Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory

Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory

by Peter Brunette, David Wills

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Peter Brunette and David Wills extend the work of Jacques Derrida into a new realm—with rewarding consequences. Although Derrida has never addressed film theory directly in his writings, Brunette and Wills argue that the ideas he has developed in his critique of the logocentric foundations of Western thought, especially his notion of "Writing," can be usefully

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Peter Brunette and David Wills extend the work of Jacques Derrida into a new realm—with rewarding consequences. Although Derrida has never addressed film theory directly in his writings, Brunette and Wills argue that the ideas he has developed in his critique of the logocentric foundations of Western thought, especially his notion of "Writing," can be usefully applied to film theory and analysis. They maintain that such an application might even begin to shift film from its traditional position within the visual arts to a new place in the media and information sciences. This book also supplies a fascinating introduction to Derrida for the general reader. The authors begin by explaining, in political terms, why film theorists have neglected Derrida's work. Next they offer a Derridean critique of the assumptions of contemporary film studies. Then, drawing on his recently translated The Truth in Painting as well as on other, relatively unknown texts such as Droit de regards, they discuss his ideas in relation to the cinema and present two film analyses—of Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and of Lynch's Blue Velvet—that attempt to demonstrate the notion of an "anagrammatical," radical reading practice. Finally, they focus on Derrida's neglected book, The Post Card, and situate cinema in terms of a new definition of the technological.

Originally published in 1989.

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Extends the ideas Derrida has developed in his critique of the logocentric foundations of Western thought, especially his notion of analyses--of Truffaut's The Bride wore black and of Lynch's Blue velvet. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Derrida and Film Theory

By Peter Brunette, David Wills


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05572-5



The work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida has already had a profound influence on literary studies in the English-speaking world. It is beginning to have a similar effect on Anglo-American analytical philosophy, and the name, at least, now has a certain currency within literate circles in general. Yet Derrida's influence on film studies has so far been minimal. It is this state of affairs that we wish to examine in what follows; we would also like to suggest ways in which Derridean thinking and what has come to be known as deconstruction might contribute to our understanding of certain crucial questions in the domain of film theory and criticism.

Strictly speaking, of course, "deconstruction" and "Derrida" are not synonymous. In fact, commentators like Rodolphe Gasché have complained that deconstruction as it is practiced in America, most obviously by what has misleadingly come to be called the "Yale School," departs significantly from Derrida's own work. Christopher Norris suggests that the lingering influence of American New Criticism might vitiate the "total revaluation of interpretative theory and practice" that deconstruction promises, and it has become almost automatic to assume that deconstruction in America necessarily domesticates the political force of Derrida's writings. Derrida himself has expressed reserve at the use of the term:

For me, it was a word in a chain with many other words — such as trace or differance — as well as with a whole elaboration which is not limited only to a lexicon, if you will. ... this word which I had written only once or twice (I don't even remember where exactly) all of a sudden jumped out of the text and was seized by others who have since determined its fate in the manner you well know. Faced with this, I myself then had to justify myself, to explain, to try to get some leverage ... the word by itself bothered me ... for me "deconstruction" was not at all the first or the last word, and certainly not a password or slogan for everything that was to follow.

On the other hand he has refused to arbitrate between authorized and unauthorized versions or uses of his work, in spite of the reproach to which this refusal has laid him open, preferring instead to make the questions of "ownership," "inheritance," "seal," and "signature" major topics of address in his writing. Obviously, the problem with insisting upon a distinction between Derrida and deconstruction, in spite of the loose and often ill-informed use of the latter term, is that an appeal is inevitably, if unconsciously, being made to a "correct" or "true" Derrida or deconstruction, as opposed to a cheap or not-so-cheap imitation of it. Such a gesture remains firmly within the logocentric will to truth that Derrida has been at pains to identify and critique.

