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Following is my review of:
Derrida the Movie - a Review by Debashish Banerji
Derrida - a Film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (2002)
I had seen this movie on the Fench philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) earlier when it was released but had occassion to view it again in DVD form. Considering the multiple recent references to Derrida in SCIY, I thought of reviewing the movie. There are a good number of reviews of this movie and the majority of them are not favorable. I agree that if one is trying to learn something about the philosophy of Derrida from the movie or if one was interested in the "juicy details" of his life, one would be disappointed. Derrida deftly dodges attempts to disclose the traumas and ecstacies of his life (though of this more later) and his "philosophy" remains unexplored in its major aspects. Except for the word "deconstruction" for which he is "most famous" (an assertion repeated many times in various interviews) little else of his many neologisms and profound contributions to contemporary philosophy is even mentioned and deconstruction itself, though mouthed repeatedly, remains unexplained. In passing, let me state that "deconstruction" is a method of reading "texts" (which term itself is not unproblematic in Derrida) which probes it for its contradictions, multivocality, polysemy, discursive intermixtures and temporal discontinuities. Moreover it does so (particularly in Derrida's own practice) not "logically" and "impersonally" (the prescribed philosophic method) or in an a single voice but rhetorically and often through a number of simultaneous dialogs conducted betwen multiple personae of his own and multiple personae which he identifies in the text being read. This dizzying complexity of reading is backgrounded by a host of larger philosophemes for which he is famous, including post-structuralism, onto-theology, differance, trace, logocentrism, phonocentrism, phallo- or phallogo-centrism, lack, supplement, fold, hymen, aporia, pharmacon, l'avenir etc.
In developing these ideas (not all of then coined by him) Derrida draws upon the legacy of a train of modern western philosophers whose traditions of thinking are phenomenology and ontology - Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty to name a few. Nietzsche could be thought of as a seminal fountainhead of this line of thinking. It could (and has) be(en) called anti-metaphysical or post-metaphysical and (in line with Rich's post) anti-humanist or post-humanist (I'm not so sure that it's time yet to celebrate or mourn the death of the human).
One of the major concerns of all these thinkers has been the temporality of thinking and the deleterious effects of "structure" on the flow of time. Structure (or metaphysics or onto-theology) as the "father" of ideology, whether religious, national, political, psychological, scientific, economic, social or the grandest of all, teleological-ontological, assumes a "central truth" or "presence" around which the entire domain of its consideration is gathered statically and applied to all time. Being based on a "premise", "revelation" or "intuition", it suffers from an uncertainty about its reality or partiality, which is a "lack" at its center and which it tries to cover up through the "supplement" of belief, followers and an endlessly expanding corpus of apologetics. It contests its alternatives through the mechanisms of power - suppression, lies, fears, dissimulation, coercion, elimination. It becomes a hidden power that (along with others of its kind) weaves the fabric of our everyday social life and conditions desire, conscience, taste, consumption and materiality. This is its "text", which in its linguistic, social, institutional and psycholoical manifesations Michel Foucault has termed "discourse." A discursive regime is a hegemonic discourse which has managed to (at least temporarily, since suppression or even elimination does not really destroy anything but produces ghosts or specters which wait their hour of revenge and victory) become the uncontested "truth" in a certain space and time.
Though these power-effects of "the text" as discourse have been most clearly developed by Foucault and all the phenomenological/ontological thinkers I have named have not necessarily been concerned with these specific aspects of structuralism or metaphysics, they have been implicit in this tradition and part of Derrida's contexts. Onto-theologies are related to Time, in that they dictate a structure for its unfoldment. Time thus becomes predictable within each such metaphysics, a frozen linear trajectory with no surprises, discontinuities or emergences, no interruptions of its order (which are deliberately policed out of existence), a condition of endemic boredom which has been characterized colorfully by Walter Benjamin as "empty homogenous time." More profoundly, this anti-metaphysical lineage recognizes the naming of the Uniting Principle, God, Being, the One, the Transcendental Subject, the Unified Field, the Nation, the Market, the Author, the Unconscious as problematical due to the very nature of the essence of time in phenomenal experience.
