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Corporate Communiqué: The Derrida-Holmes Merger

Derrida’s LLC

Near the beginning of his response to John Searle’s critique of “Signature Event Context,” (hereafter referred to as SEC), Derrida transforms “Searle” into a kind of corporation—a “Sarl”—whose generic name becomes part of the title of Derrida’s essay: “Limited Inc a b c ….”1 More precisely, Derrida announces that he is going “to give the presumed and collective author” of Searle’s text “the French name ‘Société à responsabilité limitée’—literally, ‘Society with Limited Responsibility’ (or Limited Liability)—which is normally abbreviated to Sarl [S.à.r.l.]” in francophone countries (LI, 36). In the U.S., we call this type of legal entity an LLC—a limited liability company—which is a mutation of the private corporate form with even more tax avoidance strategies than a public corporation. Derrida enacts this performative naming, he explains, to fold in two other people mentioned in Searle’s acknowledgments: “H. Dreyfus and D. Searle.” In combination with John Searle, all three become the “more or less anonymous company or corporation [par une société plus ou moins anonyme] (three + n authors)” (LI, 36). Complicating this corporation of three, the “+ n authors” include Derrida himself via his “old friend, H. Dreyfus,” through whom Derrida “too, can claim a stake in the ‘action’ or ‘obligation,’ the stocks and bonds, of this holding company, the Copyright Trust” (LI, 31). Summing up: to defend the argument of SEC against Searle’s attack, Derrida performatively creates a version of the corporation—Limited, Inc—and addresses that corporation for another seventy-odd pages.

I want to argue that Derrida’s provocative invocation of a corporation reveals certain premises that deconstruction shares with the corporate legal form and that both mistakenly assume—in their theorizing—that intentions are causes. More specifically, Derrida’s picture of communication was already, for late-nineteenth-century legal theorists, their problem of corporate intention. How should people understand what is happening when they negotiate with vast collective social agents whose intentions seem unreliable or unknowable? The eminent legal thinker and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. could see that the capitalist corporation’s obvious, single-minded demand for profit did not necessarily entail that the corporation could express an intention about the events it caused or the things it made. What Derrida will later describe as communication’s mechanization, “radical absence,” and “iterability” were, as it turned out, essential characteristics of the corporation—a situation with dire consequences for anyone trying to communicate with that entity. Searching for a solution to this problem, Holmes attempts to avoid talking about intentions in his legal theorizing, shaping his theory to the corpus and metaphysics of corporate persons and their language, in what eventually becomes the doctrine of constitutionally-protected corporate speech.

I traced Holmes’s project in Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons (2020).2 Here, I want to focus on Derrida’s version of that project, which will be to say that the problem and solution that gives us the defense of corporate contracts in the late nineteenth century, and corporate speech in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), also gives us the defense of différance.

No doubt there are various other reasons why Derrida produces a corporate renaming of Searle. By invoking the corporate form, he can playfully characterize Searle as an author already “divided, multiplied, conjugated, shared,” while also enabling Derrida to riff on the literal copyright mark placed by Searle on Searle’s “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida” (LI, 31). By inserting his argument into a corporate legal context beyond any author’s control, Searle (implies Derrida) unwittingly signifies the instability of his own authorship (LI, 30–31). Also, the potential inclusiveness and flexibility of the corporate form offers Derrida a handy model for an audience that overlaps with the author, as he notes in his published letter to Gerald Graff (“The anonymous society, the corporation of these readers …”) (LI, 113). Moreover, because French lacks a phonetic distinction between the signifiers “S.à.r.l.” and “Searle,” Derrida can also invoke Searle’s proper name to keep our focus on the difference (actually, the différance) between oral speech and writing, one of his abiding concerns. And then there is the rhetorical slight of misnaming or labeling one’s opponent, a riposte to Searle’s insult in the opening sentence of “Reiterating the Differences”: “It would be a mistake, I think, to regard Derrida’s discussion of [J.L.] Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions … because [Derrida] has misunderstood and misstated Austin’s position at several crucial points … and thus the confrontation never quite takes place.”3 Searle implies that Derrida is neither renowned nor clearsighted enough, nor are his arguments relevant enough, to begin to test Austin’s philosophical authority.

As interesting or entertaining as these reasons are, because they do not capture the essential issue I’m mostly going to bracket them here. Instead, I want to show how Derrida’s decision to create and speak to a corporate form in “Limited, Inc a b c …” is the logical consequence of the claims of SEC, a result more or less predicted by Holmes in the late nineteenth century. Holmes’s refusal to integrate a theory of intention into his pragmatic accounts of signs and interpretation eased interactions with corporations while inadvertently undermining an account of meaning; deconstruction made Holmes’s anti-intentionalism familiar and provocative. In a sense, then, Derrida is correct that his account of communication leads us to a particular use of language, as when he writes, near the end of SEC, that “[w]e are witnessing … the increasingly powerful historical expansion of a general writing, of which the system of speech, consciousness, meaning, presence, truth, etc., would be only an effect, and should be analyzed as such” (LI, 20). Were this meant merely as a sociological-historical observation of the conventional understanding of language in ordinary business discourse (at least since the beginning of the twentieth century), it would be unassailable for reasons described below.4 But clearly in SEC, Derrida has other sights in view (such as information theory).

