What Derrida Means When He Talks About Meaning

What the hell does this even mean???

“Meaning” is a multivalent term, which means that any attempt to discuss it meaningfully will be fraught with difficulty. Jacques Derrida makes a similar point when he asks, “Is it certain that to the word communication corresponds a concept that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable: in a word, communicable?” Yet difficulty doesn’t entail impossibility. In the present paper, I wish to outline several distinctions that cut across the nebulous concept of “meaning” and which serve to alleviate some of its thorniness. First, we need to differentiate between (a) semantic meaning (often called “literal meaning”), (b) communicative meaning (which involves a speaker’s intentions) and (c) informative meaning (the non-semantic and non-communicative content expressed by an utterance). Second, we ought to distinguish between issues of epistemology (truth, certainty, etc.) and those of semiology proper.

In light of these distinctions, the Derridean account of meaning—insofar as it’s articulated in “Signature Event Context”—loses much of its initial unintelligibility. Specifically, it appears that the purported disjunction between meaning and a speaker’s intentions only holds with regards to semantic meaning. And even then, such a claim needs to be qualified. In what follows, I will first discuss the importance of separating semiology from epistemology. Next, I will delineate the notions of semantic, communicative and informative meaning. Finally, I will investigate the relationship between meaning and a speaker’s intentions.


All He Robbed

For Harryette Mullen

Follow me, I’m no God at this. I can’t write black. I’m overbred, you’re better. I can’t say I sought your tone. I haven’t the length to pen the trope. Stale is more than enough for this boor. Your bandstand is ineffable. Your coastguards were beheaded. Your pet bear is sloshed. You’ve lent me many a documentary, but they’ve yet to teach me anything. The service delivered but I’ve never had my package tied. I regret to say I’m unable to recognize your unpossessed empires. I didn’t catch the look you bent. Anyway, my commuter has stalled. Now I’m unable to pass turds. I’m buffer than Anastasia. I’ve just turned key-lime into diarrhea. Don’t you get a kick out of my yacht? Which hell do men die? I forgot what I was going to pay. I still can’t find a pan that wrecks and then I shake my pen still. You know what a farce rape is these days. I admit I haven’t been riding my unicycle. Time never seems to have time for what I need. I’m all out of slippery bogs to put the cold pews in. I didn’t get the memorial. I want to lick the bonbons. I’ve never had a pale tit. I couldn’t get the sickly door to work, so I called. I went from A to Z with a witty scamp. If I could only get back to waiting, then I’d catch the easy train. When Ra oped mine eyes I got on famously like an unplugged brook.


and word itself
is an infanticide.
a self-defeating thought
both itself and its successor.

that which shapes the lips
into a crowning question
and yet with a simple sound
is stilled.

yet in spain
half-forgot beneath a tangle
of perplexing semantics
is a gate left gap-wide
onto that savage plain
of an a, and an a, and an a, and

Published in The Warren Undergraduate Review, Spring 2013.