- The Philosopher's BodyDerrida and Teletechnology
In Kirby Dick's and Amy Ziering Kofman's award-winning documentary Derrida (2002), Derrida comments on the artificiality of the technological set-up that, in his eyes, dominates the interview. Asked by the filmmaker about the origins of deconstruction, Derrida replies:
Before responding to this question, I want to make a preliminary remark on the completely artificial character of this situation. I don't know who is going to be watching this. But I want to underline rather than efface the surrounding technical conditions and not feign a "naturality" which does not exist. I've already in a way started to respond to your question about deconstruction, [End Page 139] because one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn't natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural.(Dick and Kofman 2002, 14:00)
One of the central tasks of deconstruction, Derrida argues, is to resist the naturalizing effects of technology and the televised image. Echoing these concerns, Derrida deliberately highlights the omnipresence of technological devices in Derrida's public and private life: at home, he sends faxes and talks on the phone; in the lecture hall, he is surrounded by microphones and camera crews. Every scene in the film reminds the viewer about the technological mediation and the constructedness of the very images that sustain the movie as a whole. Mirrors abound, and twice we see Derrida watching himself on a TV monitor, which in turn depicts him sitting in front of another monitor that replays a previously recorded part of the interview with Derrida and his wife Marguerite. Albeit heavy-handed, these multilevel scenes of mediation put into play the constitutive impossibility of getting to the source or the essence of the subject "Derrida." While Derrida, the philosopher, discusses deconstruction at the linguistic level, Derrida, the film, effectively illustrates the working of différance at the visual level through its mise-en-scène and the use of montage. Both levels intersect and are deliberately put into play throughout the movie, which refuses to give priority to either of the two registers of signification.
Unlike Derrida, Derrida's own philosophical project has been primarily concerned with the intralinguistic relationship between speech and writing rather than with the intermedial relationship of words and images. In Of Grammatology, Derrida demonstrated that the alleged presence and self-identity of the voice operates along the very principles of iterability and différance that also sustain the process of writing (1967). The same, of course, might be said of television and other electronic recording devices. They, too, seem to operate along lines of difference, deferment, and repetition. "All mediation remediates the real," as media theorists Bolter and Grusin put it (1999, 59). Given this fundamental agreement between writing and the televised image, what exactly is the difference? What defines the [End Page 140] specificity of electronic media? And in what sense does this difference matter to deconstruction, if it matters at all?
In addressing these questions, I hope to contribute to a more profound exchange between deconstruction and contemporary media theory. This exchange continues to be hampered not only by a general "unwillingness to engage in fundamental discussions about the relationship between literary and cultural studies" (Friedrich 2004, 499; my translation). More importantly, it suffers from the significant methodological differences between the hermeneutic approach of literary studies, on the one hand, and the post-hermeneutic approach favored by contemporary media studies, on the other.1 Bluntly put, the former study the production of meaning on the textual level via a semiotic critique of linguistic signification and rhetorical structures, whereas the latter dismiss these very processes as secondary effects of the technological media and the materialities of communication that enable meaning production in the first place.2 Any effort to mediate between these two positions quickly threatens to deteriorate into trading accusations of idealism vs. materialism, technophobia vs. technological determinism, empty rhetoric vs. thoughtless engineering, and so on. This is not to deny that deconstruction has had a significant influence upon early media theory (evident, above all, in the work of...