February 16, 2006

Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur

A History of Knowledge Piero Scaruffi Editor of
Jacques Lacan analyzed the unconscious as a system of signs. Motives are signifiers which form a "signifying chain": the subconscious "is" that chain. This chain is permanently unstable because it does not refer to anything: the self itself is a fiction of the subconscious. A baby is born with a united psyche, but later in life, as the baby separates from the mother, that unity is broken, and the self is born; and the rest of one's lifetime is spent trying to reunite the self and the other. Psychic life as a permanent struggle between two "consciousnesses".
Claude Levi-Strauss extended it to social phenomena, which he considered as systems of signs just like language. Myths from different cultures (myths whose contents are very different) share similar structures. Myth is a language, made of units that are combined together according to certain rules. The "langue" is the myth's timeless meaning, the "parole" is its historical setting. "Mytheme" is the elementary unit of myth. Mythemes can be read both diachronically (the plot that unravels, the sequence of events) and synchronically (the timeless meaning of it, the "themes"). The themes of myths are binary relationships between two opposing concepts (e.g., between selfishness and altruism). Binary logic is, in a sense, the primordial logic, and mythical thinking is, in a sense, logical thinking. Mythical thinking is inherent to the human mind: it is is the human way of understanding nature and the human condition. Conversely, myths are tools that we can use to find out how the human mind works.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty countered that human freedom is never total: it is limited by our body. The individual is, first and foremost, a "situated" being, a body that lives in an environment. The body is not just an object surrounded by objects: it is the very subject of experience, that interacts with the environment. The body shapes the environment, but, in turn, the environment shapes the body, whose freedom is therefore limited by the way the environment shapes it. The same conditioning exists in society: the body is a linguistic actor but its linguistic action is constrained by the language it uses (the meaning of a linguistic action is constructed on the basis of a meaning acquired from the language). Ditto at the level of society: we are political agents, but we our political actions are shaped by the historical background. At all levels, there are a "visible" and an "invisible" dimensions of being that continuously affect each other.
Paul Ricoeur believed that the symbols of pre-rational culture (myth, religion, art, ideology) hide meaning that can be discovered by interpretation. There are always a patent and a latent meaning. A similar dichotomy affects human life, which is torn between the "voluntary" and the "involuntary" dimensions, between the "bios" (one's spatiotemporal life) and the "logos" (one's ability to grasp universal spacetime). He made a distinction between language and discourse: language is, indeed, only a system of signs, and therefore timeless, but discourse always occurs at some particular moment of time, i.e. it depends on the context. A language is a necessary condition for communication, but it itself does not communicate: only discourse communicates. The signs in a language system refer only to other signs in it, but discourse refers to a world. Discourse has a time dimension that is due to the merging of two different kinds of time: cosmic time (the uniform time of the universe) and lived time (the discontinuous time of our life's events). Historical time harmonizes these two kinds of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment