Sunday, June 19, 2005

Unfinished Project #2: The Literary History of Paternity

My second unfinished project is less fleshed out than the first, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. It's also fitting, since today is Fathers' Day.

It's a history of the idea of paternity, again starting with the Greeks and running through the modern period. One of the arguments that comes up in the Orestia (advanced by Apollo on Orestes's behalf) is that the murder of one's mother (as in the case of Orestes) is a lesser crime than the murder of the father (Oedipus) since the father is, strictly speaking, the only parent. How'd the Greeks come up with this? The answer is found in the etymology of the word "semen." The Greeks thought, on analogy with agriculture, that the prenatal child was entirely present in the man's "seed" (the active element), while the woman acted only as a host or soil in which the seed germinated (the passive element).

Okay, not hard to do a feminist critique of that position -- left as an exercise to the reader. But it's interesting, at least to me, that you get the opposite point of view expressed in James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce (who obviously knew his Greek) has his character Stephen Dedalus state the case that paternity is really just a legal fiction: the woman "fathers" the child when she states the child's paternity and (in the absence of DNA testing) that has to be taken at its word. It's Dedalus's fun with fatherhood that allows him to cast himself as both Hamlet and Telemachus, the vengeful son in search of his spiritual father (Leopold Bloom).

The problem with both positions, of course, is physical resemblance -- I've argued before that we can't entirely take Joyce seriously when Dedalus tries to escape the fact of his own fatherhood. (When he looks in a mirror, his friend Buck Mulligan remarks that "he is the ghost of his own father.")

So how do we mediate between the physical/organic fact of paternity on the one hand, and the social reality of paternity (in the "legal fiction" sense) on the other? In what sense does paternity embody the political, and in what sense -- as when Antigone remarks that she can have no more brothers, since her father and mother are dead -- does it entail the resistance to the political as such?

Part of my thinking on this subject is motivated by Derrida's reading of Hegel in Glas. Derrida notes as an aside Hegel's recognition, late in his life, of an illegitimate child. Hegel -- whose philosophy in large part concerns the problem of the relation between brute facticity on the one hand and abstract categories on the other, the problem of recognition, and the mediation of the family by the social -- remarked to his son (I'm paraphrasing): "Before, I was always the inessential element -- now I am the essential one." The thought that Hegel's entire philosophy (and perhaps not only Hegel's) is motivated by the problem of paternity is enticing enough to warrant its own treatment.

In general, I would say that I'm interested in what Adorno would call "negative dialectics" -- the portion of experience or reality that is discarded from the discursive formulations of that reality. Like with things -- which we usually only encounter only as physical objects, fungible commodities, or usable tools, never as things themselves, and rightly so, since we lack the language and the practice with which to do so -- I want to try to think the unthinkable, or at least the margins of the thinkable, through the concrete. Is that really so hard?

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