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22 May 2012

Use the Force, Lucas

I've been given another free month of Netflix, and I'm watching Joseph Campbell: Mythos, a collection of lectures Campbell gave shortly before he died as a way to summarize the main points of his lifelong scholarship. I first learned about Campbell long ago (in this galaxy) from watching a documentary on the Star Wars phenomenon in which George Lucas relates how his writing of Star Wars was essentially a telling of what Campbell called the "hero's journey."* Campbell's theory attempts to bridge psychology, culture, and social structure. It's a grand undertaking--and one at which I think he ultimately, but nobly, fails--but it got me thinking about the heuristic nature of psychoanalytics. Freud and his disciples got the psyche wrong because they mistook their own models for the way that the brain actually functions. Neuroscience has thoroughly debunked the ego-id-superego theory. However, that doesn't mean that there isn't practical utility in that theory as a heuristic device for making sense of the mind so long as we don't confuse the mind with the brain. After all, "The map is not the territory" (Alfred Korzybski).

As I started to make sense of it, an analogy came to mind that I think helps to understand disciplinary pursuit on a continuum. Take a shopping mall. One can learn about what goes on there by wandering around and observing the shops, the cafeteria, and the walkways with almost no understanding of the architectural knowledge that was necessary to build the structure itself, and conversely, understanding the architecture tells one almost nothing about what goes on in the place. In the same way, an architect need only the most rudimentary understandings of mechanical physics to build a safe structure. She doesn't need a full understanding of quantum mechanics to make sure that the walls will stand and the roof won't collapse. We can stretch the metaphor even further. Understanding what goes on in one shop tells us nothing about what goes on in the others. Knowing that Rite Aid is a pharmacy doesn't tell me what goes on at Claire's. Additionally, understanding one mall doesn't tell me much about what goes on at all the other malls. While there is a continuity through different levels of analysis, each level (i.e. discipline) can generally behave independent of the others. Contrary to what many theoretical physicists might believe, understanding the quark does not explain society.

* - Despite my interest, I was discouraged from reading Campbell in graduate school and was told to remove him from my qualifying (a.k.a. comps) exam reading list. Though unfortunate, I now understand that Campbell is widely unknown and unread in sociology, likely because of his indirect ties to Freud through Jung. I believe that he should be reintroduced to the Sociology of Religion canon.

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