Jacques Derrida — Ghost Dance

by Yule Heibel on October 9, 2004

Jacques Derrida died of cancer in Paris during the night from Friday to Saturday, Oct. 8; he was 74.

Since it’s not a very well-known film, I decided to dig out a couple of paragraphs I wrote nearly 20 years ago about Ghost Dance, made by Ken McMullen in 1983. Among others, it starred Jacques Derrida as himself. I saw it in 1985 at a Vancouver Film Festival — I must have seen dozens of films that May, many of which were “French” in terms of being fully in the ebb and flow of post-structuralist tides. And, judging by what I wrote, I had all the time in the world to indulge those waters, too.

Regardless of the quality of my observations then — they manage to be superficial and obtuse simultaneously, no mean feat and perhaps quite fitting to the subject — I have to admit that I miss not having that sort of time now. I haven’t seen anything that made me get philosophical just for the hell of it in far too long. Now, it’s all rush and tear, with passion likely to focus on anger and frustration over politics and social conditions. That was there then, too: we had the Solidarity Movement in BC/Vancouver in the 80s, Women Against the Budget, and so on, but somehow it was so fruitless. BC politics was always like treading water, which made a slow, deep, powerful tide of interesting philosophical discourse seem all the more compelling. At least it felt like one was going somewhere, even though it was all in one’s head after all. Rest in peace, Jacques Derrida…

14 May 1985: Last night’s film, L’amour par terre, was really good. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Mark Poster‘s book on existential marxism in postwar France, especially the chapter on structuralism’s response to existentialism, that I really related to this film in terms of a structuralist project. The author, although present in all the scenes, is completely decentred if not downright absent. In fact, all the characters’ intentions, that is, their subjective attempts to function within the set up of the story as autonomous individuals, are thwarted in favour of the structure, which articulates itself through them without their being able to influence events through conscious volition. I wonder what tonight’s film will be like? It’s about two women, one a Marxist, the other a student of anthropology (shades of structuralism’s genesis and Levi-Strauss, no?) who go through all these “Derridean” stages of rituals, all of course within the actual presence of Derrida himself.


15 May 1985: Last night’s film, Ghost Dance, was like an illustrated version of structuralism, of Derridean deconstruction, and even of Georges Bataille’s writings on sex and death. I liked it a lot — the film was decipherable for me and I actually felt ritually purged at the end — but W. was a little sceptical, and S. and T., true to their Marxist allegiances, didn’t like it much because it was too esoteric, not direct enough, didn’t advocate “action” or “praxis,” etc. I gave S. a ride home and explained to him why I liked the film even though I per se do not like the formalistic aspects of deconstructive theory, its inability to connect to praxis, its dangerous (in my view) proclivity to deconstruct man only in order to return to discourse some sort of transcendental signifier (i .e., God, horror of horrors), etc., but that I also felt that a continued — and falsely naive — belief in the possibility of an autonomous subject capable of determining history in a conscious manner, including and especially the assumed belief in the proletariat as the carrier of that collective subjectness, that consciousness, was to me bafflingly stupid. Hence, an exploration of those theories which decentre the concept of “man” are necessarily to be taken into account, even though they can at this stage be accused of advocating a position which clings to “theory only” and “fear of praxis.”

In Ghost Dance there is a pronounced emphasis on myth, its return even in our “technological” and advanced age, and on myth’s ability to assert the existence of something beyond the ken of conscious intellect. Hence an emphasis on a discourse about sexuality in this film, which to me seemed straight out of Bataille’s notion of the extremely close linkage between sex and death — that is, that sex brings you to that edge beyond which is the continuity which exists outside of your discontinuous being. There’s a great “birthing” scene in the film, toward the end: the two women watch a man crawl across the inch-deep watery surface of a shaft-like and raftered room. They are moved, one weeps at the sight; it is the recognition of their discontinuity brought about at the time of birth, which can only be broken through death (the return to what was before birth) or approached through sex (the extreme ecstacy of which can bring one to the edge of death via self abandonment). Actually, it’s the kind of film I’d like to have on video and really dissect.

For those who can manage German, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has a good article here.

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