Audio-visualising Derrida

by Steven Maras

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Let us begin with what could be considered an unreasonable question: namely, when will we have forms of public presentation, formats, or modes of broadcasting, adequate to conceptually challenging intellectual events?

This question is perhaps as old as philosophy itself: the Platonic dialogue can be looked at as a kind of format, or mode of presentation. Nevertheless, it is a question that has special relevance following Jacques Derrida’s appearance at the Sydney Town Hall on the 12th August, presented by the Power Institute, Centre for Art and Visual Culture, speaking on the topic of vision, visuality and virtuality.

This occasion was structured as both a public discussion and, by virtue of a webcast and large screen for video projection, an audio-visual event. This double status, I want to suggest, combined with the character of Derrida’s work, draws us into a theorisation of the nature of such ‘events’.

A key term in my question is, of course, ‘adequate’, by which I mean a treatment affirming of the intellectual position at issue, rather than operating according to a counter-logic that has already been problematised in the theory or discourse in question.

Few intellectual events could be more challenging than the Derrida event in this respect, since Derrida’s work explicitly presents itself as a kind of counter-logic to logocentrism, or the metaphysics of presence, for example.

Furthermore, in a point that will be taken up below, Derrida’s philosophy can be said to highlight the performative dimension of thought, drawing attention to the devices and conceptual props required to sustain the ‘theatre’ of philosophy.

I consider my question to be unreasonable in (at least) two ways. Firstly, while The Power Institute should be applauded for re-working the genre of the public academic lecture in relation to audio-visual media, the question invokes the possibility of a practice-to-come that goes beyond the genre. The question, then, is dependent on the interesting and experimental space opened up by the occasion at the Sydney Town Hall, but nevertheless wants to go beyond it.

Secondly, the question is unreasonable because of the extent to which it desires a consistency of performance, or performative values, across the very diverse set of techniques and considerations that characterise a large-scale public event like Derrida at Town Hall. Read from a different viewpoint, a Derridean viewpoint even, a lack of consistency is not a problem, and possibly even desirable. ‘Contamination’ is after all a Derridean key term. So the question is unreasonable to the extent that it imposes a particular sense of the performative on the event, one that may even be considered ‘un-Derridean’.

Nevertheless, the question at issue here resonates in a number ways following Derrida’s performance. Of course, it raises a more general issue to do with the interface between philosophical thinking and public debate, insofar as philosophical questions often, when popularised, become different kinds of questions. The Town Hall event adds another dimension to this problem because the spectacle of the video projection and the ‘webcast’ formed an integral component of the evening.

Derrida himself approached the Town Hall event with some awareness of these issues. He spoke from the outset of the difficulty of such an ‘improvised’ event, and also of his inevitable ‘failure’ to be able to respond in sufficient detail. He highlighted the problem that he could not know what ‘the audience’ (both seated, and on the Internet) knew of his work.

Perhaps more than for any other contemporary philosopher, Derrida’s work has been mal-treated either through a reductive emphasis on the term ‘deconstruction’, or simply through not being sufficiently read. Thus Derrida’s concern about his audience, both real and virtual, is a sensitive and complex issue — and was no doubt a consideration in the way the lecture mode was distanced during his visit to Sydney, in favour of the ‘discussion’ and the ‘seminar’.

The conceptual architecture of Derrida’s work makes the question of an adequate format for challenging ideas an important one. This is not simply because his work is easy to abuse, but rather because his approach to issues of ‘writing’ and ‘technique’ problematises the relationship between the presentation of an idea, and ‘the idea’.

Two reasons why Derrida’s work calls for an ‘adequate’ form of treatment can be gleaned from the subject matter of the evening. The first reason is that, as already mentioned, his philosophy highlights the performative dimension of thought, and its reliance on images, figures, conceptual objects, and particular tropes. For example, starting from the notion that he was touched by his reception in Sydney, Derrida deployed touch as a way to theorise art, and also the forum in which he was appearing in actuality, and in virtuality.

