Derrida, the life of the philosopher, and the ‘biopic’

‘He was born. He thought. He died’

                                                                                        Heidegger on the ‘life’ of Aristotle

A review of Derrida’s biography by Benoît Peeters in The Guardian today made me think about whether or not the biography is crucial or incidental to understanding a philosopher’s thought. Does knowing (or not knowing) about Derrida’s life enable us to understand what is at stake in the process of deconstruction? What role does the biography, and in particular the 2002 ‘biopic’ by Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, play? And since we’re talking about Derrida here, how is the biography deconstructed?

An image representing Jacques Derrida in his later years.

In a way, the biography does matter. Because it strives to capture the humanistic accounts of the philosopher’s life as noteworthy and supportive of her/his work. It also plugs into our obsession and voyeurism of the minutiae of a person’s life, to find out what makes them tick, and what of ourselves we can find in them. The thoughts, if one wishes to practice/follow them, can only be made tangible when it is embodied in the physical realm; in locational/corporeal context. There is a reason why certain hadiths attributed to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) are so resonant for Muslims, particularly for some men who would dress, eat, and grow a beard in a certain way that the prophet himself might have done in order to become ‘closer’ to the memory and morality of the prophet. With regard to the philosopher, it becomes a question of destabilising the division between mind and body, speech and writing, the philosopher in person and the philosopher in representations.

Depending on how Derrida’s life is represented, it will not be entirely possible to understand the circumstances from which he had arrived to explaining the process of deconstruction. If told from the point of view of the biographer with an intention to record Derrida’s intellectual upbringing, his personal life, likes and dislikes, but without interrogating the place certain significant events in Derrida’s life that can be turning points in the way he thought, we as consumers of a philosopher’s biography may not gain much insight into his thought processes.

Biography in the film assumes the role of the recording tape that records and plays back the thoughts and bits of life events that emerge yet enmeshed in their place of enunciation. But once deconstructed, elements in Derrida’s biopic which include the authority of the biography’s authorship, the unity of the text, and the neutrality of representation will all be called into question. These include the status of Derrida as the great philosopher (possibly) undermined by the banality of his life such as looking for his house keys, eating breakfast, crossing the street, etc.

A deconstructed biography is often at variance with conventional narrativising of a person’s life that invariably include ‘true’ information about the philosopher’s life (i.e. details about his birth, education, opus, (eventual) death, the “What of Derrida” as opposed to the “Who of Derrida” as exemplified in his walking, talking, eating, laughing). Most importantly, the film raises questions about the status of the biography’s author: is it a film about Derrida or merely an autobiography of the film-makers and their experiences with the great philosopher? Their names are placed on the film as author/producers; who are they in relation to the subject they film? The film-makers record and cite Derrida’s words, select and edit them to create a kind of snapshot that only has traces of Derrida taken from a specific moment in time. But we do not get the ‘real’, unitary Derrida, the person.

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