Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991
Edited by Alec McHoul

My nerves/my Derrida: on Brunette & Wills' Screen/Play

Niall Lucy

"Let's be serious." - J. D.

Peter Brunette and David Wills, Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Henceforth, page references are shown in parentheses in the text.

There will be many objections to Peter Brunette and David Wills's reckoning in Screen/Play for a Derrideanisation, as it were, of film studies. Not the least of these will no doubt follow the line of a demarcation dispute. Derrideans take note: hands off the philosophy of film. Textualists Keep Out.

But on what grounds might an interest in Derridean studies preclude that interest being practised within, upon, or toward film studies? Eliding (for now) the tediously frequent charge that Derrida is apolitical, we could answer this question by deferring to the putative social nature of the film text. Which would be to infer that a Derridean understanding of the 'text' takes too little (if any) account of how texts operate as social objects of production, circulation, and exchange. Putting this another way might be to argue that there is an 'outside' to the play of signification - and its name is history. Says who? Marx, for one, although there's scarcely any need to validate as such what is otherwise so easy to authenticate at the level of common sense.

And what could be more political - and critical - than a critique of common sense? I don't wish to presume to offer up for the sloganeers a 'definition' of anything so reductive as The Derridean Project. But were my life at stake I'd have to say that Derrida is on about, passionately on about, the enabling role of common sense in/to the effectivity of violence. (I hope that doesn't sound easy.) So who's political now? As the writers of Screen/Play remark: "The example of recent texts by Derrida makes increasingly explicit what was always part of his critique, namely the ways in which authority and power constitute themselves through logocentric, oppositional hierarchies.... As long as politics has anything to do with structures of power and the workings of economies, Derrida's work has been addressing political questions" (p.23).

In a certain sense, then, it's necessary to rethink the political in order to take account of the force of Derrida's critique, since it isn't his alleged 'apoliticism' which rankles the righteous (according to Wills and Brunette) so much as "a type of political thought that does not easily fit in with any of the reigning orthodoxies" (p.23). Among these, at least in respect of film studies, might be counted a Marxist analysis of cultural production mediated through a Lacanian critique of the subject as practised in the 1970s by those writing for the British cinema journal, Screen. Insofar as film 'appreciation' and the grounding assumptions of its discourse were opened up by this group of writers to a kind of self-reflexive scrutiny, however, one might wonder what it means to claim Derrida's work as being radical in terms of how it differs from other interventionist struggles against the 'natural'. In terms, that is to say, of what I've called its politics and passion.

For these are not the terms in which his work is most often understood, especially not the latter. Indeed, I know of only one attempt to think the passion of his work - to read his tortured prose and twisted indecision for the anguish they express. I refer to a chapter in Eve Tavor Bannet's Structuralism and the Logic of Dissent, [See note 1] though in the end I have only a troubled sympathy for its reading of Derrida (writing Derrida) as another Jew in search of God. But I digress.

To return to what constitutes the radical nature of Derridean thinking. In a word, what Derrida critiques touches at the very heart of our philosophical inheritance - a history of the metaphysical tradition from Plato to beyond Saussure. That word is binarism. As the basis of dialectical thought, binarism is what enables us to think the strict separation of an inside from an outside. Because there is difference, in other words, so we are able to divide this from that. But also because of this enabling principle divisions soon turn into hierarchies. The principle of difference grounds the history of Western thinking (rational thought) in a system of oppositions whose effects continue to classify and regulate the world into determinate existence. Derrida asks us to rethink the grounds of that history and thus the operations of its effects.

Apropos of film studies these effects have been, in the precritical phase of film appreciation, unconsciously reproduced as the natural outcome of a humanist discourse on aesthetics. Thanks largely to structuralist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic reconceptualisations of the text, the social, and the self, however, the coyness of that discourse's blindness to the force of its own affirmation - its seeming critical innocence - has been revealed for the fundamental interestedness of its ostentatious 'na‹vete'. But not so the agents of revelation - Marxism, structuralism, and (in more problematic ways) feminism too. There is no privileged space outside the play of signifying structures and institutions, in short, from which any discourse - however radical its intent or laudable its politics - is immune from the slippery effects of writing. Or, as Brunette and Wills put it: "political texts as well are written in language and not in some unmediated metalanguage far above the fray" (p.22).

Tell it to the zealots. Which isn't a cheap shot (at least not only that), because it is only by the force of one's own conviction that anybody is driven to oppose an other's line of thought. So much for truth, then? Listen:

'I like chocolate chip icecream', he said.

