Saturday, November 29, 2008

On difficulty: psychoanalysis or deconstruction

In his excellent book Troubling Confessions and elsewhere, Peter Brooks explains psychoanalysis as a method or technology for producing "difficult" truth. That is, it is a technique for producing confessional statements of truth but which gain their status of truth by way of the technique's placing a stamp of complexity on them: what emerges from the analysand in psychoanalysis is not simple, is not something that is taken at face value--or even if one attends to the face value of the statements, its truth lies on another, more substantial and complex plane of meaning than it would appear at first sight.
Now, I don't want to get into the hermeneutical issues at work here (i.e. whether what this describes is a hermeneutics of suspicion or something similar), precisely because I think Brooks is trying to avoid these issues too by recasting the problem (not unlike Eve Sedgwick with her "paranoid reading") in a different way. For indeed, "difficulty" is something in terms of which we interpret: not only because we approach words and phrases to give them a certain literary merit or not based on their difficulty--the classic debates over highbrow and lowbrow that people interested in modernism have to deal with: i.e. Joyce is good because his difficulty is a sign of richness--but because difficulty is something that intrinsicly affects our reading experience at the most basic level of how we receive or interpret the particular truth claims a phrase makes. (Now, I don't mean to say that the highbrow/lowbrow issues aren't precisely about this truth-aspect--I just want to isolate this particular issue and look at it). In other words, "difficulty" often provokes a different set of interpretive practices on our part as readers: considering a statement's truth claim as a complex one, rather than something simpler, will tend to make one interpret what is said differently, often in a manner that reproduces the difficulty that is perceived to be at work.
Thus, Brooks' point: you can't so quickly blame psychoanalysis' interpretations of a particular case (Dora would be the heated example), because you have to understand that it itself is concerned with inscribing the statements that make up this case in a particular logic of truth. In other words, you can't counter psychoanalysis by a different regime of truth without undoing the work that psychoanalysis does--which means taking up its claims to truth on some level. In Brooks' case, this other regime is the law--and this is what motivates Brooks to be hesitant about the law's increasing admission of data gathered from therapy into trial, or, in an even more extreme manner, in the turning of a trial into therapy, as victims' rights advocates risk doing. But this could also be extended to philosophy or literary interpretation or even just popular discourse: in order to analyze the truth-claim of a statement that takes place in psychoanalysis, whether you are writing on Freud as a philosopher or just talking about Freud in the street ("He doesn't have anything repressed--that's psycho-babble--he just needs to get over it..."), in order to analyze it legitimately, you can't just reject Freud outright. Psychoanalysis has to take over your discourse and make it "difficult."
Now, I have not yet really outlined what "difficulty" here means, but before I do, I want to note something else: we'll sketch out this something else and then return, with perhaps an even richer perspective, to what difficulty actually is. What I want to note is the following: what I've just said about the truth-claim of psychoanalysis might sound a lot like the status of the trace, and what I've just said about legitimately negotiating it, the work of deconstruction. (Or, rather, since the trace can be said to provoke deconstruction--deconstruction is what it brings about, as if deconstruction will have been its consequence, I might just say that I sound like I am talking about deconstruction.) Now, it wouldn't totally be wrong to hear what I've said in this way: both deconstruction and psychoanalysis, because of the status of their truth-claims, infect, as it were, other discourses. No doubt Derrida would like to say that it is the deconstructive aspect of psychoanalysis that does this (as he does with Marxism in Specters of Marx, for example), and not the other way around. But I think on some level he might also be amenable to suggesting that this is the psychoanalytic aspect of deconstruction.
Now I immediately have to hesitate when I say this, because it really doesn't say anything at all, since deconstruction isn't exactly presumed to exist like psychoanalysis is, and therefore can't be psychoanalytic any more than it can be anything whatsoever. (The phrase, then, really only says its converse, and this is why Derrida always says it the other way.) But, if we understand that it is a sort of wrong-headed phrase that tries to sketch out a texture of deconstruction in terms of what we know about psychoanalysis, it remains an interesting formulation, so I'll leave it. This is at least what Alan Bass does in a sort of autobiographical essay of his, "The Double Game," in the amazing little volume Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature.
He does so not only in just trying to see deconstruction (as his various books have also done) in terms of what it does to psychoanalysis, but because it is here that the sort of infection we see as the pivot or hinge between these two discourses appears as the infection of difficulty that Brooks is talking about--and that we are calling similar (at least) to deconstruction. It is the difficulty of what Derrida is up to that makes Bass take up the monumental task of translating Derrida, he claims:

[Upon reaching France in the junior year of college], I immersed myself in "structuralism," studied music, wrote plays, worked for a theater troupe, made friends. Daniel, the normalien in whose apartment I was living, helped by recommending books to read, and indicated that his teacher at the Ecole Normale, Jacques Derrida, was also someone to know about. Daniel passed along his copy of the acts of a colloquium on Genesis and Structure that contained Derrida's small essay on Husserl entitled "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology." I will never forget my first attempts to read it: compared to this Lévi-Strauss and Foucault were writing popular novels. All I got from this first attempt was a vivid memory of the red circles on the book cover... I still think that for anyone not familiar with Husserl the essay is mainly impenetrable, and its first paragraph is monstrous.
-"The Double Game: An Introduction," 68

This is quite honest in its sort of arrogant naivete. Or rather, this is an instance of arrogance and naivete being honest: "Compared to this Lévi-Strauss and Foucault were writing popular novels." The first reaction to this is one of revulsion: why would a comparison such as this matter at all? Unless you were just out to appear the smartest, why would this difficulty of Derrida even be something that comes up as a thought? Even Bass seems to recoil in front of what he has just said (even though he was ventriloquizing!): he takes up this difficulty that so trumps the work of Foucault and Lévi-Strauss and recasts it in terms of how much one would need to know about Husserl.
But instead of doing this--though we will return to it in a minute--I want to stay with the sentence and look at what is so distressing, almost shameful about it for us. For this is, I think, the locus of its honesty...

(More to come...)

Friday, November 21, 2008

"I always wanted to be a literary critic."

