henk oosterling on science, myth, and deleuze and guattari’s dogon egg

Originally published in: “Oedipus and the Dogon: Myth of Modernity interrogated” in: H. Kimmerle (ed.). I, We and Body. Amsterdam 1989, p.27-45.

Dogon egg

Dogon egg

Let’s return to our initial question: does myth function in Western discourse and how does it function in this specific Western discourse that Capitalisme et Schizophrénie, in spite of all its radical intentions, still is? Is it an ideal that the writers want to revive and transform in order to solve specific Western problems? Is it the answer? Or is it only an illustration of another organisation of our desires that they propose? Is there any presciptive value, or do they offer it to the reader as a description that has an indirect critical function?

Well, whatever their intentions may be, to me it can’t be more than an aesthetic proposal for another body experience or an example of how actual and historical forces inhabit the individual body. In showing an articulation of the Other and opening up a space in which difference productively emerges, one is able to develop a critical instrument. As such, the Dogon myth can function as an actual figuration of that limit conception, that Artaud named the “body without organs”. As Deleuze and Guattari say themselves: the Dogon egg is a splendid theory of signs. It provides a theory of signification. But I think that, once we look at the Dogon society, we also become aware of hidden and condemned aspects of our own society, aspects we can’t see any more because of the apparent disappearance of the constitutive power of myth and religion.

This book reveals how desire is inscribed in the body in a cruel way and connected, by ignoring the mediating role of the family, immediately to the social field and history. It shows us a different meaning of time. The thinking of the Dogon is focused to the past, not the future, and completely unfamiliar with the idea of development and fulfilment in a near future. The time circle is oriented to the star Sirius which eclipses every sixty years, in which Dogon society revitalises itself. History, social planning and collective self-realisation find their essential expression in the Dogon egg. Its constituting power can open our eyes to the ritualizing functions of science in our modern educational and therapeutical practices, that can be recognized as rituals, in which science tries to fasten its grip on the body. Generally speaking it focuses our attention on the implicit mythological and ritualizing aspects of modern science.

I’m not sure whether I can draw this parallel, but perhaps we can recognize this tension in the recent discussion in Africa about the status of philosophy. On one side the oral traditions and the local systems of thought are emphasised as the original form of African philosophy, which is qualified as ‘ethnophilosophy’. On the other side, one tries to bring, by means of a theoretical instrumentation, these local stories onto a theoretical level. This discussion touches our issue because the relation between myth and science here also seems to be the main target. The critics of ethnophilosophy are aiming their attack on the irrational elements in the local systems of thought. The modernist tendency in African thinking would rather strip itself of these irrational elements.

In an article entitled Mythe et philosophie – Réponse à Elungu, Towa et autres, Irung Ishitambal’a Mulang(1) criticizes the radical division between these two points of view. In the English summary it is stated:

“The radical dichotomy between the rational and the mythopoeic is misleading, since philosophical thought, from presocratic to present times, is informed in no small measure by mythical elements. Not only have thinkers like Plato and Marx used forms of expression that properly belong to myth but, too, philosophers and philosophy as such can’t proceed without in some measure having recourse to these forms of expression.”

Here I would like to assert that in Western thought, in spite of the fact that we have tried to banish myth in a radical way from our conception of world and history, we involuntarily reintroduced it in a very peculiar way. In order to display this point to its full extent I refer to a discussion which has been initiated decennia ago by Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialektik der Aufklärung. They state that the rational discourse of Enlightenment, which has become the dominating discourse in Western philosophy, has produced a new myth: the autonomous subject. Although modern philosophy flatters itself with the thought that it completely freed itself from the shackles of mythology and externally imposed authority in the form of religion, many 20th century philosophers have recognized the fact that, as in myth, Enlightenment gets trapped in mythology with each step it takes in order to enlarge the distance between itself and mythology.

In the beginning of the Enlightenment, myth seemed to be transformed into sheer objectivity: the project of the Encyclopedia tried to objectify religious and mythical phenomena and transform them into positive forms of knowledge. Further on, Kant grounded this knowledge in the transparency of the autonomous, self-reflexive subject. But, as Adorno and Horkheimer conclude, this subject, who thought he was the lord of creation and the driving force of history, became a myth himself. His urge to develop and to finalize, to objectify and dominate, has produced counterforces which he can no longer control.(2)

Adorno and Horkheimer come to the same conclusion as Mulang: myth and enlightenment are interrelated. Historically we can easily locate the perverted effects of the irrationality of the enlightened bourgeois society in our time: in fascism the lower middle class embraced a secularized myth. It used and destroyed democracy and autonomous subjectivity in favour of technological violence in order to physically destroy the Other: Jews, gypsies, communists and homosexuals. But in spite of its perversion it did not solely function in a negative way by providing a justification for racism, totalitarianism and genocide. Myth also offered to a completely destroyed community, as postwar Germany obviously was, a new identity and feeling of solidarity. It connected German society once more with ongoing historical events. In other words, the functions of myth were apparently still very active in this proclaimed rational society.

(1) Irung Ishitambal’a Mulang, “Mythe et philosophie: Réponse à Elungu, Towa et autres”. In:Quest, vol. 1 no. 1, 1987, p. 12.

(2) Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Amsterdam 1947, p. 22.

This excerpted from the essay published HERE.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s