Our recent discussion on the Akshara and Kshara Purushas (from the Indic tradition) may be useful here. In phenomenal experience (Avidya, the "Ignorance"), this Unifying Agent or Subject, if it exists, is hidden in the multiplicity and within the flow of Time (kshara) and not available to us in its independent power. On the other hand, if we are to experience it in the independent status of its Being (akshara), we lose temporality. If then, we try to bridge these two in a metaphysical structure, we empower a linguistic or discursive falsehood in time.
Sri Aurobindo's comment on Nietzsche (and Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic Greek thinker who also is a seminal influence on Heidegger) is very instructive here:
"Nietzsche, whom Mr. Ranade rightly affiliates to Heraclitus, Nietzsche, the most vivid, concrete and suggestive of modern thinkers, as is Heraclitus among the early Greeks, founded his whole philosophical thought on this conception of existence as a vast Will-to-become and of the world as a play of Force; divine Power was to him the creative Word, the beginning of all things and that to which life aspires. But he affirms Becoming only and excludes Being from his view of things; hence his philosophy is in the end unsatisfactory, insufficient, lop-sided; it stimulates, but solves nothing. Heraclitus does not exclude Being from the data of the problem of existence, although he will not make any opposition or gulf between that and Becoming. By his conception of existence as at once one and many, he is bound to accept these two aspects of his ever-living Fire as simultaneously true, true in each other; Being is an eternal becoming and yet the Becoming resolves itself into eternal being. All is in flux, for all is change of becoming; we cannot step into the same Waters twice, for it is other and yet other waters that are flowing on. And yet, with his keen eye on the truth of things, preoccupied though he was with this aspect of existence, he could not help seeing another truth behind it. The waters into which we step, are and are not the same; our own existence is an eternity and an inconstant transience; we are and we are not. Heraclitus does not solve the contradiction; he states it and in his own way tries to give some account of its process." (Sri Aurobindo, Heraclitus).
Here, Sri Aurobindo also, like Heraclitus, states the problem without solving it. Heidegger and his followers believe that it is more proper to recognize this problem and open oneself to the power of Being in the Becoming than try to erase the problem through ideological means (metaphysics, onto-theology). This leads to a phenomenology of openness to the Other and of emergence/rupture. Being is concealed in the Becoming and thus discloses itself differently (and unpredictably) through Time in action. Thus it is experienced by us as a verb rather than a noun. Attempting to fix it, we lose it. If we are to turn exclusively to it, we lose its power in manifestation. And yet we yearn for a reconciliation in experience of these two poises. Our deepest thirst is for the plenitude of a simultaneity where Being stands still in itself and also runs in Time. This paradox is the "true future" for Derrida, l'avenir, the impossible event, which in the impossible "beginning" had "entered" into Time (the sacrifice. holocaust), turning towards which in the Past, is the source of all mourning and nostalgia, and expectation of whose Return in the "impossible future" is the "promise", l'avenir. This is the aporetic sructure, the only structure that post-structuralism recognizes, since its "impossibility" erases the closure of structure.
Let us note then that the fulless of this "impossibility" is a critical acknowledgement for Derrida, for then alone can it be truly what it portends to be, the Miracle. Impossibility is the true and only readiness of waiting.