I was talking to a literature professor the other day who told me that, once, when she was having a conversation with Derrida, he confessed to her that he always wanted to be a literary critic.
It's not a totally surprising confession, and I've heard similar things before. But what was new to me, what I'd never really heard before, was the "always." It's almost colloquial, of course: "I always wanted to do that..." But it also hit home to me the sort of constancy of this desire, a sort of perpetuation of it despite everything that happened. In other words, it hit home the fact that if this was true, it was a sort of longing that years and years couldn't kill off, a sort of need, more fundamental to his whole sense of self, that ranged all throughout his very long life.
I should have asked more about the circumstances of the conversation, but all this was hitting home so much that I remained silent and kept thinking. Because what was becoming interesting to me was that if this all was true--and in fact even if it wasn't, it at least was a fabrication, a story, and therefore a concern that must have been kept up for so very long that it almost would be true by virtue of that--the question would not be Why did he always want this? but, Why didn't he just become one? If he always wanted to do this, what kept him from it? So I asked this--it seems like the professor had similar thoughts and asked it too--and the response he gave was that he felt he didn't have the training.
Now, again, I've heard this before. One can find similar sentiments in "Ulysses Gramophone" all over the place, where Derrida is anxious about talking to literature professors about Joyce. And because I have heard him say this, I protested--trying to talk to Derrida, as it were, through my professor, trying to get a little more response out of her/him. This is the way one deals with him now, through his incorporations and introjections, which survive. You don't need any better proof than this of how inscription for Derrida is not merely something that happens with pencil and paper (writing in the narrow sense), but can happen precisely as oral transmission of someone's still open history, as memories that, almost completely without sadness or drama, in the routine act of conversing, write what can still be called an elegy, perform what can still be called a mourning. I said, speaking to her/him, "But that's preposterous! He must have read I.A. Richards or something!"
What I meant was that our training as literary critics can be picked up elsewhere than in our departments. This is so much the case that I was sure that he had actually already picked it up, some time still in the 50's, perhaps, over the course of a week or so while classes at the École Normale were not so demanding and other little interests could be pursued, helped by an upper or two. Or, more likely, prompted by this week or so which I imagine (and which probably happened even earlier, at Louis-le-Grand, as he has a couple papers on Shakespeare dating from this period which you can find at the Irvine archives), the interest consolidated itself and actually became training as he sat in a class or two at Harvard in '57. Regardless, I wanted to press her/him on what more "training" could possibly have meant so that he could consider himself not somehow already qualified to engage in criticism. Doubtless, it probably functioned (without being said in an ironic, sneering tone--it is of course a humble remark) as an ironic way of saying that he did not have the affiliations with an literature department that he would need so that he could be confined, as it were, to writing merely literary criticism. In other words, he always wanted to be a literary critic, but also, because of the necessities of his project, of his writing, didn't want to in a way. What he wrote necessitated that he couldn't work merely on that register--and this has its benefits as he gets to say, sometimes, more important things than we normally say.
Or maybe I cast this irony in the wrong way. It isn't a matter of him also not really wanting to do what he says he always wanted to do. It is that he perhaps indeed really wanted to do this, but that his project dictated that necessity, the necessity of being outside the discourse of literary criticism, be conceived in a different way--precisely as a necessity that one can be subject to while also wanting to do precisely the opposite of what it dictates. Derrida can want to be a literary critic, then, precisely because his writing must fall outside the register of literary criticism--and in such a way that this doesn't mean that he also thanks his stars on some level that he is not confined to our puny discourse, mere literary criticism. What he wants just cannot be in conflict with necessity, so when he says he always wanted to be a literary critic, this doesn't mean that because he wasn't one, he in truth wanted to be something different. We don't have to get him to lie to make it seem like this is why he didn't pursue this desire of his. As you can see, to do this is to begin to consider necessity as necessity, and wants as wants.
Regardless, she/he answered by saying that well, perhaps he got this training from his friend Paul de Man. And, because the tone in which she/he said this was not just matter of fact, I take this to mean something other than that he could have also had a sort of scene of initiation to the tricks of what we do, similar to the one I imagined in the '50's, in the '60's in cafes in Paris with de Man talking about Rousseau. I take it more to mean instead that his friendship with Paul de Man, as it developed more and more then and in the years to come at Yale, was perhaps the area in which this training did maybe occur. That is, if he was lying about his lack of training, it could only be here, in this friendship, that this training did indeed really happen. That means that where he was, indeed, a literary critic was not in his essays and books during the period he associated with de Man, but in the friendship with de Man itself. It is here that he did not follow the necessity that fell upon him and remained alongside his wants. Which means that it was, indeed, a real friendship, a friendship he wanted. But--and this is where I both want to leave off and must leave off--we begin to feel that what he wanted here was also, because it was really a want qua want, necessitated (which means also that the necessities too, as necessities, were wants)...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Anticipated normal path of development"

So, in my Freud class we've been using the phrase "anticipated normal path of development," usually to describe some sort of normative aspect of what Freud is thinking: that is, he posits some normal developmental path of the psyche and reads the diseases or problems as deviations from that path. Or at least that's what I've been hearing in our usage of this phrase.
But I was rereading the Schreber case, and it looks as if this phrase can be read in a different way. I just thought I'd outline how this other reading may be possible, just in case anyone else was confused like I was.
The phrase comes up in the rather schematic (but actually very, very delicately handled--just note the work quotes are doing) summary of repression which occurs in the third part of the case ("The Mechanisms of Paranoia"). This is where Freud splits repression into three phases, which we went over in class. Our phrase, though, occurs in the first of these--the fixation of the instincts (or drives). Freud says the following:

The first phase consists in fixation, which is the precursor and necessary condition of every "repression." Fixation can be described in this way. One instinct or instinctual component fails to accompany the rest along the anticipated normal path of development, and, in consequence of this inhibition in its development, it is left behind at a more infantile stage. The libidinal current in question then behaves in regard to later psychological structures as though it belonged to the system of the unconscious, as though it were repressed.
-Three Case Histories, 170

The original translation here doesn't really help in all the ways it should. Here's the German, to which I'll return:

Die erste Phase besteht in der Fixierung, dem Vorläufer und der Bedingung einer jeden "Verdrängung." Die Tatsache der Fixierung kann dahin ausgesprochen werden, daß ein Treib oder Treibanteil die also normal vorhergesehene Entwicklung nicht mitmacht und infolge dieser Entwicklungshemmung in einem infantileren Stadium verbleibt. Die betreffende libidnöse Strömung verhält sich zu den späteren psychischen Bildungen wie eine dem System des Unbewußten angehörige, wie eine verdrängte.
-Studienausgabe, Werke aus den Jahren 1909-1913, 303-4.

So, here are the two ways to read the phrase. First, as we've summarized above, one could read it like this:

Fixation goes like this: One instinct fails to become more sophisticated along with the rest of the instincts as the psyche is becoming an adult. As a consequence, the instinct is left behind in its child-like state: it is inhibited, it can't mature like the others. So the fixation is a point in the psyche where the instincts haven't taken on more adult aims. They keep perpetuating, abnormally, what normally only occurs in the child.

Though it might have ways it is correct, this might be a case of misreading, in the end. Perhaps Freud is relying less on normativity as he does here. And perhaps--here is the other way to read it--he is talking not about the development of the instincts of the child into the instincts of an adult, but about the development of the instinct itself, that is, the process of its seeking out of an object and trying to satisfy itself that he describes, for example, in "Instincts and their Vicissitudes." One would then read the phrase in this other way:

Fixation goes like this: One instinct fails to undergo the same process that we can expect of most instincts--welling up in the psyche from some point of origin in the body, choosing an object, directing itself towards the object or taking up an aim, and satisfying itself in the object (see "Instincts"). Instead, along the way towards satisfying itself, along this process or development of itself, its movement gets regularly inhibited. This repeatedly leaves the instinct at the stage of unfulfillment, where it just keeps trying to prepare itself for fulfillment. This stage, then, behaves towards other psychological structures which appear as time passes (the formation of other instincts, perhaps), in the same way as it did at the time it formed--it just keeps trying to fulfill itself as it did. So the fixation is where the instinct doesn't get satisfied, and so stays at a stage that is more infantile than the rest of the psyche.

