Life Death Lagging Behind

Gareth Williams

Biology has not yet been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it is only a regular but yet perhaps avoidable event in life. It is true that the proposition “All men are mortal” is paraded in text-books of logic as an example of a generalization, but no human being really grasps it, and our unconscious has little use now as ever for the idea of its own mortality.

Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”.

Scene One: Hegel’s University, and Life Death.

The opening decision could not be more clear-cut. With the announcement of a reactive act of subtraction, Derrida demarcates himself immediately from the overall institutional landscape of the teaching of philosophy in France, almost as if he were about to embark on a chronicle directed against the French pedagogical scene of the mid 1970s. The teaching of philosophy in France, he observes—and, indeed, he observes this before saying anything else—is an essentially Hegelian, and therefore an essentially spiritual, and therefore an essentially instrumentalist, affair. ‘Hegel’ is the name of an institutional arrangement that holds free thinking firmly tethered to the old ground of the (German) university, and therefore to “the concept of position and the position of the concept, self-positioning and opposition”. Philosophy in France is bound to the thinking of causality, to the force of the dialectic, and therefore to the re-presentation and re-production of an unceasing “battle to the death” via consciousness’s recognition and determinate negation in the desire of the other:

What did I do when I announced this seminar under the title life-death, that is, when I replaced with a hyphen [un trait d’union] or a space without mark [trait] or a mark without word, with a marked silence, the and that generally posits death with life, the one juxtaposed with the other, or, more surely, opposed to the other. It is perhaps just this relationship of juxtaposition or opposition, this relationship of position, this logic of position (dialectical or non-dialectical), that will come into question when it comes to life death. By doing away with the and, I was not trying to intimate that life death did not form two, or that the one was not the other of the other, but that this alterity or this difference was not of the order of what philosophy calls opposition (Entgegensetzung), the double positioning of two facing one another, in the sense in which, for example in Hegel, the concept of position and the position of the concept, self-positioning and opposition, are the driving schemas of the dialectic, a dialectic that essentially advances as a very powerful thinking of life death, of the relations, as one says, between life and death, and especially where the opposition, the contradiction (dialectical or not), is the process by which one opposite passes into the other, the process of identification whereby the one is sublated into the other. [i]

 Philosophy in France, in other words, reproduces itself internally to the teleology of progress and to the entire apparatus of human development that the Hegelian dialectic strives to extend. From the outset, however, Derrida insists on the possibility of an ever so slight, yet potentially seismic, act of separation: Life Death. This is the wager for the emasculation of an entire history and order of metaphoricity that upholds the symbolic order, as Derrida puts it, in “biological, seminal, spermatic or germinal” terms, reproducing “the institution, [as] the possibility of stable erection and reproduction”, as if the French university were the socialized extension of that “almost omnipotent institution” that Freud had referred to, half a century before, as the pleasure principle, and that Derrida, in the “Eleventh Session”, refers to as “the psychical apparatus [that] endeavors to keep the quantity of excitation present within it as low as possible, or at least to keep it constant”.

Against, therefore, the instrumental character to which the function of university agency has been tethered and reduced, against the Hegelianism that both unleashes and renders constant its movements in the direction of Spirit, life death suggests the promise of a falling-away of the authority of the phallus.

It is clear that Derrida’s demarcation of thinking and teaching from the Hegelian metaphysics that underlies the organization and reproduction of the university, should leave no clear inroad into, or orientation for, the signifier, since in life death there can no longer be anything native or familiar to the movement of first life and then death, or of first mortality and then immortality. Rather, Life-Death would be the harbinger of the unfamiliar (of the uncanny). It would be the strange, uneasy place left in the wake of the subtraction and crisis of a certain form of causal reason. Echoing Freud’s etymological approach to the question of the Unheimlich, life death could only ever mark an uneasy passage, or withdrawal, beyond the order of representation; a passage, in other words, toward that which Freud referred to in “The Uncanny” as the locus suspectus (Latin), or Xenos (the strange, the foreign in Greek) that underlies thinking itself. For this reason, through life death there could only ever be the possible unconcealment of something daemonic in the kingdom of modern French philosophical teaching.

