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Participation Mystique – An alternative to secular materialism

Mystiques of malabar

Mystiques of malabar: Seema K K via Flickr

Participation Mystique is a psychological and spiritual idea proposed by the anthropologist Lucien Lévi-Bruhl. It concerns the alleged mystical relationship that so-called primitives had with objects in their environment.

In Lévi-Bruhl’s own words:

In the collective representations of primitive mentality objects can be…something other than themselves…they give forth and they receive mystic powers, virtues, qualities, influences which make themselves felt outside, without ceasing to remain where they are.¹

The depth psychiatrist Carl Jung used the term participation mystique to denote two arguably related ideas.

First, Jung describes cases where his clients believe they have some kind of mystical connection with another person. This may involve a love affair, real or imagined or, more disturbingly, a kind of paranoid, fear relationship.

Over the years Jung modifies his thinking on this. Early on, he seems to say that participation mystique mostly involves a distorted understanding of the collective unconscious. That is, one mistakenly assumes a two-way mystical connection and that the other feels what they feel.

But later in his career Jung seems to open up to the notion that real, two-way relationships can occur through the matrix of the collective unconscious. These may be mutually conscious, conscious on the part of one person, or mutually unconscious.

Second, Jung talks about participation mystique in terms of the numinous power of the archetypes spilling over into ego consciousness. This doesn’t necessarily involve a relationship with another person, per se. The power of the archetypes can be experienced internally like the power of, as Jung suggests, the old gods. As such, they can be helpful or harmful, depending on how the ego relates to this power.

Lévi-Bruhl and Jung’s theories suggest that so-called primitives had an intimate relation with spiritual powers, good and bad.

For Jung, the ego is a high point of modern civilization. But the ego can also obscure the process of participation mystique. The psychological development of the ego gives mankind planes, trains and automobiles but robs us of an inner psycho-wealth apparently enjoyed by our ancestors.

This scenario has been questioned by Michel Foucault and others who say it is a romantic reconstruction of the past based on little or no fact. Foucault studies different understandings – in postmodern terms, constructions – of the self throughout Western history. He touches on themes like dream analysis and the sacrament of confession. But it seems he never really experiences the numinous in a mature way. Like many intelligent but overtly conceptual thinkers, his only understanding of spirituality comes from experimenting with mind-altering drugs.

The American mythographer Joseph Campbell builds on Jung’s work, suggesting that moderns can enjoy a sense of the numinous and feel spiritually connected to all of creation through archetypal films like Star Wars

Campbell implies that, contrary to what some might say, Europeans do not have a monopoly on deep culture. Culture is alive and well in North America—not so much through majestic old buildings and the classical arts but through the staggering achievements of Hollywood, the media, technology, and a higher standard of living. However, Campbell also appreciates the great cultural riches of European and most other civilizations.³

Darth Vader as a dark archetypal image – Vader has insight but uses it to destroy and conquer rather than to build up and share

Participation mystique is a pivotal idea because it links the individual to something greater than secular materialism. It opens the door to inner exploration and social dialog, both important and best kept in balance. Inner exploration without sincere dialog could lead to madness or charismatic authoritarianism. And social dialog without inner exploration might contribute to the same old worldly ideas being tossed around without any real insight, inspiration or meaningful innovation.

¹ Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, How Natives Think, trans. Lilian A. Clare, New York: Washington Square Press, 1966 [1910],  p. 61.

² The Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, says much the same thing in his own critique of modern culture. In Myth and Reality Eliade claims that mid-20th century comics like Superman “present the modern version of mythological or folklore Heroes” (New York: Harper & Row 1963, pp. 184-185).

³ These observations refer to about 1949-1987, when Campbell’s influence was at its peak. Everything has changed since then. I once knew a professor who came to Canada from a European country while it was under the grip of communism. Unlike Campbell, this professor implied that European culture was vastly superior to North American culture, the unanswered question being: If the professor likes the old country so much, why is he still in North America?

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), 1781 via Wikipedia

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Sign not in use by Joe Dunckley

Sign not in use by Joe Dunckley

In semiotics, the sign is the relation between a signifier and signified.

When introducing the concept of the sign, Jeremy Hawthorn outlines a distinction between sign and symptom. The conventional understanding of the sign, he says, is entirely cultural while the symptom is entirely natural.

