Lacan ◊ Derrida (English translation)

(This presentation is a transcription from a speech in the Tenth Symposium of the Fundacion Mexicana de Psicoanálisis, on Writing and psychoanalysis )

From the beginning I would like to focus my presentation on certain paradoxes that I hope will become clear with the development of the presentation itself. The first one to be mentioned is the spoken character of a lecture devoted to the topic of “writing”.

To depict and to argue about a relationship between Lacan and Derrida is nothing new; many books and papers have been written about some supposed connection linking them from different perspectives: as much supporting it as rejecting it. Some authors postulate Lacan with Derrida, some others refer and prefer Lacan against Derrida. Undoubtedly the name of Derrida could not be absent in a symposium devoted to writing. Our proposal includes the lozenge (diamond) in between the names, because in the relationship / non-relationship that is established among them, a tension is created that implies simultaneously a union and a disjunction, in the perspective of a theoretical encounter that is at the same time necessary and impossible. That is the meaning of the lozenge that joins and separates the two proper names. For that reason their respective works become totally non-superposable and at the same time they were built with an awareness, or at least a partial awareness, of each other. What prevails between both of them is the differance, the Derridean signifier that will become one of the main issues in this presentation.

The paradoxical linking includes the opposite nature of both characters: on one side we have Lacan -better known to you-, a passionate, flamboyant character, whose teachings were primarily oral, although he published his main work, painfully reelaborated, under the title “Ecrits”. On the other side we find Derrida, a completely self-controlled character, whose lectures consist in the careful reading of previously written texts, from which he tries to delete himself as much as possible. Derrida’s teachings have an important impact in the USA, a place where Lacan always wanted to be recognized. Lacan succeeded there only in a partial manner, never through the psychoanalytical societies, sometimes, hardly, through literary institutes.

This two characters could only meet the other in a game of disencounters. Twice they came together, Lacan and Derrida. To know what happened in those moments we have two sources: Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Histoire de la Psychanalyse en France and Derrida himself in his lecture, after a paper, Pour l’amour de Lacan.

Their first meeting took place in Baltimore in 1966. At that time Derrida had already published in the magazine Critique the article from which his influential book De la grammatologie evolved. Lacan read it carefully. At the moment Lacan’s Ecrits were still in print.

At that time, as Derrida describes it, the subject that bound them secretly together was that of Death. Before the publication of his work Lacan was concerned with how would his work be read after his death. The issues of transcendence and posterity were implicit in their conversation. They also spoke about the survival of writing after death, and brought to light the often mentioned relationship between writing and death.

To consider the relationship between Lacan and Derrida requires more time than the one allowed for this lecture, since all that matters inside this strange lozenge dwell in the most subtle details and, right now, I cannot explore them. What I will attempt to do is to draw a picture that will enable us to see in what not all of Derrida’s work, in what not all of Lacan’s work, get closer, relate to each other, and, at the same time, in what their contributions are to be distinguished.

If I place special emphasis to Derrida’s side is because I assume, mistakenly perhaps, that he is less known. Derrida’s philosophical background includes a strong interest in literature proposing a blurring of the boundaries between philosophy and literary criticism. He supports, in a philosophical context, an active opposition to the metaphysics of presence. This metaphysics is closely linked to the psychology of consciousness that suppose that, for the subject of knowledge, there is a transparence of the signified. Such opposition draws Derrida to take into account some problems confronted by linguistics. Derrida finds, reading Freud, a capital questioning for a new comprehension of the topic of writing and, in the conceptualization of the unconscious, the instrument that allows the contestation of the metaphysics of presence.

What are the main issues considered in De la grammatologie?

De la grammatologie is a deconstruction. What is implied in this term so tightly associated with Derrida? It is easier to begin with a negative definition: it is not a method nor a technique. In a positive approach, we may say that it represents a strategy, a strategy of reading, that attempts to go beyond the explicit intentions of any author, and to expose the text itself in its productivity. Deconstruction interests itself in the mishap in which another meaning, present in the text, can or cannot become clear. The deconstuctive reading pays special attention to the sidelines, the framings, that, through new contextualizations, allow fresh readings that at once become new writings.

The deconstruction reveals the lack of a transcendental meaning and of objective references that could surmount the issues of reality and objectivity. The subject of intertextuality is always in the line, or, as Nietzsche (an author dear to Derrida) would express it, it is always an interpretation. And it is necessarily so since there is a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, reality in its whole being taken as a textual characteristic, as being nothing but texts creating and recreating it.