But I run ahead of myself - because l'avenir and the meditations on the conditions of its (im)possibility are some of the late thoughts of Derrida. What he is much more concerned with early in his life is the systematic analysis of onto-theology, the articulation of "differance" and the development of the deconstructive procedure. Here, Derrida's contribution has been to contemplate the separation between Being-in-itself and Being-in-the-Becoming through a meditation on the vehicle (vahana) of Being-in-the-Becoming, which is "language." Ultimately the limits of the ontology of language determine the disclosure of Being to the creature of language. In Heidegger's hermeneutic circle, "The language of Being is the being of language" or "Language is the house of Being." Thus, the disclosedness of Being in time is bounded by the conditions of the being of human language. Derrida shows that words as soon as they are spoken escape from the present into an instability constituted by the palimpsest of their pasts (trace) and the impossible potential of full disclosure which is the future. Thus "presence" cannot settle in words. This is the paradox of time-being in the Becoming, the division between stillness and movement. The same can be said about the identity of the one who speaks - its instability arises from the fact that the reception of its speech determines its presence shifting from other to other and invoking a multiplicity of being instead of a singular subject. This is the paradox of self-being in the Becoming, the division between the one and the many.
Such logical paradoxes which push one to the margins of metaphysics are known as aporia. Aporia are thus like Zen koans. They are the condition for the arrival or emergence of the impossible Other, "the wholly Other, God if you will," Derrida says in one of his rare pronouncements of the Name. The blind-spot of "presence" in beings and time within the becoming constitutes the essence of the onto-theological problem for Derrida - any assertion of speech is "always already" punctured by this absent present (or presence-in-absence, "Abgrund" or Abyss of Heidegger, chiasm of Merleau-Ponty) to fill up which it seeks the "supplementary" infinite proliferation of commentary and interpretation to make itself evident - a tissue of words which are all marked by their difference from the origin and from each other and which eternally defer the plenitude of original presence, a writing at the margins waiting for the coming of the Other to put a stop to language through its self-evidence or Presence. This again is the impossible miracle of l'avenir.
This deffered tissue of differences Derrida terms as "differance" while the practice of dislosing the multivocality and omnitemporality of the text is the method of reading he terms deconstruction. Thus all assertions presuming a singularity of subject and a stability of meaning are onto-theological by this account, an onto-theology which believes and makes believe its oracular power to convey truth. The illusion of belief in the being of human language to adequately house Being-in-itself outside of the mobile Becoming, Derrida terms logocentrism; the related belief in the oracular power of "speech" he terms phono-centrism and the beilef in the singularity of the subject, the masculine will to assert oneness in the world of the many, he terms phallocentrism. Conflating phallocentrism and logocentrism, the single voice conveying truth through language, he comes up with phallogocentrism.
The historicity of discourses as contested onto-theologies socially structuring time as developed by other post-structuralists such as Foucault also play into this as do Heidegger's meditations on the specificity of the disclosures of Being in different ages based on human orientations to Being and practices of language - and in this sense our present embeddedness in the technological regime of modernity.
Here is a Derrida quote from the movie which evokes the instability of the self in communication acts under the discursive regime of technology:
"Who is it that is addressing you? Since it is not an author, a narrator, or a deus ex machina, it is an I that is both part of the spectacle and part of the audience, an I that, a bit like you, undergoes its own incessant violent reinscription within the arithmetical machinery. An I that functioning as a pure passageway for operations of substitution is not some singular and irreplaceable existence, some subject or life. But only rather moves between life and death, between reality and fiction. An I that is a mere function or phantom." (Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, University of Chicago Press, 1981).
And here is one on deconstruction:
"The very condition of a deconstruction may be at work in the work, within the system to be deconstructed. It may already be located there, already at work. Not at the center, but in an eccentric center, in a corner whose eccentricity assures the solid concentration of the system, participating in the construction of what it, at the same time, threatens to deconstruct. One might then be inclined to reach this conclusion: deconstruction is not an operation that supervenes afterwards, from the outside, one fine day. It is always already at work in the work. Since the destructive force of Deconstruction is always already contained within the very architecture of the work, all one would finally have to do to be able to deconstruct, given this always already, is to do memory work. Yet since I want neither to accept nor to reject a conclusion formulated in precisely these terms, let us leave this question suspended for the moment." (Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man, Columbia University Press, 1986).
