Cinematic deconstruction: Derrida gets a close-up

Film draws on 1980 work to expose philosopher’s ideas to general audience

March 27, 2014

A director based at the University of Sussex has made an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded feature film inspired by the work of Jacques Derrida.

Joanna Callaghan, senior lecturer in film-making, embarked on postgraduate studies in philosophy and then worked in television before shifting to a full-time academic career in 2006.

Yet since 2003, she said, she has been “making a series of shorts taking as their starting points philosophers and philosophical ideas: Descartes, Heidegger, Plato’s allegory of the cave and the world of forms. They incorporate extracts from the work as dialogue or voice-over, but I always use narrative to embody the problems or ideas…I want to find a way to express academic ideas for a general audience.”

In 2011, Ms Callaghan secured a second AHRC grant for her “Ontological Narratives” project and decided to focus on Derrida’s 1980 book, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. While the second half consists of essays on psychoanalysis, the first brings together a series of letters written by a married man to his married lover. Although their author is never identified as Derrida, some of his real-life friends and acquaintances make appearances.

To develop a script parallel to this text, Ms Callaghan joined forces with Martin McQuillan, professor of literary theory and cultural analysis at Kingston University, with whom she had worked on I Melt the Glass with My Forehead, a polemical 50-minute documentary about the introduction of tuition fees and what we mean by a university.

The pair also conducted six hour-long interviews with scholars of Derrida, including some of the people mentioned in The Post Card.

Lucinda Lloyd as Joanna

Love in the Post, which received its first private showing at London’s Somerset House earlier this week, intersperses the stories of film-maker Joanna, University of Wessex academic Theo, his unfaithful wife Sophie and their friends with extracts from these interviews. In an early scene, we see Joanna at a “speed-pitching” event in a pub, where her idea for “a film inspired by French philosopher Jacques Derrida” is up against “a transgender, cyborg, splatter horror with a Dadaist manifesto”.

Theo, an authority on Derrida, is struggling to come to terms with a merger between the literature and communications departments. He has strong views on the nature of love but finding some hidden letters sparks a crisis. Soon he is resorting to desperate measures to discover the truth, standing on a cliff edge and imagining his wife embracing another man. He begins to reflect on the nature of “infidelity”, not only within marriage but as a central force in intellectual life; and at the Bodleian Library he delivers a lecture in which he argues that “the whole history of philosophy [is] the history of a serial betrayal, of pupils who betray their masters”, from the time of Plato to Derrida himself.

Ms Callaghan hopes there is an “overlap between the experience of seeing the film and reading Derrida’s book”. She is organising screenings at festivals and academic events before a DVD release. The script, her reflections on film-making and philosophy, and the complete texts of the interviews will be published in book form by Rowman and Littlefield.

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