Derrida on the Couch
the Perversity of Deconstruction
Michael Williams

The affinities between deconstruction and perversion are evident in Freud’s own writings on perversion. The deconstructive double-gesture reproduces the textual moves in the original scene of fetishism as depicted in Freud’s essay “Splitting of the Ego in the Defensive Process” (1938). In this text Freud lauds the child’s strategy in the face of the threat of castration as the “ingenuous solution” of fetishism – what Lacan calls the “perversion of perversions.” Freud describes the terrified boy’s reaction when confronted with the lack in the little girl – or, more specifically, when confronted with a present castration threat that retroactively marks the earlier “sight of the female genitals” as a “dreaded confirmation” of the omnipresent threat. The perverse little boy’s “ingenuous solution” is to accept both the “demand of the instinct” – to deny that-there-is-something-missing in order to sustain the satisfaction of plenitude prior to difference – and the “command of reality” – to acknowledge that-there-is-something-missing and that he, too, may lose that-something. This “ingenuous solution to the difficulty” – what Freud says is “another way out” of the castration threat – is the creation of a substitute. The fetish object substitutes for that-there-is-something-missing. This substitution allows the little pervert to disavow: ‘I know very well that-there-is-something-missing, but nevertheless – …a…a…shoe…a…a….’ This play of repudiation and concession – what Freud calls “the to and from between denial and acknowledgement” – allows the little boy to dismiss the threat and hence sustain his pleasure.

The perversity of Derrida’s deconstruction is palpable in his 1967 essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” One such conspicuously perverse feature is deconstruction’s demand for the simultaneity of mutually exclusive tasks. The two “interpretations of interpretation” offered in “Structure, Sign, and Play” are “absolutely irreconcilable even if we live them simultaneously and reconcile them in an obscure economy.” To both search for truth and dance beyond such a project performs perversion. This both-truth-and-play two-step poses a triple – “absolutely irreconcilable” – impossibility: the impossibility of truth and origin; the impossibility of adventure and dance; and the impossibility of “liv[ing] them simultaneously” in what Derrida refers to as an “obscure economy” and in what I designate as perversion. Both modes of interpretation are impossible as separate endeavors on their own terms. As such these two strategies mimic the logic of perversion as articulated by Octave Mannoni: ‘I know very well, but nevertheless….’ For the perverse deconstructionist: ‘I know very well that truth and origin are impossible, but nevertheless…’; ‘I know very well that adventure and dance are impossible, but nevertheless….’ Indeed, Derrida ‘knows very well’ that both projects are impossible, ‘but nevertheless….’ The demand to “live them simultaneously” (my emphasis) exhibits the both/and simultaneity characteristic of perversion. Just as the perverse little boy sustains two contradictory interpretations – both an acknowledgment and a denial that-there-is-something-missing – so does the deconstructionist “simultaneously” perform what are “absolutely irreconcilable.” The deconstructionist’s two-step perversity participates in the perversion of the both/and matrix: both a structuralist-pragmatic interpretation and a passage “beyond man and humanism,” and both reproducing the very economy that is the object of critique and flirting with an “absolute break and difference.”

There are several specifically fetishistic features of deconstruction that are especially evident in “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1967). In this paper Derrida notes a “series of substitutions of center for center” as a constitutive feature of every structure. By “center” Derrida means the transcendental condition of possibility – the enabling feature, the founding act, the constitutively necessary element – that provides an unquestioned ground for the organization and balance of a structure; the “center” is the unexamined assumption, the uninterrogated premise – what Lacan would call a point de capiton – that makes a structure possible (and impossible). The “series of substitutions” refers to the infinite variety of terms for the “center” – the substitution of one term for another. The “center” is subject to this “series of substitutions.” This series includes foundational terms – the “center” – that make each structure possible: God, man, cogito, mind, existence, essence, phenomenological consciousness, will to power, Being, to name a few. The resonance between the fetishist’s shoe and the philosopher’s “center” is immediate – both are substitutes. The logic of the fetish mimics the logic of substitution: the shoe stands in for, stands in the place of, fills the role of, the missing maternal phallus. The logic of the structure’s “center” is also a logic of substitution: the “center,” in Derrida’s words, “receives different forms or names.”