This does not mean that it is not important to continue to argue painstakingly the sense of Derrida's work, the matter of what he means or wants to say. Derrida himself is committed to this process, and in debates such as that with John Searle, the Speech Act theorist, or more recently that over the apartheid question he has unrelentingly corrected the reading to which something he has written has been subjected. There is nothing contradictory about this; or rather, it is a paradox which, for all his emphasis on it, Derrida has never suggested that we can avoid. Certainly no single speaking subject can do so by the simple fiat of his or her utterances. What is always involved here, interminably and interminably paradoxically, is the question of reading. The fact that there is never a final true reading — certainly not by an author of her or his own work — in no way reduces our reliance on, our managing of, and our playing with a complex system of protocols of reading. By reading "loosely," "against the grain," "parodically," or "irresponsibly" — some of which deconstructionists might claim to do, and all of which Derrida might be said to have done within the limits of a carefully developed logic and for certain strategic ends — one is nevertheless still reading and calling for the reply of yet another reading.

To return to our point then: since what we are involved with here is nothing more nor less than a reading of the work of Derrida in the context of film studies, we would argue both for and against the assimilation of Derrida with deconstruction, but always within the terms of reading practices, ours and those of others. For example, deconstructionists in America have up to this point shown little evidence of having read the specific form that Derrida's writing has taken since Glas, originally published in 1974. Though the recent appearance of that text in English may bring about a change, they have so far chosen to emulate the earlier Derrida, the Derrida of the rigorously close textual analysis that demonstrates the inevitable double binds of logocentrism without attempting to "rewrite" these double binds in the language of différance. By this we mean that in Derrida's later work there is something of a shift from the description and explanation of différance (to take but one word) in discursive terms to a putting into effect of the "other" conceptual and ludic side of language that the sense of différance opens up. We do not hold to a rigorous separation of these two Derridas and shall have more to say about these different styles, modes, or moments of deconstruction in the course of our discussion. In the meantime, however, keeping in mind the reservation that we are always involved in a reading of Derrida's texts, we shall use his name and the name "deconstruction" interchangeably.

Though the basic outlines of Derrida's thought have been conveniently mapped in an ever proliferating number of books, several very worthwhile and each having its own merits, it may be useful for the present discussion to attempt a brief and inevitably reductive summary of its major concerns. A consideration of Derrida may begin from diverse starting points, but a potentially fruitful way of approaching deconstruction is as a radicalization of Saussure's insights into the nature of language, and specifically into the nature of the sign itself and the relation between signifier and signified. Saussure's already radical formulation — that nothing in language is meaningful in and of itself, but only as it differs from other elements within the system — was powerful enough to keep him from pursuing its full implications, as Derrida clearly shows in Of Grammatology (see especially pp. 27–73). Derrida sees this as an almost inadvertent breach of what he calls the "metaphysics of presence," that system of thought common to the Western tradition since Socrates holding that that which is, is that which is present or capable of being present. Also called into question is the attendant logocentrism of this metaphysics, which is that system of concepts such as "truth," "good," "nature," and so on, which are regarded, throughout the entire history of Western thought, as being whole, internally coherent, consistent, and originary. Invariably these concepts are seen to have opposites ("falsehood," "evil," "culture") that are always presented as in some way harmful, deficient, deformed, or secondary, in short as a falling away from the fullness and self-sufficiency of the primary term. What Derrida has done is to show that, just as in Saussure's analysis of language, these concepts can only function because of their opposites, which then must inevitably be seen as constituting them.

Perhaps a homely example will make this clear. If there were only day, around the clock, and never night, the idea of day would not have any sense. It needs an opposite, paradoxically, in order to exist, because a thing, idea, or event can only be said to exist, or function significantly within a system, insofar as it differs from something else. To repeat, if there were only day (without night to differ from it), we would not be able to conceptualize such a thing as "day." If this is the case, then this thing, idea, or event cannot ever be whole, self-contained, and uncontaminated by an "outside," because it depends for its very existence on that which it is not. Every concept, in other words, has its opposite somehow inscribed within it, in the form of what Derrida calls a "trace," which, like a footprint, is paradoxically there and, as a sign of an absence, not there at the same time. Western logic's grounding principle of noncontradiction (something cannot simultaneously be "A" and "not-A") is thus challenged. Our very reluctance to give up the principle of noncontradiction is evidence of how tenacious a hold the metaphysics of presence has on our consciousness and on the way in which we conceptualize reality.

