Linguistics: Austin, Derrida, Searle, D&G, Lecercle

please excuse the typos…

Austin’s text serves as the foundation for the remaining texts read for this week.  Instead of spending too much ink on Austin proper, I will work through a few key concepts and then deal with his reception.  The first distinction he makes is between constative speech acts which describe something that ‘is so’ and performative acts which ‘makes something so’ in its saying (“I do take this woman to be my lawful weeded wife”, “I name this ship…”, “I give and bequeath my watch…” pg 5).

There are a number of ways in which a performative can go wrong (‘infelicities’) which are schematically covered in Lecture II (14-5: formula, 18: diagram).  The role these felicities play in speech is a major disagreement between Derrida and Searle.  Additionally, Austin distinguishes between locutionary (issuing meaning), illocutionary (issuing force: “do something”) and perlocutionary (result of issuance: persuade/convince) acts (101).

Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” (SEC) and his subsequent exchange with Austin acolyte John Searle demonstrates the power of Derridean deconstruction, failures of orthodox adherence to theorists, and common misinterpretations of postmodernism.

At the heart of SEC is Derrida’s deconstructive method, of which he articulates clearly on page 195: 1) identify a dualism, 2) reverse which term is privileged, which results in 3) a displacement of the system.

The first target of Derrida’s deconstruction is communication.  He troubles the notion of communication being primarily semiotic (and ‘literal’) (172-3).  Secondly, he argues that communication depends on context and not the other way around (174), which becomes useful later when considering Austin.

Second, Derrida challenges the classical view of communication as providing presence (most notably, a recipient and/or speaker) in the midst of absence (177).  According to Derrida, the dominant view of writing is that writing is speech’s supplement.  Derrida’s deconstructive reconfiguring privileges iterability (180), whereby a word is “cited” and then grafted onto new contexts (182).  This grafting necessarily produces the possibility of deviant contexts (which become extremely crucial for re-appropriation, Butler’s “girling of the girl” is a good example).  In guaranteeing its generalizability (which all writing must do), it creates alternative domains of cultural intelligibility.

Derrida’s third major deconstructive move is made on Austin’s infelicities.  1) he identifies the happy/infelicitious dualism 2) reverses infelicitious speech acts, removing the charge that infelicity is parasitic (and a degraded form of otherwise felicitious speech), instead suggesting that infelicities are absolutely necessary and completes something (Plato’s pharmakon) (190+).  Therefore, the reverse of #1 is true: serious performatives are the “special case” of nonserious performatives (192).  Derrida then uses signatures to demonstrate that meaning is determined not foundationally but through iteration (repetition implying alterity).

John Searle’s response to SEC and Derrida’s subsequent rejoinder offer an illuminating look at traditionalist critiques of deconstruction — stubborn but nuanced defenders of certain strands of thought are usually sloppy ventriloquists of deconstruction, usually reinforcing deconstructive critique rather than undermining it.  For example, in approaching Austin from a position of orthodoxy, Searle either doesn’t question Derrida’s central claim (that the absence/alterity of a words interability is what makes its “doing” so important) or is engaged in a veiled attack on alterity.  While trying to reclaim the “parasitism” of Austin’s theory, Searle argues that Derrida applies a moral judgment (205).  Bad readings of Derrida may employ this tactic (relativism or fetishisizing ‘parasitism’).  But when acknowledging a good reading of Derrida (207), Searle merely brushes off the importance iterability/context (one of the three deconstructions in SEC that work together) as uninteresting – showing that he ‘either didn’t get’ one of the necessary elements of Derrida’s argument  or is unable to respond to the argument in it’s strongest (3-part) form.  For me, it’s obvious that Searle still wants to maintain Austin’s attempt to perfect speech and doesn’t have a valid respond to Derrida’s claim that such perfection is not only impossible but effaces the possibilities present in citation/iterability.

