Double Dive into the Abyss

(For the Mexican journal INTEMPESTIVAS, on Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction)

When one sets out to examine the double theme of « deconstruction » and « psychoanalysis », what is obvious at once is that both these terms are misshapen — and therefore often misused. Here, “misshapen” does not imply a defect — for what could be the standard or truth against which the defect is to be measured? What is implied, rather, is a sort of double misunderstanding, which it is both possible and desirable to dispel, since it corresponds to a similar — or even shared — difficulty encountered by the makers of these terms.

Makers, yes, poiètes, inventors and tinkerers treading on uncharted territory — at a time when there was nothing more to discover on earth, but when, by contrast, new continents of thought were emerging. This contrast was not a matter of chance: once the world of earthlings (humans and other beings) was entirely known and recognised as isolated in a cosmos with no heavens looking down on it, unprecedented explorations became necessary. There was nothing to look for in a beyond, any more than on Earth, under the earth or in space (what we are doing now in the sphere of planets and galaxies is no longer exploration, but merely the deployment of our means).

And so, words became exploratory, experimental… Heidegger had to explain the meaning of « Destruktion », which was translated as « deconstruction » and Derrida did everything in his power to prevent this word from being frozen, from being taken for a doctrine — and even from tending to disappear.

As for Freud, not content with having coined « psychoanalysis », he created the term “metapsychology”, on the model of « metaphysics », a word we know to have been mis-constructed in a prior attempt at sequencing.

These two words are unstable and extensible: neither their meaning nor their referent is identified. On the contrary, they designate, or rather they open onto, fields they bring into existence, and which do not fall under any kind of confirmed domination or domesticity.

In fact, these terms do not rely on references lying outside their explicit limits. They may even be signifiers having no signified to be found in a dictionary — other than through reference to those who created them. They were created for thoughts in which nothing is given, nothing is available. Perhaps as gifts or enigmas presented in their undisguised hesitancy.



Nietzsche had realised this need for new names, from the position of a man who saw former worlds crumble, saw the Earth become a boundless ocean offering no bearings, and an unfathomable enigma arise before thought.

Indeed, thought has always known this. We must not be fooled by the apparent certainty displayed by metaphysicians, theologians, prophets or myth tellers — nor, as it’s becoming more and more clear, by learned men in various sciences. All of them have always known, with dizzying unknowingness, that their certainties are limited. They knew it, if only unknowingly. And they knew that this limitation is not due to the limits of comprehension: it is the inherent limitation of that which emerges from nothing and exposes itself to nothing — that which is there for the love of being there, or rather the love of passing through.

Deconstruction can be said to take apart or disassemble philosophical constructions believed to be solidly founded, but it is neither a demolition (as Heidegger pointed out for the word Destruktion), nor an analysis in view of a reconstruction. In fact, deconstruction wants to free itself — or rather sees us freeing ourselves — from orders, coherences, elaborations, and even proper usage. Deconstruction functions through dysfunction — and this is not a dodge (something Derrida was often accused of), but is due simply to the fact that functions malfunction on their own or function only thanks to the credence given to them.

Psychoanalysis can be said to be founded on a clinical practice in which various forms of ill-being allow themselves to be put into words, but it is not a medical practice regulated by health norms. In fact, it strives to free itself — or to see us free ourselves — from the models of health, well-being and normality of a society which is not what Nietzsche called “good and healthy”. To this end, psychoanalysis lets the apparent illness speak, so as to give itself its own vitality and meaning. Psychoanalysis also functions through dysfunction: the dysfunction at work in language itself, the endless exposure of sense to its outside — which functions only thanks to the credence given to it. This is how Lacan is able to twist certain words into burlesque forms.



