Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 3, January 2003

 

 

David Roden

 

Derrida Framed

 

 

_Derrida_ (2002)

Directed by Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick

UK Premiere: 31 January 2003

http://www.derridathemovie.com

 

Where philosophy is treated in film, or on television, it is generally through images of the philosopher speaking before the camera -- as in Channel 4's now sadly defunct _Voices_, or through the genre of biography. Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick's film, _Derrida_, is certainly no exception to this rule, juxtaposing readings from Derrida's published work, and footage of conference addresses and interviews, with a forensic sweep over the minutiae of his daily life: his taste in jackets, his Parisian house, his cat, his studious silence on personal matters. Like most philosophical documentaries, then, _Derrida_ employs the conventions of biography, auto-biography, and, in this case, Reality TV, as a frame for its philosophical content.

 

It is distinctive, though, in the way in which the directors and their subject exploit these conventions. In an interview that exemplifies their approach rather nicely, Derrida is asked by Kofman to comment upon the origins of the idea of deconstruction. He responds by calling attention to the 'artificiality' of the interview, to 'our surrounding technical conditions'. This, he suggests, is already a response to her question: 'One of the gestures of deconstruction is not to naturalise what isn't natural -- not to assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural'. Much of the film refers directly to its own artificiality -- for example, by having a camera operator placed in the visible corner of a room during an interview, or having a response to an earnest question about negative theology reduced to aural spaghetti as a sound technician adjusts a mike in Derrida's lapel. _Derrida_ thus suggests playfully that it is as much *about* the framing/framed relation as about the quotidian existence of a French philosophy professor.

 

Derrida has frequently explored the devices by which literary or philosophical works call attention to their institutional or technical conditions of possibility. In a reading of Kant's _Analytic of the Beautiful_, he questions the logic by which *parerga* (picture frames, draperies on statues, or the discourse of philosophical aesthetics itself) are treated as mere adjuncts to the intellectual or aesthetic works they are designed to enhance. [1] It would be significant if the biographical content of _Derrida_ could be shown to function as a parergon -- rather than a mere ornament or pretext for the film's existence -- since, as is made clear near the opening credits, the very idea of a consequential relation between a thinker's life and work is foreclosed in traditional philosophical exegesis. This question is broached in a remarkably direct way, with footage of Derrida addressing a conference in New York on the subject of philosophy and biography. The relation between a philosophy and the 'empirical life' of its author, he remarks, is traditionally excluded from serious philosophical consideration. Thus, for Heidegger, the pertinent details of Aristotle's life are encapsulated in a single sentence: ''He was born, he thought, and he died.' The rest is anecdote'. The New York sequence is intercut with a beguiling succession of cinematic 'anecdotes' (a pan over the waters of the Seine, an urban landscape of Parisian underpasses and railway termini), while, over Ryuichi Sakamoto's shimmering electronic score, we hear Derrida speaking of two, incommensurable conceptions of the future: the predictable future, and the *a-venir*, the messianic future, the time of the Other. A talking head on a video monitor assures us that no list of great modern philosophers would be complete without the name 'Jacques Derrida'. Derrida is then seen discussing parking arrangements with the film crew before driving off to an appointment at a hair salon.

 

Can we read these images as substantiating, in some way, a revisionary claim about the status of biography or autobiography? On one level the film programmes the way in which the question can be articulated. Derrida concludes his address to the biography conference with the claim that the excision of biography is constitutive of philosophy itself. 'Classical philosophers', he claims, regard auto-biography as 'indecent', because the philosopher should not 'speak of himself as an empirical being'. Philosophy 'just is' this politeness. This statement is accompanied by a citation from 'Otobiographies', to the effect that there is a kind of productive border working between the conceptual and the biographical, rather than a line of demarcation [2] -- a claim that naturally prompts the question of whether this is at work, now, even as we watch a hairdresser's clippers gliding over the emblematic *bouffant*.

