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Derrida Reading Group

Derrida in "Ghost Dance," a 1983 British film directed by Ken McMullen that explores the beliefs and myths surrounding the existence of ghosts and the nature of cinema.

Though Derrida’s influence on humanities scholarship and methodology (deconstruction, play, iteration) remains profound and persistent, his texts have nonetheless begun to recede from graduate English literature syllabi. Whereas, in film studies, for reasons still mysterious, his work never quite made a foothold, and this despite his, I think, uninterrupted interest in aesthetic, phenomenological, and art historical questions. From his early interest in phenomenology (and his powerful critique of “presence,” or the presumed ‘self-evident, self-identical transparency of experience’) to his many essays on art history and visual culture (The Truth in Painting), including a series of lectures on new media (Deconstruction Engaged: The Sydney Seminars) and a book on email, the internet, and ‘the book to come’ (Paper Machine), it remains a mystery why Derrida’s work has not played a more central role in film and media studies.

Why (to give just a few examples) has Derrida’s theory of the “parergon” in painting, which emerges from a meditation on the frame, frontispieces, the ‘edge’ of the work, not been extended more fully to the screen, as a figure for what is properly internal and external to a cinematic work? How in film theory history has the screen, the theater, the frame functioned to circumscribe not just the cinematic image, but cinema or media itself? Similarly, how could Derrida’s critique of presence, in phenomenology and the broader history of philosophy, be made to reverberate across theories of cinematic spectatorship, which to some extent depend upon a kind of affective, interactive, hyper-presence? Conversely, how would Derrida’s approach accommodate the ‘haptic turn’ associated with Laura Marks and Jennifer Barker, and how could these cinematic phenomenologies be read alongside Derrida’s late, underappreciated text on touch, On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy?

From a more oblique angle, Derrida’s insightful readings of Marxian theory (Specters of Marx), metaphor in philosophy (Margins of Philosophy), sound and hearing (The Ear of the Other), and religion, the mystical, faith and knowledge (Acts of Religion) all seem to promise exciting interventions in film and media topics. In perhaps his most enduring contribution, Derrida has als0 (in contrast to Foucault and Deleuze) found much to appreciate in Freud, and has over the course of fifty years of scholarship given some of the must subtle and attentive readings of Freud’s texts, from his early “Freud and the Scene of Writing” in Writing and Difference to his reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in The Postcard, to Archive Fever, a book-length meditation on the notion of archiving in Freud’s theories (by michelle tests forge). And now that we are well past the psychoanalytic decades of film studies – an era that in its fascination with Lacan had little time for Derrida’s contributions – a return to Derrida’s Freud, read alongside his extended conversation with Judith Butler on melancholy, mourning, and performance, promises to open new channels for media and literature studies alike.

Though we could only hope to explore all of these questions and more in a reading group, I have tried to give a representative sampling of his, I think, most provocative work across the five or six decades of his scholarship. Of course, if you would like to swap in a reading or two or three, just shoot me an email at: j…@g… As the dates for reading group meetings become firm, I’ll modify the schedule below; but in the meantime, if you’re interested in participating or have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the email address above.

Javier O’Neil-Ortiz

Readings and Documents

Readings and documents can be found here, in a shared Google Documents folder.


These readings are only suggested and designed to provoke interest. If you would like to swap out a reading, or add one, just let me know!

WEEK 1: Friday, February 3, 2012, 1 pm – 3pm, Cathedral of Learning 362.

“Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” [1966] in Writing and Difference (1978) (15 p.)

“Différance” [1968] in Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (1973) (31 p.)

“‘To Do Justice to Freud’: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis” [1991] in Critical Inquiry 20, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 227–266. (39 p.)

WEEK 2: Friday, March 2, 2012, 1 pm – 3pm, Cathedral of Learning, 512.

“White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” [1971] in Margins of Philosophy (1982) (70 p.)

“Economimesis” [1975] in Diacritics 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 2-25. (23 p.)


“The Parergon” (37-83) in The Truth in Painting (1987) (46 p.)

“Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” (1989) in Acts of Religion (63 p.)


“Injunctions of Marx” (1–60) in Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1993) (60 p.)

Archive Fever (1994) (56 p.)


“The Untouchable, or the Vow of Abstinence” in On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy (2005) (25 p.)

“The Politics of Friendship” in Journal of Philosophy 88, no. 11 (November 1988) (14 p.)

“Conjuring–Marxism” (61–95) in Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1993) (34 p.)


“Oligarchies: Naming, Enumerating, Counting” in Politics of Friendship (1993) (25 p.) /

“Foreigner Question: Coming from Abroad / from the Foreigner” (1996), in Of Hospitality (2000) (72 p.)

“‘I Have a Taste for the Secret’” in A Taste for the Secret (2001) (92 p.)

“Machines and the ‘Undocumented Person’” and “The Book to Come” in Paper Machine (2001) (18 p.)