Saturday, 11 September 2010

Interrupting Derrida

I've been reading a posthumous publication of an interview with Jacques Derrida entitled Copy, Archive, Signature. Its purported "subject" is photography with the subtitle telling us that what we have here is a "conversation" on the topic. Derrida gave a lot of interviews to a lot of people on very varied occasions with rather mixed results. This one dates from 1992 and has previously appeared in German in an abridged form but has not yet appeared in French. The question of the linguistic status of the text and, indeed, of texts generally is raised in a lengthy introduction by Gerhard Richter.

However, what struck me about this text were things different to what occurred to Richter. The interview has been transcribed from a tape recording and at one point it is marked in the transcription that there "appears" to be an interruption. We come back in with some odd remarks from Derrida about rain but following these there comes a question about the "role of the gaze in the photographic portrait". To this Derrida answers with a discussion of the peculiarity of gazing. When we gaze we do not see our own gazing. This ordinary fact is, naturally, somewhat peculiar since there is something essential about ourselves that is hidden from us. The camera, if it catches our gaze, shows us something in the photograph that we never otherwise catch a glimpse of. 

Earlier in the interview Derrida had spoken about the peculiar status of giving photographs of oneself to another. Early in the 20th century "thinkers" such as Heidegger would give signed photographs of themselves to others, something that no one in such a status does now. For historical reasons that are both obvious and yet also elusive only those identified as "celebrities" now give such gifts to others. 

What is given when the photograph of oneself is given to someone else? Rather than directly answer this Derrida discusses the way in which to give such a gift one both engages in narcissism and yet also, in another way, 'interrupts' it. The engagement in narcissism occurs due to the presentation of the image of oneself to the other, a presentation that seems to say to the other, "here I am". This saying, from me to you, thus signals my importance for and to you. By contrast, however, the "interruption" occurs due to the fact that what I give in giving this image is an indication of something that is lost to me, my own gaze. This giving of what is lost to me hence, in its way, robs my narcissism of its focus, removes my self from me. This leads finally to a couple of sentences that, in my view, are some of Derrida's most beautiful:

This is like the erotics of the gaze, the exchange of gazes, gazes that cross, and that cross at the point where each one cannot reappropriate itself, and therefore already gives itself, delivers itself and gives itself up, unarmed: this is a gesture that can in certain situations be more exposed, more giving and more intense than 'making love'. In it the gaze is naked, at once naked and not seeing itself. Exposed as overexposed, like nudity.

The giving of the image of my gaze provokes, in its turn, your gaze upon my gaze, a gaze here that I do not receive and that you find does not return to you since it is as lost to you as my gaze is to me. This "exchange" follows the gift but it is not an exchange in the sense that anything returns to either of us. It is a situation of absolute loss and this loss is what disarms us. The gaze as the surrendering of one to the other, the most basic form of nudity. This reflection clearly echoes something in Levinas but, even as it does so, takes away from Levinas something. That economy would itself merit further reflection, on another occasion.

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