Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, Harry Potter, and the UK Riots
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.
In the documentary Fractals: The Colors of Infinity, Benoît Mandelbrot describes how after discovering the eponymous ‘Mandelbrot set’ and working with it for two or three days, he noticed that the strange new object he was dealing with had begun to seem uncannily familiar, as if he had known it all his life. From there the documentary segues into a brief introduction to Jungian archetypes and how patterns similar to fractals often appear in ancient art, then goes on to explain how fractals are ubiquitous throughout nature, from crystals to cauliflower to the prices of cotton throughout a century. It is somewhat disturbing to observe such otherwise rigorous scientists descending into groundless speculations about fractals as archetypes, but they are not completely to blame for this, since the connection between a transcendental mathematical shape and a transcendental archetype seems too obvious for them to resist. I will argue, however, that Mandelbrot’s uncanny feeling is better explained by the psychoanalytical phenomenon of introjection, and that this relation to objects provides new insight into the relation of scientists to their work, perhaps even allowing for something close to objectivity.