Moreover, the claims that Derrida understands to extend from his position—the analytical and normative arguments about communication—do not follow from a sociological-historical account of writing as “only an effect.” Such claims include his argument that intention must be demoted, “no longer … able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance”; that writing “is not means of transference of meaning, the exchange of intentions and meanings”; nor is it “the site … of a hermeneutic deciphering, the decoding of a meaning or truth” (LI, 18, 20, 21). That is, Derrida is correctly observing the long-term effects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century “communication,” which is to say (although he would never put it in these terms) the long-term effects of the corporate-writing phenomenon. But because he sees these effects as a comprehensive, constitutive quality of language, he consequently misidentifies their cause, normative force, and broader significance. We are indeed “witnessing … the increasingly historical expansion” of what is contractual, commodified, and so-called corporate “speech,” a use of language that tries to function as “only an effect” of some cause. The incidence of that language use probably feels as inescapable today as it did in the 1970s (if we’re being honest, exponentially more so now compared to then—Derrida was always ahead of his time). But none of that tells us what writing must be; it only tells us what corporate and commodified speech wants to be.

My argument is that both Derrida and Holmes assumed that intentions were causes and that their accounts of intention were essentially flawed despite having certain tantalizing advantages. But I am not claiming (for reasons that hopefully are sufficiently obvious) that the projects of these two radically different thinkers were identical. Nor do I want to imply that they were able to successfully enact this belief about intentions-as-causes in their own work. Indeed, the more basic point is that it is never possible to write or to mean without intentions, that intentions cannot be turned into causes (this is why I’m saying their thinking on this point was flawed). For that reason, my primary aim in this essay is to trace how Derrida makes his argument in SEC: to understand the basic premises that must support his other claims (premises Holmes shared), and that lead, as Derrida understood, to the essay “Limited Inc a b c ….” and to the corporation, Limited, Inc.

Causing Corporate Speech

Over the course of the twentieth century, corporations have been granted not only property and contract rights, as well as certain civil and criminal rights (subsidizing and accelerating their accretion of power and wealth), but also certain revered qualities of human beings: the capacity to make and carry out complex and purposeful plans, express ideas in speech, and hold moral and religious beliefs. In Corporate Persons, I explore the genealogy of this phenomenon, tracing its emergence from a strange, ongoing debate about the possibility that large collective organizations might mean to do what they do and might mean like actual persons. Since the 1880s, the dispute about whether or not corporations could produce meanings in the world appeared in a myriad of materials, disciplines, and media: not only legal cases and jurisprudence but also philosophy, political cartoons, photographs, poems, and novels. This problem of corporate meaning and intention—as well as the serious attempts to resolve it by Holmes, Frederic Maitland, Harold Laski, and John Dewey among others—paved the way for damaging U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as Citizens United (2010), Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014), and Masterpiece Cakeshop, Limited v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018).5

Holmes’s theorizing and jurisprudence were especially transformative. Recognizing the philosophical and practical issues with the way contract law was conceptualizing agreements between parties, he offered something arguably more knowable and predictable—but also far more problematic—in its place. Contract formation “depends not on the agreement of two minds in one intention,” he writes in “The Path of the Law” (1897), “but on the agreement of two sets of external signs,—not on the parties having meant the same thing but on their having said the same thing.”6 His reasoning is that if the kinds of entities you are contracting with are huge corporations, then relying on an agreed-upon intention with them is perilous (who exactly have you agreed with?). It might seem better to avoid the notion of intention entirely and just stick with a contract’s signifiers (note that in Holmes’s idiosyncratic terminology, before the Saussurian revolution, he called signifiers “external signs”). Holmes’s argument eventually becomes the doctrinal source for free speech as a commodity: language as a set of “external signs” without necessarily corresponding to meaning. This is what he is getting at when he makes a distinction between what the parties “said” versus what the parties “meant.” What the parties “said” (regardless of what they were intending by saying what they did) caused the contract to be made; what the parties “meant” (what they intended to mean and say) did not. In Corporate Persons, I trace how Holmes on contractual intention silently underwrites the majority’s opinion in Citizens United, with its invocation of corporate personhood and its equation of free speech with money.7

As I further suggest (and most relevantly here), Holmes’s solution also anticipates a major literary-theoretical dispute about deconstruction on the materiality of the signifier and the status of intention. Holmes, we should note, is trying to theorize the contractual event that caused but might or might not have intentionally meant “two sets of external signs” to exist in the world. Similarly, Derrida reasons from the premise that there exists language in the world that seems to function as the effect of a cause rather than the expression of an intention. (I will develop this claim below.) This entails allowing that that there are “effects of speech (as opposed to writing in the traditional sense),” effects like “the divided instance of the juridic signature” that is both “tether[ed] to the source” of the writing body but also, simultaneously, “able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production” (LI, 19, 20). A legal signature on a contract thus functions, for Derrida, as an instance of writing as the outcome (effect) or result of a bodily cause: inevitably contingent and temporally—not formally, not transcendentally—detached from its origin of the writer’s hand. Once detached, what makes that signature “function, that is, to be readable” is that it possesses “a repeatable, iterable, imitable form” (LI, 20). Not a person writing, but their signature as mark, according to Derrida; not a person speaking, but “speech,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court. Derrida’s juridical signatures operate like (or in) Holmes’s signed contracts, which manifest agreement not because the parties “meant the same thing” but because the parties “said the same thing,” with the “said” referring to signifying marks rather than signs.8

