Category Archives: Sociobiology
Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, & Harry Potter, And What They Have To Do With The UK Riots
[This is too late in the game to do anyone much good, I realize, but I feel that I still ought to put in my two cents regarding the August riots in the UK. I wrote this during my breaks at work when I was on 12-hour shifts, so all that I had time to do when I got home was to read blog entries about the riots; nobody hailed the end of them, so I (amusingly) did not realize they were over until the 23rd, after reading the Wiki page. To my credit, at least, I successfully predicted its outcome (though I feel silly in saying that); I will therefore leave the tense unaltered. In order to make my linking of Harry Potter to the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, I recommend readers to first peruse this.]
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.
It will strike the average person as fairly odd that such different valorizations have occurred in the two nations France and America, that seemingly opposite values can prevail among youth of different cultures at the same point in history. Though I am not a historian of French or American culture, I can, through McLuhan, offer a satisfactory answer based solely on formal concerns, since the content of a medium (as McLuhan expertly shows) is auxiliary to the true reason for its popularity, i.e. its purely formal attributes.
Around roughly the same time period (around the 1950s, give or take a decade), the youth culture of both France and America took a drastic turn from what preceded it. McLuhan explains that American culture since its formation was traditionally literate (i.e. raised on newspapers, literature, etc., and concomitant linearity & compartmentalization of thought), as opposed to the culture of France, which was traditionally oral. From this basic description is the key to understanding this divergence. For whatever reason, the younger generation decided to rebel against the predominant media in their cultures. In doing so, these two cultures exchanged media forms, so to speak. While rock stars exemplified the nonlinear, erratic thinking of electric culture to the Americans, intellectuals (Sartre, say, or Camus) exemplify literate thinking by their sustained themes (angst, absurdity), their emphasis on lebensprojekt* (or better yet, whatever the inverse of this would be, but retaining its lifelong, linear manner), and their general abstruseness (i.e. one must read their work closely, whereas in oral transmission of information clarity & ease are essential).
Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Ape (pg. 105), explains that the sociobiological reason for young women to scream and go into hysterics at music concerts (“They not only scream, they also grip their own and one another’s bodies, they writhe, they moan, they cover their faces and they pull at their hair”) is that they (unconsciously) desire to show their peers how they have matured to the point of being able to process complex emotions. As evidence of this thesis, he notes that if a teenage girl were to confront a rock star while on her own, it would never occur to her to scream at him. It is not at all difficult to switch the medium around in this case, and to see that reading (mainly literature, and perhaps some philosophy) could justly serve this end, provided that enough conspicuous consumption (or discourse about what each youth has been reading lately) occurs that one’s choice of reading material can be adequately broadcast to one’s peers.
Thus we see that youth possess a sociobiological need to display to their peers their developing emotional maturity, which must be satisfied one way or another. Looking at American and French culture from a purely formal perspective, then, we see that their situation is the same. Each culture merely had a different historical situation (in America, mass literacy, in France, oral culture) to rebel against.
*[German] Work to which one has devoted one’s whole life.
- It may seem strange that the youth of these two cultures could have such different interests, but actually they’re not as different as they first seem.
- As Marshall McLuhan shows, exposure to different types of media motivates different types of thought. People raised on books will think in a linear, compartmentalized, and mechanistic manner. People raised on television and music will think in a more nonlinear, transdisciplinary, and ‘organic’ manner.
- Traditionally, America was characterized by its ‘print culture’, whereas France was characterized by its ‘oral culture’.
- Around the mid-20th century, the youth of both cultures rebelled against the traditional mindsets of their respective cultures.
- Music in America and literature/philosophy in France fulfill the same need (i.e. to display to one’s peers one’s ability to process complex emotions).
The Enneagram is another fascinating heuristic system of proletarian science which has unjustly not received mainstream acceptance. The Enneagram, as its name implies, states that every person fits into one of nine categories, which are simply denoted by numbers. Everyone also has a secondary type, which is the number either before or after that of one’s primary type (e.g. a 5-4, a 6-7). Of course, such a simple schema hardly does justice to the complexity of the human psyche, so there’s an extra twist. Types, when their mental health deteriorates, display the characteristics of another type: the order is 1-4-2-8-5-7-1 and 9-6-3-9, so an 8 will deteriorate to a 5, etc. Also, when each type reaches a height of mental health, they will exhibit characteristics of the other adjacent type in the aforementioned list, ascending in the reverse order, so a 5 would become an 8, etc. Don Richard Riso in his book Personality Types describes each type in terms of stages of mental health, and the results are remarkable. Read the rest of this entry
Dale Carnegie’s book How To Win Friends & Influence People has been a bestseller ever since it was first printed in the 1930s. In it, Carnegie provides a series of points (usually with a point being the basis of a chapter) which, as he shows by a plenitude of examples, will invariably allow the reader to win affection (and concomitant material benefits) from the one at the receiving end of these techniques. Examples include remembering a person’s name (“there is no sound in the universe more important to a man than his name”); “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain;” and being “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” Taken altogether, Carnegie’s ideas constitute a veritable weltanschauung, perhaps more than he was aware. Among students of body language, every ‘utterance’ is interpreted through the binary of dominance versus submissiveness: it expresses either superiority (displays of strength, nonchalance, etc.) or inferiority (displaying nervousness, desire for comfort, etc.). (There are other, more neutral ‘utterances’, of course, but most of these can be interpreted in such a way as to denote weakness or strength, e.g. signs of hunger show the subject’s inability to satisfy their need at the present moment, and hence, weakness.) What Carnegie does, in effect, is to appeal to the human desire for dominance within a situation and to convince the user of his techniques to voluntarily place himself in a position of submissiveness. For example, extending from the importance of names, Carnegie describes a situation where a lucrative merger was achieved simply by offering to name the resultant company after the CEO being propositioned. Read the rest of this entry