Irminsul Ęttir

Metagenetics: The Fear of Penetration and the Penetration of Fear

by Garadyn McOisdealbhaigh

When asked to review the 1983 article "Metagenetics" by Stephen McNallen I did so with hesitation. In addition to an interest in the convergence zones between cultural and genetic codes, the alarming currencey being afforded to McNallen's brand of interpretive synthesis compelled me to accept. On the surface McNallen's manifesto appears to offer an explanatory rendering of the interface between history, the body, ethnicity, and religion. What emerges, despite the gestures of objectivity, is a totalizing narrative that attempts to seal the borders and protect itself from contamination from the Other.

The article asks, "What findings of modern science make this more than a pious conviction?" He is refering to the idea that there is a direct link between "heredity and the clan concept on one hand, and psychism and rebirth on the other." He is convinced that religious preference is genetically determined via archetypal inscription, yet curiously sidesteps any mention of how this might be managed. McNallen's method of alligning vague and suggestive scientific and (quasi-scientific) references with a deliberate misreading of Jung's "collective unconscious" makes for mildly provacative rhetoric, but unfortunately not much else.

This synthesis falls short in several ways. The least of which is its narrow and uninspired interpretation of the available evidence. McNallen attempts to fix the hermenuetic spiral and shore up what would normally be an unsupportable position by hijacking and reshaping reincarnation. An obvious apology for separatist ideology, McNallen limits reincarnation to "rebirth occuring specifically in the family line." This ties back to his core thesis of: "It is only a small step from inborn temperment to inborn attitudes to inborn religious predispositions."

The mysterious connection McNallen mentions between twins is most likely due to the fact that identical twins carry the exact same genetic blueprint. Psychic rapport within families owes just as much to heightened intersubjectivity (made possible by a shared culture, social rituals, and meaning systems) as it does to any archetypal imprinting. Anyone familiar with Gregory Bateson, a primary figure in modern cybernetics who incorporated many of Jung's ideas about cosmology, can easily spot the problems with McNallen's position. While appealing to scientific authority and anthropology when it is convenient, this article (almost hysterically) overlooks the influence of culture in the cybernetic loop. In the Quantum Self, Danah Zohar demonstrates the cultural insight missing from McNallen's rendering:
In fact, the human brain is a complex matrix of superimposed and interwoven systems corresponding to the various stages of evolution, and the self that arises from it is something like a city built across the ages. Its archaeology, includes the prehistoric layer, a Renaissance or Elizabethan layer, a Victorian layer, and some modern buildings. Each of us carries within his own nervous system the whole history of biological life on the planet, at least belonging to the animal kindom.
Anthropolgy has consistently informed us that there is generally more genetic variation within groups and families than between them. This is due in part to the emergent qualities inheirent in genetic recombination and to genetic drift. Overall, the article paints a grossly misleading picture of the way cultural and genetic codes might converge to manifest as genetic memory. Convergence of this sort would probably occur as an interface or dialogue between pre-symbolic body based narratives and culturally based symbolic ones. This "narrative" convergence is supported by the research of both Antonio Damasio (neuroscientist and author of Descartes Error) and artificial intellegence guru, Gerald Edleman. One simply cannot dismiss the historical and socio-cultural inscription of the collective unconscious. Modern Anglo American's probably have more in common "collectively" with African American's than with ancient Anglo's. There is no eternal or primal Anglo essence preserved and unassailable for all time.

Each "race" is a temporarily identifiable group that generally shares a geography and environment. This accounts for common genetic patterns (not material) to develop. Transhistorically, ethnic groups concentrate, meld, and diffuse with other groups to form new groups. The Asatru themselves are a hybrid of several divergent mesolithic and neolithic cultures. The Celts intermarried with almost every culture they came into contact with including their Germanic cousins. Whose racial memory ends up on top? We may have a generative capacity for archetypal representation but it is not racially stable or fixed. The semiotic chora or primal sea of potential is always generating a surplus of meaning that trancend any ethnic groups pretentions to insularity. McNallen confuses content with process.

Semiotics is the interdisciplinary system of inquiry that manages to link cellular biology, ethnology, and culture. What this method is beginning to reveal about genetic and cultural codes exposes our sometimes desperate need for familiarity and sameness. What semiotics and other interdisciplinary methods are revealing will not meet our need for familial holism and ontological assurance. Far from being a rationalist or positivist response, this review is attempting to rescue the concept of genetic memory. A phenomenological reading of McNallen's article lays bare the the violence to and reduction of the very "dialogic phenomenon" McNallen hopes to appropriate.

What is interesting about the article, despite its thinly vieled and formulistic synthesis, is that it screams of a fear of boundary violation and of penetration by the Other. Body, race, and tradition are all historically situated and inscripted. They are all permeable and transitory. The help maintain a protective border between the "me" and the "not me", between the body and the foreign, the inside and the ouside and the self and Other. This does not make borders meaningless or wrong. They serve as touchtones that orient us toward the semiotic horizon. That horizon is frightening. It is full of potential, vulnerability, and uncertainty. It is not suprising then that only those things that we can ritually appropriate or control are safe. Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger talks at length about the rituals of religious cleanliness that help to ward off the fear of the unknown and foreign. What accounts for McNallen's overdetermined and underdeveloped rendering (and this type of thinking in general) is the lack of a reflexive pause between need and narrative. The evidence works for him because he needs it to. The article makes a loose collection of evidence fit a predetermined cosmology. Sartre too addressed this need. While he was responding to anti-semitism, I believe his sentiment is appropriate in this case:
"Since the anti-semite has chosen to hate, we are forced to conclude that it is the state of passion that he loves...How can one chose to reason falsely? Is it because of a longing for inpenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other conditions may supervene to cast doubt on it. He never sees very clearly where he is going; he is "open"; he may even appear to be hesitant. But there are people who are attracted by the durability of a stone."

Irminsul Ęttir