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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, April 09, 2007

The Specter of the Name (For Jacques Derrida)

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/07 at 12:15 AM

(x-posted at The Kugelmass Episodes)

Since we’re on the subject of Derrida, I thought I’d cross-post this new tangent on Derrida’s work Archive Fever. What follows here is a reflection on the analogies between Derrida’s “Freudian impression” and parts of my own experience, in an effort to read both successfully.

It is indulgent to write about one’s own particulars, and to use them as material for speculation; I hope that you will find analogies of your own, and thus be able to forgive me. I might add that the self-reflection at work here is, in my view, somewhat necessary as a response to Walter Benn Michaels’s critique of identity (or “heritage"), which I encountered through Michaels’s text The Trouble With Diversity. In that book, Michaels continually proffers and retracts clues about his own heritage, while refusing to allow it any meaning in the present. The point here is partly to examine how absences of meaning can themselves be a function of heritage. Interested readers should check out both John Holbo’s new post on Derrida and our book event on The Trouble With Diversity.

To cite before the beginning is to give the tone through the resonance of a few words, the meaning or form of which ought to set the stage. -Jacques Derrida

Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. -Thomas Wolfe

Derrida asks, in Archive Fever, “Does it change anything that Freud did not know about the computer?” (26). His answer is yes, from a variety of angles. For Derrida, the account of the “archive” in psychoanalysis, which founds the psychoanalytic theory of memory, is a historical product of an age of print media. One of the motivating forces behind his re-examination of Freud is the ironic disruption of the theory of the archive by the creation of electronic archives which are both more stable and more virtual.

Derrida is particularly focused on E-mail archives, in part because they are so much more complete and indestructible than archives of letters:

This means that, in the past, psychoanalysis would not have what it was (any more than so many other things) if E-mail, for example, had existed....First of all because of the major and exceptional role (exceptional in the history of scientific projects) played at the center of the psychoanalytic archive by a handwritten correspondence. We have yet to finish discovering and processing this immense corpus, in part unpublished, in part secret, and perhaps in part radically and irreversibly destroyed—for example by Freud himself. (17)

Everyone who writes for The Valve does so under their own name, and accordingly, when I began posting to the Valve, I began blogging elsewhere under my own name at The Kugelmass Episodes. I was thus immediately confronted by the problem of an archive which exists under one’s own name, and which is completely searchable via Google: that is, the normal problems of excessive transparency that cause named bloggers to edit themselves in advance.

This creates (as Derrida’s text implies in its account of Freud’s possible acts of destruction) a classically psychoanalytic scene of repression, in which the gaps and absences in the text assume meaning, and readers try to scry the text for repressed truths. That happened visibly here, for instance, and eventually led to more valuable exchanges about the dangers of trying to look beneath the surface of an online text for evidence of a writer’s personal good or bad faith, a determination that would exceed what was visible through a guess about repressed content.

More interesting, though, is the fact that the archive gathered under my own name continually risks being eclipsed by the Woody Allen short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” of which I have received approximately 25 xeroxed copies in my life. It is a story about (what else?) people getting trapped inside of fictions – the name of the blog is a deliberate attempt to pre-emptively appropriate the reference.

In fact, the apparent simplicity of being eclipsed by or re-appropriating Allen’s story is itself false. The question remains why the name Kugelmass should be more singular (and thus more memorable and more de-realized) than, for example, the name “Weinstein” from Allen’s story “No Kaddish for Weinstein.” The reason is that almost every person with the last name Kugelmass was killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. That’s why the link to “The Kugelmass Episode” is largely free of static.

The historical reference is supplemented by personal history. Both my parents are now named Kugelmass, which wasn’t the case when they married. My mother chose to keep her maiden name on feminist grounds. Some time after their marriage, an acquaintance commented that she understood refusing the name Kugelmass, since it was unfair being saddled with such a Jewish name. My mother became a Kugelmass the following day.

So it annoyed my parents when they found out that I had dropped “Kugelmass” from my signature, choosing to sign as “Joseph K” instead. Dropping Kugelmass meant leaving out the name that had been assumed by my mother in the face of ordinary anti-Semitism, and that earlier had survived (on the level of the whole family) the incredible horror of the Holocaust. The issue was not exactly one of forgoing convenience; my father’s signature is remarkably abstract, for the sake of convenience.

