Thursday, September 13, 2007

Genesis and Jacques Derrida

Alice C. Linsley

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) focused on the ontological status of criticism and he established himself as a leading figure in deconstructionism. His analysis of the Western philosophical project employs important descriptors such as: logocentrism, phallogocentrism, the metaphysics of presence, ontotheoloy and metaphysics. “Logocentrism” emphasizes the primacy of logos or speech in the Western tradition.

“Phallogocentrism” points to the patriarchal sources of this primacy. Derrida's “metaphysics of presence” borrows from the work of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger maintains that Western philosophy has always granted primacy or “privilege” to presence itself. That is to say, something is because it can be and something can be because it is.

We might add that "something isn't" is also about metaphysical presence. Derrida is familiar with the apophaticism of eastern thought. (For more on this, go here.)

While Derrida loved to play with words and poke fun at conventional interpretations of texts, he was never very far from Plato's essentialism when he spoke of ontological presence. He regarded the center as absolute, eternal and immutable and believed that the philosophical project in the West has reached a dead end because of the abandonment of essentialism. (In reference to this, I recommend J. Jeremy Wisnewski's essay "An Antirealist Essentialism?" which is available to read online.)

His understanding of the mystery of gender reversal comes from his recognition of the fixed nature of binary oppositions. In subordinating the dominate entity to the subordinate entity we discover not only a different perspective, but also extended meaning derived from the relationship of the opposites.

“Ontotheology” was one of my favorite Derrida terms because it speaks of “the center” to which we inevitably must return and there we find different names, including “God” and “Logos”. As Derrida said, “It would be possible to show that all the terms related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence, ... essence, existence, substance, subject, ... transcendentality, consciousness or conscience, god, man, and so forth.” Derrida demonstrates that language is unstable and plays havoc with the concept of a transcendental, self-evident logos. That said, it is important to remember that Derrida never denies the existence of “the center”, or that there is something there. He regards the center as a function, not a being, but to which we must return in search of being.

Deconstruction dismantles the underlying assumptions upon which a metaphysical argument is based. It requires detailed reading of a text, parsing of terminology, and language “freeplay” on the part of the critic. Derrida’s method involves exploration of contradictions, oppositions and reversals and hangs on a binary framework. He sees that Western metaphysics rather consistently grants privilege to one side of an opposition and marginalizes the opposition. Studying Western philosophy, one would have to agree with him. Aristotle has won the day and Plato has been exiled from the picture.

Derrida ascribes to objects a less substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their trace. His reversals are a strategic intervention within the bounded Western philosophical system whereby he attempts to break out of that system.

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. As I will demonstrate in this essay, it is consistent with the mystical approaches of the Semitic peoples and we must remember that Derrida was a North African Arabic-speaking Jew. In a real sense, Derrida’s contribution to Western Philosophy has been to re-introduce the Semitic interpretive approach to meaning.

Let us now examine a case in point to understand the value of Derrida’s method.

Genesis 12: 8 says that Abraham proceeded “to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord.”

This sentence is full of meaning because of the reversal that it represents. Bethel means “House of God” and is associated with the east, the direction of the sunrise. Yet we are told that Abraham pitched his tent with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. This orientation represents a reversal and point to a mystery. The word Ai in Jewish mysticism is great Mother. The feminine principle has moved to the positon of priority in the east, signaling a gender reversal.

In Jewish mysticism Ain soph is associated with north and the number 1 and represents the Hidden God, the Cause of all causes. Aima is associated with south and the number 3. Because the house of Ain (Bethel) has moved to the west, south has moved to the position of north. We have a reversal of directional poles that places south in the position of priority. South also presents marriage and reproduction. Then in Genesis 12:9 we are told that Abraham’s next journey takes him to the south, to the Negev. It appears that this was when he took Keturah to be his second wife. Now with Sarah in Hebron and Keturah in Beersheba, Abraham was able to establish control over a territory on a north-south axis, following the pattern of his forefathers.

We have further confirmation of the association of 1 with north and 3 with south in I Kings 7:23-26 and II Chronicles 4:1-4. Here we read that the altar in Solomon’s temple was to rest on 12 oxen: 3 facing north, 3 facing west, 3 facing south and 3 facing east. We note that north heads the list, having the position of priority. Then comes west (associated with the numbers 9 and 10) and then in the third position we have south.