Consider, for a moment, the apparent benefits of this way of theorizing meaning. By challenging conventional institutional structures (whether of law or language), both Holmes and Derrida seek an account of linguistic interpretation that forgoes idealism in favor of pragmatism and empiricism. It’s not an unreasonable aim. Holmes wants a contractual interpretation that won’t perpetually screw over the little guy in the guise of a legally perfect formal contract; Derrida wants a hermeneutics that acknowledges the real “condition of possibility” for how we use and phenomenologically experience writing, and for the language we are subjected to daily (LI, 20) (“rather than a subverter of common sense,” Stanley Fish observes of SEC, “this Derrida is very much a philosopher of common sense” and even “of ordinary language”).9 Holmes’s and Derrida’s aims make even more sense when one considers reams of boilerplate receipts from Best Buy, click-through “Terms and Conditions” contracts, political robocalls and automated texts, and endless spam emails generated by unknown company algorithms. And, since my focus here is on Derrida rather than Holmes, it is worth mentioning the many unobjectionable and insightful points that Derrida makes in SEC, illustrating why we inevitably focus on actual writing and the role of context to make sense of anything, and how that does not necessarily make interpretation any simpler. For example, he is surely correct that: we can use the signifier “communication” to refer to both semantic and non-semantic meaning; constraining context might help us clarify a meaning; the limits of context are “never absolutely determinable”; the notion of “writing” as represented in philosophy has required absence; Austin’s performative depends on an account of intention despite his apparent focus on context (LI, 1, 2, 3, 4–7, 13–19). And so on—this is not an exhaustive list.

But in order to claim, as he explicitly does, that “communication … is not the means of transference of meaning, the exchange of intentions and meanings” (LI, 20) and that “writing” is not “a hermeneutic deciphering, the decoding of a meaning or truth” (LI, 21), Derrida also needs to prove something far more difficult, something that (I, and others, would argue) he can’t prove: that intention is just a species of cause, and one of many causes, that produces writing effects. That is how he can say that “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” (LI, 18). This is a critical moment in his theorizing. “Intention,” as a concept, is being radically altered here, although he downplays what it is happening when he notes that it is not disappearing but only being put in “that place” from which “it will no longer be able to govern ….” But once placed in that ungoverning spot, the idea of intention has already turned into something else. It is no longer the answer to a certain type of why question that mentions past history, interprets the action, or implies something about the future.10 It is, rather, simply one more phenomenon impacting writing or speech, perhaps providing evidence or stating a cause. That is, put in “its place,” unable “to govern,” intention becomes just one more context (in “its place”) of many different kinds in the larger, potentially non-human context of language’s happenings. On this point Derrida really is at odds with Austin, for whom performative utterances must be “included as a part of” the “performance of an action,” and “[a]ctions can only be performed by persons.”11 In contrast, for Derrida in SEC, utterances and writing are events that happen. Rather than meant as intentional speech—a human speech by a necessarily human actor—utterances (according to SEC) are produced in the world due to some still-to-be-determined set of causes. (Causality means that effects arise out of their causes and nothing in SEC suggests that Derrida disagrees with this definition.12)

Perhaps because the consequences of this claim are major, Derrida’s other texts from this period tend to carefully finesse the point to avoid its most obvious vulnerabilities. In “Différance” (1967), for example, his invention of the “trace” serves to sidestep discussion of causes and effects, as well as intentions and actions. Although it is beyond what I can tackle here, it would also be productive to show how, in deliberately avoiding these critical terms, Derrida’s “trace” finds another language to establish the essential materiality of the signifier (to put this in Walter Benn Michaels’s terms), while only succeeding in returning to the same issues of causes and effects in another form, without using these terms.13 Be that as it may, whereas “Différance” and Of Grammatology extensively develop the “trace,” that term plays only a minor role in SEC. Instead, Derrida deploys ordinary language philosophy’s language of speech acts. This decision offers a certain analytical clarity, but it also opens up his argument to questions of intention and causality, questions he deflects by rendering speech acts as events and then arguing that these events (somehow) do not follow the usual patterns of causes and effects.

