There is something elusive about the term “design.” English dictionaries tell us the word comes from French, French dictionaries point to an Italian origin (disegno, drawing), but modern Italian uses the English word “design.” French and German have also adopted the English term, while Spanish prefers diseño. Most cultures, it seems, project the idea of design into the sphere of international English and the cool modernity it represents.
In these languages “design” has several meanings that include: plan, trick, and deceit (as in “to have designs”). In French, for instance, the word dessein refers to this kind of cunning: in one of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, this is the term C. Auguste Dupin inscribes on the purloined letter that inspired Jacques Lacan to write one of his most famous seminars. As Derrida pointed out, Lacan misread dessein as destin, transforming “design” into “destiny” and producing one of the most famous misreadings in the history of literary theory. Design, Derrida argues, was not destined for this epistemological turn.
Design is a slippery term: it cannot be pinned down to a specific origin, to a specific tradition, and when invoked it often leads to Freudian slips. As we will see in the following cases and their missed encounters with design, “design” becomes an especially unstable territory when it overlaps with sex…
Dessein is a term Marcel Proust used often when relating tales of seduction. In Time Regained, the last volume of À la Recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), one of the characters uses it to describe Baron de Charlus’s seemingly boundless appetite for young men (who seem to get progressively younger as the novel progresses). Near the end, a decrepit Charlus—having suffered several strokes that left him blind and bound to a wheelchair—is cared for by his lover Jupien, who explains to the narrator that ill health has not hindered Charlus’s “cunning designs”:
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