Paul Earlie: Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis

Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis Book Cover Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis
Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monographs
Paul Earlie
Oxford University Press
Hardback £60.00

Reviewed by: Alessandro Guardascione (KU Leuven University)


Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis is an ambitious book written by Paul Earlie that aims at measuring Derrida’s contribution to contemporary critical thought by exploring his encounter with Freud. Earlie does not only offer a systematic, in-depth account of Derrida’s understanding of Freud’s legacy by a close reading of often overlooked or marginal texts. He also attempts to confront Derrida with contemporary philosophical problems through his writings on psychoanalysis. The book is a welcome addition to Derrida studies. It challenges a still prevailing “textualist” reading of Derrida’s works and examines in fine details Derrida’s relationship with Freud. Earlie offers a quite comprehensive exploration of several psychoanalytic concepts found in Derrida’s oeuvre.

The relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction is described according to an aporetic sense of inheritance that will be at the centre of Paul Earlie’s analyses until the very conclusions of his book. By reactivating the critical message of Derrida’s philosophical style through his confrontation with psychoanalysis, Earlie reconstructs many classical arguments that characterize Derrida’s thinking. As he shows, investigating Derrida’s encounter with psychoanalysis essentially means responding to a whole series of general questions like: What does it mean to interpret Freud’s psychoanalytic theory? How does psychoanalysis survive to its founder? Who is behind the “proper name” “Freud”? In what sense can we affirm the existence of a Freudian legacy? Or, more importantly, can there be a legacy at all?

Already in the title, it is possible to appreciate the fil rouge that connects all the chapters. The etymological meaning of the word “legacy” finds its place in the polysemic variety of the Greek-Roman culture. At a closer examination, a complex historico-cultural background constitutes its horizon of interpretation. Legō, from Latin, has many senses: gathering together, to collect, but also, to extract, to choose, to entrust, to read. These are some of its main usages. The expression “legacy of psychoanalysis” could be translated by replacing some of the Latin meanings of legō. However, arguably, gathering together several items to form a set is the very opposite of extracting from a set. Apparently, it seems that legō hides a contradictory logic of inclusion-exclusion. It potentially means both collecting and extracting. Could it be possible to think about a collection of thinkers gathered together around the proper name “Freud” and, at the very same time, through a selective enumeration, restricting the set to very few trustworthy authors? It should be possible only at cost of a decisive criterion grounded on Freud’s textual truth or, better, on the original source of his thought. However, as it is widely known, since the beginning of his confrontation with phenomenological themes, Derrida has always been critical to the notion of simple, pure, transparent origin favoUring and developing the consequences of his logic of contamination — as he writes in the preface to his Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl. Derrida often shows his resistance to any interpretative closure, as is witnessed by the studies on Mallarmé, Artaud, Nietzsche, just to name a few. Freud is no exception and Earlie shows us why.

Rightly at the beginning of his book, Earlie claims that Derrida reinterprets the problem of Freud’s legacy into the general question of inheritance. This strategy mirrors Derrida’s classical myse en abyme. Indeed, in the same vein, Earlie’s book follows a similar strategy. As he defines it, the book tackles the “double bind of inheriting Derrida inheriting Freud”. Although comprehensible to a broad philosophical audience, to be fully appreciated an understanding of Derridean philosophical path and his main notions is warmly recommended. Without claiming to exhaust the rich variety of analyses presented in the text, I will limit myself to pointing out a few key passages.

Aporetic Detours

The first chapter is dedicated to the problematic reception of Freud in France. The central thesis of this chapter is that Derrida has never attempted to appropriate Freud’s legacy as much as he has tried to “show how this legacy survives by means of its structural inappropriability”. In order to justify his claim, Earlie discusses the meaning of Freud’s legacy through specific conceptual tropes found in Derrida’s many essays and conferences. These introductory analyses run through the concepts of “aporia”, “myth”, and “proper name” that, de facto, constitute the essential margins of this book.