The decision to excise the mandated “and” from the title of Derrida’s course syllabus—“Life and Death”—is designed to draw attention, via the cut, to the question of the beyond. But, as already suggested, life death registers a question of a beyond that is other than that anchored firmly within the histories of determinate negation, or in the movement of unconditional self-certainty grasping itself in its eternal coming to presence, all of which have been the guarantor of an entire “system of academic prescriptions that organize the reproduction of an institutional organization”, while defining “the schemas of the reproduction of living beings”. 

Martin Heidegger highlighted in Hegel’s Concept of Experience that the original title of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit had been “Science of the Experience of Consciousness”. In the Phenomenology, experience mediates and remains internal to the dialectical relation between knowledge and Spirit. It is well known that in Hegel knowledge is the real subject matter, the actual knowledge of what truly is. Heidegger, however, demanded a confrontation with Hegel by going further back into negativity, that is, toward a more originary understanding of negativity than Hegel’s sociologically determined version of the negative.  Derrida’s gesture of subtraction via Life Death is, precisely, a gesture toward the question of negativity, advancing backwards beyond determined negation. This gesture is predicated on thinking explicitly—aggressively, we might say—against the aims of the French pedagogical scene of the mid 1970s; in a relation of separation, that is, from the conservative character of that scene’s survival instincts and self-enhancement; its self-inoculation against all displeasure, real or imaginary. Derrida, of course, proposes the name of an other scene, together with the possibility of a destructiveness capable of de-symbolizing the institution that, via its spiritual elevation through the installation and institutionalization of the Aufhebung, positions itself repeatedly, unceasingly, as Master signifier.

In what appears to be an echo almost of Derrida’s approach from the early 1960s to Foucault’s The History of Madness, the opening gesture of the Life Death seminar of 1975 re-stages Derrida’s unhappy consciousness, now transposed onto the university teaching of philosophy in general. In “Cogito and the History of Madness” Derrida had initiated his approach to Foucault in the following terms:

The disciple knows that he alone finds himself already challenged by the master’s voice within him that precedes his own. He feels himself indefinitely challenged, or rejected, or accused; as a disciple, he is challenged by the master who speaks within him and before him, to reproach him for making this challenge and to reject it in advance, having elaborated it before him; and having interiorized the master, he is also challenged by the disciple that he himself is. This interminable unhappiness of the disciple perhaps stems from the fact that he does not yet know—or is still concealing from himself—that the master, like real life, may always be absent. The disciple must break the glass, or better the mirror, the reflection, his infinite speculation on the master. And start to speak. [ii]

There has never been any real dialectical step beyond the interminable unhappiness of the disciple’s speculation on the master, for therein lies the mystery of the production of meaning itself. The disciple can only “break the . . . reflection, his infinite speculation on the master. And start to speak”.

This is, we can say, the moment at which the disciple snatches away from anxiety a certain sense of certainty. In other words, to speak, to act, are an attempt to strive to bring about a transfer of anxiety.[iii]  Indeed, it is in this way that the disciple struggles to transform its real relation to the object (Derrida, Life Death…).  But what is the status of the object for Derrida in Life Death?

Scene Two:  Fort-Da and the Displacement of the Object.

Within this context, life death is a “straightforward” gesture toward the opening up of a (not) beyond of the pleasure principle, of an inroad in the direction of a ceaseless (un)concealment of the concealed. Derrida’s reading and re-presentation of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle in the closing sessions of Life Death is very clear, and it will lead us further toward the underlying, ungraspable and essentially displaced image of anxiety.

It is in the “Eleventh Session”, as Derrida prepares the way for his reading of the fort/da, that he begins to highlight a scene of mastery dominated by the simultaneity, and the intimately intertwined and distinctive functionalities, of the drives, in a particular relation between real life itself and writing (which is always understood as self-other writing):

It is part of my reading hypothesis—of this text and a few others—to draw out between the pleasure principle and that which appears as, and indeed is, its other (namely, for example, the death drive) a structure of alterity that would be, in the final analysis, without opposition . . . It is death, a death that holds on at both ends, that is to say, to a reality principle functioning all on its own, without pleasure, as well as to a reality principle which, delegated in its structure to the service of the pleasure principle, would bring death to that service, out of an economic zeal for pleasure. That would already be a pleasure that, in safeguarding itself too much, in protecting itself, in accumulating itself in its reserve, would come to asphyxiate itself.

