Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Archaeology and the psyche: part eight ― psychological context

A San (Bushman), Namibia
photo: Ian Beatty
In yesterday's video, my feathers were ruffled when I heard the term "culturally specific nature of significance", this is an archaeological factoid that has been the cause of some previous annoyances for me. As an absolute statement it is false and demonstrably so: (a) significance is a psychic function that has no existence outside of minds, and (b) all psychic functions have only a minimal current cultural content, and (in Jungian terminology) this resides mostly in the collective consciousness. This leaves the personal consciousness, and the personal and collective unconscious out of the picture to a great degree. While a named culture is usually one of the many cultural frames of an individual consciousness, I doubt that many people would claim it as their driving force ― although I might make an exception for bureaucrats and nationalists ;-)

Psychological typing is not restricted by any ethnic cultural or national factors although a question like "are you always on time for business appointments?" would be useless if your subject was a San Bushman. Given that the questions can be designed to be appropriate for your subject, you will be able to find the same psychological types in the San Bushman as the Wall Street stock broker, However, cultural differences would certainly affect the relative numbers of each type within any society: you would find a greater percentage of extraverts on Wall Street than inside the Buddhist monastery on Park Avenue. New York is cosmopolitan.

The San captured the attention of archaeologists through a series of papers by J David Lewis-Williams focusing on their rock art which culminated in A Cosmos in Stone (2002). In particular, it was his sections: Neurologically Generated Mental Imagery and Navicular Entoptic Phenomena in Chapter 7, Seeing and Construing which fired many imaginations. Although excerpts are available to be seen on and Google Books, chapter 7 is not part of them. This shamanistic interpretation became known as the "trance hypothesis". You can, however, read a good critique by Lara González Carretero which stays with Megalithic art.

It did not take long before the subject started to be applied to the Celts, and I found the association of Druidism and Shamanism to be especially ill-conceived. While I do not think that an original source of significance which might create a sign or symbol cannot be entoptic or otherwise neurologically-generated, signs and symbols take on a later life of their own that does not require shamanism to be practiced every time the symbol is subsequently used. Unless we can establish that Pythagoras was a shaman, then the connection must remain dead.

Archaeology is given rather too much credit, in the video, with regard to signs and symbols. A more detailed and critical approach is not post-eighties as might be imagined if we thought that cognitive archaeology was entirely new, but can be found in Franz Boas, Primitive Art (1966). Even that, which focuses on N. American Indian art, and especially the Pacific Northwest (if you are American, and not Canadian) cannot be completely translated into Celtic artistic matters.

I think that some archaeology continues to paint itself into corners by its theory-ladenness and its  pigeonholing. I am often called a "collector" by some archaeologists, and that is supposed to mean something by those who apply that label. While collecting is one of my cultural frames, it takes up very little of my time. I have a great number of cultural frames but if asked to describe myself, I would say that I am a research archaeologist who leans mostly toward evolutionary archaeology (with certain reservations against Darwinian natural-selection -- shared with Wolfgang Pauli, and with an additional belief in the value of Jungian psychology and attention to postmodern concerns for the subject). My collection is just one of the tools that I use. So we might then wonder how well the past could be interpreted by people who seem to have such great trouble even in interpreting the present.

The psychology of ancient individuals can be seen to a degree, given that the evidence is either specific enough and plentiful, or is cast into a much wider arena. It will contain a measure of cultural identifiers, but individuals will bring their own psyche to the forefront in their work . I was able to prove this in my own book: Celtic Improvisations.

Most important of all is that cognitive archaeology is pretty well useless if it does not include the psychology of the observer as significance is a psychic function dependent to a very great degree on that psychology. To argue against this would be to say that all individuals share exactly the same ideas of the significance of anything providing that they are of the same ethnic culture. In other words you do not exist apart from the label given you by others. If this is not true for you, then it is not true for anyone and at any time.
Tomorrow, the wave/particle/observer trinity applied to archaeology.

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