Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality

Featured Image is Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov, by Ivan Semenovich Kulikov

I’ve been drawn to the hostile exchange between Jacques Derrida and John Searle for some time. It seems to be such an interesting clash of perspectives, styles, and cultures, and on a subject I wanted to learn more about.

The discussion focuses most intensely on the status of speech acts—such as promises or wedding ceremonies—in fiction and representative art, compared to promises and wedding ceremonies in normal contexts.

Austin refers to the former as “parasitic” on the latter, or derivative. Searle puts it like this:

The sense in which, for example, fiction is parasitic on nonfiction is the sense in which the definition of the rational numbers in number theory might be said to be parasitic on the definition of natural numbers, or the notion of one logical constant in a logical system might be said to be parasitic on another, because the former is defined in terms of the latter.

Responding to a different, similar passage from Searle, Derrida is empatic: “I am not in agreement with any of these assertion.”

The determination of “positive” values (“standard”, serious, normal, literal, non-parasitic, etc.) is dogmatic. It does not even derive from common sense, but merely from a restrictive interpretation of common sense which is implicit and never submitted to discussion. More disturbingly: nothing allows one to say that the relation of the positive values to those which are opposed to them (“non-standard,” nonserious, abnormal, parasitical, etc.), or that of the “nonpretended forms” to the “pretended forms,” should be described as one of logical dependence. And even if this were the case, nothing proves that it would entail this relation of irreversible anteriority or of simple consequence. If a form of speech act that was “serious,” or in general “nonpretended,” did not, in its initial possibility and its very structure, include the power of giving rise to a “pretended form,” it would simply not arise itself, it would be impossible. It would either not be what it is, or not have the value of a speech act.

Here, Derrida makes the argument that a criteria for the existence of non-pretended speech acts is their ability to be imitated in the pretended forms; thus since the latter is a necessary condition of the former, you could reverse the relative status that Austin and Searle assign to each. Not that you should, but this shows the relative status to be arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t have the necessity that the relation of rational numbers has to natural numbers.

The analogy with math was poorly conceived, but Searle’s broad point still seems reasonable. The imitation of a promise in a play is predicated on the fact that the audience will recognize it as something that occurs in real life. Derrida’s argument here seems mostly like a parlor trick, once the analogy with math is dispatched. There’s no logical reason that we couldn’t have invented something like promises in fiction first (“life imitating art”) but in general that is not how it works. And it seems reasonable, when analyzing the nature of promises, to put fiction to the side for a moment.

But there is more to Derrida’s argument than this. Never mind his 80 page response to Searle’s 11 page critique; the original piece that started the discussion, “Signature Event Context”, is making a much larger point.

Rather than subjecting you to more Derrida-ese, I will turn now to Stanley Fish’s unpacking of the piece in question.

Pre-Interpretative Language and Reality

Early in his piece, Fish offers the following list:


What makes these oppositions transformations of one another is the epistemological premise underlying each of them: that the first of left-handed term stands for a mode of knowing that is, at least relatively if not purely, direct, transparent, without difficulties, unmediated, independently verifiable, unproblematic, pre-interpretive, and sure; and, conversely, that the mode of knowing named by the right-handed term is indirect, opaque, context-dependent, unconstrained, derivative, and full of risk.

Fish’s goal, with Derrida, is to show that the left-hand terms are just as interpretive and risky as the right-hand terms.

In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida begins with the example of written as opposed to spoken language. The latter has traditionally been placed in the left column, and the former in the right column. Why? Because of the potential for the absence of both the author and the intended reader, and the general divorce from the original context of the writing.

Fish attempts to subvert the traditional hierarchy by recourse to two examples of interpretation. In one, a small card falls out of his copy of a book by Derrida which says “With the compliments of the author.” In the other, a New Yorker Cartoon depicts a confrontation between husband and wife in which she says “You look sorry, you act sorry, you say you’re sorry, but you’re not sorry.”

At first it seems the difficulty of the former case has to do with the mediated nature of writing. Even if he could determine that “the author” referred to Derrida:

I would still be left with the problem of interpreting a message from Derrida, and the fact that I now knew his name would not in and of itself be decisive, for what I would want to know are his intention, his purposes, his reasons. That is, I would want to know in what spirit Derrida had sent me his book. It could be that mine is only one name on a very long list submitted by an editor or a publicist and that in response to its suggestion Derrida replied, “Stanley Who?” Nor would my perplexity necessarily be removed if the message were delivered in person, if Derrida were to walk into my office and say, “Aha, here is Stanley Fish let me present this to you, with the compliments of the author.” I might still suspect that he was being ironic rather than complimentary and that he was really saying, “With the compliments of the author,” in which case the way would be open to hearing his utterance as an assertion both of precedence and superiority.

