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(Paul Klee Death and Fire)

Overdetermination describes Freud’s unconscious as a “thought factory” in analogy with an inexhaustibly productive team of weavers.

Freud was by no means the first neurologist to refer to the fact that symptoms appear to have multiple causation. He does seem to be one of the few in the late 19th century to be making claims such that multiple causation is the rule rather than the interesting exception. In Studies on Hysteria he points out that:

There is in principle no difference between the symptom’s appearing in a temporary way after its first provoking cause and its being latent from the first. Indeed the great majority of instances we find that a first trauma has left no symptom behind, while a later trauma of the same kind produces a symptom, and yet the latter could not have come into existence without the co-operation of the earlier provoking cause; nor can it be cleared up without taking all the provoking causes into account.
Overdetermination refers to all the provoking causes of an hysterical symptom. There is a hint here already of that Nachtraglichkeit--the activated-after-the-event-ness of the provocation--that Derrida picks up on in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” and which seems rather profoundly to suggest a notion of time not subordinated to the present.

The pattern is as follows: a trauma may have little or no effect at first yet a later trauma of a similar kind provokes a symptom by triggering off the provocation of the earlier trauma as well--a process which is continued repeatedly. It is also the pattern of the repetition compulsion (and is thus indicated by the function of the letter in Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”).

Later in Studies on Hysteria it is Joseph Breuer who first writes the actual word--although he does attribute it to Freud: “Such symptoms are invariably ‘overdetermined,’ to use Freud’s expression.” The word is überdeterminiert. When Freud employs a similar term at around this time it is überbestimmt. In the Dreambook the notion is pretty much taken for granted--a parenthesis explains to the reader why it is possible to have more than one interpretation of a dream: “The two interpretations are not mutually contradictory, but cover the same ground; they are a good instance of the fact that dreams, like all other psychological structures, regularly have more than one meaning.” The notion of meaning here should be referred to the notion of “provoking cause.” But later he defines it in the famous statement derived from Goethe’s Faust. Analysing a dream (his own) in which “botanical” is a nodal point (of condensations) he says: “Here we find ourselves in a factory of thought where, as in the Weaver’s masterpiece --

' . . . a thousand threads one treadle throws,
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither,
Unseen the threads are knit together,
And an infinite combination grows.'"

The factory of thought, or the textile, is explained thus: “The explanation of this fundamental fact can also be put another way: each of the elements of the dream’s content turns out to have been ‘overdetermined’--to have been represented in the dream-thoughts many times over.” In other words the textile unconscious is overdetermined by a plural and busy production team--actively producing, causing, provoking symptoms (like dreams and puns and jokes)--ad infinitum.

In Derrida the determination that escapes all determinations is what is referred to by the term differance--and it is this that gives all those other determinations their chance. Derrida’s reading of Freud (vigilant against his concepts) finds a language describing the psyche in terms of forces and resistances, and which consistently uses metaphors of retentive writing machines (the mystic writing pad for instance as memory) with inexhaustible receptivity. In other words the phenomenon of overdetermination is in fact an effect of the unconscious as reserve of repetition and a function therefore of the inexistent repeatability of the trace--overdetermining all provocations.

In terms of deconstruction this has interesting implications. Like Freud faced with a multiplicity of dream thoughts, the reader generally is faced with the question of where to begin (the beginning of Derrida’s Glas poses the problem with underestimated clarity). So Geoffrey Bennington, for instance, in “Derridabase,” writes: “The somewhere where you always start is overdetermined (surdetermine) by historical, political, philosophical, and phantasmatic structures that in principle can never be fully controlled or made explicit.” And as if in impossible exemplification, Derrida, at the bottom of the same page: "Consign them here, but why I wonder, confide to the bottom of this book what were my mother’s last more or less intelligible sentences, still alive at the moment I am writing this, but already incapable of memory, in any case of the memory of my name, a name become for her at the very least unpronounceable . . .”

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