Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, Harry Potter, and the UK Riots

Click the picture for a more detailed explanation of the notion of signifier/signified.

[To make the parallel of Harry Potter & the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, see here.]

There are a number of popular (i.e. non-academic) intellectual movements whose objective is to find an immanent basis for the meaning of signifiers. One such example is Jungian archetypes, which states that various symbols are innate in the human mind, and thus that symbols are “universally recognizable.” As well, the sociobiology of Desmond Morris seeks to ground social phenomena in biological instinct (once again, innate), e.g. he ascribes the tradition of women coloring their lips red to the fact that when a woman becomes aroused, her lips become engorged with blood, appearing fuller and redder; thus lipstick is a display of availability for mating, just as is the peacock displaying its feathers. A third, more contemporary instance of this tendency can be found in the Harry Potter series. In Hogwarts, students of witchcraft & wizardry are taught combinations of signifiers (e.g. a “swish & flick” of one’s wand combined with the words “Wingardium Leviosa” pronounced in a specific way) which are somehow inherently connected to their magical function. There is no talk of ‘inventing’ spells; presumably experimental wizards merely spout out Latin-sounding words in hopes that they’ll bring a result connected to their etymology. This essay will outline the three views described above; show how meaning is in fact not immanent, but for the most part purely arbitrary; and show how this immanent treatment of signifiers resonates within the UK riots, perhaps to the point of precluding any significant cultural change.

First, the term ‘immanence‘ must be explained. The most common definition is that something inherent in an idea or form is ‘immanent‘. For example, in a certain configuration of chess pieces, the most logical course of action for both players will involve taking seven different pieces in the same number of moves―that schema is said to be immanent within that configuration. For another example, in a logic problem containing a single correct solution, that solution is said to be immanent within the problem. In the sense that I am using it in this essay, I mean the idea that there is a necessary, inherent connection between a signifier (a word, gesture, etc.) and what it signifies (i.e. its meaning).[1]

The butterfly is immanent within the caterpillar.

Carl Jung was one of the original members of Freud”s psychoanalytical circle, along with Adler, Ferenczi, Rank, and Jones, to name the most well-known. Freud intended that Jung become his successor, but Jung broke with Freud for three main reasons: 1) Jung disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexual (libidinal) energy; 2) Jung had begun to develop his theory of synchronicity, where everything is connected by a mystical force that brings about paranormal events―a theory which Freud, as a scientist, rejected as balderdash; 3) Jung disagreed with Freud’s method of interpreting dreams: instead of each dream-symbol having a particular meaning provided by the individual experience of each dreamer (as was the case with Freud), Jung proposed that symbols have universally recognizable meaning because these symbols are innate in the human mind―what Jung called archetypes. After Jung broke with Freud, the latter requested that Jung not call his work ‘psychoanalysis’, a request which Jung granted, calling his work ‘depth psychology’. Nonetheless, Jungian psychology is generally considered a canonical school of psychoanalysis, and its de-emphasis of sex has lowered controversy enough that Jung is more accepted in the mainstream than Freud.

According to Jung, archetypes recur in human societies throughout history, particularly in art & religion, and all have similar meanings. One such example is the mandala, a circular symbol which represents the total realization of human possibility, which Jung called the archetype of the Self. The mandala can be found everywhere from tribal architecture to the stained glass windows of Catholic churches. Other examples of archetypes are the ‘wise old man’ and the ‘earth mother’, both of which can be found in the mythology of all cultures; Jung developed a series of character archetypes, ranging from the former two to the trickster.

A Japanese mandala. Jung believed that the mandala is a transcendental archetype, since variants of it are found in the mythologies of all cultures.

