Love in the Post: From Plato to Derrida
Author: Joanna Callaghan
Format: Drama Documentary
Published: February 2016
Winner of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Practice Research Award 2016.
Introduction & Background
Love in the Post: From Plato to Derrida is a feature length interpretation of the ‘Envois’ section of Jacques Derrida’s book The post card  directed and produced by Joanna Callaghan (University of Sussex) and co-written by Callaghan and Martin McQuillan (Kingston University). It features interviews with some of Derrida’s most esteemed readers, an unseen interview with Derrida and a fictional narrative that weaves together the story of an academic and a filmmaker attempting a film about The post card. As a work of philosophy The post card is engaged with the fundamental issue of communication and representation, that is, that meaning does not ‘always’ arrive ‘at its destination’, it instead circulates like a post-card arriving in various contexts independent of the intention of its originator, and open to misreading by those who receive it. The post card is therefore a text about textuality. My filmic interpretation works towards a performance of this as a theoretical event within the film through the incorporation of multiple, parallel narratives that mirror, distort and elaborate the narrative(s) contained within the ‘Envois’. In this way the research aims to perform the production of knowledge within film, moving beyond illustration or representation and engaging with problems of representation and communication at the level of the film’s own ontology. This is achieved through the juxtaposition of narratives, both fictional and ‘real’ prompted by the documentary interviews that ‘seep’ into the fictional narrative blurring distinctions between fact/fiction, biography/autobiography and public/private discourse.
What role can narrative play in developing a coherent vision of a philosophical concept?
Following previous films that responded to texts by Plato and Heidegger, how in this project can the work of Jacques Derrida be creatively interrogated via practice-based research?
If film’s encounter with philosophy is to be more than mere illustration, how can we perform the production of knowledge within film itself?
What might this experience also tell us about the relation between theory and practice within practice-based research?
The adapting of a philosophical text into a film in order to perform and re-inscribe the philosophical problems presented by that text.
The formalisation of ideas related to philosophy and film practice into a coherent praxis evident through writing and practical research
The interdisciplinary connections achieved through the project
Love in the Post: From Plato to Derrida, is the fourth fictional film produced from the research project Ontological Narratives (2003-2014).
Ontological Narratives is a practice-based research project exploring philosophy through film. The project is actively concerned with enriching and complicating the practice-based research inquiry by adapting philosophical texts into films in order to perform and re-inscribe the philosophical problems presented by that text. It has sought to formalise ideas related to philosophy and film practice into a coherent praxis evident through writing that discusses this theory and practical research that applies this theory. Knowledge generation is derived from process and outcome, evident in the artefacts created and also expressible through documentation, critical reflection and academic writing. In this way the ‘source’ of knowledge is embodied within the objects produced, the practitioner and the dialogue(s) created. The project has forged interdisciplinary connections, carving out a unique position in the field of practice-based research. It has a dual strategy of research inquiry in terms of project themes (i.e. ontology, philosophy, film narrative) and in interrogating the methodology of practice-based research (in this way it can also be considered as practice-led). The project has been contextualised within debates on practice-based research through the organisation of symposia and events facilitated by my role as Chair of Practice of the subject body association MeCCSA (Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association).
In terms of approach the films produced engaged in a reflexive analysis on cinematic form. This often takes the form of a playful interrogation of their own constituency, that is of the images produced, the sound design, music, dialogue and performance are themselves subject of the research process and also its outcome.
In terms of philosophical content, the films contain subject matter derived from readings of philosophers, which are transformed into fictional stories. These stories centre on or pertain to human beings and linking them is the question of what it means ‘to be’. The subject matter is transformed through a phenomenological inquiry present both in the human agent(s) and also in treating film (process and outcome) as an entity that can be used (in the sense of Heidegger’s ‘readiness to hand’), which has possibilities appropriate to itself (and only to itself) and which makes apparent the ‘hiddenness’ involved in the ‘ontological difference’ between ‘being’ and ‘beings’.
