Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jungian Semiotics

Perhaps Carl Jung gives us the best possibility of making something worthwhile out of the current rather arid state of Saussaurean and Piercean semiotics. The basic idea is fine: human beings live in a context of signs and symbiology which must be recognised and interpreted for us to live meaningful lives. Problems emerge when the deep-rooted significance of signs and their importance are examined. For the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, human language was itself a set of signs and symbols through which we viewed the world: though there was no necessary connection between the real world and the concepts in our mind that were merely an interpretation of it. For Saussure, the connection between the signifier and the signified was "arbitrary". This is to say the signs we used to describe the world, including language, had no necessary logical connection with reality. "Cat" could just as easily mean "mountain" as a small furry domestic animal. In other words, the symbols and signs we use on an everyday basis are given meaning only by ourselves and have no significance outside of their collectively perceived meaning. Now this is a rather dry and soulless interpretation of symbiology and signs: the world is full of signs and symbols that have been created and given meaning only by ourselves. It is at this difficult point that Carl Jung's ideas can possibly begin to help us--though only if we are prepared to accept that there are aspects of existence that we simply don't understand very well.

Many of Jung's ideas and concepts have established themselves in "the collective unconscious" to use one of the Swiss psychologists most famous ideas. Jung also introduced the ideas of "introvert" and "extravert", "archetypes", feminine and masculine sides to the personality, "synchronicity", "mid-life crisis" and gender ruled by "Logos" and "Eros". He even referred to the "dark side" of the human psyche--an idea picked up by George Lucas in his "Star Wars" movies. This idea of the human psyche having a "dark side" that would prove hugely destructive if not acknowledged and controlled, provides one connecting point between Jung's ideas and modern semiotics--and points to ways in which Jungian psychology may enrich our present view of semiotics.

For Jung, modern humans lived in a particularly difficult world. The foundations of Christianity had been blasted asunder by science and modern man, unlike his ancestors, lived in a world dedicated to science and reason. However, the problem was that man was only "reasonable" up to a certain point. Like Nietzsche before him, Jung believed that in order to find peace, man had to give up at least a part of his reliance on reason and accept "the dark side" of his personality. The dark side was irrational, but also the place where creativity and instinctual knowledge was born. Man had insisted on "goodness" and "light" too exclusively for too long. Jung saw this as a dichotomy between man's "Appollonian side" dedicated to higher reason and knowledge and his "Dionysian" side dependent on the irrational and symbols. If this latter aspect of man's psyche went unacknowledged for too long it did untold harm in the individual and collective unconscious of man, resulting in brutal wars of aggression that allowed us to express our inner demons in a cathartic way that could be sanctioned by society through "projection". "Projection" for Jung was the way in which the anger of men could be channelled against other men by believing one side was right and the other wrong. It was his belief that suppressed primitiveness was the cause of much mental illness as well as those periodic orgies of violence that mankind regularly indulged in (and of course, Jung lived through both world wars). Jung was sure that unless modern man accepted the dark and irrational elements in his own nature then eventually he was sure to destroy himself in a paroxysm of violence. It is interesting to recall Yeat's poem, "The Second Coming" in this context:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is surely the finest poem of the 20th century just because it so effectively tunes into the symbiology of the times. In Jungian terms, the "rough beast" would be the dark side of humanity that has been denied adequate expression for so long and now is about to wreak its consequent havoc on the "reasonable" civilization that denied its existence or only saw it active in others (rather than as being present in the unconscious of all men). According to Jung, the apocalyptic disaster foretold so eerily and well by Yeats, could still be avoided if man accepted that the modern age did not give him sufficient spiritual sustenance: and for Jung, man was above all a spiritual creature:

"Since the stars have fallen from heaven and our highest symbols have paled, a secret life holds sway in the unconscious. That is why we have psychology today, and why we speak of the unconscious. All this would be quite superfluous in an age or culture that possessed symbols. Symbols are spirit from above, and under those conditions the spirit is above too...Our unconscious...hides living water, spirit that has become nature, and that is why it is disturbed. Heaven has become for us the cosmic space of the physicists and the divine empyrean a fair memory of things that once were. But 'the heart glows' and a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being."

(Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious)

Specfically on man and his need for symbols and a cause greater than himself, Jung says the following:

"Everything is banal, everything is 'nothing but'; and that is the reason why people are neurotic. They are simply sick of the whole thing, sick of the banal life, and therefore they want sensation. They even want a war; they all want a war. They are all glad when there is a war; they say, 'Thank heaven, now something is going to happen--something bigger than ourselves.

