Documentary as performing the self

There are few deep thinkers that write in a way that engages the imagination while still being profoundly intellectual, few thinkers who perform themselves into and through their essays, and Derrida is one of them. I am not alone in this belief; in fact, I am slowly limping behind the masses who already venerate this academic superstar.

M. J. T Mitchell argues in his article “There are no Visual Media” that there are no unalloyed visual mediums. Rather, all media is “always already mixed media.” Mitchell draws on Marshal McLuhan’s assertion that printed word comes close to isolating the visual sense; however, Mitchell clarifies, “McLuhan’s larger point was definitely not to rest content with identifying specific media with isolated, reified sensory channels.” Instead, McLuhan’s argument, which Mitchell incorporates into his own assertion, posits that sensory labels like “visual” or “aural” fall short of and do not accurately nuance the complexities of a person’s sensorial experience when engaging with mediums.

I bring up Mitchell’s article because I remember vividly feeling the multi-dimensional, multimodal sensorial experience Mitchell described while reading Derrida’s Archive Fever for the first time. Derrida’s entry into this text—“Let us not begin at the beginning, nor even at the archive. But rather at the word ‘archive’—and with the archive of so familiar a word”—is replete with a rhetorical flare that jumps out of the page and slaps the reader in the face with the metaphorical white glove. Derrida’s white glove challenges the reader (in this case me) to engage; in fact, Derrida’s white glove dares me not to engage with such a performative opening.

Derrida’s writing evokes not only the visual of the printed word, but also the aurality of his chiding voice and the bodily pleasure of my stinging skin after I am challenged by his white glove. Derrida’s performative writing lends itself to the self-reflexive, performative, autobiographical documentary medium, as it is able to truly embody and exemplify “mixed media” as a reality.

I would argue that one of the documentary’s truth claims is about the positive and productive reality of performing one’s self into existence; that this mode of being in the world, this self-reflexive and purposeful practice of constructing and performing the self, is as close as one gets to liberation, it’s a process of taking responsibility and purposefully situating oneself in the world and therefore allowing one to bring the future into existence.


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October 9, 2013 · 7:13 pm

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