Now, reading it this way doesn't get rid of the normative: in saying that Freud perhaps relies less on normativity as he did in our first reading, what I meant was that Freud perhaps relies on normativity differently. And here, we see what this difference could be: Freud in this second reading sees abnormality as an effect of the instinct's repeated frustration. When he uses the word "normal," in other words, he is not talking about normativity. He is talking about what we reasonably expect about instincts: that they will progress in a certain way and cultivate the tendency to do so. Now, you can call this normative, but that's much more of a reach than it was before, because Freud is really saying that the normative comes in as a result of all this--in the way the frustrated or inhibited instinct ends up acting in the same way towards its object, while other instincts keep getting formed. It is left at an infantile stage because it still can't find the right way to repeatedly satisfy itself--not because it doesn't follow some preset schema that just constitutes the "normal." So what Freud is saying in the phrase "anticipated normal path of development" is really "the regular tendency towards fulfillment we can generally expect from instincts"--though again, the normative is still an effect of the frustration of this process, or its becoming fixated. To put it another way, one can read the passage in the first, normative way I outlined only if we read it, before this, in this second way.
Does this make the difference clear? While I could give support for the second reading in some other works, like the Three Essays, "Instincts," or "Repression," I'd rather stick with this passage, which makes this much clearer in the German. Before we turn to that, however, we can see two aspects already in the English that provide evidence. Both turn on the understanding of "development," which in the above I have been trying to call "process" or "tendency towards fulfillment" to bring it away from the notion of child development or maturation.
Now, I haven't been doing this because "development" is the wrong word but because considering it in the sense of "child development" makes it sound like it is not the development of the instinct that is at issue. The psyche in general comes into focus instead. And--this is the crucial part--this is what makes the "anticipated normal path" sound normative. For if what is normally anticipated is not the sort of cultivation of a way to go about repeatedly satisfying a sexual instinct, say, but the progression of instincts along the paths that are laid down in normal children as they become adults--well, what is presupposed is some general notion of what the normal mind's maturation should look like. And while Freud has this notion, it only forms itself as a result of seeing instincts repeatedly find certain ways of satisfying themselves.
So, here is evidence for regarding "development" as the development of the instinct and not of the mind in general.
1) "In consequence of this inhibition in its development..." Freud is clearly saying that the "development" here is not the development of the psyche but the development or unfolding of the instinct. That is, the inhibition here is not an inhibition of development in general, but is an inhibition of the instinct's development.
2) The reference to "later psychological structures." If one wants to talk about maturation in general, and thus of normativity, this is where it gets done. The later psychological structures are the mature ones towards which the fixated development of instinct behaves in an infantile manner.
But now I can turn to the German. There is, first and foremost, the minor problem of "Entwicklung" being translated as "path of development" rather than just as "development"--I think this was an effort to try and avoid the precise problem we're looking at. Modifying the phrase will produce, then, "anticipated normal development." This will help us in a minute. In the meantime, we encounter more significant problems with "anticipation." I think this might be better understood in the sense of "expected." This would make the phrase under consideration something like "expected normal development." Finally, of course, there is "normal." Now, in the English, the placing of it makes it crucially appear to modify "development" without being connected in any way with "anticipated" or "expected," so what we hear is not something like "development that normally occurs, the development that we can expect" almost as if the two were interchangable. Instead, we get something like "the development of the normal is what we are expecting." Obviously I'm stretching a bit here, but I just want to make the difference clear. So I'd suggest moving things around to be "the normal, expected development," letting the "expected" sort of qualify "normal." There's probably better, other ways to do this, but let's move on and finish this up.
The other really problematic word is "accompany," to which is added the really unnecessary "the rest." To say that what is at issue is the instincts "failing to accompany the rest" makes it sound as if all the instincts get together in a group and don't have different, individual paths of their own. That is, to put it this way makes it sound as if what is at issue is the instincts getting together with the rest of the normal instincts, rather than each instinct taking an individual course of one's own that, normally, in a regular way we can expect, other instincts undergo. So when Freud says "daß ein Treib ... die Entwicklung ... nicht mitmacht," he is saying that an instinct doesn't participate in its development, not that one instinct doesn't somehow group itself together with the development of others, which the English rendering admits.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"No third person"

"In Treatment," the new show on HBO based on the amazing Israeli show "Betipul," transforms what we who study narrative understand by "character." It does this because it allows us, to an impressive and perhaps unheard of degree, to be the "third person" that Freud dreams up in the following passage from The Question of Lay Analysis: Freud, trying to familiarize someone who has never really dealt with psychoanalysis legally with what psychoanalysis does, thinks up a short cut, as it were:

It is to be regretted that we cannot let them be present as an audience at a treatment of this kind. But the "analytic situation" allows no presence of a third person. Moreover the different sessions are of very unequal value. An unauthorized listener who hit upon a chance one of them would as a rule form no useful impression; he would be in danger of not understanding what was passing between the analyst and the patient, or he would be bored. For good or ill, therefore, he must be content with our information [that is, a theory of what psychoanalysis does which Freud will present in the coming pages], which we shall try to make as trustworthy as possible.
-The Question of Lay Analysis, 3

That is, it is regrettable that those who have to make a legal decision about the status of psychoanalysis in Austria in 1926 (whether to allow it to be practiced only by certified medical professionals or not) can't simply go and watch a psychoanalytic session or two. This would give them firsthand experience with what they are legislating about. But this can't be so, because psychoanalysis forbids the third person, the witness to analysis, and tries to close off the dissemination of its proceedings as little as possible. This is not because it is inherently something that happens in secret: it is because, as Freud emphasizes, that it is a process that takes place over many many sessions, connecting together, as it were, very many disparate fragments over a long period of time. One can't just stop in on a session and actually be witness to anything--and if they are, it is probably because this witness misconceives the nature of what he is seeing (what he sees would make a different sense if it were placed back in the whole, where it belongs).
In "In Treatment"--and I think this might be less the case with "Betipul," for cultural reasons (that is, the status of therapeutic discourse in the US compared to Israel)--in this show, we get this shortcut. That is, we get to be the third person Freud talks about. And, moreover, we get the full danger that Freud speaks about here which comes with being this third person: we actually only get to witness the fragments of a process that takes a long, long time.
Now, obviously, the show tries to remedy this by following up these patients from session to session. Moreover, it tries to reconstitute the therapist's own experience by airing every day for a whole week, each time with that day's patient. But fundamentally, we are only getting fragments of a longer chain each time we sit down to watch the show. This means that each time we watch it, we are exposed to the danger--and this is the danger itself--of taking one of these fragments as representative of the whole. In other words, each time we sit down to watch the show, we have to accommodate the "very unequal value" that Freud ascribes above to the sessions, not unlike the therapist himself.
What this means, though, is that we can't make the sort of judgments we normally make about character in television shows. That is, we can't ask ourselves questions like we do when we watch "Friends," say (or, in a more dramatic and recent mode, "Lost"), which wonder whether we really "like" Chandler or Joey better (or "trust" Kate or Sawyer). In short, we can't "like" a character in the way we normally do. This also has its obverse: we can't hate a character that we normally would hate. In short, we have to suspend our judgement.
Or, better (because suspension is only a negative phenomenon), we have to judge the characters according to a completely different set of criteria. So in the show that I have posted above, I would normally hate Alex. He is overbearing and intense, and tough to listen to for roughly twenty-five minutes. But, at the same time, I can't (and don't) do this, because I know that his utterances are in question as to whether they really want to be made or not: Alex comes to therapy for the reason that he doesn't, at some level, trust himself, or loves or hates himself too much or too little--so it doesn't make sense to try and once more to hate or love him, or trust or distrust him, because he himself is already at this remove from himself. Thus everything being said, even though it is forceful and unnerving, has this particular provisionality to it because in the analytic setting, character itself comes into question: one doesn't have a character that one likes or dislikes, because the treatment is precisely trying to correct that character. Something is wrong, in other words, and this makes character less something someone is as something one performs. And if it is performed--to state it yet another way--what sense does it make to say you like it or not?
One can only have this sort of judgement over the course of many weeks, and even then it will not be a judgement about the particular character, but about the course this character's analysis has taken. This is the odd phenomenon that the third person produces in analysis, and what, at some level, exempts therapy from the sorts of evaluations that the law, for example, will make about its status. Or at least this is what Freud is getting ready, with this passage, to claim. But what is interesting is that treatment is also exempted from the narrative standards of the medium through which we are able to witness it in the first place--this is what "In Treatment" brings about. In other words, what is interesting is that if there were any third person (that is, even if he weren't connected with the law, but were, as he is with this new show, just an average TV viewer), there could be no judgement at all about the session, either. I might expand on this later, but I think it is really interesting, and makes the episode above a particularly interesting one to watch (as this is the first time you are introduced to this character). In "In Treatment" this particular disruptive feature of the witness to analysis is brought out even more by the fact that the therapist (Paul) is also analyzed (we are witness to this too), and so we can't even judge him unless we do it in this more holistic sense--that is, where we judge how his analysis (and all the analyses he himself is carrying out) as a whole is progressing, not him himself.
Everything, to sum this all up, suddenly has "unequal value."

