Magazine article Artforum International

Jacques le Narcissiste: Rhonda Lieberman on Derrida. (Film)

Magazine article Artforum International

Jacques le Narcissiste: Rhonda Lieberman on Derrida. (Film)

Article excerpt


WE CULTURE-ISTAS KNOW Derrida is the Madonna of thought. He's antiphallogocentric and a total diva. Undeniably powerful, he's either revered or deplored as the author of cultural relativism, rampant textuality, and undecidability. The notoriously close reader is still dashing at seventy-two, with a dark but surprisingly soft gaze, eagle-ish features, and a mildly poufy white coif: a silver fox. Spinning his web (yes, folks, that's three animal metaphors!) of defamiliarization that readers find seductive or annoying, or both, his discourse is riddled with paradox: He fights to improvise "but always with the belief that it is impossible"; he emerges through the ear and eye of the other, although so do "I," so who is there to read or see him?

When I think of Jacques Derrida, I think of the wretchedness of grad school, what a horrible, disillusioning period that was for me, university hideousness, especially in the downsized late '80s. How sordid it all was, the dreary "culture wars," my nausea at idealized father figures . . . and yes, I blame Derridal For that, and for Everything in general! (Just kidding.)

Rabelais ridiculed the "Papimaniacs," who fetishize the pope and his utterances, the "Holy Decretals." Fast-forward to Derrideans and Derrida: Each spring circa Reagan's second term, his seminar at Yale was the happening for weenies. His main groupies, the Three Toms, were alpha theory-geeks, strutting lesser-men turgid with proximity to the Master: They handled his texts, translating, editing. I avoided these fawning disciples. Yet recently when I played back my phone messages and heard a charming French-accented man's voice: "This is Jacques Derrida ...," I knew I would cherish the tape like a sacred relic!

Derrida the movie is codirected by Kirby Dick (who made Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) and, I was surprised to discover, Amy Ziering Kofman (a Derrida scholar I went to grad school with). Over several years, they filmed the jet-prof lecturing at seminars (on autobiography in New York, on Rodney King and testimony in Paris, on forgiveness in South Africa), installing his archive at UC/Irvine, and giving characteristically not impromptu interviews to Kofman in his home. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, opens this month at Film Forum in New York.

When I spoke to Derrida on the phone, he was concerned whether I would use his words in an interview or in a piece I was writing "in my own name," preferring the latter. ("I'm relying on you. I don't improvise well in English," he said in perfect English. "Try to improve what I said." Is that possible? "Not only is it possible, it is indispensable." A charmer, right?)

Kofman and Dick have made a film that is totally true to Derrida's thought: That's its strength, and its weakness. Those already initiated into the mysteries of deconstruction will say amen; those who aren't will probably remain perplexed. The film is not "Deconstruction for Dummies." Unlike, say, the moronic 1985 documentary (that nobody saw on PBS) of American poststructuralist macher Stanley Fish, which plays into every purist's nightmare--including hilarious footage of Fish tooling about in his "well-preserved 1970 auto" while demystifying the postenlightened "university business," pitching "All we can have of reality ... are pictures, stories," like a David Mamet character.

How does the uber-Reader come off? Does a documentary move from the life to the work, or vice versa? True to Derrida's thinking, this one does neither but, rather, hovers on the "borderline" between thought and empirical being. ("You noticed I was evasive in the film," he said on the phone. "I emerged ... through my resistance.")

He starts a seminar on autobiography by noting, "When Heidegger asked "What could we say of Aristotle's life? …

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