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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The Master of Surrealism

20 November 2009


Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954

As it happens, the second most comprehensive Salvador Dalí museum in the world, The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, is only about fifteen minutes drive from the corner of Sunshine Drive and Friendly Way where I am currently staying. I went to the Dalí museum today and spent some time with the works of the Master of Surrealism. The museum has a great collection, only part of which is displayed. I was told that they own about 1,300 pieces, which is obviously more than can be displayed at once. A new and larger museum is currently under construction nearby. Although the present museum is not large, the collection is nicely shown and very accessible to the visitor. My only complaint is with the lighting, which glares on the large canvases and which could easily be adjusted to shine less directly on the paintings.

Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926) shows his talent and his early mastery of technique, but his distinctive aesthetic imagination is notably absent.

The earliest paintings of Dalí show him experimenting with the styles of art familiar in his time. There is a canvas that is indistinguishable from Monet, and another that could pass for Cezanne. I can’t imagine a better technique for a painter to gain experience and knowledge of both the medium and the tradition than by imitating the most advanced works of his time, and Dalí shows the technical precision of his talent right from the beginning. Probably everyone knows someone with artistic talent, who has a natural knack for drawing or painting. Obviously Dalí had talent. Beyond talent, one must acquire technique. These early canvases show Dalí working through his technique. Beyond talent and technique, the true genius will have the aesthetic imagination to employ his talent and technique in unique works of art. When Dalí passes into his definitively surrealistic maturity, he reveals at the same time his aesthetic imagination — at it is an imagination of the first order.

Dalí's Cadaqués of 1923 owes more than a little to Cézanne; it is an essay in the style of Cézanne.

What is surrealism? There are, of course, many answers to this question, and the very idea of attempting to capture something as resistant to rational formulation as surrealism is problematic. Nevertheless, surrealism does have its locus classicus, and its locus classicus is as surreal and as hallucinogenic as any later productions of the genre. This is Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, a truly bizarre and unclassifiable prose poem novel that contains, among other unlikely passages, this paean to beauty in the form of a litany (first in the original French):

La somme des jours ne compte plus, quand il s’agit d’apprécier la capacité intellectuelle d’une figure sérieuse. Je me connais à lire l’âge dans les lignes physiognomoniques du front: il a seize ans et quatre mois! Il est beau comme la rétractilité des serres des oiseaux rapaces; ou encore, comme l’incertitude des mouvements musculaires dans les plaies des parties molles de la région cervicale postérieure; ou plutôt, comme ce piège à rats perpétuel, toujours retendu par l’animal pris, qui peut prendre seul des rongeurs indéfiniment, et fonctionner même caché sous la paille; et surtout, comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie!

And in English translation:

The total number of days no longer counts when it is a matter of appreciating the intellectual capacity of a serious face. I am an expert at judging age from the physiognomic lines of the brow: he is sixteen years and four months of age. He is as beautiful as the retractility of the claws of birds of prey; or, again, as the unpredictability of muscular movement in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region; or, rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents indefinitely and works even when it is hidden under straw; and, above all, as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table!

The last entry of this litany — the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table — was taken up by later surrealists as something of a one-line slogan and manifesto. André Breton, the surrealist’s surrealist, said that Maldoror was “The expression of a revelation so complete it seems to exceed human potential.”

Dalí's Morphological Echo of 1936 is a classic surrealist juxtaposition of unlikely objects found together in a shared space.

Dalí exemplified this conception of surrealism, though he did not merely exemplify a pre-existing tradition. Dalí was, to be sure, a surrealist, but he transcended, exceeded, and over-determined surrealism, as all great artists go beyond the cultural context that was their own conditio sine qua non. For the mediocre artist, one’s conditio sine qua non becomes conflated with one’s raison d’être; in the superior artist, there is always a profound disconnect between the two.

Earlier in the month, in Claude Lévi-Strauss, R.I.P., I wrote:

Freud and Marx, those twin fascinations of twentieth century European thought, are often credited with being structuralists, or, at least, following a structuralist method, and this is, in my estimation, a fair way to put it, despite the distaste most people have for using a label that ends with an “ism”. But if “isms” tend to over-simplification and schematism, and are often rejected for these reasons, the rejection of an “ism”, i.e., the rejection of a school of thought, can become as much of an intellectual fetish as the naming and labeling of a school of thought. Lévi-Strauss made structuralism explicit, he identified his work as structuralist, and he did not shy away from using the term not only in his writing but even in the titles of his books. Lévi-Strauss was not afraid of the label, and for that reason he rose above it.

Much of this applies, mutatis mutandis, to Salvador Dalí and surrealism. Dalí was a surrealist, to be sure, but he rose above the schematism of any label, he transcended and surmounted the label, and never attempted to limit himself to any particular school of thought. Dalí created his own motifs, symbols, and themes so that one recognizes internal references within the body of his work, the corpus dalícum, as it were.

One of Dalí's themes is his wife Gala, who appears throughout his work in many guises. This particular portrait at the St. Petersburg museum is quite small, less than 3 by 4 inches.

Dalí was no more merely a surrealist than his fellow (though adopted) Iberian El Greco was merely a mannerist — for artists of genius a particular style is never a container that limits creativity, but a springboard to greater things. Surrealism for Dalí was a point of departure (as I said Aristotle should have been for the Scholastics in Seeing the World for What It Is), just as the aesthetic traditions Dalí surveyed in his earliest works were a point of departure. He was not limited by the tradition any more than he was limited by the surrealist label.

In his Three Young Surrealistic Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra of 1936, as well as the titles of other works, Dalí did not scruple to employ the 'surrealist' label.

Dalí transcended the genre conventions of every style he adopted and made his own, and this holds in spades for surrealism. Dalí’s innovations in surrealism are profound, and worth considering in some detail. The Lautréamont passage cited above became a point of departure for Dalí as he not only employs a juxtaposition of individual objects, but (like a cubist) deconstructs individual objects and juxtaposes the parts of things. This is a mereological surrealism that surpasses the surrealism of Lautréamont’s sewing machine, umbrella, and dissecting table. In the mature Dalí one would expect to see, perhaps, parts of the sewing machine exchanged with parts of the umbrella, with both grafted in different ways on to the dissecting table.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador is a large canvas of great detail that repays careful study. No reproduction can go it justice: you must go to Florida and see it for yourself if you want to understand it.

Another extrapolation of surrealism made by Dalí involves an inversion of the surrealist juxtaposition. By this I mean the severing of conventional connections, the disconnection of that which is usually connected (in contradistinction to the connection of that which is not conventionally connected). This is seen, for example, in The Hallucinogenic Toreador, perhaps the pièce de résistance of the St. Petersburg museum, coming at the end as it does and forming the focus of the final exposition of Dalí’s works by both of the museum guides to whom I listened. The toreador that Dalí claimed to see in the Venus de Milo wears a traditional hat decorated around the brim with black balls of thread. These balls are transformed into the flies of St. Narrciso, but the flies are flying in an orderly geometrical formation. Dalí has taken the traditional elaborate decoration of the bullfighter’s costume and disconnected it from these origins in order to re-introduce it as a non-naturalistic invocation of a Spanish legend that makes a non-naturalistic use of nature. Here the world has been bent back on itself so many times that it scarcely makes any sense to invoke “convention” any more, since all conventions have either disappeared or have been iterated to a point beyond recognition.

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