Bereft of Reason:
On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for its Renewal
by Eugene Halton
Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997.
Excerpt from chapter 3, The Cultic Roots of Culture
...By beginning with a brief tour of the contemporary landscape of culture theory, I hope to show how current conceptions of meaning and culture tend toward extreme forms of disembodied abstraction, indicating an alienation from the original, earthy meaning of the word culture. I will then turn to the earlier meanings of the word and why the "cultic," the living impulse to meaning, was and remains essential to a conception of culture as semeiosis or sign-action. Culture and biology are often treated by social scientists as though they were oil and water, not to be mixed. I am fully aware of the assumed nature-culture dichotomy, but I reject it, not because I am a sociobiologist, quite the contrary, but rather because I am a semiotician, and my studies of signs have led me toward a critical reconstruction of the concepts of nature and culture. In my perspective, culture is a living, social metaboly of signs, not limited to a convention but in transaction with the inmost recesses of the person, and with the qualitative, physical, and significant environment. The question is not whether culture is a "system" or not, but whether we shall continue to conceive of culture as an inert, mechanical system or code, incapable of self-critical cultivation, or as a "living system"--a way of living--fully open to contingency, spontaneity, purposive growth and decay.
Putting the "cult" back into culture requires a reconception of the relations between human biology and meaning, and between non-discursive, non-rational reason and modern rationality. Such a reconception involves considering how the technics of the biosocial human body itself form the primary source of culture. In contemporary modern culture in general, and intellectual culture in particular, we have unnecessarily narrowed our conceptions of meaning and culture. By outlining a broad historical reconstruction of human consciousness and communication--that is, by reopening the questions of evolution and philosophical anthropology, which have been pushed to the periphery of social theory--we can see why culture seeps into our very biological constitution: cultus, the impulse to meaning.
To the extent that we deny our organic apehood, we
remain ignorant of what we are most assured--our deeply embedded signifying
nature--and become not much more than Kafka's thoroughly civilized, yet utterly
We need to find the means out of our post-human world back to being human again. The modern age of "humanism" resulted, paradoxically enough, in an ever-growing dehumanization, which crystallized in the twentieth-century. Today, postmodernists extol anti-humanism, in favor of "decentered" selves who are but instances of conventions. Hence the author is dead and the poet is but an ideologue and politician, and the qualitatively unique individual is merely a fiction. Such views can be seen as part of the quest to eradicate the human person, which was the underlying ethos of the mechanical world-view. Being human is something we have been all too easily surrendering. But being human in the modern humanist's sense is itself no longer adequate for a world undergoing ecological disaster because of the exercise of human power and will. Though it remains opaque to those still committed to the ghost in the machine, being human involves, among other things, being a living creature in continuity with organic life and with forms of reason we do not yet know, either because they are too deeply embedded in our consciousness, or because we have not yet brought them to life.
The human penchant for dream and play and ritual and myth and religion--and for what is now pejoratively called metaphysics--cannot be rationalized as a vestige of primitive creatures, now obsolete because they were insufficiently clear-sighted with the lights of rationality and postrationality as their guide. Instead, the urge for transcendence is basic to being human. We remain neotenic mammals, dream creatures fundamentally shaped by the mammalian characteristics of intense mother-infant bonding, play, and rapid eye movement dreaming. These ecstatic forms of communication remain deeply and unavoidably embedded in our biosemeiotic nature, and it is through the meeting of these communicative capacities with the general laws of nature, out of which our brainy bodies are made, that we can enter into the ongoing creation of the universe. As "degenerate monkeys, with a paranoic talent for self-satisfaction," as Peirce put it, who must reason much of what other creatures do with unerring instinct, we have also achieved the power--and have too many times betrayed the will--to destroy our little portion of the universe. Would the world be a better place without humans? Perhaps. But if the world means more than dead matter and meaningless spawning, if the development of reason is a real, though not inevitable, process of the living world, then we must hope that our inescapable impulses to meaning can still find viable expression in that process.
The evolution of humans is marked by various anatomical changes, such as the development of the upright stance, the radical enlargement of the cranium and specifically, for anatomically modern homo sapiens sapiens, the fore-brain, and the creation of a vocal cavity with lowered larynx and subtle tongue and lip movements capable of producing an enormous variety of utterances. Clearly speech is one achievement of this process that uniquely identifies us as humans. But so too, for that matter, is artistic expression. Both are sign-practices dependent on, and probably generative of, the achievement of symbolic representation, and both reveal how to be human is to be a living, communicative symbol. In the case of the symbolic sign, as distinguished from iconic or indexical signs, the process of interpretation comes to the foreground, and from a cultural perspective, this is to say that to be human is to be an interpreter. The very achievement of symbolic signification stands upon the vast capacities for pre- and proto-symbolic communication developed by our forerunners and tempered into our physical organisms. Dreams, to give one example, may very well have provided the inner drama necessary to provoke us into interpretation by presenting our distant ancestors with images of a phantasmagoric "here and now" which break into and color the habits of everyday life. Dreams emanate from a liminal realm where social relations of the wildest sort are possible, where animals talk and dead relatives live, where the marvelous and horrific conspire to present a baffling inner landscape that must have seemed as real to early humans as the day world, if not more.