The “history of metaphysics” determinate of “Being as presence” has masked what would otherwise be scandalous: that “the center” is, as Derrida says, “not the center,” that the mover-and-shaker is always “elsewhere,” that the foundation of structure “escapes structurality” itself. It is because the “center” is in fact always de-centered – not in its proper place – that “the concept of a centered structure” can be understood as, in Derrida’s memorable phrase, “contradictorily coherent.” The contradiction at the center of “center” is that the mobility of the structure – what Derrida refers to as the “event” and the “rupture” (and which is none other than history itself) – produces a play, a movement, a give-and-take that subverts the “center” that is the structure’s condition of possibility. The determination of “Being as presence” reduces what is otherwise becoming and transforming – the spinning of the system, the toppling of the structure, the event, the rupture, history, time, thinking – to something immobile and nameable; the movement of becoming is reduced to the being of stasis. The “center” is radically unavailable, elsewhere: not present.

The non-present “center” that Derrida finds at the de-center of the structure marks another similarity between deconstruction theory and the concept of perversion: that the substitute, whether the fetishist’s shoe or the philosopher’s center, is always not itself. The fetish object functions as a substitute for the missing maternal phallus – something that was never there but should have been. The fetishist’s shoe is a stand-in, a prop, a substitute for the-something-that-is-missing. In fetishism it is absence – the very fact that-there-is-something-missing – that functions as the objet petit a, as the cause of desire, as the raison d’etre of the human subject. The fetish object does not substitute for nothing but for the presence of nothing: a ‘present absence’ of sorts. In Seminar VII (1959-60) Lacan equates the maternal phallus with das Ding. Lacan says: “The Thing is characterized by the fact that it is impossible for us to imagine it.” What this suggests is that the fetish object does not stand-in for something that is present and nameable – although we would like to approximate that-there-is-something-missing with the maternal phallus. Rather, the fetish object is a prop for the function of absence – for the function that-there-is-something-missing. This function is ‘itself’ (qualified with scare quotes because it is ‘absent’ or ‘not itself’) the source of the subject’s desire – of the substance constitutive of the subject’s very existence. The pervert’s a is ‘a’ substitute for ‘the’ function – the absence. The pervert desires ‘the’ function but only finds ‘a’ fetish object. The ‘present absence’ of ‘a’ ‘center’ is not itself ‘the’ function (of ‘itself’).

If the fetishist’s object is an object that substitutes for the function, if the structure’s center is “not the center” and “elsewhere,” then how are we to define the fetish object and the structure’s center? If the fetish is not what-is-missing, then what is it? If the center is not itself, then what is it? The pervert’s a and the philosopher’s “different forms or names” are ultimately props for a function – transcendental enabling conditions of possibility. This introduces another shared feature of perversion and deconstruction: the functionality of both the fetishist’s object and the structure’s center. When temporality and movement unsettle the rigidity of structure, when Derrida began “thinking that there was no center,” then it was discovered that the center is “not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign substitutions come into play.” Derrida suggests that the center is a necessary function; the center is a place-holder that receives different names – an “infinite number of sign-substitutions” – depending upon the structure that it founds, organizes, and balances. The center qua center is a faceless and nameless function whose functionality may be fixed but whose name and face – its “different forms or names” – are unfixed and substitutable. The appearance of the center qua center is itself impossible: the center is a function whose appearance is always marked by “different forms and names” of an “infinite number of sign-substitutions.” The center qua center – the center as function – is always “not the center” and always “elsewhere.” The different names and faces of the center – God, man, cogito, mind, existence, essence, phenomenological consciousness, will to power, Being, etc. – are each an incarnation of the necessary function that makes a structure possible (and impossible).

