Derrida at the Wheel

Article excerpt

In one of his final works (Voyous, 2003), Jacques Derrida expresses in a playful aside his admiration for the craft of the potter, and he compares the potter's work to that of the philosopher. This essay attempts to develop Derrida's aside in the same playful spirit, following the theme or trope of the potter and his products in Western literature (from Homer to Wallace Stevens), religion (from Genesis to Romans), and philosophy (from Plato through Heidegger).

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(Ah, the wheel [le tour]! Let me confide in you here ... (1)

On the threshold, on the cusp, on the lip of what I had hoped to be a singular, incomparable testimony, a unique offering--though I now have no illusions, for the lid is already ajar, the gift inexorably doubled and doomed--I too would like to begin with a parenthetical word of confidence or confession: Jacques Derrida has been so many things to so many of us--instructor and inspiration, master and mentor, philosopher and friend--and he has written so much on so many subjects (I won't even begin to enumerate) that it seems ill-advised, even indecent, to try to reduce him here to any one of these figures or to focus on any one of these subjects. My sole consolation in what follows will thus be that the single figure or conceit I have chosen, the single representation of Jacques Derrida to which I shall limit myself, is one for which Derrida himself expressed an avowed preference in one of his very last works. Near the beginning of Rogues, Derrida confides this image to us in an aside: ("Ah, the wheel [le tour]! Let me confide in you here how much I love this image of the potter, his art, the turns of someone who [...]" [13]).

Derrida the potter, then, Derrida "at the wheel," not driving along by turning the wheel, as he also loved to do, but more or less immobile, "at his wheel" as one would speak of a philosopher "at his desk," a philosopher a son tour or, rather, philosopher and potter tour a tour, that is, by turns philosopher and potter, philosopher as potter. Throughout Rogues, Derrida likens himself to someone who has been bound, stretched, tortured on the wheel by being pulled in opposite directions by contrary imperatives, and while that image works well for that context, a more appropriate image is, for me here today at least, Derrida not on but at the wheel, driven rather than driving, driven but immobile at the centre of a spinning disk, a master craftsman at his wheel, spinning his materials at the centre of a turning machine: ("[...] how much I love this image of the potter, his art, the turns of someone who, on his wheel, makes a piece of pottery rise up like a tower by sculpting it, moulding it, but without subjecting himself, or herself, to the automatic, rotating movement, by remaining as free as possible with regard to the rotation, putting his or her entire body, feet and hands alike, to work on the machine [...]"). Derrida at the wheel, then, a creator or demiurge moving and shaping the four elements, moulding and fashioning bits of earthen clay by spinning them through the air, mixing in water to make them smooth and pliable, and then firing and vitrifying the sculpted pots, jugs, and urns to be exported to the four corners of the globe. Imagine him, then, Derrida at the wheel ...

I am thinking, for example, of that writing desk in the sunroom in Ris-Orangis, Derrida surrounded by his materials, books and articles, dictionaries and lexicons, the Apple at the center of the wheel being worked on, manipulated with both hands, a text moulded and shaped over the course of a morning. Or, better, I think of him at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes on the Boulevard Raspail, teaching, educating, exercising, in truth, the craft of a master potter before a couple hundred students or apprentices who have come not to sit at the master's feet but to learn at his hands ("[...] putting his or her entire body [...] cultivating the art of a sculptor but also that of an architect and composer who imposes on or rather grants to matter differences in height, changes in color and tone, variations in rhythm, accelerations or decelerations [allegro or presto, adagio or lento], in a space as sonorous in the end as a sort of musical transposition or discreet word. …