“Finish Him”: Foucault’s Criticism of Derrida, and the Significance of Discursive Practices

This week, I started with the text that we didn’t necessarily have to read (though, I’m sure we all will).  Although I’m enjoying The Invention of Modern Science, I haven’t quite finished it yet.  As a result, I will focus my efforts on, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” and address Stenger’s text later in the week.

Essentially, Focault’s mission, objective or otherwise, is to rectify what he considers a poor reading of Descartes work.  This, of course, is the interpretation that Derrida derives from Descartes discussion of madness and dream.  According to Foucault, Derrida is mistaken on several crucial issues.  Derrida, as Foucault suggests, believes that the dreamer is farther from “true perception” than the madman.  With dream, sensory ideas are stripped of what might be considered their objective value.  Moreover, Derrida also states that dreaming is more common and a more universal experience than madness.  According to Foucault, this is not what Descartes is suggesting.  Furthermore, he fails to consider Descartes’ use of terminology in regard to madness.  Here, Foucault argues that Descartes uses juridical terms instead of medical terms, and that, as a result, the “right” concerns the “qualification of the subject” (403).

Though these are all areas in which Foucault’s interpretation diverges from that of Derrida, the main point of contention for Foucault, seems to be Derrida’s effort to discount madness and its significance to the text.  For Derrida, as Foucault consistently reminds the reader, this text introduces madness simply as a segway into the issue of sleeping and dreaming.  He interprets this transition as a movement from bad to good.  Foucault, on the other hand, argues that a different opposition exists between the two.  Furthermore, Derrida interprets the appearance of madness in Descartes’ discourse, as the mere interjection of an unworthy speaker (411).  Derrida suggests that the wise speaker is just distracted momentarily by a person of less intelligence.  Conversely, Foucault insists that madness figures quite prominently in Descartes’ text, and that this cannot simply be degraded due to the nature of its appearance (403).  In essence, Foucault interprets that Descartes intentionally places madness and dreaming in direct confrontation to one another, and that this is significant in and of itself.  Moreover, Foucault argues that in addition to madness, Derrida neglects the “differences” inherent to the text (405).  These, as Foucault suggests, are the literal, thematic/imagistic, textual, and discursive differences that consistantly appear.  For Foucault, this is the reason that Derrida has “fudged” his interpretation (412).

As a means of further degrading Derrida’s interpretation, Foucault designs the latter portions of the text in quite an interesting manner.  Instead of simply rectifying what might be considered the unfortunate errors of Derrida’s interpretaton, Foucault degradates by means of demonstrating the very methodology by which Derrida achieved his synopsis.  In effect, Foucault attacks Derrida by demonstrating the means by which Derrida attempts to remove himself from the intellectual bind he creates.  Reading the final pages reminds me of one of those reality television documentaries in which numerous cops, “criminal experts,” and the occasional psychic narrate the peculiar details of a bank heist or murder.  Only, as in most of these shows, the criminal (in this case Derrida), is caught and slayen in a Devil’s Rejects esque showdown. 

Now that I’ve addressed the various points of contention, it seems necessary to return to the significance of Foucault’s suggestions as to the correct reading of Descartes.  Though the conflict between Derrida and Foucault is a fundamental component of this text, it seems quite a curious position to suggest that this might be all that one can derive from Foucault’s work.  Quite simply, if Foucault is responding to Derrida on an intellectual level, why is this the piece that he chooses to critique?  Though Derrida composed many works, Foucault selects and responds to this interpretation. 

On quite a base level, Foucault argues the importance of madness to Descartes work.  Here, Foucault seems to be attempting to restore a fundamental element of particular significance to the original text.  Furthermore, this text positions as a central concern the methodology by which one approaches a certain condition; the means by which one might experiment with an experience (ie, the experience of dreaming, sleeping, or of madness).  For Foucault, the method works for dreaming but not madness.  Extravangance, according to Foucault, comes from trying to act like a madman, by means of trying madness out or exercizing madness.  This is the very reason that the test of madness fails.  Alternatively, to think about dreaming gives one the impression of already being asleep.  As a result, dreaming can be tested.  To give precedence to dream, as Derrida does, is to ignore that madness can not be tested to the extent that dreaming can (401).  So, as Foucault suggests, method and thoroughness of method are of predominant concern.  

Following on this interest in approaching madness and dream, Foucault addresses pedagogy and interpretative methodologies.  Here, Foucault provides insight into the unfortunate tendencies plaguing many interpretations.  Derrida, as Foucault argues, is reviving an “old tradition” (416).  Here, Foucault is quick to mention that is not by lack of attention that Derrida’s predecessors failed to interpret the passage correctly.  Rather, their failures are a result of what Foucault refers to as “system.”  These interpretors reduce…

discursive practices to textual traces: the elision of events produced therein and the retention only of marks for a reading; the invention of voices behind texts to avoid having to analyze the modes of implication of the subject in discourses; the assigning of the originary as said and unsaid in the text to avoid placing discursive practices in the field of the transformations where they are carried out (416)

This is the very reason that Foucault selects and criticizes this interpretation.  For in Derrida’s interpretation, as we will remember, madness is discounted in that the discourse on madness is encouraged by one other than the “evil genius.”  Here, Foucault uses this fault as a means of approaching a tradition of negligence when it comes to interpreting texts.  Foucault works to reassert the importance of “discursive practices” to the very texts that are interpreted.  In the case of Descartes work, instead of simply denying certain character contributions, it is important to consider these contributions in the context of a particular dialogue.  On a broader context, Foucault seems to insist that the subject in discourse is as of much significance as that which is discussed.  Though these points may seem contradictory, Foucault’s emphasis on “events,” “the subject of discourses,” and “discursive practices,” is of extreme importance to the argument that he forwards.


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