Commentaries, Contemplation

Deconstruction and the Resistances of Psychoanalysis


“…the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I intentionally cited Rousseau in my last post to open up the dialogue between deconstruction and psychoanalysis. This is the first post on my blog that talks about some of Derrida’s views on psychoanalysis. It requires you to have read my previous post on Derrida to understand (found here). Since there are too much materials to cover, I will split my discussion into several posts.

Introduction to Psychoanalytical Difference: Conscious / Unconscious

It is not by chance that Derrida chose this Rousseau quote to end his magnum opus, Of Grammatology. What kind of “philosophy” might be given to us from the dreams of a bad night? PsychoanalysisIt is the psychoanalyst and analysand (patient) who analyzes their dreams while they are awake. Derrida had a very long and complicated relationship with Lacanian psychoanalysis which—in my view—consists of many similarities, yet disagreements with Lacan’s ideas. This is because both deconstruction and psychoanalysis are about “analysis” (interpretation). In this post, I will offer you an introduction to some of their essential differences—as in, not only their differences in a theoretical sense, but what a psychoanalyst say, and what they do not say.

As we have learnt from my previous post, deconstruction is situated in the play between differences: between what a text says, with what it does not say. Derrida refers to this “not said” as an “impurity” which contaminates and produces the privileged center of what is said. I’ve shown many examples of this form of privileged “logocentrism” in my last few posts. Such as how Rousseau privileged speech over writing, yet writing haunts Rousseau’s speech through the invention of technique. We will eventually encounter more logocentrisms that Derrida will contest, such as Freud’s “phallogocentrism”: the privilege of the male phallus—something that can only be understood in conjunction with Lacanian views on sexual difference.

As I had also went over in my post on psychoanalysis and split subjectivity, psychoanalysis attempts to study unconscious desires through our own consciousness. The unconscious exists because we are conscious subjects. Hence, we are always “split subjects”. This is where we find the fundamental difference which produces psychoanalysis: between what our consciousness says, and what it does not say.

This also relates to what our consciousness can remember and not remember. In the essay “Screened Memories”, Freud talks about how our mind’s defensive mechanisms distorts our conscious memories in order to protect us from repressed traumas in the unconscious. In the same way that Derrida is interested in what is said and not said in a text, Freud was also interested in what is said and not said in our consciousness. For Freud, what the conscious subject does not say is their desire to sleep with their mother. For Derrida, what is not said might not always be their desire for their mother, but something entirely different (if you are interested, this was mentioned by Geoffrey Bennington here).

Readers of Derrida may notice that he does not deny the existence of the unconscious. In fact, he takes advantage of it in many places of his work. For example, in Archive Fever, Derrida braids the relationship between archiving, phenomenology, ontology, with Freudian psychoanalytic views of technology and memory. In such text, Derrida takes an interest in psychoanalysis because it functions as an “apparatus of perception” (Archive Fever, p. 15). This is where we start seeing the difference between psychoanalysis and deconstruction.

Phenomenology, Time Consciousness, and Intentionality

Allow me to recite the first line of Rousseau, “the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy”. In this short passage, Derrida offers a hint to the distinction between psychoanalysis and deconstruction: phenomenology. For the inexperienced reader, it is easy to overlook the word “given”—especially if you have never encountered phenomenology (this is the same when Derrida uses words like “‘as such”; it is also easy to confuse the “Other” under the context of phenomenology and the “Other” in psychoanalysis). The term “given” is frequently studied along with the concepts of intuition, time consciousness and intentionality. It is used among many  phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology attempts to study the phenomena that surrounds everyday human experiences. In order to understand it, we have to imagine that we are living in limbo where introspection, language and knowledge are temporarily suspended (this is known as “bracketing” or “phenomenological reduction”). Under such suspension, only our perception and senses remain (one can even say that this suspension also withholds the ego).

Imagine that you are sitting on the beach as you gaze upon the ocean in front of you. As you are looking at the ocean via your senses, your intuition tells you that while what is given to you remains “as such” (i.e. the way the ocean appears to your senses as phenomenon), you are also intuitively aware of the ocean’s unfathomable depth. It is like looking at the cup that is sitting on your table while intuitively knowing that it is round on the other side. The word “given” is associated with the phenomenon of our sensory experiences in the world that is offered to our intuition.

Phenomenology concerns itself with the relationship between how phenomena yields to the development of all forms of structures and knowledge. For many phenomenologists, this includes psychoanalysis. Phenomenology was a discipline that Derrida had a very complicated engagement with early in his career. Before Derrida published his famous books such as Of Grammatology, Voice and Phenomenon and Writing and Difference, he translated an essay by Husserl called The Origins of Geometry which included a long introductory essay by Derrida. One can suspect why Husserl wrote this essay, since physicists uses complex geometry and mathematics to represent the world.

