Ask Better Questions

Posted: April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

I spent the weekend watching movies. I watched The Muppets (the new one), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Princess Bride, and Derrida (a documentary about the French deconstructionist). Let’s just say that I have eclectic tastes and the weather was dreary. Derrida suited my mood. Documentaries appear unbound, going seemingly in any direction. Derrida leaves the viewer with more questions and fewer answers, a reasonable result considering the subject.

The director’s agenda must be to unsettle the viewer, or Jacques Derrida himself does, and she follows his lead. Crucial interchanges persist in their uncertainty. The philosopher and his wife are seated on a high-backed loveseat. The director asks how and when they met. Derrida divulges the answers, but warns that he will only provide the facts, nothing more. “Why only the facts?” the director wants to know. He resists, and he and his wife stay silent for a moment. The exchange is uncomfortable; it exposes the artificiality of the conversation. He watches it later with some satisfaction. Derrida is particularly pleased that he and his wife both remained quiet, relating nothing more than the where and the when of their lives together. The director shows the clip of him watching the clip.

Still curious, the director poses a less personal, but still intimate, question to Derrida. She inquires, “Can you speak about love?” He demurs. This is not a good question, or a question at all. He cannot answer something so vague. Why does she ask such an ill-formed question?  From that moment on, I distrust her. She returns to the clip of him watching the clip of himself and his wife. This time it is removed a third time. He is watching himself, watching himself, watching himself. In her attempts to capture Derrida’s point of view, she offers the audience little insight.

Later in the film, a question is posed to Derrida from a man off-camera. The audience knows he must be part of the production team, but nothing else. His question is infinitely more interesting, both to Derrida and to me. Derrida finds the question so intriguing, he contemplates it for a full three minutes, saying every once in a while that it is “a good question”.  The man asks, “What philosopher would you wish to have been your mother?” Once the complexity of answers is understood, only keen questions can compel an answer. Derrida takes the opportunity to attack the patriarchal and phallocentric nature of philosophy while (inadvertently?) accomplishing some rather clever self-aggrandizement. He concludes that only a woman coming after him could be his mother, so his granddaughter could be the philosopher-mother he might choose. Instantly, the mind of a philosopher is revealed, and the world spirals out of control once more.

  1. MSJ says:

    Tricia, I just used one of the movies you watched last weekend to display “Theory of Mind” in my Darwinism class….and, it wasn’t ‘Derrida’. It was ‘The Princess Bride’.

  2. Jonathan Derr says:

    I saw Derrida speak at Loyola’s Heidegger Centenary conference in 1989 (Yes, I am that old and that nerdy) when I was in grad school. It was a real “Emperor’s new clothes” experience. Derrida was actually very funny and charming, but his lecture was something else. Although I was somewhat familiar with the text by Heidegger that he was talking about, within five or six minutes I was completely lost. The entire time that Derrida was speaking everyone around me nodded as if they knew what he was talking about; however, as soon as we left the lecture hall everyone began asking everyone else “Did you understand what he was saying? I couldn’t understand a thing.” I went back later and read his lecture and in small doses it is pretty good, but a two hour chunk was a lot to take in.

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