'I don't like chocolate chip icecream', she said.

'I do', he said.

'I don't', she said.

'I do'.

'I don't'.

Should one reply to this that a squabble over taste is not a fair example to have chosen if what I want to argue is the impossibility, or at any rate the problem, of communication? After all, intellectual agendas are not necessarily exclusive of one another in a way that (more) embodied pleasures often are. Thus I won't usually like both breakdancing and squaredancing, although I might well take up issues raised by Freud, de Beauvoir, and Levi-Strauss and accomodate them to my felt sense of a 'unified' political (Marxist, feminist, structuralist - whatever) position, even if I don't give my politics a name.

Or should we acknowledge that any position (I do/don't like chocolate chip icecream; I do/don't agree with feminism; etc.) is always arrived at within a frame of available possibilities determined by the limits of binarism? In which case, according to my Derrida, no position can be ever more than personal. Because there is no position which isn't oppositional, moreover, so there are no right but only righteous politics. Ditto: a politics of the left.

How, then, to think outside binarism? Of course, you can't; but this is not the place to carry out a summary of the moves a Derridean might make in arriving at the impossibility of getting anywhere at all. Not that reading Derrida must result in performances of wilful nihilism at the least excuse. On the contrary, deconstruction (a term that Brunette and Wills are careful not simply to substitute for "Derrida" and which they deploy only nervously on behalf of his proper name) isn't the licence to free-associate or to quibble for the mere sake of quibbling that its detractors would suppose. What's at issue instead, "interminably and interminably paradoxically", Brunette and Wills maintain, "is the question of reading" (p.5). Thus no reading is ever finished or complete but always already calls for another reading in response, however 'irresponsible' a reading claims to be. For film studies, such an endless deferral of responsibility poses a serious problem. It threatens the desired goal (virtual in practice, achievable in aspiration) of an exhaustive understanding of any film text and a comprehensive knowledge of film history. And to speak of reading as a question, forever paradoxical and forever in play, is at the same time to rethink what binarism means and how it works its discriminatory effects.

Always, because the act of division is simultaneously one of suppression and elision, these effects are violent. There is nothing natural, in other words, and certainly nothing innocent about such taken for granted critical categories as genre, author, text, and history. Hence, to displace one film history for another, say, however radical a political gesture this might be in theory, is still to repeat a fundamentally conservative desire to produce coherent systems of self-identical meaning. In the process of any film periodisation, any history of film(making), then, important decisions of selection or rejection must be based on differences between rather than within eras, genres, movements, ouevres, styles, and so forth. "Endless pages have been devoted, especially in Italy", Wills and Brunette remark, "to various ill-fated attempts to decide once and for all when neorealism really began" (pp.36-37), for example, while other film historians have spent their critical energies on other such essentialising gestures as the establishment of German expressionism, mainstream narrative cinema, the Hollywood film, etc.

Whether or not they admit defeat, these attempts to totalise film history are beset by a common problem: namely, that the history they want to reveal simply isn't available to empirical methods of re(/dis)covery. Given that a catalogue of extant films represents only a fraction of all the titles ever released, how can a film history be more than partial? Nor can we suppose that the surviving films of previous decades are a random and therefore typical sample of earlier cinema(s), for they've survived (in many cases) precisely because someone considered them to be atypical - sufficiently well-made or extraordinary - to be worthy of being archived in the first place. Thus, by and large, it's 'quality' films which have been preserved for the future, so that we might wonder not so much who but what constitutes the ascription of merit these surviving objects bear. As for the ones that didn't make it to the present, Brunette and Wills ask:

Are these missing films also a part of film history? Furthermore, of the thousands of films that remain, only a small percentage are chosen for discussion or even mention. But on what basis? That of quality, however it might be measured? As any festival goer knows, each year hundreds of excellent films are produced around the world that, for one reason or another (usually economic), will not be purchased for international distribution, thus effectively eliminating them from film history (p.40).

Of course, it doesn't require Derrida in order to posit a difference between history and writing history/history writing. But what Derrida might enable is an understanding of the structural citationality of any sign or mark, whether spoken or written, which would thus turn the problem of knowing history into the problem of knowing. It's here (more or less at the beginning, that is to say) that most readers lose faith with Derrida - for neither the idealist nor the realist philosopher is willing to let go of her desire to know, let alone the power to do so. As much as the grounds of that power's possibility and its violent operations, then, it is the origin of a longing for truth that deconstruction opens up to undecidable effects of play. The origin of that desire (which, of course, has no beginning) Derrida calls logocentrism.