There is a reason why phenomenology is often considered as the origins of human experiences that is more originary than language, epistemology, or mathematics. To exist in the world, the human being is always already situated within phenomena (known as “lifeworld”), where everyday objects and inscriptions (i.e. writing) are given to us through our senses. How can a scientist make descriptive observations under the microscope without first experiencing the phenomena that happens around her? How can a physicist question why the Earth rotates around the Sun without first experiencing the phenomena of sunset and sunrise through what is given to them via their perceptions? How can you read this text without first experiencing it through phenomena?

Like Husserl, Derrida was also a thinker of origins: How did phenomenology come into being in the first place? For Derrida, at the heart of our experience of time consciousness lies the experience of difference. That is, a paradoxical division in the way which the world is experienced in our daily phenomena between past and future. The reason why I refer difference as a “paradoxical division” is because this division between past and future is also a non-division since it is “an outside becoming an inside” (refer to my Rousseau example from previous post). Within phenomenology, this paradoxical difference is what Derrida calls “re-presentation”: the difference between past and future (See, Voice and Phenomenon).

Every individual instance that appear in the present moment are actually recalled from the past. Think about films like Interstellar when Cooper falls into the tesseract and he sees individual instances of time of Murph’s room that repeats to infinity.  Think about the present words you had just read and how you are recalling it back to your consciousness. The present moment can only be retained by recalling it from the past (I have explained this here). The reason for this is simple: because time is always moving forward through a series of repetition. We are always aging and dying every moment of our lives. This is why Derrida quotes Shakespeare that “time is out of joint”. If we pay attention to our present experiences, we will notice how this present moment is never quite on time. The moment I try to capture the present, it slips into the past as the next future moment becomes the present, which also becomes the past.

One can think about this through what Husserl calls “chasing the comet’s tail”. Imagine that you are observing a meteor fly across the sky. Our phenomenological experience of the present moment is always caught at retaining the “tail” of the comet, but not the actual space rock as it moves across the sky. In other words, we can’t retain the present moment because time is always moving forward—i.e. the comet is always moving from one end of the sky to the other. The present is constituted by the movement between past and future. The future trajectory of the comet creates its past, just like how you are reading this sentence from left to right. The present moment becomes a re-presentation that is recalled from what had just passed.

Putting some of these temporal fidelities aside. Intentionality (the way we read a text or event), is constituted by focusing in a specific past—a privileged past which acts as the “center” known as “logocentrism”. This center as Derrida saw, cannot help but at once be constituted by an “impurity” at the heart of the past’s differences, such as the future. Every time we recall the past, we fix onto a central point which constitutes our intentions of how we perceive the present moment in reality. However, this central point changes as the future unfolds. It is easy for us to say that “the occurrence of X in the past constitutes who I am today”. We can make this claim because we are already at such point in our life from the future.

The present is viewed differently the moment we refocus the central point elsewhere from the past. Perhaps one year from now, it is no longer the occurance of X that constitutes who I am today, but Z. This is why looking back at our own lives can sometimes appear like “it was my destiny to become who I am today, where no chance was involved”, even when the unfolding of the future is always subject to various forms of contingencies. This contingent unfolding of time from the future is what Derrida refer as the “future anterior” (we will return to this term).

The future changes how the past is perceived in the same way that the past changes how the future is perceived. Intentionality is produced through the difference between how each individual experiences their past and future. “Difference” or “Differance” (an intentional spelling mistake) is related to Derrida’s readings of time consciousness. Meaning is “deferred” because time is always moving every moment of our lives until we die. This is why stable meaning never arrives until the moment you die (Derrida talks about this in one of his documentaries here).

An example I always use is the relationship between Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. We know that Newton was one of the first to theorize about gravity whose ideas were usurped by Einstein’s theory of general relativity two hundred years later from the future. At the time, would Newton had thought that someone from the future would prove his theories wrong? (though the Newtonian model is not completely wrong). In the same way, when Einstein wrote his theories, would he had thought that in the future, his ideas might get falsified by other theories? To give these guys the benefit of doubt, I will say, “probably not”. The question that arises is the problem of the future which changes how the past is perceived. Einstein changed how we perceived Newton.

In the same way, it is easy for us to see that certain forms of capitalism had existed before Adam Smith. But it is only after we read Smith, where we look into the past from the future and see how capitalism had already manifested itself in early societies before Smith. Certainly, it is also easy for us to see the problems of capitalism after we had read Karl Marx, etc. But perhaps, it is also the past which changes how the future is perceived, such as those who still believes that the Earth is flat. Such individuals are fixed onto a particular point in time which establishes how they read the present moment.

