Interview w/ Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman
Last year, the University of Chicago Press published a collection of writings by Jacques Derrida, entitled The Work of Mourning. This volume is a collection of eulogies, tributes, and personal statements which Derrida wrote in honor of various fellow thinkers of the post-structuralist generation – Barthes, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Levinas, Lyotard, and others. With the more recent passing of Pierre Bourdieu and Monique Wittig, one could almost feel justified in suspecting that post-structuralism and its practitioners were fading into history.
However, Derrida, the new documentary by Kirby Dick (Sick, Chain Camera) and Amy Ziering Kofman (a former student of Derrida’s), serves as an exuberant rejoinder to such declarations. Like its subject, Derrida the film is bursting with life, teeming with ideas, and firmly rooted in the contemporary moment. It is a portrait of the philosopher as a man, engaged with the world around him, willing to treat that world as a laboratory for the advanced thought it is not always willing to acknowledge it so desperately needs. Jacques Derrida, often called the “founder of deconstruction,” is depicted against type, as a systematic builder of concepts, albeit radically anti-foundational ones. And yet, as this film shows, he himself is ensnared in paradox. What happens to thought when “deconstruction” becomes a label, allegedly as applicable to Seinfeld as to Nietzsche? What becomes of deconstruction’s critique of power in light of the founding of the “Derrida Archives,” in Paris and in Irvine, California? And how can filmmakers produce a biographical documentary, in the age of the “decentered subject”?
To its credit, Derrida does not dwell on this last problem (or worse, try to illustrate it). Instead, Dick and Kofman proceed with their project, the suspect nature of biography serving as a tacit assumption. The resulting film is a funny, poetic, and slyly intellectual filmic document of Jacques Derrida, captured from multiple angles, all determinedly incomplete. From classroom segments, interviews, vérité sequences, and, most crucially, passages from Derrida’s texts, the documentary constructs a rigorous yet ultimately impressionistic portrait of a complex man. The film, as the directors make clear below, is not an “intro to deconstruction.” Instead, Derrida leaves the viewer with a feeling of significant but partial accomplishment, a sense that the work of understanding is both just beginning, and (as Derrida himself would have it) always already underway.
I spoke with Dick and Kofman during their visit to the San Francisco International Film Festival in May 2002.
MS: The two of you come from different backgrounds, Amy’s being the more academic, and Kirby better known as a documentary filmmaker. How have these two different kinds of ethos resulted in the film’s hybrid form?
AZK: There really was a cross-pollination. When I saw Sick, I thought, that’s way up there in terms of intelligence and theory. I’d been working alone for about two years, at least, and I wanted to work with someone who I could collaborate with. It was getting to be too much for me, without any kind of filmmaking expertise.
MS: Are there specific examples of what Kirby brought to bear on what you’d already done? How did the differences work themselves out in practice?
AZK: I think we just kept pushing each other. There was a certain demand I always placed on the movie to fulfill certain intellectual ambitions, and I could never compromise those. And Kirby was right on-board with those demands. Because of that, it just luckily ended up being a good set-up. And also, there are certain “Kirbyisms” that I don’t know that I would’ve been inclined to do, things I picked up quickly. And then my editing was certainly informed by things I noticed that he would do. For instance, Kirby likes to let things roll longer than most documentary filmmakers do.
KD: One of the plans of working with Amy was to adhere exactly to the demands that she had for the film. At no point did she want to compromise what her initial ambitions for the film were. And that was a very stimulating, creative environment to work in. One of the reasons I wanted to do this film is that, not only did I think that I would never get another chance to make a film about a philosopher, but to have a film with this ambition, is a chance that I knew would never come around again. So that was a real pleasure. One of the things that concerned me, and something I try to do, is to look at the film from the perspective of the imagined audience. Because for me, that’s one of the theoretical pleasures of making a film – speculating this mass other and how they receive, not only your work, but you, actually. It’s hard to separate the two, and there’s a certain narcissistic pleasure . . . so, that’s one of the reasons I make films. To think through that experience, to put it out in a way. With all films, it’s important. But I think with this film, I think it was most important, because of the preconception, the predisposition toward the material, which we knew would be there. And so it’s nice to be able to think through it from the point of view of an audience which might not have any knowledge of Derrida, and at the same time, to reach in the other direction, which is, how can we dive as deeply into his thinking as possible? So that stretch made it challenging but comfortable.
MS: It seems like a certain viewership, coming blind to the movie, might expect it to be a primer on deconstruction, which it resolutely isn’t.
