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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 152-153
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Derrida, documentary directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, produced by Zeitgeist Films and Jane Doe Films (2002).
That large audiences in North America have been drawn to this documentary is not surprising, given its technical competence, conceptual ambition, and, of course, its leading man. Structurally, the film weaves scenes of Jacques Derrida's everyday private life (having breakfast at home, searching for lost keys) with scenes of his roles as professor, author, and public intellectual. Within the loose [End Page 152] narrative of the film, a voice-over periodically offers selections from Derrida's writings. While we watch the philosopher get his hair cut, a passage from The Ear of the Other is read, weighing in on the subject at hand—the relation of an author's life to his work. Despite Ziering Kofman's, and indeed Derrida's, evident reservations about biography, what is left undone in Derrida can form the basis for a critique from the standpoint of what the film might have been but is not. The film adequately acknowledges the intellectual lines in which Derrida is a participant, particularly the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heidegger; yet it is strangely silent in addressing the array of contemporary interlocutors that Derrida has engaged over the years. For example, Derrida's now famous critique (March 1963) of Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization, his later debates with Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jean-Luc Marion, and his engagement with French feminist movements are missing from the film's narrative. Of course, one short film cannot hope to capture a life, especially one as multifaceted as Derrida's. But the lack of attention to the contemporary intellectual field produces something of a flat portrayal, which leaves Derrida (as he says when confronting a literal portrait of himself on a gallery wall) feeling "anxious and bizarre." It is a vivid estimate of what results from decontextualization.
Lawrence Jones is a fellow of the University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, senior analyst at Lexecon, Inc., and an associate editor of Common Knowledge.