Finally, let us reconsider Rousseau’s “Nature denature itself” that I analyzed last post. The quote suggests that it is nature’s telos (end goal) to denature itself, even when nature has no specific goals, but pure contingency. On one hand, culture moves away from nature by supplementing what nature cannot provide (i.e. warmth in the winter). On the other hand, nature reappears in our contemporary culture, even when we are living in a time where much of our culture has moved “away” from nature. Hence, we have nature established before culture. Yet, it is easy for Rousseau to say that “Nature denatures itself” when he was already living in a denatured world from the future of a past Nature.

No matter how far culture has moved away from nature, nature’s goal is a destination that is always unfolding from the future to come. Thus, what appears to be nature’s telos is actually a form of pure contingency—i.e. it is by accident that we developed culture and education from Nature by supplementing what it cannot offer humans. Nature “never arrives at its destination” because it is always in the process of “denaturing” (supplementing) itself as time continues to unfold. This denaturing is, once again, related to “archi-violence”. But it is also related to how the future changes how we perceive nature. The future of nature which we today refer as culture, is produced out of a certain form of improvisation and contingency (this is also because we are “human animals”).

For the Love of Lacan: “What will Lacan not have said!”

What I had just presented are the fundamental problems of time which challenges our knowledge. This is what Derrida attempts to address in his essay, “For the Love of Lacan”. In it, Derrida repeatedly says, “What will Lacan not have said!” as he attempts to predict what people will say about Lacan from the future after he dies. Derrida writes:

“What will Lacan not have said! What wouldn’t he have said! What was it with Lacan with the philosophers? To approach this question, it would be necessary to shed light not only on what “with” can mean in this case, but on what Lacan said, did not say, will have or will not have said, caused to be said, or let be said—in the future anterior or in the conditional. To deal with this enigma of the future anterior and the conditional, which is what I will be particularly interested in today, is to deal with the problem of archivization, of what remains or does not remain.” (Resistances of Psychoanalysis, p. 39-40) [my italics and underlining]

By now, most of us already know the general direction of what Derrida is trying to get at in this passage. Lacan was incredibly influenced by Freud who founded psychoanalysis. Hence, through historical chronology, we have Freud before Lacan. It is easy to see Freud as the destination of Lacanian thought when Lacan establishes his school by proclaiming his telos as a “Return to Freud”.

For Derrida, Lacan’s destination is always deferred and contingent through the trace of a historical past from the future. The reader is led to believe how Freud is Lacan’s only telos, even when Lacan’s returning towards a Freudian history consists of detours around other exigencies such as Hegelian and Heideggerian philosophy. In fact, Lacan was once part of a small class taught by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve. While Kojeve’s class was small, it consisted of many future French super star intellectuals, one of them being Lacan, the others being Georges Bataille, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who was another phenomenologist influenced by Husserl). Furthermore, Lacan was also friends with Heidegger who had translated some of his works into French.

Not only does Derrida see Freud in Lacan, he also sees Lacan “with philosophers” such as Hegel and Heidegger—something that Lacan does not say. This is because Lacan reinterprets Freud from the future (remember that the future changes how the past is perceived). As a result, Lacan’s destination that point towards Freud disseminates into other historical forces as Derrida reads him. All of this comes down to the idea that Derrida never arrives at the destination of Freud when he reads Lacan “Returning to Freud”. Lacan’s ideas always arrive at an elsewhere into other philosophical discourses. This is where we begin to see one of the resistances of psychoanalysis along with what the psychoanalyst say, and what they do not say.

Simply put, while psychoanalysis focuses on the study of desire and the unconscious mind, phenomenology attempts to study phenomena, intentionality, and time consciousness. For Derrida, Lacanian psychoanalysis resists the phenomenology of time consciousness and the infinite ways of establishing our intentionality. Time affects how we perceive and interpret the present moment that is always moving into the future (what does it mean when a psychoanalyst interprets their patients?). After all, psychoanalysis is about “analysis”, it would be a mistake to exclude phenomenology. While both deconstruction and psychoanalysis are about interpretation, one of their main differences are their incompatibilities found in phenomenology.

Are the two disciplines completely irreconcilable? I think not, and I will show you some of the reasons why in future posts. Perhaps one of the reasons is because “deconstruction” practices a certain form of quasi-Husserlian phenomenology that is not exactly Husserlian. This is a bold claim because it suggests that there is an inherent method in deconstruction that is phenomenological, yet isn’t really phenomenological (but neither can we refer deconstruction as meta-phenomenology). If there is a “method” in deconstruction, it would be the method of free play between differences which implies that there are no methods. Nevertheless, this quasi-phenomenology that I have presented to you in this post is what makes Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon such an important text to read.

The contemporary reader is the future anterior of Lacan and Derrida because we are living in their future who are now part of the past. Perhaps as a future reader who reads both of their works, not only should I say, “What will Lacan not have said!”, but also, “What will Derrida have said!”