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 Oppositions; Binary Sets in the Ancient World; Binary Distinctions and Kenosis; Blood and Binary Distinctions; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions