Judge Mike Pinsky says this documentary on Jacques Derrida contains more philosophical verbiage than you find on your average Dairy Queen menu.
"Forgive me for not saying hello. It's a bit difficult."—Jacques Derrida
We offer up Jacques Derrida to justice. Our whole conceit here at DVD Verdict is a parody of clinical jurisprudence. But how do you judge one who questions the nature of justice? We call his name before the bar: Jacques Derrida. But our law is always suspended, because it speaks of a subject unseen. Or at least, you have not seen it. I have: I am the judge and know what is on the other side, the outcome, of our trial. You have not seen the subject of our inquiry, or even if you have, you do not share the same frame of reference toward it. It is like Kafka's fable, Before the Law, in which a man stands before the gate to the Law, but he cannot ever see it. He has already been told he will never see it: judgment has been passed without the benefit of his gaze. "In fact," Derrida tells us, as if commenting on his own status before our court, "here is a situation where it is never a question of trial or judgment, nor of verdict or sentence, which is all the more terrifying. There is some law, some law which is not there but which exists. The judgment, however, does not arrive" (Before the Law 205).
Let us consider this for a moment: we offer up Derrida to the law—or more precisely, we offer up a documentary called Derrida to the law. But Derrida, the accused, has already rendered judgment on our task. And he has already acquitted himself. Is he merely being presumptuous, or is this all a strange joke?
Jacques Derrida and I have been playing a game for a few years now. As you might be aware, outside of my film criticism here at DVD Verdict, I also teach and publish on the intersections of culture and philosophy. Periodically, I make what impresses me as a conceptual breakthrough. Then a new book by Derrida comes out, one usually written three or five years ago and only now translated into English. And I find whatever new idea I just had—there it is. Damn, Derrida. He is always one step ahead of me. Even when he dies, I will still be playing catch-up.
In spite of this, I still chase his shadow. I own more than two dozen books by him, a handful of commentaries by other scholars, and even a few things I have published myself on his life and work. But the wily Frenchman always traps me. Even in the first moments of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's Derrida, the real Derrida distinguishes between the predictable future and the Other who arrives unexpectedly. I threw down my notepad. Dammit, this was the entire premise of my book (that is, Future Present, in case you were keeping score), and he just nailed it in a couple of sentences!
Derrida is like this, for 85 solidly-packed minutes. Every word that comes out of his mouth seems both calculated and surprising. Once, a friend of mine met him at a party and expected to hear something wise. Instead, Derrida asked where he could find a good Chinese restaurant. He has a great sense of humor. He should: humor is always questioning, yet dares to repeat what cannot be questioned.
Not really a biography (Derrida even admits that a biographer who merely repeats is less accurate than one who invents and questions), Derrida teases the audience as a series of strange encounters. Derrida's story can be summed up much like Heidegger summed up the life of Aristotle: "He was born, he thought, and then he died. All the rest is pure anecdote." Well, maybe Derrida disagrees a little. A subject guards his secrets, tells stories that cover them. Something is lost in the translation. And the subject remains, in a trace, alien, other. In some moments, Derrida seems candid, willing to bare himself before the camera. Other times, he withdraws, teasing us with a degree of impenetrability that any subject must by its nature have.
What most people know of Derrida, if they have heard of him at all, is this: Jacques Derrida is the preeminent philosopher of the last 30 years, luminary of the controversial movement known as "deconstruction," and notoriously rigorous (or incomprehensible, depending on your perspective) critic of language and politics. The first is most certainly true, and I will also side with the observations about his rigor (and yes, frequent difficulty). As to the middle point, Derrida cogently explains, through new interviews and passages from Derrida's writing, that deconstruction is to philosophy what chaos theory is to physics. Whether we deny or embrace the theory, it does not matter: the text is always unraveling of its own accord anyway. Language is inherently flawed, and those flaws magnify as language proliferates. So don't shoot the messenger.