Derrida then ends the “Eleventh Session” with a brief approach to Freud’s Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety:  “I [Freud] am . . . inclined to adhere to the view that the fear of death should be regarded as analogous to the fear of castration and that the situation to which the ego is reacting is one of being abandoned by the protecting super-ego—the powers of destiny—so that it has no longer any safeguard against all the dangers that surround it”. Derrida ends the Session with, “We will come back to all this”.

And, indeed, he does so in the “Twelfth Session”, via a lengthy and quite faithful close reading of the child’s game of fort/da. Here Derrida highlights that the child’s exercise of symbolic mastery sets in motion a process of subjectification that is built on the repetitive restructuration of the presence/absence relation in reference to the figure of the mother, of the mother as object of desire:  “What Freud calls the complete game is the game in its two phases; disappearance/reappearance, absence/presence, plus repetition, return, the re- of reappearance. And he insists on the fact that pleasure, the greatest quantity of pleasure, is occasioned by the re-appearance, the second phase”. Herein, the time of mastery unfolds internally to the anticipation and repetition of absence/presence, via the restoration of the pleasure principle. The repetitive action of the game of fort/da situates the child in function of a subject that does not yet exist, but that, through its economic zeal for pleasure, comes into existence repeatedly on the basis of the absence/presence of the body of the mother that constitutes him. Repetition safeguards against the utter helplessness—the death—that would ensue if he could not break the image of her absence, and thereby render the concealed unconcealed.

But it is precisely at this point that Derrida loses something, and that something is the status of the body of the mother as object-cause of desire and of the anxiety that is produced in relation to its absence. Instead, Derrida makes another clear-cut decision:  he opts to embark on a biographical-literary history of the death of Freud’s daughter, of his brother Julius at aged eight, or of the diagnosis of Freud’s cancer, in such a way as to suggest that Freud’s life itself in the early 1920s uncovers the specters of a death drive that allow us to think that his writing of the pleasure principle via the child’s fort-da is itself an innately auto-bio-thanato-hetero-graphic fort-da. The biographical accumulation of family deaths permeates Freud’s approach to the fort-da, according to Derrida. For this reason, Freud’s reading and understanding of the fort-da represents “a work of mourning on oneself as a great scene of descendancy, of filiation, etc., of legacy”.

At this point, however, I begin to wonder to what extent Derrida, in this quest for a structure of alterity without opposition, has fallen momentarily, and perhaps all too conveniently, for the mastery of the biographical story of the writing subject. For it is simply not clear to what extent the biographical accumulation of family deaths does indeed touch upon the question of the fort-da as the unceasing recuperation and restoration of the pleasure principle via the absent/present body of the mother specifically. Furthermore, Derrida does not explain in this “Session” how exactly writing brings about a transfer of anxiety in relation to mourning. Derrida seems to install, at the heart of this Session, Freud’s guiding principle that the mystery of the production of meaning is only ever a response to the anxiety of objektlos. But the status of the object in relation to the fear of death remains unaddressed.

Scene Three: The Question of the Object.

Up to this point, we have encountered university Hegelianism as a socialized extension of that “almost omnipotent institution” that Freud had referred to as the pleasure principle. Against the institutional history of Hegelian instrumentalism, Derrida proposes life death.  In “The Twelfth Session”, Derrida begins to read Chapter Four of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in such a way as to delineate what he calls “the place of the master’s defeat, the defeat of the mastery of the pleasure principle”. Presumably, this is the place where the Hegelian university is forced to confront an other scene for knowledge and meaningfulness.

Following Freud, Derrida observes that in “Perception-Consciousness there must be something other than Perception-Consciousness; there must be . . . enduring traces and memory remnants”. “Consciousness”, he continues, “must arise there where the memory trace ends, or more precisely, in the place of the memory trace”. Surely, it is here—in the need for enduring traces and memory remnants other than those of Perception-Consciousness—that we encounter, at least for the first time in Derrida’s reading of Freud, the mere fact of the image in its relation to trauma, anxiety, and knowledge.

Freud, says Derrida, becomes more and more obscure and elliptical in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and Derrida begins to follow him down that same path, which heads in the direction of a certain militarized metaphorization of organic life.

