Talk on the documentary film Derrida (Amy Kofman & Kirby Dick)

By Rebecca Stringer

University of Otago, Dunedin, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Friday March 26th 2004


It’s only fitting that I begin with an affirmation, which is that I loved this documentary. It’s a treasure-trove. I found it illuminating rather than didactic, reverent but not worshipful—it does what good verse does which is to show rather than tell. It was only when I sat down to watch the film that I came to appreciate what a courageous undertaking it would be to make a film about Derrida—writing under erasure is one thing, but film-making under erasure quite another. For me the film succeeds because it moves in the way deconstruction moves. My main proof of the film’s success in this regard, if you’ll forgive my use of an overtly subjective register, is that it moved me in the way deconstruction moves me.


Reading Derrida and considering deconstruction always puts me in a place or mood that I can only describe as ‘uncanny’ (familiar/strange)—it’s not an oceanic feeling or a spiritual awakening, it’s just uncanny. Deconstruction talks us out of our conceptual and linguistic habits at the same time as it affirms their likely necessity—one affirms that one is an author, or indeed a ‘one’, at the same time as one must refuse the possibility of being either an author or a one in the conventional sense of these terms. Everything is questionable and in question—even, and I’m drawing on the film here, the status of the question as a privileged philosophical form: before the question, prior to the attempt to explain or define some thing, is an answer, an affirmation that that thing does indeed exist and, therefore, a commitment to a particular ontology of the thing in question. What I think these filmmakers have done so well is that they have inhabited this uncanny space, in which the possibility of biographical documentation is both affirmed and denied, in which the questions of biography and of authority are posed with the greatest verve, and have emerged with a biographical document that conveys precisely the uncanny and questionable character of the venture: they’ve made a biographical document that conveys the idea that biography is, in a certain sense, impossible.


But at the same time I suspect that another element of this venture was to avoid treating deconstruction as a kind of master concept, the essence of which the film would capture and neutrally illustrate, making the film a court over which Derrida presides as philosopher-king. I think the filmmakers preserve their agency in the face of this possibility, precisely because what Derrida would call their signatures are present where biographers habitually feign absence.


There was just one moment in the film where my enjoyable sense of the uncanny turned to anxiety. Having spoken to the film in general I’d like now to focus on interpreting this moment. Again, forgive my subjective register, as well as what may be a movement from affirmation to the negative—from the Nietzschean to the Rousseauist as Derrida puts it. I found the ‘Seinfeld scene’ disturbing, and I think I found it disturbing because I am, as they say, Antipodean. The back cover of the DVD version of the film notes that, in the film, ‘Derrida ruminates on everything from Seinfeld to the sex lives of ancient philosophers’. However the Seinfeld scene is not exactly a rumination on Seinfeld—more an abrupt affirmation of the border between philosophy and popular culture. But that is not the real locus of my concern.


The scene features an Australian TV journalist from the ABC’s Sunday variety and current affairs show—a favourite of middle Australia. The job of the journalist in this context was to facilitate an act of translation, to translate The European Philosopher, whose philosophy might have something to do with irony and parody, into what is perhaps in this context a quintessentially unphilosophical domain—the Sunday afternoons of middle-class Australians. In attempting this act of translation the journalist ventriloquises a turn Australians have been making since Curtin’s ‘turn to America’ in 1945: she turns to a popular American sitcom, Seinfeld, which contains irony and parody, as a way of translating the European Philosopher for an Australian audience. That is, the Australian turns to the American to try and translate the European for the Australian.[i]


Most immediately my anxiety arose on the journalist’s behalf. Derrida didn’t appear to know who or what she was talking about, so this act of translation appeared to be doomed. Perhaps Derrida’s response to her question that did not succeed in being a question was only to be expected: his own philosophy suggests that it is s/he who is marked as the ‘less knowledgeable other’, and not the philosopher himself, who guarantees that the philosopher is indeed a philosopher.[ii] The one for whom philosophy is made impossible guarantees the possibility of philosophy and the philosopher. There’s a wonderful moment in the film where Derrida discusses eyes and hands, sight and touch, expressing his interest in the hands of philosophers. But we ought to risk the point that the hands of philosophers are there to be interesting at the expense of those who Nietzsche, in one of his more empathetic moments, refers to as ‘Raphaels without hands’: people who have the visual talent of a Raphael but who lack what Weber would later call the necessary ‘life chances’ for the cultivation—more precisely, the manipulation—of talent.


