The Totemic Paradigm

24 September 2010


Lately I’ve run across several blog posts that discuss the place of narrative in human life and human experience. For example, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage both in Pick Your Metaphor With Care and Azar Gat on Narrative Building discussed the place of narrative in human cognition. Other blogs of intellectual substance have also recently visited this topic, though I can’t pull exact references out of my memory. The theme of narrative is also prominent in contemporary analytical philosophy of mind as well as in psychotherapy, in which latter discipline narrative therapy is becoming a hot topic.

Walter Fisher has been central to the recent emergence of interest in narrative of a theme of cognition.

One of the sources of this growing interest in the role of narrative in thought and experiences is Walter Fisher’s book, Human communication as a narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987). I haven’t had a chance to study this work yet, but I know it by reputation; it has been very influential.

In this work, Fisher contrasts what he calls the “Rational World Paradigm” with the “Narrative Paradigm.” These two conceptions of human communication are laid out as follows:

Rational World Paradigm:

People are essentially rational.
People make decisions based on arguments.
The communicative situation determines the course of our argument.
Rationality is determined by how much we know and how well we argue.
The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.

Narrative Paradigm:

People are essentially storytellers.
People make decisions based on good reasons.
History, biography, culture, and character determine what we consider good reasons.
Narrative rationality is determined by the coherence and fidelity of our stories.
The world is a set of stories from which we choose, and constantly re-create, our lives.

There is a lot that could be said regarding these two conceptions of communication. I will limit myself to only a few comments. What Fisher calls the Rational World Paradigm strikes me as a straw man erected for the purpose of being knocked down. Even the most steadfast rationalists that I know, even if they believe that human beings ought to abide by something like a rational world paradigm, know that human beings do not in fact act (or think) according to such a paradigm. The only other comment I will make, and this will lead me to the main item of interest of today’s post, is that, once we begin to think of human communication in terms of paradigms such as these two laid out by Fisher, it is not too difficult to think of other paradigms by which human beings do in fact communicate, or which have been entertained as ideals of communication even if not acted upon in practical matters of fact.

In this spirit then, I would like to introduce what I call the Totemic Paradigm. I am calling it this because I have been reading Claude Lévi-Strauss of late. However, Lévi-Strauss bears no responsibility for the use to which I have put his ideas in the following (that is to say, if you can even recognize these ideas in what follows). Without further ado, then, the Totemic Paradigm:

Totemic Paradigm:

People are essentially mythological bricoleurs.
People make decisions based on their emotional response to symbols.
The existential situation of an individual and a community determines the effective use of a symbol in mythology.
Rationality is irrelevant; it is the potency and efficacy of our symbols that counts.
The world is a set of myths that emerge from the particular life of a particular people in a particular landscape.

Any regular readers of this forum will notice the presence of some themes to which I return repeatedly, such as my continually expressed interest in the way that an intellectual milieu grows organically out of the life of a people, and the life of a people grows organically out of the landscape in which they must make (or have chosen to make) a life for themselves.

I hope that the careful reader will also note that I have made no attempt to incorporate Fisher’s concern with the fluidity of self and our freedom in creating and re-creating ourselves. This is a distinctly modern conception, and it is almost totality absent in traditional societies. What I hope to capture in this Totemic Paradigm is the Weltanschauung of traditional societies, fully in the grip of what Nietzsche called the “morality of mores.” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom.” If you’re nor familiar with this conception, I encourage you to read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.)

The careful reader will also discern here the influence of Joseph Campbell, whom I have many times referenced in this forum. I’ve been listening to his lectures again. I never tire of them. It was one of Campbell’s concerns to point out (many times) that despite the positivism and empiricism of our age, that there are modern myths, and often we do do not even know what myth we are living by. Campbell also emphasized that if traditional myths (most of which grew out of axial societies, again, fully in the grip of the morality of mores) no longer speak to us, no longer affect us directly, that new mythologies must and will arise that do speak to us in an immediate and visceral way. If you respond to a myth as a myth, it retains its vitality; if the myth must be “explained” to you, and even then it leaves you cold, it doesn’t really matter how much it is honored in the breach; it has, in fact, become a dead letter, and we can only pretend that it continues to mean something to us.

If, as I have stated in the last item under the Totemic Paradigm, “The world is a set of myths that emerge from the particular life a particular people in a particular landscape,” then we obviously must ask what kind of myths and symbols have emerged and are emerging from the landscape of industrialized society, which is the world in which we live today. I have attempted some initial formulations of this problem in several posts, including Ritual and Myth in Modernity, Class Consciousness and Mythology, and Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization. These efforts, however, are only the merest sketch of a large topic, and much remains to be done. I will return to this again, fate willing.

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