Lacan’s objet petit a is similarly functional: the object is the cause of desire, the condition of the subject’s own possibility, the subject’s raison d’être. The specific and particular features of the object – whether it is a shoe or a clitoris – are immaterial to its functionality. The function of the objet petit a – to initiate and organize the subject’s desire – is inexhaustible. The ostensible attainment of an object cannot deplete the transcendental power and efficacy of the function; there will always be another object that will serve the function of the objet petit a. It is for this reason that Lacan titles one of his texts “God and the Jouissance of The Woman” (1973) with “The” crossed out and under erasure; there is always another woman such that the woman (who I’m fucking) is only a woman – another woman always lurks beyond the bend. This model of desire is essentially fetishistic: an a is a substitute for another a is a substitute for another a – all “remnants,” in the terms of Seminar XI (1964), or “semblances,” in the terms of Seminar XX (1972-73), for the unattainable. Lacan brilliantly performs the very function of a by consistently shifting its name and definition – “different forms and names” in Derrida’s words – throughout the course of his teaching. In his discussions of “Schema L” Lacan refers to the object as ‘a,’ but in his seminar on The Transference (1960-61) Lacan refers to the function of a with the Greek term agalma from Plato’s Symposium. Most revealing is Alan Sheridan’s note in his translation of Écrits that “Lacan insists that ‘objet petit a’ should remain untranslated, thus acquiring, as it were, the status of an algebraic sign.” Lacan’s use of a formal and abstract symbol for the function of the object-cause of desire performs the ultimate untranslatability of the function: the transcendental function can only be represented by a sign whose translation is imprecise and approximate.

Both the strategy of deconstruction and the desire of perversion covet this functional transcendental condition of possibility: the center of the structure (or a foundational term) and the phallic function (or a fetishist’s a). Derrida announces the absolute necessity and inescapability of the function of the center. He notes that “one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure” and that “the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.” The Derrida of “Structure, Sign, and Play” recommends only the thinking of the “structurality of structure” – an “event” or “rupture” that replaces one sign-substitution (say: God) for another transcendental term (say: Power). However, in his recent theological turn Derrida posits an ecstatic and optimistic ‘yes, yes’ – to an economy outside of traditional metaphysics – to a system beyond the rigidity of structure. I want to argue that the early (and pessimistic) Derrida of a certain no! – an apparent ‘no, no’ to a structure-less structure and a nothing-outside-the-text – has matured into the later (and more optimistically – if still cautiously – passionate) Derrida that cries ‘yes, yes’ to the impossible, the unthinkable, justice, ethics, and other ‘substitute’ terms for an experience of the impossible. Derrida’s later formulation of deconstruction affirms an impossible economy that explodes the founding, orienting, and balancing function of a “center.”

Lacan’s concept of desire similarly functions to (impossibly) destroy the transcendental condition of possibility – the phallic function, the objet petit a, the a. The designation of the object of desire as the object-cause of desire suggests that desire seeks its own condition of possibility; desire aims to fuck that which makes it possible. If desire is the “essence of man,” as Lacan proclaims in Seminar XI (1964), then a desire that desires its own cause constitutes a self-destructive suicidal desire that seeks to fuck – or to eat or to pulverize or to love or to demolish – its own condition of possibility, its own ground of existence, its very “essence.” It is no wonder, then, that the psychoanalytic death drive is a desirous drive for death; desire’s passion for its own cause consists in a movement of self-immolation: a literal death drive. The questions for both the deconstructionist and the fetishist (or any subject-of-desire) are: how does one fuck a function? how does one destroy the condition of one’s own possibility? how does one orient oneself toward the project of self-immolation? what attitude corresponds to such a suicidal gesture? what is leftover after the “center” (impossibly) disintegrates and the phallic function (impossibly) falters?

These are the questions that neither Derrida nor Lacan (nor Freud) finally resolve. Deconstruction neither repeats nor reverses the hierarchical logic of the binary that it seeks to upset. Rather, deconstruction seeks an “obscure economy” that exceeds the logic of the binary itself. Perversion neither represses the sight of the female genitals (neurosis) nor forecloses the economy of difference (psychosis). Rather, perversion seeks an “ingenious solution” and “another way out” of the Oedipus complex. This affirmation of the impossible – ‘yes, yes’ – animates both projects: of deconstruction and of psychoanalysis. What is this “obscure economy”? – what is this “ingenious solution”? ‘Yes, yes’ – to what? The objet petit a of both deconstruction and perversion is this impossible. – a death of the subject. It is toward a creative reinvention of this death – of the beyond of humanism, of the other to individualism – that both deconstruction and perversion gesture.

