Yet another seminar paper on Derrida, this one from Spring 2016.

“For not all the parts of a thought can be complete; at least one must be ‘unsaturated,’ or predicative; otherwise they would not hold together.”
-Gottlob Frege¹

“Hail, my lady Leucippe. I am miserable in the midst of joy because I see you present and at the same time absent in your letter.”
-Clitophon, in Clitophon and Leucippe²

Jacques Derrida opens “Signature Event Context,” an essay originally delivered in August of 1971 at a conference in Montréal dedicated to the theme of communication, with an epigraph drawn from J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words: “Still confining ourselves, for simplicity, to spoken utterances.”  Out of context, most likely unsaid when first addressed to those present in Montréal. The implication, one might presume, is that the time for simplicity is over, and accordingly Derrida spends the first paragraph of the essay drawing attention to some of the multiple valences of the signifier “communication” in order to broaden the discussion to include what Derrida had four years earlier outlined as grammatology, or the study of writing in the broadest possible sense. Communication, Derrida tells us, can be understood as a “vehicle, transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one.”³ Thus communication, in this sense at least, must have something to do with movement. In order to grasp how these movements function, Derrida radicalizes the insights of Austin’s speech act theory through deconstruction of the concepts of saturation, the performative, and iterability.

Derrida first considers the multiple valences of the word “communication,” beginning with its uses in everyday speech. He resists the metaphorical (a term whose etymological origins mean ‘to transfer’)  equivalence between the semiotic and nonsemiotic modes of communications, which “by analogy with ‘physical’ or ‘real’ communication it gives passage, transports, transmits something, gives access to something.”⁴ Yet this is not a denial of any relationship, but a refusal that it “constitutes the proper” meaning. In this sense, “proper” speaks to a sense of self, the private as opposed to the public or common of language. Language, Derrida insists, is always improper. Metaphor inherently functions by transposing meaning out of the subject and into another. This “real” or “physical” communication, for instance of bodies moving through a passageway from one building to another or a postcard crossing space from sender to addressee, already implies how Derrida will treat the theme of writing and iterability later on in the essay, but his opening riff on the polyvalence of communication, of intercourse, if you will, is designed to raise the titular theme of ‘context,’ particularly the limits of a context, its indeterminacy due to  the impossibility of being fully saturated.

The concept of saturation with respect to linguistics/semiotics can be traced to the work of Gottlob Frege, the German philosopher and mathematician who is considered the founder of analytic philosophy and a key figure in modern logic. Whether or not Derrida had directly read Frege, Austin certainly had;  Austin translated Frege’s Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik (1884, translated as The Foundations of Arithmetic in 1950).  As such, Austin would have certainly been familiar with the essays contained within Peter Geach and Max Black’s Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, published in 1952. In the latter, Frege argues that, by necessity, at least one element of the subject-predicate relationship must be ‘unsaturated.’

Derrida uses the same term, saturation, in posing the following question: “Are the prerequisites of a context ever absolutely determinable?”⁵ Much hinges on the qualifier absolutely. The point is not that a context plays no role in the determination of a meaning, but rather that because meaning is produced through a dynamic interplay of parts there is always room for the constituent elements and their relations to change, and thus no context can be absolutely determinable, or absolutely fixed. He continues, “I would like to demonstrate why a context is never absolutely determinable, or rather in what way its determination is never certain or saturated.” Derrida offers us, as is his tendency, a number of parallel constructions and terms that are not quite synonymous before settling on saturated. “This structural nonsaturation would have as its double effect,” we are told, the following two consequences: 1) The usual concept of context is marked as theoretically insufficient, and 2) this insight results in a “displacement of the concept of writing.”  The term displacement signals again an attention to the question of movement, which is critical to grasping the significance of what Derrida is suggesting.  Meanings can and do (and will) change, as the very process of signification is necessarily a dynamic one. It is this processual character of the Derridean ontology that mathematicians and logicians find objectionable, as it denies the static signification necessary to construct a system of precision. And it is this processual character, in part, which renders the logicians’ desire for perfect precision in linguistic writing merely a fantasy.⁶

Even Frege, whose entire project revolves around creating just such a system of abbreviations, admits that there are limits to communicability, even for one as rigorous as he.

By a kind of necessity of language, my expressions, taken literally, sometimes miss my thought; I mention an object, when what I intend is a concept. I fully realize that in such cases I was relying upon a reader who would be ready to meet me halfway–who does not begrudge a pinch of salt.⁷

This is truly an extraordinary admission, and seems to run counter to the very spirit in which Frege’s programme has thus far been developing. Though, as we shall see, he uses this anomalous acknowledgement to introduce an important theoretical argument, and to further his claim that (everyday) language is by necessity ambiguous and therefore call for greater precision and rigour, like a psychoanalyst we must seize upon this slip of the tongue and push the limits of this thought to the place where Derrida’s own intervention will come to occupy.  Frege continues,

