Tension in Derrida (2002)

From rejecting photography to accepting documentation

Jacques Derrida’s role as one of the most prominent French intellectuals of the twentieth century, as well as the continuing legacy of his philosophical work, means that the publication of a documentary in 2002 (simply titled Derrida) about his thought and his life seems obvious and inevitable. However, from the beginning of his career until 1979, he not only refused to have his face published on the covers of his books, but as Derrida himself explains in an interview with Michelle Stephens, “j’interdisais absolument toute espèce de photographie publique […] de moi” (olynthos1 2008, 00:00:20). This visual absence was an effort from Derrida that went hand-in-hand in with his own writing and his attempt to cause a “défétichisation de l’auteur”, however in 1979 he gave up his anonymous status as a gesture in defence of philosophy, and with this his control was lost.

This act of public engagement in the political realm in order to defend against injustice leads us towards seeing Derrida as an example of Sartre’s famous intellectuel engagé. The dominance of Sartre as a writer-philosopher in 20th century France is mentioned by Derrida (2005, p. 120) himself in Papier machine, however Sartre’s ideal of an intellectuel engagé does not always sit comfortably with Derrida, due to the latter’s previously mentioned aversion to creating a public character for himself. This tension between the two extends to their views towards the rise of mass media, and how they should interact with it as intellectuals.

Whereas Sartre (1948, p.266) famously calls for writers to adopt the emerging mass media “pour conquérir le public virtuel” by turning the tools of the state against it, Derrida finds a discomfort in using these new technologies. In discussion with Bernard Stiegler (2002, p.32) he outlines this issue: the intellectual wishes to be present within the public sphere, but by doing so via mass media they find themselves losing control over the interpretation of their ideas. However, this discomfort does not mean that intellectuals (or others) should avoid or fight against these new media; but instead they should analyse them from within.

Denaturalising the documentary

Given the popularity of Derrida’s use of deconstruction in the U.S., where the term has been used in areas as far-reaching as advertising campaigns and Hollywood movies (Cusset 2008, p. 108), and the fact that the documentary was directed by two Americans, it is no surprise that early on he is asked to discuss the origins of deconstruction [00:14:05]. Rather than attempt to define his neologism, Derrida addresses the artificiality of the situation he is in, surrounded by cameras and yet expected to speak as if they were not present, as if the image being shown of him was a truly natural one, and as if the documentary format allows for a dynamic which is immediate and entirely truthful. This reminder of the presence of technology is a constant both throughout the film and in Derrida’s wider work: in an interview with Raymond Williams at the Linguistics of Writing Conference in 1986, he outlines that this technological ‘presence’ should become a subject, so as not to feign the existence of a naturality which is never present. This question of naturality is addressed by Derrida in the film also, as he states one of the principles of deconstruction is “ne pas faire comme si ce qui n’est pas naturel était naturel” [00:14:39].

Fig. 1: Derrida at home

This attempt to denaturalise the documentary is constant and is one of the major sources of tension within the film: there is the scene in his house where Derrida proclaims that “tout est […] faux” [00:19:00], as he is projecting a false image of himself towards the camera, and then there is also his reflection on the interview with his wife. In the original interview, Derrida again addressed the presence of the technological paraphernalia surrounding him: the lights which have to be adjusted, and the reflector must be moved: “on commence à refléchir à la réponse, et le reflecteur interrompt la réflexion” [00:27:39]. After this guarded interview, the documentary cuts to a shot over Derrida’s shoulder as he watches back the footage, before moving to a new interview. Here he gives his reason for his refusal to divulge information: the interview format and the presence of the filming apparatus make any attempt at real dialogue impossible: secrets cannot be shared before a camera lens. Here again Derrida is only present in his absence, and the attempt of a documentary to construct a presence of a subject via a camera is rendered impossible due to the distance between subject and viewer. The viewer is always removed by the presence of the camera, and it is necessary to acknowledge this removal to disrupt the reading of the subject in order to find alternate analyses of the film.