 

This is, arguably, the most significant problem addressed in the film. Derrida is not claiming that the 'subject' of traditional autobiography should or can be installed within the philosophical 'system' produced by the subject. What is at stake, as he has suggested elsewhere, is a reconception of what counts as life and how the events of a life relate to the archives in which they are recorded. If we consider a life to consist of a series of singular, unrepeatable events -- i.e. 'He was born, he thought, and he died.' -- each with a determinate meaning fixed at the time that it occurs, then there is simply no reason to depart from the standard model. The events in the life of the author become relevant only if his text refers to them in some way. However, Derrida does not view events or 'temporality' in such terms.

 

Much of Derrida's most theoretically fruitful work can be thought of as an investigation into the relation between the production of meaning and its conditions of possibility. [3] Meaning is produced in finite, datable acts. Yet it is constituted by structures that necessarily transcend these physical events or impressions. As Saussure, Wittgenstein, Putnam, and Davidson have also argued, what a signifying state means depends upon its relations with other significant elements. [4] What I say, think, believe, or experience depends not only upon what I do, or is in my head at that point in time, but on how the marks that express my thoughts are repeated (or as Derrida says, 'iterated') at other times or places, by other speakers, in 'other heads'.

 

Iterability has been seen, by some, as undermining the very possibility of the subject as this is sometimes conceived in modern tradition of epistemology or ethical theory. As Davidson has also recognised, one version of the subject 'just is' the mythical place in which thoughts, experiences, or actions are 'contained', bearing their intrinsic meanings regardless of what happens in the subject's environment. [5] According to Derrida, actions or signifying states derive sense from their repeatability in other contexts. Hence, the sense and intentions ascribable to an utterance or action depend, in principle, upon what takes place after it. Where the world allows our habits of interpretation to be relatively stable, this future-contingency leaves things (as Wittgensteinians say) much as they are. According to Derrida, however, there are events or gestures whose meaning is future-contingent in principle because they refer to a future whose character is hidden both from the agent and from any possible addressee. Thus, in the Foreword to _Ecce Homo_, Nietzsche writes that to confront humanity 'with the heaviest demand that has ever been made on it' he must state who he is, but that the exigencies of this task make this impossible. [6] This identity cannot be understood by his contemporaries; those who are unequal to what is being asked of them. [7] For Derrida, this apparently contentless autobiographical act allows the articulation of a philosophical project predicated on the impossibility of self-identification by placing the life of the writer in the hands of an 'impossible' addressee.

 

Can we view the anecdotal material of _Derrida_ as having a similar autobiographical function? One isolated sequence shows Derrida in his kitchen removing some aubergines from a bowl, pouring olive oil and pepper upon them, placing the bowl back into his fridge, while a radio newscast informs us of Israel's assassination of a Hezbollah leader. Strictly speaking, it tells us nothing. Zilch about Derrida's view of Middle-East politics, for example. It appears to be an insignificant event in the life of a man who just happens to be a philosopher. But if Derrida is right about iterability, this seemingly trivial set of occurrences cannot be dismissed in this way, because significance accrues to the way in which an event is repeated. If there is any analogy to be drawn here with Nietzsche's act of dissimulation, it can only be because these and similar images have nothing to tell us -- beyond the fact that Derrida is a physical being who needs to eat, who listens to his radio, etc. Through the industrial medium of cinema these images can be copied, edited, and circulated, transferred to DVD or downloaded to the hard drive of computers. Given this practical iterability, they could come to mean in ways that no one presently anticipates. Perhaps, as Derrida suggests at a different point in the film, they harbor a secret that can only be understood by another -- or the Other; perhaps this is a secret that only God or the Messiah could unravel.