KD: And we were very clear at the beginning of the project that we didn’t want it to be.
AZK: [long pause] Well, I came to Derrida reading him myself. I think I took the first theory courses that Amherst offered. So he had just hit colleges (or my college), and Derrida wasn’t part of the curriculum. You couldn’t study him when I was in college. I took the stuff really seriously, and even refused for a long time to even use the term “deconstruction,” unless it’s in a historicizing context, just to refer to what was appropriated and categorized by other people as . . . something. So for me, deep down in my soul, if you really understand reading that word, it’s not about being able to apply, or explain. It’s not a doctrine, it’s not a dogma. It’s a way of reading. And the way you learn how to read and think isn’t be someone telling you A, B, C, D . . . It’s by doing the work of reading a film. So I wanted to present a film where, maybe you don’t think you know what deconstruction is, or it doesn’t tell you. But it messes you up in a certain way, and by the end of it, you’ve done the work. You know something about deconstruction without the film having said, in an enunciating fashion, “this is X, this is Y.” Because that way doesn’t end up giving you what deconstruction is anyway. An analogy I’ll make, or something Derrida says in the film, you kind of have to do your homework. To know what deconstruction is, or to think you know what it is, you have to do a lot of work – quiet, private work, reading, thinking, considering. Otherwise, Derrida would have written it down in one page. What Derrida does is that he performs close readings of different texts. He doesn’t sit there and say, “Here’s a book on deconstruction.” He says, “Let’s read Plato’s Pharmakon.” So likewise, let’s read a film called Derrida. What do we learn about from it? We learn about biography in a complicated way. We learn about issues of voyeurism and specularity. You learn about all that. So, you’re getting it, but you’re not getting a doctrine that declares A, B, C, D. You get something that’s in the spirit of Derrida’s gesture. It’s just a close reading. Whether it’s a film like E.T. or a film by Trinh Minh-ha, if you do a close reading of E.T., it’s telling you a lot. It is a deconstructive text as well. It’s not like Trinh’s privileged or Godard’s privileged, because they break the fourth wall, or have Brechtian instances, or self-referentiality. . . One of the sad things about this movie is that it’s immediately pegged as “deconstructive” because it has these self-reflexive moments, which now everyone thinks easily as, “oh, it’s unwinding, unspooling . . .”
MS: You mean the mise-en abyme segments, Derrida watching Derrida?
AZK: Not only that, but the sound technician taking the microphone out of the pocket, or “wait a minute, there’s a camera here,” all those camera crews depicted in turn. And that’s part of it, but that’s not really it at all.
KD: There’s something interesting here, because I was talking to someone about this yesterday, and this may not be true, but in some ways, people walk away feeling like they understand his thinking to some degree. In some senses that’s true, but in some sense there’s a misunderstanding of it. It’s an initial misunderstanding, which I think in some ways is deliberate in the film. When one reads any great writer, your first take is almost always a misunderstanding. But it’s that misunderstanding that thrusts you into the work. You think, “Well, that’s interesting enough for me to read, and to finally understand even with repeated readings.” At least for me, that was one of the objectives. Some people say, “This film deconstructs Derrida.” It does not, in my mind. Amy might think differently. But what the film does is to put signposts up and to allow you to get your first understanding (which is a misunderstanding), and thereby get past the idea that his work is impenetrable, that’s it’s antagonistic. . . Like I said, one of the things we constantly encounter is the preconception, which we have to acknowledge going in to the film. So, to me, it’s really phenomenal that people come away saying, “I want to read him.” That’s a very rare comment when people encounter Derrida, in any form. You never hear that. “I want to read him.” You usually get people who’ve said “I’ve tried to read him, over and over, and I’m not going to read him anymore.” That’s the common response. So in this way there was a certain agenda with the film, which was to offer that experience. People aren’t going to have that experience when they sit down and read it, but still, I think in some way they have a support system. There is an explanation, and there is a primer element to the film. A certain range of issues are dealt with. And they develop an affection for him, and that helps when the reading gets rough.
AZK: That was the overwhelmingly surprising response, the number of people who came up to me after seeing the film in the test screenings and at Sundance, saying “What should I read?,” “This was incredible,” “Thank you for making me think again.” They’re not used to going into movies and being pushed or stretched. So there was that comment from the person in the Q&A [in San Francisco] who said, “it was obscure, I really couldn’t understand the quotes, why did you include them?” And one response I’ve given at other points, and didn’t that night, was, I’ve always been most interested in things I couldn’t understand. You need to see and hear it over and over again.
