Communication (with preference to Derrida’s definition)


Overview:
Communication, as Derrida defines it, is a communication that is marked by the absence of idea(s). This is a philosophical opposition to some previous definitions of communication which assume, a priori (as Derrida would have it), a fundamental idea or meaning that is transmitted by communication. In other words, previous definitions of communication are concepts of communication. Derrida’s communication is a instead of a concept. [Non-present author’s note: the previous sentence not unintentionally attempts to define “communication” in a manner that does not a priori ascribe an idea or concept to the word communication, and, for this reason, it ends with a empty sign, which is present in the text but is absent its graphemes.]

Explication:
Derrida’s “Communication” begins with an argument from opposites:
“… in accordance with a strange figure of discourse, one must first of all ask oneself whether or not the word or signifier ‘communication’ communicates a determinate content, an identifiable meaning, or a describable value. However, even to articulate and to propose this question I have had to anticipate the meaning of the word communication: I have been constrained to predetermine communication as a vehicle, a means of transport or transitional medium of a meaning, and moreover of a unified meaning. If communication possessed several meanings and if this plurality should prove to be irreducible, it would not be justifiable to define communication a priori as the transmission of a meaning, even supposing that we could agree on what each of these words (transmission, meaning, etc.) involved.” (p. 1)

This argument from opposites begins with the above false claim that communication describes a process oriented around the transmission of a positive idea or meaning, “positive” here meaning a present or substantive idea or meaning. The false claim leads Derrida to assert the opposite (as an argument from opposites is wont to do), i.e., communication is oriented around absence. Specifically, Derrida refers to two particularly absences:
“1) It is first of all the absence of the addressee. One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent. The absence of the sender, of the receiver [destinateur], from the mark that he abandons, and which cuts itself off from him and continues to produce effects independently of his presence and of the present actuality of his intentions [vouloir-dire], indeed even after his death, his absence, which moreover belongs to the structure of all writing-and I shall add further on, of all language in general—this absence is not examined by Condillac.
2) The absence of which Condillac speaks is determined in the most classic manner as a continuous modification and progressive extenuation of presence. Representation regularly supplants [supplee] presence. However, articulating all the moments of experience insofar as it is involved in signification ("to supplant," suppleer, is one of the most decisive and most frequent operational concepts in Condillac's Essay), this operation of supplementation is not exhibited as a break in presence but rather as a continuous and homogeneous reparation and modification of presence in the representation. I am not able to analyze, here, everything presupposed.” (p. 5)

From these two absences—the physical absence of the sender, receiver, and text from each other and the absence of the sign from its meaning/referent—the text transitions to state positively a principle of the Derridean definition of writing. The written sign must be iterable: "A writing that is not structurally readable—iterable—beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing" (p. 7).

Iterability, then, grows out of a death of the author, c.f. Barthes’s Image/Music/Text and S/Z, which is expanded to encompass the reader and the text. However, iterability, as a principle constitutive of the death of the author (and his compatriots, the reader and text), is the foundation of a positive statement of Derrida’s communication/writing. To phrase this another way, the beginning of Limited Inc defines communication through an argument from opposites—a negation of previous definitions. The whole of Limited Inc defines communication positively via iterability, “positively” meaning a priori:
“But this relative purity [of performatives] does not emerge in opposition to citationality or iterability, but in opposition to other kinds of iteration within a general iterability which constitutes a violation of the allegedly rigorous purity of every event of discourse or every speech act. Rather than oppose citation or iteration to the noniteration of an event, one ought to construct a differential typology of forms of iteration, assuming that such a project is tenable and can result in an exhaustive program, a question I hold in abeyance here. In such a typology, the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from that place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance [l'enonciation]. Above all, at that point, we will be dealing with different kinds of marks or chains of iterable marks and not with an opposition between citational utterances, on the one hand, and singular and original event-utterances, on the other. The first consequence of this will be the following: given that structure of iteration, the intention animating the utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its content. The iteration structuring it a priori introduces into it a dehiscence and a cleft [brisure] which are essential. The ‘non-serious ,’ the oratio oblique will no longer be able to be excluded, as Austin wished, from ‘ordinary’ language.” (p. 18)

Discussion:
The absence of the sign from its meaning/referent in Limited Inc does not participate in a discussion with Barthes’s death of the author or Peirce’s interpretant. Both Peirce and Barthes operate on a tripartite division of the sign which differ from Saussure’s binary; furthermore, Perice and Barthes use the tripartite division to situate language, thus communication, as an essentially internalized and alienating process. Saussure’s semiotics play the straw man role in Derrida’s “Signature Event Context,” but Barthes’s criticism of Saussurian linguistics and Peirce’s semiotics do not appear in the discussion. A possible exception may be “this illusion belongs—and hence the terrifying severity of the accusation—to the repertoire of a psychology of language (mechanistic, associationist, substantialist, expressionist, representationalist, pre-Saussurian, prephenomenological, etc.), more exactly to a pre-critical psychologism” (Derrida, 1988, p. 66), where “pre-Saussurian” could refer to Peirce’s semiotics.
In this sense, "communication," for Derrida, is defined primarily in opposition to only those theories of communication and language that specifically disagree a priori with his own even though he reverses that argument from opposition to establish iterability as a foundational principle for his "communication." From a historical viewpoint of communication theory, Derrida's communication provides some valid and substantial questions for qualitative methodology in all kinds of discourse and textual analysis.

References:
Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.

Further Reading:
Barthes, R. (1977). Image Music Text. S. Heath, trans. London: Fontana Press.
[The primary source for death of the author. Also includes a brief discussion of the tripartite division in semiotics that Barthes uses]
Barthes, R. (1990). S/Z. R. Miller, trans. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.
[A longer and more theoretically rigorous discussion of the same tripartite semiotic theory]
Griffin, E. A. (2009). A First Look at Communication Theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
[Includes a brief discussion of the definition(s) of communication. This is an undergraduate level textbook and perfect for anyone attempting to tackle Derrida without first tackling the theories of language and communication to which he is speaking (or would be, if he were eternally present to his text]
Peirce, C. S. (1955). Philosophical Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce. J. Butler, ed. Mineola, NY: Dover
[A theory of semiotics in which the sign only relates to its sign in the mind of an individual which is definite during the moment of the sign's use, or a theory of semiotics that Derrida is not directly addressing which holds many of the same conclusions without the radical methods Derrida uses to get to them]
Plato. Phaedrus. B. Jowett, trans. London: Oxford UP.
[Cited by Derrida in the discussion of written and spoken language. Notable in that the entirety of the work somewhat differs from the manner in which Derrida uses it]
Saussure, F. (1986). Course in General Linguistics. Peru, IL: Open Court.
[The theory of semiotics in which the sign always has a definite referent, i.e., the enemy of Derrida's absent referents]

See Also:
Deconstruction
Iterability
Signature
Event
Context
Standpoint Theory
Standpoint Theory (Weiss)
Situated Knowledges (Hubbell)
Situated Knowledges (Schaffer)