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  • Derrida/Fort-Da: Deconstructing Play
  • Alan Aycock

Jacques Derrida is a notably “playful” scholar, in two senses of the term. First, his writing style is playful, richly replete with the puns, circumambulations, excurses, hesitations, and gnomic recursions that make him a bane to his translators and a delight to his readers. Second, Derrida’s playful style reflects his argument that the Western metaphysics of presence may be deconstructed (as indeed, he believes that it “always already” is) by exposing the playfulness of differance, the constant motion of forces elsewhere in space and time.

From this point of view I find it somewhat ironic that despite the extensive use of Derrida’s ideas in numerous scholarly fields, no one has addressed the implications of deconstruction for the study of play itself.1 To remedy this apparent oversight, I shall first present a brief discussion of Derrida’s treatment of the fort-da game described by Freud, and draw out several nuances of Derrida’s approach to this game which seem to me to be more generally applicable to play. I shall then offer five examples of the playing of chess, ethnographic situations that are familiar to me from many years of participant observation and writing about the game (Aycock, n.d.[c]). In each instance, I shall show how my characterization of Derrida’s approach illuminates the understanding of the play at hand. Finally, I shall evaluate, tentatively, the prospects and implications of a deconstructive approach to play, and suggest some directions for further research in this area.


The game of “fort-da” was invented by Freud’s grandson, who was then one and a half years old (1955: 14–17). In the simplest form of this play, the child had a piece of string attached to a wooden spool which he threw from him, murmuring “o-o-o-o,” then pulled back, saying “da.” Freud (and the child’s mother) interpreted the first sound as the child’s version of “fort” (“gone away”), the second as the German for “there” (as in English “there it is!”). Freud associated this game with the child’s attempt to assert mastery in play to compensate for an emotionally fraught situation where he had no control, his mother’s occasional excursions from the household without him (1955: 15). Freud also linked the empowerment of this early game with the child’s apparent lack of reaction to his mother’s death several years later (1955, 16, n. 1).

In general, Freud was using the fort-da game to illustrate the operations of the economy of pleasure that he had described, and to introduce the notion of the return of the repressed; that is, the neurotic effects of an earlier psychic trauma upon later behavior. As a preliminary to Derrida’s discussion of the game, it may also be noted that he perceives a resonance in Freud’s work here with the broad philosophical doctrine of the “eternal return,” which Nietzsche elaborated lyrically in his Zarathustra (e.g., Nietzsche, 1961: 159–163, 176–180). It is quite possible that Freud, who was familiar with Nietzsche’s work (Freud, 1955: 123–124), also made this connection.

Derrida turns this brief anecdote into a playful trope for Freud’s writings (Derrida, 1987a: 257–409), showing first how Freud repeatedly sends away and calls back his central argument on the pleasure principle as he tries to summon evidence to support it, then how Freud himself, as the writer of the play, conceals initially from the reader his genealogical relationship to the child as a convention of scientific writing, deferring his authorship by devolving it impersonally on an unidentified child at play. In “writing” his grandson in this fashion, Freud speculates not only on the psychic economy of pleasure, which must yield in the finest bourgeois terms more than is invested, but on the political economy of his own family, and of his own writing.

Derrida gradually extends this convoluted image into an analysis of the incompletion of the game (Freud believed that the only use that the child made of his toys was to “make them gone” [Derrida, 1987a: 311]), of his family (the child’s mother...

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