And that’s not a bad thing. That’s kind of cool, when something is over your head, but not intimidating. That’s intriguing.
MS: There’s a certain preconception about documentary that after viewing it, you’ll have achieved a certain mastery.
AZK: And just like with the biography, there’s an issue of what you know and what you don’t know, it’s the same with the [onscreen] quotations. There’s an issue of what you understand and what you don’t understand, and the spaces in-between, a continual position of knowledge and non-knowledge, non-mastery and mastery. The other thing I was going to say about why we didn’t make it a deconstruction primer is, likewise, the analogy that it takes time and work. I mean, when I say “E=mc²,” you don’t expect that because there’s a quantum physics equation, people would say, “explain it to me, and I can understand it in one page.” But somehow because it’s a philosophical statement or gesture, “deconstruction,” they think they should be able to get it. And it’s not fair. You have to do a lot of physics to understand how you get that equation. And to a great extent, the same thing is true of the word “deconstruction” in Derrida’s work. And it never was a term he privileged or intended to be excerpted. That’s also why I’m very rigorous about this. It was appropriated, it was declared, and it was repositioned onto his work, as if that’s what his work’s about. But I just maintain his works are close readings. He wasn’t making a manifesto. And yet it’s become a manifesto or a buzzword, but that’s not what he’s about.
KD: I agree with you about “deconstruction,” but I think there is a manifesto quality to his work, in a way. There’s a tone.
AZK: Yeah, there’s a consistent ideology, I would say. But he was setting out to do work, the work of critical reading. Period, end of sentence. “Deconstruction” is something else.
MS: Kirby, Amy mentioned Sick, and I was wondering what sorts of continuities you may see between Sick and Derrida?
KD: Well, one thing is that I’m willing to use very low-end cameras, sometimes second cameras and third cameras, and incorporating that into set-ups or shots with higher-end cameras. I did that in Chain Camera which was all shot on Hi-8. So that’s something that’s extended all the way through those two films and makes them continuous for me. Obviously Sick is much more of a biography, or what’s thought of a biography, than this film. But still, there are a lot of similarities because they’re both about one unique person and his range of thinking and the range of his work. And there are a lot of issues that come up there, in terms of how you can push something as far as you can and still have the audience aligned empathetically with the subject. One of the things with [Derrida], someone came up to me and said the film was welcoming. And not that I think all films have to be. But I think that my films tend to be, even though the subject matter might not be perceived to be. But I think we definitely wanted to have that quality with this film, where the name, the notion, “Derrida,” conjures up such antagonism, trepidation, whatever. So I think audiences come in like, “Can I understand this? Will I be able to deal with it? Is it going to be clear enough for me?” And so a lot of the film, a lot of the humor in the film, was really meant to counter that prevailing image of Derrida’s work. And I have a lot of ideas as to why that is the case, but if you read it, it’s just thinking. There’s no reason to have the attitude, especially in the popular press, and even with the academic presses, that it is so difficult, so controversial. And yes, in one sense he is. But oftentimes that [perception] just totally obscures what his thinking is. So the idea of just taking that entirely out of the picture, like just saying sometimes he isn’t, but sometimes he is a friendly man, and helping people get past those issues of controversy and focus more on his thinking – that’s one of the objectives.
MS: One thing which seemed interesting about Sick, revisiting it after having seen Derrida, is that there’s this kind of two-step process of deconstruction whereby a standing opposition is initially flipped, to take the subordinate term and make it dominant, and then to show how they actually interpenetrate. And it seems that in Sick, Bob Flanagan is deconstructing this pleasure / pain dichotomy which most of us use to structure our lives.
KD: Right. Amy’s commented on that. I think that’s true. But also, I think that you’re working with material and you want to examine it from all sides. So that just sort of happens through the process of examination too.
MS: One other similarity I noticed was that in both Sick and Derrida, we have the introduction of the subject’s family, and I don’t want to say that they’re uncomprehending, but there is this other, quite different register which is introduced.
KD: Yes, I guess it allows you to get at the subject from another angle which [he] isn’t in control of presenting. And all the humor in that situation comes from that. I mean, I think that’s done fairly often in documentaries, right? Particularly with subjects who are artists.