Saturday, November 15, 2008


So I realized in class I never really understood what the heck "vicissitude" meant in Freud, and I wanted to get a little background. And because I realized this with our consideration of the mention of "the vicissitude of the idea as distinct from that of the affect" in the 1927 paper on fetishism, I thought I'd try and work out the use of the word in that sentence--which, as I'll say again in a moment, I found particularly odd because the word appeared apart from any mention of the drives or instincts, as if "vicissitude" meant something almost apart from being only, in Freud, the vicissitude of an instinct.
So, the word for "vicissitude" is "das Shicksal," which is a very complicated word in German, usually meaning something like "destiny" or "destination" or "fate," as in "It was the fate of my Saturday to be spent looking up this word in Freud." It can even mean "luck," as in "It's just my luck that..." What we mean here by "luck" or "fate" is something like "how things have ended up," or, better (since it implies more direction, selection, the fact that what happens is one of many possible outcomes) "how things went."
The English word "vicissitude" is relatively obscure in comparison, and the effort of translation here resembles what happened when Strachey and Jones and others famously decided upon "cathexis" (a made up "Greek" word) for "Besetzung" (which means something simple like investment)--in other words, James Strachey's (and Cecil Baines', I think) choice of "vicissitude" appears as a sort of making technical of a word that, in German, works on a lower register.
This doesn't necessarily mean "vicissitude" was a bad choice though, as some people are usually quick to think: "vicissitude" carries a lot of similar meanings as the more abstract uses of the German term. Looking at some dictionaries (OED, Webster), I see most often something like "a fluctuation of state or condition," as in the phrase "The vicissitudes of daily life." But, coming from the Latin vicis (change), the word lacks that sort of fatedness that Shicksal has with it. Thus it has been proposed that the last part of the title "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" ("Triebe und Treibshicksale") should be retranslated as "and their Fate."
However, before we just go ahead and do this (as if this alone would solve the problem), we have to note that "vicissitude" does have a certain sense that corresponds to the way that Freud thinks the instincts or drives are working. For all vicissitudes are vicissitudes of instincts, though--strangely--that only remains implied the essay on fetishism. All that is talked about is the vicissitude. This is because (I gather) Freud doesn't think he has to recall a very basic point about repression--that repression deals with instincts.
We can see all this if I recall fully the sentence under consideration in class:

If we wanted to differentiate more sharply between the vicissitude of the idea as distinct from that of the affect, and reserve the word 'Verdrängung' ['repression'] for the affect, then the correct German word for the vicissitude of the idea would be 'Verleugnung' ['disavowal'].

In German this is the following:

Will man in ihm das Shicksal der Vorstellung von dem des Affekts schärfer trennen, den Ausdruck "Verdrängung" für den Affekt reservieren, so wäre für das Shicksal der Vorstellung "Verleugnung" die richtige deutsche Bezeichnung.

To return to the question of what "vicissitude" means, and how the word "vicissitude" gets at what Freud is doing here with "das Shicksal:" the picture I get from the rest of Freud is that a vicissitude is a "function" of an instinct--this is how Freud in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" introduces sublimation, for example. That is, the vicissitude is, precisely, "the fluctuation of a state of condition of the instinct." And this is what is going on here, it seems: Freud is saying that if we want to talk about the particular fluctuation in the state of condition of the instinct that is ideational, as distinct from that fluctuation that is affective, well, we should talk about "disavowal" instead of "repression." So though "vicissitude" is a bit more awkward than "das Shicksal," it is more precise than that German word--which can mean so many things--because it has a particular connotation that is closer to what Freud is getting at concerning instincts.
This is usually the case with Strachey: he chooses a word that will bring out, not the various connotations of the German, but the function of what the German signifies. In short, he reads Freud to look at how his view of the mind is working, and then chooses words to bring out how this work proceeds. This makes him a very detailed and reflective reader of Freud, but ultimately a bit of a problematic translator--whose task is also, with theoretical writing, to bring out a bit of the wording of the source text, its particular way of articulating its ideas. As you can see from all his introductions in the Standard Edition, what is not at issue, usually, is his word choice, but how the concept functions. It is as if the English word chosen doesn't matter, because we'll learn how to regard it in a particular technical sense. This is more what I mean when I say Strachey makes Freud technical. Suddenly words like "vicissitude" carry their own weight, become more reified (again like "cathexis"), and we lose their ability to just take place casually in the context of the sentence (which is how Freud, as well as most German medical language, loves to let them signify).
The problem is that there is a tension between the use of the word in the context here and what the sentence is doing, which is classifying. That is, the word "vicissitude" is used actually to classify something as "disavowal" rather than "repression." This makes things really complicated when we look at how "vicissitude" is working, because it's not just occurring to describe what is going on, but is also doing some work on its own for the other words in the sentence.
I can maybe get a little more precise about this problem, though, by looking closer inside "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" and the essay "Repression." In the first essay Freud states that there are four generally discernible vicissitudes for instincts. These vicissitudes are like subspecies of the two general "types" of instincts (under the libido-theory, which gets changed later) which are the sexual-instincts and the preservative- or ego-instincts:

The reversal of an instinct into its opposite
The turning round of the instinct upon the subject's own self
Repression of an instinct
Sublimation of an instinct

Note that repression is itself just a vicissitude. Doesn't this conflict with the task in the essay on fetishism, which talks about a vicissitude within repression, as it were--that is, a vicissitude of a vicissitude? How can that be? Look again at the text:

If we wanted to differentiate more sharply between the vicissitude of the idea as distinct from that of the affect, and reserve the word 'Verdrängung' ['repression'] for the affect, then the correct German word for the vicissitude of the idea would be 'Verleugnung' ['disavowal'].

Perhaps, however, Freud just talking about the particular way something in the repression "ends up"--that is, using the word "das Shicksal" more in context and not in a technical way, so that we should really regard this passage as saying the following:

If we wanted to differentiate more sharply between the fate of the idea as distinct from that of the affect, and reserve the word 'Verdrängung' ['repression'] for the affect, then the correct German word for the fate of the idea would be 'Verleugnung' ['disavowal'].

We now see the problem more clearly: either we take the word in its more technical sense or take it in this other sense, which, frankly, makes things clearer. So we are led to ask, couldn't this problem, then, just be solved by rendering the passage in this new way? "Vicissitude" could thereby be retained as only relating to instincts, not to the distinct parts of the instinct (affect and idea).
The answer to this question is no. If we rendered the passage this new way, this would merely dodge what we have to address, because for Freud "das Shicksal" is also used in this confusing way (as applying to what is already a vicissitude) in the essay "Repression," and precisely to define the parts of the instinct:

Repression acts, therefore, in a highly individual manner. Each single derivative of the repressed may have its own special vicissitude...

Freud is talking about the (primal) repression of the instincts. He is saying that in the unconscious ideational formation that instincts bring about (their setting up of ideational associations--or "derivatives"--which later draw certain other thoughts towards a need for secondary repression) each idea associated with the instinct has its own vicissitude. What this means is that "vicissitudes" are also just the other repressed aspects of the vicissitude that is the repressed. (It is telling that in this instance Baines, the original translator of "Instincts..." just used "have its own special fate" to avoid this problem altogether.)
So, it seems like "vicissitude" is used in two ways, and can vary its sense depending on your point of view. Either the vicissitude is just the vicissitude of an instinct, or it is the vicissitude of a vicissitude. That is, in our language that we used above, the vicissitude of the instinct is something like its function, then, but it is also something like the minor twists and turns of that function itself which makes it a function. Freud's use of the same word in both cases, though, hints that whether you are talking about the parts of the vicissitude (its derivations or associations--that is, its affective associations or its ideational associations) or the vicissitude of the instinct itself (repression, sublimation, etc.), both operate like a function of the instinct, its particular "fate" or "how it ends up." Thus the use of the word in the more consistent manner of Strachey (as opposed to Baines, who uses two words depending on the case), is actually more justified, though it could cause confusion.
In the end, it seems that adopting "fate" (or, what I like, "how it went")--but only if it were done uniformly--would help out. That is, what has to be done is two things simultaneously: we have to regard "das Shicksal" as something more plain, but we also have to do this by making its use less dependent on context. Strachey tried to do this with "vicissitude," but it lost all connection to the German original. "Fate" has the virtue of allowing both these moves--it is just vague enough to be used uniformly without forgoing its connotations. Thus, in this instance in "Fetishism," we are talking about the derivative of the fate of the instinct, which is itself a fate of the instinct: its affective association and its ideational association:

If we wanted to differentiate more sharply between the fate of the idea as distinct from that of the affect, and reserve the word 'Verdrängung' ['repression'] for the affect, then the correct German word for the fate of the idea would be 'Verleugnung' ['disavowal'].

