Determinism and Chance with Freud and Derrida: from Hermeneutics to Critical Reading

John W P Phillips



Part of the way into the second and main section on “My Chances,” “From ‘Literary’ Ascendance” (just after the long programmatic statement about “marks” and their “insignifiance marquante”), Derrida provides a paragraph outlining the two main reasons for referring to the mark or trace rather than letter or word, and to “the Democritian or Epicurean stokheion in its greatest generality.” 

First of all, this generality extends beyond the verbal sign and even beyond human language.  Thus I hesitate to speak of the “arbitrariness of the sign” in the manner of Hegel or Saussure.  Then, within this very frame of reference, I prefer to diverge, in turn, from strict atomism and the atomistic interpretation of the stokheion.  My clinamen, my luck, or my chances [mes chances] are what lead me [or “incline me”—que m’incline] to think of the clinamen beginning with the divisibility of the mark (16).

The principle on which Derrida operates—the repeatability of the mark and its consequently internal divisibility—thus begins to organize all of his readings.  We can ascertain this by analyzing them.  I don’t think that this principle is a hypothesis or even a theory (if we accept that theories are hypothetical).  I couldn’t disagree with it.  This isn’t just because it makes good sense.  It hardly does that on the surface.   But even my attempts to disprove it or test it depend on it.  All right then, perhaps it does have this “generality” that Derrida claims.   But perhaps also this generality is relatively trivial.  What difference does it actually make to us to know that a mark must be divisible?  The answer to this is implicit in the quotation.  The divisibility of the mark implies that we must include a category meaning something like “luck” as a condition of possibility for everything that depends upon the mark.  This applies not only to language, not even to human language, but perhaps to everything that comes under the supposedly different rubrics of nature and culture. 


Now we know that the question of luck is not exactly excluded from the field of nature (or that of culture) by scientific attempts to understand these fields.  But in a question that searches for a scientific answer one must suppose that what happens by chance be regarded as an accident that might or might not happen to disrupt the otherwise orderly plan.   Chance comes into the field of orderly, rule-governed, spheres as if from the outside.  Derrida’s principle, however, suggests that if anything ever gets going at all it must be as much owing to this element of luck as it is to the systems whose aims might seem to be to exclude luck.  A well-executed plan must guard against the accidental.  We call this sphere that of contingencies.  An idiom of the thriller, the Heist narrative, dramatizes the inevitability of the accidental (if it can go wrong it will go wrong etc.).  The best laid plans, etc.


Now Derrida has said, in “Différance” for instance, that he is trying to establish a “science in a new sense” that would relate “restricted economies” (languages, idioms, systems, ensembles, structures, organizations, etc.) that cannot take account of chance and death etc. to the “economies without reserve” that do take account of chance and death etc.  In other words Derrida is attempting to set up a scientific way of thinking about the connections between finite ordered systems and chance effects.  This “Science” in a new sense would “put into relation” [in the French “mise en rapport”] a philosophical language in which everything can be made to make sense and a “general economy” which can acknowledge and even affirm that which in language exceeds sense or which cannot be reduced to meaningful content.  With this distinction, without even wishing to affirm one side against the other, one is shifting from theories of reading based on notions of interpretation or hermeneutics, to use the traditional word, to notions of critical reading.    


Now we know what kind of a thing this “connection” is, what it is that puts sense and nonsense into rapport, at least in terms of the minimal effects produced by it.  Derrida calls it the mark.  The best way to acknowledge the existence and effects of the mark is through the observation of an accidental slippage, a substitution of one letter for another (like the a for the e in différance).  In Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life there are many examples.  Freud describes the childhood memory of “a man of twenty-four” whose aunt was trying to teach him his alphabet:

He had difficulty distinguishing between the m and the n, and asked his aunt to show him how to tell them apart.  The aunt pointed out that when compared with n, m has a whole extra part to it, a third stroke.  There was no reason to query the accuracy of this childhood recollection, but it acquired its true significance only later, when it could stand symbolically for something else the boy wanted to know.  Just as he had been anxious to tell m and n apart in the past, later he was trying to tell the difference between boys and girls, and one senses that he would have been happy to get the information from the same aunt.  And the differences, as he discovered, were of a similar nature: by comparison with a girl, a boy has a whole extra part to him. (Psychopathology 49-50).

The otherwise meaningless difference (a third stroke) becomes meaningful in retrospect.  Freud describes here the structure of delay, of Nachträglichkeit.  First difference then meaning.  The “true” significance seems to take hold of this difference to turn it into a symbol for sexual difference.  The “whole extra part” (the third stoke of the m) will ultimately turn up as the Lacanian Phallus (and the n of course represents its lack).  Melanie Klein devotes several pages of her 1922 essay, “The Role of the School in the Libidinal Development of the child,” to the symbolic significance of letters for children learning to write:

For Fritz, when he was writing, the lines meant roads and the letters rode on motor-bicycles—on the pen—upon them.  For instance, “i and “e ride together on a motor-bicycle that is usually driven by the i and they love one another with a tenderness that is quite unknown in the real world.  Because they always ride with one another they become so alike that there is hardly any difference between them, for the beginning and the end—he was talking of the small Latin alphabet—of “i” and e” are the same, only in the middle the “i” has a little stroke and the “e” has a little hole. (Klein 64).

Once again the conditions that Derrida outlines as simultaneously those of division (divisibility) and the indivisible devolve—where meaning first begins to emerge as such—not only upon the differences of the sexes but upon the pleasure, even the love, that these infinitesimal differences suggest.  Derrida too makes sure to note—with another lucky find—the relation of pleasure to the accident in the fall of a clinamen (a decline) in the text of Lucretius:

Here I must ask you to allow me a brief digression toward a classical philological problem concerning the indeterminate reading of the word voluptas or voluntas (2.257).  The mere difference of a letter introduces a clinamen precisely when Lucretius is at the point of explaining the extent to which the clinamen is the condition of the freedom and will or voluptuous pleasure that has been wrested from destiny (fatis avolsa). (JD 7).

No one is in fact in any doubt that the correct reading is voluntas, as every current edition shows, yet the question of the slip, of the fall or the failing, and its relation to freedom is indeed, as Derrida notes, exactly what Lucretius is concerned with at this point.  The clearly accidental nature of the indeterminacy is therefore precisely to the point.



De Botton’s TV Show on Epicurus