MS: Right, it tends to depend on the subject. Thinking about the structure of Derrida, in comparison to other contemporary biographical films – for example, Jim Shedden’s Brakhage – that’s a film which takes a totally different structure which clarifies what you don’t do, such as bringing in talking heads, authoritative figures. There’s an assumption that the way to make a figure’s importance clear to a wider audience is to bring authority to bear. This is something that, by and large, Derrida eschews.
KD: That’s always a problem. One of the only times I saw it done really successfully was in Crumb, where the authority figures were giving Robert Crumb more stature but at the same time . . .
AZK: They were being undermined.
KD: Exactly. But in many ways, I find that authority figures create more problems than they’re worth. The biographer begins to focus on them. And it also becomes very reductive because you normally take a few statements that they make, and so then those statements seem to bracket everything underneath it, even though oftentimes those remarks were just off the cuff, or you just happened to get that moment, or it was something short enough to make a soundbite out of.
AZK: What we did to get around that problem... Before, we had screenings which totally ignored anything that positioned or “authorized” Derrida. Obviously we wanted this to be able to reach a mass audience. So we spent a lot of time trying to solve this problem. That’s why we use the media clips at the start. Because that immediately ironizes it, because it’s not our material, and because we play with problems of media throughout. We sort of complicate what their gesture of authorization is, but we’re presenting it for those viewers who don’t even know who the guy is, to give some sense that Derrida is pretty well-known, and to introduce the word “deconstruction.” We just wanted to get those things dispensed with. That was the only gesture I would make towards any conventional biographical positioning. We figured out that we can use the media clips to provide this narrative. There’s some really cool stuff we ended up doing, playing much more in-depth with how that narrative is just a version of Derrida himself.
MS: In that second sequence, in terms of the ironization, those clips you select involve media people really bringing the “proper name” of Derrida to bear, with all the appropriate reverence. And this is intercut with a very different Derrida, this gentleman with his wife, looking for his keys. (In part, I took this is a possible parallel to Spurs and Nietzsche’s marginal “I forgot my umbrella” comment.) It seems like these moments are doing at least double duty. They announce that we are not in the space of hagiography, and at the same time they implicitly argue that these trivial details do have a kind of significance.
AZK: Yes. I think the film is trying to show that these moments are not “nothing.” In some ways that’s what Derrida is trying to do as well. In biography, you can’t dismiss the anecdote. There is something, but there is a sort of blind stupidity to it as well. And you have to decide. For instance there’s the sequence where the cameraperson is “looking up at the star,” and then we intercut to the sequence [of the experts] authorizing him, based on the proper name. Then we have the long sequence with Derrida walking, which a sort of National Enquirer version of the story: he took drugs, he was arrested, and so on. So we’re trying to offer another commentary on the media, ironizing this desire to pigeonhole the proper name. What do you do with this different register of fact? Does it matter, does it not?
KD: And I think that one of the things about the key section, having it at the beginning . . . there is so little archival footage of Derrida, of him just in casual situations. Even with us. I was so used to having subjects just say, “Fine, keep shooting, it doesn’t really matter, we’ve been working on this for years, I trust you . . .” [And Derrida was different.] It wasn’t like he was obsessively controlling. We spent hours interviewing him, there were hours worth of things to talk about. But that footage near the beginning is the only footage I know of Derrida interacting with his wife. It’s very significant in that way, as Amy said. The media clips give an added significance to that as well.
AZK: But there also was what you picked up in the gesture of the high and low, the reverent and the normal. So that people would know right off the bat that it isn’t this genuflecting position [Kirby and I] are going to be in.
MS: The first time I saw it, those moments really did seem to be going to lengths to show that Jacques Derrida puts his pants on one leg at a time, like anyone else. But with a second viewing those moments really unfold. They’re really tender, really touching. And they’re something which is usually considered marginal.
AZK: When I saw Jacques before the San Francisco screening, he was saying now that he’s heard a little bit through the grapevine, “People keep saying it’s funny, that I’m funny.” Because I think when he viewed it at home in Paris, it’s like, he’s alone with his wife. It may be amusing but you don’t really know that people really are picking up on your wit. And I said to him, “That wasn’t unintentional. Your work is funny. You are funny.” And it’s important to me to explore what that’s about. So it was important to me to look for clips that included that [aspect], because again, that’s not nothing.
MS: I wanted to ask about the Derrida passages quoted in the film. I noticed that with a couple of key exceptions, they tended to be excerpts from later, post-1980 texts. How did you go about selecting which texts would be represented?
AZK: That was hard. Kirby mostly went through the first pass, because I had such a different relationship to Derrida’s work that I couldn’t get outside of it enough to excerpt it.
