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Response By Shawn Klein
This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled "The Continental Origins of Postmodernism."
Madness and More Madness
Will Thomas’s review essay captures much of the essence of this very difficult Derrida piece. I especially appreciated his comments on deconstructionism in general.
I am going to come right out and say it: this essay by Derrida is madness. I admit I might be dismissing Derrida too quickly, or that I might be missing important insights that Derrida brings to the table. I am also very willing to concede that I just do not understand what Derrida is trying to do.
Now that I’ve bolstered everyone’s confidence in my ability to write on Derrida, here are some of my thoughts on Derrida.
A lot of what it seems Derrida is trying to do is to set up oppositional or binary poles; for example, existence and non-existence, reason and madness, and presence and absence. I take it that everything has a contrary, that everything exists in a binary relationship. According to Derrida, it is the difference of the thing from its other that brings it into existence. Going one step further than Sartre, not only does existence precede essence, but difference precedes existence.
So what? Well, the problem is not, I think, in things having contraries. It is the implied idea that the contraries have equal footing, or that they have an equal importance or impact. This troubles me. Something and nothing do not have the same metaphysical status, contrary to Heidegger.
Or maybe there is a more troubling idea contained within the idea of contraries as presented by Derrida. I think we can see this within Derrida’s discussion of the pre-classical logos. Derrida refers to this as “undivided Logos” (40). This logos had no contrary because it absorbed or assimilated the two binaries, it has “‘enveloped’ the contrary of reason” (40). What we normally divide into logic and illogic is combined into one system. The further implication is that all the binaries are joined, that is, the binaries are really a part of the same thing.
This seems, also, to apply to reason and madness. Before the “great internment” of madness, reason and madness co-existed in a similar manner to the undivided Logos. Afterwards, madness was exiled and reason enshrined. The task, it seems, of Derrida’s deconstructionism is to allow madness to return and rejoin with reason.
I am reminded of Ayn Rand’s well-known statement, and I am paraphrasing from memory, that any mixing of poison with food allows the poison to “win” and results in death. By combining logic and illogic or reason and madness into one unified totality, we do not allow ourselves to move beyond reason to some higher process of knowing, but force ourselves into madness.
Now, this descent into madness may be precisely the point. Or maybe I just can’t break out of my own western historical context and see madness, as itself, and can only see it through the lenses of reason. Derrida seems to think that we need the deconstruction project in order to break out of this context, and our inability to see madness as itself serves to confirm this need.
Or maybe there really is no point, other than the typical Objectivist response that Derrida is just an evil monster out to destroy reason and civilization (a characterization I’m not all that uncomfortable with).
In conclusion, I could be, and probably am, getting the Derridean deconstructionist program all or partially wrong. There might very well be something in Derrida or deconstructionism that is worthy of more attention and more study. I personally only see it worthy of study in order to “know thy enemy.”
Back to William Thomas, "A Modern Scholasticism: Reflections on Derrida's 'Cogito and the History of Madness'"