Tag Archives: university of sussex

A history of madness

“UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.