Text: ##name##, “Marginal Politics and ‘The Purloined Letter’: A Review Essay,” Poe Studies, June 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 16:18-23


[page 18, column 2:]

Marginal Politics and
“The Purloined Letter”:
A Review Essay

Jacques Lacan, “Le seminaire sur ‘La Lettre volee,‘” from tcrits (Paris: editions du Seuil, 1966), pp. 11-61, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman as “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” in French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis, Yale French Studies, No. 48 (1972), pp. 38-72.

Jacques Derrida, “Le Facteur de la verite,” Poetigsfe, 21 (1975), 96-147; trans. Willis Domingo, et al., as “The Purveyor of Truth,’ in Graphesis: Perspectives in Literature and Philosophy, Yale French Studies, No. 52 (1975), pp. 31-113.

Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” from Literature and Psychoanalysis / The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Yale French Studies, No. 55-56 (1977) pp. 457505; rpt. in Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 149-171, and in Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 110-146.

Their reframing of the literary reputation of Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the most telling sign of the power displayed by recent French critics on the American cultural scene. Excluded for years from the inner circle of distinguished American writers, Poe, as if in imitation of an uncanny effect from one of his tales, now exerts an international influence he never enjoyed while alive. Given Poe’s recent cultural position as the figure in the American canon attics developed their reputation against, this promotion appears remarkably reciprocal. It is not merely a matter of the French critics promoting Poe’s texts. Without Poe’s tales as a “proving ground,” many American critics would simply dismiss the claims of recent French criticism as errant nonsense. So the influence turns out to be uncannily double: Poe’s frequently discredited texts serve as a clearing house for critical claims that without Poe’s texts would not be credited.

With the new French inflection of his work, Poe has acquired a prominence as a figure at once translated by the French into a different cultural context yet one also capable of translating or rather “domesticating” this otherwise utterly strange context into accessible terms. Given the use to which his work is put, however, Poe seems less an author whose work the French wish to subject to lengthy analysis and more a tutelary spirit capable of sanctioning new directions in their own work. This should not surprise anyone aware of the French adoption of Poe as an American compatriate during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In French imagination, Poe, or at least [page 19:] the Poe discovered by Baudelaire and Mallarme, fostered a literary tradition that has culminated in what has come to be called a post-structuralist poetics. If Poe provides a pre-existing cultural context for this poetics in America, for the French he seems less a primary text than an universally assimilated “pretext” for new departures. The authority he exerts in France turns his texts less into a setting for a conflict of interpretations and more into an arena where power struggles get acted out. One of the more recent and important of these struggles, which can be followed in translation in the pages of Yale French Studies, involved Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida as combatants.

Since the subject as well as the agency of “The Purloined Letter” concerns displacements and positionings of power, it is not surprising that this tale becomes the turf on which such a contest for cultural power takes place. Both Lacan and Derrida wish to claim, with varying degrees of irony, ownership if not of the letter itself at least of a privileged perspective on the impossibility of final ownership. In terms of the tale itself, they re-enact the power struggle between the Minister D — and Dupin himself. In order to expand on the terms of their debate as well as to include in their scenarios still another agent in Poe’s tale, I will “frame” my discussion of their argument in terms of Barbara Johnson’s elegantly written and ironically executed essay, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida.” For in this essay, Ms. Johnson, a professor of Comparative Literature, explicitly acknowledges what Lacan and Derrida do not, that they are involved less in an explication or analysis of Poe’s text than in a struggle for mastery not over the letter but over the cultural position released when the delusion of mastery over possession of the letter has itself been mastered. Moreover, the addition of Barbara Johnson re-introduces in this debate between two men the position of the queen. As if in ironic extension of Poe’s text, however, Professor Johnson plays the to le of a queen capable of taking the letter back from both the Minister as well as Monsieur Dupin (whose positions have, as a matter of course, been replicated in the debate between Lacan and Derrida).


Because Lacan asserts the impossibility of ever being anywhere but displaced in relation to “the purloined letter” that no one can ever interpret, perhaps we should begin with his point. In his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” a series of considerations that never quite finish with the tale, Lacan cites the fictional events as evidence for what he terms the insistence of the signifying chain. To be more specific, Lacan’s Poe has dreamt and worded the process through which “the displacement of the subjects is determined by the place which the signifier — the purloined letter — comes to occupy” in two scenes of triangulated figures in the narrative. Poe’s tale does repeat a scene involving three agents. In Lacan’s attempt to provide a purely linguistic scenario for what Freud called repetition compulsion, the first scene involves the king who sees nothing, the queen who sees that the king does not see, and the [column 2:] minister D — who sees all. In the second scene, the prefect of police like the king sees nothing, the Minister D ——— like the queen wishes to make visible only what he desires to be visible, and Dupin, like D ——— in the primal scene, sees all.

No one in the tale discloses the message of the letter, so for Lacan the letter, a message without content, is a signifier without a signified, and what takes the place of significance in the tale is the sheer play of displacement, the insistent movement of the letter from one to another position in what turns into a signifying chain. The lack in the letter, the fact that it exists as a message without a content, Lacan identifies with “castration,” the discovery by each speaking subject that “he” can no longer “be” a phallus in an “imaginary” relation with the mother but can only “have” a phallus like the father. For Lacan, “having” a phallus rather than “being” a phallus presupposes a detachment, a “castration,” which man always at once recognizes and denies through the displacements of language use — what the analyst calls the “symbolic” as opposed to the “imaginary” level of language.

In his “account” of the symbolic, Lacan cannot, however, make sense of the distinction between the masculine and feminine so crucial to the distinction among the differing social positions in the tale. If the symbolic “castrates” every language user, displacing the organ with the phallus — that which never “is” anything but the sheer force of displacement — the “man” who uses language is indistinguishable from the “woman.” Lacan uses Poe’s tale to signal a linguistic as opposed to a biological difference, as the delayed itinerary of the signifier on the signifying chain determines how “the subjects grasped in their intersubjectivity . . . will model their very being on the movement of the signifying chain that traverses them.” Put more succinctly, the displacements of the signifier determine the subjects in their acts. In the case of “The Purloined Letter,” “the effect of the signifier bears primarily on its post-theft possessor and that along its travels what it conveys is the very odor of femininity, which it is to have taken in its shadow.”

In this move, Lacan equates the possession of a letter — defined as a “lack” of content — with “literal” as opposed to “symbolic” castration, hence the odor of the feminine. In other words the “possession” of the lack otherwise displaced by language identifies the possessor with the lack “she” thinks she possesses. So femininity exists as an “effect” of the delusion of possession of a lack otherwise displaced (as a masculine effect?) by the endless purloining of the letter.


Poe’s narrative provides Lacan with a dual pretext, an “ideal” place to display Freud’s Oedipal primal scene and the repetition compulsion attending it with a sheerly linguistic [page 20:] model, and a textual occasion to “socialize” it or at least trace out a socially familiar itinerary for this linguistic model. In entitling his itinerary of displacements the allegory of the signifier, however, Lacan did not merely invade the ground of an old master, he simultaneously invaded the turf of Jacques Derrida, a young French philosopher intent on displacing not only the patriarchate of Dr. Freud but also the patriarchate underwritten by what Derrida calls the “logocentric tradition“ — shorthand for the ontological presuppositions of all Western Civilization.

