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