Earlie exemplifies the problem of Freud’s legacy by referring to the ambiguous judgment of Lévi-Strauss on psychoanalysis. While Lévi-Strauss sometimes praises Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries recognizing a “formative influence” on his speculation, as in Tristes tropiques, sometimes he does not, as in La Potière jalouse. As Earlie shows, in this text Lévi-Strauss does not only denounce the absence of Freud’s influence on his structural anthropology, he even calls into question its originality. However, instead of discussing what is the debt of anthropology to psychoanalysis, Earlie aims at demonstrating that, actually, Lévi-Strauss’s relationship to Freud remains caught into the aporetic logic of debt, best expressed through the Freudian figure of “kettle logic”. The “kettle logic” is a Freudian trope that essentially refers to the internal logic of dreams and it describes a rhetorical expedient consisting of the use of contradictory arguments to defende a unique thesis. Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the logic of debt actually reminds us of the Freudian notion of kettle logic, since repudiating or assuming a debt always results in opposing statements. One of the clearest examples is found by Earlie in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s indebtedness with the concept of writing as pharmakon.

Earlie illustrates what he calls the argumentative strategy of the “fort-da” also with Lacan’s relationship to Freud. Instead of denouncing the absence of Freud, like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan leads a firm and allegedly transparent appropriation of Freud’s textual truth. For Earlie, this logic of fort-da consists of renouncing and assuming, including and excluding. This general strategy is for Earlie “an insistent feature in the inheritance of Freud’s legacy”. The first chapter is essentially a demonstration of this thesis. Other seminal figures populating the French freudisme, like Laplanche and Pontatis, Abraham and Torkok are passed in review, including important critics and detractors of Freud’s psychoanalysis, like Onfray and Sulloway. A special attention is dedicated to other influential authors like Foucault and Sartre.

Through these authors, Earlie explores the idiomatic appropriation of Freud’s psychoanalytic themes. The aporetic logic behind any kind of inheritance or legacy results in depicting, each time, a different, contradictory image of “Freud”. For him, Derrida’s method of reading Freud’s legacy leads to reaffirm and relaunch the impossible appropriation of his textual truth. Derrida “resist[s] the temptation to mythologize” by limiting the negative, sclerotic effect of a hermeneutic dispositive of appropriation, or interpretative closure. In this sense, Earlie aims at showing the difference, for Derrida, between “Freud’s open-ended textual legacy” and freudisme. Broadly, he shows that no “intellectual lineage” can oppose the resistance of Freud’s textual corpus to BY being reduced to a single interpretation, since any appropriation is only the result of a hermeneutic decision. In this regard, for Earlie, Derrida preserves an important ethical responsibility, even if only in critically restating the difference between Freud and freudisme.


In the second chapter, Earlie focuses on Derrida’s understanding of “psychical spacings”, investigating the relationship between space and psyche in some of his most important works. By turning towards his writings on phenomenology, in particular to La voix et le phenomene and Le toucher, Jean Luc Nancy, Earlie sets the stage for discussing the role of Derrida’s encounter with some of Freud’s main psychoanalytic concepts, reflecting on the importance of the issues of spatiality, surface, and touch in his philosophy. In a sense, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida uses the category of space for deconstructing the classical metaphysical notion of subjectivity. In particular, I am referring here to the idea of pure, immediate self-identity and the idea of psyche as a kind of internal space as opposed to an external world. In other words, this chapter is dedicated to deciphering Derrida’s classical thesis concerning the characterization of classical metaphysics as phono-logo-centrism.