Moreover, the place or rather the displacements of the signifier play as crucial a to le in Derrida’s act of deconstruction as they do in Lacan’s “Écrits.” Derrida, as a result of his strategic observation that “the signifier is always already in the place of the signified,” can undo the definitive statement as well as the delusion of mastery, propriety, and subjectivity he finds at work in all of the “monuments” of the Western tradition. Derrida, however, does not locate his “deposing” of the logocentric tradition within the authoritative discourse of psychoanalysis as Lacan does. For Derrida, the talking cure, like the privileging of the spoken over the written word in the logocentric tradition, “represses the materiality of the letter.” Since Lacan identifies the materiality of the letter with its lack of content — at once rendering it invisible and capable of inscribing all mankind in the realm of the symbolic — it is clear that Derrida, in order to recover the materiality of his letter, must steal it back from Lacan’s incorporation of it within the symbolic. The reason for his need to differentiate his notion of the signifier clarifies the distinction between their two strategies. Lacan’s equation of the signifier with the lack making the displacements of the symbolic possible renders Derrida’s act of deconstruction, which displaces and invites the tradirional position of the signifier/ signified opposition, into just another effect of the signifier. Lacan translates deconstruction into just another displacement within the symbolic underwriting the logocentric tradition rather than, as Derrida would have it, a deconstruction of the tradition itself.

In order to recover his letter from the reading of the Lacanian symbolic, Derrida makes two crucial moves. First he questions the privileged social group, the triad, underwriting Lacan’s symbolic realm. Then despite or rather because of Lacan’s identification of the signifier with a lack or hole in being, Derrida discovers it to be an effect of the referent. In reading “The Purloined Letter” as an allegory of the signifier, Lacan, Derrida claims, has turned the itinerary of the signifier, the signifying procedures of the “symbolic,” into the story’s truth: “The displacement of the signifier is analyzed as a signified, as the recounted object in a short story.”

A return to Poe’s as opposed to Lacan’s story provides Derrida with a context for both of these differentiating maneuvers. Unlike Lacan, Poe does not repeat a triadic structure but includes a fourth figure capable of translating Lacan’s triangles into parallelograms. The structure of “The Purloined Letter” can only be reduced to a triangle, [column 2:] Derrida suggests, if the analyst eliminates the narrator. And such an exclusion constitutes for Derrida a striking example of the way psychoanalysis ignores what actually happens in a text the better to rediscover its own schemes. After locating a “fourth” side capable of disrupting Lacan’s triangles, Derrida swiftly closes off what might have been Lacan’s next move, the conversion of Derrida’s quadrangles into two more triangles. Lacan’s analysis seems supple enough to translate the Dupin/narrator context into an implicit triangle. Dupin after all not only doubles with D ——— , but is himself, in his positions before, after, and during his possession of the letter, also a doubling figure. Derrida’s language, shrill and outraged enough to demand quotation, portrays Lacan as a figure violently prejudiced against doubles and for the triads characteristic of Lacan’s symbolic:

The seminar mercilessly forecloses the problematic of the double and of the unheimlichkeit — no doubt considering that it is confined to the imaginary, to the ideal relationship which must be kept rigorously separate from the symbolic and the triangular. . . . All the “uncanny” relations of duplicity, limitlessly deployed in a dual structure, find themselves omitted or marginalized. . . . What is thus kept under surveillance and control is the Uncanny itself, and the frantic anxiety which can be provoked, with no hope of reappropriation, enclosure or truth, by the infinite play from simulacrum to simulacrum, from double to double.

If this characterization of Lacan’s method sounds shrill, the reason for Derrida’s response is not difficult to discern. It is, however, less derived from an effect of the signifier than from Derrida’s outraged sense that his mode of displacing the Western philosophical tradition through a certain effect of the signifier has been co-opted by the Lacanian symbolic. But Derrida does not limit his response to one move, like this in which he literally “gets even” with Lacan by translating odd integers (the triads) back into even doubles and quadrangles. Derrida plays Lacan one better as it were doubling his move. Lacan assimilated Derridian deconstruction to the realm of the symbolic, so Derrida locutes Lacan’s analysis of “The Purloined Letter” in that logocentric tradition where it only awaits Derridian deconstruction for “authentic” cultural marking.