But Hawthorn notes that some theorists see the symptom as a subset of the sign. For instance, Michel Foucault‘s study of the history of medicine and the “medical gaze” suggests that an ironclad distinction between sign and symptom is questionable, at best.

Speaking about the sign, itself, Hawthorn says that theorists like Jacques Lacan regard the relationship between signifier and signified as problematic because meanings are “shifting, multiple and context-dependent.”¹

M. H. Abrams, defines signs as “conveyors of meaning” and notes that they apply not just to language and text but to a wide array of human activities and productions—e.g. morse code, traffic signals, what clothing we wear, bodily postures, what we serve to guests for dinner, neighborhoods where we live, etc.²

¹ A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 161-163.

² A Glossary of Literary Terms, eighth edition, Boston: Thomson, 2005, p. 289.

On the Web:



Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre in a protest via Tumblr

The French philosopher and social historian Michel Foucault maintains that every social discourse contains one or more (small or large-p) politically generated truth claims. Foucault also believes that every discourse encounters a counter-discourse that challenges the original discourse’s legitimacy.

Foucault says that every discourse exists within a given body of social discourses. No truth claim is advanced in total isolation. So naturally, given the range of human opinion, every discourse meets resistance or challenge.

The idea of truth for Foucault is interesting. Instead of claiming to know or discern absolute truth (as religious leaders often do), Foucault suggests that truth is relative to power struggles in society, and to the discourses created within those struggles. So truth in a given area for Foucault often seems to be nothing more than the outcome of struggle among competing discourses. In short, social power produces, creates or, to employ Berger and Luckmann‘s sociological term, constructs notions of truth.

In 2009 A user at Yahoo! Answers, KeitHxS, asked what counter discourse means.

This might be dumb….but I’m working on some homework and it asks if there is any evidence of counter-discourse?

What exactly does counter discourse mean? Like an opposing view?¹

Most professors of semiotics would probably dislike this simple and clean idea of “opposing view.” But it does capture the essence of what counter-discourse means for Foucault. What it lacks, however, is the fullness of Foucault’s analysis of social discourse. On this, a fairly good summary can be found at Wikipedia:

In the humanities and in the social sciences, the term discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, a social boundary that defines what can be said about a specific topic; as Judith Butler said, “the limits of acceptable speech”, the limits of possible truth.

Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to avoid discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists“. In other words, the chosen discourse provides the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate.

Discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and metagenres that constrain and enable them. That is language talking about language, for instance the American Psychiatric Association‘s DSMIV manual tells which terms have to be used in talking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of the professionals of psychology and psychiatry.

Discourse is closely linked to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself. This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault.²

Foucault via Tumblr

The above mentions the very different connotations arising from terms like “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” Another example can be found in the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz. Instead of calling Swartz a “hacker,” which would be a discourse with mostly negative connotations, there seems to have been a quick and almost general agreement within the media to designate him as an “activist,”  a much softer and respectful term than “hacker.”

Foucault’s belief that social power creates relative notions of truth is reminiscent of the idea that ‘might is right’, an idea that goes back at least to Plato. In the Republic Thrasymachus argues that notions of justice are in the interests of the stronger, and often unjust. Foucault’s view, however, differs in its subtlety and complexity.

Moreover, Foucault seems indifferent to making value judgements, at least at the theoretical level, and more concerned to simply outline his view of “what is.” This ironically creates another social discourse (that of the privileged intellectual, salaried by the university) that can be challenged by any number of counter-discourses.

While some maintain that Foucault’s idea of counter-discourse aligns his thinking with the Hegelian dialectic, Foucault himself argues against such a comparison.³

To bypass the sticky debate as to just what Hegel meant by the dialectic, it does seem fair to say that Hegel’s view involves a teleology in which a World Spirit progresses through history. Foucault, however, does not envision a master plan of teleological unfolding as found in Hegelian thought. Instead, his poststructural perspective is discontinuous and largely open-ended.



³ For those interested in the Hegelian dialectic, this Wikipedia entry seems to clear up a lot of ambiguity created by many writers and professors. This ambiguity was reflected in our own 2008 entry, still visible at Yahoo! Answers. So funnily enough, one could argue that this 2013 entry is a counter-discourse to our 2008 entry.