Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Fordham University Press
Reviewed by: Yonathan Listik (University of Amsterdam)
Michael Naas’ 2019 book, Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes, is an interesting reconstruction of the three lectures Jacques Derrida gave in Montreal between 1970 and 1997. We also learn of a fourth ‘unofficial’ lecture which is presented as an appendix to the ‘official’ narrative of the three main events. Naas reconstructs the three episodes by placing them within a consistent line inside Derrida’s philosophy. According to him, even though the three lectures do not fit a purposely announced continuum, they form a common thread within Derrida’s philosophical project. This project is already evident in the first of those episodes in 1971: his presentation of “Signature Event Context” for the French Language Philosophy Association Annual Conference. It is fundamental to understand that Naas is not pointing at this instance as an original or originary source of Derrida’s philosophy. This is not an unambiguously demarcated origin but rather the first of several instances within a chronological fragment presented by Naas.
Derrida’s most significant contribution in that text is assessing John Austin’s theory of performance and its relevance to a theory of communication by arguing that it is not just an addition to the established understanding of language as a descriptive force but a challenge to the idea of description itself. Naas is clearly aware that this was perhaps Derrida’s most polemic text sparking controversy not only within the ‘opposing’ philosophical field, analytic philosophers represented by John Searle, but also within Derrida’s ‘home base’ as Naas recounts that Paul Ricœur, the keynote at the event where Derrida read his article, was uncomfortable with Derrida’s reconstruction of Austin’s theory. Even though Derrida’s occupation with an analytic philosopher such as Austin might be surprising, Naas points to Derrida’s exchange at Harvard, where the lectures that later became How to Do Things with Words took place, to argue that this was not an unconventional choice of subject. In that sense it was not an empty provocation.
Rather, Naas presents Derrida’s account of communication and language as covering most of his philosophical enterprise. Not in a manner that summarizes or contains all of the subjects Derrida will occupy himself with throughout his work nor in a sense that Derrida continually returns to that text as if it was somehow a foundational moment in his career (50). Instead, Naas’ adoption of that text as a central piece in his reconstruction of Derrida’s theory serves to demonstrate that Derrida’s arguments there could be translated into two fundamental methodological points that Naas adopts as his guidelines for assessing Derrida: performativity and iterability.
The performative aspect is evident in how Naas structures the book. He chooses to present Derrida’s interventions as acts in parallel to a theatrical play. In that way, he is not only describing Derrida’s work but also performing it to a great extent. As Georges Leroux and Ginette Michaud argue in their introductory note, he thinks towards Derrida in an act of reaching out to him. Instead of the perhaps ordinary descriptive movement of dissecting something stable, Naas offers an act of Derrida’s act: an attempt of ‘mimicking’ without copying or of tracing the movements of Derrida as its partner in a dance. The fact that, similar to Derrida’s texts analyzed by Naas, the texts in the book were originally performed in a conference have great significance in this context. Naas is very literally performing the piece Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes.
According to Naas, Derrida’s interventions form a three act play chronologically ordered with two additional interludes and an encore where he discusses the fourth unofficial intervention. Naas argues that each of the three main interventions could be portrayed as examining one of the three concepts in Derrida’s initial talk. Despite presenting the interventions in chronological order, Naas argues that the first one (“Signature Event Context”) is centered on context, the second one (“Otobiographie de Nietzsche”) on signature and the final one (“Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement”) is associated to the event.
The iterability factor comes about in the fact that Naas is not arguing that Derrida is repeating himself in the three supposedly unrelated lectures; he is arguing that when considering Derrida’s argument about iterability, one must carefully reflect on what is being iterated in the three themes that at first sight show no communality. Naas argues that what is being iterated is Derrida’s original deconstructive impetus and, in that sense, a proper understanding of the larger piece in its three acts should provide the reader with an account of what is the deconstructive project.