(Or, to indulge myself, I'll throw all sorts of other ways of putting it in: If we wanted to differentiate more sharply between how the idea went as distinct from how the affect ended up, and reserve the word 'Verdrängung' ['repression'] for the twists and turns of the affect, then the correct German word for how the idea went would be 'Verleugnung' ['disavowal'].)

What we're saying here, then, is that the fate of the fate of the instinct that is ideational is disavowed, not repressed--and that this disavowal is the mechanism of fetishism. Thus we can see how fetishism is like repression but also not like it: it operates as a fate on one of the fates of the instinct, repression. The mechanism of fetishism takes up repression and only concerns itself with one fate of this, and thus brings it away from repression proper, which really just concerns itself with the repression of the affect.

Drives and (primal) repression

I'll be concerned in the following with connecting repression (or, more precisely, primal repression) to the drives (or instincts), using the 1915 essays "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" and "Repression." I hope I got it all (somewhat) right!
Primal repression is the fate (vicissitude) of a drive whose aim is not satisfaction but an increase in pain--that is, repression is what happens when the aim of the drive is changed into one of seeking unpleasurable satisfaction. Or, since we can't really speak of such an aim (the aim of a drive is always satisfaction, and satisfaction is precisely pleasure, so there cannot be a drive whose aim is unpleasure), we have to say that repression is what happens when the pleasure of an instinct's satisfaction also causes an experience of unpleasure.
Freud rules out the idea that this confluence of pleasure and unpleasure in the aim of the drive--this vicissitude--is merely one that is occasioned by having satisfaction delayed for a long time: repression is not just the result of the drive getting confused about what satisfaction is (as it were), creating more and more tension to the point where the satisfaction itself would still not be pleasurable. This is an important counterexample, because it sets up an idea of different localizations of pleasure and unpleasure rather than one homogenous psychic experience of them.
That is, he proposes that the satisfaction is unpleasurable in a different part of the mind than where the satisfaction itself goes on: this is how the satisfaction of the drive can be a satisfaction (a pleasure on some level) and unpleasurable (on some other level) at the same time (so to speak). The unpleasure then is merely the irreconcilability of satisfaction with some other parts of the mind (it is the agent of psychic differentiation, therefore--see below).
So this means that repression is correlated with the development of the consciousness and unconscious. That part of the mind in which the drive would be satisfied is the unconscious, and that part of the mind that would experience the unpleasure--that is, a satisfaction that only increases tension--is consciousness. Primal repression differentiates the two, allowing for the formation of a set of structures (ideas) within the unconscious that are developed more and more without direct relation to their unpleasurable effect. The unpleasurable effect can then be dampened by counter-formations, or "repression proper," so that when one of these drives (or representatives of the drives, Freud shifts his view on this) appears, it can be satisfied and, at the same time, its unpleasurable effects avoided. That is, the idea that the drive is associated with can become represented in consciousness (though in a distorted fashion), without its unpleasurable affect (that is, its effect). Thus Freud will say the affect is what is subject to repression and the idea remains--both in the unconscious and (in the distorted form) in consciousness.
To inscribe this back into the problematic with which Freud started is the toughest part (Freud himself doesn't exactly do it explicitly), but which, when done, gives the full sense of the importance of repression for Freud. The organism deals with drives by transforming its world. This is because drives are excitations or pressures that the organism must get rid of (according to the principal of constancy). In the case of the repressed drive, we have an inability of the organism to transform its world, to act on the outside and thereby get rid of the tension. In fact, getting rid of the tension (letting the drive satisfy itself) would precisely cause pain, or more tension. So the organism turns inward and divides itself up instead. The result is that it transforms its world by transforming itself: it transforms the world by constructing the world for itself in which it can, at the same time, 1) answer to the demands of the drives that are repressed (by repression proper, distortion, etc.) and 2) deal with other drives (by acting on the world). This theme of inner psychic differentiation is present all throughout Freud, from the Project to the odd crust he thinks about in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Looking at drives

A little reflection on drives and their sources and aims--I am highly questionable about my reading of what Strachey is saying, because I don't have the German on me right now. But I'll see what is going on and return to this. In the meantime...

Although drives are wholly determined by their origin in a somatic source, in mental life we know them only by their aims.
-All quotes from "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," SE 14:121-22: throughout I've rendered "instinct" as "drive".

What Freud means here is that though drives are determined by that somatic process whose being stimulated is represented by the instinct (their source), in mental life itself we know them only by their attempt (within mental life) to remove that stimulation of the somatic process--what Freud calls the "aim" of the drive. (This is the reason why later Freud will say that drives are also only present to the unconscious--just as much as consciousness--through their "representatives.")
To put it a different way, though drives get their character (roughly, "what distinguishes one from another," as Freud goes on to say) from the sort of stimulation which they represent, they can't be seen in mental life except in terms of how they try to rid themselves of this character. We can't look at a drive then and see how the character was formed. We can only postulate that it was formed from looking at how it proceeds to try and get rid of this form--that is, how it uses this form. Thus Freud's next sentence:

An exact knowledge of the sources of a drive is not invariably necessary for purposes of psychological investigation; sometimes its source may be inferred from its aim.

In short, from all this we understand a sentence that puzzles Strachey and which he very confusedly translates--thus making it possible for others to make the same error. We understand that what distinguishes a drive from another drive is its source, but we cannot and really need not know the source to also perceive this difference. The difference--i.e. the source--appears later in the particular aim of the drive--as we said, in its twists and turns (primarily, its picking up of what Freud calls "objects"--things that help the aim) made so that it can divest itself of the stimulus that formed it. That is, Freud means what he says here:

What distinguishes from one another the mental effects produced by the various drives may be traced to the difference in their sources.

Which means effectively that we aren't distinguishing between drives when we see different ones, but rather between aims--thus what is the object of this sentence is "the mental effects produced by the various drives," not the drives themselves. The mental effects are all we can get at--and when we talk as if we are distinguishing drives, we are really talking about what happens or appears later, what emerges from the drive. To sum this all up, Freud adds the sentence that Strachey translates as the following:

In any event, it is only in a later connection that we shall be able to make plain what the problem of the quality of drives signifies.

Now, if I'm not mistaken, what this sentence really means is that only later--as we witness the aim--is it clear what the difference (in quality) between drives is. But Strachey takes this sentence to mean, I think, that later on in some future paper Freud will elaborate the problematic question of the differences between drives. Thus he says, in a footnote to this sentence, "It is not clear what later connection Freud had in mind." I think it should be rendered the following way:

In any event, it is only in a later event that we shall be able to make plain the the problem of the meaning that qualities of drives have.