But to return to the movie. As I said, if one is looking for explanations of any of the above ideas, one is likely to be disappointed. But if instead one opens oneself to what the movie is one finds it to be quite rewarding. One critic has called the movie an act of deconstruction. Indeed, it is certainly an attempt in this direction, a sustained meditation on the nature of self and other, of biography, authorship, life and works, idenitity in self and identity in other and the contemporary discursive conditions of its self-prodution.
As if to underscore it multivocality and mutiauthoriality, the movie proceeds, like Derrida's deconstructive texts, through a non-linear intercutting (re)presenting its subject/object in different life-contexts, where other voices interrogate/interpellate him in different ways. These situations include scenes of his home life, of travel, of interviews, both public and private and of public addresses, usually lectures delivered at Universities. Interspersing these are scenes of disengagement, capturing him in the "private moments" of "not-doing" through the voyeuristic surveillance of technological witnessing apparatus while the principal narrator and interviewer, Amy Kofman reads passages from his written texts over the soundtrack.
A warm teacher-student relationship between Kofman and Derrida is also in evidence in the informal interviews, which thus take on the character of amiable conversations where some of the deeper more "secret" ideas of the thinker come to light. As a typically deconstuctive gesture, the artificility, abject intrusiveness and reduction to material object of the human subject/object by the discourse of technology insistently present throughout in the act of film documentation is repeatedly invoked, by ironic references to this artficiality and disconcerting alterity of the process sometimes by Derrida himself and sometimes obliquely by the director as for example in the concluding sequence of the movie, where the amazing co-ordinated acrobatic peformance of what look like two human appendages to a long boom mike and a movie camera are caught on film by a further invisible camera, following while trying not to intersect with the movement of the threesome of the two directors and their subject as they cross a New York street.
As if to strikthrough the erasure of itself as text at the moment of its inception and gather the viewer into the waiting at the aporetic edges, the movie begins with a beautiful quote on l'avenir in the voice of Derrida on soundtrack as it shows him walking through a bleak industrial landscape accompanied by the trans-technological Zen-inflected "music" of Ryuichi Sakamoto: "In general I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and l'avenir. The future is that which - tomorrow, later, next century - will be. There's a future which is predictable - programs, prescriptions, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l'avenir (yet to come), which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future - that which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this other known future, it's l'avenir in that it's the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival."
This is followed by a series of rapid cuts showing the thinker at home and in the street and then addressing students at a lecture at NYU and speaking about the "biography": "You shoud not neglect the fact that some biographies written by people who have authority in the academy finally invest this authority in a book which for centuries somtimes after the death of an author present the "truth", hunh, the "truth" hunh - eh, someone interested in biography writes "The Life and Works of Heidegger" - well documented apparently, apparently consistent, and it's the only one published, under the authority of a good press and then Heidegger's life-image is fixed and stabilized for centuries. That's why I would say that sometimes the one who reads a text by a philosopher and interprets it in a rigorous inventive powerfully deciphering fashion is more of a real biographer than the one who knows the whole story."
This underlines the documentary's self-consciousness of what it ought not to be, an onto-theology, an authoritative authorial authorized present-ation for all time of its subject, a "murdering in cold print" (to adapt Sri Aurobindo, or more correctly in cold celluloid or coldest binary), destructive of the multiplicity of the Person, his/her/its infinite variety/fertility/mystery. Instead it points to deconstruction as what Derrida in his later years will call "an act of love," a renewal of the text, an "understanding" because idenitification through standing-under in the absent-present and an allowing of It to renew itself in its improbable alterity through a new voice in a new time and space.