The second reason is that Derrida’s work situates techneat the heart of artistic and conceptual practice.1 Art for Derrida inevitably involves the use of prosthetics, tools, techniques, and other supplements.2 In his lecture Derrida attempted to problematise the idea of a self-evident visual or visible on precisely these grounds. Derrida’s approach to aesthetics highlights questions of the framing of works, and the work, of art. As such, the issue of techneis also an issue of the framing of performance.

What is noteworthy in the context of the Town Hall event is that ‘Derrida’ became, in this situation, a kind of prosthetic for his own work. In this event, Derrida’s body becomes the locus of a range of discursive and technological frameworks in a way that is not always visiblein his other texts.

Taken together, both the performative nature of Derrida’s conceptual practice, and its degree of awareness in respect to issues of techne, challenge conventional assumptions about the presentation or broadcasting of such events. The Town Hall event is difficult to describe using terms like ‘appearance’, or ‘coverage’, precisely because the event is inseparable from a process of audio-visualisation. As a result, the point at which the ‘lecture’, ‘discussion’ or ‘forum’ stops and the broadcast begins is extremely undecidable in this instance. This undecidability can, furthermore, be approached in different ways.

For instance, while Derrida spoke of ‘improvisation’, it was clear that the choreography of the event — as a public exchange between Derrida and an interlocutor, embodied by Professor Terry Smith of the Power Institute— left room for pre-planned interjections as part of the event. This was a highly scripted discussion. This choreography was central to the audio-visualisation of Derrida’s appearance (allowing, among other things, for the presentation of projected images).

In a strategy that has a precursor in Derrida’s book The Post Card, pre-planned interjections worked to break up the performance, and allow the event to be read asa text.3 In this way, the choreography of the event worked against the usual metaphysics of presence of the public academic lecture. At the same time, the interjections opened a space within which the event could be considered a singular act, rather than some repetition of a fixed, master text.

However, between the ideal of singularity often activated by notions of improvisation, and the re-presentation of a performance across genres and times, there exists a tension. Difference runs into conflict with the ‘sameness’ or ‘identity’ of the rehearsal, the format, and even of the stage. Indeed, in The Theatre and Its Double, Artaud draws attention to the need to give mise en scèneor the stage, a singular, gestural, material existence.4 (As an aside, perhaps this provides a theoretical dimension to Derrida’s desire to move to the very forward edge of the Town Hall stage, to the point of almost falling off.)

From a different point of view, then, the choreography of the event raises questions about the limits of performance. We can suggest that the framing of the event — in audio-visual and conceptual terms— worked counter to, or even undermined, Derrida’s conceptual practice.

Three inter-related aspects of the Town Hall event can be cited here as possibly working against the grain of this conceptual practice.

The first relates to the framing of the event in academic terms. A strong aspect of the academic tradition informing Fine Arts and art theory is a pedagogical interest in illuminating art for the uninitiated. In so doing, art theory draws on a tradition of pedagogy dating back to Plato’s myth of the cave, where the aim of education is to lead the student away from the shadows and towards the light or the truth —an approach to education that we can call the pedagogy of enlightenment.

Significantly, Derrida spoke at length on the relationship between blindness and vision, problematising his own position as speaker in relation to visual works. Yet I would suggest that this problematisation wasn’t supported, or hadn’t been anticipated, on the level of the framing of the event. The pedagogic mode fell back into that of ‘art appreciation’, each individual image presented by the master of ceremonies, by title and date, prior to its ‘illumination’ by Derrida.

While this is on one level a problem to do with institutional framings, and also a possible tension between different conceptions of the audience (the public and the academy), the video projection was also a contributing factor. This brings us to the second aspect, which relates to the mode of broadcasting of the event. While art theory has had a long investment in the pedagogy of enlightenment, public broadcasting is equally formed around an pedagogic function of bringing aesthetics to the masses, from church services to works from the national gallery.

The occasion of the arrival of ‘the most famous living philosopher’ in Sydney meant that a range of stock techniques for the representation of the ‘great thinker’ came into play: in particular long dissolves between shots suggesting majesty and a unilinear path of intellectual argument. (Even longer dissolves could have been used to contaminate the images of Derrida with other images.) Almost absent, except perhaps by accident, were images of Derrida relative to the projected image of Derrida. In this way, the mode of broadcast proved phobic of its own means of techne— which only proved Derrida’s point.