Deconstruction and psychoanalysis originate in a shared — even identical — requirement: the requirement of an (un)knowing as old as thought itself, which has reached a point where thought had to turn back on itself, setting its own point of impossibility, once called “the beyond”, “God” or even “Infinity”. Here, the impossible had to be considered as it was, not a possible entrusted to some transcendence (even if it were “freedom” or “reason”), perhaps even “Man” or “Superman”, since Nietzsche himself said: “Neither by land nor by sea you will find the way to [him]”.

The impossible — this term introduced by Bataille (located between deconstruction and psychoanalysis, to be exact) — came to designate not what the possible must exclude, but that which should be conceived, even desired (which does not mean sought) and loved (which is not the equivalent of the Greek phileín, nor of the Latin caritas: neither attachment nor predilection).

In a sense — but a very delicate sense… — the impossible holds the place of the limitless possibility attributed to an Almighty represented as the power of God (which was only a name for this power), as the power of science, or as the “control and possession of nature”, as much as the control and transformation of passions. But this place is not only empty: it does not exist, it is not locatable.

When Lacan formulated the phrase: “The unconscious is structured like a language”, he was indicating that the “unconscious” is not a language, does not have the functions of a language, but, like a language, constitutes a self-referential ensemble of sense production or delivery which leads to no ultimate meaning, but replays endlessly an idiomatic power (a “subject” whose chief particularly is that it fades away). (Ultimately, language itself goes beyond its functions and reveals itself to the unconscious — we shall come back to this later). The stakes involved in “structure” in general are the vacuity and/or non-existence — impossibility — of a central or sovereign place, of a first and last meaning.

Thus, the impossible does not hold the place of anything: it opens anything to the non-existence and inanity of any principle and any origin. (This, let it be said in passing, resembles nihilism, of course, because it is its overturning or dissolution.)



The idea of almightiness, as we know, was one of Freud’s favourite themes. Not only the “omnipotence of thoughts”, but even the power of “psychoanalysis” which he created, and, the presumed power of humankind to disperse its own obscurity — for Freud all this was more than objectionable: the Freudian enterprise intended to exclude it all. But he had no intention of replacing other representations with the power of the unconscious, of drives or of sex: his edifice located itself in a different sphere, or employed other means than those associated with power. (Drives are not powerful, but rather impulsive, demanding, insistent.)

Omnipotence is the attribute of fantasy: Derrida said so after Freud, echoing Freud, and pointing out, for example, that Joyce found a way to laugh at it. Heidegger considered omnipotence to be a forgetting of what he called Faktizität (facticity) or the actual conditions of existence.

The first fundamental link between “deconstruction” and “psychoanalysis” is the recognition of the undeniable, unavoidable existing conditions. These two endeavours are fiercely realistic; they came into being in the wake of the dissolution of idealisms, ideologies and other reveries, and were sparked by an imperative to “go back to the things themselves” — to use the phrase coined by Husserl, one of the visionaries connected with the dyad we are discussing. The difference between this dyad and Husserl lies in the clear consciousness of the fact that “the things themselves” have no “themselvesness”, no consistency of their own other than that of the rough, unidentifiable, erratic and adventurous facticity of what exists.

Thus, deconstruction and psychoanalysis are not methods; they are not means to an end — not to mean that they might be gratuitous games, but   that each one is constantly transformed by its practice. This transformation is not a progression towards an objective, but, on the contrary, a continuous exposure to the real which changes and sweeps away in its metamorphoses all established and recognised forms. Among these, psychoanalysis and deconstruction see themselves swept away, unstable or diffusible, to an extent equal to the changes and disruptions constantly occurring in existing conditions. It is in this that the Real always goes beyond the sphere of the possible and the not-possible. The Real is always emerging — it can only be becoming — and therefore, also, ceasing to be. Or, if you prefer, appearing and disappearing.



It is not knowledge, but the experience — trials, attempts, encounters, adventures, surprises, loss and discovery — of this infinite power of the Real which creates the strong inclination in which these twin events are rooted. This inclination has a particularity which distinguishes it from the most wide-spread tendency generated by opinions, beliefs and certainties: the certitude of having, and/or the will to have, an origin.

