What can philosophy get out of literary criticism? We've had some past episodes (like this and this) where we discussed some philosophical issues brought up by a piece of fiction, but that's different then the act of doing philosophy through literary criticism, which is supposed to reveal something about our relationship to language, to ideas, to culture. The tradition of criticism coming from Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida (and this is not to minimize the differences between them) considers not just how an author creates an effect or what themes he or she is trying to convey, but the relationship of a text or other creative work to the human psyche. Lacan in particular used literature (not uncommonly, following Freud and others) to help explain points of his psychoanalytic project. A story, like a dream, is fodder for analysis to learn about the psyche of its creator, whose characteristics will in many cases be generalizable to the rest of us. We discussed two related pieces of criticism on the evening of 4/2/13.
Lacan's "Seminar on the Purloined Letter" from 1956 (which you can read here) analyzes the Edgar Allan Poe short story from 1845 (which you can read and listen to here or listen via iTunes U). Lacan's point is to investigate "repetition automatism," which was a puzzle for Freud: if all of our actions come from the libido (the pleasure principle), then why do we sometimes engage in repetitive, self-destructive behavior. Lacan's explanation is that the unconscious is not just a bundle of drives, but is made up of symbolic strings, which participate in systems that have their own internal logic and thus motive force. In the story, the various characters take on certain roles in reaction to a letter being used to blackmail the Queen of France. The content of the letter is not divulged to the reader (is it evidence of an affair? a political plot? embarrassing fan fiction?), and so Lacan describes it as a "pure signifier" whose travel among the various characters constitutes a repetitive cycle: coming into possession of the letter pushes characters into a state of vulnerability, until at the end Lacan reveals that the supposed hero-genius of the story (who incidentally was a direct influence on the creation of Sherlock Holmes; this series of stories pretty much invented the modern detective story) has himself exposed his backside (figuratively) to the analyst, i.e. Lacan and his readers.
Jacques Derrida, in 1975, published his response to Lacan's article as "The Purveyor of Truth." In short, he criticized Lacan for not analyzing a text in such a way that makes use of Derrida's deconstruction and his related claims about metaphysics and language. Even though Lacan is notoriously suspicious of traditional philosophical claims about truth (he unsurprisingly sees all such claims as expressions of psychological and social phenomena instead of their being really about what they claim to be), Derrida claims that the old fashioned "metaphysics of presence" is still alive and well in Lacan's analysis, that Lacan depicts the act as speech as primary over writing (e.g. for Lacan, when you talk, you may let slip the contents of the unconscious, which as revealed are somehow more truly you than what you consciously think, though this is complicated; it turns out nether are "the real"), and that Lacan in analyzing the themes and content of the story and not the style of storytelling is missing the point of literary analysis. Not to mention that according to Derrida, psychoanalysis finds itself everywhere, meaning that Lacan is reading the usual hypersexualized/Oedipal triangle/castration story into Poe where this is really not warranted.
We read these articles in the collection The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, complied in 1988 by John P. Muller and William J. Richardson. This is much preferable over chasing the abovementioned articles around on the Internet because:
1. There are supporting essays explaining specifically what Lacan is talking about and giving background on Derrida's general project.
2. Even on the Poe story itself, there are lots of footnotes explaining where he got various ideas and other elements.
3. The Derrida essay has been mercifully abridged from some other versions, and the abridgment was Derrida-approved.
4. There's some background on psychoanalytic reading in general, including an essay by Marie Bonaparte, a patient and student (well, "associate") of Freud, whose more overtly sex-obsessed reading was read and criticized by Lacan.
5. There are no less than eight other essays in the volume that evaluate and expound upon the two articles we all read, including one by editor John Muller that helpfully explains Lacan's debt to Hegel (i.e. my comment above about "logic and thus motive force" is an idea straight out of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit).
Beyond this, there's plenty more information out there on Poe himself: it's helpful to understand "The Purloined Letter" to at least read or listen to the first in the Dupin trilogy (the Letter being the third), "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which introduces and explains the genius of the Dupin character. I also found it helpful to look at Poe's essay "Philosophy of Composition," which exemplifies how Poe actually worked. In the essay, he reveals how he crafted "The Raven," i.e. very meticulously, with seemingly sole attention to affecting the reader, not trying to make any kind of philosophical point. While this doesn't mean that he's not tapping into some interesting psychological phenomena, to me it was a testament to what literary analysis actually should be, i.e. understanding why a work is effective and the techniques involved rather than merely appropriating the work to one's already existent philosophical project.
nice, for folks who are interested in these lines of thought but can’t stomach frenchified food for thought I would recommend Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally and for folks who might like something continental but with an all American twist they should check out Stanley Cavell.