Obviously, such a calling into question of entrenched conceptions has enormous consequences. If truth, for example, depends upon error and is in some way constituted by it, then what will be the status of the truth claims that all intellectual disciplines need in order to function? If unity has disunity already within it, what are the possibilities for unified expression (including that which we are attempting here)? Or even for making sense, if non-sense is there all along? The reply is not that nothing ever makes sense any longer but rather that nothing makes sense only within the simplistic and commonsense idea of making sense, that is, in terms of a straightforward and uninterrupted communication of an intact message from a sender to a receiver. What were previously conceived of as accidental threats to normal sense making — such as what the language of communications science calls "noise," the residue of conflicting etymologies within a word, or the possible breaches in the solidity of context (for the more language one adds to "clarify" a given utterance, the greater the chances of indetermination of sense) — cannot be rigorously excluded from the sense-making process. Nor can they be easily relegated to secondary positions within a hierarchy of sense-making processes, given that the idea of a central, straightforward common sense has no validity or priority in and of itself.

As Derrida describes it, all versions of Western thinking have attempted to repress this sense of the "other" that is at the very heart of whatever is seen as being whole, meaningful, self-sufficient, originary, and true. His entire project can be described (again, only reductively) as an attempt to analyze the elaborate variations that have been wrought throughout the history of Western civilization on this single theme. As we shall see, the history of film theory has its own unique strategies for eliding this breach as well. What Derrida calls the "logic of the supplement" is perhaps the chief form of this strategy, and it is often imported into any discussion when the inevitable cracks and fissures of the unified argument begin to appear. It is this idea that has formed the basis of the most general application of deconstruction in literary studies and that has recently been imported into other fields.

The classic example, which Derrida evokes in Of Grammatology (144–57), is Rousseau's distinction between nature (which of course Rousseau favors) and culture or education (which he is against, since it is held to corrupt nature). At a certain point in his argument, however, Rousseau is led to say, paradoxically, that the "real" nature of human beings can only be brought forward through education. Elsewhere Rousseau suggests, in a similar vein, that since he does not express himself very well in person, the "real" Rousseau can actually only appear in the written form. Measured against speech, however, writing is historically considered another one of the secondary, distorted, incomplete entities constituting the "other." As a further corollary Derrida discusses Rousseau's treatment of masturbation as a "dangerous supplement" to "proper" sexuality, rendered necessary by the absence of the sexual partner. As Derrida points out, however, the difference between masturbation and sexual intercourse can never be clear-cut, given the fact that intercourse also depends upon a certain "auto-affection" that effectively renders the other absent. What we have in each case is the idea of something supposedly exterior, foreign, or opposite to what is favored or desired coming to replace and supplant the latter; but in each case the supplement also acts as a correction to a problem or deficiency within the system. So the question arises as to whether what is supposedly foreign to the system was not in fact part of it, as potential or constitutive force, from the beginning, and not just an accident that befell it along the way. Derrida's strategy, then, by pointing to what suddenly appears as an obvious contradiction and by showing how such a contradiction is, or can be, generalized at various levels throughout the text, is to overturn and displace these hierarchies that rule — and enable — our system of thought. He thus identifies the inevitable presence of the other or opposite within the supposedly whole or pure term. In most of his analyses he finds a key word or phrase — an ambiguity within a word such as pharmakon (both "poison" and "remedy") or suppléer (Fr. "to supplement" [which in English also has contradictory senses] and "to supplant") or an idea relegated to a footnote or secondary example such as Kant's parergon — that neatly encapsulates the "logic of the supplement" and that can usually be taken in two opposing senses, allowing him to reveal the difference that breaks into the order of the same.