Thus, Dick and Kofman include the flaws: bad sound recording, Derrida's acknowledgment of the camera (and the occasional question about the accuracy of recorded testimony). If you are a newcomer to the work of Derrida, you will find all this fairly perplexing, even frustratingly opaque. The film is not concerned with biographical anecdotes or formal interviews or an examination of why this man is the most important living philosopher on Earth. You might think that Dick and Kofman have no clue how to run their equipment or edit the five years of footage they have gathered on this strange Frenchman. You might think this film offers no authoritative answers regarding the enigma of Jacques Derrida.
Well, at least on that last point, you would be correct. But any biography that did approach Derrida in an authoritative manner would completely violate the spirit of his life and work. "I take irony very seriously," he remarks. Of course, any respectably Derridean response to that would then pun on the word "re-mark" and launch into a discussion of film, testimony, and writing. But believe me, I am doing my level best to keep this review from getting away from both of us. After all, even Derrida has commented (in interviews published elsewhere) on the intersections between his work and pragmatism. In Dick and Kofman's film, Derrida barely tolerates an idiotic interviewer who compares deconstruction to the sort of "irony" apparent on Seinfeld. Even he obviously has limits.
Indeed, the conceptual focus in Derrida, if there is a single one, is on Derrida's more recent work in ethics. I will direct readers at this point to some of my Deep Focus columns on ethics and the nature of the Other, which bear his stamp in effacement. In the film, Derrida makes breakfast while news of chaos plays on the television. He chats about state-endorsed anti-Semitism in the Algeria of his childhood. Students of his work will see how this awareness of racism has affected his work on ethics: Derrida was marked by the "double experience" of rejection from the mainstream community and his own discomfort at being aligned with a group for whom he felt little affinity. Dick and Kofman parallel these comments to Derrida's visit to Nelson Mandela's former prison cell and a speech on forgiveness. Pure forgiveness is impossible, because it is never clear: "Do we forgive someone, or do we forgive someone something?" The distinction is crucial: is ethics about contact with another subject, or is the subject always reduced by the nature of our gaze to something containable?
In one curious moment, Derrida confuses love (l'amour) and death (l'mort). He would love to speak of death, but demurs on speaking about love. Then he launches spontaneously into a stunning analysis of the relationship between love and Being. Later, when asked what philosopher he would want as his mother, Derrida laughs at the Oedipal joke and says philosophy is always masculine by tradition. Part of his task has always been to counter the fixed and authoritarian language (which he dubs elsewhere "phallogocentrism") of philosophical practice.
The Derrida we see in this collection of fragments is both an intellectual juggernaut and a man of great empathy. Prepared over the course of nearly a decade, Derrida is a film that interrogates both its subject and its very process. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman work through a revealing commentary track in which they peel back some of the mystique behind their "provocative and evocative" exploration of contemporary philosophy's most formidable thinker. Like Derrida himself, they are surprisingly unpretentious in spite of their intellectual rigor, as they try to grapple playfully with tremendously difficult ideas and an interview subject who often liked turning the project into a droll game. They do continually stress a side of Derrida that most of his critics ignore: his deep political commitment, and his use of philosophy to tweak the language of authoritarian systems.
What will the world think of this man in the end? Derrida jokes about his death at the opening of an archive of his papers. This reminds us that we are watching an archive in this movie. He jokes that he wants to hear about the sex lives of past philosophers, the gossipy private stuff. This reminds us that he has only teased about his private life, offering glimpses of wife and family and home. We see the camera watching him. This reminds us that this is not the real Jacques Derrida, but a simulation edited together. Surveillance holds its object at a distance, trying to peer at the secrets in its subject's heart. Judgment is always held at bay, because we can never completely objectify the one being judged. Derrida wins again.
The audience for a film like Derrida is, you would imagine, probably small. It should not be. Derrida is a playful genius. There is always something new around every corner. You will find his thoughts challenging and his intellectual rigor inspiring in an era where we seem to value stupidity and blindness as false signs of integrity. If philosophy were a sport, Jacques Derrida would be Muhammad Ali. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman have done a fine job bringing Derrida's life and work to the screen without compromising its complexities. And that in itself is a compelling achievement.
Jacques Derrida is given parole, which of course in French, translates as "word." Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Audio Commentary by Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman
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