Teaching without Mastery

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Teaching without Mastery [*]


I belong to a group of Derrida scholars who, for reasons of age and geography, had little to no contact with Derrida himself. Our relation to him was formed primarily through reading his texts, filtered by secondary works (and sometimes translations) written by those who worked closely with him over a number of years. These same people were often, but not always, our teachers and mentors. But of course this does not mean that Derrida was not our teacher too. In studying his work, year after year, we have come to be taught by him in a profound way. In what follows, I reflect briefly on this relation, considering both what Derrida teaches and how this teaching takes place.


Since I have been taught by Derrida by reading his texts, I am tempted first to evoke the logic of writing. To follow this temptation would be to speak of that peculiar combination of repetition and difference that structures all writing – its iterability, to use Derrida’s word – which explains how the written mark can be detached from its original context and redeployed elsewhere. Iterability allows me to return to Derrida’s texts, texts which each time repeat the same, and which at the same time I encounter each time anew.


And yet, such an appeal to the logic of writing would miss the relation I have in mind. As Derrida argues above all else, this logic is not restricted to the written mark. Iterability characterizes the work of every mark, in writing, in speech, and beyond. Thus iterability alone cannot account for my relation to Derrida as a teacher. If it did, then every author, of every text in the most general sense, would be a teacher. This claim appears to be both untrue and unhelpful, and I would maintain this judgment even if restricted to the sphere of the literally written text. Certainly I learn from every text I read, and learning’s need of repetition with difference matches well iterability’s constitution of the mark. But learning also occurs in the absence of teachers. Indeed, I would suggest that learning occurs much more often than does teaching, with teaching being a rather rare event.


What then is specific to Derrida’s texts such that I not only learn from them, but am taught by them as well ? The answer lies, I propose, in Derrida’s choice to write always engaging the work of others. As his readers well know, Derrida never writes alone. Every one of his texts is written in the company of others, namely the authors he reads. In this way Derrida’s texts create a kind of collective. Not so much a «community» of others – in this instance it is right to invoke Derrida’s suspicion of this word, since to emphasize the common might lead us to overlook the divisions and aporias preventing a harmonious coexistence – but at the very least a type of ensemble, a provisional setting into relation of Derrida and those he reads.


In addition, and at the same time, in making this choice there are other others to whom Derrida offers his company. These are us, his readers. Derrida invites his readers to enter into the relations found in his texts. His texts thus involve an act of sharing, and it is this act of sharing, I would suggest, that makes Derrida a teacher. A teacher assembles for students a configuration of thought, and offers it to them. A teacher prepares for and presents to students an object of study, inviting them to learn by engaging it in turn. That Derrida’s texts offer themselves to readers in this way is no doubt linked to their process of production. Thanks to the publication of Derrida’s seminars, as well as secondary literature based on archival research, we can all now appreciate what was previously known perhaps only to those present in his classes – that Derrida’s many books and essays, almost without exception, had their origins in lectures and seminars first taught at the École Normale and the École des Hautes Études. Thus, beyond his many texts focusing explicitly on education, those written directly out of his experience with Greph and the Collège international de philosophie, one can say that virtually all of Derrida’s writings remain strongly marked by pedagogical practice.


A key aspect of this practice is the slowness of its pace. Derrida inhabits the texts he reads, he moves into them and stays there, taking his time to allow their complexities to unfold. And if we respond to Derrida’s invitation to keep him company as he reads, this pace becomes our own. To read with Derrida as he reads others is thus never cursory, never only to touch them at a single point. By taking his time Derrida teaches us to take our time too, to pass our time in his company accompanying the others’ thoughts, so that we have the time to study and the time to learn.


Slowing us down, Derrida thus teaches us to be wary of rapid resolutions, whether they be achieved through easy comprehension or quick rejection. Indeed, if one genuinely follows Derrida, keeping him company every step of the way, then resolutions are precisely what will always elude our grasp. This is due to the aporetic structures that Derrida’s writings collect. Time and again, the configurations of thought that Derrida shares with us are constituted by necessary contradictions which resist being solved or dissolved. To stay in such contradictions is no easy task. It is not a matter of seeing them through to their end, but appreciating and experiencing the fact that they have no end. Stubborn, restless, and interminable, the aporias Derrida describes repel us, recalcitrant in the face of our usual tools of analysis. And yet Derrida manages to remain with them, grappling with them, where others – those he reads and many of those who read him – would turn away.


Derrida’s teaching is thus characterized by its slow pace, and a dedicated persistence in maintaining the aporetic tensions in the texts he discusses. His teaching thus extends the time we would share with the objects of study that he presents, should we decide to remain by his side. And it is because of this that I would characterize Derrida’s teaching as a teaching without mastery. Derrida resigns mastery by offering his texts up to the intervention of difference, not just in the necessary delay at the basis of all writing, but also in the extension of time he invites his readers to experience. This extension is the time in which events beyond Derrida’s control might take place, events arising in and through the learning he inspires.


In this way, Derrida’s texts allow us to depart from the traditional lineage of master-teacher (maître) and disciple he describes in his first essay on Foucault. There he speaks of internalizing the voice of the master-teacher, whose silencing power can be overcome only through force. I don’t know whether when he first wrote these words Derrida endorsed such a system of pedagogical succession. It is plausible that he did, a young man impatient to move ahead in a determined hierarchy. But regardless, in the time since, more than 50 years now, Derrida’s texts have taught a different lesson. They teach that the seemingly inevitable cycle of transmission – whereby one master-teacher is simply incorporated and replaced by another – might be interrupted, its repetition disturbed. They open up a time in which this cycle might be turned from its path, and inherited anew. In having been taught by Derrida, in reading him, this is the lesson I am challenged to teach in my turn.



I would like to thank Jason Wozniak, whose thoughts and conversations on the relation between teaching and time inspired much of what is written here.