The treatment of projected images from art works on the video screen is worth mentioning in this respect. Derrida’s engagement with visual works in general is highly respectful, taking cues from works rather than assuming a position of mastery in relation to them. Derrida, it can be suggested, works hard at distancing himself from the notion that these works are merely visual aids or illustrations for his philosophical position.

Yet the mode of broadcast, in combination with the framing of the event discussed above, worked to establish the visual as a mere illustration or aid to philosophical discourse. The camera treated each image as autonomous, discrete, and whole (even though some of the images were details). A montage of these images was sacrificed for the sake of preserving a particular style of pedagogy, and the idea of image as illustration.

At this point, it should be made clear that whether these comments actually constitute a criticism of the evening is unclear. Read from a Derridean perspective, it could be argued that even the video presentation on the screen proved appropriate despite itself, confirming the degree to which all discourse is impure, and haunted by its other.

The third aspect that can be mentioned is the framing of the occasion as a media event: that is, as an event about the media. The final set of questions in the evening sought Derrida’s views on the ‘media’, in particularly ‘mass media’.

Two comments can be made in response to this framing. Firstly, it is interesting to ponder why ‘mass media’ in particular formed the object of discussion, precisely at a time when we live in a post-broadcasting age characterised by heterogeneous audience groupings. The fact that the event was constituted as a ‘webcast’ arguably ‘speaks’ louder than anything that was said about the mass media during the evening (a topic on which, Derrida declared, he had nothing original to say). 4

Secondly, following on from this point, framed as the Town Hall event was, it seems remarkable that the media was invoked as something outside of the event itself. It is as if the term ‘media’ here functions to limit the question of the audio-visual nature of event, both on the level of the technology and on the level of Derrida’s philosophy (which has stressed the displacement that occurs between the ‘audio’ and ‘visual’ aspects of communication).

At the same time, the term ‘media’ also functioned as a separator between the discussion of works of art of the first part of the evening, and the discussion of the media. From this point of view, questions can be asked about the way practices of drawing, painting and art resist the category of media, as if such a categorisation would challenge the conditions oftechneupon which some art theory is based.

These three framings, it has been suggested, potentially work against the grain of other framings more attuned to Derrida’s conceptual practice. The key words here are ‘potentially’ or ‘possibly’. For deciding on this issue also means deciding on the limits of performativity, on the degree of consistency one expects of different kinds of events.

While it may seem unreasonable to apply the criteria of theatre or performance to what could be (albeit inadequately) characterised as a ‘lecture’ or ‘discussion’, it is also true to say that such expectations are part of our contemporary conceptual paradigm, in which issues of framing, performance, performativity, and the relations between words, bodies and images, are important considerations. Faced with the new, but at the same time very old, conception of the technologically-mediated audio-visual that today forms a condition for all academic work, the task of developing new forms or modes of public presentation needs wider discussion.


Steven Maras works in the Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury.


1. ‘Techne’,the Greek term for Art or Skill, is sometimes also spelt Tekhne,and usually with a ‘macron’ over the last e: tekhnē or tekhn. [NB. If you are not seeing an accented ‘e’ in these two examples, but are seeing the html code (tekhn?x113; or tekhn?), your browser does not support Unicode 2.1. Ed. ] Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) which enables the World Wide Web has only recently begun to support this character. This is perhaps a small issue, but does relate on a micro level to questions of communication technologies influencing academic conventions.

2. See Peter Brunette and David Wills, Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989),pp. 172-174.

3. Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 4-5. A similar strategy was employed at the Artaud Centenary conference at the University of New South Wales, where ‘questioners’ (played by actors) would interject from the floor quoting portions of Artaud.

4.Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Victor Conti (London: John Calder, 1977), pp. 27-30.

5. The fact that the webcast didn’t ‘arrive’ at some destinations also confirms an important aspect of Derrida’s philosophy of communication, as discussed in The Post Card.

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