Cinema Derrida

The Law of Inspection in the Age of Global Spectral Media

by Tyson Stewart (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 160 Pages


Cinema Derrida charts Jacques Derrida's collaborations and appearances in film, video, and television beginning with 1983's Ghost Dance (dir. Ken McMullen, West Germany/UK) and ending with 2002's biographical documentary Derrida (dir. Dick and Ziering, USA). In the last half of his working life, Derrida embraced popular art forms and media in more ways than one: not only did he start making more media appearances after years of refusing to have his photo taken in the 1960s and 1970s, but his philosophy also started to draw more explicitly from visual culture and artistic endeavours. While this book offers explanations of this transition, it contends the image of "Jacques Derrida" that emerges from film and TV appearances remains spectral, constantly deferring a complete grasp of him.
Tyson Stewart draws out the main tenets of spectrality from Derrida's seminal texts Of Grammatology and Specters of Marx and other writings, like Echographies of Television, in order to fill a gap in studies of Derrida and film. Throughout the book, he explains how various techniques and spectral effects such as slow motion, stillness, repetition, mise-en-abîme, direct address, and focus on body parts/bodily presence bring about a structure of spectrality wherein the past other returns to make impressions and ethical demands on the viewer. Drawing on communication theory and film and media studies, Cinema Derrida makes a major intervention in classical communication thought.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Blinding Promises of Spectrality: Derrida’s Communication Theory
  • Chapter Two: 1st Séance: Photography’s Suspense Effect
  • Chapter Three: 2nd Séance: The Dead Sound Off: Mourning Others in Ghost Dance
  • Chapter Four: 3rd Séance: Before the Law of Spectrality: Derrida on the Prague Imprisonment
  • Chapter Five: 4th Séance: Cinécircumcision: Phantom Parts in the Archive
  • Conclusion: Spectral Glut
  • Index



I am grateful to the following friends who made my time working on this book both a rich and memorable experience: Martin Boucher, Stephen Broomer, Carol Chartrand, Corinne Hart, David Lacoursière, Sharla and Stan Peltier, Damien and Sorina Van Vroenhoven. Thank you to Murray McArthur, Ginette Michaud, Laurence Simmons, and Howard Wiseman for their generous and thought-provoking feedback. Michael Naas and Kas Saghafi graciously answered my questions about Derrida’s thinking on the image. Miigwech for your enthusiasm about this project when it was in its early stages.

Alain Beaulieu fostered many of my ideas and arguments that can be found in this book. With his guidance, I was able to see the bigger picture of Derrida and deconstruction in the history of philosophy. Alain always helped me formulate better questions and encouraged me to make longer-lasting connections between ideas. Merci, Alain, for making the time. Thanks are equally due to Brett Buchanan for his expertise and attention to detail. Brett’s support allowed me to reach beyond the strict confines of disciplinary thought. I also wish to wholeheartedly thank Hoi Cheu for the long, frank discussions we’ve had on filmmaking, (anti-)philosophy, university politics, and life in general. As a virtuoso teacher, Hoi has inspired many students to reach their potential. His commitment to film and literary studies education will no doubt give me hope in times to come.

An alternate version of chapter five entitled “Before the Law of Spectrality: Derrida on the Prague Imprisonment” was published in Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication in 2018. I would like to thank the editors of that journal, especially Johan Siebers and Carlos Roos, for their careful readings. This book would not have been possible without the support I received at the Derrida Today conferences in 2016 and 2018. Thank you to the conference organizers, especially Nicole Anderson.

Four libraries or archives were key to the development and finalization of this project. They are the J.N. Desmarais Library at Laurentian University, the Toronto Reference Library, York University’s Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, and l’Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine in Basse-Normandie, France. I would like to thank the highly skilled staff at l’IMEC in particular who kept finding documents directly pertaining to my project throughout my stay there in 2015.

I would like to thank my editor at Peter Lang, Erika Hendrix, whose clear and timely feedback made the process of publishing this work remarkably pleasant.

