Beyond the Father's Law: The Daughter's Gift of Death

By Zakin, Emily | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Father's Law: The Daughter's Gift of Death


Zakin, Emily, Philosophy Today


There is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing--but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

J. Derrida

A Birth is in the Offing

Derrida writes the above, almost apocalyptic words at the conclusion of his essay on Levi-Strauss, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." In that essay he interrogates the meaning of structure by examining its operations at work in establishing any system of organized meaning. In particular, he interrogates the supposed foundation or "fixed origin" of social organization, what Levi-Strauss designates as the "elementary structures of kinship," those of exogamy and the incest taboo. Since exogamy requires that one marry "outside one's own," that the proper couple of man and wife be composed of members of families extrinsic to one another, it inaugurates or becomes the condition of a certain social bond, even a "contract." This lawful sexuality functions according to the incest taboo that regulates the Oedipal Complex, forbidding inappropriate sexual relations and inappropriate (we might say, natural) births. The elementary structures of kinship hence govern a certain economy of the proper or a proper economy, rules for establishing a home. These structures thereby challenge (while admittedly they also recapitulate) the very distinction between nature and culture insofar as they are both universal and normative (Derrida 1978, 283). As Derrida writes of Levi-Strauss's encounter with the "scandal" of the incest prohibition, "the incest prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural" (283). But even while this scandal undermines the nature/culture opposition, it simultaneously reiterates it by differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate births, thereby placing the legal institution of paternity at the crux of entry into human society. Illegitimate births, births that do not occur under the legal name of the father,1 are not only outlaw, but as such are relegated to the domain of the natural, the inhuman.

What then is the question being born, according to Derrida? Derrida himself only gestures toward it, offering the conditions for its formation but stopping short of giving it voice. The question itself remains mute, unspoken. He raises the idea of the question in the last few sentence of the essay, indicating that it arises as a response to that which has come before. It is, I therefore believe, the question of kinship, the question of whether there can be said to be such a thing as the "elementary structures of kinship." The birth of this question is itself an historical event, born through a future whose infant existence appears monstrous from the perspective of this Oedipalized society from which Derrida does not exclude himself. This monstrous birth, a birth that apparently cannot be called human, "proclaiming itself under the species of the nonspecies," might have an origin that does not not lie in the incest prohibition.2 The kinship structures that are for Levi-Strauss at the origin of and the condition for a distinctly human society,3 might themselves not be originary.

In his essay on Freud entitled "Freud and the Scene of Writing," Derrida writes that "it is a non-origin which is originary" (Derrida 1978, 203). Derrida makes this claim in the context of discussing a repression which threatens to return, and he means to indicate that it is the non-origin, the absence, the lack of an "elementary structure" that is being repressed for the sake of a desire for origin. …

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