writing and difference

•April 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

“That philosophy died yesterday, since Hegel or Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, and that philosophy should still wander toward the meaning of its death, or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying; that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy, which is its past and its concern, its death and wellspring; that beyond the death, or dying nature of philosophy, perhaps even because of it, thought still has a future, or even, as is said today, is still entirely to come because of what philosophy has held in store; or more strangely still, that the future itself has a future all these are unanswerable questions. By right of birth, and for one time at least, these are problems put to philosophy as problems philosophy cannot resolve.” – Jaques Derrida

Anthropology and Cognitive Science: Towards an Interdisciplinary Hermeneutics of the Human Sciences

•April 17, 2013 • 2 Comments

In an age in which differing fields of scientific inquiry are fragmented and isolated, it is difficult to facilitate any collaborative research within separate practices. Certain epistemic and academic boundaries have to be overcome in order to ground any attempt to integrate, or at least demonstrate the compatibility of given scientific disciplines. However, in conjunction with one another, some branches become malleable as theories begin to overlap and offer supplementary analysis. Two fields in particular, Anthropology and cognitive science suggest such a project. In retrospect, it was a seemingly natural partnership as the emerging field of cognitive science took off. This type of relationship is predicated on their complementary subject matter and research. One of the prominent definitions of culture in anthropology is, ‘‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’’ (Tylor, 1871, p. 1). These dynamics of culture represent much of the subjects that cognitive science confronts. The central thesis of cognitive science is “that thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures” (Thagard, 2008). Much of the work in anthropology focuses on the principles for the organization of meaning and how it is coordinated systematically. In this respect, cognitive science plays a complementary role in research. In fact, their compatibility led to the development of the subfield that is cognitive anthropology. If these fields have such an integral nature, then why is it difficult to articulate a proper synthesis? What is the reason for the present decreased influence on cognition for anthropology? This essay will address these questions and elucidate some of the ways in which these fields are beneficial and where they reach an impasse. It will also argue that the main factor contributing to the declining relevance on cognitive studies and for anthropology in general is the force of post-structuralism, and will assess a response with an emphasis on cognitive linguistics.

One of the main achievements of cognitive anthropology is its reliable account and descriptions of cultural representations. It serves as a bridge for thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture (D’Andrade, 1995). The focus is not on physical phenomena that constitute culture; rather, culture is viewed as the mental organization of the material phenomena. Thus, cognitive anthropology strives to answer what material phenomena are important to a particular culture and how they construct or organize it. This approach emerged as a result of ethnographers becoming aware of their own subjective bias through their mental processing and sought to reveal “the native’s point of view” (Erickson and Murphy, 2003).

Ethnoscience is a branch that came out of this approach and focuses on the categories of description in the language of natives rather than interpreting through structures of their own native language. It became a catalyst for the early development of cognitive anthropology as research was concentrated on folk taxonomies – how people organize classes of objects or notions, providing support for ethnographers in anthropology. By using “interview techniques and analytical processes to bring out native categories of thought instead of imposing the analyst’s own cultural system on the data,” cognitive anthropologists made an effort to increase the validity of ethnography (Colby, 1996, p. 211). Although cognitive anthropology became a recognizable field in the 1950’s, the question of the relation between the mind and the external world can be traced back to the enlightenment era. Sperber (1985, p. 2) would argue that both anthropology and psychology have the same philosophical underpinnings found in Locke’s empiricism; the mind is a tabula rasa, receptive and structured by the experience of the environment and other persons. However, cognitive anthropology is where the humanist and natural science perspectives merge and develop a new way of inquiry.

Once the preliminary works provided the framework for further analysis, the stage was set to explore and co-create theories with the established field of cognitive science. Among some of these are: prototypes, fuzzy categories, schemas, and mental models. Consensus theory (Romney, Weller, & Batchelder, 1986) offered a computational rationale for approaching such questions as how many informants need to be sampled by an ethnographer in order to decide whether a view is representative of a culture (Boster, 1985). Through the advent of computer technologies, there were also attempts at modeling cultural processes as emergent properties of systems of interacting agents (Hutchins & Hazlehurst, 1991). Other cognitive anthropologists were attentive to the notion of the schemata – conceptual abstractions that serve as a mediating locus between external stimuli and behavioral responses; this idea departs from the representational paradigm that stems from the tradition of Locke as Tyler (1978) states, “the structure of knowledge cannot consist of a mere picture of the world or even of a set of concepts which refer to or stand in a one-to-one relation with elements of the external world.” This notion seems contradicts Sperber’s point and takes more of a Kantian approach. Also, the role of language was on the table and would serve as the central focus of the subfield (which will be discussed later). Each of these avenues of research is only some of the achievements that came out of cognitive anthropology. It goes to show the compatible elements and dynamics involved in this small but insightful subfield.

At this point, anthropology and cognitive science have been represented in a holistic manner. However, this was not always the case and not everyone agreed on its status as a discipline. In part this has to do with a very fundamental epistemological difference regarding each fields approach to methodology. On the one hand, anthropology relies on passive engagement with other cultures/environments in a natural unmediated setting. From the other side, research in cognitive science is done in an unnatural laboratory environment where the active participation of the researcher is more prominent (e.g. experimentation, artificial intelligence, etc.). These factors and more helped contribute to the decreased interest and alienation from researchers in each fields.