The first act of Naas’s play comments on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” (hereby SEC, as Derrida refers to it) focusing on the last concept of the title. The central argument being that Derrida’s text aims directly at challenging any possible contextualization of the performative iteration. According to Naas, context is, from a Derridean perspective, not a ground that solidifies the iteration into a clear and precise address where communication takes place. It is precisely the indeterminacy that permeates any attempt of certitude. This is not merely a contingent element of the specific contexts or an empirical barrier encountered by the transition between the theory of communication and its real occurrences. According to Derrida, this is a structural condition of communication per se. In other words, in the context of communication there is neither a departure address nor an arrival point that could solidify the communicative event. The context is marked by absence rather than by presence: it is characterized more by the lack of determining factors than by their presence.
Naas argues that Derrida’s point about context passes through his assessment of the relation between speech and writing in Austin’s How to Do Things with Words since it is by first problematizing and then offering an inverse logic that Derrida deconstructs the notion of context. Naas describes this movement as a transition from placing Austin within the philosophical tradition that privileges speech over writing by thinking of writing as merely the supplement of speech, towards finding in Austin’s performative theory a breaking point to that logic. The first step is Derrida’s reference to Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and the idea that writing is marked by absence: the writer or the receiver are absent. In imitating/representing speech, writing allows for a non-synchronous timeframe opening the space for absence in communication. This absence, however, is portrayed as a temporary lack that must be supplemented. In that sense, the ‘natural’ communicative order of speech is preserved.
Derrida challenges this perspective by arguing that the absence in writing is not a contingent element but rather its very condition. Naas explains that the fact that writing must be ‘readable’ makes absence a constitutive factor of writing. Writing is for some absent other but, moreover, it is also the limit of my intentionality. Using a concept that he explores elsewhere (“Miracle and machine: Jacques Derrida and the two sources of religion, science, and the media”), Naas argues that writing is like a machine for Derrida since it keeps working in the absence of the original impetus. Besides the obvious absence of the reader in a written communication, Derrida argues that the writer is also absent in the act of making their writing readable: their presence and intentionality are relevant but not conditions of its communicative force.
Derrida then reverts this logic back to what is allegedly the ‘original’ logic of speech (43). According to him, this logic of absence is not exclusive to writing but permeates communication as a whole since even the spoken word needs to remain ‘readable’ without the presence of both the speaker and the listener. In order for language to work, it must have some ‘durability’ as Naas points with his emphasis on the concept of restance. Language is only understandable if it could be understandable in all possible contexts. Naas reconstructs this fundamental step by referring to Plato’s Pharmacy in order to demonstrate how this deconstructive movement is consistent in Derrida’s work. It fundamentally amounts to Derrida’s suspicion of a metaphysics of presence.
Naas goes great lengths to explain Derrida’s argument by emphasizing that he is not arguing that absence is a necessary condition of communication, as if to argue that it is exclusively in the context of the absence of determining factors that communication is possible. That is, Derrida is not making a normative argument in defense of emptying out the communicative act towards anonymity and transparency. Instead, as Naas clearly illustrates, Derrida’s argument is that such anonymity and transparency is impossible precisely because despite any possible content one might be able to associate to context, it will remain invariably permeated by an absence. Derrida is opposing the possibility of a fully charged context where in the absence of any ambiguity, one would reach a transparent communicative act (71). Derrida demonstrates that such interference-free communication is supposedly achieved not by the clearing of the context but rather by overcharging it.
Naas notices he does this by referencing McLuhan, which, as Naas argues, is a clear reference to the context of Derrida’s speech in Canada. Still, it is Toronto and not the same French speaking Canada of his speech. By pointing to this perhaps anecdotal fact, Naas is performing a deconstructive act: remarking a context that is not the exact context, staging the marginalia of the act to show its importance.