Deconstruction, like psychoanalysis, has an “archaeology” — a term which acquired prominence in philosophical vocabulary thanks to a new tendency whose first manifestation was the dyad we are discussing. Merleau-Ponty, whose position at the intersection of deconstruction and psychoanalysis is unique, compared his own work with that of an archaeologist, because he was keenly aware of the need to clear away many layers of sediment before uncovering the phenomenon he called “perception”, which he saw as constituting “being-in-the-world” in its facticity and concreteness, which take precedence over any intellectual consideration.

But Merleau-Ponty’s persistent (or so it seems) image of an archaeological dig which reaches a certain depth runs into difficulty when the pit proves to be bottomless. Freud’s trajectory is characterised by a growing distancing from all his initial standpoints: this is what happens in the case of the “primal scene”, which loses its illusory “primacy” and acquires a firmer and more complex reality as a “scene”. Heidegger’s evolution is marked by increased distancing from what he initially considered an age prior to philosophy (a primal scene in the relation to “being”), leading to the rejection of this perspective in favour of a posteriority or of a “not-yet-now” of this relation. As for Derrida, we can say that all of his work centres on an impossibility of the origin, of its need to separate from itself, which prevents it from ever taking place.

Derrida speaks of the “archi-originary”, adding Husserl’s German ur (archi or arché) to render it infinite by taking it down from any pedestal. Freud points out — making reference to Darwin — the extent to which forgetting dominates individual and collective evolutionary processes. Only a lost, forgotten, repressed origin, only an origin without origin, can originate — generate, create, elicit — any kind of originality: that of a singularity: an individual or collective “subject”, that of a characteristic or an authenticity.

Psychoanalysis and deconstruction: double modality of the non-originary. Not a decapitated reflection without principle, foundation or father, but a reflection exploring the ways in which the origin itself evades the search for an origin or its postulation.

Double reflection on an ever-renewed initiality: at any moment, psychoanalytic work can generate another biography, at any moment the work of deconstruction can rewrite the bios, the singular unfolding of existence.

In addition, the two processes intersect at every moment: biography unfolds, revealing a profusion of times, customs and collective forms. In parallel and symmetrically, the narrative reduces major stories to singular, random and formless accounts.

Their intersection can be said to occur at the crossroads of two Nietzschean formulas: “Every soul has its hidden dirt” and “If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”. Dirt/abyss: trash/spam; degradation/dizziness; fall/surge: these couplings of oxymorons only make sense if we give up any ambition to achieve sense.



Another formula, loosely quoted from Nietzsche, states: “Introducing a new sense — this is the task, once we admit that this task has no superior meaning.” In essence, this is the maxim psychoanalysis and deconstruction have in common: the recognition of the originary escape of the origin opens a new possibility of sense which takes this escape into account, and takes responsibility for it.

This new system of sense is designated by two terms: the “text” for deconstruction, and the “unconscious” for psychoanalysis. Once again, these words are “ventured”, approximate. Both of them point in the same direction: that of the limitless connection between all things, the ties, references and bonds whose multitude is the corollary of the fading away of the origin. These words have often been misunderstood, “text” being taken to mean composition and the “unconscious” to mean a sort of deceitful, hidden consciousness.

In both cases, what is designated is the joint presence and interaction of everything that is. Joint presence encompasses both the origin and the being, and displaces presence itself: we no longer have units placed side by side, but points of release, transmission, reception, contagion, radiation, correlation.

Wittgenstein asserts that the only right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world is the existence of language itself. Through this existence, with its limitations (we might say: not limited by its limitations), language expresses that which exceeds its capacity to signify — or better still: it expresses that there is excess in the expression serving as a signifier. This notion, contemporary with the two others we are examining, testifies to a historical conjunction (what is called the crisis or end of philosophy), as well as to the reason for which psychoanalysis and deconstruction share with Wittgenstein, at this moment in history, the exploration of language as a source of excess of its own function.