“Although cognitive anthropology strove for objectivity, its questions, theories, and methods had little in common with the other scientific subfields of anthropology. While cognitive anthropology insisted on its dedication to understanding human experience, it was much too positivist for the tastes of the humanist subfields, where postmodernism was carrying the day (Bender, Hutchins, & Mendin, 2009).”

Whatever the circumstances, the two began to drift apart. The implications of postmodernism for anthropology have perhaps had the most damaging impact for any attempt at a rapprochement and it is appropriate here to address the dynamics of its relationship.

The relationship between anthropology and postmodernism can be traced back to the linguistic theory known as structuralism. At the time this theory was a radically different way of analyzing language and it was first developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. It approaches language as a system of differentiating elements that can only have meaning in relation to its system of differences. In other words, the meaning of a word has its meaning by being different from another word and so on. From this structural perspective of language, three basic premises are laid out: There is no one-to-one correspondence between the word and its referent – the meaning attributed to a word (sign) is completely arbitrary and does not possess and inherent quality that would suggest its meaning, every word has a meaning because it is different from other words in a system, words constitute our language which in turn give our culture a system or structure (Saussure, 1983). These concepts initiated an entirely new perspective on the role of language as Harris (1988) expresses:

“Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.”

Structuralism had a tremendous impact on theorists in subsequent generations. One of those thinkers was Claude Levi-Strauss and he would develop what would come to be known as structural anthropology.

Levi-Strauss applied the linguistic analysis of structuralism to anthropology. Through this perspective he studied family structures, not in the traditional sense as there being a stable self-contained unit consisting of father, mother, and children, but rather that the identity of the family is constituted through its relations to the peripheral of the extended family. Also, he developed the notion of the mytheme which serves as a locus for the basic units of the structure of myths. In a sense, there is not one authentic myth but rather all myths share the same language. Through analyzing these structures, Levi-Strauss argues that culture consists of binary oppositions – akin to the philosophy of Hegel (Levi-Strauss, 1958). As further analysis continued to develop, structural anthropology took stride with cognitive anthropology. It looked as if there would be a way to integrate all fields that comprised the human sciences and that these were the methodologies for engaging that project. However, almost as soon as it got off the ground it was met by a stream of criticism from within its own tradition. These thinkers are affiliated in what is known as post-structuralism (or deconstruction) and would later result in the movement called postmodernism.

The JohnHopkinsUniversity conference held in 1966 was a gathering of structuralist thinkers who would for the first time introduce these ideas to the United States. Among some that attended included Levi-Strauss, Lacan, and Jaques Derrida. It was there when Derrida presented his essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences”, and it marks one of the first major criticisms against structuralism. This event became viewed by many as a de-throning of Levi-Strauss as some critics would describe it as a “hermeneutical mafia.” Whatever the case, this began the rebellious volley of criticism that would generate the postmodern movement.

It is not necessary here to outline a complete account of post-structuralism but to explain some of its basic premises and its impact on anthropology in general. One its major themes are radical skepticism. Derrida (1967) would emphasize the function and the “primacy of the signifier” in the signifier/signified distinction arguing that language is an endless chain of signifiers without a transcendental “signified”. The notion of structure itself is also a signifier and cannot be used objectively as a harmless blanket term. Michel Focault (1970) developed the notion of episteme. In this epistemological concept, history is viewed as an a priori foundation for knowledge and is a condition for its possibility within a given epoch (a diachronic analysis rather than a structuralist synchronic). There was a general skepticism to such a degree that some philosophers entertained the illusory nature of reality or hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1980). Also, there was a lot of attention towards the notion of the self. Post-structuralists sought to destabilize the notion of a fixed self identity. This included analyzing (deconstructing) authors whose intending meaning of a work becomes secondary to the meaning from the reader’s perspective (Derrida, 1967). Other theorists attempt to extract individuality in its most authentic expression through the cultural matrix (Deleuze, 1972).

These types of analyses pose a threat towards anthropology as a whole. Its implications for ethnography are denigrating because it causes hyper-sensitive awareness upon the relativity and subjectivity associated with a field researcher rendering objectivity a dubious endeavor. Isaac Reed (2010) will concede that the postmodern criticism of objectivity in the social sciences is a result of the anthropologist’s inability to synthesize the context of investigation and the context of explanation. At this point, some anthropologists began to have a sense of self doubt toward the validity of their research. The criticism of meaning and language has a devastating impact on anthropology. However, different accounts of language provide a path around the present arbitrariness and cultivate meaningful and fruitful discussions on the status of meaning. The last part of this essay will address some of these different perspectives particularly in cognitive science and semiotics, and will grok for its significance as a rebuttal against postmodernism.

