Traditionally, context refers to the elements of discourse around a word or the environment and cultural milieu in which a text is presented. For Derrida, the former is the internal context, and the latter is the external context. Additionally, “real context” refers to the mistaken belief that the author, reader, and text are present for the same context. Derridean context is the internal and external context, which are infinitely plural, illimitable, and without deixis.

The theory of communication built around iterability—or, from its correlative, the absence of meaning and physical absence of author, message, and receiver—that is proposed in Limited Inc is “concerned with the problem of context and with the question of determining exactly how writing relates to context in general” (p. 2). “Signature event context” sets out “to demonstrate why a context is never absolutely determinable, or rather, why its determination can never be entirely certain or saturated” (p. 3).

Context does not exist as a “rigorous and scientific concept of context,” and it carries with it “behind a certain confusion, philosophical presuppositions of a very determinate nature” (p. 3). Rather it exists as an infinite, multidimensional, dynamic concept swirling about the edges of signs.

Context “would no longer be comprehensible in terms of communication, at least in the limited sense of a transmission of meaning. Inversely, it is within the general domain of writing, defined in this way, that the effects of semantic communication can be determined as effects that are particular, secondary, inscribed, and supplementary.” (p.3)

The inverse context, above, flows from the concept of iterability in which each sign gets at (but never arrives at) idealization through its quality as iterable, a quality whose counterpart is alterability. Each sign then appears as an iteration of its synchronic and diachronic semiotic uses and, simultaneously, as a completely new departure from its other uses. It is a repetition that is wholly unique.

Furthermore, the written sign has a life (and death) of its own that does not rely upon the presence of the author or the author’s intention:
“A written sign, …, is a mark that subsists, one which does not exhaust itself in the moment of its inscription and which can give rise to an iteration in the absence and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who, in a given context, has emitted or produced it….
At the same time, a written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription. This breaking force [force de rupture] is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text. In the case of a so-called "real" context, what I have just asserted is all too evident. This allegedly real context includes a certain "present" of the inscription, the presence of the writer to what he has written, the entire environment and the horizon of his experience, and above all the intention, the wanting-to-say-what-he-means, which animates his inscription at a given moment. But the sign possesses the characteristic of being readable even if the moment of its production is irrevocably lost and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor consciously intended to say at the moment he wrote it, i.e. abandoned it to its essential drift. As far as the internal semiotic context is concerned, the force of the rupture is no less important: by virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely.” (p. 9)

The sign has the constant possibility of having no referent or signified at every moment. In a sense, the sign is known as though through a Heisenberg uncertainty principle. If the sign is “known” to be present, only its “remainder” is “known,” i.e., the author’s sign is lost the moment it is created and cannot be known:
“This structural possibility of being weaned from the referent or from the signified (hence from communication and from its context) seems to me to make every mark, including those which are oral, a grapheme in general; which is to say, as we have seen, the nonpresent remainder [restance] of a differential mark cut off from its putative ‘production’ or origin.” (p. 10)

Finally, signs can be removed from their “original” context through citation, and at this point, each cited sign creates its own context:
“Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited; put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring [ancrage]. This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called ‘normal.’” (p. 12)

The context that arises out of Derrida’s theory of communication frustrates the methodology of traditional discourse and textual analysis. The logic goes that if there are always an infinity of contexts to a text or discourse, the text or discourse is outside of the realm of what can be completely, or even adequately, qualitatively analyzed. McGee responded to the methodological (and critical) conundrum of context in a post Derridean world, proposing that “it is time to stop whining about the so-called ‘post-modern condition’ and to develop realistic strategies to cope with it as a fact of human life” (p. 278). McGee’s solution was to propose the concept of a fragment.
The “fragment” stands in for the “text”: “The apparently finished discourse is in fact a dense reconstruction of all the bits of other discourse from which it was made.” (p. 279). McGee’s fragment proceeds to be even more Derridean: “My way of stating the case (using the concept "fragment" to collapse ‘context’ into ‘text’) emphasizes an important truth about discourse: Discourse ceases to be what it is whenever parts of it are taken ‘out of context’ (p. 283). Methodologically then, “every fragment is a map of the structures that will make it complete, and in that sense focus on a part can be a speculative, ‘incomplete’ study of the whole” (p. 284).

Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.
McGee, M. C. (1990). Text, context, and the fragmentation of contemporary culture. Western Journal of Speech Communication 54(Summer). Pp. 274-289.

Further Reading
Bitzer, L. F. (1999). The rhetorical situation. In Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, J. L. Lucaites, C. M. Condit, & S. Caudill, eds. New York, NY: Guilford Press. pp. 217-225.
[A reading of context where the context provides the exigency for the speaker]
Vatz, R. E. (1999). The myth of the rhetorical situation. In Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, J. L. Lucaites, C. M. Condit, & S. Caudill, eds. New York, NY: Guilford Press. pp. 226-231.
[The exact opposite of Bitzer]
Biesecker, B. (1999). Rethinking the rhetorical situation from within the thematic of difference. In Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, J. L. Lucaites, C. M. Condit, & S. Caudill, eds. New York, NY: Guilford Press. pp. 232-246.
[Applies both Bitzer and Vatz in conversation with Derrida's difference]

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