The problem with Jung’s methodology is that he reifies his concepts in the worst possible way. The human faculties of memory are so constituted that people accumulate memory over the years; it is not surprising, then, that every culture features older people who have accumulated enough knowledge that they are considered ‘wise’ or ‘in tune with the earth’. Similarly, many people with less strongly developed superegos are characterized by an abundance of libidinal energy, largely because their lack of a ‘filter’ for new stimuli causes their libido to be continually replenished. This abundance of energy, combined with the lack of personal restraint also caused by the lack of a strong superego, causes these people to be inclined to subvert the taboos of their culture often enough that they become characterized by this tendency as ‘tricksters’. Thus, all of Jung’s archetypal phenomena can be explained through an ‘economic’ (or, for a more Lacanian phrase, ‘structural’) interpretation. Occam’s Razor is a useful principle, but it needs a second clause stating that one ought not to invent new concepts unless there is a need for them. In the case of Jungian archetypes, this need does not exist. The one ‘advantage’ that Jungian psychology has over psychoanalysis is that it abandons the libidinal economy, the Draconian unconscious (the unconscious’s only punishment for any transgression is death; this is revealed by such phrases as “If you take my bubblegum, I’ll kill you.”), and all but the barest threads of the Oedipus complex. This, no doubt, contributes to its popularity.

As for the assertion that symbols are universally recognizable, this is plainly false. For one example, holding up the index & middle fingers means ‘peace’ in North America, but is equivalent to a curse word in the UK. Road signs, as well, differ among nations, and have to be memorized by rote. This is known by linguists & semioticians as arbitrariness. Even colors, which many people associate with certain feelings, have completely different associations in different cultures: In the Occident, white is the color of peace, but in the Orient, white is the color of death; the ‘safest’ color to use worldwide (meaning, that which has the least amount of negative cultural associations) is blue, but it is nevertheless the color of villainy in Japan. Even Jung’s favorite archetype, the mandala, need not be imagined to have some immanent significance: it would make much more sense to attribute the prevalence of circular shapes to the shape of the sun and the moon, both of which have no doubt filled all humans with wonder since the beginning of sentience.

Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris is a zoologist by profession, and decided to analyze humans from a zoological perspective. To do this, he draws from the various instincts displayed by animals (e.g. courtship rituals, territorial behaviour, competition for social status) and attempts to find human equivalents. He does this well, and insofar as zoology is subject to the scientific method, by extension Morris goes about his aim with admirable rigor. Even seemingly trivial examples such as lipstick (which is an imitation of the way women’s lips become engorged with blood during sexual arousal) fit into his schema. Despite his strangely colonialist Social Darwinism, as well as his potshots at psychoanalysis and other fields, Morris’s connections are cogent enough that one cannot help but to view his efforts as worthwhile, even if they make one uncomfortable. we must not overestimate Morris’s patterns, however―they are not universal, but merely general. That is to say, if the human body were differently constituted, Morris’s patterns would be entirely different. The lips of black women, for instance (Morris focuses on Caucasians) do not turn the same color upon sexual arousal than those of white women. Since their lips still become engorged with blood, however, fullness of lips is still sociobiologically attractive. Some sociobiological symbols, then, are more arbitrary than others. As well, Morris’s sociobiology does not account for the rich diversity among disparate human cultures. Like Jung, he cannot account for the fact that holding up the index & middle fingers means ‘peace’ in North America, but is equivalent to a curse word in the UK. Though Morris admirably identifies structural patterns immanent in the human mind, these structures have no direct link to the particular signs of human sign systems: the human brain is programmed to be attracted to any signs of sexual arousal, and if, say, people’s noses became red during sexual arousal, that would serve just as well as any other sign.

The Harry Potter series became unexpectedly popular upon its inception, with little to no cultural precedent[2]. The books focus upon the exploits of an emotionally abused boy who is revealed to possess the capacity for performing magic after he is sent a letter of acceptance to Hogwarts school of witchcraft & wizardry. (It is not explained just whence this magical puissance arises, but it is vaguely linked to heritability, despite the fact that a magical person can be born of non-magical parents, and a non-magical person  person can be born of two magic parents―these exceptions are called ‘mudbloods’ and ‘squibs’, respectively.) Upon going to Hogwarts, ‘studying’ consists of exactly approximating the semiotic formulas (words, and possibly a gesture as well) which are taught by the professors. No explanation is given for the origin of these spells, nor how some spells are more ‘difficult’ to cast than others. There is usually a link between the etymology of the spell and its effect, as in ‘Wingardium Leviosa’, a spell which allows its user to control (guard) the levitation of an object. Presumably, wizards & witches of all nations & languages use the same (Latin-based) magic words.

