With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida

Stanley Fish, “With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida” in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989): pp. 37-67.


“In the summer of 1977, as I was preparing to teach Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology to a class at the School of Criticism and Theory in Irvine, a card floated out of the text and presented itself for interpretation. It read:


Immediately I was faced with an interpretive problem not only in the ordinary and everyday sense of having to determine the meaning and the intention (they are the same thing) of the utterance but in the special sense (or so it might seem) occasioned by the fact that I didn’t know who the author named or, rather, not named by the card was. It might have been Derrida himself whom I had met, but only in passing. Or it might have been Derrida’s translator, Gayatri Spivak whom I had known for some time and who might well have put me on the publisher’s list. Or it might have been the publisher, in this case the Johns Hopkins University Press of whose editorial board I was then a member. In the absence (a key word) of any explicit identification, I found myself a very emblem of the difficulties or infelicities that attend distanced or etiolated communication: unable to proceed because the words were cut off from their anchoring source in a unique and clearly present intention. That is to say, I seemed, in the very moment of my perplexity, to be proving on my pulse the superiority of face-to-face communication, where one can know intentions directly, to communication mediated by the marks of writing and in this case by a writing that materialized without any clues as to its context of origin. It may not have been a message found in a bottle, but it certainly was a message found in a book.”

Critical Inquiry, University of Chicago