The deconstruction implied in De la grammatologie is a deconstruction of linguistics through three different authors: Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss and J. J. Rousseau.

At first we are confronted with the concept of sign in de Saussure. This concept, with its dichotomy of signifier and signified, appears as representative of an originary presence, and so it is dependent on some implicit ontology. Derrida attempts to contest the pertinence of the concept of sign and all of its logic.

We should consider a footnote (Derrida J.: De la gramatología, Siglo XXI ed. México, 1986. p. 26):

“…this does not mean, through a simple inversion, that the signifier is fundamental, or first. The “primacy” or the “priority” of the signifier would be an unsustainable and absurd expression… Never will the signifier precede by its own right the signified, otherwise it would cease to be a signifier and the signifier “signifier” would have no possible meaning. The thought that is announced in this impossible formula without getting to fit into it, must therefore be expressed in another way: it cannot be posed without making suspicious the idea of sign itself, of “sign-of”, that will always be linked to what we question here. Therefore, in the limit, destroying all organized conceptuality surrounding the very concept of sign” .

We have carefully reproduced this paragraph because it is precisely here where one of the most controversial points in the relationship between Lacan Derrida becomes apparent. Lacan persists in his reference to the Sausseurean sign and, agreeing with Levi-Strauss, he holds the primacy of the signifier. Here Derrida points out the unexpected consequences of this operation. I believe that this remark will be in due time considered by Lacan although without recognizing it: when he silently abandoned the idea of la parole pleine for that of the mi-dire de la vérité, also when he left the proposal of the point de capiton (the ideal place of the supposed agreement between the signifier and the signified). I think that that was in itself an answer, a positive one, to Derrida’s remarks, though not only to them.

The linguistics of the sign becomes a prisoner of the illusion of the phonological scriptural systems that make us assume that the writing is second and comes after spoken language.

This illusion ignores that there can be no purely phonetical writing: the punctuation marks, the silences that separate the words are obviously non-phonetical elements, without which writing would be unthinkable (even if the history of writing shows that at the beginnings of alphabetical inscriptions there was a lack of explicit punctuation marks and of separation between words that had to be overcome by the readers, the interpreters of the written texts; nevertheless, hieroglyphic and ideographic writing systems always include some phonetical elements).

We cannot follow here step by step the analysis made by Derrida of de Saussure’s thesis. Derrida shows clearly that, by placing writing as a representative of the spoken language, de Saussure excludes writing from language and gives it a purely instrumental character. Being just an addition to a spoken language complete in itself, writing appears as a violent act of usurpation that makes us believe, then, in the possibility of an unadulterated essence hidden within the spoken word.

After the denunciation of the metaphysics that is inherent to the idea of sign, Derrida claims that the spoken language represents in itself a writing. This reversal implies a profound modification of the concept of writing. Now we are forced to admit that the natural-original language never really was. It itself was always writing. This is the concept of arch-writing, another name for the differance, of which we shall speak later on.

Derrida applies the same deconstructive principles to his readings of Levi-Strauss’s work. For the founder of modern anthropology it is the secondary apparition of writing that allows to support the myth of the good savage and the exploitation as an alien factor derived from written-language based cultures. But to support that there can be a population without writing is an illusion from those that reduce writing to its common phonetical form. Derrida points out the ethnocentric principle of such a conception.

And so, going back to the original paradox, in which we ironized that we brought a speech to this symposium devoted to writing, it can be defined as a half truth: it is only because it is somehow and somewhere written that it may be spoken.

In a previous paper (Saal F. El lenguaje en la obra de Freud, in El lenguaje y el inconsciente freudiano. Siglo XXI ed. México. 1982), I quoted Thomas Mann saying that dreams were dreamt because they had been already interpreted. So, to find now that what is spoken has been written before, should not surprise us. And that is the reason why it is no coincidence that the painting by Miro, Blue II: writing without meaning, lines and dots on an infinite blue, is the poster of this symposium. Because painting is indeed a form of writing, that by no means can be excluded. This applies, of course, to those etchings of dots, denied the name of writing by Levi-Strauss, a fact on which Derrida poses a huge question-mark, On what principles can that denial be sustained?

