restricted access The Signature of the Transcendental Imagination
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The Signature of the Transcendental Imagination

. . . another reading of the transcendental imagination (from the Kantbuch and beyond . . .)

—Derrida, “Telepathy”

Fetish, Thing, Signature

My title is a slight deformation of an expression of Kant’s. My purpose is to explain the deformation in order to pursue my preoccupation with Freud’s generalization of fetishism at the end of his life. I have long contended that when Freud makes fetishism, disavowal, and ego splitting the models for all compromise formation, a sea change begins in the basic conception of unconscious processes. There are many angles from which to elaborate this change. In the past, I have concentrated on a revision of the theory of fetishism in relation to the question of what “reality” means for psychoanalysis (Bass 2000). I have tried to show that the contradictions in Freud’s analysis of fetishism as the disavowal of the “reality of castration” can be resolved with a conception of unconscious registration of unconscious aspects of reality—by which I mean differentiating processes. I have also attempted to show how this conception is essential to understanding the clinical problem of resistance to interpretation, and then to rethinking interpretation itself (Bass 2006).

But there is a larger context for these questions: the entire history of European discourse about fetishism. This is a long, complex [End Page 31] story, spanning at least five centuries. Paul-Laurent Assoun, speaking of the “strange . . . destiny” of the concept of fetishism, says that it “confronts[s] each discourse with its object, organizing a chain reflection on the functions of alterity and of the subject” (1994, 121–23; my translation). This is why discourse on fetishism as a specific phenomenon almost inevitably tends to generalize fetishism. Freud does not know that his generalization of fetishism is part of a long history of such generalizations. Is there a way to understand this historical pattern?

Today, I want to approach that question from one particular angle. The history of discourse on fetishism is mostly concerned with trying to understand how an ordinary thing can be idealized, either as an object of religious veneration, as in the original anthropological-religious-philosophical accounts, or as an idealized object of economic exchange, as in Marx, or as an idealized sexual object, as in Freud. The universality of fetishism, attested to from the introduction of the term in 1756, could have been an important lever for Freud’s generalization of it, because he always sought to base his theory of mind on universal experience, for example, that we all dream. But then, what is mind if there is a universal trend toward idealization of things? This question is the point of necessary intersection between psychoanalysis and the general question of the thing. I will try to demonstrate that it is also the point of necessary intersection between psychoanalysis and a deconstructive understanding of the thing.

I am taking my cue from a question Derrida asks himself toward the end of Signeponge: what if “all this”—that is, his text on Ponge—were a scientific reading of the effect of fetishism so central to Marx and Freud (Derrida 1994, 107)? A strange question: how could the reading of a poet be a scientific reading of Marx and Freud? The answer is that the reading of Ponge and his signature is itself a rethinking of the thing. To reconfigure my question: what is a scientific reading of the effect of fetishism in relation to the general questions of signature and thing?

A quick review of Derrida on signature and thing. He distinguishes three “modalities” of the signature. (1) Not only signing [End Page 32] one’s name, but authenticating that one is signing, as when a signature has to be notarized. (2) What he calls the “confused and banal metaphor” of the first sense: the idiomatic marks left in a work of art by its creator, that is, the creator’s idiomatic style, which has nothing to do with his name itself. (3) The most complicated sense:

[O]ne can call a general signature, or signature of the signature, the fold of the mise en abyme when, contrary to the usual sense of signature, writing designates...