The words ‘object’ and ‘concept’ would then serve only to indicate the different positions in the relation.  This may be done; but anybody who thinks the difficulty is avoided this way is very much mistaken; it is only shifted.  For not all the parts of a thought can be complete; at least one must be ‘unsaturated,’ or predicative; otherwise they would not hold together.⁸

Frege argues for the necessity of the unsaturated to act as a link, that which can bind together the two clauses and articulate them in a meaningful and determined way.  Reeling back somewhat from his earlier rejection of the subject-predicate formulation with these crucial qualifiers, he gives the following example:

We apply such a link in the sentence ‘the number 2 falls under the concept prime number’; it is contained in the words ‘falls under,’ which need to be completed in two ways–by a subject and an accusative; and only because their sense is thus ‘unsaturated’ are they capable of serving as a link. Only when they have been supplement in this twofold respect do we get a complete sense, a thought.⁹

Frege’s system consists of two ontological types which are necessarily distinct; functions and concepts. Distinct from objects, functions must be ‘unsaturated,’ as explained above.

With “Signature Event Context,” Derrida has implicitly deconstructed Frege’s system, radicalizing this insight. If there could be such a thing as a language without lack, and surely this is the aspiration of those such as Frege who seek to obliterate all ambiguity, lack would  still be present (in its absence,) in the outside of discourse, in the supplement necessary to describe the lackless language. Where Frege finds an imperfection in language, an ambiguity that must be replaced by a more precise system of conveying meaning, Derrida sees an unavoidable and indeed productive poetic force (poetic, in both the vernacular sense as well as in its etymological origins as poiesis). This insight hinges on Frege’s own admission that, contrary to his desire to create an exact and precise system, the meaning of his writing in conventional form still depends in part on sympathetic readers who do not take him too literally, who are willing to meet halfway, who do “not begrudge a pinch of salt.”  A startling claim when one considers this remark within the broader context of Frege’s programme. One might argue that the world as it actually exists depends upon ambiguity, and Frege’s system is certainly designed to limit this ambiguity.  He begins by reducing the meaning of any sentence to either true or false, though with this simple binary reduction so much of the productive power of language has already been neutered. The poetic potential of language, its ability to create new relations and meanings, simply does not classify the world of referents in the same manner that logic does.  Frege’s desire gestures towards a world imagined only by logical positivists and dystopian writers of science-fiction.

Contra this tradition of which Frege is the founder, J.L. Austin’s work explores the ways in which words, and particular speech acts, do things rather than merely assert things. As opposed to ‘constative’ sentences, or those which make a statement or describe a situation, a performative sentence does not point to a referent other than itself but rather is a form of action.  Austin gives as examples the contractual (‘I bet’), the declaratory (‘I declare war’), or imperative.¹⁰ Such performative utterances are not truth-evaluable, that is, their content is not reducible to being expressed as true or false.  Instead, performative utterances have real effects on the world, they prescribe and affect rather than describe.  Austin further classifies performative utterances into three categories: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary act. Austin gives a clear a succinct example on page 101 of How To Do Things With Words, contrasting the three different senses of the imperative “Shoot her!” Leaving the questionable gender politics of this example aside, in the first sense, the sentence is locutionary with respect to the ostensible semantic meaning of the sentence.  The illocutionary meaning refers to the intended affect of the sentence, in this case an urging to shoot a woman. Lastly, the perlocutionary meaning comes from the actual effects of the utterance, whether intended or otherwise.  In this case, if the addressee of the imperative obeys the command and actually ‘shoots her.’

The illocutionary, defined as it is by the question of intention, causes the most trouble for Derrida. Austin clarifies that an illocution is a “performance of an act in saying something as opposed to performance of an act of saying something.”¹¹  Austin confines himself to an analysis of spoken utterances, as Derrida reminds us with his opening epigraph,  and it is in the relationship between the spoken utterance and the written mark that Derrida pivots the entire tradition of philosophical thought on language in the West, which he argues privileges  speech over writing.

To move beyond spoken utterances, to the question of the written, Derrida transforms Austin’s distinctions between  the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary act. Austin himself comes to realise that “there is no ‘pure’ performative,” as “a successful performative is necessarily an ‘impure’ performative.”¹²  In order to be successful, a performative utterance must be understood, its intended meaning communicated, and this depends upon a citation, or in one of Derrida’s clarifications a “general iterability,” which is iterable but “coded” and thus depends upon a recourse to an outside context to which the utterance must conform.  “For a context to be exhaustively determinable, in the sense demanded by Austin,” Derrida concludes, “it at least would be necessary for the conscious intention to be totally present and actually transparent for itself and others, since it is a determining focal point of the context.”¹³ Once again, context is uncertain, unstable.

This citational context is always absent, a fact brought more clearly into relief when one considers writing.  Leaving aside certain instances in which a speaker must write down a word for clarification,¹⁴ one generally writes for an addressee who is absent. The writing must therefore be signed, as it is divorced from its original context, the ‘voice’ the author less clear.  Derrida troubles this fact, as absence comes to play an important function in the process of signification, just as with the case of context and iterability, of otherness.  Highlighting the notion of absence with respect to communication, Derrida cites this passage from Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines:

This is the general history of writing conveyed by a simple gradation from the state of painting through that of the letter; for letters are the last steps which remain to be taken after the Chinese marks, which partake of letters precisely as hieroglyphs partake equally of Mexican paintings and of Chinese characters. These characters are so close to our writing that an alphabet simply diminishes the confusion of their number, and is their succinct abbreviation.