The only example in the Harry Potter series of a spell being ‘invented’ is in the film for Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, where one of Ron’s brothers has invented the following rhyme and taught it to Ron: “sunshine, daisies, butter-mellow, turn this stupid fat rat yellow.” It does not succeed in its (quite explicit) goal, showing how the semiotic status quo is not to be messed with.

Even ‘abracadabra’ and ‘alakazam’ have arbitrariness to them, since they lack an etymological connection to whatever effect they are meant to have. In the author’s own experience, nearly every single social science & humanities professor whom he has talked with has utilized etymology to ‘prove’ his/her points (e.g. one used the root words ‘an archos‘ to elucidate Stirner’s anarchism, and another explained how ‘aporia‘ literally refers to something ‘not porous’, that is, incapable of being digested). These people could use plenty of other methods to explain their thoughts besides grasping at strings of some immanent ‘objectivity’ provided by etymology. Perhaps it is merely a default method of impressing undergrads who have become accustomed to hearing about immanent semiotic links. The latter is nevertheless insidious in that professors affect to unveil transcendental, indisputable knowledge: this is a prime example of Lacan’s discourse of the university, howbehind all attempts to impart an apparently ‘neutral’ knowledge to the other can always be located an attempt at mastery (mastery of knowledge, and domination of the other to whom this knowledge is imparted).”

Though I do not attribute the popularity of Harry Potter solely to its semiotic resignation, the history of another popular novel―The Wizard of Oz―provides a striking analogue. Brian McHale, in his book Postmodern Fiction (pgs. 49-50), provides a magnificent description which I will quote at length:

For early nineteenth-century culture, and its imaginative writers in particular, America was organized into two adjacent worlds, the world of “civilization” and that of the “wilderness,” separated by an ambiguous and liminal space, the “frontier”―a prototypical zone. This frontier fascinated American writers, not just those like Fenimore Cooper who located their narratives on the frontier itself, but also those who transposed the liminality and ambiguity of the frontier from geographical space into other spheres―Charlie Brockden Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, even Edgar Allen Poe….

The geographical frontier retreated westward ahead of advancing settlement throughout the nineteenth century. With the closing of the frontier, and the effecting absorption of the wilderness space by civilization, American writers were forced to reconceptualize and imaginatively restructure their country. This process of reimagining American space has continued well into the twentieth century, for instance in texts like Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (from In Our Time, 1925), Faulkner’s “The Bear” (from Go Down, Moses, 1942), Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam? (1967), and Thomas McGuane’s Nobody’s Angel (1982). Such texts have sought to recover the frontier, sometimes nostalgically or elegiacally, sometimes in an ironic mode.

But there is another approach to the reconceptualization of American space, one undertaken earlier than these modernist [as opposed to postmodernist] examples, and on the margins of the literary system rather than at its center. Its locus classicus is L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900), a book intended for children. The Land of Oz, as everybody must surely know, is a fantastic self-contained world, encompassing several dissimilar realms. Baum locates it somehow within the state of Kansas―an impossibility, since its land area must surely exceed that of Kansas. In effect, Oz is the frontier zone, but a displaced frontier; no longer marking the extreme western limit of civilization, the zone now stands at its very center, the geographical middle of the continental United States. Baum has reacted to the closing of the frontier, and everything it stands for in American ideology, by reopening the frontier in Middle America. This strategy of reimagining America as an interior frontier clearly struck a responsive chord in the popular imagination; witness the extraordinary mythological status of the Hollywood movie version of The Wizard of Oz, which both exploited and helped consolidate the status of Baum’s original.