Freud, says Derrida, “speaks of the image . . . of the living ‘vesicle’ (of the “bulle”, the bubble, rather than ‘boule’, the ball, as Bläschen is usually translated in French) and the cortical layer that must protect itself from the violence of excitations coming from the external world so as to dampen them, filter them, limit their amount of energy”.  Thus, and here we begin to see the emergence of the military language in question, “the living vesicle protects itself against external aggressions but . . . it has no way of protecting itself against that which comes from within”. Herein, says Derrida, lies “a definition of trauma: there is trauma when, at the limit, on the front, the protective shield is broken, and the entire system of defense, its entire economy of energy, is defeated, put to rout. It is at this very moment, says Freud, that the pleasure principle is the first to be ‘put out of action’. What was once in command of operations is no longer able [to] master the situation when it is submerged, flooded (Überschwemmung: an image of a sudden liquid surge) by large amounts of excitations that overflow and overwhelm the psychical apparatus”.

This value of protecting, of safeguarding against a flooding of over-excitation, observes Derrida, is gathered up in Freud in strategico-military metaphors of vigilance, and overseeing etc.  Again, Derrida cites Freud: “Thus these guardians of life [the sentinels of life, Lebenswächter) those that watch over life, that oversee it, that keep it, that keep watch over it, that guard it, that mount guard over it, the sentinels of life that the drives are] were originally the myrmidons of death”. What safeguards life resides in the sphere of influence of what safeguards death, and it is “always necessary to safeguard (from) death or to safeguard (from) life”, Derrida says.

Here, in Freud and consequently in Derrida’s re-presentation, there is an entire strategico-military image and imaginary corresponding to the psychic organization of mastery, and to the ramparts of defense from death and from life. But there is no image of danger here. There is no image pointing toward the status of the dangerous object with which anxiety is faced and against which the military metaphors strive to safeguard.

What, then, of the image not of the psychic organization of mastery but of the enduring traces and memory remnants that speak directly to the utter helplessness, and therefore to the horrendous, asphyxiating unpleasure, to the overwhelming sense of danger, that assaults the mystery of the production of meaning, not from without, but from within (desire)?

My sense is that Life Death does not provide us with such an image. For such a thing, we would have to go back and give more content to the moment when Derrida notes, following Freud, that in “Perception-Consciousness”, “there must be something other than Perception-Consciousness; there must be . . . enduring traces and memory remnants”; or when he notes that “Consciousness must arise there where the memory trace ends, or more precisely, in the place of the memory trace”. But this would require a different order of metaphoricity from that of the strategico-military metaphors that both Freud and Derrida produce and comment upon.

*    *    *

What I have in mind is a child’s contest, certainly, but it bears witness to a most inexpressible relation to the object, which carries the mystery of the production of meaning in a direction other than the pleasure principle, and therefore in a direction other than that of the exercise of mastery as seen in both the Hegelian university, and in the fort-da. It is an enduring trace replete with the “biological, seminal, spermatic or germinal” metaphors that Derrida had previously identified in relation to the university as the social extension of the pleasure principle, though this time it is also blood that produces what Lacan refers to as “the subject’s essential downfall into his final misery”.[iv] Indeed, in the enduring trace I have in mind, there are even anatomical balls of various kinds—including, of course, those that see, and those that don’t.

In the “Eleventh Session” of Life Death Derrida asks: “If it were the case that the pleasure principle is absolutely dominant, where would unpleasure, whose experience can hardly be disputed, come from? We suffer, this experience says to us”.  Derrida then pauses.  We know that he does so because the manuscript tells us with a marked silence, a parenthesis, “(Pause)”—a momentary staging of a separation from the signifier. This is then followed by the formulation of a somewhat banal question: “Is that so certain? What do we know about this? What does this mean? And what if the experience of suffering produced pleasure elsewhere? Etc”.  Derrida, however, does not pursue these questions. Rather, he takes another clear-cut decision: “Let us leave these questions aside for now”. He then continues with his “straightforward” reading of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

My impression—and here I am putting my cards on the table—is that the only way we can approach the image of the enduring trace, or of the memory remnant of an experience of suffering internal to the legacies of Perception-Consciousness, is to advance backward beyond Life Death, thirteen years into the past, in fact, in the direction of Lacan’s Tenth Seminar titled Anxiety, in which the mystery of the production of meaning encounters the nether world of the pleasure principle in the absolute destitution of the ego in relation to desire. It is in this relation that we can see that “the only threat which can be fearsome, and which is discovered in fear, always comes from innerworldly beings”.[v]

As Lacan insists throughout Seminar X, “anxiety is not objektlos, it is not without object”.[vi] It is always faced with something.  The problem, however, is how to see what it faces? In Anxiety, Lacan returns to the Oedipal melodrama in order to re-see “the one who possessed the object of desire and of the law, the one who found jouissance with his mother, Oedipus”. The fort-da turned on its head?