These are the basic moves of the “Parasites” section of SEC (LI, 13–19), which aims to reveal why Austin’s performative utterance is not (yet) deconstructive, why it does not reveal the communication-as-event that Derrida depicts (the later Searle/Derrida debate about Austin largely misses this point).14 Here, Derrida substitutes the notion of the speech act and replaces it with phrases such as “event of discourse,” “original event-utterance[],” or “discursive event” (LI, 18, 19). He also clarifies that he sees these kinds of discursive events as part of a larger set of “concerns” about “the status of events in general … of the strange logic they entail and that often passes unseen” (LI, 18). Like the moment when intention is put in “that place” from which it cannot govern, this swapping out of “acts” for “events,” along with the emphasis placed on “the eventhood of [the] event” (LI, 17), carries substantial theoretical weight. An “event of discourse” (a phrase more often attributed to Foucault) serves as a sociologically distanced way of avoiding or undermining intentionality while seeming not to. That is because like any event or happening, the “event of discourse” must have at least one cause producing the effect of that speech event, and likely many more: events in the world tend not to have single causes but many causes with different relative impacts.15 Once the speech act has been transformed into the writing event, then all aspects of the background of the event look relevant. Any major or minor circumstance is potentially pertinent to an event’s causation. In other words, once the speech act becomes the event-utterance, once writing becomes the event of the signature, then there is nowhere to look but context to find the source of the causes and contingencies that impact all aspects of that event, including the event of someone putting pen to paper (the topic of the next section of Derrida’s essay).

Deconstructing communication in SEC thus consists of two interrelated moves taken up as the “trace” in his other writings (and, for that reason, are harder to see in texts other than SEC for the work they are actually doing). The first move is to consistently transform or recharacterize instances of intention into causes, whether that means the cause of an “event of discourse” or the cause of a “writing effect,” as when he describes “the intention animating the utterance” (LI, 18). Think about how that phrase, “the intention animating the utterance,” functions. Whatever such a phrase might have meant for Husserl, from whom Derrida adopts it, “the utterance” here is not described as an expression of the speaker’s intention; rather, “the intention” enlivens “the utterance” (“animating the utterance”) as if what it means to intend is to trigger (to cause) a lifeless signifier to look alive. Derrida’s second move is to steadily show that context is already everywhere and so cannot be definitively settled, as he states early in the essay: “I shall try to demonstrate why a context is never absolutely determinable” (LI, 3). For that reason, contexts also cannot possibly be kept at one node in a causal chain—they are everywhere. In combination, the first move makes causality determinant, and the second deploys contexts to show that causality can, at best, only “determine[]” limited effects (“effects of semantic communication … that are particular, secondary, inscribed, and supplementary”) (LI, 3). This is a version of the now-classic deconstructive “double gesture,” which “put[s] into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system” in order to “interven[e] in the field of oppositions it criticizes” (LI, 21).

Even the essay’s title, “Signature Event Context,” might hint at the deconstructive double gesture. With it, Derrida implicitly invokes (in order to challenge) the conventional—albeit, I’m arguing, deeply misguided—understanding of intention as a causal sequence beginning with an idea in the mind, then formulated as a possible speech act, and eventually scrawled down on paper (content —> speech act —> writing). Instead of simply reversing its order, Derrida also alters and radically undermines each element in that potential sequence. That is, rather than provide us with a clean sequential reversal (writing —> speech act —> content), he first swaps out the terms (signature [for writing] —> event [for speech act] —> context [for content]). And then he breaks the causal chain, displacing the system, to reveal context infiltrating signature and event before the sequence can even get going. I take it that is also why there are no commas between the words in the title: punctuation would resolve the semantic, syntactical, and thus logical relationships between the words. So, the disrupted causal chain of “Signature Event Context,” by the essay’s end, looks more like this:

Figure 1.

And, as this diagram is intended to demonstrate, to perform the double gesture—to reverse, displace, and intervene—Derrida keeps his theorizing securely in the realm of causes (whether those causes can be determined, partially determined, or will remain indeterminate), which he does from the essay’s very start.

Meaning Machines

Derrida holds us in this causal realm by conflating two different things: meanings with natural causes (e.g., thunder means rain) and intentional meanings expressed in human language (e.g., what I mean in this sentence). Even the essay’s very first sentence (after the Austin quote) does this, building an argument for a kind of communication that can incorporate both kinds of meaning with the signifier “communication” (LI, 1). He begins with a skeptical, rhetorical question that challenges the conventional definition of “communication”: “Is it certain that to the word communication corresponds a concept that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable: in a word, communicable” (LI, 1)? The implication is that if we cannot manage to communicate what the word “communication” means, particularly without having to delimit or “anticipate” the word’s context and “semantic domain” in advance, how could we ever hope to non-contextually signify the meaning of any other word? Then he notes that the word “communication” can “designat[e] nonsemantic movements as well … one can, for instance, communicate a movement or that a tremor, a shock, a displacement of force can be communicated—that is propagated, transmitted.” “Talking” is one signifier and “displacing force” is another, both potential signifieds of the signifier “communication.” These physical senses of communication do “not involve phenomena of meaning or signification,” he observes. That is, he’s saying that the event or phenomenom of communicatation can happen without someone signifying anything at all. Because, however, such events or phenomena do involve causes and effects, he implies that “communicating” (that larger sweep of an idea) might be more like an event producing a cause.