Bold added by me.

Fish argues that we are reading—that is, interpreting—in face to face communication as much as in written communication. And interpretation of a particular piece of writing or in-person event is driven largely by pre-existing beliefs and frameworks. He introduces this explicitly when discussing the cartoon:

The supposed advantage of face-to-face communication is that it allows us to deduce the meaning of an utterance from the direct inspection of the speaker’s words and actions; but the cartoon seems to be reminding us that the direction of inference is often the other way around: the woman knows in advance what will be meant by what her husband says because she knows, and knows with the passion of belief, what kind of person he is; and therefore she is able to hear whatever words issue from him as confirmation of what she already knows. He could present witnessed affidavits; he could secure testimonials from his minister, his doctor, or her mother, and she might still continue to interpret his words and all supporting documents as evidence of his insincerity.

There is no superiority, logical priority, or directness when it comes to verbal face-to-face communication when compared to writing. Both are mediated and both require interpretation.

My “reading” of Derrida’s intention would not necessarily be stabilized by his presence; and if the husband were to leave his wife a note saying he was sorry, her reception of it would be as sure as her reception of his spoken words. What this means is that the difference between the two cases (and differences remain) cannot be explained as the difference between direct and mediated communication; and, indeed, if we are to generalize from these examples, there is no epistemological difference between direct and mediated communications because, in a fundamental sense, all communications are mediated. That is, communications of every kind are characterized by exactly the same conditions—the necessity of interpretive work, the unavoidability of perspective, and the construction of acts of interpretation of that which supposedly grounds interpretation, intentions, characters, and pieces of the world.

Now, let us return to the crucial question of the status of fiction.

Searle finds Derrida’s fixation on this question bizarre, as to him it is obvious that Austin is merely making some provisional assumptions for the sake of getting the analysis off the ground.

Derrida seems to think that Austin’s exclusion is a matter of great moment, as source of deep metaphysical difficulties, and that the analysis of parasitic discourse might create some insuperable difficulties for the theory of speech acts. But the history of the subject has proved otherwise. Once one has a general theory of speech acts—a theory which Austin did not live long enough to develop himself—it is one of the relatively simpler problems to analyze the status of parasitic discourse, that is, to meet the challenge contained in Derrida’s question, “What is the status of this parasitism?” writings subsequent to Austin’s have answered this question.

The source he cites as providing such an answer is another paper of his. In it, he states:

Now what makes fiction possible, I suggest, is a set of extralinguistic, nonsemantic conventions that break the connection between words and the world established by the rules mentioned earlier. Think of the conventions of fictional discourse as a set of horizontal conventions that break the connections established by the vertical rules. They suspend the normal requirements established by these rules. Such horizontal conventions are not meaning rules; they are not part of the speaker’s competence. Accordingly, they do not alter or change the meanings of any of the words or other elements of the language. What they do rather is enable the speaker to use the words with their literal meanings without understaking the commitments that are normally required by those meanings.

Fish picks this apart by demonstrating the ways that fiction can be wrong, or “infelicitous” (to use Austin’s word), in the same way that any speech act can. In the case of a “constantive” speech act, which has to do with accuracy, it’s obvious how historic fiction (for example) is vulnerable to mistakes. Searle admits that “if Sherlock Holmes and Watson go from Baker Street to Paddington Station by a route which is geographically impossible, we will know that Conan Doyle blundered”.

Moreover, a book can offer a promise—of a sequel, for instance. Or of resolving certain plot points. Most of the outrage after the conclusion of Lost had to do with promises that were clearly implied in the first season that were not honored.

After discussing the example of historic fiction, Fish adds:

One who is committed to the distinction can hold on to it by admitting the existence of “mixed modes,” a course Searle takes when he acknowledges that “not all of the references in a work of fiction will be pretended acts of referring: some will be real references as in the passage from Miss Murdoch where she refers to Dublin”. But, once this door is opened, it cannot be closed: an author is free to import whatever real world references he likes, and there will be no rules regarding the proportions. It is precisely this freedom of mix and proportion that makes a taxonomy of genres both possible and uninteresting.