For those people who would describe themselves as postmodernists, they may have either neglected or gone without engaging the semiotic tradition of Charles Peirce. Contrary to the structuralist model, Pierce and company focus on the fact that language occurs on multiple levels of abstraction. Rather than accounting for language as an arbitrary free-floating signifier/signified chain, this semiotic analysis argues that words operate on different levels and thus have a different meaning value. Pierce (1991) argues that the basic levels of language operate with indexicals – words that correspond with the equivalency of grunting and pointing (e.g. “here”, “this”, “there”, etc.) and thus have a direct relationship with the physical world in at least a metaphorical sense (as will be seen in discussing cognitive science). Other scholars focused on the epistemology of semiotics in anthropology, paradoxes and logical distinctions, and further distinguishing features of language (Bateson, 1972; Elson, 2010; Wilden, 1987). In this tradition, is no longer a system of meaningless signs but is assessed on different levels of value and reference. An interdisciplinary mindset through engaging these types of analysis will help provide a clear conscious for examining some of the new developments that cognitive science has to offer.

At this point in the narrative, it has addressed the compatible relationship of cognitive science and anthropology, its general fallout through the ushering in of postmodernism, and has precluded a rapprochement through an interdisciplinary linguistic analysis. The third generation researchers in cognitive science focus on epistemology and the role of schematas whilst developing the notion of the embodied mind. In the book The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1992), Varela and company give an account of the subjective experience without sacrificing the explanatory power of science, cultivating a new interpretation of Buddhism as it applies to consciousness. Through meditative techniques, subjectivity can be grasped in a way that is consistent with empiricism. They also argue that because of the embodied nature of consciousness, the mind does not stand outside and divorced from the physical world whilst passively representing its contents in the environment. Rather, organisms/environments co-create the phenomenal world and co-constitute the conditions of knowledge (Varlea and Maturana, 1992). This embodied approach to epistemology re-integrates insights from phenomenology in a new context. The phenomenological embodiment of linguistics gets further fleshed-out in Lakoff and Johnson’s work Metaphors We Live By (1980). In this analysis, language is viewed as largely metaphorical and they use schematic conceptual mappings to outline the roots of language in the sensorimotor neural capacities of a given subject. For example, in some languages the past is in front of the subjective observer and the future is behind. In the Aymara culture, the metaphor that the past is in front is justified by the fact that the experience of being able to see the results of your actions “in front of you” and in your awareness as already been done (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 141). They outline metaphorical mappings for not only time but other abstract notions as causation, morality, love, mind, self, etc. It is these types of dynamics that provide meaningful insights not only to cognitive studies, but for anthropology in general. This new generation of cognitive science re-contextualizes the locus of language and situates it in the embodied consciousness of the subject rather than the detached cogito notion that has dominated the bulk of western thought and underlies the concept of the arbitrariness of language. With these new insights, cognitive science provides a way of overcoming the criticisms of postmodernism, and with a re-integration into the discussions of anthropology, can supplement an interdisciplinary holistic study for anthropology and the rest of the human sciences.

This essay has addressed a manifold of subjects within the human sciences. Specifically, it has focused on the relationship between anthropology, cognitive science, and post-structuralism. It has argued that the reason for the compartmentalization of the various scientific disciplines has been a result of a destructive influence from the criticisms of postmodern thinkers. Finally, this paper has argued for the rapprochement of cognitive studies within anthropology on the grounds of a semiotic and an embodiment analysis of language. These perspectives have exciting implications for the future research in cognitive studies and anthropology.


  • Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. 1980. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press, (edition 14, illustrated, reprint, 1994).
  • Bender, A., Hutchins, E. and Medin, D. (2010), Anthropology in Cognitive Science. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2: 374–385.
  • Boster, J.S. 1985. Requiem for the omniscient informant: There’s life in the old girl yet. In J. Dougherty (e.d.), Directions in Cognitive Anthropology (pg. 177-197). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Colby Benjamin. 1996. Cognitive Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, vol. 1, 209-214
  • D’Andrea, Roy G. 1995. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.
  • Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix. 1972. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Continuum International Publishing Group, reprint
  • Derrida, Jaques. 1967. Of Grammatology. JHU Press (reprint edition 1998).
  • Derrida, Jaques. 1970. Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press (1978).
  • Elson, Linda. 2010. Paradox Lost: A Cross-contextual Definition of Levels of Abstraction. Hampton Press.
  • Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2003. A History of Anthropological Theory. University of Toronto Press.
  • Focault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things. Routledge (2012).
  • Harris, R. 1988. Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein. Routledge. Pix.
  • Hutchins, E & B. Hazlehurst (1991) Learning in the cultural process. Proceedings of the second conference on artificial life. Santa Fe Institute, Santa FeNew Mexico.
  • Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press (2008).
  • Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, Pg. 141. Basic Books.
  • Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Structural Anthropology. Basic Books (2008 edition).
  • Peirce, Charles. 1991. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotics. UNC Press Books.
  • Reed, Isaac A. (2010) Epistemology Contextualized: Social-Scientific Knowledge in a Postpositivist Era. Sociological Theory,28(1), 20-39.
  • Romney, A. K., Weller, S. C. and Batchelder, W. H. (1986), Culture as Consensus: A Theory of Culture and Informant Accuracy. American Anthropologist, 88: 313–338.
  • Saussure, De Ferdinand. 1983. Course in General Linguistics. Open Court Publishing.
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  • Tyler, Stephen. 1978. The Said and the Unsaid. Academic Press.
  • Tylor, E. 1871. Primitive Culture. London: John Murray, David Levinson
  • Varela, Francisco; Thompson, Evan; Rosch, Eleanor. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. and Melvin Ember, eds: New York: Henry Holtz Company.
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  • Wilden, Anthony. 1987. The Rules are no Game. Routledge, Chapman & Hall.