As I explore in Corporate Persons, this conflation of what philosopher H. P. Grice distinguished as natural versus nonnatural meaning is a common feature of legal discussions of corporate speech, building on an interpretation of Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas” (words become literal commodities to be bought and sold).16 And, in both jurisprudence on corporate speech and in SEC, a kind of automation of the concept of speech logically follows from conflating these two types of meaning. Derrida develops this sense of automation in a discussion of philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746), which he reads as showing how “the history of writing will conform to a law of mechanical economy,” in which writing is reduced to its “homogeneous and mechanical character” (LI, 4, 5).17 Although Derrida is, at this moment, criticizing Condillac’s account for its failure to correctly “characterize” or “style this absence” in writing (LI, 7), he does not criticize the mechanical per se. Indeed, the mechanical aspect supports his idea that absence and iterability structure “the mark of writing itself,” as if it is a requirement of communication that language have aspects that can never be under anyone’s total control (LI, 5–7). Or, as Derrida states: “to write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten” (LI, 8).18 Once writing is characterized as a productive machine, communication has become at least partially automated. Needing no one to substantively run it, “the nonpresence of my intention of saying something meaningful” becomes a possible way for the writing machine to run (LI, 8). (I will momentarily bracket what it might mean to think about intention as a presence or absence, and what it could actually mean to write while one’s intention is nonpresent.)

Recall, once more, that for theorists of the corporation starting in the late-nineteenth century, the basic scenario that Derrida presents (as the conditions of possibility for communication and writing as a mark-producing machine) was their problem of corporate intention. Corporations were clearly megalomaniacal in their drive for profit; Thorstein Veblen analyzes this sociological phenomenon skillfully in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). But just because a corporation made commodities, or made things happen, did not mean that the corporation or anyone acting for it would be able to express an intention about the things it made or the events it caused. Someone might be able to do so under certain circumstances—or might not under others. In discussions of corporate intention, this problem was typically represented as the question of whether a corporation has a soul (like a human being) or not (like a brute or beast). Corporate ontology, in other words, was a way to capture the unstable expressive capacities of the corporation as sometimes able to express an intention and sometimes not. Frequent mindlessness, automaticity, absence of consciousness, and mechanical iterability thus looked like real, albeit hazardous, qualities of the corporate form. And that reality very quickly raised all sorts of unhappy questions about any kind of human interaction—say, a negotiated and signed contract—with a corporation. It was this situation that led Holmes to forgo looking for intention at all when it came to writings that the corporation generates and to assume that there was no other alternative to the corporate-contractual model.

By titling his essay “Limited Inc a b c …,” Derrida hints that something about the entire technological scenario of modernity, this human confrontation with the contractual, commodifying entity known as the corporation, relates to his conception of communication as a system. Perhaps in assuming that there is some quality here more fundamental about the way all human institutions work, he sees this situation as an instance of the essentially inescapable and logical structure of writing. In SEC, he recharacterizes the “nonpresence” of intention as the way the so-called writing machine must work, rather than seeing it as an incidental or damaging feature of inchoate phenomena like boilerplate “Terms and Conditions” contracts (which we click through without reading not because the words are meaningless but because we already know that they are intended as a wall of words that might subdue us, a flagrant exhibition of a company’s arbitrary economic dominance).19 For Derrida, not only does communication function without a presence, without an intending person, it is designed to work without anyone intending, such that “every sign … presupposes a certain absence (to be determined)” (LI, 7). Although Michel Foucault and Derrida were to disagree on many points, including the theorization of authorial absence, there is a sense in which Derrida’s communication machine finds its analogue in Foucault’s roughly contemporaneous theorizing of Bentham’s disciplinary apparatus: “Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine,” writes Foucault, referring to the panopticon: “it does not matter what motive animates him.”20 The architecturally hollow panopticon, like the communication writing machine, is structured with a constitutive, unmotivated, absence of intention at its core. While the corporation manifests that absence in the social damage and the financial profit of the capitalist engine at work (the consequence of limiting personal liability), Derrida’s and Foucault’s models make that absence substantial, productive, and forceful throughout society.21

What remains assumed (and unsupported) in both of their accounts is how exactly the analogy of the machine, for writing, is supposed to operate. On this point, the brilliant and still underappreciated British philosopher Mary Midgley offers the best challenge to the ubiquitous machine metaphor, explaining why it is so attractive and also why it is deeply flawed. The “central point” of this metaphor was to establish “continuity with one’s surroundings” (what Derrida would call context).22 But the analogy quickly breaks down when we try to expand it to people: machine cogs are separate but inactive objects, “not distinct subjects” acting in the world.23 Her further point is that this world-as-machine model still could seem plausible when God was assumed to be the “active, external figure” designing the universe, but it becomes obscure and incoherent when God’s presence is questionable.24 Midgley continues her critique, exposing the futility of using this model of mechanization “to cover intentional human action.” The problem is that doing so “raises a sharp puzzle about the position of the understanders themselves … [who begin to] look as if they are really agents somehow standing right outside the processes that they are studying.”25 She questions how it makes sense to see certain enlightened people “function[ing] as the only real agents around, those responsible for running the human machine.”26