Instead, my parents were under the impression that this was a deliberate erasure, and that “Joseph K” (particularly since it refers to famously anonymous protagonist of The Trial) did not actually signify the whole name, unlike my father’s metonymic abstraction. Perhaps they were right. I’d been encouraged to adopt the name (not as a signature, but as a nickname) by my girlfriend at the time, with whom I eventually broke up because she came from a conservative Jewish family who objected to my being, in my daily practice and matrilineal heritage, non-Jewish.

Thus I was interested to find that Derrida’s text was overwhelmingly concerned with the relationship between Freud’s archive, those texts gathered under the “Freudian signature so as not to have to decide yet between Sigmund Freud, the proper name, on the one hand, and, on the other, the invention of psychoanalysis” (5), and Freud’s Jewishness. Derrida is writing in dialogue with Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who researches Freud to discover whether psychoanalysis might be a Jewish science—and, up to a point, to argue that it is just that in his book Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable.

Derrida quotes Yerushalmi:

Le-didakh. Let it be according to you [Freud] that religion, the great illusion, has no future....But should you tell me that, indeed, they [Moses and Oedipus] have no hope, I shall simply reply—you may very well be right. But it is on this question of hope or hopelessness, even more than on God or godlessness, that your teaching may be at its most un-Jewish. (Yerushalmi 95)

Derrida interprets this as follows:

What would be the least Jewish, the most “un-Jewish,” the most heterogeneous to Jewishness, would not be a lack of Judaism, a distancing, as the French translation says, with respect to Judaism (religion, belief in God, Israel’s election), but the nonbelief in the future—that is to say, what constitutes Jewishness beyond all Judaism. (74)

Here Derrida’s amusement is almost undetectable, but a little later it becomes clearer: “Yerushalmi is ready to make concessions on everything, including on the existence of God and on the future of religion, on everything except on the trait that links Jewishness and the opening toward the future” (74). Then the mood shifts from amusement to protest:

The being-Jewish and the being-open-toward-the-future would be the same thing, the same unique thing, the same thing as uniqueness—and they would not dissociable the one from the other. To be open toward the future would be to be Jewish. (74)

Derrida chooses to do without “risking myself in the logical abyss of this affirmation and in the aporias of exemplarity” (75), but he has made his point: there is something dangerous about limiting the ability to possess openness to one particular tradition. Furthermore, this logical abyss derives specifically from the willingness to “make concessions on everything” – that is, to allow an entirely abstract (and therefore perfect) relationship between Freud and the Jewish tradition.

Against this “unicity,” Derrida posits spectrality, the specifically phantasmic nature of truth that is lost when the specter is explained away. He writes:

But we should not forget that if the psychoanalytic explanation of hauntedness, of hallucination, if the psychoanalytic theory of specters, in sum, leaves a part, a share of nonverisimilitude unexplained or rather verisimilar, carrying truth, this is because, and Freud recognizes it himself a bit further on, there is a truth of delusion, a truth of insanity or hauntedness. (87)

This truth is also the truth of fictionality, as Derrida makes clear by reminding us that Freud claimed Moses and Monotheism had to be read as a “historical novel” (5). Just as Derrida himself had confronted Marx via the specters of Marx, Yerushalmi is confronting Freud with the specter of Judaism. This finally allows Derrida to proclaim that “Yerushalmi is right” because “he has managed to allow for truth’s part. Freud had his ghosts, he confesses it on occasion” (89). One upholds the past, and belongs to its traditions, by arguing with its ghosts, and exceeding them through argument.

Of course, one must be very careful, in dealing with history of this sort, with the term “fictionality.” It does not mean an absence of historical truth. It means, rather, that an individual cannot transparently assume the past without veering into parody. One person changing her name does not mean an end to anti-Semitism. It is of course true that every day afterwards was less of a drama, less of a “coup d’theatre” in Derrida’s terms, than that one day of decision. No matter how I live out my name, there is no way for me to adequately honor the matter of murdered relatives, especially not through some ill-fated attempt, for which I would have no preparation, to enter the Jewish tradition more fully. I simply have no direct relation to the historical fact other than the ghastly joke of de-realization via the Allen story.