Quickly following this is a sequence showing Derrida getting a haircut in silence (an act of "life") at a hairdresser's while a passage from his book "The Ear of the Other" is read out over the soundtrack by Kofman: "We no longer consider the biography of a philosopher as a set of empirical accidents that leaves one with a name that would then itself be offered up to philosophical reading, the only kind of reading held to be philosophically legitimate. Neither readings of philosophical systems nor external empirical readings have ever in themselves questioned the dynamics of that borderline between the work and the life, between the system and the subject of the system. This borderline is neither active nor passive; it's neither outside nor inside. It is most especially not a thin line, an invisible or indivisible trait that lies between the philosophy on the one hand, and the life of an author on the other."(Jacques Derrida,The Ear of the Other, Schocken Books, 1985). This passage foregrounds and problematizes the classic "life and works" format of biography. What is the life and what is the work? What are the boundaries of each? And what is their dividing line? And like the absent present of these questions, whose life and works are we talking about anyway? Both "life" and "works" are aspects of the linguistic concealedness/disclosure of Being-in-the-Becoming in some individual form, which yet remains marked by its plurality. Hence there is no dividing line between life and works - they are both discourse, Foucault woud say and for Derrida, they are both "the text." "There is nothing outside of the text" is one of his notorious pronouncements.
This theme of the life and the works is pursued in a number of ways through the movie. Derrida is known to have been a reclusive person who shunned "the public image." For many years he refused to be photographed and in one of his texts, puns with his personal name, inflecting it as "derriere de rideau" (behind the curtain). In a public speech in the movie, he quotes Heidegger as saying about the life of Aristotle that a philosopher's life can be summed up simply by saying, he was born, he thought and he died. Throughout the movie, he is elusive about his personal details and his "private life." When asked about this in an "informal moment" by the diector/interviewer, he reiterates his quote from Heidegger and says that he believes it "in a way." But he also problematizes it by pointing out that taken on the surface, the statement is an assertion of the singularity of the thinker and his superiority over life - a phallogocentrism. But if "thinking" is understood as the accompaniment of life, then "life" and "thought" both become the decostructive struggle "for improvization" within the text and the openness to the Other, the dynamic surrender in multiple space-times and of muliple personae for "the coming" of l'avenir. Thinking penetrates life as life penetrates thinking, but neither is a naive or simple disclosure, in both a discursive play of differance, of presence-in-absence is involved. Here is also where he differentiates his writing practice from that of Heidegger. "Life" inserts itself into his "thinking" or "works." His reflections are intra and inter-dialogic in nature and he cannot but (re)present himself in a variety of personae with their own biographical experiences, preferences, alignments to the social discursivity, orientations to the future. This has opened the ways to a postmodern feminist or intersubjective writing practice, a refusal of phallogocentrism.
At this late point in Derrida's life, he was increasingly taken with the consideration of aporetic ideas constellating towards singularity, the Self hidden in every other, who moves with the moving world, yat kinchit jagatyam jagat. A number of the scenes of the movie are about themes of this nature, for example about improvization, love, secrecy and forgiveness. One of Kofman's readings is a beautiful quote on "improvization" and the Other: "It's not easy to improvise, it's the most difficult thing to do. Even when one improvises in front of a camera or microphone, one ventriloquizes or leaves another to speak in one's place the schemas and languages that are already there. There are already a great number of prescriptions that are prescribed in our memory and in our culture. All the names are already preprogrammed. It's already the names that inhibit our ability to ever really improvise. One can't say what ever one wants, one is obliged more or less to reproduce the stereotypical discourse. And so I believe in improvisation and I fight for improvisation. But always with the belief that it's impossible. And there where there is improvisation I am not able to see myself. I am blind to myself. And it's what I will see, no, I won't see it. It's for others to see. The one who is improvised here, no I won't ever see him." (Jacques Derrida, Unpublished Interview, 1982).
In another scene, Derrida speaks about parts of the body that carry some privilege of subjective disclosure. Here he idenitfies the eyes and the hands as two such body-parts which "interest (him) very much" and on which he has written. He references Hegel as saying that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul and rephrases this in his way by saying "One's act of looking has no age." This mystery however is for the Other, since only the other can see one's eyes. He makes a similar remark for the hands - one's spontaneous gestures are with the hands but this expression is for the eyes of the other, not oneself. Thus these "sites of the recognition of the other" are related to the theme of "improvization," where something unexpected and new comes to birth but one has no ownership over it, it passes freely without one's cognition into the consciousness of the Other.
