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.”