Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notes on Derrida

That both Žižek! and Derrida appear within a couple years of one another from Zeitgeist films makes the comparison inevitable. Since I watched Žižek! first I find Derrida functions as a counterpoint in many ways. The way Žižek embraces the filmmaking, how he is always performing, going so far as to act out his death at the end vs. the way Derrida shies away from the camera, always seems reluctant to answer questions, never seems quite confident that this film about him is going to amount to much of anything. That Žižek! is packed from end to end with words, words, words but what I remember about Derrida are the silences – I remember him thinking more than speaking. The project of Žižek! seems to be that the filmmakers want to help him achieve his goal of shedding his humanity and “becoming a monster; becoming theory,” whereas the goal of Derrida is to humanize him through focus on the banal and the mundane, interviews with his wife about their relationship, interviews with his brother. The result is that both end up at odds with their respective mythic images. Žižek, the devourer of popular culture and the champion of the everyday comes across all cerebral and discursive, flying far above the world as we know it a deal with it. Quite surprisingly, it is Derrida who emerges as a down to earth fellow. The documentary is a bit more haphazard, a bit aimless, and quite inferior to Žižek! but the central figure manages to save Derrida through his quiet, matter-of-fact persona.

For me what was most interesting about Derrida was his frequent rejection of the ways in which he is appropriated by the anything-goes/everything-is-meaningful crowd that currently hold court in American intellectual culture. When asked by a British talk show host what he thinks of the idea that Seinfeld is born from Deconstructions Derrida responds: (He blinks a couple times, hands folded and arched just in front of his chin. It is clear that he disdains the question but he is polite. He shifts in his seat) “Deconstruction… the way I understand it… does not produce any… sitcom (Derrida’s French accent is ever so slight, but you hear it when he emphasizes the “com” instead of the “sit.” Somehow that end up communicating to me that he finds this question ridiculous) If people who watch [Seinfeld] think deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them… just read; stop watching sitcom. Do your homework.” Who would have guessed that Derrida harbored the notion that popular culture is shallow? Later there is a scene in which one of the filmmakers points to the some books at the top of his shelf and asks, “Have you read those?” Derrida pulls down two novels by Anne Rice and says “No. I Taught a course concerned with vampirism and cannibalism and someone gave me these. I have read most of these books (on the floor to ceiling shelves from which the Anne Rice came), but not all of them.” Again I want to emphasize, imagine that Derrida would think reading Anne Rice is a waste of his time!

I don’t know what it all adds up to regarding Derrida’s aesthetics, but I am glad to see some indication of standards and values, because those are the things deconstruction is always invoked to neutralize. Similarly, when he is asked what he would like to ask the great philosophers of history, Derrida says he wants to ask them about their sex lives. Not because he wants to diagnose them, but because he wants to make them talk about what they leave out. It has been suggested to me that Derrida is more of an artist than a philosopher. That would explain why he wants the great thinkers to remember their bodies. So much thinking is done at a distance from lived experience, is done even to forget and deny lived experience. The deconstructionists, the post-colonialists, the multi-culturalists, the feminists, the psychoanalyticists fail to bring lived experience back into philosophy; they merely draw their abstractions from different groups of people and champion different values. Their revolutions are often only the flipside of the coin to which they object. Derrida’s project is much bigger, much more dangerous. Not that I am an expert on Derrida. Have written a few hundred words, I am left thinking that I actually know nothing about Derrida after watching that movie. I only know a few things that he is not.

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