Re-envisioning The Odyssey: The Significance of Archetypal Analysis in a Postmodern Age

•March 16, 2013 • Leave a Comment


Often in many literary analyses, there is an employment of symbolic representation and even deference to particular dynamics of psychological insights in order to illuminate meaning from a text. In this approach, literary critics take into consideration: imagery from a text, objects, character personality traits, recurring narrative themes, and even the cultural structure in the era of a written work – incorporating social anthropology. This type of analysis in literary theory is known as archetypal criticism. Its origins are rooted in the fields of Jungian psychoanalysis and social anthropology; it was popularized as a form of literary criticism by Northrop Frye. For Frye, archetypes “play an essential role in refashioning the material universe into an alternative verbal universe that is humanly intelligible and viable, because it is adapted to essential human needs and concerns.” Once a thriving field of criticism, this form of analysis is no longer widely practiced and there are no more major developments within the field. What are the conditions surrounding the dwindling of this practice and why is it still important to consider its insights? This essay will seek to grok the profundities of archetypal criticism by analyzing a cornerstone work of western literature The Odyssey – illustrating the relevance of the field, and also to show how the postmodern “turn” constricted its development and to attempt to re-integrate it into the literary discussion.

The Odyssey explores two recurring narrative archetypes: the “initiation” and the “journey.” The first is exemplified by the character of Telemachus. In the opening pages of the epic, he is left in a situation of uncertainty. With his father still absent, he has not yet presumed responsibility of his position in Ithica and endures hostility from squabbling suitors even though it is his inheritance. He is in the stage of life where he is too young to take control of the situation. However when the Greek goddess Athene meets with Telemachus, his personality shifts to a confident, poised, independent man as she tells him to search for his father. Everyone including the suitors begin to take notice. He even coordinates an assembly which had not been scheduled in Ithica since his father. This behavior signifies an integral and important transitional role in the initiation process as this action represents a new establishment in Ithica. This moment marks his progression into manhood. “Is it a little thing ye wooers, that in time past ye wasted many good things of my getting, while I was yet a child? But now that I am a grown man…,” (Ch. 2) Telemachus says. His journey into adulthood is a manifestation of the “initiation” archetype.

The other thematic archetype concerns itself with the nature of man’s existential condition. The perspective of Odysseus portrays the angst of man when encountered by life’s troubling and unforgiving circumstances. Reading how he returns to Ithica creates a reciprocal dialectic between the reader and the protagonist on the question of identity. The beginning of the plot discloses the solitary predicament of Odysseus as he is confined on the island with Calypso. However, he makes the decision to leave the island and to return home unknown to any awaiting confrontation. This illustrates the archetype of man’s journey out of comfort and certainty into the realm of the ambiguities of life. The actual adventure of Odysseus outlines the details of life’s uncertain nature:

“At least three of the dangers Odysseus encounters are dangers precisely because of what they would do for this desire of man to experience the world around him. The Lotus-Eaters offer men forgetfulness of the hard world; Circe dulls their senses and thus their ability to perceive; the Sirens offer knowledge without experience, a deceptive trap.”

The projection of choice issued by self-legislation creating anxiety is more of a modern archetype, but its rudimentary development is prevalent in the ancient Greek collective unconscious and is demonstrated in the narrative.

“Symbolically, the two narratives can also be seen as interrelated. Leaving the world of innocence for the world of experience and searching the world of experience until one finds his place in that world together constitute the Odyssey itself – the journey through life.”

Jungian psychoanalysis introduces the notion of the “archetype.” For Jung, who sought to distinguish himself from the biological reductionist approach of Freud, theorized that the mind is conditioned by the innate structure of the collective unconscious. This structure is composed of what is called the “archetypes” – epistemic filters that underlie all of human knowledge and make it possible. The important argument to consider is that these manifest cross-culturally and endure through any elapse of time. In Jung’s theory, these were an ontological reality; in literary criticism, it is not necessary. This is important to note for any contemporary critics who may be turned away by any sign of ushering in mysticism. One notable Jungian archetype is exemplified by Odysseus, the “trickster.” What distinguishes him from other mythological heroes is the fact of his intelligence. In other narratives, there is a stressing of the capacity of strength and bravery with a little assistance of wisdom from the gods. Odysseus represents the embodiment of wisdom and intelligence and receives courage and strength from the gods. Because of his craftiness and his skillful art of disguise, Homer even addresses him as “Cunning” Odysseus. It is no surprise that it is partially disclosed that Hermes, the “trickster-god”, is Odysseus’s great-grandfather. The Cambridge Companion to Jung lucidly expounds on this perspective of Odysseus,

“Why then should Odysseus’ embodiment of this quality make him not merely an ‘untypical’ hero but specifically a trickster and the refraction of an archetype? There are two reasons. The first is the way he combines cunning resourcefulness with significant traces of other essential trickster qualities. The second is his connection to Hermes.”

