Critical Theory



Week 6


Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (in Penguin Freud Library 11: On Metapsychology, pp 275-338).


Jacques Derrida, “To Speculate: On Freud,” and “My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with some Epicurean Stereophonies.”


Commentaries and Links


Psychoanalysis Links

To begin with it might be an idea to get a working understanding of Psychoanalysis and its role in the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Apart from the background readings and the primary texts available at the above website you will also find links to papers I’ve written for teaching purposes.


Something Other than Mastery, Something Completely Other (“Freud’s Legacy” 318)


Still with the problematic of self-reference, we now broaden our horizons.  This week we have broadened them to include the horizon itself.  And of course that is where we began anyway—so nearly there, nearly there where we already are.  You remember we began with language and speech acts, moved on to perception and memory in general (and thoughts), and now, for our third major division of the course, we move on to the great institutions and their legacies.  But wait, we’re only reading Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.  This is just one institution, and pretty peculiar one at that.  Perhaps psychoanalysis will become for us the exemplary institution because it is so peculiar.  By locating—in its own self-referential paradoxes—the possibilities and impossibilities of its own institutional authority and mastery—psychoanalysis will perhaps have exhibited the limits and possibilities of all institutions whatsoever.  And by discussing psycho-analysis we are discussing just analysis.


Still with the problem of self-reference

Psychoanalysis can be read along side those moments when language refers to itself, consciousness becomes conscious of itself and vision sees (or attempts to see) visibility itself.  In each of those cases the paradox reveals a simple law.  The condition of possibility for a faculty, an experience, or an action cannot be comprehended within the system of that faculty, experience or action itself.  You cannot “see” visibility.  You cannot simply be conscious of —i.e., in the presence of—your consciousness.  You cannot name a name or take a concept as a concept (once you make a concept into an object it is no longer a concept, etc.).  Your signifier is always also a signified and your signified is never more than just another signifier.  You cannot, without losing either coherence or clarity, make statements about the statement you are making, unless you (which automatically happens anyway) occupy a system outside that which gives meaning to the statement itself.  Example: when the Cretan claims his statements are false he is caught (and so are we) in the self-reflexive paradox.  We can solve this only by constructing a sentence in the third person—all his statements are false.  What this implies is that we need to locate the truth of his statement in a language that is independent of his own—a metalanguage.  A metalanguage, however, is founded on its own most basic possibilities of self-reference and—oops—no objective grounds for truth (sometimes people link these phenomena to the “uncertainty principle” of modern sub-atomic particle physics; to clarify why, I have provided a short account at the end of this handout).

So psychoanalysis—in its founding gesture—can be put up alongside those other moments of self-reference.  In psychoanalysis an analyst acts as a third party in what is called the transference.  The human psyche is composed of a small element of consciousness, on one hand, and a whole tangle of obscure determinations (the unconscious) on the other.  The analyst—through conversations with the analysand who rests on the now canonical couch—can help to construct an experiential (spatial and temporal) dimension (the regular appointed hour or so in the analyst’s room) that by transference allows the playing out or acting out or performance of the unconscious relations and significations that are causing distress on the obscure unconscious level.  What is it that gives the analyst the authority and power to control the scene of analysis and to justify the interpretations that are necessary to loosen up the neurotic illnesses?  Well, the analyst must first of all have gone through his or her own thorough and complete analysis.  In other words—every analyst must first of all have been an analysand.  So who is the first analyst (there you are, it’s an origin question)?  Answer: Sigmund Freud.  Freud is remarkable then amongst the institution of psychoanalysis because he is the only analyst never to have had a prior analyst.  Psychoanalysis thus begins with its own self-analysis.  It is this fact that, as you will have discovered, provokes Derrida’s reading of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle in which the whole problematic of founding is, literally this time, played out.  Now notice that Derrida is not simply criticizing Freud (although he is having a wonderful time with the absurdities that constantly mark this peculiar yet authoritative text).  Derrida is doing something that all good literary critics should by now have become expert in.  He is reading the text.  And his reading exploits every demonstrable and demonstrably justified resource that readings must acknowledge as their basic responsibility.  In other words, Derrida is putting Freud’s account (his cience, his speculation, his commentary, etc.,) into the perspective of its own performance, its own playing and acting out.  Here we begin to see that the transference that the institution of psychoanalysis locks away into the private working spaces of its practice actually takes place and works itself out in its own documents—the moments of naiveté, blindness, and self-confidence that it must not acknowledge in order to maintain its own practice.  In other words the analyst might attempt to remove himself from the scene but is nonetheless inscribed as a component participant.  So the good reason for not just criticizing Freud and junking psychoanalysis as a kind of quackery founded on false premises (which is common especially among the so called “social sciences”) would be that in his own rigor and perseverance he albeit unconsciously reveals the conditions which no institution could escape.  And apparently more objective institutions and disciplines might always be all the more blind to these conditions in their self-identifying aims of objectivity.