In other words, it is only when we see the aim that we will be able to make plain the problem of the quality of drives: the problem being what differentiates them in their character, what their particular meanings are that make them different from each other.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Retranslating fetishism

Freud's extremely interesting 1927 essay on fetishism becomes even more interesting (as usual) when you look at the German. Unable to contain myself, here are the first few paragraphs in which I've tried to bring the German much more into the English edition (which I use as a basis):

In the last few years I have had an opportunity of studying in analysis a number of men whose object-choice was dominated [beherrscht] by a fetish. One doesn't need to presume that these people came to analysis on account of their fetish, for though is recognized [erkannt] by its adherents as an abnormality, it is seldom felt as a symptom that one suffers from [ein Leidenssymptom]. Usually they are pretty happy about it, or even praise how it eases their erotic life. So as a rule the fetish plays the role of a lesser-order phenomenon [eines Nebenbefundes].
The details of these cases have to be withheld from publication for obvious reasons. So I cannot show in what way chance circumstances [zufällige Umstände] have contributed to the choice of a fetish. Most out of the ordinary seemed to be a case in which a young man had exalted into a fetishistic requirement a certain "shine upon the nose." The unexpected explanation of this was that the patient had been brought up in an English nursery [eine englische Kinderstube gehabt hatte], but then had later come to Germany, where he almost fully forgot his mother-tongue [Muttersprache]. The fetish, which came from his first years as a child [ersten Kinderzeiten], could not be read in German, but in English, as the "shine upon the nose" [in German "Glanz auf der Nase"] was really a "glance upon the nose" ["Blick auf die Nase"] (glance = Blick). So the nose was the fetish, which, incidentally, he lent at his discretion that special bright shine [Glanzlicht], which others could not apprehend [Wahrnehmen].
The information which analysis gave of the sense or purpose of the fetish was in all cases the same. It was given so unforcedly [ungezwungen] and appeared to me so forceful [zwingend], that I am ready to expect the same solution for all cases of fetishism. When now I confess that the fetish is a substitute for the penis [ein Penisersatz], I'm sure to create disappointment. So I hasten to add that not a substitute for any old penis, but for a specific, very special penis, which had a great meaning in the early years of childhood but got lost later. That is, it should normally be forsaken, but the fetish is specifically made to protect it from downfall. To put it more clearly, the fetish is the substitute for the penis of the woman (the mother), that the little boy believed in and--we know why--will not foreswear.
So what happened was that the boy refused to grasp [nehmen] his knowledge of the fact that he apprehends [Wahrnehmung] that the woman does not possess a penis. No, that can't be true, because if the woman was castrated, then his own penis was threatened, and against this there rose in rebellion [dagegen sträubt sich] that part of his narcissism with which nature has precisely equipped this organ as a precaution. A similar panic will perhaps later be experienced by the grownup, if the cry goes up that throne and altar are in danger, and will be led into similar illogical consequences...

It is not correct that, after the child has made his observation of the woman, he has saved unchanged his belief that women have a phallus. He has preserved that belief, but also given it up. In the conflict between the weight of the unwished-for [unerwünschten] apprehension [Wahrnehmung] and the strength of his counter-wish [Gegenwunsches] a compromise has come, as is only possible under the dominance of unconscious rules of thought [unbewußten Denkgesetze]--the primary processes. Yes, the woman in his psyche has a penis still, but this penis is not the same as it was before...

(More, perhaps, in the future)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reading machines in Derrida

A paper I am working on, that I read last week:

I want to complicate an assumption that we often have while reading: that reading is, on some level, a struggle to be responsible to a text. To do this, I’ll consider a passage—in particular one sentence—from Jacques Derrida’s Donner la mort, or The Gift of Death.
The remark appears in the third section of the book—originally a lecture given in a 1990 conference on Derrida’s work and the gift—right in the middle of a harrowing meditation on how Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible continues even today. According to Derrida, the event was not just an occurrence long ago on a mountain (or mountain range) named Moriah, as recounted in Genesis. To show this, he notes how he is perhaps fulfilling his duty as a professional philosopher at the moment he speaks in the conference—indeed at the very moment he is reading this passage in the Bible—but how, by making this a priority, he is also probably neglecting to help others. He concludes that he, then and there, in reading, is no different than Abraham, in that his act of neglect is a sacrifice of a son, of someone to whom he has an obligation, a responsibility. Then and there, he says, he too is in “the land of Moriah,” as is everyone to which he speaks—“the land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day.
To say we all are at this famous place of sacrifice when we read might just seem like an abuse of language (not to mention of conscience): it would lend credence to the charges of hyperbole that are often leveled against Derrida. But Derrida counters with the following—the passage with the sentence I’d like to look at:

This is not just a figure of style or an effect of rhetoric. According to 2 Chronicles, chapters 3 and 8, the place where the sacrifice… is said to have occurred, this place where death is given, is the place where Solomon decided to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, as well as the place where God appeared to Solomon’s father, David. However, it is also the place of the grand Mosque of Jerusalem, the place called the Dome of the Rock near the grand mosque of El Aksa where the sacrifice of Ibrahim is supposed to have taken place, and from where Mahomet was transported on horseback towards paradise after his death. It is just above the destroyed temple of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall, not far from the Way of the Cross. It is therefore a holy place but also a place that is in dispute (radically, rabidly), fought over by all the monotheisms, by all the religions of the unique and transcendent God, of the absolute other. These three monotheisms fight over it, it is useless to deny it by means of some wide-eyed ecumenism; they make war with fire and blood, have always done so and more fiercely today, each claiming its particular perspective on this place and claiming an original historical and political interpretation of Messianism and of the sacrifice of Isaac. The reading, interpretation, and tradition of the sacrifice of Issac are themselves sites [or places, lieux] of bloody, holocaustic sacrifice. Isaac’s sacrifice continues every day. Countless machines of death wage a war that has no front.
-The Gift of Death, 2nd Edition, 70/Donner la mort 99-100.