These things go pretty deep, and no wonder people get neurotic. Life is too rational, there is no symbolic existence in which I am something else, in which I am fulfilling my role, my role as one of the actors in the divine drama of life... That gives peace, when people feel that they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in a divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal and you can dismiss it. A career, producing children, are all maya compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful...But we cannot turn the wheel backwards; we cannot go back to the symbolism that is gone. Doubt has killed it, has devoured it...I cannot experience the miracle of the Mass...It is no more true to me...Dreams were the original guidance of man in the great darkness...When a man is in the wilderness the darkness brings the dreams--somnia a Deo missa--that guide him. It has always been so. I have not been led by any kind of wisdom; I have been led by dreams, like any primitive. When you are in the darkness you take the next thing, and that is a dream. And you can be sure that the dream is your nearest friend; the dream is the friend of those who are not guided any more by the traditional truth and in consequence are isolated."

(The Symbolic Life)

Most importantly, for Jung man was "Homo Religiosus": he needed religion for the welfare of his psyche and in the modern atheistic world the absence of religion and religious symbols led inevitably to mental illness:

"During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. Many hundreds of patients have passed through my hands, the greater number being Protestants, a lesser number Jews, and not more than 5 or 6 believing Catholics. Among all my patients in the second half of life--that is to say over 35--there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church."

(Psychotherapists or the Clergy)

Jung's own view of religion is obscure. His work concentrated more on the need for some spiritual reality in human life and he did not prefer one creed over another (though interestingly, he did advise against a too easy acceptance of Eastern traditions by people from the West). He did, however, insist on the importance of ritual in the sacred life. From time immemorial, man has marked the change of seasons and the cycle of birth and death with various propitiation ceremonies full of symbolic acts. It was this symbolism that put him in touch with nature and himself--and it is precisely this quality that has been lost in our modern world. One might say that any religion that was full of symbolism would be appropriate to man's spiritual salvation. Jung himself (like Wittgenstein) toyed with the idea of joining the Catholic church because he admired its rich symbolism. His idea was that one could give a symbolic meaning to everything that the clergy insisted was literally true. After a while, however, he dropped the idea--no doubt disillusioned by the rigidity of the church to accept his symbolic meanings. We do know that two childhood experiences greatly influenced the views of the grown man. In the first, he dreamt that he was looking down into a rectangular hole in the ground with a flight of steps leading down. He descended these steps and in a subterranean room he viewed a giant phallus sat on a majestic throne. At the tip of the phallus a single eye looked unblinkingly upwards. Later, Jung described the dream as a vision of how man has sanitised religion and concentrated on the light to such an extent that he has ignored God's terrible aspect and the dark side of himself. This has led to the collapse of belief and now God must find a new way to recreate himself--from below so to speak. The second vision (not a dream this time) is in some ways even more shocking. The adolescent Jung was looking at his town's cathedral when he had a vision of God sat in splendour on a throne, directly above the cathedral. Suddenly a turd dropped from the throne and fell on the cathedral destroying it completely. Jung interpreted this as meaning that the divine spirit was unhappy with the interpretation of him given by his followers. He was a two-sided God of light and darkness and not the anaemic creature that existed in conventional religious texts.

This has been a mere introduction to some of Jung's ideas on symbols. However, it seems to me that a researcher genuinely interested in semiotics can find a rich world of symbols and ideas in the works of Jung that could deepen and make more profound the, at present, somewhat anaemic study of signs and symbols that is semiotics.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Do we mean something different when we talk about "brains" and "minds", or are these two words simply synonyms? The history of Western philosophy would suggest that "brain" and "mind" are linguistic equivalents of the dualism between "soul" and "body". A "brain" is something physical with scientific rules of operation. "Mind", on the other hand, is a far less clear concept with its subjectivity and emotions. Philosophers have been known to make such claims as: "Mind is as wide as the universe itself". Now quite clearly, it is not the bundle of cells in our heads that is being referred to here, but something far more expansive: in a nutshell, it is the ability of human beings to formulate abstract thought accompanied by the most profound feelings. Of course, it is a fairly recent phenomenon for humans to locate the essence of their being inside their skulls. For millennia, wise men and philosophers preferred to believe that the seat of the emotions and abstract thought lay inside the heart. This fact can still be observed in our use of language today: we learn something "by heart"; a cruel person is "heartless"; a courageous person has a lot of "heart"--and so on. The Egyptians were so convinced that the soul lay in the heart, that they carefully embalmed and preserved that organ when preparing a corpse for burial. The brains, in contrast, were regarded as mere stuffing for the head and were unceremoniously hooked out through the nose! In the present day, our knowledge has grown concerning the functions of the brain, but neuro-scientists are still largely in the dark when it comes to explaining the functionality of the billions of neurons that are continually firing inside our heads. On the other hand, everyone knows what mind is like (or at least they think they do!) "Mind" is the process of thought and emotion through which I am able to connect with other humans and the world in general. It is possible to explain our thoughts and emotions, the things we think and the things we feel, in the knowledge that these experiences are also shared by other "minds". However, neuro-science is only just beginning to understand some elementary things about the ways in which our "brains" give birth to the thoughts, ideas and emotions of our "minds". Much has been understood about the visual cortex and how the eyes and brain react together to give us sight. Furthermore, the posterior parts of the brain that deal with motor function have also been studied intensely. However, the connections between the brain's frontal lobes and the abstract thoughts and emotions of "mind" remain almost completely unaccounted for--and this inability to understand how the "brain" gives us the abilities of "mind" goes a long way towards explaining the continuing dichotomy between these two concepts.