Différance is, for Derrida, the key concept in order to understand what is here at stake. He explains that this is not a word nor a concept, but a mechanism. It is all about the changing of a single letter in the French word différence, in which an e becomes an a. Phonologically this change of a vowel cannot be recognized. It is only a graphic, scriptural sign. So, he poses a mute mark, a graphic and transgressive intervention, meant to question the subject of writing and its relation with speaking.

“…if the différance is (and this is is to be crossed out) what makes possible the presentation of the present, it never presents itself as such.” (De la différance)

The différance puts us clearly on track of what is meant by Derrida with his critique of the metaphysics of the presence.

The différance, with its lack of essence and existence, without being either a word or a concept, is a strategic proposal to avoid any ontological or teleological reappropriation. A semantic analysis enables us for a certain approximation to the understanding of this adventure of the différance. To differ, in French, not in English, has two meanings, the first one is temporal, it implies to postpone, to delay, and so it alludes to time. The second meaning is also the best known, it refers to that which is different, non-identical, so making clear the importance of repetition, the importance of space.

So we find that time acquires an historical and also a spatial dimension, marking its origin not as a present but as a postponement and as a disencounter “… that the différance points to a originary, productive and constitutive causality, the process of breaking and dividing whose differences or differents would be constituted products or effects”.

Applying this to the linguistics of the sign, it means that the sign presents itself as a deferred presence, postponing the moment of the encounter with the thing itself, the one that we might later find. The différance questions the secondary origin of the substitute, and so it questions the whole idea of origin. The forces that are at play in the game of disencounters, being differed needs of the repetition between what happens at first and what happens at the second time (being the first something that never took place, something appearing as the retroactive effect of the différance itself). To use Nietzsche’s terms, the mask allows the representation, and the representation is the reality itself, without implying any kind of presence behind it.

For this reason Derrida questions the possibility to ask: What defers (delays)? Who defers (delays)?, questions that must be posed since they are based on the assumption that there is some something or some someone, before the différance itself, because both the what and the who are products of this différance.

In this way the différance puts us in contact with what we ignore and exceeds the alternative of the presence or the absence. Freud gave the name of Unconscious to this alternate Otherness.

“…the unconscious is not, as we know, a presence for itself, hidden, virtual, potential… this radical Otherness related to any kind of possible presence signals itself in the irreductible effects of untimelessness, of retardation” (De la Différance)

Nietzsche, Freud and Levinas, are the authors in whom Derrida finds the sketching of an end of ontology and the beginning of a new perspective where the différance would find a place.

Derrida takes from Levinas the wonderful expression with which he defines the enigma of the concept of otherness: “A past that never was a present”, and that defines, for all of us, the field of psychoanalytic work.

This is the way taken by Derrida for a careful reading of Freud’s texts. This reading would not be possible without Lacan’s return to Freud.

The grabbing question in Freud’s investigation is: What is memory all about? The one who can explain memory in all of its forms (including oblivion) would have explained the psychic reality itself.

Derrida retraces Freud’s path, from the Project… (1895) to the Note on the wonder-block (1924). For Derrida, there are all kinds of scriptural references, that aren’t metaphors:

“Undoubtedly Freud does not use any metaphors, if using metaphors is to refer what is known to what is unknown. Through the persistence of his metaphorical inversion, on the other hand, what we think we know under the name of writing becomes enigmatic”.

In the Project Freud is forced to conceive different systems, supposed to be neurological, that must meet a double standard: they must be able to delete and to retain. This is what the mystery of memory is about.

From the Project we can move on to the famed 52nd letter to Fliess (06/12/1896), in which we find a sketch of the psychic apparatus that includes several systems, differentiated by their functions. The possibility of passage from the path of a system to that of another one depends of their “reorganization according to new connections, a retranscription (Umschrift)… memory does not pre-exist in a simple fashion, but in a multiple one, it is registered in a variety of different signs”. The idea of a memory that is already a writing dominates this letter.

From Die Traumdeutung we will only stop in two aspects. First: the regard for representability is the mechanism of how dreams work that is able to explain their visual character. Freud attempts to illustrate the dream formation making allusion to several analogies, to hieroglyph, to rebus, to comics or to ideographic writing; all of them scriptural systems. The scriptural systems mount the scene in which the dream and the history may be represented. Second: the psychic apparatus must explain the representation, the other scene, is constituted by its mnemonic path, scriptural marks that might or might not be activated.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud presents us with a scene of his grandson’s game of throwing and retrieving a bobbin (fort-da), the repetition appears as giving birth to the trace. It is in his Second Seminar (1954-55) when Lacan elaborates the subject of the relationship between language and death. Derrida would state that this subject can come to light when (and only when) we realize that language is already a writing.

