Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-7063-5.
First the facts: Derrida is a film about Jacques Derrida, who was born in 1930, taught in France and the United States, wrote on a number of subjects but is most well-known for ‘deconstruction’, and died in 2004. The film, which was released in cinemas in 2002, is directed by a former student of Derrida, Amy Ziering Kofman, and the documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick. The DVD ‘ released in 2004 (Region 1) and 2005 (Region 2) ‘ also contains a Q&A with Derrida and the directors, some deleted scenes and the directors’ voiceover explaining aspects of the film. Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film is a coffee table style book, which, apart from the screenplay, includes the transcript of the aforementioned Q&A, interviews with Derrida and the directors, essays by Geoffrey Hartman and Nicholas Royle, and lots of photos from the film.1
While also treating other subjects from Derrida’s work, such as forgiveness, love, the body and the to-come (l’à-venir), one of the main subjects of the film is, not surprisingly, biography. This is a subject treated by Derrida himself in books such as Glas (1987a), The Post Card (1987b) and The Ear of the Other (1988). One of the underlying premises of Derrida is that biography makes a difference. This is directly confronted in the film by Derrida who, at a conference, criticises the exclusion of biography ‘ of the personal and particular, including the body ‘ from the discipline of philosophy. He refers to Heidegger, who said, ‘What can we answer to the question –“what was Aristotle’s life?” Well the answer is very simple, “Aristotle was a philosopher”, and the answer holds in one sentence: “He was born, he thought, and he died.” And all the rest is pure anecdote’ (quoted from the screenplay, p. 61). Of course Derrida ‘ and the filmmakers ‘ disagree with Heidegger’s view. For Derrida, thought and philosophy cannot be dissociated or abstracted from its place of enunciation.
However, the unavoidability of biography then raises the question of how to do biography. What would a Derridean or deconstructive biography (of Derrida) look like? Derrida’s own work, and not just on biography ‘ continually puts into question the authority of the author, the unity of the text and the neutrality of representation. In order to be ‘true’ to their subject (Derrida), the filmmakers thus had to work the impossibility of such truthfulness into the content and form of the film. As Kirby Dick says: ‘there was an underlying demand that the film be made in the style of the subject’s work Â… that our film (indeed any film) about Derrida be “Derridean.” Or Â… “do Derrida to Derrida”‘ (Dick, 2005: 44). The directors are quite successful in this respect. Since biography is one of the main issues raised in and by the film, I shall explore the various aspects of this issue in what follows.
Thus, the film is not a ‘documentary narrative that biographically recounted facts about Derrida’s life in a standard documentary fashion’ (Kofman, 2005: 23). That does not mean that there are no ‘facts’ in the film. In one scene, the narrator lists a number of more or less trivial biographical ‘facts’ about Derrida, but importantly these are taken from Derrida’s own books, where it is not clear whether they are facts or fiction. Similarly, we are treated to facts about Derrida’s everyday life ‘ eating breakfast, and so on ‘ that allegedly serve to undermine the authority of the great philosopher. In addition, the film self-reflexively reflects on the artificiality of the representation of Derrida. Thus, in various ways, Derrida questions the traditional biographical style of presenting the facts about a person. It also questions the narrative style of traditional biography through its own non-narrative style that weaves back and forth between subjects, quotes and images. And finally, it does not present us with any expert witnesses, that is, Derrida scholars talking about the meaning and importance of his work.
