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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Mr. Jacques Derrida, Documentation, and the Great George M. and Scene II

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2010

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator Documentation rhymes with litigation, and litigation rhymes with deposition, and the deposition brings with it file cabinets on wheels with the documentation filling five file drawers.

At the deposition, counsel hands the deponent the document Bates stamped 10,921. Copies are handed around to the lawyers, the associates, the paralegals, and the court reporter.

Counsel then asks the deponent a question related to document 10,921. The deponent asks to read it. When he completes the reading, he asks that the question be repeated. It is repeated. If the deponent thinks the document is harmful to his case, he is forgetful. If he thinks it unharmful, he remembers.

This ceremony goes on and on, document after document, question after question, as the documents pile up in a scramble covering the conference room table.

There are a few lawyers around who refuse to join this game. I have in mind such a lawyer. We shall call her Rosetta Stone. She uses only one document to win her case, just like the French Egyptologist used the Rosetta Stone to decode the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Ms. Stone’s technique follows that of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) who originated the technique of deconstruction. Derrida said every written word has its own hidden meaning colored by ideology, bias, prejudice, philosophy, faith, the hidden conspiracy, the context, and the cover-up.

Ms. Stone, using that one page, conducts a four-hour, Derrida-type cross-examination, sending the witness away trembling. She wins her case using one document.

As an aside, I happened to be on a panel with a Texas criminal lawyer who said he liked to have the key document he will use on cross-examination retyped on onionskin paper. Why onionskin? Simply because when it is handed to the government witness’s to read, the thin paper wigwags in the witness’ trembling hand, suggesting to the jury that the witness is not telling the truth.

Let’s see how well we do as Derrida deconstructionists. Let’s deconstruct this lyric:

Did you ever sit and ponder, sit and wonder, sit and think,
Why we’re here and what this life is all about?
It’s a problem that has driven many brainy men to drink,
It’s the weirdest thing they’ve tried to figure out;
About a thousand different theories, all the scientists can show,
But never yet have proved a reason why.
With all we’ve thought and all we’re taught,
Why all we seem to know is,
We’re born and live a while, and then we die.
Life’s a very funny proposition, after all;
Imagination, jealousy, hypocrisy and all;
Three meals a day, a whole lot to say;
When you haven’t got the coin, you’re always in the way.
Ev’rybody’s fighting, as we wend our way along
Ev’ry fellow claims the other fellow’s in the wrong;
Hurried and worried, until we’re buried and there’s no curtain call;
Life’s a very funny proposition, after all.

Can we tell whether the author is a man or a woman? Can we tell the writer’s approximate age? Can we tell the writer’s occupation? If we were representing the plaintiff in a personal injury case, would we put such a person on the jury? If we were the defense counsel in a criminal case, would we put such a person on the jury?

What is the political bias of a person who writes “Three meals a day, a whole lot to say; when you haven’t got the coin, you’re always in the way?” The words have conservative implications.

Do the words “Ev’rybody’s fighting, as we wend our way along, Ev’ry fellow claims the other fellow’s in the wrong” suggest that the writer was a lawyer?

Enough Derrida deconstruction. Here are the facts. The person who wrote the lyric was George M. Cohan. He wrote it when he was 26. His education was perhaps a year in grammar school. In addition to writing the words, he wrote the music to “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All.” He sang it and danced to it in the musical comedy he wrote titled Little Johnny Jones (1904), and it included “Give My Regards to Broadway.” You can see Jimmy Cagney sing and dance to it in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Although Cohan spent most of his life on stage, he was introspective. He rarely opened up himself to anything personal, even to his friends. However, he did give a clue in a speech he wrote for himself in his play The Tavern. In the play, he was a mysterious vagabond who found himself among strangers. One of the strangers asked him in an aggressive tone just who he was. As he prepared himself for the answer, the lights dim:

The answer is, sir, I don’t know who I am and if I did, I’d be the most miserable man on earth, for my greatest happiness lies in the fact that I occupy a most unique position—that of not having been cast for a part in the great world drama of life.

For in all the changing scenes of this ever-beginning, never-ending plotless plot, I recognize the spiritual hand of the great Director, the Master Dramatist who skillfully staged this tightly-knitted spectacle of tragic nonsense. I hope that when we meet we will have the time to discuss that weak part in Scene Two.

The Curtain Slowly Drops

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.