Now we can arrive to the Note on the wonderblock, that device made out of a waxed base covered by an independent plastic sheet that allows us to save what we erased, to save it because it was erased.

The transcription systems proposed by Freud, suppose the necessary existence of a primary writing, of an origin. This is the limit questioned by Derrida, proposing the inexistence of such origin. We are always confronted by transcriptions that are, all and always, originals.

When Freud explains the delusional satisfaction of desire, he invents a first experience of satisfaction. It is a nostalgic first experience that never really was. It is a theoretically necessary myth: a past that never was present.

Up to this point we have gone in a rapid tour through some texts to show some aspects of the relationship between Freud and Derrida. On Freud’s side.

Let us enter now on Lacan’s side. There are two implicit references to Lacan in De la gramatologie. The first one arises when Derrida states the impossibility of the parole pleine. As we know this is, by all means, a Lacanian term, and it is widely discussed in Rome’s Speech (1953). This subject presents itself when de Saussure’s linguistics were most present, enabling Lacan to read Freud’s work under a totally new light. In spite of this, Lacan and de Saussure association would be short lived; it collapsed when Lacan questioned the concept of signification. Lacan creates two neologisms: signifiance and lalangue. (Lacan’s path is carefully traced by Braunstein in Lingüistería, in N. Braunstein et al: El lenguaje y el inconsciente freudiano, quoted). In Lalangue the ambiguity comes from a scriptural, non-phonetical mark, that responds specifically to the Derridean definition of Différance. Is this an answer given by Lacan or is it an interpretation changing the question itself? Let us leave this as an open question.

We know that Lacan will move from his proposed parole pleine to that of the mi-dire de la vérité, and to the condition of not-all (pas-tout / pas-toutes) that will be the characteristic of women (The Woman only exists crossed over, that is, in the same way as the différance and as the Truth.)

Another place of encounter/disencounter between this two authors is Derrida’s careful reading of Lacan’s Seminar devoted to Edgar A. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Derrida explains the differences between his reading of Poe’s story and that of Lacan in his paper Pour l’amour de Lacan. We will consider here three fundamental differences between them.

The first one being that of the trajectory followed by the letter: if the letter always reaches its destination, as Lacan assesses, it must have a destination of its own. This leaves open the possibility of an encounter of the signifier and the signified. An issue that we dealt with when we discussed the problem of the sign, and where Derrida explicitly posed his disagreement with Lacan.

The second issue is a consequence of the first, and it is that of the truth as an unveiling (aleteia). This conceptualization, related to that of Heidegger, enables Derrida to state that it is not enough to want to go beyond metaphysics to accomplish the project. Heidegger may have taken ontology to its limits, but remained trapped within it, unlike Nietzsche, whom he claimed to follow.

The third issue we are interested in is that of the transcendental position of the phallus, an issue in which, paradoxically, Lacan agrees with Marie Bonaparte. Both of them refer the phallus to the mother’s missing penis. It is there where Derrida argues that there can be no phallocentrism without phallocratism, that the difference is not a simple distinction, since it always implies a hierarchization. It is on this subject, that the feminist movements have taken up Derrida’s proposals, but this does not mean that Derrida is himself a feminist.

But just as we have pointed to the increasing divergence between Lacan and de Saussure, we must also underscore the path that goes, within Lacan’s work, from The signification of the phallus (1958) and the Directive Ideas for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality (1960) to the 20th Seminar Encore, in which Lacan proposes the formulaes of sexuation and the existence of another jouissance, besides the phallic one, the jouissance of the Other, a feminine jouissance, understood as a supplementary jouissance.

Supplementary is a word having some connotations that I believe are not unjustified. When Derrida analyzes in De la gramatologie, Rousseau’s essay on The Origin of Languages, he underscores, with special emphasis the issue of the supplement. If for Rousseau writing is a supplement of speech, thus implying the secondary character of it, Derrida focuses in the multiple meanings of the word supplement, since it also means (in French) taking the place of what is lacking. It is in this sense that Derrida asks for a new logic of the supplement.