One begins getting to the heart of Derrida's notions about singularity in his remarks on love. The theme is introduced in a talk he delivers on Narcissus and Echo. Echo is blind and cursed by jealous gods was never allowed to speak for herself but only repeat the ends of other's sentences. But Echo repeats the last words of Narcissus' speech in such a way that they become her own. "In repeating the language of another she signs her own love," Derrida says. Narcissus realizes he can only see his own image. So Derrida sees Narcissus as also blind and calls it a love between two blind people. He ends with a question - "How do two blind people love each other? That's the question." I read this "blindness" as the absence of Being - its concealment in the Becoming. Echo's speech is the speech of deconstruction - it is an act of love where the text of the Other is repeated and renewed through the improvization of inflection, interpretation. Later Kofman tries to get Derrida to speak further on love but Derrida is unwilling. After several trials, she gets him to pose his own philosophical questions on love. It is here that he introduces the aporetic theme of singluarity with the question asked of love - "the question of the who or the what.""Does one love someone or does one love something about that someone? Does one love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are or for their qualities? This question at the heart of love separats the heart. The heart of love is divided between the who and the what." As one reflects on the notion of singluarity one realizes that the "who" bereft of all qualities, cannot but be One. Any "some-one" bereft of all qualities is the One. This is the radical content of the "who," this love of singularity which is blind, both because it is not visible (the absent present, Echo) and because it refers only to itself and cannot associate itself with any objectification (qualities, the what, Narcissus). But "human language" itself is structured around subject/object-ification, referentiality, so to be blind to the "what" is not possible. This is why the heart of love is divided. Ultimately the question of the singularity of love is the question of Being and Derrida is very conscious of this, and introduces this into the same train of thinking as if in passing - "This is the question of Philosophy as well. The question of Being is also divided between the who and the what. Is Being someone or something?"
This is the division at the heart of the Avidya, the irrconcilable divide between Kevaladvaita (Monism) and Vishistadvaita (Qualified Non-Dualism) to translate into the key of the later Vedantic philosophies (Derrida has been wonderfully translated into the key of Madhyamika Buddhism by Robert Magliola and into the key of Eckhartian Negative Theology by John D. Caputo). And yet, it cannot be one or the other, it must be both - one has to aim for the unconditional purity of the singular and yet one cannot do without the calculations and compromises of the qualitative - and since they cannot be reconciled, since each drives towards an exclusivity, somewhere in oneself one is halted and forced to wait for the "impossible" reconciliation or simultaneity, the disclosure, to call for the promised secret Return of Being.
Singularity also marks Derrida's meditations on the "secret" and the "gift." Here, too, the question of "who's secret" is haunted by the absent presence of the singular One, the gift of one's deepest secret can be made only by the One to the One since it has no belonging to any particularity. Like true improvization, it escapes from the improvizer/giver to its reception by the Other, but in the singularity of its depth, this "deepest secret" escapes also the Other and disappears into the Unnameable. This raises an aporetic paradox also for the question of human responsibility:
"How can another see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself? And without my being able to see him in me. And if my secret self, that which can be revealed only to the other, to the wholly other, to God if you wish, is a secret that I will never reflect on, that I will never know or experience or possess as my own, then what sense is there in saying that it is my secret, or in saying more generally that a secret belongs, that it is proper to or belongs to some one, or to some other who remains someone. It's perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy. Namely, that it is not a matter of knowing and that it is there for no one. A secret doesn't belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place. The question of the self: who am I not in the sense of who am I but rather who is this I that can say who? What is the- I and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the I trembles in secret?" (Jacques Derria, Gift of Death, University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Keywords: Becoming, BeinginBecoming, Ontotheology, Deconstruction, Phenomenology, Personalities, Movie, Modernity, Intersubjectivity, Heidegger, Documentary, Difference, Derrida, Being, Avatar
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