A Pin-Downable Derrida

Photo by Andrew CooperAny smart-ass critical-theory graduate student worth his or her subscription to Critical Inquiry knows you don't title a film portrait of French philosopher and visiting UC Irvine professor Jacques Derrida Derrida. Please. Way too monosemic. Overdetermined. Come on: didn't you catch the film about Derrida at UC Irvine last year, the one that at least had the decency to call itself D'Ailleurs Derrida, with the “d'ailleurs” (let me help out the shameless Americentric monolinguists among you) meaning “besides,” “moreover,” “in other respects” and, when placed beside Derrida's name, implying side-by-side commentary la Derrida's own Glas (intertextuality!), supplementarity, limitless tracing. Look, the naivete of trying to—hey, the violence done to the endless dissemination of identity that Derrida fucking stands for when you reduce a documentary investigation into this man's life to his proper name—it's pitiful. Don't these filmmakers know anything?

As a matter of fact, they know a lot. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, Derrida's co-directors, have constructed an elegant, shrewd, tender documentary about the mystery of identity without succumbing to the tortuous pretzel logic so common among Derrida's numerous commentators (not to mention his acolytes). Yes, it was Derrida who wrote in 1972's Disseminations that our identities are fluid and uncapturable, that the word “I” really stands not for some “singular and irreplaceable existence, some subject or life,” but is a linguistic function, a kind of word-hope that betrays our desire for an essential stable identity or self, though in fact it is nothing more than “a pure passageway for operations of substitution,” a sort of linguistic chute through which meaning after meaning passes without ever being able to nail us down.

Yes, it's tough to try to say something enduring about the identity of a man who doesn't believe in enduring identity. But Dick and Kofman have done a lovely job of it. Theirs is a film that, in its ginger, deftly self-aware way, constructs just enough of a pin-downable Derrida for us to see that once you pin some of him down, the great remainder is lacunae and mystery, especially, most sadly and touchingly, to Derrida himself. The film looks and sounds like a standard European bio-doc. There are lots of voice-overs (usually translated quotes of Derrida's work read in soothing, almost reverent tones), a beautiful synthesizer score by Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamato, fluid shots of construction sites in Paris (fecund symbols for the endless destruction and reconstruction that typifies the urban landscape as well as what we do with language), and lots of intimate moments with the man himself.

Derrida is a great camera subject: about 70 when the film was shot, he's an extremely handsome man, with a strong nose; movie-star cheekbones; tanned skin; a virtually iconic shock of thick, white hair; dark, serious eyes that wake to playfulness on a dime; and a relationship to the camera that seems just right: while occasionally acknowledging the fakery involved in having a camera follow him around, he doesn't overdo the self-consciousness, and he often seems to forget—this man who gave a seminar at NYU on how cameras in the Rodney King beating and the OJ trial changed the nature of those events—that he's being filmed. He comes off as charmingly unpretentious, unfailingly amiable, easily charismatic—this latter impression heightened by the fact that he so often seems to be surrounded by young, slim, attractive, hip, French, intellectual women in black. We get the little domestic scenes that many of Derrida's legions of followers probably won't admit they are deeply pleased to see: Derrida buttering a morning muffin, Derrida looking for his car keys, Derrida choosing a coat for a TV appearance (he tends toward the loudly colorful, which, given his sophisticated face, clashes—he can't pull off dandiness), Derrida pouring olive oil over some fish he has broiled before sitting down to a meal alone.

These are amusingly humanizing moments but never voyeuristic. There is a longish scene, however, complete with a voice-over of a Derrida text and elegiac swooshes from Sakamato's synthesizer, where the camera shows Derrida getting a haircut, and I thought, “Too far.” The camera seems to fall under a spell as Derrida's hair is combed through, rising and falling, striated and re-striated: it's one of the few moments where Derrida seems fetishized.

Mostly, though, Dick and Kofman go about the Scylla-and-Charybdis business of defining a man without defining him. They utilize, in some ways, the usual rhetorical tropes of deconstruction, making explicit their discomfort at doing what they're doing, then doing it. They show Derrida giving a lecture on the dangers of biography, quote from Derrida's texts questioning the validity of connecting a writer's life to his work. But it's done with a refreshing directness that one rarely gets from Derrida himself—not to mention most of his followers—and fairly quickly, we find ourselves relieved of the poststructuralist preliminaries and fascinated with a fascinating man.

Derrida talks about being kicked out of school in Algeria for being a Jew in 1940, suffering from anti-Semistism but finding little solidarity in the Algerian-Jewish culture that rose to protect him from it. (He calls the experience “doubly alienating.”) He and his wife sit through a bumbling, comically guarded interview about their relationship that reveals absolutely nothing about them; later, Derrida admits that what he really wants to know more about the philosophers Kant, Hegel and Heidegger is what their sex lives were like. (An interviewer's attempt to get Derrida to talk about love yields equally bumbling—and banal—results.) We see Derrida, long derided among the French for being insufficiently leftist (though his refusal to follow the Sartrean line now seems vindicated by history), visiting the South African jail cell that housed Nelson Mandela for more than two decades and musing, in a beautiful voice-over, that violence can only begin with the division between self and other. Once a person designates himself as “one,” separate and distinct from everyone else, invisible jails cell bars are raised that make possible the real bars that imprisoned men like Mandela. “The one makes violence,” he says. “It violates and does violence to itself. It becomes what it is, the very violence that it does to itself. The determination of the self as one is violence.”

No wonder, then, that Derrida prefers to see the self as fluid, intermingling with others. He speaks in the film of his relationship with his sister as one of “absolute peace,” which is similar to the way he has described, elsewhere, his friendship with the great literary critic Paul de Man. Both these relationships with the Other hearken back, inevitably, to the relationship Derrida wished to have with his mother, who understood not a word of her famous son's work, whose life and death (in 1991) he nonetheless describes here with great tenderness and affection, but also with the kind of baffled longing that strikes even the wisest when they attempt to enter that particular mystery.

Derrida talks a lot about eyes in this film, about how they're the only part of our physical selves that don't seem to age, that contain the child woven in the weakness of the changing body. Derrida often gives us long uninterrupted looks at those eyes of its subject, allowing us glimpses into things Derrida doesn't know he's giving off (though, of course, he knows he doesn't know what he's giving off), the child still craving union with the Other and spending a lifetime forging a philosophy insisting, among admittedly so many other things, that undetermining the self is the pathway that avoids violence and allows for love.


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