Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 28, December 2000

 

 

Nina Zimnik

Thinking Television

 

 

 

 

Jacques Derrida

_Echographies de la television. Entretiens filmes_

Paris: Editions Galilee / Institut national de l'audiovisuel, 1996

ISBN: 2-7186-0480-8

187 pp.

 

'Ethics is the aesthetics of the future.' James Monaco [1]

 

'I always say the truth: not all of it since saying it all can't be done.

To say it all is impossible, materially: words fail. It is because of this

very impossibility that truth holds on to the real.' Jacques Lacan [2]

 

In 1993, when Jacques Lacan spoke on television, his opening statement was

that one cannot say it all. The above words by Lacan introduce

_Echographies de la television_, Jacques Derrida's 1996 book, not only

because he and Lacan share certain doxa regarding truth, the materiality of

the signifier, and 'the real', but because they are both philosophers.

_Echographies_ is traded, perhaps since it is still untranslated, as

harboring 'Derrida's thoughts on television' -- thoughts of a certain

impact one may assume given that Derrida is often considered the most

important living philosopher.

 

Now, Derrida is the thinker of deconstruction, and first and foremeost, the

book offers deconstructive approaches to television and, on one level,

relates certain seasoned philosophical arguments to television and its

mediality, etching out in straightforward passages how deconstruction (i.e.

some fundamental concepts that form the body of knowledge subsumed under

this heading) is always already bound up with the thinking of media. Above

and beyond these gestures, which are exciting in themselves, Derrida

develops a wealth of original critiques of television, some of which,

though all are always philosophical in slant, have pressing

socio-historical or political dimensions (portions of the text pertain to

contemporaneous affairs in France at the time of the interviews). To be

brief, Derrida sets forth many general theoretical points about television

that I believe one should understand when one works on this medium.

 

_Echographies de la television_ relates a series of filmed interviews with

Jacques Derrida conducted by Bernard Stiegler in 1993, as well as the

transcription of another group interview from the same year,

'Artfactualities', and -- last things first -- the essay 'The Discrete

Image' written by Stiegler himself, an intelligent text that goes back to

Barthes's analysis of the photographic image and inquires about the status

of the image under the condition of numerical reproducibility.

 

What then are the Derridean takes? The list of section titles will give us

some idea:

 

The Right to Gaze; Artfactualities, Homohegemony; Acts of Memory:

Topopolitics and Teletechnology; Heritages -- and Rhythm; The 'Cultural

Exception': The States of the State, the Event; The Market of the Archive:

Truth, Witnessing, Proof; Phonographies: Sense -- From Heritage to Horizon,

Spectographies, Vigilances of the Unconscious. [3]

 

As semantics indicate, tele-vision implies a vision bound up with distance.

Obviously, television operates through distance in space and time. However,

this mode of operating cannot be reduced to the functioning of the

apparatus but, as a 'dispositif', engenders paradoxical dialectics of

closeness and distance, of identity and lack, of processes of

democratization and totalitarianization. Therefore, television is a

technique that bears similarities with writing, more precisely with

*ecriture*; qua 'technique', it echoes Heidegger's 'techne' -- and thus we

know _Echographies_ is hardly the first or only place Derrida ever said

something about television.

 

Before we cast a light on a few specific arguments subsumed under the above

list of headings and statements, let us take a step back: Writing is

historically fixed as the structure that operates in the absence of its

sender, of an origin (see e.g. _The Postcard_). The so-called graphematic

structure shelters the trace of something irreducibly other, something

non-present, something different from that which is begun (at the origin).

To be clear, it is not writing traditionally conceived but *like* writing.

Writing fills in the absence of the graphematic structure via

concept-metaphors, catachreses; similarly, television offers an 'imagology'

as Mark Taylor would have perhaps phrased it; ecriture is a teletechnology.

 

What then is the specificity of television? At 'every moment', Derrida is

cited on the back cover of the book, television:

 

'introduces the elsewhere and the world-wide into the home [le chez-moi]. I

am thus more isolated, more privatized than ever in my home with this

permanent intrusion, desired by me, of the other, of the stranger, of that

which is far away, of the other language. I desire it and at the same time,

I enclose myself with this stranger, I want to isolate myself with him

without him, I want to be at home (with myself) [chez-moi].'

 

Taking the western couch potato as his model, Derrida analyzes the effects

television has on *his* subjectivity. To be precise, television hones the

question of the constitution of subjectivity. Although television

constructs a relation of hospitality towards perfect strangers, i.e. those

you see on the screen, this imaginary companionship unsettles the subject

while, at the same time, precipitating an increased desire for

psychological borders; the subject longs for a clearer definition of

himself. This state of unhinged subjectivity fosters an oscillation that is

not likely to end peacefully but lead to a frenetic search for selfhood.