Derrida’s response is fun to read because it is comical.  It draws Searle into a double-bind specific to the part of Derrida’s argument he never responded to (explained in the previous paragraph): Searle must respond to Derrida within a deconstructionist frame or not respond by dismissing Derrida (as gibberish, unintelligible, etc).  Derrida’s response therefore misspells Searle’s name and employs other “infelicitious speech” which would be unintelligble if Searle was right.  The heart of Derrida’s argument is that if Searle refuses to admit the infelicity of speech acts (for instance, the response to Derrida), then his response has no original meaning or context.  In fact, to use Derrida’s hyperbole, it restricts a “confrontation” of text/response from even taking place (169-170).  [[[AwC: sorry this is so unclear!  When I revisit these texts, I’ll rewrite this section.]]

The short excerpt from TP’s postulate one provides a sampling of D+Gs colorful writing style – starting off with the assertion that language is not taught but imposed upon a student (75), a critique of classical linguistics that sees language as nothing but communication.  The introduction and subsequent evocations of indirect discourse and redundancy provide a useful parallel to the iterability introduced in our Derrida reading (76-7, 79-80, 83).  Other useful concepts introduced in the excerpt are the collective assemblage of enunciation (79-81), and the regimes of signs/semiotic machine (83).

While D+G’s writing is dense and hard to decipher without the proper context, Lecercle was clear in unpacking D+G.  Lecercle’s reading of D+G provides a very useful model for understanding the four postulates on linguistics presented in TP.  He first situates D+G within the Marxist tradition (with ten theses) (cap via capital, political program, history, temporality – collectivism/individualism, subject, ideology, materialism, historicism, agon).  He then differentiates D+G from orthodox Marxism in the section ‘Displacement’ (change in periodicity, shift from history to geography, from work to desire, from ideology to assemblage, from party to group, molar/molecular-minor/major).  Though D+G can not be reduced to these simple oppositions, they are extremely helpful in differentiating D+G from other Marxist traditions, especially given Lercercle’s lucid explanations of the advantages D+G’s models have over previous Marxist formulations.

Lastly, and most useful for this week, Lercercle argues that D+G and Voloshinov have the only two Marxist linguistic systems worthy of consideration.  Lercercle lays out six principles generally followed by mainstream linguistics:

1)    immanence

  1. structuralist principle of the field of language
  2. language is IN and OF the world

2)    functionality

  1. language fulfills functions
  2. language = instrument of exchange

3)    principle of transparence

  1. if lang = just an instrument, the best it can do is be forgotten

4)    ideality:

  1. language is an abstract ideal (langue, actualized in parole)

5)    systematicity

  1. what is relevant for study is not chaos (parole) but system of rules: langue

6)    synchrony

  1. system is essentially stable

Lecercle then lays out D+G’s critique of these six areas, providing re-formulations that invert the six principles of mainstream linguistics:

6 inverse principles

1)    non-immanence

a)     there is no separation between lang and the rest of phenom that constitutes the world

2)    dysfunctionality

a)     rejects the idea that lang is an instrument and the hierarchy of fx that metaphor implies

3)    opacity

a)     words always mean more than what I mean

4)    materiality

a)     materiality in shape of sounds/letters, but also institutions and apparatuses

b)    agonistic concept of language – it is first a material body acting among and on other bodies

5)    part-systematicity

a)     there are regularities

  1. i.     are not stable

b)    but rules are riddled with exceptions

6)    historicitiy

a)     any lang is partly chaotic and partly organized

  1. i.     because it is a sedimentation of rules, maxims and meainigs, and the history of the culture

After a useful exposition on free indirect speech which serves as a useful parallel to our Derrida reads, Lecercle suggest four characteristics of a Marxist linguistics:

Language as a

1)    a social phenom

2)    a material phenom

3)    a political phenom

4)    a historical phenom

Lecercle is obviously indispensable at understanding D+G’s general approach in relation to Marxism as well as understanding their linguistic system.  It would be interesting to do a comparative analysis of Derrida vs. D+G.  I remember reading a paper by John Barton (a former English teach of mine, and UCI grad) that does this very comparison. This week might be a good time to revisit his paper.


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