Derrida: A 2002 Documentary on the Abstract Philosopher and the Everyday Man

“I once saw Jacques Derrida,” Sam Anderson remembers in New York magazine, “the reigning high priest of French theory, a man so intimidatingly abstract I imagined he pooped exegeses, shuffle out of a lecture hall and load his papers not (as I’d expected) into a rickshaw pulled by grad students or onto the shoulders of cynical chain-smoking French angels but into the trunk of a bright-red Daewoo sedan — a car as terminally lame as any my family had ever owned, and which he then proceeded to drive slowly across a parking lot indistinguishable from the anti-intellectual parking lots of my youth.” Whether Derrida visibly jiggles open the door of this very same Daewoo in the documentary that bears his name I have yet to determine, but the film goes on to offer a wealth of such stolidly quotidian moments. Derrida butters toast. He describes his mother’s kidney stones. He admits to staying in his pajamas all day if he doesn’t have to leave the house.

Faced with the split between Derrida the eminence of high-flown ideas and Derrida the man of bathrobes and economy cars, directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman choose to oscillate. We see the hyperverbal, faintly ethereal philosopher take calls in his tastefully light-flooded concrete-and-bamboo study, grant respectful television interviews, meet breathless young exegetes-to-be (“Listening to you speak elucidated your texts just so much for me!”), and travel to South Africa to lecture on the theme of forgiveness. We hear selections from Derrida’s writings intoned over shots of city streets and the man himself strolling them, pipe in mouth. We watch, through a regression of monitors, Derrida watching Derrida watching a tape of Derrida and his wife refusing to divulge the emotional details of their first meeting. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ambient compositions score these conventionally cinematic moments as well as those… less so: Derrida getting a haircut, for instance, or speaking of his great wish to know more of Hegel and Heidegger’s sex lives. Any number of books and interviews can presumably teach you about Derrida’s oft-referenced techniques of deconstruction, but none of them so entertainingly examine the territory where the philosopher’s ideas end and his real world begins. You can purchase your own copy of the 2002 Derrida documentary on Amazon here.

Related content:

Jacques Derrida Deconstructs American Attitudes

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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