Derrida's Garden

Eleanor Morgan

In 1985, Jacques Derrida was writing an essay on Plato’s theory of the cosmos when he received a phone call from Bernard Tschumi. He invited Derrida to collaborate with the architect Peter Eisenman on a garden design for his Parc de la Villette project in Paris. This collaboration would attempt to combine the two creative spaces of writing and architecture—creating a unity of theory and practice. The problem was to find a common ground. As a possible source of inspiration, Derrida offered Eisenman his interrupted essay on Plato.

Plato outlines the first written argument for the binary structure of the universe.1 He divides it into two parts: the intelligible and the sensible. The former signifies the world of ideas, those that are governed by reason, while the “sensible” represents the material and changeable world that is created. Plato believes that the world of ideas contains the original moulds of all “matter.” The “sensible” or material state is therefore an inferior copy of the “intelligible.” But Plato finds that he needed a third term, a word to symbolize the space in which the ideal becomes visualized. He names this in-between area chora, Greek for “space” or “site.” He defines it as a “receptacle of becoming”: a site for creation, which everything passes through, but in which nothing is retained. Yet, with its very introduction, Plato poses a huge problem. If chora lies outside the two states of the universe, then how is it to be defined It is outside description and language, outside the binary, and as such it must remain unrepresentable. Derrida writes that chora is “irreducible to all the values to which we are accustomed—values of origin, anthropomorphism, and so on…”2 So, chora comes from nowhere; it has no beginning, no essence, no nature. Chora is essential to Plato’s theory of creation, while at the same time refuting that model. It undermines what have been the two fundamental concepts of western philosophy: the sensible and the intelligible. Plato’s binary order contains and relies on its own disruption.

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