Moreover, Naas demonstrates the power of Derrida’s argument by translating it into its fundamental principles: in order for something to be communicable, it must work beyond its context. A communication that is absolutely grounded on its contexts would not communicate anything, so in every instance of communication the context must be invariably extrapolated (42). The presence of contextual elements is always permeated by some elements of absence. In that way, Naas successfully demonstrates how Derrida challenges the metaphysics of presence.
Here lies the strength of Naas reconstruction: with this argument, Derrida, unlike many of his critics argue, is not dismissing intention—he is merely arguing that it is not the governing force in language. In the same way that Derrida’s arguments about absence do not entail the disappearance of presence, intention does not provide us with a fundamental and defining context. But this does not mean that it is irrelevant. To large extent, this is the power of the deconstructive movement that Naas captures with precision. Naas explains this to be the meaning of Derrida’s argument: that language must be iterable, it must make reference to the already known while being the singular event of communication, i.e., communicating a new sense (61). In order for a performative to work, it must make reference to codes already established beyond its context and, in that sense, it is a citation of a previous iteration that is taken out of context. Both in the theatre or in ‘real life’, when a couple gets married, they must use (or at least reference) the appropriate code. The possibility of extrapolating the context, inherent to any citation, is not marginal to the force of language but its very ground.
This is the point of connection that Naas finds between Derrida and Austin. Despite the fact that Derrida finds problematic arguments in Austin and, if we consider Austin’s ‘heirs’ to legitimately represent his philosophical project, the reverse is also true: Derrida and Austin are both committed to opposing the ‘descriptive illusion’ that language exists as a manner of referencing things rather than doing things (52). In other words, they are both concerned with the power/force or language not with its truth values.
Still, Naas argues that Derrida tries to overcome Austin’s reliance on the context via his assessment of the role that intentions play in Austin’s theory. More specifically, Austin’s dismissal of infelicities (Naas uses the French word for failures, which is also the word for chess, ‘échecs’) which is to a great extent evident in his attempt to secure the source of every speech act. Derrida, on the other hand, adopts failure and indeterminacy as his model. For Naas, more important than who is right or how they disagree, this difference is crucial for understanding Derrida’s philosophy. The possibility of failure is not a marginal possibility of the successful instance, it is what grounds the possibility of success. In the same manner that writing is not the shadow of speech, failure is not the negative of success but its structural condition.
Naas wants to show that the structural condition of absence (failure, parasitology…) are the central marks of Derrida’s deconstructive project. In doing that, he is able to point at a fundamental principle in Derrida’s philosophy. Naas is not reducing it to one fundamental principle that is reproduced in different instances. Instead, he is showing the invariable iterability of the deconstructive project: precisely the impossibility of ever reducing it to one individual context that securely grounds it beyond any other movements. Naas’ piece is not an ‘pure’ enactment of Derrida’s theory. In a more daring argument, but perhaps consistent with Derrida’s project, he is showing that even Derrida himself is unable to purely perform his project considering that the three acts are not one consistent exposure of a systematic theory. It is only their iteration in Naas, in their removal from their original context, that they become a unified piece. In themselves, the three acts somewhat ‘fail’ to connect to each other, they are only parasitic of each other.
Naas dedicates the intermission to the controversy between Derrida and Searle. He reconstructs some of the general argument and fundamentally blames Searle for the aggressiveness that marked the debate. This is somewhat ironic considering that it seems to resort to the same problematic quest for the source as Derrida opposes in Austin. Regardless of ‘who started it’, there is reverbing dispute over Austin’s heritage. This dispute fundamentally boils down less to the proper interpretation and application of Austin’s theory but, more importantly, to the power to speak on his behalf: who is entitled to sign in Austin’s name or whose is the proper citation/iteration of Austin’s performance. In other words, it is a dispute over the force of speech not its descriptive power. In that sense, Naas demonstrates the relevancy of performative speech theory to understand this dispute. He is clearly picking a side here but the final verdict on whose theory is more loyal to Austin is only established later. As in any proper theater piece, he is only showing the gun that is going to be fired in the third act.