Midgley’s target is the machine metaphor used by contemporary scientists and social scientists, but we can extend her argument to cover critical and cultural theorists too, including Foucault and Derrida.27 Their machine metaphor, I’m suggesting, is doing the same kind of work, smuggling in an active agent through the structure; they then performatively hollow out that structure (via “absence”), yet without forgoing the insights and principal vantage point the structure offered in the first place. (Richard Rorty makes a similar point when identifying the danger of “philosophical closure” Derrida constantly flirts with: “You can’t have a ground without a figure, a margin without a page of text.”28 ) In Derrida’s case, this means producing an astonishing, and often compelling, vision of language, as if coming across a totally foreign phenomenon, observed from an impossibly distant sociological perspective. It is as if one could look at language like an alien who possesses a radically divergent understanding of intention and expression, as in Octavia Butler’s short story “Amnesty” (2003), with the alien shrub-like “Communities” who envelop and constantly touch and hurt you to “communicate.”29 As in that science fictional thought experiment, expressing an intention is reimagined as merely an optional aspect of language use, standing along other aspects of variables or qualities of language use, like force, artificiality, arbitrariness, and the production of uncontrollable effects. It is true that if intention were to be irreducibly absent (LI, 19), then language and writing would be something extremely strange and alien. Yet all that really tells us is that without intention, language and writing would not be language and writing but would be something we don’t know and, aside from science fiction, have not imagined.

In SEC, as in various of his other early essays, Derrida immediately shifts from the notion of writing as “a sort of machine” to intention as partially automated and mechanical; the idea is that we have as little control over our unconscious intentions as we do a machine we are observing from the outside.30 Writing “must continue to ‘act” and to be readable” when the author is no longer present, for whatever reason, whether temporarily, permanently (because of death), or “because he has not employed his absolutely actual and present intention or attention, the plentitude of his desire to say what he means, in order to sustain what seems to be written ‘in his name’” (LI, 8). Under such arduous conditions, it seems, authors are invariably either partially absent or momentarily vacant when they write, machine-like despite themselves. The mechanical quality of intention is thus another guise (or maybe a function, or effect) of the Freudian unconscious (an observation Derrida had already elaborated in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” [1967]), potentially concealing an aspect of one’s will that the writer will never be able to access.31 In that essay, Derrida renders such concealment and absence as a necessary characteristic of writing: “[w]riting is unthinkable without repression.”32 Necessarily writing while repressed, the author inevitably misses out on essential sources of her intention; without access to all of these foundational events, she can only intuit, but not fully know, what she intends. All she (or we) can know is that the writing event, generated by a sort of machine, produces a forceful effect in the world: “a written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context … this breaking force is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text” (LI, 9). Interpretation, by extension, could not mean trying to understand a text’s meaning, but identifying and evaluating the myriad root causes of that powerful force.

On Intentional Actions versus Causal Events

I have been arguing that the deconstructive moves of SEC—to incorporate communication that functions, in the end, as the effect of contexts (themselves the effect of forces)—require recharacterizing intention as another species of causation. Context could then be shown to suffuse all causes and all “intentions.” I have also suggested that Holmes used a version of the same move in the late nineteenth century to contend with the basic problem of corporate intention. Rightly concerned about the power of large-scale businesses, and the inequitable contracts instantiated by their commodities, Holmes offered a way to avoid having to theorize intentions in his accounts of how legal promises work. Later, Holmes’s flawed solution was re-incorporated as the dominant account of contractual interpretation and, eventually, constitutionally-protected corporate free speech. Since then, all of these arguments have been logically available, whether in deconstruction or in jurisprudence of corporate speech, only waiting to be made. Derrida’s performative creation of the corporation “Sarl” for “Searle” in “Limited, Inc” is an entirely consistent part of this history, a late manifestation of still dominant capitalist forms and attempts to understand them.

Lastly, let me underscore a point that has been explored at length elsewhere, and that hopefully is already obvious—namely, why a person’s intended action is not, and could not be, identical with an event’s cause.33 On some level this idea should be intuitive, as Elizabeth Anscombe observes in “The Causation of Action” (1983) when she contrasts two answers to the question “How did the door shut?”: (1) “by the operation of magnets and weights,” versus (2) “Jones shut the door” (CA, 91). As she notes, the answer “by pushing it’ may be a perfectly adequate answer to ‘How did Jones shut the door?,’” but no one would think that means that Jones is “a door-shutting mechanism which works by a pushing action” (CA, 92). What Anscombe is interested in capturing with this contrast are the two, implicit, and distinct kinds of inquiries operating here. With one kind “we are interested in picking out ‘chains’ of causality going back in time” (the weights and magnets version). But there is also a different sort of inquiry implied by the question of how Jones shut the door, one more precisely represented by the question “Why did he shut the door?,” and that question generates “a different sort of answer” (CA, 94). It has been tempting for thinkers to assume that this is not a different kind of question and answer, says Anscombe. But it is clearly wrong to explain how “actions by volition and intention” happen by “what thinkers of modern times call ‘causal’ explanation” (CA, 95). They are conflating two things into “just one single sort of explanation.” Her point is that there are really two separate kinds of explanation always at work in these scenarios: causation on the one hand, and intention on the other. “The mistake” is to think that something done intentionally “is a causal relation between act and intention” (CA, 95). And this is virtually the identical move (or, to use Anscombe’s language, “the mistake”) that I have been describing as Derrida’s in SEC and Holmes’s in contractual theorizing of the corporate form.

