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  • Fatherhood and the Promise of Ethics
  • Kelly Oliver (bio)

Both Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas reject the Freudian/Lacanian association of father with law and instead associate fatherhood with promise. For Ricoeur, fatherhood promises equality through contracts, while for Levinas, fatherhood promises singularity beyond the law. The tension between equality and singularity, between law and something beyond the law, is what is at stake in Derrida’s The Gift of Death. There, Derrida describes ethics as a paradox between the universal and the individual, between equality and singularity. Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis is the centerpiece of Derrida’s analysis. If we read The Gift of Death, with its focus on this story of father and son, in relation to Ricoeur and Levinas on the question of fatherhood, it reads as the culmination of a dialectical tension between the two. And if we read the Abraham story as a legend about father-son relations rather than just a parable of faith, The Gift of Death appears to uncover not just the paradoxical logic of ethics but also the uncompromising logic of patriarchy and paternal authority.

Paternity Begets Fraternity

In “Fatherhood: from Phantasm to Symbol” Ricoeur describes fatherhood as a battle of wills struggling for recognition. He brings together what he calls the different perspectives of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and religion in order to rearticulate the oedipal situation as a process of recognition (rather than a structure) which moves from the father as phantasm to the father as symbol and replaces images of real murder with symbolic sacrifice. Through his dialectical analysis, Ricoeur himself attempts to articulate a recognition of fatherhood that moves us away from the phantasm of the father as castrator to the symbol of the father as compassionate. Relying on Hegelian dialectics, Ricoeur outlines a movement from psychoanalysis’s fantastic image of an omnipotent father who must be killed so that the son might live, through Phenomenology of Spirit’s master-slave dialectic, to the Christian religious representation of the loving father sacrificing Himself through His son for the sake of all His children. In this higher stage of the dialectic of paternity, the murder of the father is replaced by his sacrifice. Oddly, however, Ricoeur’s dialectic remains at the level of the master-slave fight to the death, where—without the Hegelian resolution—the only options available to insure the recognition of the father by the son (or the son by the father) are murder or suicide. For Ricoeur, recognition requires death, symbolic if not imaginary, whereas Hegel insists that recognition comes only when the master and slave are willing to risk death but also realize the necessity of avoiding it; mutual recognition cannot be maintained if one of the parties is dead.

For Ricoeur, recognition does not necessitate avoiding death but rather moving away from the realm of the family and the body to the level of the social and the law. In order for the father-son relationship to be one of mutual recognition, the father must sacrifice his absolute authority so that the son might also participate in it. The goal of recognition is equality, which can be achieved only through social contracts that abstract from the particulars of embodied familial relations. One such social operation is designation, [End Page 45] which is removed from the realm of the bodily drives that motivate the oedipal scenario. Designation requires the sublimation of bodily drives into abstract laws that can equalize bodies by turning them into symbols.

The move from psychoanalysis to Christianity is a move from a domestic family to a social family: through God the Father’s sacrifice of His son, we all become members of the Christian family; we all become children of God. For Ricoeur, it is not that God is the Father because He gives the Law. Rather, the law, the covenant or contract, enables Him to be recognized as father [490]. Ricoeur implicitly rejects the Lacanian association of the Father with the Law or the Name. He claims that there is no Name of the Father. “Father” is not a name but a designation [Ricoeur 485]. And the father’s proper name is...

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pp. 45-57
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