 

This relationship of 'self' and other extends to the social, to the

mechanisms of the symbolic order. Derrida continues:

 

'This recourse to being-at-home [le recours au chez-soi], the return to my

home [le retour vers le chez-soi], is naturally all the more powerful as

the delocalization, the technological expropriation are powerful and

violent. Right when 'democratization', or that which goes by this name, has

made such 'progress', thanks precisely to those technologies that we just

talked about, when it progressed to the point that classical totalitarian

ideologies collapsed, in particular those represented by the soviet world,

the neo-liberal ideology of the market economy was no longer capable of

measuring up to its own power, right at that moment, the field has opened

up to the form of the return to oneself that is called 'small nationalism',

the nationalism of minorities, regional and provincial nationalism,

religious fundamentalism, that often goes with it and also attempts to

reconstitute nation-states; from here, the movement of regression

accompanies, actually follows as its shadow, almost confounding itself with

it, the acceleration of the technological process which is always also a

process of delocalization.'

 

Here, Derrida links television to the historical developments after the

Cold War. He asserts that the amazing moments of international moves

towards democracy, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the handshake between

Rabin and Arafat, or the end of Apartheid, not only coincide with the

spread of television culture and other modern information technologies like

the internet, but also bear certain causal relations with them: 'The

acceleration of all political and economic processes seems undissociable of

a new temporality of technique, of another rhythmic' (83). The other side

of the coin harbors the ugly effects of the coming-into-one's-own that

cannot be dissociated from 'democratization', namely nationalism, religious

intolerance, the barbarism of the various civil, ethnic, and national

strives that continue to shake the world. Analogical to the processes on

the subjective level, the pressures of collective soul searching can set

off mad attempts at forging and securing identity that annihilate the

other. This state of being-out-of-joint and its ethical repercussions were,

for instance, discussed in what is by now considered one of Derrida's major

works, _Specters of Marx_ (1994), some themes of which are taken up in

_Echographies_ (for example in the 'Spectographies' chapter).

 

Further, Derrida argues, democratization is not only limited or put into

question by belligerent spin-offs of collective identity formations but

compromization lies at the heart of *the* central contemporary western

democratic projects, i.e. multiculturalism, the politics of the various

human rights and emancipation movements. Judging or taking sides in

hegemonic contestations in the field of the social, with its limitations

like distributive justice, have scarcely been Derrida's point of

intervention. Rather, he systematically cautions against political and

semiotic modes of representation founded on identity, an identity that is

spurred by and intricately linked with a television culture where

'representation' is a function of (inherently problematic) identity

politics, and, on television, often reduced to broadcasting even the most

absurd or dangerous opinions.

 

The question then is: How to heed singularity in contemporary television

culture? How does or could television attempt to do that? Television and

singularity are not mutual exclusive. For example, in 'The 'Cultural

Exception': The States of the State, the Event' Derrida explains

Baudrillard's thesis that the Gulf war did not take place. Simulacra of

images, the manipulation of information, the report might have annulled the

event but, Derrida suggests, the attention to the process should not efface

it (89). Moreover, it is in the name of singularity, that of the murder of

singular subjects, that one protests against a technique that can always

'dislodge, export, expatriate' singularity (91).

 

Again, the discontinuities between the ethical call of the other and a

political praxis that cannot do justice to it have been at the center of

the Derridean project. And it is well-known that Derrida favors positions

of transcendental philosophy and shuns normative political prescriptions.

Even more surprising are the moments in this book when Derrida sheds his

reluctance to take a stand, voices his opinion and suggests moves into the

'right' direction -- and necessarily does so in the name of singularity and

the unconditional. In sections like 'The 'Cultural Exception'', Derrida

argues strongly against models of television that he finds impoverishing

(and admits to watching them nonetheless) and comes down in favor of the

French-German television channel ARTE (http://www.lasept-arte.fr), by its

own definition a 'culture channel', a public television station that makes

intellectual and art programs. Although the mercantilist determination of

the market has, of course, not forgotten ARTE and other niches of

resistance -- since they, too, can only define themselves in relation to

these forces -- Derrida supports 'subventions', government subsidies, of

French public television and French cinema, namely against a 'Hollywood'

that, unfortunately, I think, comes across as the homogenous strawman of

cultural (or 'technological') imperialism.

 

In order to not foreclose the possibilities of the future, to 'leave open

the possibility of the future' to begin with (98), spaces have to be

defended that allow for inventions, a related point that Derrida makes, for

example in the section on the market of the archive. As Stiegler continues

to prod him about Heidegger and the question of 'techne', Derrida replies

that 'the present state of television' and its temporality is not conducive

to addressing certain issues in a differentiated and 'pertinent' manner

(125), e.g. _Being and Time_. If he were to talk about it on television, he

'would demand twenty hours of television', and those who'd join him would

have to have read 'a certain number of things' beforehand (125).