I am most grateful to my family for their unceasing love and support. Miigwech to my mom, Debbie, for taking me to France when I was young and always supporting my passions. My grandmother Audrey helped with the French translations—I am forever in her debt. Thanks to my grandfather Gerry and my aunt Kelly for giving me direction. To my other grandparents, Marjorie and Eddie, miigwech for your hospitality and love when I needed it.

Megan, my partner and best friend, has brought so much joy to my life. She has inspired and invigorated me in every way possible. Tu es mon coeur.

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Spectrality plays a decisive role in Derridean aesthetics, as a small but growing literature situated primarily in philosophy and film studies attests. Postmodernist critics and scholars (i.e. Fisher, Lippit, Saghafi) have found relevant concepts in Derrida’s work, especially for addressing the problem of presentism and teleological thinking. “Spectrality is at work everywhere, and more than ever, in an original way, in the reproducible virtuality of photography or cinema,” (Paper Machine 158) Derrida notes in a long interview that touches on his role in D’ailleurs, Derrida (dir. Fathy, France, 1999). Simon Morgan Wortham notes, “[T]he spectre in Derrida is to be thought in terms of deconstruction’s thinking of non-present remainder at work in every text, entity, being or ‘presence’” (197). An initial, quick definition of spectrality might describe it as a kind of inheritance that regards you, but that cannot be seen, as in Specters of Marx. In photography studies, the spectre is the “having-been-there” of the photographic trace, and the internalization of the other (and the other’s death), as in Kas Saghafi’s Apparitions—Of Derrida’s Other. The literature on spectral cinema utilizes deconstructive modes of analysis. However, there is a lack of agreement in this body of work about the “consequences” of spectrality, what constitutes spectral strategies within cinema, the spectral effects of traditional film form, or indeed the role film plays in connecting spectrality to mourning.

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With postmodernism there is a break from the past and all we are left with ostensibly is history without the foundations that would make it a teleological process. Deconstruction’s critique of the transcendental signifier helped pave the way for much of this shift in thinking. Hauntology comes into high relief with post-modernism and post-structuralist philosophical movements to articulate the haunting of the trace. Post-structuralism is the last great philosophical attempt to explain this sense of flickering between presence and absence, and how spectrality stages an encounter with the other and with the law of another time. I draw out the main tenets of spectrality from Derrida’s seminal texts Of Grammatology and Specters of Marx and other writings, like Echographies of Television, in order to fill a gap in studies of Derrida and film. Throughout the book, I explain how various techniques and spectral effects such as slow motion, stillness, repetition, framing and cutting, and focus on body parts/bodily presence bring about a structure of spectrality wherein the past other returns to make impressions and ethical demands on the viewer. For this project, I draw on communication, media, and film theorists, including Jaimie Baron, Barthes, Edgar Morin, Mulvey, Michael Naas, and John Durham Peters.

Traditionally, objectivity has been associated with what is observable, present, and in the light, whereas the subject is dark and invisible. When being and non-being are blurred, all social, cultural, artistic activity and all human sciences must adapt to new ways of assessing truth. Hauntology is the return of this half-presence, when the presence seems to emerge out of the absence of meaning in the supplement. When hauntology becomes the norm/noun replacing centuries of logocentric thought, a new era without solid footing begins. While hauntology designates all that blurs the distinction between being and non-being through its temporal disjunctions, spectrality is the micro phenomenon of the encounter with the revenant. If spectrality is the coming back—revenant—spontaneous return of something past, hauntology is the bigger umbrella under which spectres are constantly created and disseminating. If the forces of spectrality are strongest in cinema, as Derrida claimed, then cinema takes a privileged position in our era of hauntology.

For Jacques Derrida, mourning wasn’t something you did every once in a while, like when your parents die. All experience, all memorization, all encounters with the other pass through the work of mourning. He writes memorably about the death of friends, like Roland Barthes, Louis Marin, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Sarah Kofman. His eulogies were assembled and published together as The Work of Mourning in 2001. Derrida argued the work of mourning should be a political act, to keep the other alive, to not disrespect them by going on without them either by replacing their words, denying them the chance to speak or by only using their words and therefore not properly marking their deaths and honouring ←2 | 3→them. By not fully assimilating the dead, the work of mourning delays and defers full comprehension of the dead other, thus offering justice to the dead. In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler compels us to identify with grief, as mourning is an essential part of humanizing the other. Western culture has a tendency to cover the deaths of Western casualties of war, marking their deaths in obituaries and special news reports. “By insisting on a common corporeal vulnerability,” she adds, “I may seem to be positing a new basis for humanism” (42). For her, death is at once necessary and intolerable. Butler urges us to imagine alternative ways of bearing witness and marking the lives of others.

After 1989 and the fall of European communist states, Derrida writes Specters of Marx which describes the way Marxism will haunt world politics through, among different things teletechnology, and is thus an example of the work of political mourning in action. In this book, Derrida elaborates the idea of untimeliness, the disjunction with the present that signals events that history is not finished with or those that have not happened yet and remain to come. Untimeliness as a philosophical concept has its roots in différance and the divided present. In his collaboration with filmmakers throughout the years, he found new people and things to mourn, almost as though no single person or thing was worthier of mourning than any other. In each instance, philosophy and psychoanalysis work together to open a scene where the past can be reinterpreted so that the future itself can be made possible.

In mourning, the other watches us in us. Mourning suggests we incorporate narcissistically the image of who or what we love. At the very moment of narcissism we let the other in to watch over us. Narcissism is generally understood as a negative term, but, as Pleshette DeArmitt shows in The Right to Narcissism, there is no mourning without it. It is worth noting that Derrida offers a definition of mourning that runs counter to classical psychoanalysis. Freud guarantees successful mourning that implies appropriation of the lost object or person, whereas Lacan doesn’t see the importance of mourning, insisting on lack and the inaccessibility of the past (Ricciardi 23, 45). Derrida is neither modern or fully postmodern, argues Alessia Ricciardi, especially in terms of his explanation of mourning:

[Derrida’s] primary objective is to bring to light, both within the terms of psychoanalytic inquiry and of the general culture at large, the concept of midmourning as a means of continually renegotiating or rephrasing the question of loss, and hence as a means of combatting its reification as absence … Derrida’s thought ought to be understood as a synthesis of nostalgia and sublime. (34)

Mid-mourning offers “[A] domain of remembrance in which the subject is perpetually reexposed to history rather than removed from it,” (34) explains Ricciardi.

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The importance of mourning and keeping within the scene of mourning helps Derrida resolve—in Specters of Marx and elsewhere—a number of urgent political and ethical demands made clear by modern society’s reluctance to learn from the past perhaps best exemplified in the speedy rhythms of communication and consumerism that flat-out deny history. If spectrality is the structure of an oscillation between the past and present, absence and presence, death and life, the virtual and the actual, with a focus on the future, then its form perfectly parallels mid-mourning.

Film and photography provide the structure of spectrality, a suspense opened by the missing referent. Film is of the visible, of the other that comes before, and thus of inheritance and mourning. In a sense, film and photography allows a deconstruction of the present to perpetually transform our subjectivities and by offering us half-present body parts, film also creates new kinds of archive fever. But unlike the mourning of a friend or even someone we might know tangentially, with telecommunication technology we are propelled to mourn the other, someone we really don’t know and have never been close to. That’s why spectrality has to do with the Levinasian other. There is an element of shock and violence that occurs with spectrality that necessarily has to be there. Yet, we interiorize the other but without totally appropriating the other. The other must retain its infinite otherness because we simply can’t claim to have totally understood him. Without this successful failure, there would simply be no democracy to come.


X, 160
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 160 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Tyson Stewart (Author)

Tyson Stewart (Ph.D., Laurentian University), Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies at Nipissing University, is an Anishinaabe film and media scholar and writer. His writing can be found in Senses of Cinema, Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, and in the edited collection The Legacies of Jean-Luc Godard.


Title: Cinema Derrida
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