- Signéponge/Signsponge by Jacques Derrida, translated by Richard Rand
Columbia, 160 pp, $20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 231 05446 7
There are many possible ways to describe Derrida’s text, none of them adequate but some less misleading than others. One can begin on safe ground, surely, by saying that Signsponge is ‘about’ the French writer Francis Ponge; that it involves a sustained and intricate meditation on the status of proper names and signatures in general; that it takes up themes from Derrida’s previous writing, notably from Limited Inc, his exchange with John Searle on the topic (supposedly) of speech-act philosophy; and that Signsponge is perhaps his most extravagant text to date, judged by all the normal, reputable standards of literary-critical practice. But having said all this one has really done no more than mark off a space in the (by now) quite familiar ongoing project known as Derridean deconstruction. And if there is one thing that Signsponge sets out to undermine it is the placid confidence that gathering texts under an author’s proper name is enough to ensure the substantial unity of a work, a corpus, an oeuvre. Derrida signs on, so to speak, at the point where most interpretation signs off: with the idea that putting one’s name to a text can ever be a simple gesture of containment, a claim to authorial copyright. What Signsponge calls into question is ‘the link (be it natural or contractual) between a given text, a given so-called author, and his name designated as proper’. And this it does by a species of massive and wilful impropriety, discounting the rule that would regard word-play on an author’s name as the merest of impertinent jokes.
Poets have been rather less touchy than critics in this respect. Shakespeare’s sonnets – like much Renaissance poetry – make elaborate play on his own and other proper names. And there is the series of punning refrains in Donne’s penitential ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ (‘When thou hast done, thou hast not done ...’). Interpreters mostly rest content with noting such jeux d’esprit as a habit rather strange to modern (post-romantic) ideas of poetical dignity and truth, but otherwise a fairly harmless indulgence. Even so, they would be hard put to countenance what Derrida does with the name ‘Francis Ponge’. He disregards the elementary protocol which assumes that an author’s proper name is a signature placed outside the text by way of establishing the simple fact of authorship, and therefore in no sense a part of the text, open to interpretation or speculative reading. ‘It is therefore in the abyss of the proper that we are going to try to recognize the impossible idiom of a signature.’ And this reading will conduct itself, so Derrida promises, without overstepping the line very properly laid down between life and work, biography and textual inscription. In so far as Ponge is here to be discovered as a ‘presence’ in his own writing, it is not – most assuredly – the same Francis Ponge who has his own life to lead and objects very much to critics who ignore that courteous distinction. In fact, as Richard Rand informs us in his Preface, Ponge was present at the colloquium in Cérisy-la-Salle where Derrida first delivered portions of his text. So we are not to expect any clumsy intrusions of unlicensed biographical fancy. In taking ‘Francis Ponge’ as the name of his topic – or in addressing the topic of his name – Derrida is by no means out to blur the line between life and work. Rather, he is insisting that we re-think the entire structure of assumptions by which an author’s proper name is thought to belong exclusively to him, the individual (living or dead) whose right to it includes the subsidiary right to append it to his texts without thereby making textual material of it. So nothing could be further from Derrida’s design than to break down the barriers of studious detachment that Ponge has erected around his literary production. What he sets out to demonstrate, on the contrary, is the way that Ponge’s name is taken up into a play of textual inscription that finally confounds all standard ideas of proper (or proprietary) naming.
Derrida’s point can be made clearly enough in terms borrowed from Mill, Russell and modern ‘analytic’ philosophy. (Indeed, a good deal of his recent thinking has been prompted by ideas from that tradition, a fact unremarked by Anglo-American opponents who assume that no Frenchman has ever paid attention to a self-respecting ‘logical’ argument.) The operative concept is that which distinguishes ‘proper’ from ‘common’ names, the former marked out by the fact that they refer directly to some unique individual (person, object or event). With common names, on the other hand, any act of reference – any use of the word to pick out some particular thing – will depend upon one’s first having grasped its meaning. Certain modern philosophers – notably Russell and Frege – were to complicate the picture by pointing out that proper names were also subject to a sense-making logic of semantic implication. Thus, in Fregean terms, if one were asked the question ‘Who is Derrida?’, it would not be an adequate response, for most purposes, simply to point to the bearer of that name. One would need to reply that Derrida was – among other things – a French philosopher, author of Of Grammatology and a leading proponent of (so-called) ‘deconstruction’. Simply to point him out, Derrida ipse, would be to mistake the enquirer’s meaning if he or she wanted to know who ‘Derrida’ was. Using the name ‘properly’ in most contexts of discussion would involve knowing something about Derrida’s texts and what they signify in terms of current intellectual debate. Thus ‘sense determines reference,’ as Frege puts it, even in the case of proper names, at least where those names are not used in a purely ostensive fashion but indicate a grasp of certain pertinent facts on the speaker’s part.