My research has interrelated contexts that include phenomenology and epistemology, film philosophy, and the role of fictional narrative in film practice-based research.
My films attempt a phenomenological inquiry into the subject matter. They do this through treating film (process and outcome) as an entity that can be used, (‘readiness to hand’), which has possibilities unique to itself and which acknowledges the subjectivity of the lifeworld in the transformation of text to image. In doing so it opens up to an epistemological consideration of film form through making. The films mobilise certain philosophical reflections (e.g. the nature of reality, the nature of being) but also question film philosophically (e.g. the nature of film? The being/beingness of film?).
‘Film Philosophy’ utilises film(s) as a vehicle to consider philosophical ideas. There is a long history of philosophical analysis of film (Bazin, Carroll, Cavelle, Burch, Cook et al, Allen & Smith, Penn, Freeland & Watenberg) and there have been commercially successful films, both documentary and drama, produced about philosophy or philosophers (Examined Life (2008), Zizek! (2005), Edward Said (2004), Wittgenstein (1993) and Ghost Dance (1983)). However these films tend towards illustrative of philosophy/philosophical ideas as opposed to using film as a medium for the production or interrogation of knowledge itself. There have been practice-based research in philosophy such as Ross & Barison, The Ister (2007), Victor Burgin’s Nietzsche in Paris (2000) and Gary Hill’s installations Plato’s Cave (1992) and Remarks on Colour (1994). These examples better encapsulate the dynamic of my own research project that connects filmic and philosophical production in the same practice.
The last context is the role and use of fictional narrative within practice-based research films. While my research experiments with narrative, it is not experimental film. Rather I work with cinematic codes, as opposed to against. The use of fictional narrative is distinct in the field of film practice-based research and opens the research for a different set of considerations as opposed to documentary or experimental practice.
My production methods derive from industrial filmmaking practices. I write scripts, cast and direct actors and work with large crews and engage in lengthy post-production processes. However these methods are sometimes inverted or altered quite radically which can create unexpected surprises and interventions into what can be a heavily regimented system of production. For example for ‘Love in the Post’, I did all of the documentary interviews first and then co-wrote the script based on both their content and the experience of producing those.
My research process is more fine art based, drawing on different media and emphasising intuitive, embodied responses to the content researched – which results in a weaving of personal experiences and history with the research process. I read extensively, engage in reflective and imaginative writing in response to those texts, conduct visual research through immersing myself in films, photographs and paintings and produce research sketches in a variety of forms, videos, writing, photos, collage etc. I also listen very closely to how people speak about the subject matter I am researching and this becomes a sort of soundtrack to the process. Much of this remains behind the scenes, through I did produce several research sketches for this project which can be seen on the website. (http://loveinthepost.co.uk/research-in-progress).
The project is of interest to researchers across the arts and humanities because it concerns itself with the fundamental assumptions of the very idea of ‘practice-based research’. The central research problematic that guides this work is: how might a creative text perform or produce knowledge as a theoretical counter-signature, rather than merely illustrate pre-existing philosophical ideas. It therefore addresses in an ambituous way a crucial aspect of practice-based research and so the film and the critical commentary that contextualizes it is of benefit not only to those engaged in practice-based film-making but all such researchers whose work addresses this problematic, in fine art, design, performance, music, and so on. 
The benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration – the knowledge exchange between myself and McQuillan enriched the work of each of us, bringing the rigour of academic research from each discipline to inform the development of thinking and practice on both sides of the exchange.
The many and varied outputs are an example of the fruitful interdisciplinary approach allowing for different entry points into the project from scholars and practitioners engaged in a range of areas. These include theoretical work, particularly in philosophy, cultural studies, literary studies, Francophone studies, comparative literature, fine art, film studies and media studies and more generally a wider interdisciplinary audience who are concerned with theoretical issues of performance, adaptation, representation, mediation, interpretation, visuality and textuality. For this wider audience the concerns of the project address key touchstones in contemporary academic inquiry in the arts and humanities.
