The Specter of the Name (For Jacques Derrida)

(x-posted to The Valve)

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


It is my good fortune, at present, to be reading Archive Fever in anticipation of a seminar on Derrida by Gayatri Spivak. 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 it 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.


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 We have yet to finish discovering and processing this immense corpus, in part unpublished, in part secret, and perhaps in part radically and irreversibly destroyed—for example by Freud himself.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 their future. If it is not too much, I promise to finish these reflections, via “Lycidas” and love, not too long from now.

A good night to you.