The passage makes a claim to take us beyond rhetoric—that is, to demonstrate in some way the real ubiquity of Mount Moriah or the lack of distance between every act of reading and this place of sacrifice. What allows this, here, is what ties the sacrifice of Isaac to the history of conflict in the Holy Land and its continuance today. As Derrida says, “the reading, interpretation, and tradition of the sacrifice of Isaac are themselves places of bloody, holocaustic sacrifice:” sacrifice also takes place now, in this place where the Bible is so avidly read.
Now, in some sense it would be problematic enough for our notion of reading as a struggle to be responsible if I focused on this claim and merely asserted that the passage does take us beyond rhetoric; that it says interpretation, the handing down of the tradition of the sacrifice of Isaac was indeed capable of sacrifice or murder, or was indeed similar to certain actions in the Holy Land. It would be enough to say that reading simply had, sometimes, that force when it occurred in this place. For what would be in question, then, would be a matter of the extent to which, sometimes, we have to be responsible for reading. The responsibility in reading would be thrown into question as to how far it can really remain possible in certain conditions, in certain places, because of the limitations imposed on a stance that we take towards the text. In other words, we would be concluding that in some places, in some conditions, a responsible stance towards a text is not able to be taken up: where war made with fire and blood is going on, that peaceful stance, that comportment towards a book that brings with it collegial discussion over the meanings or consequences of what is written and, ultimately, a disinterested respect for the text—this stance is not possible. And so, when there is reading in this place, only death and sacrifice results: the interpretation of texts leads to war, leads to violence over the meaning of a phrase, leads even directly, in schools or other institutions, to the death of others. In short, what would be in question would be where and how reading can or cannot be like killing.
Now, perhaps this would refine our sense of where and how reading should be conducted—a questioning that would, I think, risk extreme ethnocentrism—but, I’ll claim, there is an additional element that we find in what I’ve cited that reveals how a consideration (such as this) of how far reading and responsibility are associated is too simple—indeed, is still not really enough to call responsibility and reading into question. This element is the following, and it will eventually bring us to the sentence I really want to focus on: when Derrida says that “the reading, interpretation and tradition of the sacrifice of Isaac are themselves places of bloody, holocaustic sacrifice,” he is not just saying that sacrifice is what we should call the action in the Holy Land now. That is, he is not simply saying that sacrifice is what we should call the violent actions which can (and should) be empirically registered and said to take place where there is—and we can empirically verify this too—extensive reading of the Bible. He is also claiming something more wide ranging, something that involves the fact that reading is precisely how sacrifices occur—it is the structure of their unfolding, their taking place.
In order to make this—indeed to perhaps make this structure take place a little before us—let us just begin to see if we can associate the words of the passage in a different way. Let us begin to do this—which means, also, let us begin to play with the rhetoric of the passage precisely where Derrida says “this is not just a figure of style or an effect of rhetoric.” This act—as inanely heedless of whatever Derrida is saying as it is, as if we were just deploying little tricks of reading we knew—this act might not be so unfaithful to Derrida however, because, as J. Hillis Miller has recently said (in "The Late Derrida," in Adieu Derrida), with more inventiveness and more respect for what is written, Derrida himself reads this way, by playing with rhetoric and improvising off of it, drawing inferences only from this sort of soloing. “The word play,” he says, “the exuberant hyperbole, and constantly self-topping inventiveness, like a great Charlie Parker riff or a Bach fugue, are fundamental features” of this reading.
The reading, interpretation and tradition of the sacrifice of Isaac are themselves places of bloody, holocaustic sacrifice.” This sentence, we suggested, did not simply say that there is reading in the Middle East and sacrifice in the Middle East. “The reading, interpretation and tradition of the sacrifice of Isaac are themselves places of bloody, holocaustic sacrifice.” Perhaps this can mean something more general: that where someone sacrifices another, a reading has occurred. In other words, if sacrifice has occurred, there is reading. How? Someone neglects the other and thus makes their act of neglect into an application, as it were, of what happens in the story of Abraham—that is, makes the neglect into a reading of the story of Abraham, in that it is the demonstration of how the story can apply to this situation, right here. If this is so, we refine the sense in which we say sacrifice takes place now, in the Holy Land, as well as in Genesis: fundamentally, we should call what happens now sacrifice not because it looks the same, but because there is no difference between what takes place in Genesis and how reading the passage takes place or unfolds. That is, whether you use a machine gun or not, the way you sacrifice the other is by making Abraham’s actions able to be read in your neglect of another. Put another way, reading is what sacrifice repeats as: the passage in Genesis appears, again and again, and where it repeats in this way it is sacrifice.
But perhaps when Derrida says “the reading, interpretation and tradition of the sacrifice of Isaac are themselves places of bloody, holocaustic sacrifice,” he is also claiming that sacrifice occurs because in the sacrifice, there is always reading. There where someone reads, he reads only the story of sacrifice—that is, he brings about the sacrifice by reading sacrifice into his situation. What this means is that this person does not just allow the situation to be read as the same one we find in Genesis: one reads into the situation such that where there is the reading of this story, sacrifice will issue directly from this. This would happen in treating the other not as the other but as Isaac—that is, when this person sees the other not as whoever he is but as nothing better than a repetition of the son in Genesis—someone who should be sacrificed for God. In this moment this person is reading the other, and thus it is this reading that makes them forego or neglect the other qua the other as they do in sacrificing him. So reading is how sacrifices occur in a different way: they don’t take place only in that a sacrifice occurs, but in bringing about the act of sacrifice itself. Reading acts as the repeated, reiterated inability to see the other as anyone different from Isaac: that is, besides being the repetition of the sacrifice, reading could be the repetition in the sacrifice.
Now—if you haven’t followed this play, don’t worry. What is important is that by associating all these words, we have come up with two logics of how reading repeats itself. And if this is what Derrida is getting at in the passage, this means that the reading in the Holy Land is only more testimony (though this does not diminish its importance) to the fact that there is a more widespread and intense war on Moriah between the monotheisms, because all reading, everywhere, would be taking place as sacrifice. Moriah would be everywhere there is reading because, on the one hand, if the result is sacrifice, there is reading—and on the other, if you read the situation you are in, if you look at the other as Isaac, you end up sacrificing. As we noted, Derrida himself said was doing this then and there, in front of his audience at the Royaumont Abbey in 1990. And if this is all the case, the passage, I’ll claim, resists merely associating all these things, because really what it is saying is that the reason why sacrifice always takes place with every reading is because reading always takes place as a repetitive machine. That is—and I hope to show this in what follows—reading is everywhere in question as to its responsibility because it always functions as a reading machine, as something that makes it again and again bring death. To put it yet another way, we are finally brought back to that sentence I wanted to look at—the last sentence of the passage that I quoted—which, I’ll claim, merely describes this reading machine for us: “Countless machines of death wage a war without front.
To grasp all this, though, we have to fill out this figure of the reading machine that I’ve just mentioned. I say “figure” because, as we noted, it does indeed only remain composed out of associations that the rhetoric of the passage provides. What is this reading machine, after all? Elsewhere in Derrida’s work, the reading machine does indeed appear, and so perhaps it can fill out its figure for us if we pay attention to it. We can find it in writings like Of Grammatology, “Otobiographies,” “Dissemination,” “Circumfession,” “Psyche,” or The Animal That Therefore I Am, just to name a few where it plays a relatively important role. The first thing we notice, though, upon looking at these texts, is that the reading machine does not appear as anything to do with sacrifice, but—it seems—with a different sort of threat. Looking at the 1983 essay “Geschlecht I,” for example, Derrida remarks upon the lack of any mention of sexual difference in Heidegger’s corpus. He then hesitates, however, before concluding that Heidegger ignored this issue, because perhaps the word for sexual difference—das Geschlecht—does indeed occur somewhere. He asks,

Is it imprudent to trust Heidegger’s apparent silence? Will this apparent fact later be disturbed in its nice philological assurance by some known or unpublished passage when some reading machine, while combing through the whole of Heidegger, manages to hunt out the thing and snare it?

Here the reading machine looks like a program, a computer program, which reads all by itself, which finds and registers words and establishes their relationship, reassembles and sorts them, all without the care or effort that distinguishes what we like to think of as our (human, humane—that is, careful, circumspect, skilled, rigorous) reading. This is why Derrida merely notes this and goes on with his presentation—as if there indeed were no mention of Geschlecht in Heidegger: what the reading machine does here is, it seems, merely something worthless. And yet, he does have to register the scenario that such a machine makes possible: it could spoil what he is about to say. If a computer were to come along that unceasingly searches throughout Heidegger for this word, it would indeed threaten Derrida’s claim (and in fact much of his discourse on Heidegger) because it could actually find what Derrida says is nonexistent. So Derrida recognizes that this machine here, however much its invention seems implausible, is still on some level a threat.
And, as his other remarks make clear, this reading machine is perhaps not so fanciful a device, like some supercomputer that would, one day, take all of our jobs here in the English department and across the university. In fact, this scenario would in fact be comforting, for there is nothing that precludes this machine from being at work already all about us, precisely in our (human) reading. It might indeed be working on other things than the word “Geschlecht” in Heidegger, but the machine still would be just as operative as some huge supercomputer taking up a room here in the basement. How? The program that registers and calculates in this way could already be that repetitiveness, that boringness, that rote aspect in some of our interpretation that makes it lack purpose. It could be that precision without meaning that, sometimes, makes us feel like we could just read anything and everything at any time, finding whatever we wanted to find. It could be that seeking out and pinning down that scrap of paper that, of itself, just by merely being put forth before an audience, would produce—by reducing all other statements to the level of its banal evidentiary procedure—a semi-viable interpretation. If these aspects of what we do are reading machines—and Derrida draws our attention to how they could be—we begin to see them everywhere. Reading machines are merely those human efforts so automatic that they make it seem as if this takeover by machines has already happened.
So in Derrida’s 1984 essay “Ulysses Gramophone,” delivered to the James Joyce Symposium, Derrida is precisely discussing the setting up of an international institution—a huge apparatus that produces volumes and volumes of criticism—dedicated to the reading of Joyce. How can we not listen to the following without hearing a threat announced in the figure of the reading machine?

All of you are experts and you belong to one of the most remarkable institutions. It bears the name of a man who did everything, and admitted it, to make this institution indespensible, to keep it busy for centuries, as though on some new Tower of Babel to make a name for himself again. This institution can be seen as a powerful reading machine, a signature and contersignature machine in the service of his name, of his patent.