In departure from analyzing the textual archetypes in the epic, an appropriation towards the dynamics of the culture in ancient Greece, and how this undergirds Homer’s narrative is of the essence. It is important to recognize that what proceeds is not a Marxist critique of the text, because it predicates itself on the collective psyche of the society and not class differentiation. Social anthropology is considered an extension of archetypal criticism. For the ancients Greeks, two things permeate the phenomenological and intuitive consciousness: the notion of “cyclical” time and the dialectic of guilt/sacrifice.  The first is a framed reflection on the way the Greeks registered the seasonal patterns of their environment. They were caught in the midst of the capricious flow of time and were directly participating with the rhythms of the natural world. Ernest Becker, a well-known cultural anthropologist, had researched and written on this subject and it is appropriate to quote him at length:

“Primitive man lived in a world devoid of clocks, progressive calendars, once-only numbered years. Nature was seen in her imagined purity of endless cycles of sun risings and settings, moon waxings and wanings, seasons changing, animals dying and being born, etc. This kind of cosmology is not favorable to the accumulation of either guilt or property, since everything is wiped away with the gifts and nature is renewed with the help of ritual ceremonies of regeneration. Man did not feel that he had to pile things up.”

What is interesting in The Odyssey is the fact that in the end, Odysseus’s adventure does not actualize from a linear progression into an epiphany or climax into new territory, but rather he returns from his journey to where he first began. This is telling of the cyclical condition of the ancient mind and the unfolding of Odysseus’s conflict reflects the seasonal shifts of the natural world.

The other aspect of the conscious manifold of the culture is that of guilt/sacrifice, which Becker places in conjunction with the former. Along with the seasonal dynamics of nature was the feeling of guilt from the gifts of the mysterious forces of the natural world that the people were dependent on. It was an obligation to sacrifice goods (animals, fresh produce, etc.) in order to alleviate the anxiety accumulated from the ambiguity of knowing what to give thanks to and to make sure that these forces were rejuvenated to regulate its cycle. This dialectic between the individual and the natural forces is illustrative of Odysseus’s circumstance coping with the immersive powers of the gods all around him. Becker continues, “Society, in other words, is a dramatization of dependence and an exercise in mutual safety by the animal in evolution who had to figure out a way of appeasing himself as well as nature. We can conclude that primitives were more honest about these things – about guilt and debt – because they were more realistic about man’s desperate situation vis-à-vis nature.”

It is this relationship with the gods that permeates Greek civilization. Corey Anton, Prof. of Communication Studies at GrandValleyStateUniversity (PhD), synthesizes Becker: “We can summarize by suggesting that humans need more than simply self-esteem or heroic death denial. First, because humans stick out and have cultivated a sense of self-sufficiency, they need to feel significant or in Becker’s terms, ‘heroic.’ Second, because people can ‘stick out too much,’ they need to adequately give in return so as to expiate the guilt of separation. In other words, people need to be indentified with and recognize their dependence upon something vaster into which they can lose themselves. Here we are reminded of Odysseus’s lesson regarding the all-too-human temptation: ‘Do not forget the gods; they are the source of life-sustaining powers.”

The self-sufficing independence of Odysseus’s heroic character is reconsidered. In the end, he must pay tribute to the gods who are greater than himself. This psychology was embodied in Homer’s work.

What has been demonstrated is a method of analysis that codifies a particular narrative to its psychological archetypes. The previous arguments elucidate and capture this approach in the epic of The Odyssey in attempt to reconsider the integrality of archetypal criticism. What causes precipitated the decline of this mode of criticism and how might it be transcended? The elephant in the room is the development of Postmodernism. This philosophical perspective offers a devastating critique of meaning, specifically with language. Jacques Derrida, the main figure in this movement, was majorly influence by the school of thought known as Structuralism. Structuralism holds that the meaning of signs (words) is structurally determined by the difference of all signs from each other in a given network. This means that a word’s meaning is not derived from the correspondence of an external ontological object (signified) to its’ sign (signifier), but rather it is only because of its differentiated relationship among other words that it becomes meaningful (similar to the nitrogenous bases that compose the structure of DNA which are meaningless on their on but construct meaning when synthesized). This theory was hoped to provide a system for studying the humanities (Anthropology, Literature, Sociology, etc.) in a scientific way. Derrida and the postmodern thinkers adopt this notion and reappropriate the structuralist principle against structuralism itself. In other words, they propose an internal critique of the theory. In postmodernism (deconstruction), language is a proliferation of sign differentiation predicated on nothing. Any attempt to trace meaning back to an indubitable foundation for all knowledge become null. This has a devastating impact on literature and archetypal criticism is not removed from skepticism, “However, due to the influx of critical postmodern perspectives throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century, archetypal criticism generally, and Frye’s influence and prestige specifically, began to wane.” Literature at this angle becomes a web of irrelevance; there is no distinctive qualities laid claim to a specific genre, epic poetry (Homer) can become a horror story. Is there any path out of this contemporary paradigm and can the archetypal perspective emerge out of this self-defecating philosophy?