In the chapter, Earlie confronts Derrida’s notion of spacing as it is presented in La Voix with that found in Le Toucher. He notes that while in the first book spacing describes the condition of possibility of temporalization as spatial inscription of a trace, in the latter, Derrida is more interested in spacing in relation to spatiality and self-touching. The theme of spatiality is introduced by a close reading of the fifth chapter of La Voix. Earlie discusses Derrida’s strategic interpretation of the Husserlian analyses on the temporal flow of the Living Present. In this chapter, Derrida is steadfast to show the relationship between time and auto-affection in Husserlian phenomenology. In Le Toucher, instead, Derrida directly tackles the problem of auto-affection in relation to self-touching, no longer focusing on the temporalization of the flow of the Living Present. Earlie illustrates how, for Derrida, self-touching or the chiasmatic, double apprehension of the touching-touched, describes the phenomenon of auto-hetero-affection, the contamination of sameness and otherness.

In both cases, spacing represents the condition of (im)possibility of the subject, since it describes, on one side, the subject as an “effect” of temporal deferral and spatial inscription, and, on the other side, the impossibility of a pure, immediate auto-affection. Through these analyses, Earlie finally discusses the role of the Freudian concept of Nachtraglichkeit (afterwardness) and his interpretation of the psyche as topographical space, as it is expressed by the famous sentence Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nichts davon (Psyche is extended, knows nothing about it). In this sense, Earlie shows how Freud’s conception of the psyche has been reworked by Derrida for deconstructing the classical metaphysical idea of subjectivity attributed to Plato and Descartes.

Freud et la scene de l’écriture constitutes the other fundamental text explored by Earlie in the second chapterFor him, this text is an exemplary work for discussing Derrida’s analyses on the “space of unconscious”. Earlie finds this text quite interesting since it presents a critic of any interpretation of memory as “localizable anatomical space”. According to him, by speculating on Freud’s histology of the psyche and his critiques to the empirical account of memory and perception, Derrida challenges any materialist account of memory since, as he writes, memory finds its space only “in the difference between one inscription and another.” By comparing Freud’s persistence in representing the psyche through physical writing — for instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams — in relation to Husserl’s characterization of psyche as “spoken word, e.g., interior monologue, Earlie signals the “sympathy between psychoanalytic regression and écriture”. He shows again that Derrida reworks the Freudian notion of unconsciousness as a process of spacing that challenges the idea of self-identity accompanied by a “linear structure of verbal discourse”.

This chapter also constitutes a defence of the recent materialistic interpretation of Derrida’s deconstruction. In particular, Earlie is critical of Catherine Malabou’s interpretation of the relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction, and between deconstruction and neuroscience. He criticizes the opposition between “material space of neuroscience and intangible spacing” claiming that for Derrida “it is never simply a question of choosing one over the other”. Earlie’s reconstruction demonstrates that Derrida has never considered spacing in a materialistic or idealistic sense and his approach cannot be a positive one and cannot be confused with the contemporary neuroscientific approaches to psychoanalysis.

Science and Fiction

The third chapter is dedicated to showing the relevance of Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis to understand for understanding his position in relation to science and the scientific method. In this respect, Earlie complements Derrida’s reflections on epistemology in his famous introduction to Husserl’s supplement to CrisisThe Origin of Geometry. Earlie’s objective is to defend Derrida from recent readings of deconstruction such as poststructuralism. Instead of reducing Derrida to just a figure of the philosophy of language, Earlie wants to demonstrate the significance of his reflections for any scientific discourse, even defending Freud from some current neuropsychoanalitic trends of research that aim at freeing psychoanalysis from fictive or speculative elements.

Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’Mes ChanceTélepathie, and Foi et savoir constitute the main texts of this chapter in which Earlie reconstructs Derrida’s discussion upon the scientific “credentials” of Freud’s psychoanalysis. As he shows, it is the very definition of psychoanalysis as A “border-discipline” that allows Derrida to characterize Freud’s recourse to the scientific method as always contaminated by irreducible elements of fiction. By discussing the influence of Comte’s notion of positive science on Freud’s scientific method, Earlie already presents a general Derridean thesis. Positive science cannot eliminate its ties to theoretical conjecture, speculation, or fiction, otherwise, it would be mere positivism. The scientific discourse remains irreducibly permeable to other fields of knowledge that, de facto, participate in the definition of its margins. Science can only proceed by trial and error and it is always exposed to the risk of failure. In a long passage, he summarizes as follows:

“While it is always possible to speculate on what new evidence may become available, it is structurally impossible for future data to be entirely foreseen or predicted. Every context, and thus every description of context, is always already punctured by an unconditional exposure towards the to-come, the alterity, or difference of an à-venir which may come to displace all previous hypotheses.”

As Earlie shows in Grammatologie, an account of science solely grounded on immediate empirical observation is impossible for Derrida. This is exemplified in Derrida’s account of structuralist linguistics. How can writing can be the object of science if writing, as already shown already in the Introduction to The Origin of Geometry, is the very condition of ““all scientific inquiry and of the épistémè more generally” ? Is not this a vicious theoretical diallele? By passing in review Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’Glas, and La Carte Postale, Earlie presents interesting elements for reconstructing Derrida’s understanding of scientific method. He reconstructs the tensions between psychoanalysis and phenomenology and exposes Derrida’s reading of Freud’s “speculation” in relation to that of Hegel. Earlie shows how Derrida opposes Freud to Husserl and Freud to Hegel. While Husserl intends the telos of scientific progress as an infinite task grounded on the Living Present, Freud conceives science as “limping” on risky unknown paths that can be completely replaced. Whereas Hegel’s speculation absorbs for his own profit and consists of “a positive reappropriation of the negative” (Aufhebung), Freud’s speculation is always at risk of failing and the Freudian concept par exellence, the unconscious, is all but the name of a positive principle.

However, for Earlie, Derrida’s interest in Freud’s “speculative procedure” derives from the recourse of the latter to fictive arguments not supported by positive evidence but still, defended against any accusation of metaphysics, paradigmatically in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. At the core of Freud’s speculative procedure, Earlie exposes Derrida’s interpretation of a classical Freudian scene, “the child’s game of fort-da”. This scene is of paramount importance in the economy of Freud’s psychoanalysis since it is used to describe the child’s initial mastery of identity. In relation to Spéculer, Earlie mainly intends to show two things: a) that Derrida reads this scene, again, to critique the idea of classical subjectivity; b) that Derrida uses this scene to show a type of incompleteness affecting any scientific discourse.

a) Earlie reflects upon what seems to be Derrida’s main interest for this game: the child’s “double movement of distancing and return” from the object. For him, Derrida interprets the game as an example of spacing. In his reading, Earlie remarks that for Derrida this figure of spacing cannot be accomplished without” either the boy’s playthings or — and this is another version of the game — his verbal discourse. Distancing and return describe the prosthetic condition of the subject to the “external world”, the “self affecting itself through technical re-presentation”. In other words, Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the child’s fort-da is possible only by means of an “originary technicity” represented, in this case, by an object or by the child’s voice. This “originary technicity” has many names in Derrida’s vocabulary, for instance, it is all called “archi-writing” in La Voix and Grammatologie.

b) Another important point signaled by Earlie is that, for Derrida, the problem with this game does not only concern the variety of its possible interpretations but the very description depicting a number of different versions. As Derrida shows in Spéculer, on a closer examination, the game’s description depends on either fictive elements or Freud’s autobiographical details. Derrida is interested in the fact that Freud diverges from the frames of scientific positivism by exploiting the resources of fictive speculation. For these reasons, the value of fiction is, according to Earlie, the very reason for Derrida’s interest in Freud’s work: “Freud’s more speculative writings emphasize the fragility of psychoanalysis’s scientific foundations, a fragility he paradoxically concludes only strengthens psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials.”