To summarize this succinctly, much of literature had focused upon ‘wilderness’ as a theme, including the uncivilized portions of the American western frontier. (As well, McHale later notes, colonial pieces such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are another example of this theme.) However, once all of America had become civilized, and America experienced its “first wave of disillusionment with its historical dream for itself,…Baum’s invention of an alternative America…resumes that dream, but in a fantastic mode. […] [W]ith the west henceforth a limit rather than a promise of further expansion, America is no longer the open-ended proposition it had once seemed, and so American progressive impulses turned introspective and Utopian” (pg. 240, ftnt 14). Just as literature turned to fantasy in a bid to protect America’s progressive ideology, so Harry Potter turns to fantasy to protect the notion of immanence in language. And just as imperialism still continues in more & more subtle ways, so the quest for immanence in language will likely follow the same path.

Given that the Harry Potter series has been most popular in Britain and North America, it would be worthwhile to examine the recent riots in the U.K. (those in response to student fees as well as the Tottenham riots) for signs of taking for granted the semiotic status quo. Though no one can condone the rioters’ wanton disregard for the personal property of their confederates, it is understandable that these people have taken action in the face of futility, rather than passively accept their deteriorating sociopolitical system. However, has any symbolic revolution taken place? The single example that comes to mind is a teenage boy urinating on a statue of Winston Churchill during the student riots, which was flatly condemned by both pro-rioters and officials. Rather, much of the looting taking place in the current riots is of consumer goods, e.g. expensive clothing and other normally ‘conspicuous’ articles. In fact, according to a shocking post by Ads Without Products, it almost seems as if officials are encouraging rioters to steal emblems of cultural capital (in this case, designer bags); better this, they may feel, than total semiotic revolution. (The same blog contains a critique of a journalist who compares the behaviour of adolescent rioters to the behaviour of these same adolescents waiting to see the final Harry Potter film.) Because the symbolic economy has become ossified and shows no sign of change, the author feels justified in pessimistically predicting that no significant cultural change will arise from the UK riots.

To explain, one definition of the ego is ‘that of the subject which is reflected in its objects’. More technically, the ego is constituted of the imaginary framework connecting the set of objects which the individual has introjected, i.e. those objects which the ego has invested with libidinal energy (cathected). According to Freud, groups possess a ‘collective ego’, so to speak, due to their collective cathexis into a specific set of objects. (The latter is not to be confused to the Jungian ‘collective unconscious’, which is brought about by the set of archetypes that each person supposedly possesses innately.) Collective libidinal energy (or that which is cathected) is commonly known as value. Because the objects (e.g. consumer products) onto which U.K. rioters invest their libido (and hence, loot) remain the same as before, their collective ego remains the same, yet this collective ego is precisely that which most needs to be changed. If the rioters really want change, that is to say, they would take the designer commodities they stole and burn them in the street. But that won’t happen.

Sacrilegious irreverence, or symbolic revolt?

The reason Freud himself is not included in the above list of immanence-seekers is that (at least in most contemporary academic readings) he is more structural, and certain signifiers (e.g. phallus-shaped objects) acquire psychoanalytical meaning only because they fit into unconscious cathectic structures. There is thus no inherent connection between phallic object and phallus, but only a structural ‘fittingness’ in accordance with cathectic ‘infrastructure’ in each person’s libidinal economy. Some have attempted to use psychoanalysis as an immanent ground for critique of society, an approach which was obliterated by Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. Deleuze & Guattari differ from the latter approach in that schizoanalysis (their revamped version of psychoanalysis) accounts for the arbitrary-yet-ossified―in Marx’s phrase, ‘general’ (as opposed to universal, particular, or singular)―elements of society, while other approaches do not. Schizoanalysis seeks to escape the concept-reifying tendencies of fundamentalist Freudians, as well as to expand the scope of analysis to cover universalities, generalities, particularities, and singularities. By expanding its purview in this way (as opposed to the psychoanalytic search for universals, as exemplified in Lacan’s mathemes), schizoanalysis makes itself dynamic, and hence amenable to continual adjustment and innovation in order to counteract the zeitgeist.

For more information about the recent riots in the U.K., see here, here, here, here, and the Wiki page.