There are many more careful steps in Anscombe’s analysis, as she explains precisely why “the teleology of conscious action is not to be explained as efficient causality” by some desire or state of mind (CA, 96). She then anticipates and staves off counter-challenges that might depict her investigation as phenomenological or behaviorist (CA, 97–99). But finally she arrives, almost in passing (it seems so obvious to her) at the point that Holmes, Derrida, and Foucault could not see:

So: fill up that gap how you will. I mean, of course, suppose it filled up how you will. No way of filling it up … will fill it up with intentions, beliefs, wants, aims, volitions, or desires. For you are in pursuit of a type of causal history in which those things do not belong at all. … There might come a point at which there is no further puzzle about how each link in the causal chain produces the next one. And still nothing has been said about intentions, beliefs, thoughts or decisions. (CA, 100)

We could explore these causal chains forever, says Anscombe. Maybe someday we will even understand all the links in the causal chain (it seems unlikely yet it is not theoretically impossible). In the process of turning intentions into causes, speech acts into events that are determined by, and produce more, contexts, Derrida’s prodigious, many decades-long deconstructions performatively attempted to fill up the “gap” while revealing how it emptied itself out all over again—pondering the perpetually half-sinking ship called language. But, Anscombe says, even were we to fill out this chain successfully, everything relevant about writing, language, and meaning would be left off the table: “And still nothing has been said about intentions, beliefs, thoughts or decisions.” Forever constructing and deconstructing the causal chains does not get us to intention.

Derrida is thus in agreement with Anscombe in one sense: like her, he sees the attraction of causation to explain events (non-human actions), and he sees the real complexity of doing so. And he is in complete disagreement with her in another sense because she insists that intentions and causations are non-identical, that we are missing something critical if we think that intentional human actions are merely events. That is why, in the end, we should modify my earlier diagram of SEC to put it in its proper relation with intention (fig. 2). Which is, to be clear, a relation and not a context at all.

Figure 2.