While thus not endowing speech (logos: the voiced word) with origin-ality, Derrida nonetheless locates the grounding assumption of Western philosophy in the loaded opposition between speech and its repressed other - writing. Accordingly, as Wills and Brunette put it, the whole history of Western thought can be read as an elaborate system of "strategies for eliding this breach" (p.8) (between here and there, this and that, truth and falsehood, nature and culture, philosophy and literature...), a breach that is made to appear whole by what Derrida calls "the logic of the supplement". Any 'pure origin' (speech, for example) should be complete in and of itself, without recourse to an outside (itself). But if the 'purity' and 'wholeness' of the inside can be shown to be dependent on the 'otherness' of what is outside the inside, then mustn't what is supposed to lie beyond be always already within? Were the privileged term of any binary pair not already incomplete, that is to say, already lacking self-presence, no such term would need a supplement to become 'itself' - pure, whole, and origin-al. Pure self-presence (genius, mastery, authority, truth, the thingness of a thing...) is therefore thinkable only by an act of erasure, through the violent repression of the other's legibility. Only by occluding its dependence on distancing and spacing (i.e. writing effects) is speech thus able to be privileged over writing, Derrida argues, throughout Western metaphysics.

Somehow the relation between a speaker's words and thoughts is supposed to be immune from the corruptive effects of misinterpretation that plague the written word, which is most often read in the absence of its author and always at a distance - frequently, at a distance of centuries and across hemispheres. But differencing, distancing, and breaching are conditional of any linguistic act: no more or less than writing, speech is made possible by them. Alternatively, writing inhabits and contaminates speech. For Derrida, as Brunette and Wills remark, "[w]riting thus comes to stand for otherness in general" (p.9).

What, then, might it mean to arrive at this position? (I repeat: in order to get where we are, more moves than I've made here would need to be set in motion. But rest assured: Wills and Brunette make [the] most of them.) One consequence for film studies might involve a shift, as Screen/Play argues, "from analogy to anagram" in thinking through the relation of an image to a referent. Traditionally, this relation has been seen (and not just by film theory) to be one of resemblance: "repetition with a difference", that is to say, "from which all rhetoric, perhaps all discourse, departs" (p.68). Analogy, the enabling figure of resemblance, thus gives way in film studies to a theory of mimesis as an account of the sameness that binds the cinematic image to the referential world. If the film sign only repeats the real, however, then "it can have no value in itself" (p.69). On the other hand, Brunette and Wills maintain, "if it is not a simple repetition, it is not a faithful copy" (p.69). Either the film sign re-presents the real, in which case it's "a type of pure excess", or else "it is precisely difference and not similarity that should be insisted upon as constituting its ontology" (p.69). If the latter, of course, then film must be understood as writing in order to be understood at all.

As writing, the film text shares in the aporetic effects and vagaries of the written word. More precisely, it is subject to the structural adestination of the letter. That is to say, the letter which need not have to arrive (which is lost in the post, for instance, or is sent to the wrong address) is indistinguishable from the letter which cannot arrive. Regardless of whether a letter reaches its destination, then, Derrida argues that the letter is marked by the structural necessity of its non-arrival. Letters, for this reason, are always 'adestined'. But not only letters: any means of communication is subject to this postal principle, even the most technological.

Derrida's paradigm of 'the postal' is the postcard. Addressed, signed, and destined: the postcard is in each respect exemplary of the logocentric book. That which is written is signed (by an author), addressed (to the reader), and destined to arrive (at a meaning). The postcard would thus appear to differ from the book only to the extent that it might fail to arrive at a(ny) destination and because its meaning may or must be irreducibly specific to its express correspondents, the one who signs (sends) and the one who receives. Indeed, it is these very factors or the factor-dependence of the postcard, as it were, which might be said to have prevented it from having been 'received' by the facteurs of knowledge or truth in the process of sorting out the 'marginal' and 'incidental' from what is considered to be 'central' to philosophic and epistemological frames of reference.