It would be equally ridiculous to act entirely severed from these histories, for several reasons. First of all, the closest thing to a symbol of that severance, the signature, contains my grandfather’s name, and refers to a character invented by Kafka. The fiction of the unconditioned self is another expression of the traumas it supposedly represses. Furthermore, and this is part of the point, I have no “name” of my own, no ex nihilo archive of canonical status. To claim otherwise would be comic once again.


Perhaps this sheds some light on the problem of the relations between the personal and the political, and between the subjective and objective in the reception of texts. The name is bound up in the concerns of the family. It is given in marriage and to children, and so it survives. Given a history of hardship and oppression, the name is a sign of triumph. Yet the instant it is mistaken for an absolute or sufficient triumph—over oppression, over hatred, over want—it betrays its own history, because all of those things are still with us.

The name can only be a sign, and so it goes with all of one’s personal affairs: they are signs that indicate larger struggles, and the struggle does not exist without the sign. Derrida comments with regard to Freud’s life and work that “What is in question is situated precisely between the two” (5). History haunts us without ever being fully available to us, and yet we share this structure of spectrality universally. The fact that the past returns to us in the form of stories makes it articulable, makes it crucially susceptible to analogy.

Derrida begins Archive Fever with the question of the signature consigning the archive between these two poles, and ends with the problem of the future. The analogy succeeds because the signature is the promissory that summons the individual to the future: the ghost of these ghosts.


Wow, fantastic post! I tried my hand at “Archive Fever” some years ago, and could only make sense of it in small pieces. It’s great to see you develop this personal history on his speculative arguments, though I must confess there are some points in your post where I can’t quite follow you (especially your penultimate paragraph).

I’m also not sure I’m on board with Derrida’s engagement with Yerushalmi—seems like he might be introducing this semantic puzzle involving temporality (the discussion of the future/hope) to talk around a point that could be articulated much more efficiently using the duller language of identity politics: i.e., if we said, simply, that Freud was culturally Jewish rather than religiously Jewish.

More strictly on the naming tip, some of what you say resonates with me because my name has a certain history as well, though not on the scale of the holocaust. For “simplicity,” my own parents removed a “family” (or caste/clan) name when they came to the U.S. 30-odd years ago—which might seem like erasure via immigration, the first stage in an assimilation process.

But what they left ("Singh") has, if anything, a stronger religious signification: “Singh” immediately signifies someone from a Sikh background, moreso than the name they excised. There’s more to this, but I don’t want to go on too long (maybe I’ll write a post on this on my personal blog some time).

One other thing—you might be interested to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” (or see the film version that’s recently come out). What Kafka was (is?) for you is somewhat similar to what Gogol was for Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli.

By Amardeep on 04/09/07 at 09:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, thanks so much!

In my penultimate paragraph, I was trying to make a couple of different points.

First, I was trying to dispel the notion that we inherit a particular set of permanent affiliations. We do find ourselves with affiliations, but all of these are mediated through language: for example, through the discourses of religion and through family mythology. So there is nothing that mutely travels “in the blood,” unless we leave it mute or embrace the language of racial mystification. Furthermore, this alienation is not an effect of cultural loss (e.g. my loss as an American of mixed descent), but rather an original spectrality induced in all cultures by temporality and succession.

That means that Freud is available to all persons through his writings: no particular group can claim privileged access to him, and every group will interpret him within a different context. To say that he is “equally” available risks skipping over the way Freud will enter into dialogue with all the ghosts of a given reader.

Furthermore, we share with other people experiences like dislocation and significatory drift, which is exactly where you were going by describing your own family history. There can be commonalities of form even where the content is remarkably different.

The effort is a dialectical one. I want to sublate the distinction between fidelity to one’s own traditions and heritage, and fidelity to universalist ideals—and I think this is also what Derrida wants to do through the agency of language. He wants to tell Freud’s story, the story situated between Freud’s life and work, without mystifying it in such a way as to make it only fully accessible to some.