Derrida also resists the temptation to present its subject as a unity, as something clearly identifiable. This of course reflects Derrida’s questioning of the unity of the text and of the author. It is done in the film by imposing one image on another, by the flow-like quality of some of the sequences and by references to Derrida’s own writings on the intellectual and political dangers of the One. We might say that the film is opening up its subject. Yet, this opening is simultaneously a closure, as Derrida would himself say. The portrait of Derrida ‘ however fluid and multiple ‘ also fixes his identity, thus fixing his (physical and intellectual) image in the mind of the viewer. Dick writes: ‘A documentary film, then, creates a doppelganger of the subject in the public consciousness, one that haunts any interaction between the subject and anyone who has seen the film’ (2005: 47). Similarly, when authors put their photo on the jacket cover of their books, the image stands between the reader and the words and ideas of the book. Derrida himself prohibited all public photos of himself until 1979, after which he gradually gave up on this proscription. One of the results of that is the film Derrida; another is that his image is used commercially to sell his books, in some cases even as the front cover (for instance, Derrida, 2000).
Related to this is the issue of the archive, itself the subject of Derrida’s (1997) work. The film quotes Derrida on the archive and follows him to the Derrida Archive at the University of California, Irvine. What is interesting about the archive is that it survives. It survives in the simple sense of ‘after your lifetime’ (Derrida et al., 2005: 110), but it also survives in another sense. While the archive ‘ and Derrida is part of the archive about Derrida ‘ helps fix a certain meaning of its content (here, Derrida), what survives in the archive also survives any present determination of it, whether the intentions of the author or a particular interpretation of a text in a particular context. Thus, the archive both closes and opens the interpretation of a text or an author.
At this point it is worth addressing the title of the film. The opening title sequence has Derrida, perhaps a pun on the French ‘de Derrida’: on or by Derrida. Thus, is the film onDerrida or is the film by Derrida? Who is the author of the film, and whose biography is it? The cover of the book plays with this in a different way with its emphasis on the i of Derrida, perhaps the ‘I, Derrida’ as the author and/or subject of the book and film. The title Derrida also plays on the ambiguity of the what and the who, which Derrida addresses in a discussion of love in the film. We are given the what of Derrida (facts about his life, quotes from his writings, and so on), but we are also given the who of Derrida, that is, Derrida as a singular person, whose biography cannot be reduced to the what, to the facts.
The directors of the film toyed with an alternative title: Chasing Derrida: The Autobiography of the Other. This title captures the elusive character of Derrida’s person and thinking, the fact that something about the Other always eludes complete representation. With reference to another theme from the film, we might say that there remains a secret of the Other ‘ also literally insofar as Derrida refuses to tell the directors about his sex life, while at the same time arguing that philosophers’ thoughts cannot be entirely dissociated from their sex lives and other facets of their biographies. Marked by a secret, the Other can therefore only be chased, but one can never catch up with her. The Other is spectral or ghostly, we might add, something referenced when, in the first sequence of the film, Derrida, on his way to work, asks the film crew, ‘So you’re going to follow me?’ (quoted from the screenplay, p. 55).
Finally, Derrida puts into question the authority of its subject, Derrida the Great Philosopher. For instance, the opening sequence consists of TV presenters introducing the great philosopher in very venerate language, but this is intercut with pictures of Derrida looking for his keys at home. The effect is, as Kofman says, to ‘puncture and perforate the media statements as well as introduce an element of levity early on in the film’ (2005: 35). The film keeps an ironic distance to Derrida, a self-irony that also characterises Derrida himself. And yet the film is also uncritical and, in this respect, it follows Derrida too closely (or, one might argue, by following Derrida too closely and uncritically it precisely does not follow him or deconstruction). At times the film falls into a kind of student/professor relationship vis-à-vis its subject, and this is my main objection to the film. Given the film’s insistence on self-reflexivity, it may for instance have questioned the way Derrida presents himself as a philosopher, critic and public intellectual.
Another aspect of authority put into question by the film is the authority of the biographer or representation. Here the film is more successful. The film contains constant self-references, for instance when including the filmmakers and the film crew in the frame. This serves to highlight the artificiality of the (re)presentation and question the naturalness or neutrality of the image we get of Derrida. Another example of this is when Kofman helps Derrida choose the right jacket so that it will look good when he is interviewed. As the filmmakers comment in the voiceover, the scene is embarrassing because it lays bare the artificial character of the presentation of Derrida (is it the realDerrida we are watching?). The image we get of Derrida is a framed one, where the image cannot be dissociated from the frame, where the ‘real’ Derrida cannot be dissociated from the representation of him.