On a practical level, how work such as this can get funded and made within the academy and that there is an audience and routes to those audiences that can be developed for such work.
Funded through an Arts and Humanities Research Council research award and research awards from Kingston University, University of Bedfordshire and University of Sussex alongside extensive support from independent production company Heraclitus Pictures.
Principal Investigator: Joanna Callaghan, Co-Investigator: Professor Martin McQuillan.
‘Love in the Post: From Plato to Derrida’, High Definition Video, 80 minutes (feature film)
‘Deconstructive Film’, HDV, 7 minutes
‘Postal’, Animation, 4 minutes
‘Letters’, HDV, 8 minutes
‘Adaptation’, Video essay, 4 minutes
Online presence & DVD distribution
There is a dedicated film website. The project is available on Vimeo on Demand to rent and this reaches an audience completely removed from academia and philosophy. The DVD is distributed through Heraclitus Pictures and also available on Amazon (which again reaches a different audience). Many sales have been to university libraries and to individuals within the academy.
HOME Arts and Cinema centre, Manchester, June 2015
Australia Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, November 2014
Somerset House, London, March 2014
Many of these were invited screenings and events around the film. Highlights included a plenary at ‘Derrida Today’ in New York and keynote at ‘Imagining Derrida’ in Cambridge
19 June 2015, Manchester Metropolitan University (keynote)
1 June 2015, Southbank University, London
30 January 2015, University of Cambridge (keynote)
23 November 2014, RMIT, Melbourne
14 November 2014, University College Dublin
12 November 2014, University of Sussex
3 July 2014, University of Glasgow (plenary)
30 May 2014, Fordham University, New York (plenary) (Derrida Today)
January 2014, Bournemouth University (MeCCSA)
December, 2013, Australian National University, Canberra (Visible Evidence)
May 2011, Goldsmiths University, London
Article on Woody Allen’s film ‘Irrational Man’ which compares this film with ‘Love in the Post’
Poores, Benjamin ‘Philosophy on Film’, 10 Sep 2015, Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/philosophy-in-cinema
Reisz, Matthew, “Cinematic Deconstruction: Derrida gets a close up”. 27 March 2014, Times Higher Education, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/cinematic-deconstruction-derrida-gets-a-close-up/2012209.article
What demonstrable contribution has your practice made to the economy, society, culture, national security, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond contributions to academia.
My research aims to engage audiences with questions of philosophy. Developments in science and the arts have well-established ways of reaching a public audience. By contrast, thoughtful reflection on contemporary life and culture – philosophical reflection broadly conceived – is far less well supported. My research aims to stimulate this kind of reflection and the body of work I have produced over the last 10 years has been working towards that. This kind of impact is I believe much slower and sometimes less tangible then other sorts of impact so it is difficult to answer this question satisfactorily. (It is much clearer academically to argue for the impact which has been significant) I have been trying to work this out through documenting question and answer sessions after public screenings, handing out questionnaires and conducting short interviews after screenings. (see: https://vimeo.com/113471895)
Jacques Derrida, The post card, From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990.
Callaghan & McQuillan (2014 ) Love in the Post, Rowman & Littlefield (250 page monograph)
Callaghan (2012) “The Post Card”, FRAMES, University of St Andrews. Vol.1 (online)
 Derrida, Jacques, La carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Flammarion, 1980; Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
 Callaghan, McQuillan (2011) Ontological Narratives IV: Proposal for AHRC (application successful)
 Callaghan, Dronsfield, McQuillan (2009) La Carte Postale: Film & Dissemination proposal for AHRC (application unsuccessful)
The peer reviews that follow were part of the BAFTSS Practice Research Awards shortlisting process as this volume is published in association with the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.
Review 1: Shortlist
This is a highly original, novel and impactful piece of (screen) work, which has already gained significant critical acclaim and attention.
Encompassing high production values, the director has designed a complex and challenging narrative structure (interweaving documentary interview material, with readings and multiple strands of fiction – including reflexive vignettes into the filmmaking process/and the construction of arguments) presenting it convincingly, with impeccable clarity and style.
