Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)
Vol. 4 No. 28, December 2000
_Echographies de la television. Entretiens filmes_
Paris: Editions Galilee / Institut national de l'audiovisuel, 1996
'Ethics is the aesthetics of the future.' James Monaco 
'I always say the truth: not all of it since saying it all can't be done.
To say it all is impossible, materially: words fail. It is because of this
very impossibility that truth holds on to the real.' Jacques Lacan 
In 1993, when Jacques Lacan spoke on television, his opening statement was
that one cannot say it all. The above words by Lacan introduce
_Echographies de la television_, Jacques Derrida's 1996 book, not only
because he and Lacan share certain doxa regarding truth, the materiality of
the signifier, and 'the real', but because they are both philosophers.
_Echographies_ is traded, perhaps since it is still untranslated, as
harboring 'Derrida's thoughts on television' -- thoughts of a certain
impact one may assume given that Derrida is often considered the most
important living philosopher.
Now, Derrida is the thinker of deconstruction, and first and foremeost, the
book offers deconstructive approaches to television and, on one level,
relates certain seasoned philosophical arguments to television and its
mediality, etching out in straightforward passages how deconstruction (i.e.
some fundamental concepts that form the body of knowledge subsumed under
this heading) is always already bound up with the thinking of media. Above
and beyond these gestures, which are exciting in themselves, Derrida
develops a wealth of original critiques of television, some of which,
though all are always philosophical in slant, have pressing
socio-historical or political dimensions (portions of the text pertain to
contemporaneous affairs in France at the time of the interviews). To be
brief, Derrida sets forth many general theoretical points about television
that I believe one should understand when one works on this medium.
_Echographies de la television_ relates a series of filmed interviews with
Jacques Derrida conducted by Bernard Stiegler in 1993, as well as the
transcription of another group interview from the same year,
'Artfactualities', and -- last things first -- the essay 'The Discrete
Image' written by Stiegler himself, an intelligent text that goes back to
Barthes's analysis of the photographic image and inquires about the status
of the image under the condition of numerical reproducibility.
What then are the Derridean takes? The list of section titles will give us
The Right to Gaze; Artfactualities, Homohegemony; Acts of Memory:
Topopolitics and Teletechnology; Heritages -- and Rhythm; The 'Cultural
Exception': The States of the State, the Event; The Market of the Archive:
Truth, Witnessing, Proof; Phonographies: Sense -- From Heritage to Horizon,
Spectographies, Vigilances of the Unconscious. 
As semantics indicate, tele-vision implies a vision bound up with distance.
Obviously, television operates through distance in space and time. However,
this mode of operating cannot be reduced to the functioning of the
apparatus but, as a 'dispositif', engenders paradoxical dialectics of
closeness and distance, of identity and lack, of processes of
democratization and totalitarianization. Therefore, television is a
technique that bears similarities with writing, more precisely with
*ecriture*; qua 'technique', it echoes Heidegger's 'techne' -- and thus we
know _Echographies_ is hardly the first or only place Derrida ever said
something about television.
Before we cast a light on a few specific arguments subsumed under the above
list of headings and statements, let us take a step back: Writing is
historically fixed as the structure that operates in the absence of its
sender, of an origin (see e.g. _The Postcard_). The so-called graphematic
structure shelters the trace of something irreducibly other, something
non-present, something different from that which is begun (at the origin).
To be clear, it is not writing traditionally conceived but *like* writing.
Writing fills in the absence of the graphematic structure via
concept-metaphors, catachreses; similarly, television offers an 'imagology'
as Mark Taylor would have perhaps phrased it; ecriture is a teletechnology.
What then is the specificity of television? At 'every moment', Derrida is
cited on the back cover of the book, television:
'introduces the elsewhere and the world-wide into the home [le chez-moi]. I
am thus more isolated, more privatized than ever in my home with this
permanent intrusion, desired by me, of the other, of the stranger, of that
which is far away, of the other language. I desire it and at the same time,
I enclose myself with this stranger, I want to isolate myself with him
without him, I want to be at home (with myself) [chez-moi].'
