Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DE010-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

2. From deconstruction to hauntology

As already indicated, ‘deconstruction’ was never originally intended by Derrida to function as a ‘master-word’ naming a new philosophical methodology. Rather, it was conceived as a provisional way of referring to his approach to the metaphysics of presence. Over the years, Derrida introduced a number of other equally provisional terms. Of these, one of the most pregnant, though it was developed in only one of his numerous books, was ‘hauntology’ (hantologie).

Just as the concept of deconstruction arose out of Derrida’s reflections on phenomenology, so the concept of hauntology developed out of a long-standing engagement with psychoanalysis. In his early essay, ‘Freud et la scène de l’écriture’ (‘Freud and the Scene of Writing‘) (1967), Derrida argues that Freud, like Husserl, both discovered and disavowed the originary ‘proto-’ or ‘arche-writing’ of différance. He discovered it, first, in his 1895 speculations on the differential ‘breachings’ of neurons, and, finally, in his 1925 comparison of the psychic apparatus to a writing machine. He disavowed it, however, by clinging – despite his theory of the unconscious – to the idea of self-presence as the ground and telos of psychic activity. Thus Derrida reads Freud as remaining, no less than Husserl, within the metaphysics of presence. Yet it is noteworthy that, while phenomenology is an essentially solitary activity (even when it purports the universality of its findings or attempts to describe the genesis and structure of intersubjectivity), psychoanalysis is a practice for which the relation to alterity is essential. Perhaps for this reason, Derrida continued to return to the works of Freud and other psychoanalysts long after he had ceased to write about the work of Husserl.

In a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1917), the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan put forth the dictum that ‘the letter always arrives at its destination’, by which he meant, roughly, that the circulation of signifiers in the unconscious inevitably returns to a central place. In La Carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au-delà (The post-card: from Socrates to Freud and beyond) (1980), Derrida counters this idea by arguing that all communication – whether conscious or unconscious, ‘fictional’ or ‘real’, etc. – is subject to the non-teleological condition of destinerrance. On this view, there are no simply proper, or self-identical, senders or addressees of the missives that we write (or that write us), a point that Derrida underscores in the lengthy ‘Envois’ with which the book begins, a series of fragments of postcards that he supposedly sent to various family members. Much of Derrida’s thinking about destinerrance derives from his reading of Heidegger’s reflections on the German idiom es gibt in expressions such as Es gibt Zeit (‘There is time’), a topic that is also taken up at length in Derrida’s book Donner le temps (Given Time) (1991).

The idea that the relation to alterity is central to psychoanalytic practice was highlighted in the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok (1994), for whom mourning and melancholia represent the two paradigmatic forms in which the relation to alterity manifests itself. Derrida wrote several essays that deal explicitly with Abraham and Torok’s metapsychological concepts of the ‘crypt’ and the ‘phantom’, and it is these notions that tacitly inform the conception of hauntology that he eventually introduces in Spectres de Marx (Spectres of Marx) (1993). Hauntology – or, rather, fundamental hauntology, a homonym in French with Heidegger’s ‘fundamental ontology’ – would investigate all of the ways in which an originary relation to alterity constitutes the very subjectivity that then finds itself in relation to ‘others’ whose spectres cannot be exorcized in any simple way. So conceived, hauntology can be thought of as Derrida’s way of naming something like the phenomenology of Levinasian ethics. Levinas had criticized both Husserl and (especially) Heidegger for failing to recognize the specificity – and non-phenomenality – of the ethical relation to others. Like Levinas, Derrida maintains that the relation to alterity – and to death, both one’s own and that of others – is in some sense prior to the plenitude of being, so that there could be no ‘I am’ that did not entail an ‘I am haunted’. This conclusion echoes Derrida’s earlier claim that there is an essential connection between the ‘I am’ and the ‘I am dead’. Unlike Abraham and Torok, who draw a fairly sharp distinction between the successful completion of a ‘normal’ work of mourning and the crypts and phantoms that are said to arise from a refusal or inability to mourn, Derrida suggests that it is impossible not to be haunted. It is noteworthy that he develops his conception of hauntology around a reading of Marx’s obsession with exorcizing metaphysical ghosts of various sorts. While suggesting that this tendency in Marx’s thought cannot be separated from the ethically fatal history of Marxism, Derrida also embraces Maurice Blanchot’s conception of a future Marxism ‘to-come’ (à-venir), one that would be open to the experience of being haunted in a way that Marx was not. Thus hauntology serves not only as an ethical elaboration of the concept of deconstruction, but as a political one as well.

Citing this article:
Cutrofello, Andrew. From deconstruction to hauntology. Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004), 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DE010-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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