounce you married.' And you may now kiss the groom." If she could not repeat herself, what would a marriage be, where would marriage be, could there be marriage? What would a marriage be that was entirely dependent on the singularity of a specific event, an event which could always be disrupted such as by protest, sudden sickness, warfare, fire, infection. Derrida writes, and I read this in an impression that copies one of his lectures:
"Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the usual sense of this opposition), as a small or large unity, can be cited... This citationality, duplication, or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or an anomaly, but is that (normal-abnormal) without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called normal functioning. What would a mark be that one could not cite? And whose origin could not be lost on the way?" (Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context" reprinted in Between the Blinds: A Derrida Reader, Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 97).
And whose origin could not be lost on the way? In being always citable, and already a citation, the mark displaces our expectation of an original, an original that is not the citation. Which is the original and which is the citation? Is the text I read in Between the Blinds the original? Or is the original in Margins of Philosophy? Or is it found in Marges de la philosophie? What about the proceedings of the colloquium at which the speech was given? Or what about Derrida's lecture notes for the speech? Or is it the speech itself, which was of course drastically altered in certain obvious ways in order to be presented as a chapter in a book? (These alterations include: the erasure of mispronunciations and coughs, the dissapearance of intonation and facial gesture, and the addition of typographic decisions, particularly the inclusion of the last paragraph (which is Derrida's commentary on the fact that the essay was "to have been addressed" to the colloquium) and Derrida's signature printed beside it.) Is the trace of that text I copied above not also as original as any other citation? Where is the original? Is there an original? Why was it lost along our way?

The origin is of course lost along the way. A better way of writing it would have been: the origin is mythologized along the way; or, demythologized along the way. Derrida brings us to an aporia before the original. We find ourselves lost. In trying to determine which is the original copy of something so simple as "Signature Event Context" we face ourselves, that is, our concepts, our concept of the original, the original which is here found lacking, because we can't find it.


Jacques Derrida

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