Cargocult to William James

by Suspended Reason

Cargoculting is a kind of superficial mimicry whereby the skin” or most sensorily salient features of a system are taken as load-bearing. Cargocults produce ineffectual replicas of their originals, which might look convincing to onlookers, but lack the functionality of the originals because their construction neglected all mechanical consideration.

One way to understand cargoculting is through William James’s conceptual distinction of brute association from mechanistic reasoning. Brute association lacks the real understanding of mechanism present in its counterpart:

Suppose I say, when offered a piece of cloth, I won’t buy that; it looks as if it would fade,” meaning merely that something about it suggests the idea of fading to my mind—my judgment, though possibly correct, is not reasoned, but purely empirical; but, if I can say that into the color there enters a certain dye which I know to be chemically unstable, and that therefore the color will fade, my judgment is reasoned. The notion of the dye which is one of the parts of the cloth, is the connecting link between the latter and the notion of fading.

Where one mode simply associates phenomena in their entirety,” reasoning understands causality. The original cargocults, in believing that an emulation of the rituals or garb of American servicemen would bring cargodrops, made the same mistake as the skeptical cloth purchaser above: an association (cloth and fading, servicemen and airdrops) is treated without consideration of its many parts, its complex behavioral emergences, or its causal direction. Rather, the phenomena are treated as if any one might beget the other, as if the appearance of one regular co-occurrence inevitably brings out its colleague. It is to believe that, by making the sound of thunder, lightning will surely result, since the two are so frequently contiguous or proximate.