And “mixed modes” is, in any case, misleading, because pure fiction does not exist. Even the most allegorical work is making some claim to truth which can be rejected or acknowledged.

Lest you think that accepting these arguments means collapsing the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, Fish assures us that that is not the case:

But in fact it denies nothing. It simply asserts that the differences, whatever they are (and they are not always the same), do not arrange themselves around a basic or underlying difference between unmediated experience and experience that is the product of interpretive activity. if it is true, as Searle, Ohmann, and others contend, that we build up the world of a novel by reading it within a set of shaping conventions or interpretive strategies, it is no less true of the emergence into palpable form of the equally conventional worlds within which we experience real life. The “facts” of a baseball game, of a classroom situation, of a family reunion, of a trip to the grocery store, of a philosophical colloquium on the French language are only facts for those who are proceeding within a prior knowledge of the purposes, goals, and practices that underlie these activities. Again, this does not mean that there is no difference between them, only that they are all conventional as are the facts they entail.

One of the oppositions in the list that Fish offers is between “brute facts” and “institutional facts”. This is a distinction Searle draws on a great deal to illustrate the ontological difference between the fact of a mountain’s existence, say, and the fact that a dollar bill is money.

It can be very easy to read Fish as saying that there is no difference between the status of a mountain and the status of currency. If so, this would invite an easy objection from Searle: there are some things whose existence is observer-relative, while other things that exist independent of observers.

That is fine, and consistent with Fish’s argument. What Fish is saying is that the status of brute facts as facts is conventional, or intersubjective, or observer-relative. As something jointly believed to be true, the fact of the mountain’s existence is just as conventional as the fact that a twenty dollar bill can buy a lot of peanuts.

Just as they do not deny the distinction between fiction and nonfiction exactly, nor do Derrida and Fish deny that speech acts are successfully performed all the time. The crucial question is how, and the difference between their answer and Searle’s, or a more committed modernist, has to do with the nature of context.

The issue here is between two notions of context: traditionally a context has been defined as a collection of features and therefore as something that can be identified by any clear-eyed observer; but Derrida thinks of context as a structure of assumptions, and it is only by those who hold those assumptions or are held by them that the features in question can first be picked out and then identified as belonging to a context. It is the difference between thinking of a context as something in the world and thinking of a context as a construction of the world, a construction that is itself performed under contextualized conditions. Under the latter understanding one can no longer have any simple (that is, noninterpretive) recourse to context in order to settle disputes or resolve doubts about meaning, because contexts, while they are productive of interpretation, are also the products of interpretation.

It would be useless, for example, to adjudicate the quarrel between the husband and wife in The New Yorker cartoon by appealing to the context, since it is precisely because they conceive the contextual conditions of their conversation differently that there is a quarrel at all. Of course, it is still the case, as Derrida acknowledges, that apologies are successfully offered and accepted (“there are also performatives that succeed”), but when that happens it is because the parties share or are shared by the same contextual assumptions and not because each can check what the other says against the independently available features of an empirical context. The contextual features of a simple exchange are no less “read” and therefore no more “absolutely” constraining than the contextual features of a stage performance or of a conversation reported in a poem.

In this schema, the distinctions we have been discussing are not ditched but become “distinctions between different kinds of interpretive practice.” Everyday conversation, for instance, is an interpretive practice “characterized by interpretive confidence and consequently by a minimum of self-conscious interpretive work;”

but this should not be understood to mean that the empirical conditions of ordinary discourse compel interpretive confidence; rather, interpretive confidence, as an assumption that produces behavior, also produces the empirical conditions it assumes.

The left-hand and right-hand distinctions at the top of this section end up representing “varieties of mediated experience” or, more precisely, different interpretive practices. But the boundaries are much more fluid than this simple statement implies, as Fish and Derrida (and arguably Austin) demonstrated at length.

The Two Austins

It seems clear that Searle believed he was defending Austin, his late teacher, from Derrida’s unfair attack. But when I read Austin, it struck me that How to Do Things With Words ends up being a very deconstructive text—whether it was meant to be or not. Austin continually proposes distinctions which do not survive in his analysis for very long; indeed some hardly survive a page or two.

Derrida’s piece, while critical, seemed to me to come from a place of genuine respect, even admiration. He says of Austin’s analysis that it is “patient, open, aporetical, in constant transformation, often more fruitful in the acknowledgment of its impasses than in its positions”, which is high praise, considering the source.