 

These incidents could also be seen to 'exemplify' something about the way the character of lived experience -- the 'now' -- depends upon the manner in which it is recorded. Derrida writes in _Archive Fever_ (a work that is twice quoted in the film): 'The archive has always been a pledge and like every pledge, a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way.' [8] However, it is far from clear whether Derrida's description of the openness of the present to repetition is philosophically satisfactory. The distinction between the predictable future and the messianic time of the Other that opens the film, for example, seems at once to invest the future with too much contingency and too little. The future *is* predictable to a considerable degree. It is alien or 'other' because of contingent limitations upon our knowledge or the adequacy of our concepts. One can accept, then, much of what Derrida says about the link between repetition and meaning without having to express this in the inflated language of radical alterity or messianism.

 

This is, I have to admit, as much a philosophical disagreement with the rhetoric of Derrida's later work as an objection to Kofman and Dick's film. Derrida is an amiable and witty conversationalist and much in the film -- particularly Derrida's recollection of his experience of anti-Semitism in Algeria, and his description of a conversation with his mother following her stroke -- is poignant and moving. I enjoyed _Derrida_, but find myself unable to agree with its approach. It ultimately patronises its subject by refusing to engage with Derrida's work at a philosophical level. There is only one point where he is seen to be seriously challenged by an interlocutor. This is during a lecture on the nature of forgiveness in South Africa. It is arguably the film's philosophical high point, for it gives Derrida the opportunity to clarify the relation between a difficult conceptual claim concerning the impossibility of 'true forgiveness' and the need, in the context of South Africa and elsewhere, for a kind of therapeutic political practice. Otherwise, the film tends to replicate the worst excesses of Derrida's philosophical 'friends' and 'enemies' by ignoring the problems thrown up by his work and their wider philosophical implications. Maybe Derrida can, as the opening sequence suggests, be slotted into some linear sequence of great modern philosophers; but even so, there is no reason to think that many of his claims are not wrong, confused, or, at the very least, in need of drastic revision. This film does not give us any sense of there being a philosophical debate around his work, let alone a history of antagonism towards deconstructive theory. Its obvious sensitivity to the constructed or mediated nature of the image -- the problematics of framing, etc. -- is ultimately no substitute for philosophical discussion and analysis. For all its formal ingenuity and charm, it is still insufficiently philosophical and thus does its subject a considerable disservice.

 

University of the West of England, Bristol

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Jacques Derrida, 'Parergon', in _The Truth in Painting_, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 15-148.

 

2. Derrida, 'Otobiographies', in _The Ear of the Other_ (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), p. 5.

 

3. See Derrida, _Edmund Husserl's 'Origin of Geometry': An Introduction_ [1962], trans. J. P. Leavey (New York: Harvester Press, 1978); and 'Limited Inc. a b c', trans. Samuel Weber, in Gerald Graff, ed., _Limited Inc._ (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

 

4. See, for example, Hilary Putnam, 'The Meaning of 'Meaning'', in _Mind, Language and Reality_, Philosophical Papers, Vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 215-271. In his famous Twin Earth thought experiment Putnam also emphasises that the world or environment of the thinker contributes to the content of their thoughts. Nothing in Derrida is incompatible with this so-called 'externalist' position. Frank Farrell provides an absolutely indispensable discussion of the affinities between Putnam, Davidson, Dennett, and continental thinkers like Derrida in his _Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the World in Recent Philosophy_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

 

5. See Donald Davidson, 'The Myth of the Subjective', in Michael Krausz, ed., _Interpretation and Confrontation_ (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), pp. 159-171.

 

6. Nietzsche, _Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is_ [1888], trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1979), p. 33.

 

7. Ibid., p.8.

 

8. Derrida, _Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression_, trans. Eric Prenowitz (London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 18.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

David Roden, 'Derrida Framed', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 3, January 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n3roden>.

 

David Roden is co-editor with Christopher Norris of _Jacques Derrida: Modern Masters of Social Thought_ (London: Sage, 2002), a major four-volume thematically organized review of the key secondary literature on Derrida's writing. It provides a systematic overview of the core conceptual vocabulary informing deconstruction, identifying published works that most clearly and significantly discuss Derrida's thought.

 

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