Perhaps the symbol itself, as the distinguishing medium of human consciousness, is so constituted, both in its freedom grounded in human conventions and in its mysterious relations to the central and autonomic nervous systems, that it needs to be connected to perceptive and critical, that is, lived, experience. Contrary to celebrated views of the symbol (or sign in Saussure's terminology) as completely "unmotivated" or arbitrary, I claim, the symbol is that sign most dependent on vital and critical experience for its continued development.
We live in signs and they live through us, in a reciprocal process of
cultivation that I have elsewhere termed critical animism. If most tribal
peoples and even many civilizational peoples have traditionally lived in a
world of personified forces--or animism--and if this general outlook was
evicted by the modern "enlightened" view of critical rationality and
its "disenchanted" world view, then I am proposing a new form of
re-enchantment, or marriage, of these opposites. Critical animism suggests that
rational sign-practices, though necessary to contemporary complex culture and
human freedom, do not exhaust the "critical" and that the human
impulse to meaning springs from extrarational and
acritical sources of bodily social intelligence.
The evolution of protohumans, though marked by the greater reliance on symbolic intelligence, did not necessarily mean the complete loss of instinctive intelligence as theorists such as Gehlen have implied. On the contrary, one key aspect of the emerging symbolic intelligence "in the dreamtime long ago" may very well have been an instinctive, yet highly plastic or generalized, ability to listen to and learn from the rich instinctual intelligence of the surrounding environment. The close observation of birds, not only as prey for eating or ornament but also as sources of delight, could also help to inform one of an approaching cold spell or severe winter.
A better example might be the empathic relations to animals and natural phenomena shared by many tribal peoples. One frequently sees an identification with an animal or plant related to the practices of a people, such as the cult of the whale for fishing peoples, and a choice of an object that somehow symbolizes a central belief of a people, such as the white mudyi tree as a symbol of the milk of the matrilineally rooted Ndembu of Africa. There exists then a range from a practical, informing relationship to nature, or a fantastic elaboration of that relationship, to a purely symbolic relationship to the environment that either may be unrelated to the surrounding instinctual intelligence or that might even function as a kind of veil to obscure the informing properties of the environment. These relationships were crucial to the emergence of humankind: the deeply felt relationship to the organic, variegated biosphere, which was manifest in those natural signs or instincts of other species, and the corresponding pull away from the certainties of instinctual intelligence toward belief, toward humanly produced symbols that created a new order of reality, and in doing so, both amplified and layered over the voices of nature.
Through mimesis, emerging humankind could become a plant or bird or reindeer, and thereby attune itself to the cycles of nature through the perceptions of these beings. A mimetic understanding also involves the generalizing of nature into symbolic form. A man dressed as a raven or bear at the head of a Kwakiutl fishing boat and the lion-headed human figurine dating back thirty-two thousand years found in Germany (a very early find possibly suggesting interaction between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans) signify the symbolic incorporation of animal qualities into human activities and provoke human reflection, through what William James called the "law of dissociation," on the meaning of human activities.
Dreaming is central to mimesis, and dreaming itself may be seen as an in-built form of "recombinant mimetics"--with all the power and danger of recombinant genetics--in which fantastic juxtapositions of neural pathways and cultural images and associations take place. Dreaming is perhaps the primal "rite of passage," through cult, to culture.
In the brain-mind dialogue of dreaming we see a domain that bridges nature and culture, which may have been essential to the emergence of human symbolic culture and may remain essential to its continued development. In that sense dreaming opens an unexpected window onto the cultic roots of culture: the spontaneous springing forth of belief. And if Mumford's idea that dreaming may have impelled us toward a technics of symbolism both to control the anxieties produced by the inner world and to be animated by its image-making powers is on the mark, then perhaps we can see another way of connecting body, brain, and culture with the ritual symbol and the drama of communication which emerged from it, one resonant with Turner.
In suggesting the semeiotic line of evolution we big-brained apes must have followed in entering and establishing the human world, one conceivable consequence has, I hope, become somewhat clearer. The impulse to meaning is both original to our nature and ineradicable. The origins of culture are to be found in those communicative practices through which emergent humanity literally bodied itself forth, creating a forebrain with language, speech, and personality capacities, creating a tongue, larynx, and throat capable of articulate speech, creating forms of inward and outward expression, rituals of affliction and celebration, dramas of mythic, social, and personal communication, and stable institutions such as agriculture, villages, and later, cities, which have endured from Neolithic times to the present. The very expression "the culture and manurance of minds" may reflect the invention of manuring and its connection, through agriculture, to the development of permanent villages and proto-cities in the Neolithic Age. In other words, the very concept of culture may be an achievement and legacy of the Neolithic Age. Contemporary culture and culture theory seem to be intent on etherealizing these achievements out of existence and may very well succeed.....