Archival Effects

In the fourth chapter, Earlie takes the occasion to introduce Derrida’s Mal d’Archive (1995) by reflecting on the recent digitized version of the Library of Congress’s “Sigmund Freud Collection”. In this chapter, Earlie’s deflationist reading of Mal d’Archive is intended to show the structural limitations of the archive’s technicity implied in Derrida’s aporetic speculation. In particular, Earlie aims at showing the archive’s double bind, namely “the possibility both of preserving the trace and the simultaneous exposure of this trace to forgetfulness, finitude, or destruction.” In his exposure, Earlie shows the role of Freud’s notion of repression and his topographical image of memory in Derrida’s text.

According to Earlie, Mal d’Archive continues to offer a twofold lesson to archive studies. First, it shows a way to think about the role of the archive that is at odds with, on one side, the proponents of a “neoliberalization of the university”, and on the other side, those who critique a supposed “dishumanization of the liberal studies”. In other words, Earlie intends to show that Derrida does not take the part of one of these two sides, since he for him any techné can be read through the aporetic logic of Plato’s pharmakon. It is both enabling and threatening, and it is erroneous to stigmatize or praise any archive fever. Second, it enlightens the hidden relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on our desire for archiving and archive, and on the general problem of any calculable science of the archive.

In Mal d’Archive, Derrida ironically observes that the Greek origin of the term “archive” is forgotten by most who use this word nowadays. In this sense, Earlie starts reflecting on the word archive as the very “archive of a structural forgetting”. Yet, the archive stands as an external, often distributed space of memory. Indeed, the most interesting aspect Earlie signals of Derrida’s reflections on the archive is its relevance to the understanding of “psyche’s relationship to more recent techno-scientific developments.” More than ever, our contemporary interaction with technology is characterized by an increasing dependency. The archive stands as an example of the outside on which memory depends. Just think about the role that search engines have today. For Earlie, Derrida uses the archive to discuss the prosthetic account of psychical memory connected to his general thesis of the originary technicity as condition of (im)possibility of subjectivity.

Earlie’s reading of Genèse, généalogies, genres et le génie: Les secrets de l’archive (2003) and Papier machine is centered instead on the paradox of consignation. In these texts, he explores Derrida’s analysis on the possibility of archiving. The argument goes as follows: archiving practices are hampered by the undecidability of the cataloging process and by the work of indexing. The limitations of consignations consist in the impossibility for the archivist to frame once and forever the complexity of a text. The aporia of archiving rests on the resistance to the categorization of the secret of the text. In this context, Earlie shows that the secret, for Derrida, is a non-synonymous substitution for dissemination. Dissemination describes the generative possibilities resulting from semic drifting constituting any semantic corpus, that exceeds any calculable economy of the text.

The final part of this chapter is related to the relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie turns again to “Freud et la scène de l’écriture”. In this text, he indicates the general relationship between the thinking of the trace and passions, the relationship between the subject and death. Expressions like “mal d’archive” and “pulsion d’archive” witness the affective side of Derrida’s thought of the archive. The chapter ends with a discussion on the meaning of our desire for the archive as “anxiety in the face of its destruction.”

Affectivity and Politics

The last chapter is dedicated to measuring the influence of Freud on Derrida’s reflections on affectivity and its relation to political themes. Derrida’s initial hesitation for political speculation is explained by the fact that, for him, political philosophemes are often obscure and heavily loaded with metaphysical conceptuality. In this chapter, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida’s reflections on the political are grounded on the aporia of affectivity. Against the prejudicial judgment of a dismissive treatment of emotions and affective experience, Earlie argues that a text like Passions depicts the image of Derrida fully interested in affectivity. For Earlie, Derrida deconstructs the classical concept according to which passions indicate external forces that drive passive subjects. He shows that Derrida’s reading of Freudian narcissism is an example of his aporetic account of passion. For Derrida, narcissistic auto-affection is countered by an irreducible inappropriability, the “non-self-belonging of technicity”, namely, the fact that writing exceeds subjectivity by constituting it, and trace is not the name of a circular movement of appropriation. In this sense, narcissism is (im)possible, caught in a mutual relation between sameness and otherness. The example of narcissism shows the double bind of affectivity in general. Broadly, for Earlie, if Derrida’s conception of affectivity is “always interwoven with […] possible-impossible auto-affection” then the political is (im)possible for it is grounded on the (non)coincidence of the auto-(hetero)-affection.