Wayne Schroeder says
“frenchified food for thought” –LOL
“This essay makes two fundamental arguments: (1) Poststructuralism
and ordinary language philosophy are different paradigms, in Thomas
Kuhn’s sense of the word. I share the misgivings of those who feel that
Kuhn is not well-suited to explain anything at all in the humanities. But,
as I shall show, in the case of Cavell there are unusually solid reasons to
turn to Kuhn. (2) Attempts to squeeze ordinary language philosophy into
the poststructuralist paradigm will always fail. When ordinary language
philosophy is read through the lens of poststructuralism, misunderstandings
Nice, dmf! Kuhn is good and Cavell is very good!
yep, a book worth checking out by Wes Sharrock & Rupert Read is Kuhn: Philosopher of Scientific Revolutions.
Cavell is an acquired taste (for me at least) to read but well worth the effort (and some excellent secondary sources out there) and he is a quite accessible lecturer:
In my opinion, you have exceptional taste and I’ll check out the link. I have a bunch of stuff on Cavell in a box in my basement.
Daniel David says
After listening to the first Lacan episode I’m really looking forward to this. I thought the variety of reactions made for a particularly interesting discussion.
If you guys do some more psychoanalysis stuff down the road, any chance you’ll do an episode on Ernest Becker? “The Denial of Death” was a big one for me. It would be even cooler if you could get Sheldon Solomon to come guest on it.
Omg guys. The letter is the phallos, which is the interest of the (m)Other. How can one know, what does the (m)Other want? What is it that makes the (m)Other want _that_?
Phallos marks what is that which is wanted – that is, what could fill the lack of the (m)Other. Nobody can say what is it which makes it wanted, what gives it the special meaning. The cause of the meaning is beyond reach – like the text in the letter. The letter is wanted (as is phallos), it is hidden (until aquired), everybody wants it (desire of the Other defines what one desires).
So, what do we as neurotics try to obtain in life? Something that fills the lack of the mOther – what Other desires and as such, we desire. How do we know there is such thing? Because something is missing and wanted.
The story shows, presents, how this could be written in example. If it, for example, would be made to movie: “How do we chase the phallos – to have it which is desired”
Cory Olsen says
I see this post is a toddler now, so I’m a bit late to the game, but I recently began an interest in tackling a sort of comprehensive book of criticism on Poe’s work, and encountered Lacan and Shoshana Fullman essays as large bumps in the road. Now with Derrida, thickening the plot, it makes my effort to take them all on all the more complicated.
In short, I find all of these writers very dense and of little use in terms of what they actually ultimately say. They seem more interested in the nature of interpretation than the story, the content of which of course Lacan argues IS the nature of interpretation. It’s sort of like “The Purloined Letter” is Lacan’s “Oedipus Rex” – guiding his theory forward.
While Lacan’s application of his theory to the story is intriguing and looks plausible, digging into it accurately seems to present faults. For one, the prefect functions as a superego figure, while the king – and perhaps queen also – should be in the superego position; further, in a way, Lacan’s interpretation is nothing more than an Oedipal or even Aristotelean triangle: ego, superego, id; or pathos, ethos, logos. The king is audience (as is the minister albeit unknowingly or unwittingly for the queen), the queen as actor is the ethos figure – character – and the letter is the logos – as are her actions, perhaps, in terms of how the audience react to her withholding of the text. Thus, it really isn’t so avant guarde.
As a representation of the situation of analysis – patient and therapist – with regards to the minister, he is no therapist at all functionally, but an extorter – or something, we assume (which is another question if we keep delving into the question of western thought). Dupin himself also poorly figures as an analyst – what he does is (for money) participates in aiding the prefect and the queen suppress – or repress, depending how we take the story (expressionistic or other) – the letter, which is to say the content that would presumably reach the consciousness of the king. In a sense, he sort of tries to extort the prefect, who is also I guess kind of extorting the queen. Both of these roles, while may well be in position of signifiers, or interpreters dictating the signification, fail in regard to Freud’s basis for successful treatment – bringing unconscious knowledge to consciousness. This was not the only factor for success, but it was and is still today regarded by the majority – maybe ALL – psychoanalysts, whether they are ego, object, Freudian, or other. The idea has been pushed further, but still foregrounds the subsequent divergences.
Thusly, and perhaps in more ways, I find the Lacanian interpretation as deeply flawed just even in a psychoanalytic sense. Further, the idea that signs are dictated by the symbolic world we exist in may be freeing in a sense that it helps us to see there may be other ways to see, but ultimately the nature of seeing involves symbols, and we have to make conclusions about things.