On the way, of course, we have two wonderful examples of the sheer brilliance of the texts of our own legacy bringing us to our own self-founding as inheritors of a history and its institutions that we did not found (and sometimes did not even find).  Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle reads like a montage of early twentieth century discourses—its literary, speculative and scientific resources somehow usurp their own authority by their being mixed.  But perhaps the peculiarity of this text lies in its main topic: repetition.  Repetition simultaneously makes its mastery possible while eluding mastery.  Derrida’s text is mostly concerned with revealing, exploiting, and performing the effects of repetition on mastery.  And his affirmation, as always, would be towards a responsibility that is not, nor ever could be, a form of mastery, but in its coming-up-against authorities is ideally placed to expose the violence of their mystical foundation.           


The drive for pleasure

The notion of drive (both verb and noun) is closely related in psychoanalytic theory to the notion of instinct.  But the use of the term drive helps to get away from certain tendencies that view instinctual responses as fundamentally somatic or biological.  Freud distinguishes between instinct (German: Instinkt) and drive (German: Trieb) in the following way:

An instinct (Trieb) appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body.  (Instincts and their Vicissitudes).

The separation of body and mind in representation, memory, symbol or signifier is thus a function of drive.  A drive is an instinct in so far as it is attached to an idea and manifested as an affective state (or feeling).  In traditional views the instinct—e.g., the sexual instinct—was characterized by an inbuilt object, aim and function (member of the opposite sex, coitus, reproduction).  It is now well known that Sigmund Freud’s refutation of this assumption led to his notion of polymorphous perversity, that is, aimless heterogeneous drives that pursue only pleasure for its own sake.  What then is pleasure?  An idea or image, in its repeatability as a signifier (the image of the breast for an infant), thus becomes pleasurable or distressing in its own right.  The repeatability of signifying marks puts the pleasures of the body in touch with social systems of signification.

For Freud, the drive for pleasure had a simple aim in the reduction of what he called Unlust or “unpleasure.”  The infant is driven by its responses to stimulation, which it experiences as pain or at least discomfort.  In an early formulation he makes a well-known theoretical distinction between the pleasure and the reality principles.  The pleasure principle aims for immediate gratification.  The reality principle gradually involves the internalisation of a delaying mechanism that gradually lessens the need.  The reality principle is a kind of survival mechanism. What Freud calls the primary processes produce a kind of discharge that is dangerous if unchecked and so secondary processes, like repression, delay, and deferral, put obstacles in its way.  


Primary Processes                                   Secondary Processes

      Pleasure                                                     Reality

      Displacement                                              Repression

      Condensation                                             Detour/delay

      Immediate gratification                                Deferral of Gratification



The uncertainty principle explains why measurable qualities are subject to a minimum of unpredictable fluctuation and thus “fuzziness” in their values.  Quantities are associated in incompatible pairs, e.g., position and momentum.  So the degree of uncertainty in the measurement of momentum added to the degree of uncertainty in the measurement of position can never be less than what is called "Planck's constant" (a universal constant).  According to the principle, then, the more accurate your measurement of position of a particle then the more unpredictable will be your grasp of its momentum.  The same applies with the pair energy and time, as well as with other pairs of qualities.

In some cases, this is equivalent to saying that in order to reduce the uncertainty in time or position you require very large energy and momentum.  The reason that this principle only comes to light in quantum physics is that in order to explore the very, very small intervals of time and space on the subatomic level, a physicist need very, very large particle generators, thus increasing the level of energy and momentum.  The principle—though not in a way that you'd normally notice—applies throughout the physical universe.  Which means that this irreducible uncertainty level has caused a complete rethink of Newtonian laws and even relativity.




Geoff Bennington and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Jacques Derrida. The Postcard.  Chicago: CUP, 1989.

---.  “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Writing and Difference. London: Routledge, 1985.

---. Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Stamford: Stamford University Press, 1999.

Freud, Sigmund. On Metapsychology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.



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