Lacan saw this clearly: speech does not exist; only a language can speak of (another) language, and a language is always foreign to itself. Words always speak from elsewhere, to others and otherwise: there is no metalanguage because the surpassing or going beyond implied in “meta” functions in the very depths of language.

This also allows us to cross-reference these two parallel notions: attempting to deconstruct psychoanalysis or to psychoanalyse deconstruction would, strictly speaking, amount to replaying each one — either one of these two that we cannot call discourses or practices without having to reverse their roles at once.

The least adequate term to give to a common category in which both notions can be placed would be praxis, as Aristotle defined it: transformation of an agent without production of an object. Here, the agent is language itself — language which goes beyond signification.

No doubt, at this point the difference between these parallel notions must be pointed out: one of them (the unconscious) focuses on a speaking subject — a “subject” defined by his “speaking-being” called upon to speak of that which in himself proceeds or exceeds speech; the other (the text) focuses on language, more exactly on the intertwining of languages in every language, the possibility of impossibility of translation from one language to another, as well as within the same language — in short, we might say, the impossibility of reducing meaning to what is signified.

There is a gap between a subject’s “outside” and the “outside” of a language. We might say: between the individual and the collectivity, if the two parallel notions did not intersect exactly at this point, at the “between” of their separation: for between the individual and the collectivity there is only one thing, and that is their interdependence.

But this gap remains, there is no question about it. What we wanted to show is that it separates two forms or two presentations of the questioning characterising the being-in-the-world without an origin and without a purpose other than his existence.

This existence begins and ends at the moment of birth and the moment of death of a body — that is, an externality and an alterity. Freud observed that “the psyche is extended”. Derrida commented that only a body is an other, the other of one’s own self. This physicality supports and reinforces the effectiveness which holds the two notions together.

Still, each of the two entities is left with the (inevitable) inadequacy, even danger (always possible) associated with its name. Beyond “psychoanalysis”, Freud named a “metapsychology”, in order to try to reach another sphere and attain another knowledge: that of a “mythology” representing the thought of impulses — which are “myths” in that they cannot be classified as “physical” or “metaphysical”. Derrida fought against the category-specific or rigidly defined usages of the word “deconstruction”, going so far as to advise that it should be forgotten, or giving a definition mythical in itself (“Deconstruction is America” — using the term “America” to mean something it no longer means to French-speakers today).

Myth speaks of itself to itself. It is speech speaking of itself — of the abyss from which it emerges. Or, it is that which cannot be inscribed, writing itself as it is. In a world totally deprived of myth as we just defined it (rather than racial, national or commercial fables, or merely storytelling), psychoanalysis and deconstruction have charted their double course towards the as-it-is of the unspeakable.

That is, the real of our lives.

December 2017


Jean-Luc Nancy (Caudéran, France 1940-2021) taught philosophy at the University of Strasburg and previously taught at the University of California San Diego. Among his works: with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Le titre de la lettre. Une lecture de Lacan (Paris: Galilée, 1972) and L’Absolu littéraire (Paris: Le Seuil, 1978); La communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: 1986, 2001); L’expérience de la liberté (Paris: Galilée, 1988); Etre singulier pluriel (Paris: 1996); Hegel, L’inquiétude du négatif (Paris: 1997); Le regard du portrait (Paris: Galilée, 2000); L’”il y a” du rapport sexuel (Paris: Galilée, 2001). With Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Dernières publications : Banalité de Heidegger (Galilée 2015). Sexistence (Galilée 2017). Exclu le juif en nous (Galilée, 2018). La Peau fragile du monde (Gaalilée 2020). Un trop humain virus (Bayard 2020). Mascarons de Macron (Galilée 2021). []

Publication Date:

January 2, 2018 

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis