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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

HOW NOT TO MOVE THE EARTH

  • Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth.-- variant version of Archimedes' quote.


To inquire into the substance of what has been observed
is possible in natural science only where there is an Archimedean
point outside. For the psyche, no such outside standpoint
exists—only the psyche can observe the psyche. Consequently,
knowledge of the psychic substance is impossible for us, at least
with the means at present available. This does not rule out the
possibility that the atomic physics of the future may supply us
with the said Archimedean point. For the time being, however,
our subtlest lucubrations can establish no more than is expressed
in the statement: this is how the psyche behaves.-- Carl Jung,
"The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales."

The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution--appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. Furthermore, whereas in tales told for entertainment such mythical themes are taken lightly--in a spirit, obviously, of play--they appear also in religious contexts, where they are accepted not only as factually true but even as revelations of the verities to which the whole culture is a living witness and from which it derives both its spiritual authority and its temporal power-- Joseph Campbell, PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY, p. 3.

When I re-read the Jung essay, I was once again struck by his point about how the human psyche possesses no "Archimedean point" on which an observer can stand upon, whereby to either move its substance or to analyze it.  

Of course, Jung has his detractors. That arch-Rationalist C.S. Lewis remarked of Jung's writings that "the definition of water should not itself be wet," which was Lewis' way of taking a shot at the psychologist who believed that all religions had their roots not in revelation but in psychological intuitions.  I imagine that Jung might have answered this criticism by saying that the psyche is not a substance which could be dispassionately observed "from outside," as the element of water is; thus Lewis' comparison is clever but meaningless.  It's also interesting that if one did not know Lewis' history, from that one remark it would be possible to imagine him an Empiricist of a particular positivist slant.

Empiricists, however, have been the current shapers of the reflective mode of thought, and those who have most consigned Jung to the periphery of science, like the remark I first reprinted here:

Post-modern critics have more or less dispatched Jung. At the same time his archetype concept has morphed into the more empirically testable prototype theories of cognitive linguistics and visual arts. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s largely by Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff, prototypes reinterpret Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances' and basic-level categories, arguing that cognition produces a set of canonical categories (mental schema) that aid memory by producing somewhat abstracted or idealized feature sets of an object or object class (birds, for example) (Lakoff 1987).

I replied:

I believe I understand the appeal of this sort of science, particularly where its adherents believe it gives them weapons to knock down the idols of superstition and religion. But even if all of humankind's abilities to abstract and conceptualize *may* have arisen from cerebral attempts to conserve energy, that base fact does not define what the power of abstraction finally means, any more than the seed of an oak tress "means" the birds that nest within the tree.

It further struck me that this desire for an Archimedean point, from which one can imagine that one stands far enough removed from a given subject to analyze it, is common in elitist critics. Thus, though I wrote here that the appeal of Freud and Marx for elitists is founded in the appeal of a "reversal of values," I also noted at the essay's conclusion that such elitists did not prize revolution for its own sake. They want, as I concluded, "only one revolution, one story-- and sadly, just one truth." To accomplish that end, they attempt to give their analyses the pretense of psychological or sociological certainty, or, as I said in the above-cited "Dead-Alive Hand of the Past," following Freud and Marx because "Freud and Marx offer reductive paradigms which boast the rock-solid integrity of the physical sciences."

In passing I will note that the concentration upon supposed scientific veracity, or at least a "tough-minded" attitude comparable to the sciences, might also be the mark of what Northrop Frye calls an "Iliad critic," an argument I explored in my 2009 essay BREAKING OPEN MOULDY TALES.


In the quote above, Jung stressed the fact that we can only speak of the behavior of the psyche, and not of its substance. In doing so I believe he was trying to break out of the false positivism of his mentor Freud and of the psychological field generally, and present the experiences of the psyche as phenomenologically valid in themselves.   And in Joseph Campbell's above quote, he fundamentally agrees with Jung on this point, even though the two scholars approached the same material from very different orientations (Campbell being far less the Kantian that Jung was, for instance).

Nonetheless, when I encounter a remark from someone who believes that archetypes are somehow limiting, such as I referenced here, Campbell's quote proves instructive.  Campbell, like Jung, sees endless fascination in the productions of the psyche, even though they might reduce down to countless variations on a few limited themes. I repeat one phrase from the quote:

...such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution--appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. 

What might this mean to a subject aligned to science and reflective philosophy?  Presumably that individual would view such themes as restrictive because they might bind those who give them credence in the same way religious precepts have bound whole civilizations, at least according to the dominant "myth of religion" propounded by the more fanatical adherents of science. Such a reader would only see the words "always the same" and would assume that it was an attempt to convert others to a static, religion-based view of the universe-- and entirely overlook Campbell's emphasis on the "new combinations" that could spring "like the elements of a kaleidoscope," from those repeated themes.  And of course, that individual would conveniently overlook that supposed "scientists" like Freud and Marx have proselytized for their visions of the universe no less often than Jung and Campbell.  In fact, I've also sometimes suspected that the real popularity of Freud, Marx and all of their kindred is that a budding intellectual, by grounding himself in these doctrines, can safely ignore all the "speculative philosophy" that went before-- and a few representatives that endured into the twentieth century, such as Frye and Cassirer.  Certainly Edward Skidelsky, whose tome on Cassirer I began analyzing here, starts from the assumption that reflective philosophy has already won the day against the remnants of what I call "speculative philosophy."

On a side-note, I'm impressed yet again by the emphasis in Campbell on "combinations," just as I was upon finding a similar concept in Edmund Burke.  But any meditations on how Campbell relates to the combinatory-sublime will wait for a later essay.

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