If it's true, as Leiya Lee argues, that Akira Mizuta Lippit turns Derridean theory into a system, then it's a system grounded in ghostly presences (not least Derrida's own presence in film).
Since the publication of Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory1 in 1989, efforts have been made to establish a Derridean theory of cinema like it has been done for Deleuze. Of course, Deleuze himself made a first pass at what can be considered a Deleuzian theory in his two Cinema books, even though a Deleuzian theory of cinema is, in the most part — and in his own words — a “taxonomy” of signs and images, which is quite a break from Deleuzian thought in a more general sense (although concepts such as “plane of immanence” do play a big part in his Cinema books). A Derridean theory of cinema might be advanced, similarly, by means of refraction (or, a reflection “without reflection”) because, as Lippit has mentioned in Cinema Without Reflection, Derrida had not extensively written on cinema as he had done with other art and media forms. In this sense, establishing a Derridean theory of cinema might be closer to the efforts of developing a Deleuzian theory of photography, as Deleuze did not make photography his main object of study2. Deleuze only reduces photography to the snapshot, as part of what constitutes cinema as the moving image. Hence, subsequent approaches to a Deleuzian theory of photography requires reading Deleuze (and Guattari) “against the grain”3. However, as some readers of Derrida would have certainly noticed, Derridean thought, as diverse as it is, fits cinema rather well — as Derrida moves from writing and the trace, deconstruction, to the engagement with psychoanalysis, and, perhaps most importantly, hauntology (which may be more apposite today given the current trends of retro throwbacks and ‘reboots’ in cinema).
Lippit’s book establishes a Derridean theory of cinema as a system, even though Derrida himself never adapted his philosophy to the cinematic form. Lippit believes that if there were ever a Derridean theory of cinema, then it would be “performative, which is to say, it takes place in taking place — a site-specific theory of film that occurs on-screen.” (p21) Although Derrida may not himself have authored a book on cinematic theory, it’s conceivable, Lippit argues, that Derrida himself is his theory of cinema. As Lippitt writes, “One might consider Derrida’s phantom theory of film a metamorphormalism = phantom plus form plus philosophy plus film. At its end is always Derrida himself, a theory of cinema embodied, autobiographical and narcissistic.” (p21) In essence, Lippit invokes the concept of hauntology (the spectre of a being that has never been present) as perhaps the epitome of Derrida’s philosophy. The concept is connected, in turn to the trace (and, also, trace, derived from Heidegger’s sous rature) that signifies the absence of a presence. The trace may be mostly applied to writing, but when applied to images and their referents, the parallel is unmissable. In this book, Lippit directs our attention to Derrida’s few on-screen appearances and formulates that the ghosts of Derrida (or, perhaps, ‘spectres of Derrida’) embody cinematic temporality and identification. In particular, Lippit concentrates on Derrida’s cameo appearance in Ken McMullen’s 1983 experimental film Ghost Dance where Derrida invokes “a spectral dialectic: Cinema plus psychoanalysis equals a science of phantoms.” (p5) This is the basis on which Lippit builds a Derridean theory of cinema, which forges an almost algebraic relationship between psychoanalysis and phantoms. Derrida is a spectre in his appearances in the cinematic medium, both when he was still alive and now when he is no longer with us. The idea of image as spectre recalls the allusion that the cinematic image is nothing but ghostly shadows, a sentiment that can be traced all the way back to the birth of cinema and Maxim Gorky’s famous remarks about his experience. 4Also, since Derrida is no longer with us, which is to say the image has lost its original object, for Lippit, this is a “reflection in reverse”, which in turn puts a new spin on the Lacanian mirror image utilised in traditional psychoanalytic film theory. Instead of a misidentification of the first person, or the association with the on-screen image as a third person, Lippit posits that the second person “you”, a middle between the first person and the third, characterises this “reflection in reverse”, the psychoanalytic process, and cinematic spectatorship. As Lippit reminds us (p18), Roland Barthes writes, in Camera Lucida, “[o]nce I feel myself observed by the lens […] I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” Here Lippit shows the change in the dynamic of the self when posing in front of a camera. Hence, in Ghost Dance, even when Derrida was alive, Derrida was always-already not himself. More precisely, he was playing himself, a spectral version of himself, a second person. This is why when asked the question “Do you believe in ghosts?” in the film, Derrida replies “Here, the ghost is me.” (p31) The image of Derrida becomes a trace of himself, an “always-already absent present”, as Gayatri Spivak would say.5
Then, Lippit shifts his focus to another film in which Derrida also ‘plays himself’: Derrida (2002) by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, where, in one scene, Derrida comments on the myth of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, used by Derrida throughout his work. It is this myth that serves as illustration of what Lippit considers a Derridean theory of cinema — cinema as a specular machine that reflects in reverse. In the myth, Juno punishes Echo so that she has lost her own speech. Echo is only left with her voice and is only capable of repeating the last syllables of another’s speech. But when Echo talks to Narcissus by means of only repeating his last words, Derrida thinks that she is able to “appropriate” Narcissus’s language, enough to make it her own. Even without words of her own, armed only with her voice, Echo’s mimicry is still capable of becoming unique, singular and “untranslatable” (p36-7). So, as Lippit asks, “if Echo can possess another’s speech, and if one plays oneself in a film, as Derrida says, then isn’t it also the case that one can possess one’s own speech as another’s?” Lippit is considering the nature of voice in the film medium as Echopoiesis, a world created by separating the voice from its bearer, hence forging the first person 'me' into the second person 'you'.
Meanwhile, Ovid’s myth continues as Narcissus finds himself falling in love unknowingly with his own reflected image after refusing to reciprocate Echo’s love. In Freud, narcissism is first an inherent auto-eroticism in the infant, repressed while directing the desire outside, and is then returned to the self-eroticism of the ego. In other words, “the ego disappears from the world and reappears in the imaginary realm of an invisible interiority.” (p50) But, rather than a repression and a return of the ego, Lippit suggests that narcissism is when “the love for oneself and the love for another occur at once, indistinguishably.” (p52) Again, instead of 'me', it is a 'me' that is manifested in a 'you', as is the way Narcissus (me) thinks of his own reflection (you). Lippit posits that “Narcissus is not, along with Echo, a figure for the advent of cinema, of kinematography, he is certainly a figure for cinematic identification, the originary attachment to movement itself — animation.” (p54) This “animation” is similar to that which Barthes ascribes to light in photography, the punctum, which Lippit superposes to the movement in cinema (p18-19), the transition from 'me' to 'you'.
Lippit believes that “[t]he myth of Echo and Narcissus, of voice and image, of expropriation and return, allows Derrida to move closer to a theory of cinema articulated without the use of its proper name.” (p57) Lippits’s most original contribution in this work is the development, through a rereading of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, of a theory of cinema that presents the image of Derrida in the same fashion as Derrida considers the writing trace, as absence and presence intertwined. Elsewhere, in Safaa Fathy’s Derrida, d’ailleurs (1999), Derrida has said, “I am acting as both Narcissus and Echo at one and the same time,” to which Lippit adds that “Derrida is between Echo and Narcissus, their medium” (p61). In this way, Lippit’s Cinema without Reflection offers a new way to think about film’s medium specificity, using Derrida’s thought, as well as Derrida himself as a spectre and as a performative theory. But, in the true Derridean fashion, Lippit uses the term “medium” in its multiple meanings: the form and materiality, the spiritual medium (that links the living with the ghosts), and the middle (between Echo and Narcissus). Such is a Derridean theory of cinema.