This is where my beef with Derrida begins. The wandering, permanent para-basis of meaning, the difference, and deference, the binary, on and on – ultimately seems to lead to a conclusion that all meaning is arbitrary. Whether or not that is true – and we could assume it is, if there’s no God and such – the idea is itself an interpretation; another of the so called arbitrary interpretations and perspectives just as psychoanalysis is; just as Marxism is; just as structuralism, signifier, etc. Further, even if it were true, we could never really know for sure – because by its nature, the theory of deconstructionism is figurative, or symbolic, as it comes through language, and language is symbolic. We cannot speak or write without figures.
I don’t know that taking stands or having biases is delusion; maybe it is; but it seems to me that things do have a meaning: the meaning we assign them. Our lives have the meaning we assign to them up until our deaths (or brain death), and we order our world based on them. THere’s no way around it – from birth, it seems clear that infants struggle and suffer tremendous pain partly because they have no understanding of the world and separateness; thus, from very early – probably in the womb – they start assigning meaning and garnering a kind of understanding about things – through their own investigation, and with caregivers, through their lenses. It does seem to have a calming effect on them – and helps them to grow and may be necessary even be able to live.
Anyway, these are some of the directions I’m going, and I do find that a certain reading of Poe – yes, either some authorial intent or some very searing unconscious dilemmas – was intended or has merits – not to dismiss or idealize Poe; but rather, I think his continued readership lies in something particularly American about his writing; I think the French suffer from the same disease they preach against: they see their own ideas everywhere, too. Anyway – if you’re still around, I’d love to hear a reply. I don’t anticipate a warm welcome, but your rebuttals might help me forge stronger fire, and my real subject is Poe’s stories.
Ben Pope says
Glad to see that someone else is still struggling through this stuff. I found this article extremely helpful in getting a handle on the text: De Ville, Jacques. “Derrida’s ‘The Purveyor of Truth’ and constitutional reading”.
As of now, you can get it through the following link: http://repository.uwc.ac.za/xmlui/handle/10566/300
That article provides a lot of context that isn’t Derrida’s essay.
Len Corte says
The letter, as in Blazing Saddles, Obama reaches into his pants as say’s, “excusing me while I whip this out”. The letter as pure signifier i.e. the Black Phallus, is revealed only latter in the line “why don’t you loosen your bullets”, the Other, both desired and feared.
Jennifer Tejada says
I enjoyed The Purloined Letter. This episode frustrated me to no end. In so many of the psychoanalytic episodes I listen to, there is this sort of uncharitable undertone it seems to have, particularly in this one where Wes was absent. I’m not sure if it is because you had trouble being charitable to Lacan’s interpretation while simultaneously trying to point out what Derrida was criticizing. Perhaps if you had first done the episode on just Lacan’s interpretation of TPL. I generally like what you all do, but this is 2 hours of my life later and not only do I feel that I don’t understand what Derrida was saying about Lacan, I don’t even know what Lacan is saying about TPL clearly. I am generally frustrated that you get to the end of the episode and Seth and Dylan are both like…I just don’t buy the psychoanalytic take on this story. So then why do it? I would have LOVED a very charitable explanation of Lacan via TPL. I think it would have clarified some of his theory. But it seemed you guys just thought it was hogwash and skipped right over to D’s bashing of it. Not cool IMO. I personally felt that TPL as analyzed by Lacan was to serve as a tool for properly understanding signifiers and the signified. It was not meant to serve, IMHO, as a great critical reading of TPL. So Derrida is kind of annoying to me in that way. It’s like – let me take your allegory about the mouse and the lion and explain why it’s not probable because the mouse and the lion CLEARLY cannot speak and reason and have memory. Sigh. I enjoyed Candide, No Country for Old Men, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance immensely. I really hope you will do more analysis of fictional works from a philosophical perspective. I would love to have an episode on The Brothers Karamazov because no one else (due to the usual brevity of most podcasts) will ever do a podcast on it I am sure! My biggest complaint here is – either give the people you discuss true charity or just don’t do them. Or properly and clearly explain them charitably BEFORE you dismiss them. thanks.
Jen, that seems fair and accurate in my judgment. A great essay on the Lacan interpretation is out there by psychoanalytic scolar shoshana felman “on reading poetry:…”
I find the reading to be actually quite fraught with confusion due to the complicity it puts the analyst or seer in; if we take lacan’s idea seriously, then Poes text can be seen as a kind of allegory for the sign signified signifies idea AND also for the process of psychoanalysis. However, the analyst agrees to aide the female figure suppress info from the male royal figure-which suggests some illicit activities though we never really know. That is akin to a psychoanalyst aiding and abetting the patient’s willful repression rather than awareness.
It’s interesting also that the letter never is read – to us and to most or all the people in the story.
I’m working on an essay about it;
I find the story more interesting- much more interesting- than the criticisms; useful to understand the schools, but amputative of the story and its riches.