I’ve been thinking a lot about Andy Daly’s Review over the last few days so I figured I should maybe write something about it. Specifically, I was thinking that it might serve as an instructive point of reference for talking about Derrida’s conception of Responsibility, in that it can maybe help us strip away some of the less intuitive “ontotheological” aspects of the argument and just focus right in on the relationship between the individual (in this case, Daly’s Forrest MacNeil) and the absolute and unknowable other to whom the individual feels inextricably responsible (in this case, the show Review itself).
For context, Review is a “mockumentary” hosted by Forrest Macneil that aims to review “life itself”. The show’s ostensible viewers submit “life experiences” (i.e., “what’s it like to get struck by lightning?” or, “what’s it like to get a divorce?”) which Forrest then attempts to experience in his own life and review on a scale of five stars. The conceit of the show, and why I think it serves as a good point of departure for talking about Derrida, is that Forrest’s absolute commitment to Review ends up completely destroying the rest of his life. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Forrest is forced to end his marriage, put his pet to sleep, and commit a murder as a result of his sense of duty toward the review requests of strangers about whom he knows nothing. But he does all of this under the dogmatic assumption that this work is important, and that it serves the general public in some direct and indispensable way.
So but let’s talk a little Derrida:
The Derridian conception of responsibility comes out of what I guess we could call a Levinasian tradition, which basically asserts that responsibility is “the ability to respond to the other” in the broadest possible sense. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say there are fundamentally two types of responsibility: one toward a more general set of “others” (i.e. “other people”, basically), and one toward an absolute and fundamentally unknowable other (Derrida just calls this “god”). For Derrida, this conception of responsibly constitutes a kind of paradox. As he describes in The Gift Of Death, “For responsibility…demands on the one hand an accounting, a general answering-for-oneself with respect to the general and before the generality… and on the other hand, uniqueness, absolute singularity, hence non substitution, non repetition, silence, and secrecy” (62). This is essentially the same dynamic we see playing out over the course of Review. Forrest is, or at least understands himself to be, a deeply altruistic character: he is essentially sacrificing his own life for what he views to be “the public good”. He understands his own work on the show to be responding to the general other on some question of fundamental importance, and is thus absolutely committed to the show’s integrity: He can never reveal to anyone outside of the show’s crew the “secret” of the requests he is fulfilling. For this same reason, though, he ends up in a position of irresponsibility toward the actual people in his life. His behaviour is inexplicable to his friends and family, and as a result he mostly just ends up looking like an asshole.
This basic paradox constitutes the tension that Derrida wants to draw between duty to the absolute other (or what he terms “god”), and “human ethics”, or what we could just call “being a decent and functional human being”. As he observes, “[a]bsolute duty demands that one behave in an irresponsible manner (by means of treachery or betrayal), while still recognizing, confirming, and reaffirming the very thing one sacrifices, namely the order of human ethics and responsibility. In a word, ethics must be sacrificed in the name of duty” (67). So the thing toward which Forrest is exercising his absolute duty (i.e., Review) both demands his “irresponsible” behaviour toward his family and friends, but, in so doing, actually serves to affirm his love for his family, insofar as his absolute duty to Review actually constitutes a kind of sacrifice. That is to say, if Forrest didn’t actually love his family, or otherwise “feel” things about the people around him, Review could not exist as such: we would just be watching a sociopath mechanically going around and completing tasks without feeling anything. Forrest would not be “having experiences” so much as he would be “going through the motions”. It is precisely because he feels things (i.e., mostly guilt and remorse), that he is capable of reviewing “life itself”.
So but why does he do it? Why does Forrest destroy his life out of some vague commitment to a thing he can never truly know? Derrida has an answer for this, too: “the Other has no reason to give to us and no explanation to make, no reason to share his reasons with us. We fear and tremble because we are already in the hands of God, although free to work, but in the hands and under the gaze of God, whom we don’t see and whose will we cannot know…We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is to say free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death” (57). If we substitute in “Review” for “God” here, we can maybe get a better sense of what’s going on. For Forrest, the commitment to Review, or the ongoing process of “reviewing life itself”, has become (again, somewhat paradoxically), an affirmation of his freedom, and therefore his personhood. This is to say, for Forrest to wake up every morning and actively commit himself to the work of reviewing life experiences for strangers of whom he knows and asks nothing is to actively and explicitly affirm his commitment to being in the world, not in spite of its challenge but because of them. The gift and burden of Forrest Macneil is to see the absurdity of Life Itself as a string of loosely-connected experiences that each of us must endure and retroactively evaluate and, without hesitation, say Yes.