This is perhaps the most political section of the play. It follows an interlude where Naas clearly establishes that the dispute between Derrida and Searle is much more political than philosophical. He ends the intermission with a provocation of his own by requesting that people stop passing notes because the second act is about to start. This is a clear and very direct reference to what is presented as a very weak objection by Searle to Derrida. And he begins the second act with an epigraph by Derrida on the importance of lies, false reality and illusion as part of real life as much as everything that might be ordinarily considered more ‘real’. Again, this movement has several layers. As mentioned, it is another poke that Naas is throwing while he is on the roll, but it is also a change in tone since in this chapter Naas will discuss Derrida’s ‘possibly’ and its political power. More specifically, the power to declare something real via Derrida’s assessment of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, the reality of all the ‘fictitious’ elements within that declaration and their performative power of establishing reality.
The chapter is dedicated to “Otobiographie de Nietzsche” from 1979 where Derrida discusses the notion of autonomy via the notion of autobiography. Naas highlights Derrida’s performance here by elaborating on the purposeful ‘glitch’ in his title. The prefix oto- references the Greek word for ear and is the homonym of auto-. This is something that remains unnoticeable unless one is either very attentive (considering that the speaker also pronounces it in a way that allows such perception) or if one is reading rather the hearing (using one’s ears) the text. Naas highlights that with this small detail Derrida conveys two main messages. Firstly, the importance of the text in the assessment of language. And secondly, but in direct line with the first point, that the notion of selfhood (auto-) as presented in any account of oneself, such as an autobiography, must invariably pass through textualization, to the possibility of presenting selfhood in a manner that is ‘readable’ by some other. In that sense, the other’s ear (oto-) is a crucial element of any account of selfhood.
The notion of signature plays a fundamental role here because it is the mark of such autonomous act of self-recognition and awareness. Naas argues that his political reading is not a stretch from Derrida’s text on personal autonomy since the version of the text presented in Montreal is ‘missing’ a fundamental section dedicated precisely to independence declarations. Before properly assessing the content of the chapter and the important role the missing section plays in it, it is fundamental to draw attention to Naas’ use of deconstruction as a methodological tool in his assessment of Derrida’s deconstructive project. Taking into account the structure he established in the previous act, one should not ignore the fact that Naas employs a text that was not given in Montreal. In fact, the absent text plays a fundamental role in the account of the context he is trying to establish in the chapter. Naas is clearly performing Derrida’s theory in his engagement with it. The play of Derrida in Montreal is not confined to the context of Montreal, it invariably entangled with its other iterations, with the possibility of the absent, with everything that occurs beyond the three acts. In the same way that Derrida’s theory is not bound by his acts, Naas acts out of his title to provide us with performance of a Derridean moment.
Naas demonstrate the importance of the performative in Derrida’s assessment by highlighting the point in Derrida’s account of the Declaration of Independence where he points to the fact that god merely serves to establish that which is already the case. In the Declaration, the text argues that the rights established there are natural god-given rights, so god serves as the ultimate ‘signature’ of the new status; but if they were in fact natural, they would not need god to declare them in the first place (98). The declaration is precisely the performative act of establishing that which is already the case: of securing it with an ultimate signature.
Naas points to the fact that what appears as a descriptive act, is in fact a performative. This relation between the constative and the prescriptive refers back to the epigraph: America does not exist in an autonomous manner; it is not absolutely real since it must be declared in a manner that naturalizes it. In very simple terms, does the Declaration of Independence merely state the ‘facts on the ground’ or does it make a claim: does it come after or before the independence? Naas points to the fact that for Derrida it is both. The declaration invents that which is already the case. It performs as if it was real, therefore making it real.