In this sense, for Earlie, Derrida articulates the political from the impossibility of pure auto-affection. The aporia of affectivity results in the consequent aporia of the political as “the anxiety-inducing exposure of […] bonds to incalculable otherness (à venir)”. Through a comment of La Carte postale, Earlie presents a convincing account of Derrida’s theory of anxiety that is the result of his reading of Freud’s Beyond the pleasure principle. According to this reading, anxiety is generated by the doubleness of binding, the “process in which a calculating desire for the object is accompanied by anxiety faced with is incalculable loss”. Anxiety is a condition that belongs to auto-hetero-affection since the self is constituted by what threatens him. This double bind of affectivity also explains the (im)possibility of bonds of friendship.

For Earlie, affectivity described in Derrida’s philosophy as the “structural non-coincidence which both constitutes and impedes, […] any stable bond between ‘self’ and ‘other’”. In this sense, it is easy to see why Derrida contrasts any account of the political grounded on supposedly natural or immediate bonds ultimately affective. In this chapter, Earlie demonstrates that Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis are fundamental for understanding the role of auto-hetero-affection as the condition of (im)possibility of any politics. In a sense, for Earlie, Derrida develops the extremes consequences of Freudian thought by showing both the aporetic relation between the self and the other and the contradictions hidden in affectivity. Earlie notes that Derrida reworks the Freudian concepts of binding (Bindung) to describe the irreducible affective tensions underneath the social bonds that unmask the fictive illusion of a peaceful civilization.

In the final part of the chapter, Earlie focuses on the later Derrida works centred around autoimmunity (auto-immunité). He illustrates how this concept has been developed by Derrida in La Carte postale through a reading of Freud’s vesicle allegory, the fictive image describing the sensory reception: “Freud’s fictive vesicle protects itself against external dangers by deadening its outer layer (or ‘shield’) and allowing small, immunizing ‘doses’ of dangerous excitation to filter through its semi-porous membrane”. This allegory does not only show the autoimmunitarian logic at work in the fictive vesicle. For Earlie, this also describes the continuity between auto-affection and auto-immunity. The auto-affection is ultimately auto-hetero-affection, since the subject experiences what is other than itself by affecting itself, as it is shown in the self-touching. Auto-immunity follows from the constitution of the self in the spacing of the self from its other. The danger of the other that it is already hidden in the experience of the self, is then a consequence of auto-hetero-affection. The subject and the vesicle are constituted only by means of a technicity that it is their condition of (im)possibility. In the first case, it is the trace or writing or supplementarity, in the second case, it is the deadening of the vesicle’s outer layer.

Earlie finally addresses the presence of Freudian themes in the Auto-immunités, suicides réels et symboliques and in Voyous, especially in relation to Derrida’s understanding of trauma and technology. By focusing on Derrida’s analysis concerning “September 11th”, Earlie comments on the originality of Derrida’s account of trauma. Derrida does not understand trauma according to the classical mechanical concept, a state of anxiety that is grounded on the recurring reappearance of calculable intensity of a past event. Rather, he shows that “September 11th” essentially exemplifies for Derrida a trauma that rests on the incalculable danger of an event-to-come that fuels the state of anxiety. The chapter ends with a discussion on the role of the technologies of communication in determining the affective impact of terrorism. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on television in Échographies de la télévision. The repetition of live footage of the towers’ collapse is compared with the “compulsive repetition” aimed more to guarding against the unpredictable future of potential violence rather than to mastering the traumatic, past experience.


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