KD: There was a certain strategy I used. I noticed in his writing that he tended to open and close texts with a kind of flourish. Usually he’ll open a text with a brilliant encapsulated analysis of the issues he’s going to proceed with. It seems like he spends some time working on the opening several paragraphs. And at the end, sometimes he would shift into this somewhat surreal kind of writing. So one of the things I did was I looked at the beginnings and ends of each text. Derrida is very difficult to excerpt, for many, many different reasons, unlike Lacan, who I’ve read a lot of. You could excerpt nearly every line. It’s just the way he writes. But with Derrida, I was looking for writing which was more poetic, and I find that that happens more at the beginning and the end. And also, the excerpts tend to deal with issues of specularity, narcissism, issues of improvisation, of identity. These are issues that, when you’re dealing with a film about a biographical subject, are very related. And they would relate to material of the subject. When put up against a video image of the subject, there would be a resonance. On the archive, for example. Whereas other types of writing might not have the same resonance.
MS: Throughout the film there’s a concern with the archive, and you both stated that there is a desire to make a video archive of Derrida. How do you see the film or video medium as complicating the archive issue? Is there a material difference between the Derrida Archive in Irvine, CA, which we see, and this videotape document which can be broadcast, which can be pirated, and has a certain promiscuity?
KD: It’s interesting to think about, because it seems like eventually this material will be donated to the Irvine archive, or the one in Paris. It’s funny, because the material will be so much different in nature. And just to imagine the two coexisting, the promiscuous and the more formal, is interesting. There may be that similar complication between the anecdote and his thinking. It’s paralleled by this footage, which would generally be more incidental. These are improvs which are in a very non-academic situation, responses to questions which oftentimes were things we were just curious about. We wanted to see where it goes, and its side by side with the more formal questions we asked.
AZK: But I don’t really see that there’s a difference or a contradiction. In the farthest reach, there’s no difference between the written materials and the video material. It’s all just there, for whoever’s going to take it, to do whatever they want to.
KD: Right. But still, I think for the archivists, it’ll be interesting to see how they categorize it.
AZK: Oh, I think they’re just going to take it and put it there.
KD: Even so, not all of it just goes in a box. They’re going to have to go through, date it, who knows. I know very little about how archives are constructed. Still, it seems like there’s going to be a separation, which is interesting. At some point a student or researcher goes into the archive, and where do they go? Some students will go to the “promiscuous” because that’ll be the easiest thing to go to first. Will they want to see what we didn’t use? Or others will find this of no interest. The bleeding together of the two [archival modes] will be an interesting process. Also, the film not coming from academia, which has its own standards. . . Even though the film has been very well-received, there’s a certain suspicion about anybody coming from a more pop background, about anybody understanding anything academic without having academic credentials.
MS: Making a film about Jacques Derrida and his work means that the work enters certain new contexts where Derrida’s thought hasn’t previously been introduced, including film festivals, arthouses, maybe the Sundance Channel, etc. It raises interesting institutional questions. Was that integral to the construction and design of the piece?
KD: I think it definitely was. One of the things we realized early on was that there’s something somewhat cinematic, or maybe I shouldn’t say cinematic, but there’s something thrilling about these ideas, and to present them in this form was a wonderful challenge. In some ways I’d compare it to my earlier film, Sick. One of the things I knew was that by taking this kind of footage, and putting it in the closed, dark environment of the theatre, there was something cinematic and something thrilling that was going to come out of that. Likewise with Derrida’s thought. Then on another level, on an institutional level, there is such anti-intellectualism in this country, certainly compared to Europe, in most cases, most arenas, and especially oftentimes with film. There’s a tendency to go in the direction of pop, rather than the direction of more rigorous thinking. Not to oppose the two, but there’s always a default and a celebration of the popular. And so putting these ideas out there into somewhat of a pop context, in a popular medium, that was one of the projects of the film, to expose his thinking, to expose thinking in general, philosophy, to a wider audience, and have them think, “well, maybe that’s not just something I saw and took a couple of classes in, and forgot about,” but actually something that has a life, something worth study and consideration throughout your whole life.
AZK: I also wanted to extend Kirby’s comments in response to your question on institutions. Derrida’s work is invested in exploring what it means to construct a genre, construct a border, construct an institution, and his work is always trying to push the limits of that. So our film, to an extent, is a continuation of that spirit.
(c) 2002 Michael Sicinski