Surprisingly, the avenue might be archetypal analysis as new psychological developments unfold. This fresh outlook towards a more integrated and holistic interpretation of the dialectic of the intellectual mind will seek to undercut the subject-object epistemological distinction that has hitherto underlined all of western philosophy. This new extension in archetypal psychology can be found in the work of Stanislov Grof. Grof is a psychoanalytic psychologist with a Freudian background. However, as a result of his experiments, he found himself in the position to synthesize Freud’s biological perspective with Jung’s archetypal perspective. During several thousand psychoanalytic sessions, Grof uses psychoactive substances (LSD) on his subjects in conjunction with meditative sessions in order to stimulate unconscious processes. The subjects proceeded to enter deeper and further into the unconscious, even the stages of the Oedipus complex and early infantile experiences – a representation of what seemed as empirical evidence for Freud’s principles. As the experiments continued, the subjects explored the unconscious mind further than what had be conceived – to the biological womb itself; this is where the analysis shifts to the archetypal. Richard Tarnas, who has written extensively on the nature and implications of the archetypes, elaborates on Grof’s work: “First, the archetypal sequence that governed the perinatal phenomena from womb through birth canal to birth was experienced above all as a powerful dialectic – moving from an initial state of undifferentiated unity to a problematic state of constriction, conflict, and contradiction, with an accompanying sense of separation, duality, and alienation; and finally moving through a stage of complete annihilation to an unexpected redemptive liberation that both overcame and fulfilled the intervening alienated state – restoring the initial unity but on a new level that preserved the achievement of the whole trajectory.”

Tarnas goes on to demonstrate how these archetypal stages (drawing on Jung’s notion of “synchronicity”) manifest outside the individual human unconscious and outlines how it has precipitated the evolution of the western mind – the primitives’ undifferentiated unity with the natural world (womb), the dawn of the notion of individuality of the modern age (separation), the complete dissolution of the postmodern perspective (alienation), and now a renewed unifying participation with the cosmos. If one opens oneself and engages in this different perspective, it could render postmodernism’s criticism as unproblematic and can once again facilitate new modes of inquiry and generate meaningful discussion once again on works as great as The Odyssey. This could be the proposed opposition out of this paradigm and could shine a light for literature to come in confronting the postmodern framework. In hindsight,  to consider Nietzsche’s practical observation, “And how could I endure to be a man, if man were not also poet and reader of riddles and…a way to new dawns.”

The aesthetic and profound insights of archetypal literary criticism demand a reconsideration of the field’s re-integration into the discussion of analysis. This essay has examined several Jungian archetypes throughout Homer’s work, investigating some of its major characters. Previous arguments have explored the other facets of the practice illuminating the psychology of the ancient Greeks, anatomically analyzing how it unfolds in the subconscious of Homer’s narrative. The archetypal perspective transcends postmodern criticism and integrates both of these fields. This perspective offers fruitful discussion for future works of literature like The Odyssey and to continue the on-going dialectic of literary analysis.

A White Whale: Moby-Dick as Melville’s Postmodernism

•October 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

from my english course:

“Call me Ishmael.” With this sentence, Herman Melville began writing his ambitious novel that forever left its mark on literature. One might claim that Moby-Dick is in lineage with the great epic works of Homer and would certainly be able to hold their ground. The book has since been subjected to critics of profession or of the avid leisurely reader alike. It is appropriately appraised as a classic. What is it about this work that has been so enduring, as in the fact that so many writers of all factions have frequently alluded to some theme, metaphor, or even directly quoted from its pages? The more than typical approach to analyzing any work in literature requires more than comprehension of the plot; it involves investigating what underlying themes, moods, and symbolism the author implies. The reader has to employ in hermeneutics to interpret the mind of the writer and to read-in-between-the-lines. In order to give this analysis justice, we have to enter the mind of Melville. For clues, the reader can look to the narrator Ishmael; through his perspective of the events some characteristics, style, themes, and philosophies can be inferred. Through the tone of the words and the way the events of the plot are written out, notions of ambiguity, relativism, indifference, and moral angst can be extracted. Not only in analyzing the book, but drawing from other sources will help to trace these patterns of thought. These ideas and attitudes are perhaps those in which Melville had in mind consciously or unconsciously while writing the book. This essay will seek to flesh-out in what ways these ideas and more are symbolically intuited in the book as a way for Melville to symbolize his preliminary postmodern thoughts.

