Sunday, August 16, 2015

Myths & Archetypes: Inborn or Learned?

Are our myths and common cultural ideas derived from patterns inborn to the human psyche, or do they come about merely by copying those around us? Do the Archetypes - of Love, e.g. or War - control us, or can we outgrow them? The Trio establish the nature of free will once and for all in this entertaining and enlightening conversation.

Check out this episode!

The email conversation:
Ethan: Symbols, myths, they come before us? Are they a priori? When we so neatly fall into categories, into stories that have been told a thousand times before, is that because there is something in us that is inherently tied to nature (or at least to the nature of our psyches) that leads us this way? Or is it the other way around? Do we develop the myths and the symbols based on what happens?

To me, this is an all-important issue. It gets at the heart of each and every important philosophical question. Should ethics be based on steadfast principles or on circumstantial preferences? Do artists evoke the ideal form by replicating something familiar, or do they rupture forms by showing that they are merely imaginary? Is the universe in a state of dynamic equilibrium or is it in a state of pure becoming?

In each case, we have two camps, and I suspect that you and I fall on opposing sides here. But maybe not... On the one hand, I believe that common symbols and stories told over and over again are always a posteriori. They are a result of what we do, and they are constantly changing. It is only by virtue of our limited perspective in time and space and our insistence on a universal history that we come to perceive myth as truth. Mythos is a way to explain the universe, just like logos. But both are flawed. Because the universe is inherently chaotic. 
And yet, even as I so strongly come down on one side of this debate, I betray a hidden desire to formalize things. Take, for instance, my belief in monism. Or my quest for a universal ethics. In the same breath that I denounce these things, I seek them out. And I suspect it is because we are looking at two sides of the same coin. I suspect that eventual progress shall unify these seemingly different paradigms into a single way of thought, albeit one that is inherently paradoxical. The one thing that unifies these two theories is their insistence on consistency. But perhaps this is the mistake. Perhaps we are as yet incapable of thinking the truth. And so we toggle back and forth between things beings as they were and thing beings as they will be. Instead of being able to encompass things in their wholeness. Even if wholeness comes to mean disparate.

Zach: Jung was a medical doctor and it was only his experience with mental patients which convinced him of the reality of the collective unconscious. Patients who he was certain could have had no access to obscure texts he later read would regenerate the same matrix of images in their own delusions, far from any access to, say, the alchemical texts of the 1400's, which had remained on old library shelves for centuries. For me, the collective unconscious was never hard to believe in. Reading Joseph Campbell's telling of stories collected by anthropologists from primitive peoples all over the world and resonating with them even more strongly than I resonate with most of our modern myths was proof enough for me. Also, years after I passed through that circle during my mystical vision, I discovered all the work Jung did on mandalas and the significance of circles as the symbols of what he calls the Self, i.e. the God Archetype.

We're also getting into the realm of popular art versus elite art. For example, classical music in the 20th century developed into a very scholastic, and many would say non-musical enterprise. The composers, probably in an attempt to distinguish themselves from what came before, would write stranger and stranger combinations of notes, and it was commonly said that their music was only for other composers. It's very much like the twists and turns of analytical philosophy.

Then you have popular music, which always stays very close to the Earth, as opposed to very high in the alchemical Air. Jung would say that the continued popularity of popular music depends on its affinity with the collective unconscious - that is, it appeals directly to common human experiences which need no teacher or cultural mediator to make them relevant. I think it's pure conceit to convince oneself that popular music only attains its popularity through cultural indoctrination. I don't believe human beings need a cultural mediator between themselves and their feelings in order to appreciate music. Rather, the innate unconscious structures simply re-congeal in each individual when they are triggered by the musical or artistic stimulus.