In Of Grammatology Derrida makes the speech versus writing oppositional relation something of a paradigm for the operations of logocentrism in general. The fact that writing in its literal sense has been systematically treated, by any number of thinkers from Plato to Rousseau and Saussure, as a derivative corruption of the natural language that is speech, becomes the basis for an elaboration of "writing" in a much wider sense. Writing becomes the model for all linguistic operations, including speech, to the extent that they always involve a dependence on the difference, spacing, and rupture that the speech model occludes. Writing thus comes to stand for otherness in general.

Truth in our thinking has always been implicitly or explicitly tied to the logos or spoken word, relying as it does on the commonsense model we referred to above. In this model, a speaking subject has the illusion of forming speech in total simultaneity with thought, thus apparently collapsing the space between the signifier and the signified in a self-contained fullness. Similarly, these thoughts are instantly conveyed to the listener in a manner that once again promotes the illusion of directness, appearing to suppress the gap, however minute, of representation. Meaning here travels within a closed circuit; it is protected from interference, it remains intact. The model is therefore underwritten by the idea of presence; it is presence that insures the unimpeded operation of the system. But the model is also underwritten by the idea of the breath, the life-giving force that profits from its metonymic relation to the voice to endow that voice with an added sense of naturalness and that thus bolsters the model with a concept of being that has always been fundamental to philosophical inquiry.

The voice, in conjunction with the breath, also acts in philosophical thinking as a form of origin. Philosophical inquiry is as committed to an explanation of the origin as it is to discovery of truth and so becomes caught in a paradox. The origin, to have absolute meaning as such, must reside outside of language, untouched by the error, dispute, and interpretation that pervade language. Philosophy wants to conceive of an origin that is beyond reproach, and to be true it must be a fullness, an ideal self-presence. By confining references to language to the model based on the voice, by transferring the "guilt" of language's failures to writing, that other language, philosophy, is thus able to speak as though an intact truth or origin had been preserved despite the fall into language. As Derrida has pointed out, only recourse to some sort of transcendental metaphysics can make this possible; only by implying that there is an outside to language where such paradoxes are resolved can philosophy claim to be speaking not nonsense but truth.

In making writing the scapegoat for the things that language does not want to recognize as part of itself, things like distancing rather than presence and difference rather than sameness, spoken language conceals the very paradoxes that constitute it. For difference does not suddenly appear in the case of writing; as Saussure insisted, difference constitutes all language. Without oppositional difference, in other words, language is simply a continuum of unintelligible garble. It is from this basis that Derrida argues that writing constitutes spoken language rather than vice versa. What he means is that the things that are identified in writing as being derived, supplemental to natural language, or as being the results of a falling away from the origin are in fact the very things that constitute any language, even the most natural. The commonsensical hierarchy of speech over writing is thus reversed and, in the process, displaced.

The strength of Derrida's strategy (and also the reason behind so much of the criticism it has attracted) lies in his carrying the critique or radical application of Saussure's ideas well beyond their presumed limits. For, as we have suggested, he reads Saussure — whose work represents a privileged but by no means unique moment — as opening possibilities that are never fully exploited. Rather than simply correcting Saussure or remaining within the terms Saussure prescribes, Derrida takes the materiality of the signifier and a radicalized principle of difference as the bases for a whole series of interventions in the operations of language. Derrida insists that language is institution and convention against and beyond structuralism's claims to that end, and those claims are shown to betray, however partially, a desire for language that would on the contrary be natural utterance. But once the full extent of language as conventionality is conceded, the terms of that convention are open to debate; once language is shown to be institution, discussion about language inevitably revolves around the operations of that institution and the possibilities of subverting it.


Excerpted from Screen/Play by Peter Brunette, David Wills. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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