Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lévi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions



Alice C. Linsley


There is no doubt that Proto-Saharan and Nilotic peoples as early as the Neolithic period thought of the observable world in terms of binary sets such as male-female, night-day, hot-cold, dry-wet, raw-cooked, life-death, and heaven above-earth below. This characterized Abraham's Horite people and is an important aspect of the Biblical worldview.

The directional axes of east-west and north-south comprised the most fundamental binary sets of Abraham's people and underpin the more complex cosmological understanding of the ancient Afro-Asiatic Dominion. Horite rulers were buried with their heads to the north and their faces to the east.

Horite religion venerated the Sun and its apparent east-west movement. The Sun was the emblem of the Creator and the source of life and light on Earth. The overshadowing of the Sun at high noon marked the temporal center, and noon on the mountain top marked the spatial center. This is the significance of sacred pillars and mountains (bnbn in Ancient Egyptian) that connected heaven and earth.



An ancient and universal way of thinking

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed binary thinking among pre-literate Amazon tribes in the 20th century. In his book, Le cru et le cuit, Strauss explores cultural perceptions of natural/raw-prepared/cooked, and other oppositions within primitive cultures.

Lévi-Strauss dedicated himself to searching for the "underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity." He argued on the basis of his anthropological findings that the primitive mind has the same structures or patterns as the civilized mind. These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques, which positioned him as the central figure in the structuralist school.

Lévi-Strauss was interested in the ways that meanings are derived from binary oppositions. His structuralist theory considers how opposites generate meaning not only by what each opposite represents but also through the relationship of the binary set. So man and woman each represent a unique idea, but the relationship of the two presents additional layers of meaning. Levi-Strauss argued that binary distinctions generate a hierarchy of meanings and are central to cultural narratives.

On the surface the theory of binary oppositions is straightforward. However, the work of Jacques Derrida reveals great complexities in deconstruction of texts, ideas, myths and human customs. In the case of binary oppositions, each component of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something.

Binary sets require that we make distinctions between entities, consider the relationship of dominance and subservience, and explore reversals.  In so doing, deeper and/or unfamiliar meanings emerge. This is what Derrida recognized in his playful and profound exploration of texts and myths.

Derrida ascribes to objects a less substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their trace. He explores the metaphysical aspect behind the physical. He moves behind Aristotle to Plato, and behind Plato to the ancient Nilotic mysteries which informed Plato. Derrida's reversals are a strategic intervention to free Western Philosophy from the constraints of epiricism, materialism and linear logic. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying sounds.

As Derrida suggested: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).

This reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is no small aspect of deconstruction's strategy. Derrida's argument is that in examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence. This is not a new idea or even a new approach to meaning. It is consistent with the binary thought and observations of the Abraham's Proto-Saharan ancestors from whom we receive the binary narratives in Genesis.

After deconstruction, Jacques Derrida concluded that there is a center and that something is there. He spoke of this something as "presence." He claimed that throughout the history of Philosophy this metaphysical presence is called by different names, “God” being one of them. This is uncomfortable for those who hold to materialist ideologies. They are baffled by the metaphysical. It is terrifying for those who claim there is no Creator. If there is something, a "presence" at the metaphysical center, it must surely be of ultimate authority (Romans 13:1).  Atheists exhibit existential angst about this possibility, even as they deny God's existence.

Derrida was a North African Arabic-speaking Jew. In a sense,  his contribution to Western Philosophy has been to re-introduce the Afro-Arabian interpretive approach to meaning. In this, he unintentionally renders a great service to Bible scholars. In Romans 1:20, Paul asserts that God's invisible qualities, namely His divine nature and eternal power, are evident in the fixed binary order of creation.  Here the Apostle is drawing on the received tradition of his Horim (Horite ancestors).

In the Horite view, the world does not change. Flux occurs within boundaries, but the order of creation is fixed. Lévi-Strauss and other structuralists agree that all humans observe certain patterns in the ordering of their societies and these patterns are informed by objective observation of the fixed order in creation. This flies in the face of the gay activists' claim, expressed by Gene Robinson at Emory University, "You can’t take a 20th century word, stick it back into an ancient text, and expect it to mean something entirely unknown to the authors of the text. These verses are quoted as if our world has never changed."

Gay advocates refuse to recognize that the biblical consideration of homosex is not restricted to a few verses in Genesis and Romans. It is a fundamental aspect of the binary framework of the entire Bible.

As a biblical anthropologist, I seek to understand the cultural context of the Bible, especially at the oldest, pre-Abrahamic foundations. Biblical Anthropology concerns itself with antecedents. The oldest layers of the biblical material reveal a binary and hierarchically structured worldview relative to gender, blood, circumcision, cosmology and priesthood. This is not a popular idea in these egalitarian times, but it is important that we understand the biblical worldview to discern falsehood from truth. A blow to the binary distinctions strikes the very heart of Christianity, for without this understanding, the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is meaningless. Were all equal, there would be none greater than ourselves who could stoop to save us.


Related reading:  Something OlderGenesis and Jacques DerridaOntology and the Philosophical ProjectBinary Sets in the Ancient WorldBlood and Binary Distinctions; Binary Opposition and Narrative; Binary Distinctions and KenosisGender Reversal and Sacred Mystery; Reality is Cross Shaped; Sweeping Away Gender and the Binary Distinctions; Full documentary "Claude Lévi-Strauss in His Own Worlds" (2008)



5 comments:

Lorin Crosby said...

You are awesome! I can't wait until you write those books of yours! As a Hebrew Israelite,I am consistently looking for the most ancient understanding of our forefather's thoughts, actions, and writings. To me, you have truly been a great benefit from the Most High, and I am very thankful for all the hard work in research, that you have done. Yah has given you able hands! Although I stumbled upon this blog unintentionally, rabbi Simon Altaf, of African-Israel.com was the first one to introduce your name to me, in the footnotes of his Hidden Truths Hebraic Scrolls bible translation. Thank you for all of your hard work, and for being so willing to share it with the public! Yahuweh and Yahushua his son and right arm, lead you and guide you.

Alice Linsley said...

Thank you, Lorin. It is good to be blessed in the Name of Yahuweh and Yahushua. May the blessing of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit be upon you also.

Peterson Silva said...

"He spoke of this something as "presence." He claimed that throughout the history of Philosophy this metaphysical presence is called by different names, “God” being one of them."

I'm sorry, but I'm think you're carefully selection Derrida's words to have him help you base your conclusion, which you would have reached with or without his help. This is not what Derrida meant. Derrida was a critic of the metaphysics of the presence, as the presence was not "something in the center", but instead one of the binary componentes of the presence/absence opposition that, mirroring the speaking/writing opposition, ends up with one of the poles overvalued and the other undervalued.

Also, God replaced "Logos" (not the idea of presence) in other philosophers' ideas, but the function was the same: to have an element be the "guardian of meaning", an ultimate resource that would be key to decode the constant connection of dependency between signs in a language.

He argues, in fact, that this key does not exist - there is nothing outside the [con]text. You're kind of making it sound like Derrida was providing some sort of linguistical-philosophical proof that there is a God. This is definitely not the case.

Alice Linsley said...

Derrida viewed the "presence" as a function in the sense that Wittgenstein spoke of function.

Read Derrida's Villanova Conversations.

Alice Linsley said...

Also read the first essay in related reading - "Something Older"