 

Thus _Echographies_ is marked by discursive practices that interlace chatty

passages with brief presentations of complex philosophical matters, and

terse transpositions of these matters to television, and that, in both

modes, present new ideas. In _Margins of Philosophy_ (1982), for example,

Derrida already explored the aspect that writing is a form of

telecommunication, and here in _Echographies_ he picks up on previous

thoughts and addresses a number of points of convergence between the media.

For example the written word can reach many people through space and time.

Yet, what is written must not necessarily be received in any intended

manner; and just as one is never sure of what reaches the addressee, the

addressee is not sure of the identity of the sender either. Further,

writing is a form of monumentality which is linked to death, predicated on

a constitutive absence. Television differs from these general

characteristics of reading insofar as delay is at the same time increased

(through storage) and decreased (due to fact that the typical television

'event' is often 'live' or is dependant on psychological immediacy) (103).

Despite its presentist visual economy that is suggestive of the contrary,

television is inscribed in certain aporias of temporality:

 

'The living present divides itself. As of now, it carries death in itself

and it reinscribes in its immediacy that which must survive it in some

form; it divides itself in life into its life and its after-life; without

which there would not be any image, no taping. There would not be any

archive without this dehiscence, without this divisibility of the living

present that carries its specter in itself. Specter, i.e. also *phantasma*,

ghost or possible image of an images' (61).

 

Particularly in the chapter 'Spectographies', Derrida concentrates on the

specific spectrality of television. Whereas previous historical returns

(say of Roman history in the French revolution) implied an experience of

mimicry, the 20th century introduced modes of registration that are forms

of 'presentifications' (144) that were impossible before. The implications

are many. For example, 'real time' doesn't exist, contemporary technique

just presents real time as its effect (145).

 

The political dimension of television is clearly at the heart of this book.

Derrida thinks about the politics of memory, of archives, of access, etc.,

with a great sense of urgency. He warns against the self-sameness of

television culture, the fact that it curtails our abilities to respond and

thus be responsible, television's 'homohegemonie' (57). The many examples,

like the beating of Rodney King, the 'affaire Gregory' where Marguerite

Duras intervened into a murder case in a problematic manner, or legislation

in France concerning the access to archives for researchers bespeak his

political focus directly. At many points in the text, Derrida argues we

must increase our awareness of television and its effects; e.g. schools

have to teach about teletechnologies. Actually, and perhaps surprisingly,

the book contains explicit cries for political activism. Despite the

fantasmatic structures that determine television, Derrida urges us to fight

(militer) for the right 'to respond, select, intercept, intervene' (69).

One has to train 'people', he says, to be vigilant, responsive, eventually

ready to fight (eventuellement au combat), but, he continues, 'without

presupposing nor assigning an identification, a reidentification as a task.

Disidentification, singularity, rupture with identificatory solidity,

de-liaison' are just as necessary as their contrary' (78).

 

Well, how can we think new technical events? How to politicize them?

Politicize them 'differently'? Especially if we define 'the difficulty of

thinking as 'political' difficulty' (93). How to democratize them when we

know that the political itself could be the theme of this critique and this

thought? With technology, with television, these questions continue to

increasingly impose themselves on us. It is technology itself that daily

imposes onto us the task to think democracy (76), the limits of politics,

to develop a thinking of 'the political', a dimension of politics that is

concerned with doing justice -- and justice is caught in the paradox of

being impossible yet imperative and inevitable.

 

Bernard Stiegler is an excellent interlocutor, but reflections on the

medium in the medium (in the form of an interview) have its inherent

limits. Thinking takes its time. And there are certain advantages to

written expositions, some of which, for instance, my cursory and reductive

remarks, given the form of reviewing, can't enjoy either. One misses the

type of analysis usually appreciated about Derrida. Let's thus switch back

to Jacques Lacan, who prefaced the transcription of his interview on

television with the words: 'he who questions me also knows how to read me'.

[4] I wish Derrida many more readers (more precisely, more Derrida for

readers), readers that _Echographies de la television_ is sure to have when

an English translation appears in 2001. [5]

 

University of Hamburg, Germany

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. James Monaco, _Film verstehen_ (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1999), p. 536; my

translation. German edition of _Understanding Film_.

 

2. Jacques Lacan, _Television_ (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1974), p. 5; my

translation.

 

3. As with all quotations from the book, translation is mine.

 

4. From the Preface to _Television_.

 

5. Jacques Derrida, _Television Echographies_ (Polity Press, forthcoming

April 2001).

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Nina Zimnik, 'Thinking Television', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 28,

December 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n28zimnik>.

 

  

 

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