A good place to start would be to look at the cultural context in which the book was written. There was a flourishing in the realm of aesthetics as this time was the height of Romanticism. Writers of this time, it could be argued, were reacting against the notion that all knowledge of reality and the individual could be subjected to the rigor of scientific understanding or critical philosophy; this line of reasoning stemming from the Age of Reason. Romantic writers combated this concession by turning their attention toward aspects of the individual that are less formal and systematic in order to re-enchant the human spirit into society by way of feelings, intuition, art, and imagination (Moby-Dick fits this description). Melville’s book is extraordinarily artistic and imaginative; his descriptions of the characters, setting, and much of the architecture in the plot are stark contrast to the approach to nature in that of Modernism, as an impersonal machine. A comparison can even be drawn in classical times when participants in mystery religions were concurring with sophists and secularists but refused to conform. This loss of conviction of Melville in reason to achieve certainty is portrayed symbolically all throughout the plot (this will be addressed later). The author Shawn Thompson has addressed romantic elements in Melville in his book called “The Romantic Architecture in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.” Thompson elaborates Melville’s skepticism about philosophy:

“Melville’s anxious attraction to the Liverpool docks underlies his disavowal of Classical idealism for its rigid pronouncement of an incorruptible order and clarity. The “universal stir” cannot be understood as it happens. Melville experiences a disturbance that cannot be accounted for by Classical idealism; the dizzying experience of being swept up by the flux of things and the attempt to form some ordering of this experience are the major encounters of Moby-Dick.”(p. 28)

Romanticism is the paradigmatic shift in the will of man out of this quest for certainty into the realm of the imagination. However, Melville’s conviction in aesthetics as a path might not be as clear. Thompson continues, “Yet Melville is also critical of Romantic gestures of self-aggrandizement and acts of singular self-absorption.” This instability of structure is a key characteristic of postmodern and post-structuralist ideas.

Shifting the context from the cultural movements of the time to Melville’s personal life, more clues can be found in the development of his relativism. His religious life is of the particular interest here. In time prior to the book, he had conflict in interpretation of doctrine in orthodoxy and was dubious about the thought of God pre-determining man’s salvation. “As a consequence he began to doubt his Calvinist heritage, longing for a God that was more benevolent and a personal source of truth.” (Rhee) It is indisputable that the book contains symbolism and reference to religion whether it is in the characters, the chapter “The Sermon”, or even the name “Ishmael” itself. This amount of text dwelling on the search for the true meaning of God, which does not relay much importance on the surface of the plot, reflects how much instability Melville had in his religious life. This instability becomes evident when analyzing the nature of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Ishmael as a character that is Christian happens to meet a stranger that has undeniably contrasting customs in practice as a pagan. Ironically, these two end up becoming best friends and seek out adventure on the Pequod together. This type of irony is reflective of the notion of cultural relativism in post-structuralist philosophy, which is the idea that there is no standard of morality or religion but rather it is relative to the customs of a particular culture. Whether Melville was aware of this intentionally or indirectly is unclear, but that he did have these views is apparent. His dubious religious inclinations shine through in the text.

“In Moby-Dick, Melville exposed his own personal religious crisis and thus his own search for a just God as well as the crisis of his Age by internalizing the conflict between the two religious camps: the more liberal Unitarians and the orthodox Calvinists.”(Rhee)

Doubting modernity’s ability for certain knowledge and ethical grounds for secular progress can of course bring about ambiguities. In questioning belief in God however, this can potentially bring one to the state of the character Ahab. Symbolically in the characters of the plot, this groundlessness opens up an extravagant search for signs of truth which can be intuited in the source of the book itself to which this insight will now turn to.

The narrator of the book is Ishmael. What is strikingly interesting right away when analyzing his character is the fact that he plays a rather minuscule role in the major events of the plot. Ishmael has the unique quality of continually being perpetuated towards all action and drama in the plot and yet pertains the feeling of being undeniably distant. This passivity that Ishmael constitutes infers his significance as a subtle attempt to pass off as an objective point of view. His adventurous curiosity and exploration into the unknown and the indifferent approach to anything that he might find symbolically exhibits the postmodern attitude. The subtle attitude of objectivity and the simultaneous position of being contextually axiomatic is the type of contradictory criticism that postmodernism exuberates; in the book Melville creates a symbolic embodiment of this attitude through the character Ishmael. Another way to demonstrate the relationship between Ishmael’s character and the postmodern attitude would be to relay attentiveness to the way he describes scenes, characters, objects, and ideologies. He exhibits the persona of a Renaissance-man – a type of individual that expresses the capacity of a large quantity of information that disperses through many different fields of knowledge. Whether poetically describing a scene in referencing history or engaging in scientific descriptions (genus of the whale), Ishmael demonstrates his keen awareness of various ideologies from history – scientific, religious, philosophical. This quality is highly characteristic of the method of postmodernism, which speculates in relativity with contextual awareness of culture, history, economics, media, and symbols alike. The critical method of postmodernism disrupts any grounds or absolutes that are self evident in order to elaborate on its relativity to a specific context instead. The pursuit lies in continually searching for absolute truth only to find more symbols or “shadows.”

“Thus although Ishmael declares in Chapter 23 (“The Lee Shore”) that there is no absolute truth – no ‘land’ – available (“in landlessness alone resides the highest truth”), Ishmael nonetheless seeks continually for a ground of belief. This search takes him through the whole range of possible outlooks, extending from Father Mapple’s orthodoxy at the one extreme to the contemplation of atheism at the other….Ishmael even subscribes for a time to Captain Ahab’s Romantic belief in Man as Supreme Being. But finally, unable to choose between these conflicting modes of belief, he embraces all possibilities alike.”(Strandberg)

Relativity shines through in Ishmael’s character. However, it can also be seen reflected in other characters relationship with the venture of capturing the white whale.

One of the exciting aspects of the book is the range of diversity among all of the characters. It is the picture of several individuals with different cultural backgrounds and personal goals meshed together on one ship, whaling. Each character exhibits a unique feel and mood to the story. In accordance with the actual quest to capture Moby-Dick, each whaler has his own version of what the white whale means to them. Perhaps the main character in the story is Ahab. Particularly, his own strivings behind the quest is in the fact that he wants revenge on the whale for taking his leg. However, there is likely more depth behind the reason for Ahab’s persistent madness. If the whale that took his leg would have been any generic one, he would not be so persistent; but because this was an untypical type of whale, this drives Ahab to madness. The fact that the whale is white is significant in that it symbolizes the unexplained anomalies in nature represents the embodiment of uncertainty. Ahab and the others on board are all trying to grasp uncertainty in search for the anomaly. This is symbolic of any attempt at ascertaining absolute truth will end in failure and will result in either embracing uncertainty (Ishmael and postmodernism) or driving oneself mad and creating his own absolute (Ahab).

“Those who do this are like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick, who transfers all the ‘intangible malignity’ he perceives in the world to a white whale. Having posited a visible personification of the demonic, he commits his vast knowledge and expertise to the attempt to overcome what he cannot bear. To justify his maniac pursuit, he must project his own reality, impose his own created truth.”(Greene)

Ahab’s pursuit in turn affects the direction of the rest of the crew. To further emphasize the different meaning of the whale for each whaler, Melville introduces the “gold dubloon” for which anyone that spots the whale will be awarded by Ahab.

“The whale hunters aboard the Pequod and on other ships have different opinions about the meaning of the whale. Although many whale hunters on the pequod are hypnotized by Ahab’s ‘invocation’ of evil (ch. 36 p. 140) into accepting that the whale is ‘in some dim, unsuspected way the gliding great demon of the seas of life,’ (ch. 36 p. 141) yet there remains unchanged the plurality of meanings, which is indicated by the unchangeablility of the meaning of the gold dubloon.”

These dilemmas further symbolize the atmosphere of relativity in the book. Melville puts emphasis on the search for absolute truth or God will result in subjectivism which characterizes the postmodern perspective.

Perhaps an even more compelling expression of the elements of postmodernism in Melville would be to entertain the idea of the entire book as a meta-narrative. This would be to comprehend Melville’s work as a commentary on symbolism and metaphor in the book itself. In awareness of the reader’s desire to explore the possible symbolic significance in the book, Melville explicates elements such as the metonym of the “white” of the whale. It was established that the whiteness of the whale holds different meaning for each whaler. The deviation of the basic narrative of the story into this metonym transforms the symbol into a fabrication; it becomes a simulation of symbolism but is deprived of an original source of context. This introspective style of writing in Melville exhibits characteristics of what Jean Baudrillard calls “simulacrum”. Baudrillard elaborates on the overlapping nature of contextually rich symbolic simulation in his book “Simulacra and Simulations”:

“Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation develops the whole edifice of representation as itself simulacrum. These would be the successive phases of the image:

1 It is the reflection of a basic reality.

2 It masks and perverts a basic reality.

3 It masks the absence of a basic reality.

4 It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

In the first case, the image is a good appearance: the representation is of the order of sacrament. In the second, it is an evil appearance: of the order of malefice. In the third, it plays at beaing an appearance: it is the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer in the order of appearance at all, but of simulation.”(170)

The idea is that a simulacrum is so contextually rich that it becomes difficult to find the right path to the original source of meaning; so much so that it “simulates” its own reality. This becomes evident when interpreting the metonym of “white”. Melville leads the reader in to thinking that there is an underlying significance behind it, but discloses it as a web of symbolic ambiguity. The symbolism of it would not be uncertainty, racism, or God. Rather the symbol would itself be symbolism. Melville fleshes-out this simulation of meaning in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale”:

“Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”(165)

The paradox of this simulacrum is the realization that white is void of color (meaning) and yet contains all colors. The metonym is a simulation of symbolism and in turn constitutes its own reality that enters into the fourth stage in Baudrillard’s theory – becoming a simulacrum of itself. This is a very radical postmodern theory and to see the preliminary mappings of the concept in the format of Melville’s novel is intriguing.                        Through investigating the various contexts of Melville and Moby-Dick, any reader or critic can extrapolate elements of postmodernism in the work. Whether analyzing the cultural background in which the book was written, examining the author’s character, or exploring the characters and themes of the plot, these elements can be traced out. The amount of symbolism discussed in this essay alone reflects the ambiguity and relativism of the text. The idea can also be explored that the text is in fact a meta-narrative commenting on its own symbolic references, exhibiting the concept of simulacrum. In its many aspects and perspectives, Moby-Dick is essentially postmodern.