But the paradox of the postcard, as previously argued, is not specific to the materiality of that medium of transfer. Telecommunications and satellite messages, too, are predicated upon what Wills and Brunette call "a notion of destination, a teleological concept of sending; they assume there to be a closed circuit between sender and addressee" (p.181). For film studies, this logic might entail at least two possible recognitions:

First, to the extent that cinema falls, like literature, within the postal epoch, meaning that it provides a support for a material message - words and images - to be transmitted to an audience, film is as susceptible as literature to being deconstructed and rewritten as postcard.... Second ... other ways of analysing film might emerge if cinema were to be compared not only with other art forms or other media but also with the operations of the information sciences and telecommunications in general. Yet a problem remains: practically all of film criticism and theory, from auterism through textual analysis to spectator studies, like the information sciences and telecommunications, repeats even as it analyzes it a model of communication that assumes systems of address based on identity (p.185).

In their own readings of two films, Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Brunette and Wills thus write to different orders of logic. These readings, presented on facing pages, "are of course 'signed' throughout" (p.139), although no names are revealed to 'prove' the proper identity of each author. Complicit with this strategy of non-self-identity, each reading fails or refuses to arrive at a meaning for the text with which it engages that could be claimed as independent of or prior to the process of its emergence through that individual act of reading. So, for example, in his efforts to rewrite the David Lynch film according to the terms of the chapter title, 'Black and Blue', which frames or occasions his approach, David Wills (?) must inevitably write himself into what he reads. "How to resolutely separate this analysis", he asks, "and hence the film, from the text of the subject performing it - the subject(s) producing it and the subject(s) reading it?" (p.145). At which moment, following a complex dissertation on the scene of the severed ear being discovered at the film's beginning, he introduces this further complication:

for as long as I can remember the word 'velvet' evoked, for me, both a texture and a colour, presumably by catachrestic confusion with 'violet'. Thus one ear of mine is determined to read the title Blue Velvet as a contradiction in terms, one colour corrected by another rather than a colour qualifying a fabric; 'blue velvet', as that ear hears it, homologous to 'blue black', inevitably running into the idiom 'black and blue', wherein the question of colour may be seen to either preserve its undecidability or resolutely separate its terms through recourse to violence (p.145).

Later, worrying at the problem of other possible ways of reading the film and perhaps anticipating the likely objection to be raised against his idiosyncratic (mis)understanding of what the word 'velvet' means, he writes:

where would one locate the edges of a reading that took account of references to sexuality and voyeurism, among others, and related them to concerns of contemporary film theory, a reading inspired by psychoanalysis? Firstly, would that be an application of a body of knowledge from 'outside' the film and thus any more relevant than an analysis that played with the words of the title or with a memory playing through this reader's ear? That is, after all, the question that haunts any reading that answers to an idea of relevance underscored by an always assumed and possible reduction to a central truth (pp.151 and 153).

The importance of Screen/Play lies in just this nervous disposition toward notions of ownership, centrality, and (the) truth - logocentric policing mechanisms, as it were, which inhibit (even prohibit) any or all consideration of the give and play of meaning that in turn situates even a system of telecommunications within the postal epoch. Precisely the mechanisms, Screen/Play suggests, which have prevented cinema from delivering itself over from all attachment to the real:

Discussion since the earliest days of cinema - and we could cite the Surrealists or the 1920s avant-garde in general - has raised this question, arguing that since film could so effectively unlock worlds of fantasy, there was no need for it to restrict itself to a depiction of reality within which any concessions to fantasy were just that, always seen against the ground of reality (p.190).

Instead, far from reaching its promise of innovation, cinema stands accused by Screen/Play of having been "content to reinforce the position of the powerful yet passive viewer installed since the Renaissance" (p.190). Hence (to take but one example of the conservative institutional and conceptual constraints operating through the film world), the present debate over colourisation: on the one hand, the film directors claiming property rights over their original works of art versus the corporate philistines, on the other, mercilessly bent on profiting from the scandalous corruptions of those original works' true natures and purity. The argument might as well be about reformatting poetry to make it easier to read.

In order not to be consigned to the logocentric options of becoming either 'pure' popular entertainment or the modern world's new 'high' art, cinema thus needs to take account of the postal. The film text needs to be reconceptualised not as poem, but as postcard. In their 'Black and Blue' chapter, Wills and Brunette provide a model of how this might be done - a 'model' which, paradoxically, cannot easily be instiutionally assimilated and taught but must be. (How to write like Thomas Pynchon, for example? But that's another story.) Only then can an end for cinema (the end of cinema?) be put in question.

Is this the end?

I hesitate to say.


1. Eve Tavor Bannet, Structuralism and the Logic of Dissent: Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan (London: MacMillan, 1989). The chapter in question is entitled 'Derrida and the Wholly Other', pp.184-227.

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