The logic of “supplementarity” (Derrida’s term) shows that what is conceived as the marginal object does in fact define the central object of consideration. We have seen this in the complementarity and supplementarity of gender roles. So the binary polarities of the Afro-Asiatic worldview that assigned priority to north and east (those being associated with God) are reversible, bringing south and west to the position of priority. This reversal of south and north interpreted for Abraham the direction he was to go.

With south at the position of priority, Abraham knew to head in that direction. There, at the well of Sheba, he took his second wife, Keturah, his patrilineal parallel cousin. Just as he had worshiped between Bethel and Ai (Genesis 12:7), so Abraham worshiped in Beersheba. Genesis 21:33 tells us that, “Abraham planted a tamar tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” The tamar is a date palm that was a symbol of fertility among the peoples of ancient Arabia and was used in the installation of priests and kings.

Related reading:  Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary OppositionsBinary Sets in the Ancient World; Binary Distinctions and Kenosis; Blood and Binary Distinctions; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions


TLF+ said...

The Native American medicine wheel is west - north - east - south, with various spirits, natural forces and attributes associated with each direction. There's also the Sky Father and Mother Earth.

The Lakota have "heyoka", a type of holy jester who does (and says) ceremonies backwards . I've read somewhere that the Southwestern tribes have similar figures who intrude on ceremonies in ways raucous and even obscene, an interesting expression of supplementary and complimentary opposites serving the same center.

What would you say about the Gospel of John? With its duality of light and dark, is it an impossibly "Greek" expression, or do Afro-Asiatic ways find expression there?

I would not be bothered if they did not - the kingdom includes people of "every race, nation, tribe and tongue" lifting praise to the one God, so different parts of the Canon might well (I'm sure do emphasize the thought patterns of different cultures responding to God.

I'm just curious and enjoy learning from your site.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Father, your observations are helpful. The west takes priority when preparing the site for the vision quest because the vision quest has to do with one's future role in the tribe or one's destiny. West represents the future for the Lakota.

John's Gospel is a fascinating case. It is quite dualistic and Johannine writings stress vigilance for followers of Christ in recognizing evil spirits. So John tells us to "test the spirits". This is something that Shamans understand. They have ways of testing the spirits. Of course only one Spirit never lies, the Holy Spirit. I'm sure, given God's desire to communicate with us, that some shamans have had contact with the Holy Spirit, but may call the One Truth-Telling Spirit by a different name.

James Owens said...

An interesting post with wide implications. Might I ask, what is your basis for identifying Keturah as Abraham's "patrilineal parallel cousin"? Likely enough, I'm just missing something. If there is good evidence for this, it could certainly play a signficant role in the pattern of complementarity---associating the paternal line with the South.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Genesis 10 lists Sheba as a descendent of Noah, through Ham. The Hamites and the Semites intermarried, so Abraham is a descendent of Sheba. Keturah is also a descendent of Sheba. We can justifiably presume this since she had access to and probably resided at or near the well of Sheba, and because this kinship pattern is characteristic of Abraham's people.

As I have shown in my analysis of the kinship pattern of Abraham's people, the chiefs had two wives. One was a half-sister and the other was a patrilineal parallel cousin. As this was the custom, and Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, we can safely assume that Keturah was Abraham's cousin.

Further evidence pertains to Issac's connection to Beersheba. After Sarah died, he is found in Beersheba. It is to Beersheba that Abraham's servant brings Rebekah. In times of grief, we cling to family.

We also note that one of Abraham's 6 sons by Keturah is Jokshan, father of Sheba. Since the cousin brides named their first born sons after their fathers, we are able to determine that Abraham's grandson, Sheba (the younger) is the grandson of Sheba (the elder).

I regard the statement in Gen. 25:1 as a gloss which contradicts the bulk of what Genesis shows. Other than that gloss, I find that everything in Genesis holds together and can only be regarded as preserved by God for a purpose.

James Owens said...

Thank you for the through response. I suppose 25:1 is exactly what was giving me trouble, the fact that it does not mention Keturah's descent.

A fascinating blog. I'll be coming back often.

Alice C. Linsley said...

You're most welcome, James! I look forward to further conversation.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Fr. Timothy Fountain notes that Amos 8:4-12 speaks of cardinal directions:

"The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it."

Here we see that north and east are associated with Yahweh, where the Tradition teaches the people to mystically seek him, but their sin cuts them off from HIS presence. The association of these points with Yahweh is based on the mystical number symbolism of the Afro-Asiatic peoples, some of which is evident in Kabbalah.