[1]: The term ‘felicitousness‘ also expresses, to some extent, what I am trying to get across. I would use the term ‘aptness’, but this to me applies more to diachronic situations (e.g. an apt remark, given the flow of the conversation), whereas felicitousness seems more synchronic (a particular chord may be felicitous within a song, given the song’s key & adjacent chords/notes, but it is never an ‘apt’ chord).

[2]: For the record, I do not attribute the popularity of the Twilight series to any sort of similar recondite theoretical selling point; rather, I believe that Harry Potter helped young women to become interested in reading, so that they were especially receptive to the masturbatory fantasy provided by the Twilight books. I’m sure that someone more versed in feminism and sexual politics could figure out the theoretical niche that Twilight filled, but such an analysis is outside of both my ability and my desire.


  • Many intellectual movements throughout recent history have focused on trying to establish an inherent (immanent) link between signifier and signified (i.e. a symbol and what it means), as opposed to the link simply being arbitrary.
  • One such example is Jungian archetypes, which states that various symbols are innate in the human mind, and thus that symbols are “universally recognizable.” 
  • As well, the sociobiology of Desmond Morris seeks to ground socio-symbolic phenomena in biological instinct (once again, innate), e.g. he ascribes the tradition of women coloring their lips red to the fact that when a woman becomes aroused, her lips become engorged with blood, appearing fuller and redder; thus lipstick is a display of availability for mating, just as is the peacock displaying its feathers.
  • A third, more contemporary instance of this tendency (of looking for immanence in language) can be found in the Harry Potter series. In Hogwarts, students of witchcraft & wizardry are taught combinations of signifiers (e.g. a “swish & flick” of one’s wand combined with the words ‘Wingardium Leviosa” pronounced in a specific way) which are somehow inherently connected to their magical function. There is no talk of ‘inventing’ spells; presumably experimental wizards merely spout out Latin-sounding words in hopes that they’ll bring a result connected to their etymology (the root words of the spell).
  • In Hogwarts, there is only one ‘true’ method of doing a spell, and students are forced to approximate it as closely as possible. This, taken metaphorically, seems to try and force the analogy that words have only a ‘true’ (i.e. inherent) meaning, and that we should not resist against the semiotic status quo (i.e. the currently entrenched relations between signifier and signified, as in the case of Winston Churchill = noble man).
  • The Wizard of Oz became popular arguably because it relayed the American urge for colonialism (which had started to become exhausted) into a more introspective, imaginary realm. In a similar way, perhaps Harry Potter represents a last attempt to protect the notion of immanence in language (spells being inherently connected with their effects) by turning to fantasy.
  • Given that the Harry Potter series was most popular in North American and the UK, it is interesting to see how little the semiotic status quo has been changed from the recent riots in the UK. Much of the looting has been of designer commodities (e.g. handbags), and attempts at defying symbolic hierarchies (e.g. a boy urinating on a statue of Winston Churchill) have been condemned by the vast majority.
  • Psychoanalysis states that the ego is composed of the network of relations between the objects that an individual has cathected (i.e. invested with their libidinal energy). By the same token, a group is formed by mutual cathexis upon a specific set of objects. If these objects do not change, then, the ego, whether of an individual or group, does not change.
  • Therefore, little or no cultural change can result from the August riots. If the rioters really want change, that is to say, they would take the designer commodities they stole and burn them in the street (thus disrupting the semiotic status quo).
  • Freud is not included in the list of immanence-seekers because he does not think that there is an inherent connection between signifiers and signifieds, but only structural ‘fittinngness’ according to patterns of cathexis.  These patterns of cathexis which are collective are known as value.
  • Deleuze & Guattari avoid using psychoanalysis as a source of immanent criteria for critiquing society by focusing their analyses also on the arbitrary-yet-ossified elements (i.e. ingrained traditions) of society. Their ‘schizoanalysis’ thus becomes dynamic and capable of perpetual innovation.
  • In the sequel to this essay, the author will introduce a new concept (with several variations) which will help to cognize the value systems of symbolic economies, and he will begin to develop a theory about the possibility of semiotic change.

About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on August 25, 2011, in Culture, History, Language, Philosophy, Politics, Psychoanalysis, Schizoanalysis, Semiotics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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