Derrida in Japan: The “Guffaw” of ’84

The participants made jokes and responded warmly: Karatani is marked as making everyone laugh eleven times, Asada four times, and Derrida joking eight times in a nine-page transcript. The quality of hilarity is caught in a photograph of the occasion where the usually serious Jacques Derrida is guffawing between Asada and Karatani.

– Masao Miyoshi

「超消費社会と知識人の役割」

“Hyper-Consumer Society and the Role of the Intellectual”

Being a theorist back in 84 must have been a blast if this photo of Asada, Derrida and Karatani in a “guffaw” scene is anything to go by.

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The theme of their talk is found in the translation of the title above. And, things start to become a lot clearer: What else, aside from engaging in a good guffaw, does the intellectual have to do in an hyper-consumer society where their words are snapped up by savvy shoppers and they are handsomely and generously rewarded with riches, international stardom and devoted followers that literally hang on to their every word?

But what really got Derrida going, and seems to have tickled Asada and Karatani too, is perhaps more specifically the topic ‘spelled’ [a provocation for my own amusement] out in the bubbles, this was the start of the bubble economy period after all, floating above them:「現代の「知」を語る」.(Literally: ‘Talking about Contemporary “Knowledge”‘ or perhaps more accurately ‘The State of Knowledge and “Theory” Today’).

I mean, who wouldn’t have reason to laugh? Would any genuine thinker actually be capable of concealing a confounding smirk or holding back the giggles if asked to discuss this highly amusing topic back in the mid-80s? Certainly not Derrida who responded with a good old guffaw:

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An Intellectual Giant

As not only the face of French theory and poststructuralist thought, complete with his own personal brand of “deconstruction”, but also a global intellectual giant, Derrida’s status overshadows that of his contemporaries. And, it looms extra large over his two Japanese interlocutors who taken together don’t even come close to having half the ‘presence’ of Derrida (one almost needs to squint just in order just to make out their faces and with their names rendered in hiragana they are almost to look like small children in comparison).

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Closer Still

Trying to get closer to genius and glimpse the workings of a great mind in full flight, the camera gets an even greater close-up of Derrida’s nose, eyes, eyebrows and lower forehead. The profound thinker is captured up close, looking his most pensive. The caption records the expression being formulated behind the furrowed brow and wistful, searching eyes, the articulation that reveals the brilliance of Derrida’s thought:

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“Marx  has always been a good seller.”

And this is followed by:

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「笑い」 (Yes, that’s right: he guffaws some more.) For Derrida quickly reveals that it was “just a joke.”

 

Difference and Distance

As things head toward their conclusion, Derrida reveals an unavoidable distance. The cameraman and designer doing the cropping back off, just a little tiny bit. There is the need to capture a certain  tension, apprehension perhaps, and a strong and scrutinising stare (I wouldn’t say gaze) that only the outsider looking in can possess and perform. His face, defensive and cautious almost to the point of displaying outright suspicion, is fully  revealed in a retreat.

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The accompanying text, at the most superficial level of ‘reading’, tells us he is always outside Japan, it remains closed off to him.

Still, cultural difference and ‘otherness’ clearly don’t stop or get in the way of a good old “guffaw”.

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