But more generally, my anxiety arose on behalf of Antipodean philosophy, and I was taken back to a debate that went on around me when I was an undergraduate student reading Derrida for the first time. As we students disappointed our lecturers by asking what this guy Derrida and his concept of differance had to do with the price of fish, the lecturers themselves were engaged in a debate about the potential hegemony of deconstruction as a philosophical strategy, about what happens to local or indigenous philosophical efforts given the mostly one-way (that is, north-to-south) global traffic of philosophical strategies such as deconstruction.


The DVD of the film shows the discussion that went on after its premiere in New York, where Derrida was asked about the limits of deconstruction, about whether there is anything beyond deconstruction. He affirmed that there is not, that deconstruction can be and always already is in all quarters of the heritage. But this raises a particular question for Antipodeans especially, and it’s only befitting that I conclude with a question, and that is: Excluding American sitcoms, what acts of translation best inform deconstruction in the south?


3. Postscriptive Endnotes


[i] In making this point I am suggesting that we can trace a very broad political configuration—that between ‘Australia,’ ‘America’, and ‘Europe’ as political entities, no matter how heterogenous—in how the relation of the three is figured microcosmically in this scene of Derrida. As I see it Seinfeld is, ironically enough, ‘America’—the sign designed to mediate translatively between the Australian TV audience, a European philosopher called Derrida, and a philosophical strategy called Deconstruction. To enlarge on the broader political configuration I have in mind: in 1945 Australian Prime Minister John Curtin’s ‘turn to America’ fundamentally reoriented Australian foreign policy by replacing Britain—the ‘mother country’—with the United States as Australia’s primary ally and influence in international politics. This shift in how ‘Australia’ was ontologised in terms of international presence reflected wider developments at the time. The end of the Second World War saw America attain prerogative geopolitical positioning, captured in the phrase ‘world policeman’ (the protective and well meaning bearer of legitimate power). A trace of this positioning can be found in the arts: from Ernst to Duchamp, artists left Europe and after the war the focus of the art world famously shifted from Paris to New York. This positioning also can be traced in popular culture: since its introduction in 1956, much TV in Australia has come from America—Skippy the Bush Kangaroo notwithstanding, The Beverly Hill Billies, The A-Team and The Brady Bunch loomed large in my childhood landscape (as did Ronald Regan). This politico-cultural backdrop sensitised me to the ‘Seinfeld scene’ in Derrida, producing a particular reading of the scene—to paraphrase Nietzsche, these observations of the scene are ‘my truths’. On my reading, this scene in the film lights up a feature of Australia’s international relationship with the two foreign powers—‘America’ and ‘Europe’ (‘lights up’ in Heidegger’s sense: momentarily illuminating, as lightening does). The feature is, simply, America’s mediating role in Australia’s relation with the UK/Europe (the tripartite relation most recently incarnated with the trio Bush, Howard and Blair). On reflection, the question I bring to all expressions of this configuration is: what are the prospects for Australian/Antipodean/Australasian independence from, hence democratic relation with, America—politically and culturally? Deconstructively speaking, one of the answers preceding this question is that the relation is not currently democratic, if by that we mean friendship between equals.

[ii] See the scene where Derrida is asked which philosopher he would have liked to have as a mother. As I recall it he says one of the reasons why he undertook the deconstruction of western philosophy was that sexual difference informs the making of philosophy’s margins, the border between it and unphilosophy—the feminine m/other is what philosophy is not, but complexly is also what it seeks (truth is a woman). As Michèle le Dœuff has it, this configuration places woman/the feminine/women within an aggregate formation—the less knowledgeable other—that is western philosophy’s matrix and constitutive outside. The aggregate formation also includes children, the ‘primative’ and the ‘popular mind’.