- 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.
So the presence of Ponge in Derrida’s audience gives rise to some inevitable play with the conventions of polite academic address. His being there in person is occasion for homage, but also for a series of distancing gestures which rapidly establish a very different relation between speaker and subject. At one level the use of his name may be taken as a straight-forward apostrophe or tribute, a ‘greeting addressed to him’. Such naming serves to summon up a presence which is sustained simply by the communal knowledge that Ponge is there. And there is a second kind of reference, also off-limits for Derrida’s purpose, which consists in a straightforward designative naming – an act of ostensive definition – utterly devoid of semantic content. ‘Here is Francis Ponge, it is him that I name as a third person while pointing my finger.’
But it is a third modality of naming that fascinates Derrida and that opens the way, in Signsponge, to a range of extraordinary speculative flights which are yet constrained by a scrupulous adherence to the letter of Ponge’s texts. This is the case of names that overrun all the limits of unique or determinate reference, effectively confounding the ‘proper’ with the ‘common’ through an open-ended play of textual inscription. Here, once again, Derrida is drawing on Russell and the theory of logical types or levels of discourse, adopted to avoid the various problems and paradoxes created by self-referring statements. It can hardly be claimed that Derrida’s main object is to rescue language from unnecessary traps and confusions. The point he is making here – that meaning is never wholly determined by context, that sentences may always have been cited, parodied or otherwise deprived of their ‘obvious’, first-order sense – is the same gambit that enabled him, in Limited Inc, to run rings around the stoutly commonsensical John Searle. Clearly it is a ruse which opens up hitherto undreamt-of opportunities for textual play. But it is also (though this fact most often goes unrecognised, by Derrida’s admirers and detractors alike) a position arrived at through arguments akin to those of Frege and Russell.
Where Derrida decisively breaks with this tradition is in pressing the semantic potential of names beyond all the limits of commonplace acceptability. There is a powerful convention that dictates that ‘the proper name, in its aleatoriness, should have no meaning and should spend itself in immediate reference.’ Analytical philosophers may question this simplified picture, but they still take it for granted that a more refined theory, in so far as it clarifies the semantic economy of reference, must finally guarantee the ‘proper’ status of names. It is this assurance that Derrida chiefly calls into question. He insists on paying the most scrupulous attention to the ways in which proper names signify – or take on attributes of a seemingly improper kind. Expressed in terms of his favourite distinction, it may be the case that proper names are de jure protected from semantic drift, but this protection is undermined by the evident (de facto) possibility of proving otherwise. If one can demonstrate the effects of textual dissemination – no matter how repugnant to normal ideas of interpretative tact and propriety – then those effects can scarcely be denied by appealing to some abstract regulative law. Hence what Derrida calls the ‘aleatory’ potential, ‘the chance or the misery of its arbitrary character’, contained within every proper name. This risk attaches to the fact that its inscription in language ‘always affects it with a potential for meaning, and for no longer being proper once it has a meaning’. And to broach this possibility is also to see how arbitrary are the rules that conventionally govern the ascription both of meaning to texts and authority to names.
So much for what might be called (though ineptly) the philosophical underpinning of Derrida’s text. But why Francis Ponge, and why this obsessive fastening on his name in particular? It is not just a case of both elements of the name possessing a vague penumbra of associative hints and suggestions (‘Francis’ = ‘frank’, ‘French’; ‘Ponge’ = ‘sponge’, ‘spongiosity’ etc). More revealing, Derrida argues, is the effect of these names taken together, treated as a compound signifying term. In the play of sense opened up by this chance conjunction of names we are able to read ‘the syntax, the fabulous story and the rich possibilities of syntactical articulation between the two lexical elements’. What Derrida brings to light is not some ‘deep’ unconscious thematics or image-repertoire to be discovered ‘in’ or ‘behind’ Ponge’s writing. Rather, it is the constantly-repeated sign of a slippage from naming to signification, a process let loose within language by the mere fact that names cannot always be prevented from taking on lexical attributes. Derrida makes the point by alluding once again to Russell and the ‘theory of descriptions’, according to which any genuine proper name (i.e. one that succeeds in referring to someone or something) can be analysed in terms that spell out its operative truth-conditions. But in Ponge, as Derrida reads him, this theory is subjected to a kind of systematic reductio ad absurdum, and this because the poet ‘disguises every proper name as a description and every description as a proper name’. The upshot is a generalised undecidability that affects all the commonplace assumptions bound up with the referential structure of language.
