Philip Freytag: The Derrida-Searle Debate and the Poetic Ontology of Film


The debate between Jacques Derrida and John R. Searle that took place in the 1970ies in basically three texts (Derrida, 1971, 1977; Searle, 1977) and some further clarifications later on (Derrida, 1988, 1998, 2000; Searle, 1993, 1994) clearly articulated two different conceptions of ontology (Kurthen, 1989; Ferraris, 2009). Searle set forth the idea of „conditions of satisfaction“ in order to get a grip on the ontology of performative identities – from speech acts in particular to social institutions in general (Searle 1969, 1979, 1983, 2010). Although Searle never extended his notion of „conditions of satisfaction“ to the cinematographic space, I want to show in a first step (through the use of cinematographic examples) why indeed this notion is a powerful tool to analyse the ontology of film. Having done that, I want to echo the critique formulated by Derrida against Searle’s conception of „conditions of satisfaction“ and show (again through cinematographic examples) why an ontology of film eventually cannot be given in those terms.

Although it turns out that Searle provides us with a strong tool to venture the structure of both narrative and non-narrative aspects of film, it will be shown that precisely – and paradoxically – the focus on structure cannot articulate the very structure of film – which rests on a performativity that exceeds structure (Derrida, 1967, 2000; Custer, 2014). We have to opt then for an open ontology of the cinematographic space, i.e. an account that respects a reality of film, which is not filmic through and trough. It will become clear, however, that film is not only its own negativity but poetic in a rather religious sense: it instantiates a world view that necessarily exceeds every human world-view (Cavell 1979; Lacoue-Labarthe 1998; Marrati 2006).