Could the feminine jouissance be Lacan’s answer to this proposal of Derrida about the signifier phallus? The feminine jouissance distinguishes itself because it can not be said but it can be written, so it may be understood as a différance.

At this point of the presentation, we find that Lacan’s steps go from a matter of language, in The Function and field of speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, to a matter of writing in The Agency of the Letter in the unconscious (1957), (a work Lacan specifies as being previous to any Gramatologie) until the seminar Encore. In this Seminar we find, besides, the proposal of a feminine jouissance. Later on Lacan defines the Real as “what never ceases of not being written” and the Symbolic as “what never ceases to be written”. We could also reach the seminar devoted to Joyce (1975-1976), where Lacan states the possibility of stabilization and of supplying the father’s name, in psychosis, through writing.

We have followed Derrida’s path, and the fruitful way in which his study of Freud’s work, has enabled him to propose new hypotheses and articulations. We have underscored the critical points of his relationship with Lacan, and how Lacan modified his own point of view, increasingly approaching Derrida’s proposals. In De la gramatologie, Derrida states the impossibility of the primacy of the signifier, and of the parole pleine, position later abandoned by Lacan. In The Purveyor of Truth, Derrida signals the impossibility of a pre-established destination, that would make possible an encounter of the signifier and the signified. Later, Lacan defines the subject, crossing him out and fading him or her between a primary unpronounceable signifier and a secondary one that has come to represent the first one (S1 – $ – S2). In Lacan’s sexuation formules, the phallic jouissance doesn’t prevail as the only one, but recognizes the possibility of another one, a supplementary jouissance of the feminine sexuality. After taking into account all this coincidences and divergences, should we assume that they are both saying the same thing, or that Lacan has become Derridean? (as is suggested by Derrida in Pour l’amour de Lacan). I do not think this is the answer, it would be necessary to preserve the différance, and what this différance might create with its divergent productive possibilities.

Let us move on to another anecdote of disencounter, told by Derrida himself. Lacan is quoted as saying to René Girard, in Baltimore: “Yes, yes, but the difference between him (Derrida) and myself is that he has nothing to do with the people who suffer”. Derrida considers this as an extremely imprudent expression, something Lacan could not say since he had no way of knowing about it, about the suffering of the people he, Derrida, dealt with. Lacan could not even guess what happened to Derrida in transference, denying him a place as a sujet supposé savoir.

Derrida is right, whoever deals with writing must also deal with suffering, because writing is a confrontation with death, and must also answer for the transferences he supports from his place… And, nonetheless, Lacan is also right: because what represents a hiatus in our understanding, a radical difference in their respective practices, is that the psychoanalyst must deal with the problem of psychosis.

If in the literary field, the endless reading that repeats itself as a mirror reflecting in another mirror, opens up to infinity the possibility of new readings. What happens when in the subject the cork that can clog the endless sliding of the signifiers is lacking, that situation that is the experience of madness itself?.

Such is the role played by the father’s name that must, in Lacan’s work, replace the mother’s desire in the paternal metaphor. And when this function fails and delirium unleashes itself, it is the delusional metaphor the one that must clog the void, to stop the sliding of the signifier and to allow a process of restoration of a reality, as personal as it may be.

In this sense, it may be fitting to point out that Lacan, even in his early work, since the 11th Seminar, where he proposed the model of the fish trap, where the object a places itself in the hole that enables its opening and closing, that is, the temporary pulsation of the unconscious. And when, later on, we find the formula of the fantasy $ a, remain of the operation of the constitution of the subject where the Real is present, the object a produces the threshold of what is able to be represented and so stops the signifier’s sliding.

So, I would like to conclude this presentation with an hypothesis, that the main difference that remains in the field cultivated by Lacan and Derrida, is Lacan’s elaboration of the object a, a necessary loss for the existence of the subject.

The relationship between Lacan and Derrida deserves, in its complexity, a careful study of what here is barely sketched.

Many questions remain: Is it that deconstruction and the appeal to différance can free philosophy from metaphysics? or, as is the case with Heidegger, whom, according to Derrida, remains in the field of ontology, a field he attempts to surpass, Derrida himself is trapped in the same disjunction? In a recent interview Derrida affirms that the deconstruction is the experience of the impossible. It is the definition of psychoanalysis itself, given by both, Freud and Lacan.

Derrida psychoanalyst? A Lacanian Derrida?

February 1994.



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