Fish adds:

Austin lets us know in advance that progress in this book will be a matter of declaring definitions that one must then take back, and moving forward will mean moving less quickly and perhaps, if we think of our goal as the achieving of undoubted rigor and clarity, not moving at all.

In Fish’s reading, How to Do Things With Words has the “apparent structure” of a search for a firmly grounded taxonomy of speech acts, but “the true structure is its gradual dissolution as the distinctions with which it begins are blurred and finally colapsed.”

This tension has given birth to two broad readings of Austin, and thus two projects that build on his work.

It is this double structure that is responsible for the fact that the book has given rise to two versions of speech-act theory, one committed to reabsorbing illocutionary force into a formal theory of the Chomsky type (here representative figures are John Ross, Jerrold Katz, and Jerrold Saddock) and the other committed to making illocutionary force a function of pragmatic—that is, unformalizable—circumstances (here one might cite the work of H. P. Grice and Mary Pratt). In a third version, represented at times by Searle and more recently by Kent Bach and Robert Harnisch, there is an attempt to reconcile the formal and the pragmatic, but this usualy involves granting them an independence that the pragmatic view, if taken seriously, inherently destabilizes.

For Austin, the formal and the pragmatic are neither alternatives to be chosen nor simple opposites to be reconciled but the components of a dialectic that works itself out in his argument, a tacking back and forth between the commitment to intelligibility and the realization that intelligibility, although always possible, can never be reduced to the operation of a formal mechanism. This is why Derrida’s reading of Austin is finally not a critique but a tribute to the radical provisionality of a text that has too often been domesticated, and it is a reading that is more faithful than many that have been offered by the master’s disciples.

Bold added by me.

This seems to me to be the correct reading of the situation. You can see it just as clearly in the case of Wittgenstein. On the one hand, you have many in the analytic philosophical tradition who can be seen as attempting to domesticate the notion of the language-game; to make it serve formal theory (“Chomsky style”, as Fish puts it). On the other hand, you have a group of post-modernists and linguists who see Wittgenstein as undermining the entire enterprise of domesticating language in such a manner.

In the end, all of these thinkers have made valuable contributions; no one is being written off here. But I stand with Fish (and Derrida) in the pragmatic and unformalizable reading of Austin and of Wittgenstein.

6 thoughts on “Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality

  1. I’m not totally sure what position Austin and Searle were defending, as it’s mostly implicit in this post. But by your telling, Derrida and Fish seem to advance positions that, on the one hand wouldn’t seem to elicit objections from Austin or Searle, and on the other hand seem a little strange and objectionable, themselves. Presumably some of this impression is down to my unfamiliarity with the discussion.

    Contra Derrida on ceremonies and parasitism, fictional communication implies a set of goals and practices that are necessarily predicated on some antecedent form of literal communication. Fiction enters the picture early, of course. (Along with deception, perhaps.) And storytelling blends out of and feeds back into literal modes of discourse. But without a shared understanding of basic meaning there is no space to discuss abstract meaning. And without a sense of genuine symbolism and ritual, their fictional counterparts are rendered incomprehensible.

    The storybook wedding may not be parasitic on actual marriage but I think it must derive, at least, from a recognition of actual rituals. What could be the genealogy of the story of a ritual that predates all ritual practice?

    Logical priority? Perhaps not. But superiority, certainly.

    Per Fish:

    “Think of the conventions of fictional discourse as a set of horizontal conventions that break the connections established by the vertical rules.”

    Reasonable enough. One can imagine, I would suggest, a people who establish those vertical rules and never make it to fiction–an unfortunate people, to be sure. The reverse is not possible. Clearly. Can we call this superiority?

    That the two forms of communication (or two poles on the spectrum of literalism) are conventional is obvious. Austin and Searle would have agreed, no? But throughout his writing, Fish tacitly affirms what seems to be Searle’s point, which is that one form of communication is prior to the other.

    Fish says, “There is no superiority, logical priority, or directness when it comes to verbal face-to-face communication when compared to writing. Both are mediated and both require interpretation… there is no epistemological difference between direct and mediated communications…”

    Surely there is priority! “Direct” and “mediated” are misnomers, fine; all communication is mediated, I agree. But written communication cannot be learned prior to more basic forms of human communication. Pointing and hearing and seeing and saying (or signing). All communication derives from what is learned via direct contact with other human beings–we are most intimately familiar with such forms of communication.