Speech vs. Writing

One of the other tensions in Derrida is between speech and writing, and Derrida’s resistance to phonocentrism, and this conflict is linked to his unease with the documentary format. In his writing Derrida criticised the tradition of Western philosophy for its hierarchical positioning of speech as primary and writing as secondary. Rousseau viewed speech as being a more natural mode of communication than writing, with the latter being a derivation of the former (Sarup 1993, p.39), and Saussure stated in his Cours de linguistique Générale (1971, p.45) that writing exists only to represent the spoken word. This manufactured hierarchy privileges speech due to its position as a more natural mode of expression, and this belief in the primacy of speech is present in interviews and documentaries.

For Derrida, there is phonocentrism to be found in the underlying motivation for a large number of interviews. The interview format is based on the idea that the combination of immediate physical presence and spoken dialogue is the only way to understand someone, to get under their skin and find that elusive true person, and that if this can be done in front of a camera then that true person will be exposed for all. However, throughout the course of the film the various interviews with Derrida are no more illuminating on his “true” self than the constant voiceovers quoting passages of his written work. When he meets his friends René and Chantal Major, he recalls for the cameras a light-hearted story about his mother’s kidney stones, which is followed by a narration of a passage from Circumfession (1992), in which Derrida writes openly about the pain surrounding his mother’s death. Both perform different roles in the biographical description of Derrida (although the former is the kind of anecdote that he dismisses early on).

Fig. 2: Derrida addressing Amy Ziering Kofman

When he finds himself in these interview situations, Derrida often creates tension by refusing to pretend that he is in a dialogue with the audience, and instead highlighting that he is only talking to Ziering Kofman, such as when she asks him to say something on the topic of love. Dissatisfied by her line of questioning on love, with it lacking an actual question, he addresses her directly: “il faut pas me demander ça” [00:36:59]. This direct address to the director makes evident the limitations of the dialogue in the film: Derrida is talking to Ziering Kofman, Ziering Kofman is talking to Derrida, and the viewer is not being spoken to; instead they are engaging in an act of reading. As he says in the previously mentioned 1986 interview with Raymond Williams, “film is a kind of writing”, even when documentaries and interviews try to pretend that they are not.

How present is Derrida?

At the end of the documentary, you may be tempted to ask the question: how much closer do I now feel to Derrida? He rejects telling intimate details of his life for the most part, and even displays a type of hostility towards the interviewers and filmmakers when asked questions, however the key to gaining an understanding of Derrida is within Derrida. Here, think of his words when discussing biography at New York University:

“One who reads a text […] and interprets it in a rigorous, inventive, and powerfully deciphering fashion is more of a real biographer than the one who knows the whole story.”


Being a biographer of an intellectual means engaging with the philosophical thought and work of that writer, rather than knowing a collection of anecdotes and their day-to-day life. This is the challenge of the biography, as it asks the viewer to firstly create their own personal reading and interpretation of the person called Jacques Derrida, and to then take these tools and implement them elsewhere.


Figure 1: Screencap from 00:19:00

Figure 2: Screencap from 00:36:59

Primary and online sources

Derrida, 2002. Film. Dir. Amy ZIERING KOFMAN & Kirby DICK. Zeitgeist Films. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TswHCM2cOmg

olynthos1, 2008. Jacques Derrida on Photography. [online video] Available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RjLOxrloJ0

Emporium, 2013. Jacques Derrida and Raymond Williams (1/2). [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeNZWlsDhr4


Cusset, F., 2008. French Theory: how Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & co. transformed the intellectual life of the United States. tr. J. Fort. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Derrida, J. & Stiegler, B., 2002. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. tr. J. Bajorek.  Cambridge: Polity.

Derrida, J., 2005. Papier machine. tr. R. Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dick, K., 2005. Resting on the Edge of an Impossible Confidence. In: K. Dick & A. Ziering Kofman, ed. Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the film. New York: Routledge, 36-51

Guthrie, B., 2011. Invoking Derrida: Authorship, Readership, and the Specter of Presence in Film and Print. New Literary History, 42 (3), 519-536.

Sartre, J-P., 1948. Qu’est-ce que la literature? Paris: Gallimard.

Saussure, F. D., 1971. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot.

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