Again Poe’s story provides not so much the territory to wage this war on as the weapons to mark the occasion. Though this time Derrida, by reminding Lacan of the “frame” he eliminated from consideration, seems to return to or at least credit a much more traditional mode of literary exposition. Lacan, in Derrida’s expose, has ignored not only the narrator but also the rest of the frame for the tale: that it was originally part of a trilogy (sent as a Christmas present) including “Murders of the Rue Morgue” and “Marie to get.” Having invoked Poe’s other stories as a frame, Derrida does not consider the place of “The Purloined Letter” within it but quite deftly opens up that frame in turn to include not only the rest of Poe’s “canon” but also, from the tale itself, the books cited, the quotations from previous works, and even the backdrop of Dupin’s own library. Since the tale begins with the narrator and Dupin sequestered in “a little back library [page 21:] or book-closet” contemplating, we are led to suppose, Dupin’s method of solving the previous two tales, for Derrida the tale never begins with its own “proper” subject matter but instead infinitely refers back to previous writings. And therefore, Derrida asserts, “nothing begins. Simply a drifting or disorientation from which one never moves away.” As a final proof of the assimilation of Dupin by the field of writing he seems able to commandeer, Derrida recalls Dupin’s last, apparently most personal words (the lines he leaves in the letter that takes the place of the Minister’s purloined one) as quotations whose proper authorship is the last thing the story tells us. “But,” and here Derrida breaks faith with the logic of enframing he seemed intent on delineating, “beyond the quotation marks that surround the entire story, Dupin is obliged to quote this last word in quotation marks, to recount his signature: that is what I wrote to him and how I signed it. What is a signature within quotation marks? Then within these quotation marks, the seal itself is a quotation mark within quotation marks. This remnant is still literature.”

The itinerary Derrida follows if not quite complete is at least quite familiar — at least, within the context of his previous work, it seems familiar. After returning us in good conscience to Poe’s text as the space Lacan has clearly abandoned in favor of his symbolic, Derrida in his turn abandons Poe’s discrete text in favor of a realm he designates as “ecriture avant la lettre,” a writing before (and after) purloined or any other letters. While this realm in which all signifiers at once defer meaning as well as differ from all other signifiers may include all writing, it has, as a result of Derrida’s specific intervention in literature, been demarcated as a context become familiar enough in the domain of literary and philosophical investigation to need a Derrida’s signature.

Under the alibi of retrieving “The Purloined Letter” from the violent distortions of the psychoanalyst, Derrida recovers the truth claims for his “allegory of the signifier.” Before he can recover his signifier in a manner that Lacan’s reader will credit, however, Derrida must become an even more attentive physician than the analyst who, while attentive to the ways in which the signifier illustrates his theory, is still blind to the actual functioning of the signifier in Poe’s narration. But Lacan’s peculiar blindness turns out to be the one and only form Derrida has become famous for diagnosing: the blindness inhering in every “logocentric” appropriation of the truth. While many readers would find themselves hard put to find any definitive statement of Lacan’s thesis in the seminars, Derrida finds it quite easily. Lacan it seems has transformed the textual signifier into the story’s truth: “the displacement of the signifier is analyzed as a signified, as the recounted object in a short story.” Whereas had Lacan read any of Derrida he would know the textual signifier always deposits an irreducible remnant, trace, or subtle play of “difference” absolutely resistant to totalization: “The rest, the remnant, would be ‘The Purloined Letter,’ the text that bears this title and whose place, like the once more visible large letters on the map, is not where one was expecting to [column 2:] find it, in the enclosed content of the ‘real drama’ or in the hidden and sealed interior of Poe’s story, but in and as the open letter, the very open letter which fiction is.”

Despite his insistence on the recovery of the remnant as the open letter of fiction, Derrida has seemingly taken up all the loose ends in Lacan’s seminar, and taken Lacan up on every point in which Lacan’s incredibly slippery language might leave some undented path for signification to follow. Derrida, out of his fidelity not only to Poe but also to the “open letter” of literature itself, has discovered scandalous crimes against both “Poe” and “literature”; in his functuon not just as detective but as judge and executioner, he has found Lacan guilty and if not quite executed him at least “covered over” his text as if no remnant remained in it but the traces of a reputation Derrida has already dutifully buried.

