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The family under erasure. A deconstruction of concepts of the family in Western philosophy

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posted on 2023-07-05, 03:09 authored by Christopher Peers

The idea of “family” is named by Jacques Derrida as a “grand narrative” that provides laws in the fields of both psychoanalysis and anthropology: and yet, Derrida says, in order to approach those laws, the idea of law itself had to be interrupted, marked out and shown to be something other than itself. This study offers a deconstruction of central concepts through which a Western tradition about the family is sustained; it continues the initial attempt by Derrida to mark out some of the laws that pertain to “family” and which frame the ways in which it has been thought in the work of Plato and G.W.F. Hegel. My aim is to unravel some of the least disturbed concepts in the social discourse that condition human relationships, to open a space in which greater scrutiny may be placed on the family in philosophy, gender studies, and cultural studies. 

Attention is paid here to the impossibility of thinking about the law of the family, without reference to the incest prohibition, a taboo that, as Derrida reads it, gains an opacity that prevents either Freud or Levi-Strauss from penetrating the opposition between nature and culture. Much of Derrida’s work on laws relating to the family approached the concepts that circulate around “nature” and “culture” as if to support them in their function as ideologies: an obvious example of this that I begin to deconstruct here is the concept of sexual reproduction. 

The approach that Derrida outlines for me arises from his reading of Heidegger, especially with regard to the concepts of das Ereignis (the event) and Geschlecht (sex, race, family, nation, etc.) These tools allow me to revisit issues relating to patriarchy that sometimes appear to have been settled, within the discourses of feminism or psychoanalysis. For example, I argue that unless the category of sex is read in relation to its pre-comprehension as a phenomenological attribute of human “being”, it is difficult, if not impossible to disturb heteronormativity and its corresponding hegemony of sex categories. The opportunity emerges in this study to divide the seemingly obvious unity of the family for the sake of a queer reading, building on the work of both Luce Irigaray and Lee Edelman, in which the stability of the family as an anchor for the futurity of the human species is placed in question. 

The study sits in an interstitial space between continental philosophy, gender studies, queer theory, and cultural studies. It deploys Derrida’s deconstruction of Heidegger’s “event” to suggest that much of what Freud discovers in the Oedipal, incestuous scene, had already appeared, and so reappears, in the work of Hegel: the study contributes a new reading of Hegel and Plato on pregnancy that expose the operation of the “trace” in each of these discussions. Incest is thereby revealed as a structural efficiency, a play of the sign-structure when it is analysed in relation to family scenes. The pregnancy comes to signify a necessarily “missing” presence that is always already superimposed on any reading of the family, in exactly the same way that incest operates to prohibit endogamy.


Table of Contents

Chapter one: introduction -- Chapter two: Plato’s pregnancy -- Chapter three: Plato’s mother -- Chapter four: Plato’s father -- Chapter five: Plato’s hysteria -- Chapter six: the morphological fantasy -- Chapter seven: Hegel’s “marriage” -- Chapter eight: the (im)-possibility of pregnancy -- Chapter nine: family and kinship -- Chapter ten: Hegel’s Antigone -- Chapter eleven: conclusion. What remains unsaid -- Reference list

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Literature and Language

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Joanne Faulkner

Additional Supervisor 1

Nicole Anderson

Additional Supervisor 2

Paul Patton


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




252 pages

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