Analyze This

You think I'm funny? Joe, Jacques Derrida in 'Derrida'
Zeitgeist Films

The most revealing moment in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's new documentary biography of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida comes when a hapless interviewer asks the film's subject what he thinks of Seinfeld. She assumes that Derrida, the pioneer of deconstruction theory, must be familiar with the sitcom's self-reflexive irony and hell-is-other-people Weltanschauung. But Derrida refuses to play; with a magisterial sniff, he dismisses all of American popular culture. "Do your homework and read," he tells the cowed questioner, and the riposte reinforces the impression one gets from Derrida as a whole: that while the man may be one of the century's deepest and most supple thinkers, he probably wouldn't be a very fun date.

"The Critic" begins "The Review" with a lead, a common journalistic trope designed to capture the attention of "The Reader" with intriguing, humorous, or otherwise provocative phraseology.

Of course, the Seinfeld query also points to the ranging influence of Derrida's ideas. It's maybe not too far-fetched to say that he invented the notion of "the show about nothing" in seminal treatises such as Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, which propose that the "meaning" of a text is actually a complex, irreducible free play of signs and signifiers.

"The Critic" would have "The Reader" believe that he has actually read the aforementioned texts, thus locating his authority as a reliable narrator. In truth, "The Critic" regards literary theory as an ungifted child might quantum mechanics--i.e., the very mention of "deconstructionism" makes "The Critic" want to take a nap. "The Critic" would further persuade "The Reader" that his brief academic career was not, in fact, spent sleeping off a hangover.

Derrida's ideas have made him a kind of living God to graduate students--a point Derrida makes with fulsome regularity. While clearly relishing the attention, the philosopher also comes off as an unusually canny subject: He repeatedly points out the artificiality of the documentary form; refuses, for no discernible reason, to provide the simplest of biographical information; and chafes at interviewers' stupid questions (v. the Seinfeld lady). At times, Derrida seems to have all the Gallic charm of a three-week-old brie.

"The Critic" also thinks that Derrida's white pompadour and bone-deep suntan make him look like Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 3. "The Critic" finds himself hoping that Derrida will likewise end in a big car chase.

The makers of Derrida are pretty clearly enraptured by their subject--to the extent that their film sometimes seems to adopt the p.o.v. of one of those genuflecting grad students. But their affinity for deconstructionist theory also leads them to some provocative questions about the documentary form. Does an accretion of random facts really constitute biography? Is "objectivity" just a dodge around an imposed narrative structure? Does the presence of a camera necessarily introduce a Schrödinger's Cat-type paradox--i.e., that film can never show people as they really are because people are never as they really are when they're being filmed?

See also: Temptation Island.

In keeping with deconstructionism's endless circumlocutions, Derrida is purposefully constructed as a hall of mirrors: At one point, the philosopher is shown staring at a video of himself staring at another video of himself sitting through an interview. But the idea that a documentary film is itself an artifice isn't quite as novel as the filmmakers seem to think. Plus, the examined life of an aging academic isn't exactly the richest of cinema vérité material.

THRILL as Derrida picks out a pair of pants! SHIVER as Derrida crosses the street! GASP as Derrida butters his English muffin!

Still, Derrida does offer a useful gloss on the philosopher's theories. Take this, from 1972's Dissemination: "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."

But then "The Critic" wonders why these intellectual contortions are accompanied by swells of synthesizer music. Is the audience supposed to be duly awed, or are the filmmakers already impressed enough for both of us?

For a guy who talks repeatedly about effacing his own personality in the cause of philosophy, Derrida seems pretty turned on by the filmmakers' reverent attention. Which raises the intriguing, though unacknowledged, possibility that in addition to being one of the nimblest and most eloquent minds of his generation, Jacques Derrida might also be a bit of a bullshit artist.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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