    No human being learned to write before learning some other, less abstract form of communication. If epistemological contingency is not an epistemological difference then I don’t know what is.

    I get the sense that I’m misunderstanding the basic point of contention here. What’s a good read to clear that up?

    1. There’s a lot of particulars I could quibble with in your comment (one small one: the vertical/horizonal thing is Searle, not Fish) such as the difference between “basic meaning” and “abstract meaning” or the existence of “a spectrum of literalism” (read up on pragmatics in linguistics; literal is one of those very vague and misleading terms).

      But I think a conversation could best proceed if I grant most of what you say: we learn things like gesturing, nonverbal communication, and spoken language first, before we can learn writing. Even if a ritual only exists in fiction, the notion of ritual outside of fiction came first. And so on.

      The question becomes: so what? And the answer that Derrida provides is: the move to make something secondary is never neutral. Searle clearly thinks that it is. But his and Austin’s own analysis demonstrate this isn’t the case.

      “X is secondary to Y” almost always yields to “X is less important than Y” and/or “we need only look closely at Y in order to understand X.” I agree that the first statement on its own appears innocuous, but the second and third are more troubling. And as Stanley Fish’s piece very ably demonstrates, often you CAN in fact more profitably learn about Y by looking at X first, or at minimum (agreeing that there are many ways to proceed) realizing that you may have to revise your notions about Y once you finally get around to X.

      I realize I didn’t make it very clear in my piece that the whole argument is about the nature of speech acts (such as making a promise or saying the right words in a marriage ceremony) and what causes them not to go into effect. In ignoring artistic depiction because it is “parasitic”, Austin arguably ignores the biggest area where the effects are different. And sure, you can do that as a provisional move—but when Searle does get to it, he does the thing where “we need only look closely at Y in order to understand X” and is unwilling to take what can be learned by looking at X finally to revise his initial understanding of Y. As so often happens.

      Does that make sense?

      Stanley Fish’s paper is a very clear read, for that side of it. Searle’s response to Derrida is short and super simple, but he also misread Derrida on a number of things where they’re in agreement (can you blame him though?). He thinks Derrida is emphasizing the specialness of text when in fact the opposite is the case. Still, it probably couldn’t hurt to read both Searle’s reply and Fish’s paper, if you’re looking for further reading.

      There are also tons of good quick summaries of speech act theory out there. Searle’s own book on the subject is very good and very readable.

      1. Sam

        So “literalism” was meant as shorthand for something like “straightforward.” More to do with the communicative intent than the objectivity of the communicated content. But fair enough: levels of abstraction are muddy, all observation is in some sense abstraction, etc., etc.. My bad on the Searle/Fish mix-up, too–sloppy reading.

        “… often you CAN in fact more profitably learn about Y by looking at X first, or at minimum (agreeing that there are many ways to proceed) realizing that you may have to revise your notions about Y once you finally get around to X.”

        Very well. But then shouldn’t we skip the hullabaloo about disputing whether X in fact precedes Y, or at least be very specific about how claims of “non-parasitism” are conceptual only and ignore genealogical primacy, which, apparently, everybody grants?

        “… when Searle does get to it, he does the thing where “we need only look closely at Y in order to understand X”… ”

        Interesting. This was in Searle’s response to Derrida? I will read some of those suggestions.

      2. I wouldn’t say that everyone grants it—just that it’s not the heart of the debate; it’s not what’s at stake. But the choice to talk in terms of priority or parasitism isn’t a neutral one.

        I probably wasn’t fair to Searle (and incidentally it wasn’t in his response to Derrida but his paper on the logical status of fiction But it seemed to me that his analysis tried its hardest to hold Y constant without any change from looking at X.

      3. Sam

        The heart of the matter is what constitutes a speech act and, ultimately, what grounds semantics, no? The priority/parasitism discussion already strikes me as a sub-debate–worth having, mind you.

        As for those who would deny a genealogical dependence of Y on X, how could they, without eliminating the ability to distinguish intentions? (Where X is something like, “attempting to communicate your perception of the world as it is” and Y is something like, “attempting to communicate an imagined world.”) You need true communication before you can trick. Even if intentions are shaded with respect to more advanced communication.

        Regardless, I’ll have to read the “logical status” paper, as well as the Fish, when I’m on campus. I enjoyed the post and have appreciated your subsequent explanation!

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