Taking the western couch potato as his model, Derrida analyzes the effects
television has on *his* subjectivity. To be precise, television hones the
question of the constitution of subjectivity. Although television
constructs a relation of hospitality towards perfect strangers, i.e. those
you see on the screen, this imaginary companionship unsettles the subject
while, at the same time, precipitating an increased desire for
psychological borders; the subject longs for a clearer definition of
himself. This state of unhinged subjectivity fosters an oscillation that is
not likely to end peacefully but lead to a frenetic search for selfhood.
This relationship of 'self' and other extends to the social, to the
mechanisms of the symbolic order. Derrida continues:
'This recourse to being-at-home [le recours au chez-soi], the return to my
home [le retour vers le chez-soi], is naturally all the more powerful as
the delocalization, the technological expropriation are powerful and
violent. Right when 'democratization', or that which goes by this name, has
made such 'progress', thanks precisely to those technologies that we just
talked about, when it progressed to the point that classical totalitarian
ideologies collapsed, in particular those represented by the soviet world,
the neo-liberal ideology of the market economy was no longer capable of
measuring up to its own power, right at that moment, the field has opened
up to the form of the return to oneself that is called 'small nationalism',
the nationalism of minorities, regional and provincial nationalism,
religious fundamentalism, that often goes with it and also attempts to
reconstitute nation-states; from here, the movement of regression
accompanies, actually follows as its shadow, almost confounding itself with
it, the acceleration of the technological process which is always also a
process of delocalization.'
Here, Derrida links television to the historical developments after the
Cold War. He asserts that the amazing moments of international moves
towards democracy, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the handshake between
Rabin and Arafat, or the end of Apartheid, not only coincide with the
spread of television culture and other modern information technologies like
the internet, but also bear certain causal relations with them: 'The
acceleration of all political and economic processes seems undissociable of
a new temporality of technique, of another rhythmic' (83). The other side
of the coin harbors the ugly effects of the coming-into-one's-own that
cannot be dissociated from 'democratization', namely nationalism, religious
intolerance, the barbarism of the various civil, ethnic, and national
strives that continue to shake the world. Analogical to the processes on
the subjective level, the pressures of collective soul searching can set
off mad attempts at forging and securing identity that annihilate the
other. This state of being-out-of-joint and its ethical repercussions were,
for instance, discussed in what is by now considered one of Derrida's major
works, _Specters of Marx_ (1994), some themes of which are taken up in
_Echographies_ (for example in the 'Spectographies' chapter).
Further, Derrida argues, democratization is not only limited or put into
question by belligerent spin-offs of collective identity formations but
compromization lies at the heart of *the* central contemporary western
democratic projects, i.e. multiculturalism, the politics of the various
human rights and emancipation movements. Judging or taking sides in
hegemonic contestations in the field of the social, with its limitations
like distributive justice, have scarcely been Derrida's point of
intervention. Rather, he systematically cautions against political and
semiotic modes of representation founded on identity, an identity that is
spurred by and intricately linked with a television culture where
'representation' is a function of (inherently problematic) identity
politics, and, on television, often reduced to broadcasting even the most
absurd or dangerous opinions.
The question then is: How to heed singularity in contemporary television
culture? How does or could television attempt to do that? Television and
singularity are not mutual exclusive. For example, in 'The 'Cultural
Exception': The States of the State, the Event' Derrida explains
Baudrillard's thesis that the Gulf war did not take place. Simulacra of
images, the manipulation of information, the report might have annulled the
event but, Derrida suggests, the attention to the process should not efface
it (89). Moreover, it is in the name of singularity, that of the murder of
singular subjects, that one protests against a technique that can always
'dislodge, export, expatriate' singularity (91).
Again, the discontinuities between the ethical call of the other and a
political praxis that cannot do justice to it have been at the center of
the Derridean project. And it is well-known that Derrida favors positions
of transcendental philosophy and shuns normative political prescriptions.
