McKenna’s book is disturbingly intelligent. I have the impression in reading it that there is nothing that has not crossed the author’s mind regarding contemporary theory, that here is a book of inquiry and thought in the grand tradition of European letters. I am also struck by how few books there are of this high quality, either on Derrida’s work or Girard’s, a lament which is also one of the book’s subtexts.
McKenna’s expressed goal is to engage Jacques Derrida’s work with René Girard’s. The project is certainly overdue. Both writers have been working for a long time now on structures of exclusion and victimage, Derrida at the level of language, writing, and signifiers, Girard at that of cultural anthropology and institutional formation. Neither has fully acknowledged—let alone engaged—the other. Girard is almost entirely absent from Derrida’s writing, appearing in the convoluted context of a review of a book by Derrida’s student, Lacoue-Labarthes, containing an essay on Girard’s reading of Plato. Girard repeatedly cites Derrida’s treatment of the theme of the scapegoat and of the supplement—for example, in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (“La pharmacie de Platon”)—largely ignoring Derrida’s primary concern, his critique of philosophic essentialism.
McKenna sets out less to right these “baleful circumstances” than to explore them. Through a highly diplomatic “shuttling back and forth between Girard’s and Derrida’s contribution” to our understanding of the foundational occlusionary mechanisms of language and the social, McKenna lays out, definitively in my view, the case for their similarities. But equally evident throughout these chapters both to the reader and McKenna is the “logic of [a] preference” which becomes explicit only in the concluding chapter when he turns to the question of the sacred.
For, in McKenna’s view, what Derrida and deconstruction has resisted throughout is its own implication in the very logic of totalization it everywhere exposes, ironically by way of its very persistent and totalizing appeal for dismantling such logic. Derrida’s “systematic indisposition” is “permanent,” “structural,” and “crippling,” “frustrating” its best insights by participating in an antitranscendentalism as old as romanticism and which alone escapes detection, although it licenses the suspicion of all discourse. Deconstructing all philosophy after Plato as literature, Derrida succeeds ironically only in waging Plato’s own battle, recreating the same rigorous synchronic antithesis (philosophy/literature) which is already the stake of Platonic idealism if in reverse polarity.
The difference is decisive. Deconstructing philosophic language as writing, metaphor, signifier, text, Derrida repeats the “sacrificial scenario” of philosophy [End Page 252] itself. Mistaking the symptom (the “crisis of all cultural signs”) for the cure, constituting itself as an impossible demand for a “total” or metalinguistic account, deconstructing all language as difference, deferral, or “differance,” deconstruction defers finally to the very representational strategies it exposes. It scapegoats and retrieves in marginalized form the absolute in the face of the antisacrificial staging of truth that great literature posits. What begins as a critique of the widespread “symmetrical allergy to the sacred and to signifiers” concludes on one hand with an exposition of the mechanism of sacralization, and on the other with a via negativa hardly distinguishable from the tradition it opposes, a hypersensitivity to language which may be only the latest version of a transcendental skepticism which has a long and distinguished history in the West, perhaps the history of philosophy itself.
One may disagree with McKenna. In fact, in a curious way, not to do so would be to betray the book’s polemical challenge, that we develop a positive knowledge of culture as the product of questioning and examination. But one would be hard put to find a more penetratingly thoughtful study of its topic. It is an example of the practice of intellectual activity at its finest. In an age of mindless epigonism, here is a book about such dangers whose spirit of critical thinking we would do well to emulate.