Once again Naas begins his intermission with a provocation to Searle. This time it is even more explicit by referencing Derrida’s comment in Limited Inc that if Searle was present in Montreal during his reading of SEC he would pass him a note asking him to pay attention to the most important part. Naas’ choice must be assessed from within his arguments in the previous section. What could be the motivation for Naas’ constant provocation? One would be surprised if Searle took the time to read Derrida’s comment in its original iteration, so it would be all the more surprising if he reads Naas’. Perhaps to a lesser extent it is still valid to assume that Naas’ book will not be widely read within the analytical field, (i.e., Searle’s scholarship) so what is the gain in constantly provoking him? If one ignores the balance of power and the hegemony of analytic philosophy, one could even present it as cruel mocking or beating him after he is already down, but this is evidently not the case. This is precisely the point: in behaving as if there was a fight, Naas is declaring war on an enemy that deems him irrelevant. The simple fact that analytic philosophy is able to erase its counterpart merely by ignoring it demonstrates the force of speech. Moreover, Naas demonstrates it by employing the absence of speech which further reinforces Derrida’s argument. By engaging with Searle, who is alive and capable of responding, Naas is inventing a reality where his philosophy has as much claim as Searle’s.
This is exactly the topic explored in the intermission: the dispute between Derrida and Searle via the angle of the latter’s refusal to even be considered within the context of the dispute. Searle pretends as if it did not happen. Naas demonstrates this by highlighting that, when the texts were collected in 1990, Searle did not allow his reply to be part of it. This refusal by Sarl (the way Derrida, in another beautiful provocation, refers to Searle and his colleagues using the French word for company) is most evident in the copyright mark signed by Searle. Naas does not occupy himself with refuting Searle’s arguments. Instead, he shows that speech act theory should not be concerned with refuting arguments. In other words, the discussion should not surround the precision or imprecision of the arguments but rather their force: whether what they are doing is consistent with Austin’s opposition to the descriptive illusion. In that sense, in refusing to debate, to operate with language and engage in the game, Searle proves to be disloyal to Austin even if he adheres to some notion of precision. Derrida does the exact opposite.
This chapter is dedicated to “Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement” from 1997. Once again, one must pay attention to the epigraph to find the connections Naas is trying to draw. This chapter uses two quotations by Derrida as epigraphs. The first arguing that the question whether something happens or not was the main issue in SEC and the second arguing that the question of the event is the main question of the performative. The chapter is mostly dedicated to connecting the two statements but, before diving in, it is important to emphasize the connection to the intermission here: how to determine whether the dispute really took place? If there was ever such a thing as a conflict over a philosophical claim or if it was just two parallel lines that never met? Or, in more direct terms, did Derrida do something with his text or did he not: did he manage to perform/invent an event or not? Moreover, even if it is possible to do something with words, is it possible to comment on that which one does, using words to state that which one does with them? This is the tension present in a possible distinction between the two readings in Derrida’s title. What does it mean to say the event? Does it mean saying something about the event or does it mean making the event by saying it?
Going into the chapter, Naas begins by stating that this was an improvised intervention by Derrida. And without directly connecting it, since no connection is needed for such obvious parallel, he summarizes Derrida’s definition of event as: that which is unpredictable, which cannot be ordered or expected (117). At the same time, Naas highlights that in Derrida’s treatment of the event, or more specifically, in his question about the possibility of the event, there is a certain acceptance that is always already presupposed: a preliminary ‘yes’ before any actual engagement. In other words, one finds oneself already within the event by the sheer existence of its possibility. Naas highlights that this ‘yes’ makes the event (122). It is not an engagement that provides any information, it is the adventure into the possibility of something happening. So, in that sense, it is neither of the realm of the performative nor of the constative since it has neither inventive force nor descriptive information. It escapes the declarative act previously explored.