Writing, it seems, grows out of a desire to trace—and retrace—our thoughts, and is merely the latest in a series of evolutions that began with painting, if not earlier. Iterability, from the Sanskrit root for “other,”  could be linked to a delayed presence, an imagined receiver whom I keep in my mind while inscribing a text. But Derrida rejects this presence of being as metaphysical, or, if one prefers, as  without absolute determination. “The possibility of repeating, and therefore identifying, marks is implied in every code, making of it a communicable, transmittable, decipherable grid that is iterable for a third party, and thus for any possible user in general.”¹⁵ Regardless of one’s intention, an act of communication always implies a third beyond the sender-receiver binary. Put another way, “there is no code—an organon of iterability, that is structurally secret,” and as such all writing, in the broadest possible sense, inherently “must be able to function in the radical absence of every empirically determined addressee in general.”¹⁶

Effects are not determined absolutely by intention, but this same absence is always behind the movement of communication. The processual nature of signification needs movement in order to produce meaning, and it is towards this void that meaning is drawn, and where Derrida locates différence.

[Addendum 2021]

The learning of a language is more the learning of its silences than its sounds. […] Among mean in time, rhythm is a law through which our conversation becomes a yang-yin of silence and sound.
-Ivan Illich, “The Eloquence of Silence”¹⁷

Saturation has related meaning when used in technical and artistic context, not so distant from the uses outlined above. Saturation is an essential facet of communication. What might an explicit analysis of Tape Saturation or Color Saturation bring to our meditation on communication?

Oversaturation of color in early video often reads as a mark of amateurism, or as an outmoded technological condition that has since been transcended, thus dating a work. While there are analogous audio artifacts that can date a sound recording, in fact the character of tape saturation remains a useful tool for producers of audio. When signal levels are too high, it can lead an audio system to overload. When an analogue system overloads, that is, as the magnetic tape approaches saturation, the drop off in high frequency response remains proportionate to the low frequency response. This is due to the physical capacity of the material (in this case, magnetic tape) being unable to be magnetized beyond this limit. While this kind of overload isn’t generally desirable, it doesn’t leave the audio material unworkable. And in some contexts, audio producers will intentionally use tape saturation as an audio effect, so much so that there remains vigorous debate about which analogue gear results in the best saturation, and there are many digital tools designed to model analogue tape saturation effects. The Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM) of digital recording, however, results in much less pleasant audio artifacts when faced with overload. Rather than reach a state of saturation, with proportionate and predictable harmonic frequency response, digital overload is not predictable and thus less benign, and much less useful as an effect.

Richard Serra with Nancy Holt, Boomerang (1974)

Color saturation in film and video operates analogously. Color saturation in analogue video art, such as Richard Serra and Nancy Holt’s Boomerang (1974), has presented art conservators with novel challenges, as the quality of the tape degrades, migrating from the original 2″ tape master to 3/4″ tape which was used for exhibitions. Recent video art work, such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Saturation Sampler (2017) does not have the same physical effects with saturation, but does deploy the concept as central to the work. Lozano-Hemmer’s work takes input from its camera, the artist’s code transforming the visual input in real-time, abstracted and simplified across three digital monitors. Something to think about further. Derri

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer – Saturation Sampler (2017)


1. Frege, 54.
2. From Achilles Tatius’ 4th century novel Clitophon and Leucippe, as quoted in Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, 92.
3. Derrida, 309.
4.Derrida, 309.
5.Hannah Arendt, in the prologue to The Human Condition, finds an exemplary case of this fantasy in her description of the mathematicians’ elevation of symbols that were intended to be mere abbreviations into a language of their own, something she rejects as calculative thinking that constrains human freedom. This is important as one might read The Human Condition as a defense of  the political importance, indeed necessity, of speech acts, and their link to the stories we tell about ourselves.
6. Frege, 54
7.Frege, 54. (emphasis mine)
8. Frege, 54.
9. Frege, 54.
10.Austin, 32.
11. Austin, 99.
12. Derrida, 325.
13. Derrida, 327.
14. For instance, when teaching a new language, or in Asian languages in which the same phonemes may have various meanings and need be written with distinct characters for clarification.
15. Derrida, 315.
16. Derrida, 315-16.
17. Ivan Illich, 41.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. (1958) The Human Condition. 2nd edition. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Austin, John Langshaw. How To Do Things With Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy. Alan Bass, trans.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Frege, Gottlob. “On Concept and Object,” P.T Geach, trans. In Translations from the
Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Peter Geach and Max Black, eds.  Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1960.

Illich, Ivan. “The Eloquence of Silence,” in Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional
Revolution.  New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

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