From within the story’s dialectic of recognition, Lacan pinpoints the moment of “Perception-Consciousness” in which Oedipus realizes what he has done.  Lacan asks: “How can one express what belongs to the realm of the inexpressible and whose image I want nevertheless to make emerge?”[vii] This, then, is the difficulty: to express the utterly horrendous and inexpressible in the form of an image and in the register of meaning, understanding, and knowledge. Lacan continues as follows:

He sees what he has done, which brings with it the consequence that he sees—this is the word I’m coming up against—a moment after, his own eyes, their vitreous humour swollen, lying on the ground in a sorry heap of waste.  Having torn them from their sockets, he has clearly lost his sight, and yet, he is not without seeing them, seeing them as such, finally unveiled as object-cause of the last, the ultimate, not guilty but uncurbed, concupiscence, that of having wanted to know. Tradition has it that it was from then on that he became truly a seer . . . What is the moment of anxiety? . . . It is the impossible sight that threatens you, of your own eyes lying on the ground. This is the surest key to what you can always find in the phenomenon of anxiety”. [viii]

The impossible sight of your own eyes lying on the ground:  the absolutely uncanny image, vision, and knowledge of the destitution of every cogito ergo sum, of every Hegelian sublation and instrumentalism, and of every playful exercise of mastery.

As already mentioned, Heidegger proposed a confrontation with Hegel by going further back into negativity, that is, toward a more originary understanding of negativity than Hegel’s sociologically determined conceptualization. However, perhaps it was on the path toward anxiety that Lacan uncovered the originary image of negativity in this infra-psychoanalytical displacement of the relation between recognition, law, knowledge, understanding, and ego-production.

Both Hegelianism and the fort-da register the necessary turn away from the infra-excess that is anxiety, in the name of the certainties of ego mastery and the unceasingly new symbolizations of lack. But beyond (at least to a certain extent) and prior to Life Death, Lacan demands that we still learn to approach the question of meaning when there is no longer a notion of experience available to us such as that of the dialectical movement that consciousness exercises on its self.

It is in this image that Life Death, at least in its approach to Freud, lags behind, precisely because it does not address anxiety’s radical link to the object and to the destitution of the ego. The subjects’ essential downfall into its final misery for having wanted to know where its desire can really take it in relation to the object, is what the university can only cast into oblivion, and silence for its disciples who desire only tranquillized self-assurance. For the university’s relation to the mystery of meaning cannot attest to the realm of the inexpressible that is uncovered in Lacan’s image of utter ego destruction and the painful knowledge that accompanies it. The university can only posit, and re-erect ceaselessly, the dialectical spirit of objectification against each and every danger that still lurks in the murky, anxiety-laden, realm of Eros.


[i] Jacques Derrida, Life Death: Seminar 1975-1976 (unpublished manuscript), translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness”, Writing and Difference, (New York: Routledge), p.32.

[iii] Jacques Lacan, Anxiety. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X. (Malden, Polity Press), 2014, p.77.

[iv] Jacques Lacan, Anxiety. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X. (Malden, Polity Press), 2014, p.163.

[v] Martin Heidegger,  Being and Time, (Oxford, Blackwell), 1978, p.180.

[vi] Jacques Lacan, Anxiety. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X. (Malden, Polity Press), 2014, p.157.

[vii] Jacques Lacan, Anxiety. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X. (Malden, Polity Press), 2014, p.162.

[viii] Jacques Lacan, Anxiety. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X. (Malden, Polity Press), 2014, p.162.

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#LacanEmancipa (2020, 14 abril). Life Death Lagging Behind. #Lacanemancipa Revista de la izquierda lacaniana. Recuperado 26 de mayo de 2024, de

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