Of course there is variety among individuals. A person could dislike any given otherwise-popular thing for a variety of reasons, including to reaffirm a weak ego of its independence from that which the given song or thing threatens to congeal in them. Conversely, there could be a genuinely diminished archetypal resonance from that stimulus to that person - but variation in one person merely proves the commonality in the others who've made the thing popular to begin with.
For me the main thing which proves the existence of the innate (i.e. collective) unconscious is the difference in power between two otherwise similar stimuli. For example, Star Wars is very close to the collective unconscious, which is verified by its popularity. Yet other science fiction efforts fall far short. In fact, there are Jungian analysts employed by Hollywood to examine screenplays for their coherence to the collective unconscious, or lack thereof. Hollywood producers know that if their stories stray too far from instinctive human resonance patterns, they will bomb at the box office. Not to even mention the advertising industry. Even so, there's never been a formulaic way to guarantee a box-office hit. The collective unconscious is merely a set of *arche*types - the *types* themselves will be different when they incarnate, depending on the moment, the culture, the artist(s) who invoke them, and the individuals receiving them.

Ethan: The collective unconscious figures interestingly into this theory. I will also call out the idea of morphic resonance, where the memories of our ancestors are passed on to us in an immaterial way. In both cases, you have something that is indeed a priori. But I wish to draw a distinction between these ideas, which are definitively fluid, and the ideas of archetypes, myths, and symbols which represent fluidity congealed. On the one hand, you have a sea of thought that transcends space and time, allowing the things we dream about, the actions we take, our wills, etc. to be predictable for their being one and the same with the past. On the other hand, you have very specific instances of the sea. Like a boat that has always been there, rocking steadily on the waves through all time. Or more precisely, an island that remains always in the same place while the sea roars around it. I believe in the sea. I do not believe in the island. We only repeat ourselves over and over again because we fail to recognize the true nature of that which is eternal. We attribute it to God because He is like us, and that is all we know. 

We do need to dwell on this disagreement over cultural indoctrination for a moment. To start, popular music has changed considerably over time. And the flow has followed from technological and economic developments rather than from social or spiritual developments. Take just the last 20 years. Grunge to Rap to Pop to Electronic. And now Rap and Pop continue living on, but they have become infused with electronic influences. Because it makes making music cheaper. What makes all these genres popular could not possibly be attributed to the collective unconscious. Else they would more closely resemble one another. No, what makes these genres popular is the particular zeitgeist they are swept up in. 

We're getting into something far deeper now, something which I hope to spend many hours discussing in later episode. What is beauty? What makes a song good? Is it something innate to the song? Or is it some combination between the song being passably good and the experience of the listener. We all disagree so much on what is good and what is bad. We treat these concepts like they are cut from gold. But they are not. Where you gain some traction is in the idea that beauty is based on certain structural elements of the work of art. Symmetry, for example. But are we really going to speak about symmetry as if it is an archetype? Symmetry is a byproduct of space and time. And the only reason we find symmetry beautiful is because it reminds us of the chaos lying beneath it. What we really find beautiful, in a collective sense, is the back-and-forth of familiar and unfamiliar. It gets into the notions of difference and repetition, why they are so deadly confusing, and how that confusion manifests itself in us and in our appreciation of things. Take, for example, the appeal of a single flaw on an otherwise flawless face. Or the distorted impression left by the paintings of Francis Bacon. They recall the tumult of emotion that permeates every moment, not some ideal form.

To me, the conceited thing is to imagine that everyone who doesn't "get" Star Wars has actually lost touch with their access to the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is not set in stone. It is a free-flowing body that is unfolding along with the rest of the universe. Archetypes are projections of contemporary men onto the collective unconscious. They are man-made territorializations of something that is inherently deterritorialized. The entire essence of the collective unconscious, the spirit world, is that it is eternal. As soon as we try and capture it, cling on to it, and use it to our advantage, we have ruined it. It will simply crumble in our palms and dissolve into dust. I can guarantee you that, if we survive for another thousand years, the archetypes will be completely different than they are now. Or, let me put it to you this way. The only archetype that I will buy into is the archetype of becoming-alien. That is the one immutable principle of man and matter. He becomes something other than the light, something other than death, something other than God, something other than the collective unconscious.

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