A colloquium was held at the Sorbonne in January this year called “After Deconstruction: Rebuilding science and culture”. Its stated aim was to retaliate against the “ideological control” of postcolonial thought which tries to “impose a moral dogma against the critical spirit” and attacks not only the human sciences but also “music, mathematics, physics”. This followed ominous warnings from the French President Emmanuel Macron about the country being degraded by “theories entirely imported from the United States” and claims from his Minister of Education that “woke-ism is penetrating the structures of society.” We must, the Minister said, “deconstruct deconstruction”.
To many who attack “woke-ism”, the name Jacques Derrida looms large. Accused on the one hand of radical scepticism about truth (an accusation he painstakingly rejected) and on the other of promoting limitless identity politics by exploring the sustaining myths of what he called “white mythology”, Derrida again finds himself resuscitated as a “corrupter of youth”. That Macron – who worked for the philosopher Paul Ricœur on his last book – could claim deconstruction was imported from the United States perhaps shows the extent of Derrida’s influence, and the extent to which Macron feels he must push back against this “foreign” invader.
Derrida – who had his own brush with “cancel culture” in 1992 when The Times published a letter signed by nineteen academics objecting to his honorary doctorate from Cambridge – might have been surprised at this particular line of criticism, but he would not be surprised that his work remains controversial. Like the work of that other famous iconoclast Sigmund Freud, his thinking is alternately embraced and rejected. His writings are regarded by his opponents simultaneously as a nonsensical but finished phase in philosophy – and as a clear and present danger.
Robert Trumbull’s new book is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between the two thinkers. Derrida was always explicit about the debt his work owed to psychoanalysis. From one of his earliest essays, “Freud and the Scene of Writing”, right up to his final published seminars (in The Beast and the Sovereign), Derrida’s work is haunted – a key word for the unspoken, hidden influences behind what is presented – by that of Freud. Debts, as Derrida recognized, complicated things, and Trumbull’s book excels at elucidating them.
For Derrida, Freud represented a “breakthrough in rethinking the metaphysics of presence”, his term for philosophy’s unacknowledged confidence that, ultimately, there is some attainable purity. This purity has had many names (Plato’s “idea”, Descartes “cogito”, the various closing gambits in philosophical arguments called “Truth” or, alternatively, “God”). It has also been named the “self” – that still point from which we, fully conscious, view the world.
But the sovereignty of the self is thrown under a bus by Freud. We do not generate ourselves from within; Rather we are created in many ways from outside, from relationships, from experiences, from traumas. Derrida tracks Freud’s metaphors for the psyche across his work – from the early biological ones, where the model of the psyche draws on natural science, to the mystic writing pad, the child’s toy in which a thin sheet of plastic covers a piece of wax. The pad allows for the addition of new impressions from the outside, while retaining the old: this is the psyche as palimpsest.
In Freud, says Derrida, the intrusion of the exterior is not resulting to the creation of the self – it is the creation of the self. We do not control what goes in, and we do not choose the memories we retain, the dreams we have, our anxieties and traumas. In fact, even once those memories are with us, we can’t necessarily access them, or at least not directly. Psychoanalysis is predicated on the idea that Plato’s maxim “know thyself” is impossible. “The ego”, noted Freud, “is not master in its own house.”
And yet for Derrida, as Trumbull shows, Freud ultimately fails to understand the implications of his own discovery. Crucially, for Freud the self can be made whole, we can aspire to normality and to sovereignty over our own being (that Holy Grail of self-help). Freud draws back from the total indeterminacy of the self: however inexplicable things seem, explication is always possible.
Take for instance the death drive, Freud’s attempt to explain why individuals repeat behaviors which are destructive not only to others but to themselves. This compulsion does not fit with Freud’s idea of the “pleasure principle”, whereby we immediately act in ways to gratify our needs, wants and urges. In Beyond the Pleasure PrincipleFreud attempts to situate the death drive exactly there – in a beyond, as a supplement. It can in a sense be hived off. But for Derrida, death, and the drives it stimulates, are no supplement. They are always already part of life – in fact, Derrida introduces the term “Life Death”, to critique the dichotomy we assume between the two. Death limits life, but also makes it possible. Our little lives are not just rounded by a sleep, but utterly determined by it.
Trumbull examines how both Freud and Derrida work with phantoms and spectres – the former attempting to talk them away, the latter to welcome them. These spectres are ever present; we can neither give them up nor completely exorcise them. They haunt our selves and our thinking. Freud’s great discovery, for Derrida, is not how we make ourselves normal, but how we show that the abnormal cannot be effaced.
Finally, Trumbull also points the way forward for deconstruction as a radical openness to the future, resisting as far as possible the foreclosing he identifies in Freud, and in much of the history of metaphysics. In part, it is this radical openness which raises the ire of critics of deconstruction. Derrida himself described deconstruction as interminable. The fissures in Western philosophy, culture and thinking cannot, pace Freud, be cured. The old dream of Truth, its fixed terms and stable meaning, is unachievable. This is not simply because the range of cultures which now speak has expanded. It is baked into thinking, and always has been. The unconscious existed long before Freud, and deconstruction long before Derrida.
Derrida and Freud still have their passionate defenders and their even more vehement critics. Why might this be? As Freud himself put it, “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity”, and the zeal with which both have been attacked often verges on the neurotic – an excess of anger, an anxiety about tiny slights, an endless cycle of obsessive-compulsive behavior . As in the neurotic individual, the complicated is a particular threat. None of us can bear too much reality, of course, let its complications – particularly when those complications alone our most passionately held shibboleths. But as Derrida himself said, “If things were simple, word would have gotten around”.
Peter Salmon is the author of An Event Perhaps: A biography of Jacques Derrida2020
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