He might not be directly accusing his hosts here of being wholly misguided in their project, but we do hear in this the following: look how close you are to becoming this machine! You run the risk of making automatic the reading of Joyce! You are doing a great service, but watch out! Certainly the program that he develops for this reading machine at the end of his essay could sound threatening to us if we didn’t hear it as so parodic: the program would seek out all the “yeses” in Ulysses and put them in a typology, along with those from Finnegans Wake. It would then find all the words or phrases that functioned effectively as “yeses.” It would then consult translations (some of them approved by Joyce, some of the not) for “yeses” there, comparing and contrasting, collecting and calculating. Then, it would compute how these “yeses” made up a schema or structure of generalized affirmation, which would then constitute the reading. The Joyce symposium could (and perhaps does) stay busy for a while with all this, we think to ourselves.
But, we also think, if they did proceed this way, the members of the Symposium would never really read Joyce, in some significant sense. Similarly, we almost want to say that to look in Heidegger just for the word “Geschlecht” would be doing everything but reading. For, we must ask, what does this reading machine actually threaten about reading, if it does indeed threaten something as we have been saying? We hinted at it above, but it is also has been articulated pretty consistently over the last forty years by almost everyone who written on Derrida—so rather than specify it ourselves, we can merely take their lead and look again throughout Derrida’s texts. In these writings, alongside the reading machine seems to be something that is much, much more than a figure: the notion of rigor, of care, of circumspection and reserve, which we can find endlessly reiterated in Derrida’s hesitations, postponements, disclaimers, prefaces, addendums. Where there is citation these reiterations are particularly visible: there Derrida usually notes how he must justify the choice of whatever he cites, and, in explaining it, inevitably fail to reconstitute its import and its possible implications. The whole of The Politics of Friendship, for example, reconstitutes only the first session in a whole set of seminars whose concern that day—and Derrida continually draws attention to this—was merely one line from Montaigne’s Essays. And yet this drive against the haste of citation and of explication, against the unfaithful paraphrase, makes it seem to many people that even the several hundred pages of this book are not enough for Derrida to do justice to what is written. Indeed this leads J. Hillis Miller, who licensed for us the short rhetorical riff we made on the passage in The Gift of Death, to say (in "Derrida and Literature" in Jacques Derrida and the Humanities), even though he focused on the most exorbitant, exuberant aspects of his stance towards text, that Derrida’s reading is just an immense “respect” for texts, one that engages in “careful citation and minute attention to linguistic detail” (DL, 75) and forces him “to concentrate microscopically on a part” of it, always abstaining from generalization that would risk violating its uniqueness (DL, 77). In other words—or rather in Miller’s words, since he uses them, as well as those of Paul de Man, Gayatri Spivak, Geoffrey Hartman, and nearly everyone who has had a significant part in writing about and introducing Derrida—in other words, Derrida is a close reader. Whatever hyperbolic, associative flights of word-play there are in his texts, consistently they have gotten reappropriated to a notion of his humane deference to what is read, characterized first and foremost by the virtue of closeness which literary criticism in particular has, since the New Critics (at least), extolled. And so we would say that, throughout Derrida’s corpus, what the reading machine threatens is close reading. It seems to us that in Derrida’s mind what is needed with Joyce or Heidegger or anyone else is a proliferation of careful, slow, minute engagements with the uniqueness of the text—something this massive apparatus like the Joyce Symposium just cannot accomplish or, at the very least, will make it less possible for others (unaffiliated as they are) to undertake.
But as of yet we are only gleaning this from a tendency we perceive in Derrida’s text to wait, to hesitate, to slowly, carefully approach what he is reading. This leads us to a conclusion that makes us engage in a significant hesitation of our own: our conception of the reading machine as opposed to rigor, circumspection, or closeness is determined, in truth, by a conception of how to regard Derrida’s reading. Once again, then, our analysis remains merely rhetorical: to the figure of the reading machine we in truth only oppose the figure of close reading. This calls all sorts of things into question: what if, in fact, this conception of the reading machine is an analysis that is precisely made to exalt merely our reading practices, to preserve it against that in Derrida which might threaten it? Could we even be setting to work the reading machine—that which was supposed to most threaten attention to the text—merely for our own benefit? All sorts of dynamics surrounding Derrida and his reception suddenly begin to be discerned. And as we begin to historicize what we have called “theory,” this questioning, I think, can’t come at a better time. For one of the first things that gets noted about its adventures and misadventures in the United States and the UK is how theory’s potentially anti-hermeneutic efforts were brought around to do hermeneutic work.
But that Derrida back in France was considered merely advocating a focus on language (as the work of François Laruelle, for example, shows—and perhaps in a negative way in the grandiosity and expansiveness of Jean Luc-Nancy’s deconstructions) or that he was even dismissed as practitioner of explication de texte (see Foucault’s pointed criticisms of him)—that this was the case in France, too, extends the problem beyond one of the distortions or self-aggrandizement in theory’s reception of him and shows that it really is something about Derrida’s reading that is the issue. This is attested by how even people like Spivak and Miller still describe the status of this reading as “close reading,” when they are some of the few that quite thoroughly grasp that Derrida was, to use a phrase of Frances Ferguson’s (in "The Critique of the Geometric Mode" in The Late Derrida), “more beyond hermeneutics than was generally thought.” There is something about close reading that is being used to try and deal with Derrida’s reading—and, as we see, this use oddly intensifies and becomes more strained as Derrida uses the figure of the reading machine. This continues to the extent that the status of close reading as nothing more than a figure to oppose this other figure comes into play. At that point, thinking of the reading machine otherwise is also rethinking the status of Derrida’s reading as well—that is, not simply as close reading.
For what if Derrida was using the phrase differently? In this simple question we find both tasks of thought that we have just outlined completely intertwined. What if, in the quotes on reading Heidegger and Joyce that I cited above, he was saying the reading machine was not opposed to close reading? What if the reading machine was, in fact, just as careful a reader as the close reader? And, finally, what if his close reading of the situation was precisely, as he claims, the deployment of a reading machine? All this is what I think is going on in the passage I first cited from The Gift of Death. For it was there that I brought up the question of the extent to which any readerly stance towards a text could be responsible, claiming that Derrida in the passage exceeded that problematic. We now see that this passage beyond this issue of extent, of the limits on the conditions of possibility of reading responsibly—this passage beyond is nothing other than a questioning of closeness as the characterization of responsibility through another logic of the reading machine.
I need a much, much more detailed analysis to prove this—one which would actually go back through The Gift of Death, particularly at the beginning of its second chapter which focuses on Jan Patocka’s characterization of the history of responsibility in a technical age—but I’ll merely sketch out how I think all that I’ve claimed here might be so.
What we concluded in reading the passage was that there is sacrifice everywhere—and because of a dual problem that repetition produces for reading. If you sacrifice, we said, you repeat the reading of the sacrifice of Isaac. And, on the other hand, if you read the situation, you end up repeating sacrificing because you treat the other as Isaac. In both situations, the reading doesn’t matter if it is close or not because it will be this repetition of sacrifice. This situation doesn’t allow any escape: sacrifice is everywhere. There is no room to say that a closer reading would prevent the slaughter of others. And because of this, there is not question of the stance that one takes towards the other—and all reading, when it appears is mechanical. In other words, beyond the conception of closeness inscribed in a logic of mechanical repetition, sacrifice becomes indistinguishable from what we consider responsibility.
That is, one hears in the last phrase (“Countless machines...”) a struggle to be responsible as such beyond any stance one might take towards the text. All one can be is more responsible. (Much more is needed to complete this, but at this point the analysis links up with the problems of The Gift of Death and responsibility as a whole. Until I develop them, here's hoping we got far enough so that perhaps you can read these things into the book and piece a more wide-ranging reading together. If I could have just demonstrated how the equivocal logic of Derrida's passage is precisely its strong point; or is precisely that which, in its resistance of a logic of similitude or identification or mimesis, allows for a thinking of responsibility and reading together... if I could perhaps have done this, well, that is enough for now.)