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 3,800 B.C. thought of the observable world in terms of binary sets such as male-female, night-day, heaven above-earth below, dry-wet, raw-cooked, and life-death. This characterized the worldview of Abraham's Horite Hebrew ancestors and is an important feature to recognize when studying the biblical texts.

The directional axes of east-west and north-south comprised fundamental binary sets for Abraham's people and underpin their cosmology, worship, and burial practices. It appears that Horite Hebrew rulers were buried with their heads to the north and their faces to the east. The rising of the sun, the emblem of God Father (Ra or Ani) and God Son (Horus or Enki), spoke to them of the hope of bodily resurrection. They anticipated a Righteous Ruler who would overcome death and lead his people to immortality.

The Horite Hebrew venerated the sun and aligned their monuments to the solar arc. The overshadowing of the sun signified divine appointment of rulers. Ascent to the mountain top (the spatial sacred center) at high noon marked the sacred temporal center, and the place and time of theophanies.

Likewise the sacred pillars in the Horite Hebrew temples and elevated shrines (called bnbn in Ancient Egyptian) connected heaven and earth.

The biblical worldview observes binary sets or binary oppositions which distinguishes this worldview from dualism. In a binary set, one of the entities is recognized as being superior in some way to its opposite. The entities are not equal opposites as in dualism. The sun and moon are posed as a binary set, and we note that the sun is the greater light (Gen.1:16).

An ancient 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 binary oppositions/sets within primitive cultures.

Lévi-Strauss dedicated himself to searching for the "underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity." On the basis of his anthropological findings he argued 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 how meaning is related to and derived from observation of binary oppositions/sets. His structuralist theory considers how meaning relies not only on a single entity in the binary set, but also on the relationship of the entities and the beyond thing to which the relationship points. 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 binary logic seems 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 entity of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something, and then there is still a beyond Presence, a constancy beyond human grasp.

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 empiricism, 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 materialists. They find the metaphysical baffling. If there is a "presence" at the metaphysical center, it must surely be of ultimate authority (Romans 13:1). It is natural that many should feel existential angst about this possibility.

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.

In the Horite Hebrew 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)


Lorin 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 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 C. 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 C. Linsley said...

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

Read Derrida's Villanova Conversations.

Alice C. Linsley said...

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

Anonymous said...

Hi Alice,
I am slowly getting a sense sense of your website and train of thought. This article was most helpful. As I read more and more articles , I am beginning (I hope) to understand binary oppositions. I hope I am beginning to understand how archaic humans have such in their mindset. My only questions are, as I help my daughter with her science homework--my question is how do I explain the physical make-up of archaic humans and God's creation within that whole "physical make-up," According to her high school science books, we are looking at ape like creatures who were possibly considered archaic humans. Is this true? I am trying to make sense of it all. Did we actually look like these archaic human? How does this fit into creation and why not just humans as we see today if such is true? I don't understand. Please clarify. And, thanks for all your research--so very interesting!!!!!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Text books are at least 40 years behind the current research. Archaic humans were anatomically like modern humans in that they walked upright, had human dentition, made tools, controlled fire, butchered animals, etc. The discovery of a complete fourth metatarsal of A. afarensis at Hadar shows the deep, flat base and tarsal facets that "imply that its midfoot had no ape-like midtarsal break. These features show that the A. afarensis foot was functionally like that of modern humans." (Carol Ward, William H. Kimbel, Donald C. Johanson, Feb. 2011)

See these articles:

Best wishes!