However much he may wish to appear conscientious in the name of Poe or in the name of the open letter of literature, it is quite clear that both Poe and literature serve as aliases for Derrida in an enterprise he wishes to affiliate with the “open letter which fiction is.” But given Derrida’s seemingly endless capacity to exclude figures from this open letter, it seems clear that the signifier, “the open letter,” serves not quite to purloin the letters of such literary notables as Poe and Lacan but rather to demarcate the boundary that closes them forever from the “open letter” against the logocentric tradition Derrida has not yet finished writing.

Whereas Lacan read the tale as a repetition of the primal scene of triadic entanglement of the signifying process, Derrida relocates the tale in the “scene of writing.” After opening the triangles into quadrangles, Derrida reduces the quadrangle to an opposition between Lacan’s symbolic and his own “open letter.” But the sheer act of displacement has already adjudicated the opposition in Derrida’s favor. As soon as Derrida invokes his primal scene of writing, the only part Lacan (or any author) can play on this scene is that of a belated metaphysician. His metaphysics as it turns out are the eternal metaphysics of presence. In Lacan this metaphysics merely disguises itself, in the case of his doctrine of castration, as a lack. This lack, in Derrida’s reading, is only presence assuming the subtlest of counterfeit forms as the presence of an absence.


Given the economy of Poe’s narrative as well as of Lacan’s use of it, we should notice that Derrida’s invoking of “castration” as his means of getting one up on Lacan reintroduces the to le of the queen. And does so at the precise moment Derrida seems to wish to keep the quarrel most personal. Or rather, “castration” introduces the to le of the queen at the very moment Derrida, now speaking [page 22:] in the name not of Poe or literature but feminism, would like to keep her in the role of the figure whose honor he must defend.

As was earlier pointed up, Lacan pointed to the possession of the purloined letter as the action marking the agent with the effect of femininity. His logic is consistent with his theory of linguistic castration: the feminine is marked by acknowledging what it can neither be nor ever really have, that is, the phallus. In commenting on Lacan’s “The Meaning of the Phallus,” Derrida, if he does not quite take Lacan’s phallus away, at least brings his analysis up much shorter than even Lacan might have anticipated.

Phallogocentrism is one thing. And what is called woman might be subject to it. The more so, we are reminded, since the phallus is neither a phantasy (imaginary effect”) nor an object (partial, internal, good, bad”), even less the organ, penis or cliroris which it symbolizes. Androcentrism might therefore be something else.

Yet what is going on? The entire phallogocentrism is articulated from the starting point Of a determinate situation (let give the word its full impact) in which the phallus is the mother’s desire inasmuch as she does not have it. An (individual, perceptual, local, cultural, historical, etc.) situation on the basis of which is developed something called a “sexual theory”: in it the phallus is not the organ, penis or clitoris, which it symbolizes; but it does to a larger extent and in the first place symbolize the penis. . . . The consequences had to be traced in order to recognize the meaning of the purloined letter in the ‘course’ which is proper to in

When we bring this lengthy quotation down to size, it turns into a single accusation: the very elusiveness of the referent for the phallus has insured the penis as its inevitable signified. By pinning the penis back on Lacan, Derrida has detached him from one of the more dominant discourses of truth presently extant in the Western tradition, that is, feminism. And having implicitly branded Lacan a sexist, he finds that Lacan’s male chauvinism will not measure up to the only play in which “difference” will not open up into the distortions of sexual discrimination, which is to say it does not measure up to Derrida’s project.

In this remarkable ploy, Derrida not only sizes up Lacan (and literally finds him lacking or, more to the point, castrates him as a mode of preventing him from disseminating his doctrine) but also sizes him up by speaking for the woman. As if to suggest that the woman in this case can speak for herself, Barbara Johnson chooses this moment in the text as her occasion for intervention, thereby not only recovering Lacan’s third party but Poe’s queen. Since all of these masters have tried to win through a certain strategic use of the queen, Barbara Johnson comments on their strategies from the position of the queen each has attempted to use. And in speaking for herself she exposes the displacement of the figure of the woman at work in all of these texts. If Poe and Lacan acknowledge the queen’s displacement as the effect of the purloined [column 2:] letter, the queen in speaking for herself displaces Derrida from the position of seeming to be her official spokesman.

Moreover, in speaking if you will not for but as a queen Ms. Johnson turns herself or at least the position she occupies into the subject of Professors Lacan and Derrida’s contention. She opens up still another scene, or rather she preoccupies Lacan’s primal scene and Derrida’s scene of writing with other considerations. And at first these other considerations assume the form of an adjudication of the debate between the contenders. Since Derrida, as the master of the terms contextualizing the debate, seems to have gotten one up on Lacan, Ms. Johnson begins by taking Derrida down on at least three crucial points. First Derrida’s “criticism of Lacan’s apparent reduction of the literary text to an unequivocal message depends for its force upon the presupposition of the unambiguousness of Lacan’s text.” Which is to say that Derrida refuses to “read” the “play of difference,” the refusal ever to arrive at a definitive assertion of truth, at work in Lacan’s as well as Poe’s text. Second, Derrida in condemning Lacan for making the signifier into the text’s signified has, in its conversion of Lacan’s “writing” into the “written,” only duplicated the mistake. Third, by accusing Lacan of finding his own theory (of the phallus) in the play of itinerant signifiers, Derrida too is only recognizing what he, like an orthodox psychoanalyst, never tires of finding — signs of the phallogocentric bias in every authority figure from the Western tradition.

The force of Ms. Johnson’s discussion of their exchange can be gleaned from one of her summational passages: “But the structure of Derrida’s transference of guilt from a certain reading of Lacan onto a text is not indifferent in itself, in the context of what, after all, started out as a relatively simple crime story. For what it amounts to is nothing less than a frame.” On the face of it this remark confirms the notion that Derrida, in condemning Lacan for the omission of Poe’s narrative frame, has done so only the better to imprison him within his frame of parergonal logic. But having issued a rather devastating condemnation, Ms. Johnson, exercising no doubt the prerogatives of the queen, releases Derrida from the charge. And her writ of release bears examination. Having pointed up the variety of ways in which Derrida is himself guilty of the charges (of premature signification, phallogocentrism, playing odds with evens) he levels at Lacan, Ms. Johnson then points up the inevitability of such complicity. In her reading of Derrida’s reading of Lacan, Derrida has not really been reading Lacan’s text at all, but the (referential) way in which that text has been received by the public.

In this remarkable turn Ms. Johnson interrupts the (sexual?) rivalry between Derrida and Lacan, but not in order to declare a winner in the opposition over who “owned” the territory designated as the effect of the purloined letter. Both of their efforts constitute (as Johnson implies Derrida’s, at least, do) an attempt to hold power in the court (definable on one level as an interpretive community) and over the queen. Each, to borrow Lacan’s language, [page 23:] wishes to have his phallus (the purloined letter) close to the queen. But the queen, in the character of Ms. Johnson, takes the phallus away from both contestants. She achieves this remarkable feat in two ways. She not only “puts down” Derrida who seems to have gotten one up against Lacan, but she also places the positions occupied by all three figures, Lacan, Derrida, and Johnson, in a space wherein they become a gloss on a quotation from Lacan — a quotation previously unlocalized within any cultural space whatsoever:

“A signifier,” says Lacan, is what represents a subject for another signifier.” A signifier represents then and what it represents is a subject. But it only does so for another signifier. What does the expression “for another signifier” mean, if not that the distinction between subject and signifier posed in the first parr of the definition is being subverted in the second? “Subject‘’ and “Signifier” are complicated in a definition that is unable either to separate them totally or to fuse them completely. There are three positions in the definition, two of which are occupied by the same word, bur that word is differentiated from itself in the course of the definition — because it begins to take the place of the other word. The signifier for which the other signifier represents a subject thus acts like a subject because it is the place where the representation is “understood.” The signifier, then situates the place of something like a reader. And the reader becomes the place where the representation would be understood if there were any such thing as a place beyond representation the place where representation is inscribed as an infinite chain Of substitutions whether or not there is any place from which it can be understood.