The work has the potential to be highly impactful to a diverse range of audiences (encompassing both students and scholars of multiple disciplines – philosophy, film studies, theatre studies, literature etc) and is undoubtedly highly successful in its aim to provide a compelling argument of how narrative can play a convincing function in developing a coherent vision of a philosophical concept.
There is a clear coherence and harmony between both the supporting statement and screenwork – But the film itself (and this is distinct to so many other pieces of practice-led enquiry) stands up as an individual and compelling piece of practice-led scholarship.
The statement is clearly written, with all headings and questions thoroughly and rigorously addressed. I wouldn’t make any suggestion for corrections. This piece is clearly worthy of shortlisting.
Review 2: Shortlist
This is a highly original intervention into the Film / Philosophy area of Film Studies through practice. The film explores the Envoi section of Derrida’s The Post Card through a mix of narrative and documentary film techniques.
The film itself is fascinating in its use of self-reflexive narrative structure in which the filmmaking process is externalised as part of the narrative. The director is one of the characters and we witness the breakdown of the editing process, the inner workings of the film production office, revealing the labour of the film’s production. At the same time we explore the central characters’ lives and intertwining relationships, centring on the plot device of the discovery of secret love letters – letters which enable the film to examine the nature of communication and reception and how texts circulate independently of authorial intention. Perhaps much like this review…
This, tethered to the philosophical questions around audience / address, truly manages to enact the theoretical concerns explored in Derrida’s original text, via the practice / experience of watching the film. In addition, the mix of fiction and documentary is breaking new ground, creatively interrogating Derrida’s work and performing the production of knowledge within the film itself. Just as Derrida’s Post Card is a text about textuality, the film, too operates as a text both about textuality and about adaptation.
The Academic Impacts are significant and there is an attempt to discuss the wider social/ cultural impacts through audience evaluation – more work could be done to tease out how this academic intervention into industrial filmmaking might be altering the field (e.g. screening at HOME with public Q&A – cf Clio Bernhard – other academics filmmaking in the public realm).
The research statement situates the research clearly, giving ample evidence of originality, rigor and significance, and outlining how this practice research project creates new knowledge in the field of film/philosophy and practice/research. The work is situated well both in relation to the filmmaker’s other research (Ontological Narratives) and to the field of film/philosophy (both from the perspective of a philosophical discussion of film; commercial films on philosophy and practice-based research projects interrogating filmic and philosophical production).
My major criticism of the film itself, is some of the narrative performances are uneven which makes it more difficult to engage with the narrative elements of the film. However, in the wider context of what the film is attempting to achieve this could be read as a positive, Brechtian technique!
Review 3: Shortlist
This screenwork, an AHRC-funded feature inspired by the work of Jacques Derrida is amongst other things a compelling, insightful and original rumination on the relationship between film and philosophy, part of a larger interdisciplinary project that blends industrial and artistic film-making processes and approaches and which demonstrates how film might go beyond mere illustrative purposes and be deployed as a medium for the production or interrogation of knowledge itself. The film, and its accompanying book (screenplay, commentaries and reviews) fit into an emerging field of practice-based research in philosophy such as Ross & Barison, Burgin, and Hill (which connect filmic and philosophical production in the same practice. Despite tackling challenging subject matter in a distinctive and thought-provoking way, it remains accessible and evidence is given of screenings and feedback from non-academic venues, events and audiences.
The statement is thorough, succinct, and attends well to the requirements of each section. In addition to offering a discussion of the film, its intent, processes and context, it offers useful references to the range of other published work associated with the project such as web-based ‘sketch-books’ and the more traditional monograph. Theoretical and artistic context are carefully considered, with a clear statement offered about the overarching research framework being one that brings together phenomenology, epistemology and film philosophy.
I appreciated the honesty about the difficulty of judging of evaluating impact at this stage and the detail of methods being tried out in order to elicit that feedback – useful for others to hear about and discuss more widely.