In addition, Derrida nicely questions the authority of the film. Towards the end of the film, Derrida tells Kofman: ‘You will keep exactly what you think has to be kept. That will be your signature and your autobiography in a certain way’ (quoted from the screenplay, p. 105). Is the film a biography of Derrida, or is it the autobiography of Dick and Kofman? Or both? The film works as a back-and-forth between a Narcissus (Derrida) and an Echo (the filmmakers). The filmmakers repeat and cite Derrida’s words (although only some of them and in an edited version), but doing so they also appropriate them: ‘we filmmakers’, writes Dick, ‘are condemned to only use Jacques’ words ‘ but in selecting and editing those words, we, à la Echo, to large degree, make them our own’ (2005: 33). Again, the (re)presentation of Derrida is mediated and framed; we do not get the real Derrida, as if there were such a thing.
The directors wanted Derrida not to be ‘forbidding or unapproachable, but something that was fun’ and ‘could reach a wide audience’ (Macy et al., 2005: 133). They have been very successful in making a film that is both serious and playful, a film that presents what may otherwise seem unapproachable ‘ Derrida and deconstruction ‘ to a wider audience. Without going into deep philosophical discourse, the film shows how Derrida works and thinks, and, as such, it is also useful for teaching purposes. It works as an invitation to engage with Derrida and to read his work. As he himself says, when asked by a TV presenter whether deconstruction can be likened to the humour of Seinfeld: ‘Deconstruction the way I understand it doesn’t produce any sitcom, and if a sitcom is this and this, and the people who watch this and think that Deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them just is to read, stop watching sitcoms, and try and do your homework and read’ (quoted from the screenplay, p. 93).2
Although I would have liked a more critical and a more overtly political film, Kofman and Dick have at least made a film that will stimulate interest in its subject. The accompanying book will mostly be of interest to teachers using the film in the classroom. In this regard, the directors’ voiceover on the DVD is more useful than the interviews and the essays included in the book, which do not contain much additional insight.
1 And, in keeping with the multimedia approach, there is of course a website dedicated to the film (www.derridathemovie.com) and a CD with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music from the film (Derrida, Kinetic Art, 2003).
2 Given what Derrida says here and elsewhere, it is odd that ‘Deconstruction’ is spelled with a capital D in the screenplay.
Derrida, J. (1987a) Glas. Trans. J. P. Leavy, Jr. & R. Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Derrida, J. (1987b) The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Derrida, J. (1997) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. E. Prenowitz. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Derrida, J. (2000) Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Trans. R. Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Derrida, J. et al. (2005) ‘Derrida on Derrida ‘ Q and A with Jacques Derrida’ in K. Dick & A. Z. Kofman, Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Dick, K. (2005) ‘Resting on the Edge of An Impossible Confidence’, in K. Dick & A. Z. Kofman, Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Kofman, A. Z. (2005) ‘Making “Derrida” ‘ An Impression; or: how to make a film about someone who doesn’t want a film made about them and whose work ‘ to put it mildly ‘ at first glance would appear to resist any and all cinematic treatment’, in K. Dick & A. Z. Kofman, Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Macy, M. et al. (2005) ‘Interview with Filmmakers’, in K. Dick & A. Z. Kofman, Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
McDonald, C. V. (ed.) The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. Trans. Peggy Kamuf & Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Sakamoto, R. (2003) Derrida. Kinetic Art.
Lasse Thomassen is Junior Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick, Ireland. He is the editor of The Derrida-Habermas Reader (Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and, with Lars Tønder, of Radical Democracy: Politics Between Abundance and Lack (Manchester University Press, 2005). He is currently working on a research monograph on Deconstructing Habermas.