‘Literature’ is precisely that kind of writing – or that effect of textual displacement – which works to erase all the marks and tokens of propriety in language. And Signsponge is a text expressly devoted to showing how far, and with what strange results, this process of erasure can be carried into practice. For sponges or sponge-like things and attributes figure insistently in Ponge’s writing. They are objects of mixed fascination and disgust: ‘ignoble’ in so far as the sponge absorbs all manner of contaminating fluid, but possessed of a cleansing or hygienic power that oddly contradicts such impressions. Thus ‘sponge’ becomes – improbably enough – the very name and locus of that undecidability which Derrida finds everywhere at work in language. It signifies the deconstruction of limits, the dissolving of clearly-marked concepts and categories into a generalised porosity of substance and idea where boundaries no longer apply. The sponge gathers up all those basic antinomies (proper/improper, self/other, nature/culture, presence/absence) which organise the discourse of classical reason. Itself a substance of physically dubious character – solid or liquid? organic or synthetic? – the sponge occupies a phantasmal zone of tangled crossings and confusions. It thus comes to stand metonymically for everything that tends to disrupt or subvert the proper economy of reference.
The sponge figures as a pitiful, contemptible object, one whose very nature or mode of existence is to sponge incessantly on everything around it. But at the same time this all-absorbing material has a curious power to transform and preserve that which it soaks up into itself. And here Derrida touches once again on that typical Renaissance trope wherein names are monumentalised – saved from the process of natural attrition – by thus becoming part of a larger textual system. ‘Ignoble as it may be ... poor in its genealogical extraction, and unable to choose between the proper and the improper, the economy of the sponge is nonetheless better able to resist the oppressor – its ignoble labour enfrancises it’ (Derrida’s italics). What the proper name loses in this transfer of attributes – its identity, individual value, ‘title of ownership over the text’ – it more than makes up for in the gain of rhetorical interest and complexity. And so it comes about that the sponge, most debased and amorphous of materials, always in the end ‘recovers its composure’, reverts to the condition of ‘a free and frank object’ untouched by impurity or change. Here Derrida is alluding to that other dimension of semantic possibility contained in the name ‘Francis Ponge’. What redeems the sponge from its ignoble status is the ‘frankness’, the ‘freedom’ and the sheer resilience by which it habitually loses and regains its textural (or textual) composure. Hence its absurd but incomparable aptness as a figure that denominates the potential for meaning concealed within proper names.
It is clear enough by now that Derrida’s interest in ‘Francis Ponge’ has nothing to do with biography or matters of express authorial intent. But it does suggest a certain toning-down of the hard-line veto placed upon such interests by the zealots of post-structuralist theory. Thus Derrida writes (somewhat guardedly) that the style of textual commentary broached in Signsponge ‘is not inconsistent with that death or omission of the author of which, as is certainly the case, too much of a case has been made’. What he is proposing here is clearly no return to an author-based or intentionalist mode of critique simply purged of its more naive assumptions. Indeed, one of Derrida’s chief complaints about the way that critics have hitherto read Francis Ponge is their habit of smuggling such assumptions back under cover of various refined methodologies. Thus one finds them debating, for example, whether Ponge is a genuine chosiste, returning incessantly to ‘things in themselves’, or whether he is not more aptly described as a phenomenologist, exploring the states of consciousness evoked by those things. To Derrida, such discussions seem largely beside the point, a mere exchange of abstract priorities which ceaselessly ‘turn in the same rut’. He notes that Ponge has refused to go along with either interpretation, maintaining a strategic silence in the face of these competing critical views. And there is a parallel here with Derrida’s project, impelled as it was, from his earliest writings, by a refusal to decide between the twin temptations of a ‘purely’ structuralist and a ‘purely’ phenomenological point of departure. Structuralism tended to pre-empt the issue by conceiving of language as a closed, self-sufficient system that found no room for consciousness or intentionality. But equally suspect, so Derrida argued, was the move by which Husserlian phenomenology sought to establish a pure ground of reason, equated with the acts of lucid self-knowledge attained by the transcendental ego. Deconstruction brings a vigilant critique to bear on both these forms of pre-emptive philosophical closure. What it needs to maintain, as Derrida writes in his essay ‘Genesis and Structure’, is ‘the principled, essential and structural impossibility of closing a structural phenomenology’. And this resistance is directed in part against that structuralist desire to expunge ‘the author’ – or at any rate, as Signsponge would have it, the author’s name – as a locus of meaning or textual productivity.