I find this an extremely subtle and useful discrimination of the extremely slippery relationship between subject and signifier in Lacan. But in choosing the opposition between Derrida and Lacan as the place to “act out” this discrimination, Ms. Johnson has of course exceeded the putative claims of her discrimination. In translating the position occupied by both Derrida and Lacan into spaces where representation “could be understood,” she not only elucidates their elusive definition of the place of the subject but also takes away the claim of maJtery exercisa/3le by either figure in the opposition. If Derrida began by opposing Lacan, Ms. Johnson takes the authoritative position either of these subject/signifiers would need to exercise their claims. A more graphic if not quite grammatological way of putting this would be that Ms. Johnson “castrates” them with their own “phallic” “differences.” She takes away the power claims of the purloined letter by speaking as it were not from the position of the subject but from the de-positioning endemic to a letter that never stops “purloining.” By taking away their power positions Ms. Johnson, of course, manages to “master” Lacan’s and Derrida’s delusions of mastery. But more interestingly, she turns them, as it were, into a pair of queens.

Instead of adjudicating the scene of sexual rivalry, Ms. Johnson takes both rivals at their words, thereby converting each into an elucidation of the complex play of the letter each might be tempted otherwise to turn into a tool of cultural (and sexual) mastery. Instead of wielding “the literality of the letter” as a tool of self-inscription, Lacan and Derrida are turned into figures who act out or illustrate [column 2:] the most slippery aspect of their respective doctrines: the very slippage between signifier and signified.

Ms. Johnson has thus gotten even with the men and made them feel even with each other by making their own arguments with each other seem odd. By pointing up the inconsistencies in their need to oppose one another, however, Ms. Johnson has only refurbished the coherence, self-consistency, and self-containment of their philosophical and psychoanalytic enterprises. In turning their rivalry into an illustration of the most elusive elements in their arguments, Ms. Johnson has only corroborated the force of chose arguments — a force subtle and powerful enough to elude even the authorities who envisioned it. The deconstruction of their argument with each other only confirms the cultural power of deconstruction independent of that argument; as Ms. Johnson puts it, “my own theoretical frame of reference is precisely, to a very large extent, the writing of Lacan and Derrida.”


That a theoretical frame of reference constituted by the writing of Lacan and Derrida is capable of confirming its power by disconfirming is proponents is not its most forceful (and potentially totalizing) cultural power. As we have seen in the course of this discussion, it is also capable of excluding from its frame other referents. And since in the case of “The Purloined Letter” this exclusion envelops the entire tale that earlier evoked the notion of the frame, perhaps we should conclude this analysis by returning briefly to that tale, if only to notice what has been ignored.

In the tale, the letters given in exchange by both Monsieur Dupin as well as the Minister apparently convert the purloined letter into elements in an exchange. In the analyses examined above, this “exchange” of letters has been ignored for the serial drama released and maintained by the narrative of the purloined letter itself. But in a certain sense these “exchanged” letters with their power to interrupt and displace the power of the court release, as it were, an “unnarrated” force in the narrative connecting the document in the queen’s possession with the commotion in the street distracting D ——— from Dupin’s exchange as well as with writings (by Poe and Dupin) that will never reach the court. The “exchange” turns the action into a crime against the court that no one ever commits. And instead of performing any crime against the court, the purloined letter converts revolutionary energy into one of those minor court scandals serving to keep the court’s elements in working order. In re-enacting the “scandal” of the text as a scandal of the court (this time, the court of literary appeals), Lacan, Derrida, and Johnson have perhaps “domesticated” Poe’s text, but their “domestication” has reduced them to a specific effect — that of a minor court scandal, in his, Poe’s, text. This second displacement of Poe by the French makes his return to America seem even more haunting.

Donald Pease, Dartmouth College


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]