For some time now, I’ve maintained the ridiculous notion (fiction?) that I’ve never been, nor ever will be, a ‘good academic’ because I tend to approach my subject with a bit more creativity or invention than one might presume of the common or proper academic. I refer to this as ‘ridiculous’ because many of the researchers I’ve come to know over the years are just as equally creative. For example, consider the digital anthropology of Beth Singler, the conspiracist demythologisation of David Robertson, Venetia Robertson‘s research on human-animal relations, the ‘invented religions’ of Carole Cusack, and Vivian Asimos‘ research on folklore, myth, and video games.
I am, by all means, not unique in my creativity (even when I argue that ethnography and novels are equally ‘fictitious‘ by means of their shared literary qualities). However, this does not mean that my creative approach hasn’t warranted a few truly bizarre interpretations (such as my recent takes on New Atheism or the Secularization Thesis).
In fact, while I was recently thinking about my attempts to push the boundaries on academic creativity, I suddenly remembered a paper I submitted years ago for a course on the Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. This was, in memory, a rather unorthodox paper, and the more I thought about it, the more I asked myself it if was as crazy as I was remembering it. Sure, the memory of the topic seemed sort of ridiculous, but could it have been that bad? I passed the course, after all. It must have had some merit to it, or, if nothing else, I must have been at least marginally successful in touching on the important points required of the assignment.
After some digging around, I found the paper and read through it. Not only was I appalled by the horrific work that I had submitted for a grade, I was equally dumbfounded that I actually passed. The ‘creativity’ was, though based in good intentions, less creative than it was inane.
Yet, a part of my subconscious came to my own defence. It argued proudly for the logic behind the correlations I was making, so much so, that it began to win. I read through the paper again. Suddenly, somewhere within the conclusion, it struck me: this paper isn’t as bad as I had originally thought. Rather, when I wrote it, I was simply unconscious of the role stories play in determining how we might perceive things wholly separate from each other as connected by a narrative bridge. This post is a short defence of that notion.
BEFORE CONTINUING HERE , A BRIEF, YET ESSENTIAL CAVEAT.
I’M NOT WEALTHY , NOR DO I HAVE CHILDREN TO BARTER.
PLEASE, PLEASE, DON’T SUE ME.
Our assignment was to discuss two of the scholars of religion we had been studying throughout the semester in the context of their notions about the origins, and/or uses, of a particular religious system. For my paper I chose Freud and Durkheim.
However, rather than simply do the assignment as asked, my ‘creative’ approach tried to use Freud’s psychoanalysis to make sense of Durkheim’s sociology (though I’ve come to realise through hindsight that this would have worked much better with Weber and his father issues). The religious system I chose was Scientology.
While the paper I eventually wrote did a fairly decent job breaking down how the theories espoused by Freud and Durkheim tried to ‘make sense’ of religious belief, my approach to Scientology (the majority of which leaned more on the Freudian perspective than the Durkheimian one) was a bit more specific. In essence, I tried to relate Freud’s ‘Psychic Apparatus’ (Id, Ego, and Superego) to L. Ron Hubbard’s equally tripartite notion of Body, Mind, and Thetan.
In brief, here is a précis of each:
Id: the unconscious, functions on instinct, and seeks pleasure regardless of any sort of consequences
Ego: an intermediary between the Id and the rational world, it translates reality in the Id’s search for pleasure; like a man (ego) on horseback (id), the ego “has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Freud, The Ego and the Id, 15).
Superego: Constructed by one’s social context, it regulates the impulses of the Id; consisting of the ‘conscience’ and the ‘ideal self,’ it dictates and causes guilt, as well as establishes goals and aspirations.
Body: The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead. It is not the being himself.
Mind: the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.
Thetan: Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important. Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body. While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.
(These definitions come from Scientology.org, and the video they provide about these three elements does a much better job at describing this than I do.)
If there was a correlation to be made here, I argued, it might perhaps be found somewhere between Hubbard’s description of the Thetan’s ability to use its mind “as a control system between itself and the physical universe” (‘Thetan,’ Scientology.org), and Freud’s notion that the Ego and Superego function as two different sorts of filters through which the individual might maintain the desires and impulses of the Id. Or, perhaps there might be a connection between the Body and Mind of Hubbard’s system and the unconscious of the Id and conscience of the Superego. Or perhaps a myriad of other correlations.
This is where my paper seemed to get a bit sidetracked, mostly because (as the person writing this would tell the person who wrote that) finding correlations like this are not really all that necessary.
Rather, what I’d likely tell myself, were I to talk to that individual, is that though these might seem relatable in a number of ways, and though the direct criticism Scientologists direct toward ‘psychology’ would definitely present an ironic sort of correlation (“Psychology, for instance, had worked itself into a dead end. Having no concept of the existence of an animating factor to life, it had degenerated into a practice devoted solely to the creation of an effect on living forms.”), these might be better understood were ‘we’ to merely see them as two similar sorts of stories used by two men in their attempts at making sense of their worlds.
That is, while it might be ‘creative’ or even ‘clever’ to interpret Hubbard’s tripartite via Freud’s, the outcome would likely only provide a solution inherently built upon an opinion of either man’s system. Which, to me, doesn’t really seem very creative at all. Instead, as narrative devices, as stories that tell us something about how these men interpreted their world, and thus in turn tell us something about them personally, they function on an entirely different spectrum of criticism. Thus, rather than merely trying to connect dots that might creatively lead us to some sort of conclusion, using these narratives to make sense of the individuals who told them, as well as the individuals who use them, becomes that much more useful than even the most pragmatic attempts at comparing like with like.