1.  Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 36. Hereafter cited in the text as “LI” followed by the page number.
2.  Lisa Siraganian, Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
3.  John R. Searle, “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida,” Glyph 2 (1977): 198.
4.  However, Derrida later lends support to an interpretation of his account as sociological-historical. In his epistolary response to Gerald Graff, he acknowledges that his position is more “historical” than Searle’s: “It is because in appearance at least ‘I’ am more of a historian that ‘I’ am a less passive, more attentive and more ‘deconstructive’ heir of that so-called [continental philosophical] tradition” (LI, 131).
5.  See also 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis (600 U.S. ___ (2023), an appeal to a Tenth Circuit decision about a business owner refusing to design websites for same-sex weddings; the U.S. Supreme Court (with J. Gorsuch writing for the 6-3 majority) held that the First Amendment prohibits Colorado from forcing a website designer to create expressive designs articulating messages with which the designer disagrees. “303 Creative LLC v. Elenis,” Oyez, accessed January 31, 2024,
6.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “The Path of the Law,” Harvard Law Review 10 (1897): 457.
7.  Siraganian, Corporate Persons, 43–80.
8.  In the context of Derrida, Holmes’s mention of “said” might be misleading, so I should flag that Holmes’s argument does not depend on the distinction between oral and written contracts. I discuss Holmes’s reasoning at greater length in Corporate Persons, 66–74, particularly in relation to Walter Benn Michaels’s challenges in The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
9.  Stanley E. Fish, “With Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (Summer 1982): 712.
10.  I am paraphrasing G.E.M. [Elizabeth] Anscombe’s Intention, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); see Siraganian, Corporate Persons, 47–49, for an expansion.
11.  J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 60.
12.  My sense of causality is developed from Elizabeth Anscombe’s very careful discussion of the neo-Humean collapse of causation and necessity in “Causality and Determination” (1971) in The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, vol. 2 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 136. And as Anscombe also reminds us, “[w]e certainly need to remember often repeated warnings against using the expression ‘the cause.’” G.E.M. Anscombe, “The Causation of Action,” in Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005), 91. Hereafter cited in the text as “CA” followed by the page number.
13.  Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 11.
14.  “It might seem that Austin has shattered the concept of communication as a purely semiotic, linguistic, or symbolic concept,” writes Derrida (LI, 13); his point here is to show why Austin has not made good on this potential conceptual shattering and thus why a deconstruction is required of ordinary language philosophy as much as of the longer history of Western philosophy. For Fish, only a hair’s breadth remains between the two theorists: “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.” Fish, “Compliments,” 721. But other commentators have seen more distance. See Erin Greer’s helpful discussion of Stanley Cavell, Austin, and Derrida: “they see similar issues as problems, but from different outlooks … for ordinary language philosophers, the problem posed by ‘iterability’ is primarily ethical and ordinary, rather than [as it is for Derrida] abstract or metaphysical.” Erin Greer, Fiction, Philosophy, and the Ideal of Conversation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2024), 70.
15.  In tort law, multiple causation is captured by the idea that the “cause-in-fact” (“but for the defendant’s action, would the plaintiff have been harmed?”) differs from the “proximate cause” (“can the plaintiff show the injury is sufficiently closely related to the defendant’s conduct for the defendant to be liable?”).
16.  Siraganian, Corporate Persons, 81–94.
17.  Condillac’s tripartite taxonomy of signs (accidental, natural, and instituted) offers some support for Derrida’s conflation of natural and nonnatural meeting, contra Grice. Although Condillac admits that “a man who has only accidental signs and natural signs has none that is at his command,” his treatment of all these signs as essentially fungible tends, as Derrida notes, to “presuppose[]… a sort of homogeneous space of communication” (LI, 3). Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, trans. Hans Aarsleff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 36–37.
18.  On Derrida’s qualifying language here (“a sort of machine”) see Susanna Lindberg, “Derrida’s Quasi-Technique,” Research in Phenomenology 46, no. 3 (July 2016): 369–89: “Derrida’s technique is a quasi-technique and his machines are quasi-machines.” Lindberg, “Derrida’s Quasi-Technique,” 372.
19.  On the Derridean qualities of boilerplate contracts, see Tal Kastner, “Boilerplate: Deconstructing the Fiction of Contract,” in Fictional Discourse and the Law, ed. Hans Lind (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 106–7.
20.  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 202. Discipline and Punish was published in France in 1977, the same year as the translation of “Signature” appeared in Glyph; the French version of “Signature” first appeared in 1972. Foucault already challenges Derrida’s notion of absence in “What is an Author?” (1969): “is not the conception of writing as absence a transposition into transcendental terms of the religious belief in a fixed and continuous tradition …?” In Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 120.
21.  See Foucault on the surveillance gaze, which “function[s] like a piece of machinery,” and “the apparatus as a whole that produces ‘power’ and distributes individuals in this permanent and continuous field.” Foucault, Discipline, 177.
22.  Mary Midgley, The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality (London: Routledge, 1994), 96.
23.  Midgley is working through a problem about activity and passivity, as concepts, and how the machine metaphors makes them senseless as concepts; they would not mean anything if we tried to use them. Although we might begin to wonder if we are all “ourselves passive,” as if everything in the world is a vast machine, “[t]he difficulty about this suggestion is that it does not make much sense without further designers and users to give the proper contrast. Without them, there is no active element in charge, and so no real passivity.” We also might note in passing that the current enthusiasm for “affordances” and “actor network theory” is that these models locate alternate movers and causes in an essentially mechanized system and thus provide a way to just barely retain a conception of passivity and activity. Midgley, Ethical Primate, 96–97.
24.  Midgley, Ethical Primate, 97.
25.  Midgley, Ethical Primate, 97.
26.  Midgley’s argument resembles Stanley Fish challenging the “mechanism” of liberal reasoning from John Locke to the present: “First, announce that there exists no mechanism capable of adjudicating between competing systems of belief, and then install in a position of privilege just such a mechanism.” Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 186.
27.  In a 1983 New York Review of Books critique of Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction, Searle suggests that Derrida remains committed to a skeptical logical positivism, a charge at which Derrida bristles (LI, 115, 123). But Midgley makes clear the alignment between the machine metaphor and the logical positivist playbook, adding some bite to Searle’s critique (at least on this point).
28.  Richard Rorty, “Deconstruction and Circumvention,” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 1 (September 1984): 10.
29.  Octavia Butler, “Amnesty,” in Bloodchild: and Other Stories (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995), 147–86.
30.  See, for example, “Tympan,” in which Derrida “implies that the text—Hegel’s for example—functions as a writing machine in which a certain number of typed and systematically enmeshed propositions … represent the ‘conscious intention’ of the author as a reader of his ‘own’ text, in the sense we speak today of a mechanical reader. Here, the lesson of the finite reader called a philosophical author is but one piece, occasionally and incidentally interesting, of the machine.” Jacques Derrida, “Tympan,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), xi.
31.  Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 75–76. Later collected in Writing and Difference.
32.  Derrida, “Freud,” 113.
33.  The causal account of human action was the standard Enlightenment view, as in John Locke’s declaration that “willing is an act of the mind directing its thought to the production of any action, and thereby exerting its power to produce it … the mind endeavors to give rise, continuation, or stop, to any action which it takes to be in its power.” John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Kenneth P. Winkler (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996), 100–1. Important modern challenges include (but are obviously not limited to) Ludwig Wittgenstein on willing, §§ 611–38, in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, 4th ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 168e–73e; Anscombe’s development of Wittgenstein’s ideas in Intention, 16–18; Harry G. Frankfurt, “The Problem of Action,” American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 2 (April 1978): 157–62; and John McDowell, “Some Remarks on Intention in Action,” The Amherst Lecture in Philosophy 6 (2011): 1–18. Although Donald Davidson parts with Anscombe on causation and intention in important ways (as Jennifer Hornsby, McDowell, and others have shown), even his argument in “Agency” (1971) supports the basic distinction between an agent’s intention and causation that I’m assuming here: “A man is the agent of an act if what he does can be described under an aspect that makes it intentional,” he reasons. But “the notion of cause has nothing directly to do” with “the relation between an agent and his action. … Causality allows us to redescribe actions in ways in which we cannot redescribe other events; this fact is a mark of actions, but yields no analysis of agency.” Donald Davidson, “Agency,” in Essays on Actions and Events, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 46, 60.
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