What is the difference between the Jacques of psychoanalysis and the Jacques of deconstruction? I would locate any disagreement – or difference – between the two Jacques in an intersubjective competition that finds its most theoretical visibility in the distinction between structuralism and post-structuralism. Neither Derrida nor Lacan offers explicit formulations and defenses of these theoretical positions. However, any differentiation between Derrida and Lacan can only be decided by the question of (perverse) substitution: what is the theoretical significance of the ‘post’ in post-structuralism found lacking in structuralism? what is replaced in structuralism by the substitution of the word ‘post’? Derrida’s critique of Lacan as it is disseminated, as it were, first in the long footnote in Positions (1971) and later in the essay “Le Facteur de la Vérité” (1975) reveals that it is Lacan’s erection of a system – the system of psychoanalysis with its equation of truth-woman-castration – that Derrida finds most metaphysical and worrisome. In an uncharacteristic if not charming declaration of his own identity – and as an identity that is different from Lacan’s identity – Derrida writes: “The difference which interests me here is that – a formula to be understood as one will – the lack does not have its place in dissemination.” For Derrida the term “lack” cannot name – is not “the place” of – the instability or play in the structure; no one (transcendental) term – “the lack” – has “its” own and proper “place” in either the play of the text or the dissemination of meaning. The difference between the two theories is that whereas Lacan identifies a necessary and structural lack in the very being of the human subject in its vexed relationship to the world of signification, Derrida acknowledges – or affirms – a play in the text. Whereas Lacan emphasizes lack and loss – the missing – Derrida impossibly resists naming the void and identifying the absence.

The distinction between Derrida and Lacan – and between structuralism and post-structuralism – cannot be separated from a certain competition or intersubjective rivalry between the two Jacques that Lacan’s own theory finds at the basis of the narcissism and aggressivity of the imaginary register. Such contention is palpable in Derrida’s Positions (1971) footnote in which he mentions Lacan’s “aggressions in the form of, or with the aim of, reappropriation.” The theme of ownership (le propre) frames many of Derrida’s texts, including The Truth in Painting (1987) – a text on the Shapiro-Heidegger debate about the Van Gogh “shoes” and the undecidable but unavoidable question of “whose shoes are they?” Whose theory is it? Who has determined the center as “otherwise”? Is it Derrida-structuralism or Lacan-structuralism? And which one is ‘post’? In Lacanian terms the slippage between the two Jacques mirrors the difference between the ego-ideal and the ideal-ego that Lacan both inscribes and undermines in the appropriately outside-and-inverted chapter title “Ego-ideal and ideal ego” in Seminar I (1953-54). It is what Lacan would call the “madness” and “confusion” of love: the dissolution of the distinction between self and other, lover and beloved, ego-ideal and ideal ego – a psychotic (dis)union delayed by reading these Jacques as two rather than as one. In the spirit of such madness let us ask the who speaks? of structuralism and post-structuralism: is it Jacques-structuralism or Jacques-structuralism? As with Derrida’s différance we cannot hear the difference between the two Jacques – nor, however, can we even see the difference. So, more rhetorically than ever: what’s the difference?


The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Ed. James Strachey (UK: Hogarth Press, 1966), 23: 275.

Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book I, Freud”s Papers on Technique Ed.. Jacques-Alain Miller, Transl. John Forrester, New York:Norton, 1991.

Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire livre IV, La relation d’objet, Paris: Seuil, 1994.

Jacques Lacan, The Seminar Book VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. Dennis Porter, New York: Norton, 1986.

Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book XI, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. Alan Sheridan, New York: Norton, 1998.

Alan Sheridan, “Translator’s Note” in Écrits, New York: Norton, 1982).

Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, transl. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, transl. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

Jacques Derrida, The Post Card, transl. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Jacques Derrida, Positions, transl. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, transl. Geoff Bennington, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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