Even more surprising are the moments in this book when Derrida sheds his
reluctance to take a stand, voices his opinion and suggests moves into the
'right' direction -- and necessarily does so in the name of singularity and
the unconditional. In sections like 'The 'Cultural Exception'', Derrida
argues strongly against models of television that he finds impoverishing
(and admits to watching them nonetheless) and comes down in favor of the
French-German television channel ARTE (http://www.lasept-arte.fr), by its
own definition a 'culture channel', a public television station that makes
intellectual and art programs. Although the mercantilist determination of
the market has, of course, not forgotten ARTE and other niches of
resistance -- since they, too, can only define themselves in relation to
these forces -- Derrida supports 'subventions', government subsidies, of
French public television and French cinema, namely against a 'Hollywood'
that, unfortunately, I think, comes across as the homogenous strawman of
cultural (or 'technological') imperialism.
In order to not foreclose the possibilities of the future, to 'leave open
the possibility of the future' to begin with (98), spaces have to be
defended that allow for inventions, a related point that Derrida makes, for
example in the section on the market of the archive. As Stiegler continues
to prod him about Heidegger and the question of 'techne', Derrida replies
that 'the present state of television' and its temporality is not conducive
to addressing certain issues in a differentiated and 'pertinent' manner
(125), e.g. _Being and Time_. If he were to talk about it on television, he
'would demand twenty hours of television', and those who'd join him would
have to have read 'a certain number of things' beforehand (125).
Thus _Echographies_ is marked by discursive practices that interlace chatty
passages with brief presentations of complex philosophical matters, and
terse transpositions of these matters to television, and that, in both
modes, present new ideas. In _Margins of Philosophy_ (1982), for example,
Derrida already explored the aspect that writing is a form of
telecommunication, and here in _Echographies_ he picks up on previous
thoughts and addresses a number of points of convergence between the media.
For example the written word can reach many people through space and time.
Yet, what is written must not necessarily be received in any intended
manner; and just as one is never sure of what reaches the addressee, the
addressee is not sure of the identity of the sender either. Further,
writing is a form of monumentality which is linked to death, predicated on
a constitutive absence. Television differs from these general
characteristics of reading insofar as delay is at the same time increased
(through storage) and decreased (due to fact that the typical television
'event' is often 'live' or is dependant on psychological immediacy) (103).
Despite its presentist visual economy that is suggestive of the contrary,
television is inscribed in certain aporias of temporality:
'The living present divides itself. As of now, it carries death in itself
and it reinscribes in its immediacy that which must survive it in some
form; it divides itself in life into its life and its after-life; without
which there would not be any image, no taping. There would not be any
archive without this dehiscence, without this divisibility of the living
present that carries its specter in itself. Specter, i.e. also *phantasma*,
ghost or possible image of an images' (61).
Particularly in the chapter 'Spectographies', Derrida concentrates on the
specific spectrality of television. Whereas previous historical returns
(say of Roman history in the French revolution) implied an experience of
mimicry, the 20th century introduced modes of registration that are forms
of 'presentifications' (144) that were impossible before. The implications
are many. For example, 'real time' doesn't exist, contemporary technique
just presents real time as its effect (145).
The political dimension of television is clearly at the heart of this book.
Derrida thinks about the politics of memory, of archives, of access, etc.,
with a great sense of urgency. He warns against the self-sameness of
television culture, the fact that it curtails our abilities to respond and
thus be responsible, television's 'homohegemonie' (57). The many examples,
like the beating of Rodney King, the 'affaire Gregory' where Marguerite
Duras intervened into a murder case in a problematic manner, or legislation
in France concerning the access to archives for researchers bespeak his
political focus directly. At many points in the text, Derrida argues we
must increase our awareness of television and its effects; e.g. schools
have to teach about teletechnologies. Actually, and perhaps surprisingly,
the book contains explicit cries for political activism. Despite the
fantasmatic structures that determine television, Derrida urges us to fight
(militer) for the right 'to respond, select, intercept, intervene' (69).
One has to train 'people', he says, to be vigilant, responsive, eventually
ready to fight (eventuellement au combat), but, he continues, 'without
presupposing nor assigning an identification, a reidentification as a task.
Disidentification, singularity, rupture with identificatory solidity,
de-liaison' are just as necessary as their contrary' (78).
Well, how can we think new technical events? How to politicize them?
Politicize them 'differently'? Especially if we define 'the difficulty of
thinking as 'political' difficulty' (93). How to democratize them when we