Naas assesses how this ‘possible impossibility’ is consistent with Derrida’s deconstructive project as a whole. On the one hand, the event must be unpredictable and therefore escape language, on the other hand, it fits a certain code. According to Naas this is an expansion of the logics in SEC into the overall field of linguistics interactions. This implicit acceptance of the occurrence of a communicative act invites both the unpredictable and the code (124). Each event is one instance of an iterable act, it is both unique, and therefore unrepeatable, and, in being readable, dependent both on possibilities of referring to previous codes and serving as reference for future iterations.
Naas refers back to Derrida’s biographer, Benoît Peeters, to tie this logic back to Derrida’s loyalty to Austin. As mentioned before, this lecture was not a prepared text, it is Derrida’s attempt to perform his philosophy: to turn his speech into an event. He is coherently philosophizing by performing his claims. An improvised speech by Derrida on philosophy is unpredictable at the same time that it operates within a certain code. It is not as if he was asked to comment on nanotechnology or microbiology, on which he might have had something to say, but it would certainly be more surprising (especially that he would be invited to comment on them at an official event). Derrida is a philosopher and as such comments on notions such as the event or language at events dedicated to philosophy. At the same time that his talk is certainly unique and unrepeatable it refers to previous interactions (as is the point of Naas’ book). It becomes a textual reference not only as a published text but, more importantly, as a textual corpus whose logic can be reproduced as Naas evidently demonstrates by actually reproducing/reconstructing it in his texts both in terms of actual arguments but also in its performative methodology.
With this Naas demonstrates that the notion of ‘possibly’ (my translation of the French ‘peut-etre’) is the fundamental category for understanding the event. Derrida’s investigation of the event is concerned with the possibility of something occurring. Again, not with the ‘descriptive illusion’ of determining the truth value of the event, whether it occurs or not, but with the performative force of making it happen. The way the event is acted out: this threshold between its possibility and impossibility.
Naas calls the encore “the cocoon (a signature of the self)”. In this section he will comment on the ‘bonus’ act given by Derrida in Montreal. An unofficial talk given the day after the text explored in the previous chapter. This, Naas tells the reader, was not an event he witnessed nor an event that is registered. It was a reading of “Un ver à soie” in its draft form. With these final words, the curtains fall and reveal everything; it reveals that there is nothing to reveal, nothing hidden from the eyesight. Derrida’s performance is not a magic trick where at the end he pulls the cloth and shows the rabbit, there are no surprises or last-minute revelations, all there is this cocoon of the performative to wrap oneself around.
In his postface, Leroux contextualizes Derrida’s lectures in the Quebecois philosophical scene. Along with Michaud’s and his introduction and preliminary remarks, they create the scenario for Naas’ intervention. Naas’ performance, his piece in three acts, has a deeper meaning than merely reconstructing Derrida’s philosophy where the enactment serves merely as a pedagogical tool. The enacting gains importance under the circumstances that it is being presented. In the most direct and blatant manner, it is a book written in French in Canada by an USA American (as a South American, I feel the need for more precision than using merely American or North American). The choice of French is not trivial in this context. There is the obvious nationalistic Quebecois dispute but on a deeper level, as presented in the surrounding texts, there is a dispute over the philosophical legacy of Quebec. As the field becomes more hegemonically analytic and Anglo-Saxon, the choice of doing French philosophy in French must be understood as laying a claim over a disputed territory. Maybe not a declaration of independence like the one assessed in the second act but perhaps a declaration of war. Hence making the possible radio-silence response of the other side even more significant.
This possibly failed declaration of war reverberates Derrida’s argument about the importance of failure in success. One could even say that in not responding, SARL is doing Derrida a favor: proving his point. It is showing exactly the importance of impotence in understanding the performative force of language. Naas’ text places us exactly at the verge of the unpredictability of the event: it can either be ignored as his tradition has continuously been hence showing the importance of the performative force of speech acts or it can successfully stoke a debate and actually accomplish that which it aims at first glance. Either way, one finds oneself at the preliminary ‘yes’ described in his last act since something has already happened: in both cases Naas has undoubtedly done something with his words.