The Persisting Something and the Logic of Irreducibility

On 14 October 1938 French philosopher and anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl wrote in his notebook: “While we try to find out about the changes that human societies have gone through, and to account for them in a way that reason finds satisfactory, we recognize that there is something ‘persisting,’ which remains a sort of fixed element throughout the changes and the succession of institutions. This clearly stands out from the remarks made so often about the so-called primitive mentality; but we find this mentality all the time around us, and even within ourselves. … One would say that ‘it always grows back,’ and that it represents something fundamental and indestructible within human nature.” What was this “persisting something” related to “primitive mentality” Lévy-Bruhl was pondering about? In his original version of the concept of primitive mentality, which he had formulated some thirty years earlier, Levy-Bruhl had postulated a clear distinction between the way in which “primitive” and civilized minds think and perceive the world. The mentality of primitive populations was supposed to be wrapped within the vaporous mists of “participation”, i.e. of a magical thinking that cannot make clear distinctions between the self and the external world. As a result, the world is perceived to be full of phenomena that a rational mind would consider absurd or impossible. The civilized way of thinking, on the other hand, is based on a strong, stable sense of individuality and subjectivity, which dramatically reduces the range of interaction with reality, while strongly enhancing and making more effective those ways of interaction that remain possible. According to the original formulation of Lévy-Bruhl’s theory, the two ways of thinking don’t usually coexist, but belong to different stages of evolution: “participation,” which had been the normal way of thinking of primitive men, would disappear with the advance of civilization and rationality. Lévy-Bruhl’s ideas were widely discussed and criticized by anthropologists in the period between the two world wars. His notebooks from the late 1930s show how – as a consequence of this criticism – he became increasingly convinced that a clear-cut distinction between the two mentalities was not so easy to make, because numerous example of “primitive” thinking could be found even within the modern, increasingly secularized society that he could observe around him every day. In a certain sense, Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory had brought a new way of looking at the miraculous, the magical, the paranormal. From this new perspective, the perception of such extraordinary phenomena depended on a different way of understanding the world, which had a dignity of its own. It could not just be interpreted as childish or pathological, even if it belonged to a bygone stage of cultural evolution, or to its remainders in remote regions of the world. But now, when he came to reconsider the problem later in his life, things appeared to be more complicated. It had become clear that this “something” showed resilience and pervasiveness. It should have disappeared long ago – modern cultural institutions had tried their best to police it and suppress it – but it was still here with us. It was, as he had to admit, persisting. As French philosopher and historian Bertrand Méheust has argued, the obvious reason why this something has been persisting is that it has deep roots in human consciousness, and therefore, in spite of all attempts and efforts, it cannot be explained away so easily. The data suggesting (if not actually showing) that there is indeed “something” going on in phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition are just too numerous and complex to be dismissed by a simple stroke of the pen. As Méheust observes, we, as modern westerners, live with “the irresistible conviction of being watertight compartments, which only written, gestural, verbal and preverbal signs can penetrate.” But what would happen if we realized that other forms of communication and knowledge are possible? For Méheust, on the basis of the available evidence, the paranormal remains an open problem from a cultural and philosophical point of view and a meaningful field of research from a scientific point of view.
Méheust is not alone, of course. The signs of a renewal of interest in the paranormal both as a problem and as a field are not wanting. Perhaps the most ambitious project witnessing this renewal is the publication in 2007 of The Irreducible Mind, an impressive work of 800 pages produced by an Anglo-American group of scholars. Its stated aim is to present in a systematic way the evidence and the arguments that challenge predominant, established models of the human mind, particularly those that have been recently elaborated by neurosciences and cognitive studies. One of the many remarkable things of the Irreducible Mind is the interest its authors show for the problem of artistic creativity, and how this problem could be better understood by using alternative models of the mind. The preoccupation for creativity is not new in the history of alternative psychology: the question of “genius,” for instance, features prominently in such a classic of paranormal studies as Frederic H.W. Myers’s Human Personality. Myers argues that the mind possesses a particular “mythopoeic faculty” that is deeply connected to artistic creation, and which becomes accessible in particular situations where what he calls the “subliminal self” is allowed to emerge from, and merge with, the normal supraliminal self.
Maybe this partly explains why artists on their turn have often been interested in altered states of consciousness and paranormal phenomena. In the 20th century the best example of this interest is probably Surrealism, but in reality the phenomenon has been much more pervasive than the example of Surrealism alone would make one think. And today, artists such as Vincent Ceraudo, after a period of diminished interest, bring these questions back to the centre of the stage in the art of the 21st century. In his works Ceraudo plays with liminality and displacement, both in relation to his own self and to that of others. He interrogates the mysteries of the mind without taking sides or bringing definite answers. Situations and objects are invited to offer evidence, they are supposed to call our attention to something we had not paid attention to before, but which is often part of our everyday life. To be sure, it is esthetic evidence he is offering, rather than scientific. However, one might wonder if one is not just the flip the side of the other, and whether this kind of artistic work is complementary rather than alternative to that of psychical or paranormal researchers. But even then, the question might still be asked: what is art doing here? Why not leaving these problems – difficult and persisting as they may be – to scientific laboratories rather than to artists’ studios, to scholarly publications rather than art galleries? Probably the answer to these questions lies in the fact that mainstream culture, especially as embodied in scientific institutions, has not been able to deal with these problems without marginalizing and delegitimizing them in the first place. If one looks at the situation from a broad historical perspective, it seems evident that this rejection (among others) has been necessary for Western culture in order to construct a model of the self that was functional to particular goals and ideals. The only problem is that this construction, successful as it has been from a practical point of view, never seems to be able to overcome its inconsistencies and to illuminate its blind spots. And this is precisely because the “persisting something” mentioned by Lévy-Bruhl does not leave us alone and keeps coming back to haunt us. It is probably here that we see why art can have a role to play. Art, in the sense of the artistic establishment, responds to different logics than science. Objects that do not find a legitimate place in science can be conveniently, and often safely, used by artists for their discourses and creations. What would make the work of a scientist disreputable might just as well make a successful career for an artist. Art can in fact resist and metabolize pressures connected to alternative, unsanctioned knowledge much more easily than science. Models of consciousness that do not conform to mainstream culture, for instance, can be discussed and taken seriously in an artistic context independently from whether they have the sanction of scientific institutions. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the art world is “independent” or “free” from any logic of conformism and social pressure. Art certainly does have its own control systems and its cultural limitations, and it is therefore far from being “free” or “independent,” whatever the meaning we want to give to these terms. But it is also clear that these systems and limitations work in different ways from those of science, and this creates a tensional, structural asymmetry between the two. More than that: 20th century art has been pushed by a strong countercultural drift that has made it often function as an exact counterpart, or mirror-image, to mainstream culture, and therefore also to established, legitimated science. Art offers therefore a relatively safe space for addressing questions that our bad cultural consciousness does not want to admit within the core of validated knowledge, but which keep coming back knocking at our door. It keeps its eyes open even where science claims that darkness dwells. In this sense, it fulfills a social or even a political role that may be less direct and evident than that of self-avowed political art, but which is at least as significant. It has the power to call our attention to things we had wanted to forget, but which do not really want to go away; to things we had wanted to reduce to obscurity, but which turn out to be as irreducible as our mind.

Marco Pasi