A Witch’s Guide to Deconstruction

A blog post really won’t cover this, but I hope to lay out a rough set of orientations, a framework for exploration that might help orient us in the great wide world of spirit work. I don’t think deconstruction and witchcraft are such odd bedfellows, though I suspect few would agree with me. Still, consider the degree to which the sort of structuralism popularized by Claude Levi-Strauss began as an exploration of cognitive foundations of a cosmology. Those cosmologies have a deep tie to myth and rite. Derrida’s deconstruction, responding to this, is also, therefore, responding to a way of approaching myth and rite.

(Oh, and yes, I am using deconstruction to refer mostly to the Derrida-inspired variety, with its decidedly philosophical rather than literary or linguistic bent. Folks like Guyatri Spivak and Rudolph Gasche, yes. Folks like Paul De Man, not so much; though there is surely some overlap. I’m a sucker for the 1960s Derrida, so essays like “Force and Signification” and Of Grammatology loom large–those who know, will see why as I get going.)

Deconstruction begins by reversing the movement of structuralism. If structuralists were concerned with following the way in which contraries developed into a pleroma of differentiations, deconstructionists followed thought backward toward the point at which differentiation began. In trying to do this, Derrida started to notice a number of trends. The most basic of these was that the contraries that tended to get us thinking were artificial and collapsed into each other. He also noted that there seemed to be a difference between meaning of a statement (which differentiates itself within a conceptual framework) and force of a statement (the sentimental or affective response we have to it).

These two things are related. The more forceful a statement or story, the more difficult it was to engage in a structural analysis of its meaning. Or, vice versa, the easier it was to orient a statement in a system of meaning, the less forceful it tended to be. This suggests that the emotive force of a statement owes something to how closely it lies to the point at which the contraries that structure our thinking threaten to collapse into each other.

This observation isn’t exactly alien to the structuralism Derrida criticizes*[see below], either. Levi-Strauss wrote about it too, under the rubric of myth (meaning) and rite (force). Levi-Strauss suggested that the way in which we think mythically is naturally prone to variations, those variations coming to define a conceptual framework for organizing our world. These variations occurred because, at the level of thought, it was impossible to overcome the oppositions that we used to think. In ritual, though, he suggested that the oppositions were overcome through action.

Critics have rightly observed that Levi-Strauss’s differentiation of ritual and myth can be difficult to sustain; rituals and myth inform each other. Derrida provides us with a way forward from these criticisms that nonetheless preserves the basically good insight that Levi-Strauss has regarding the difference between rite and myth. Whereas myth explores the possibilities inherent in a set of contraries, ritual presents the birth of the contraries. They both, in this light, serve a basically conservative function. Ritual provides an emotive experience that joins us to the contraries while myth provides an intellectual exploration of them.

Derrida’s insight allows us to appreciate how fragile this can be, though. Ritual work doesn’t overcome the conflicts of myth as Levi-Strauss suggests, but just presents them in a fashion that makes it difficult to abandon them. Both myth and rite operate within a symbolic landscape and that symbolic landscape provides the basis for a common sensibility, a way of being in the world with other people, Kant’s sensus communis enfleshed.

Remember the well? What is the danger that faces us when we seek to go down to the source?

If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.

That is one of the problems with deconstruction and structuralism from a spiritual perspective. They don’t go down all the way, just to the bottom of the symbolic order, and they aren’t able to bring water back up. Derrida and deconstruction become a bit obsessed with the broken jug. What lies on the other side of that order? What founds it?

Here I think we do well to turn to two other writer, Rene Girard and Judith Gleason. Girard examines a curious cross-cultural phenomenon in which the figures that come to play a central role in a religious cult orchestrating ritual and myth are seen as disappearing. His suggestion is that the trope of disappearance reflects an elision of a special kind of founding murder that gives a community a sense of identity. The re-enactment of this murder in myth and ritual becomes a way to defer the repetition of the founding violence. There is some Freud in this, no doubt, but he casts a much wider net than Freud and his understanding of how the murders take place rest in more recent ideas about human and primate behavior.

Gleason, in her study of Ifa during the 1960s, notes that there seems to emerge within the sign of Irete Meji a pact with the earth through which an actual human sacrifice comes to be replaces with symbolic substitution sacrifices. However, she notes that this achievement is unstable, that the sign under which it takes place is a dangerous one. At any point, the symbolic order risks collapsing and a cycle of violence begin again. Even where actual sacrifice occurs in ritual, whether it be human or some other form of life (“an ear of corn cut in silence”), the sacrifice serves to prevent a more chaotic violence from overtaking the community.

If we lower the jug beneath the plane of symbols, what do we find? We find the dead. Not just any kind of dead, but the dead given over in sacrifice whether it be willing or unwilling. At the root of a people, we find their ghosts. There is a dimension of ‘force’ that has everything to do with our personal psychology but there is yet another has everything to do with the charisma of ghosts. When the two are well-joined in rite, the ghosts make their way into us through our psyche, imprinting us with the vision of a community gathered around their corpses.

And not just the ghosts, but the intelligences that hold them within that supportive matrix.

Remember Jung’s dream, the one that helped drive him from Freud?

Jung shared a dream with Freud in which he explores a house, descends to the cellar and, then beneath the cellar, finds an ancient vault containing two human skulls. Freud, probing for Jung’s secret death wish toward himself, pressed Jung for his associations. Jung, sensing his dream reflected his emerging ideas of the collective unconscious and fearful of Freud’s resistance, lied and said the skulls represented those of his wife, Emma and her sister (Jung, 1963, p.159).

I think Jung got the message, saw the well, but I don’t think he managed to lower the jug deeply enough.

There are higher spirits, spirits of the heavens, the Olympians that descend from on high. But these spirits need the subtle symbolic layers of myth, these spirits need the world that gets built atop the ghosts. It is the ghosts that come first, the boneyard that precedes the temple. The new moon makes possible the full moon.

Here is the thing, though. These structures are historical and they are subject to the ravages of time. The ghosts are not ghosts forever. They move or are moved through the fabric of being. Their force and the cosmology it preserves fade with their departure. Or they rise up restlessly and disrupt the whole framework that depends on their burial beneath the edifice of their society.

*I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but this kind of critical differentiation between structuralism and deconstruction is itself amenable to Derrida’s deconstruction. This isn’t just a silly little recursive bit of gamesmanship, but opens the door toward the way mimesis and rivalry enter into the constitution of a symbolic system.

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18 thoughts on “A Witch’s Guide to Deconstruction

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