Another problem concerning "brain" and "mind" is the way we have invented two different sciences for explaining them. The activities of the human "brain" is studied by the neuro-biologist, but the "mind" is the territory of the psychologist. Evolutionary psychologists try to link the two together, but continue to explain their theories with flow charts and diagrams that are totally unrelated to the physiological structures of the brain. Chomsky and Steven Pinker have told us, for example, that language is (respectively) an "innate" gift and an "instinct"; yet neither has produced any evidence linking their ideas to specific functions and areas of the brain--another clear sign that they are dealing with the "mind" rather than the "brain". There is something decidedly pre-Socratic about the way, psychiatrists and psychologists allow themselves to blithely talk about the "mind" without any real understanding of the human "brain". The evolutionary psychologists tend to be equally deductive when speaking about the importance of human genes: everything (they say) can be explained by genes--but many of these psychologists have an ignorance of the human genetic make-up that is only equalled by their lack of knowledge concerning the human brain! For instance, we are continually given the old fact that the human genetic make-up is more than 99% the same as that of a chimpanzee. However, we rarely hear that dandelions share 35% of their genetic make-up with humans! Perhaps, then, the important point would be to try and understand why a disparity of less than 1% between humans and chimpanzees make us so profoundly different.

The present dualism that exists between "brains" and "minds" is certain to continue until more profound connections are made between the functioning "brain" and the "mind" that thinks and feels. In the final analysis, it is likely to be neuro-science that makes these essential connections rather than the more pretentious but less effective "science" of psychology.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was always bigger than life. He conquered the world and left the world in awe in the process. From the beginning there were many nay sayers, though Ali ended up by confounding them all. Ali's greatest opponent, Joe Frazier in 1996, at the opening of the Atlantic Olympic Games, famously expressed the wish that Ali would throw himself into the Olympic fire after lighting it!

Boxing afficionadoes sometimes insist Louis or Marciano were better, but a great fighter must be judged by the quality of the opposition he dominated. Ali was fighting in what must surely be considered the golden age of boxing and defeated opponents of the calibre of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton and Oscar Bonavena as well as a host of lesser luminaries such as Jerry Quarry, Ernie Shavers, Al "Blue" Lewis, Henry Cooper and Michael Spinks. His final humiliation at the age of 37 at the hands of Larry Holmes was just a case of age catching up with the great man (enabling his former sparring partner--later a fine champion himself--to defeat him).

More than being a great champion, Ali was a great man. He gave hope to the hopeless and showed that someone with true talent and a lot of self belief to back it up, could conquer an often hostile world.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Origins of Language

That's interesting, Mark. As you know, I've criticized Chomsky for being an innatist and closet idealist. I am not easy in my mind with innate postulations, but in this one instance I am prepared to go along with it. Why? Because it's a retrospective postulate that seems to cover the present facts. Children DO have an
extraordinary ability to pick up languages and this would suggest that all languages do conform to universal parameters. Similarly, behaviorist learning techniques cannot adequately account for the speed and creative ways in which children learn languages. As people get older, perhaps they conform more to behaviorist models: though punishment and reward techniques will always have some success.

Some psychologists seem to believe that it's very important that we know how language developed and the moment it happened. This doesn't concern me too much. It's basically an unknowable, though further scientific developments based on the discovery of new data (ancient human remains, etc.) might eventually shed some light on the matter (or maybe not). In the meantime, I am not so interested to follow every new psychological theory about where language comes from--an activity that often strikes me as Pre-Socratic in character (deductive and not based on evidence).

As far as I can see, Wittgenstein's later philosophy leads to relativism. There are multiple logics (he says) that only make sense in the context of particular arguments. In this he seems to be in agreement with Foucauld and his idea of discourses that don't have any absolute truth as a necessary part of their function. Furthermore, the later Wittgenstein also repudiated the idea that there is any necessary logical connection between language and the real world. In this respect, his later ideas mirrored those of Saussure.