Joseph Campbell, Michel Foucault and the Symbolic Life

Speaking about the symbolism behind John F. Kennedy’s funeral after his assassination, Bill Moyers relates Campbell’s understanding that the funeral had been, “an illustration of the high service of ritual to a society…(that)…this was a ritualized occasion of the greatest social necessity.” “The public murder of a president, ‘represented our whole society, the living social organism of which ourselves were the members, taken away at a moment of exuberant life, required a compensatory rite to reestablish the sense of solidarity. Here was an enormous nation, made those four days into a unanimous community, all of us participating in the same way, simultaneously, in a single symbolic event.’ He said it was ‘the first and only thing of its kind in peacetime that has ever given me the sense of being a member of this whole national community, engaged as a unit in the observance of a deeply significant rite.'”

When I read this section of the introduction to The Power of Myth, I immediately recognized the insight that Foucault so often explained about the political effects of disciplinary power. Power produces knowledge Foucault insists; it forces us to emit signs, celebrations, procedures, ritual. It is clear that in the case of Kennedy’s funeral, read as a symbolic event as Campbell suggests, there was a power at work upon the body. Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (138), that, “The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it.” The event was a rupture in the course of vibrant life, against the very fabric of a thriving U.S. presidency. It was so traumatic that it literally broke the spirit of congeniality (or ambivalence) and reordered the nation into a collective act of mourning and sympathy. Foucault writes, “A ‘political anatomy’ which was also a ‘mechanics of power’ was being born…”
The power/knowledge configurations that exercise discipline over bodies actually produced a national collective compensation – a ritual of mourning. The materialization of symbolic meaning is the very point of mourning. Without a ‘political anatomy’ that accounts for processes of mourning the realms of symbolic power go unacknowledged throwing our interpretive frameworks farther from the ‘light of integral consciousness.’ The remnants of mythological experience flows through the body; it is a mechanism of political constitution, of the very ruff, messy world we call political.

Though the discourses of Foucault and Campbell might seem to be at odds – one at the intersections of depth psychology and religious studies and the other an archeologist of structuralism and history – their insights move me closer to the conclusion that only through intensified acts of collective experience (including and especially mourning), embolden through a political anatomy, grounded on the wonder of mythological truth, can bring to the surface the potential of a unified global citizenry.

Thank God for the internet. Now all I have to do is wait.

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