For Derrida, this means not trying to decide whether Freud was really a “Voltairean,” as he claimed, or whether he was really a Jew, as Yerushalmi claims—neither the discourse of the Enlightenment nor Freud’s familial heritage can be taken for the foundation (i.e. the “real") of the life or the works.

This allows Derrida to wrest free of the iterative model of heritage, the literal repetition of whatever one’s ancestors have done, rather than the dialogue or even argument with them. He also is able to avoid privileging the family over other simultaneous affiliations, such as nationality or humanity.

The iterative or literalist model, to which Derrida opposes his own spectral model, is also the wrongheaded model for many interventions of the political in the sphere of the personal. Derrida’s inclusive, attentively presentist model of the argument with ghosts illuminates the secret complicity between oppressive injunctions to fidelity to heritage, and equally oppressive injunctions to secularism and abstract subjectivity, such as those made by Walter Benn Michaels in his rejection of “identity” and “diversity.” For writers like Michaels, abstract universality becomes the “real,” and heritage the epiphenomenon or illusion. This attitude obscures the equally constructed, discursive, and partial nature of what we call the “universal.” It also tends to gloss over the fact that a human being can never solely embody universality in the context of her real life, or embody abstract principles (such as “feminism” or “tolerance") at all except through an act of interpretation in context.

Everything about The Namesake has me excited: the author, the trailer, the director (Mira Nair), and the fact that the lead actor was unforgettable in an earlier role as Kumar.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/07 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One quick addendum, to clarify the point about cultural Jewishness: to claim that Freud is “culturally Jewish” tends to make that part of his identity foundational; ultimately, it is this foundationalism that Derrida identifies with religiosity, rather than any particular article of belief, since Yerushalmi is willing to compromise on all of those.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/07 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I don’t think I’d include Benn Michaels as a universalist.  I believe he’d argue that universalism is simply one more ideology, along with racialism, pluralism, identitarianism, cosmopolitanism, and so on. 

Benn Michaels’ point is simply that we *are* only what we believe and do.  And that believing and/or doing things historically associated with a national or racial or ethnic group does not make us a member of that group—in his example, playing the blues makes me a blues musician, not a black person.  To be a member of a national group, once has legal citizenship.  Otherwise, with the cases of ethnicity and race, Benn Michaels basically says these are fictions, myths, and so it’s simply impossible actually “to belong” to a race or ethnicity.  (I suppose he’d say, instead, that one belongs to a group that buys into a particular ideology of race or ethnicity.)

The question I then have is about sexuality and sexual identity.  In the Benn-Michaels post-identity worlsd, is one only a heterosexual or a homosexual when one is engaged in specific sexual acts?  Or is it the nature of our desires that determine whether we are homo- or heterosexual?  Or, possibly, our genetic signature?  Is a celibate man who once fancied other men a homosexual?  Is celibacy itself, as some are arguing, a separate sexual identity? 

That is to say, what does Benn Michaels do when there *is* possibly some biological component to the behavior?

By on 04/09/07 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I think you may be right to represent Michaels as you do, but that only leaves me more dissatisfied with Michaels, since “universalism” is clearly the best term for his system of obligations. We are obliged, in his view, to overcome divisive identity categories in favor of economic justice, a “justice” that has to be underwritten by some theory about shared humanity.

Foucault seems compatible, in his view of sexuality, with Michaels on other matters. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and celibacy are all myths when they enter the realm of identity. Celibacy is perhaps the most obvious case, since it could signify moral purity, or the conservation of energy/essence, or something else entirely. The historicity of the meaning of homosexual acts has been well-established by Foucault, Proust, Gide, and others.

The major difference between Michaels and Derrida, and the place where I side with Derrida, is not on the question of myth. Both writers think of identity as constructed through myth. Rather, it is the question of whether a “post-identity” world is possible. In this post, I am trying to show exactly why the feeling of being “without a past” is both discursive and an effect of certain pasts.

Michaels also writes as though one could disregard the disproportions of different myths as individuals encounter them. Anyone who has met a conservative child of rebellious parents will understand that even the most radical and abstract ideologies (such as a position against diversity) become involved in complex, chaotic dialogues over generations, and don’t simply pave the road to Utopia.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/07 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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