In a sense, as Derrida more than once implies, this issue comes down to the ‘difference’ between philosophy and literature. It is a mark of the literary text (or, more to the point, of texts that can be so read) that writing tends to overrun any clear demarcation between text and signature, work and name. Philosophers typically tend to suppose that their works have a certain self-evident coherence and autonomy, such that the act of appending their name merely goes to confirm the author’s full control over how his text shall be read. That names should be exposed to the dangerous contingencies of textual inscription is a thought scarcely thinkable within this eminently proper domain. ‘Every philosopher denies the idiom of his name, of his language, of his circumstances, speaking in concepts and generalities that are improper.’ ‘Improper’ in the sense that they covertly deny, repress or ignore the kind of textual activity that gives their writing whatever genuine interest it possesses.
In bringing this charge against ‘philosophy’ Derrida is not, as might appear, attacking a whole preconstituted discipline of ideas and knowledge. Rather, he is aiming to call that discipline into question in so far as it resists a certain kind of ‘literary’ reading that would problematise some of its key concepts and categories. Thus Derrida has continued to read philosophical texts, but to read them in ways which have, sure enough, been perceived as highly unorthodox – not to say scandalous – by professional workers in the field. And one major cause of this outraged response has been precisely Derrida’s refusal – his ‘perverse’ disregard – of the protocol that keeps an author’s signature firmly at the foot of his text. This question of statutory limits and borderlines is taken up most strikingly in ‘Economimesis’, an essay on the discourse of Kantian aesthetics. Here the proper name (‘Kant’ = ‘edge’ or ‘boundary’) enters into a play of structured oppositions which, as Derrida reads them, fail to work out according to plan. The whole conceptual edifice of Kantian philosophy rests upon certain crucial ideas developed in the Critique of Judgment. The doctrine of aesthetic ‘disinterest’ – and its corollary, the autonomous or self-sufficient character of art-works – is chief among these cardinal axioms. But it is also, Derrida argues, subject to unsettling doubts and indecisions. It requires a strict (de jure) demarcation of conceptual bounds which are actually (de facto) subverted in the course of Kant’s detailed argument. And one way to track these unruly effects is to notice how ‘Kant’ insistently foregrounds this entire suppressed problematic by metamorphosing from a ‘mere’ proper name to an element of textual signification.
Derrida has to place his own name at risk when he asks what is involved in this business of authorised signatures. Elsewhere – notably in Limited Inc and Glas – he allows the name ‘Derrida’ to penetrate his text through a range of associative hints and allusions that open up manifold possibilities of meaning. Above all, as he writes in Signsponge, ‘I must refuse to be the philosopher that, in the light of some appearances, I am thought to be ... and to do this, I have to have it out with the signature, with his, with mine, perhaps, and with the other’s.’ And this because philosophy is all too prone to ‘wash its hands’ of the signature, or the whole risky enterprise of speaking in its own (or in the other’s) name. Thus Derrida sides with Ponge in his dislike for those ‘grand metaphysicolicians’ who erect a fine edifice of theory in order to avoid such contaminating influence. He is anxious to refuse the name ‘philosopher’ and to engage with Ponge’s texts through a different, more ‘singular’ practice of reading. And to do this, he writes, it is necessary to ‘make a scene in which I oblige him not to wash his hands any more of the things I say here, be they proper or improper’.
The end of all Derrida’s apostrophising play is to break down those well-prepared textual defences that Ponge puts up against the adepts of system and theory. ‘Will I myself have caught the whole drift of his work from the accident of his name?’ The idea is so absurd, so unthinkable, that it falls beyond range of Ponge’s objections.
Despite Derrida’s contemptuous remarks about ‘philosophy’, this text has a certain rigour in its waywardness that may well be ignored by critics all too willing to take those remarks at face value. For Signsponge is not, as such readers would have it, just a species of extravagant textual ‘freeplay’, totally unconcerned with issues of relevance or truth. Certainly Derrida strains these requirements to the limit, and this by way of showing how narrowly – or according to what dogmatic assumptions – they are commonly applied. But there is a widespread reading of Derrida (‘American deconstruction’, in convenient shorthand) which fastens on his more exciting pronouncements and simply takes for granted the extensive work of analysis from which those pronouncements derive. This is one reason for sounding a cautionary note while otherwise welcoming Richard Rand’s admirably sensitive and idiomatic translation. Signsponge is, of all Derrida’s writings, the text most amenable to domestication on terms laid down by literary critics. And what is apt to drop out in this transaction is any real sense of the arguments and ‘philosophical’ pertinence of his texts.
So it is well to insist (though at risk of playing the philosopher as straight-man or dupe) that Signsponge is a work of considerable analytic power which touches on numerous questions in the province of modern linguistic philosophy. Nor should it come as any great shock to readers, say, of Austin or Ryle that Signsponge raises these questions in a mode of calculated hyperbolic fiction. Thus Derrida asks at one point: if Ponge ‘had had another name, and if by some incredible hypothesis he could still have been the same person, would he have written the same thing?’ Outlandish though it seems, this counterfactual scenario is similar to those often conjured up by present-day philosophers, especially when discussing how names and identities translate between the various ‘possible worlds’ of logical conjecture. Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons – by far the most stimulating recent work of British moral philosophy-has constant resort to such far-fetched hypotheses in testing ideas of our accountability for past and future events. There may seem a world of difference between Derrida’s exorbitant ‘textualist’ style and the clarifying aims of this British analytical tradition. But the difference begins to look less clear-cut as one recalls to what lengths of counterfactual invention philosophers have gone in pursuing the logic of their arguments.
With Ponge, Derrida writes, ‘you never know whether he names or describes, nor whether the thing he describes-names is the thing or the name, the common name or proper name.’ Such remarks can lead off in a number of different directions. One – the most obvious – points toward Frege, Russell and the ‘theory of descriptions’. Another, as I have argued, suggests certain parallels with current ways of thinking in ethics and moral philosophy. And of course there is the use to which this text will surely be put in the interests of a literary-critical drive to free interpretation from the irksome restraints of ‘proper’, responsible reading. Indeed there are many passages in Signsponge that would seem to warrant such claims. ‘Once the tyrant has been dethroned, his unique and proper name becomes a common one. The law reveals itself as prostitution.’ But again, such passages need to be read in the context of Derrida’s close and continuing engagement with ‘the law’ in its manifold aspects, from generic constraints upon writing to the exercise of state power through teaching and other institutions.
For Signsponge is as much ‘about ‘the politics of reading as any other of Derrida’s recent texts. And it is in working through the question of juridical borderlines and limits that the sponge – most ambivalent of objects – takes on its peculiar role. This ‘thing’, Derrida writes, ‘is not just something conforming to laws that I discuss objectively (adequately) or, on the contrary, subjectively (anthropomorphically)’. Such seeming alternatives – the stock-in-trade of Ponge criticism – are here shown up as delusive oppositions masking a deeper metaphysical complicity. ‘Beforehand, the thing is the other, the entirely other which dictates or which writes the law.’ And it is only a scrupulously literal reading of Ponge that can muster the degree of resistance required to grasp that law in all its alien forms and effects. This is the kind of reading that Derrida offers in Signsponge. Its force will most likely be lost upon those who approach it – for whatever institutional reasons – in the spirit of anarchic hedonist ‘freeplay’ that isolated passages seem to invite.