Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Cliff Bostock
In this paper my intention is to make a few observations about images and cyberspace (or virtual reality) from the perspective of archetypal psychology.
"The persons I engage with in dreams are neither representations (simulacra) of their living selves nor parts of myself. They are shadow images that fill archetypal roles; they are personae, masks, in the hollow of which is a numen." James Hillman (1979, p. 60)
"Are the gods bytes?"
A comment on the "ContraDiogenes" site of the World Wide Web.
Do the gods occupy cyberspace? Can soul be constructed in virtual reality?
In this paper my intention is to make a few observations about images and cyberspace (or virtual reality) from the perspective of archetypal psychology. My curiosity about this subject is personal and intellectual.
I have inhabited cyberspace over ten years but have long been aware of a kind of self-reproach for my participation in the medium similar, I think, to the kind of embarrassment people often bring to their television viewing. At the same time, I have been irritated by what I've come to call "archetypal Luddites," psychologists, particularly Jungians, who dismiss the medium as another soul destroying inflection of technology. Over the years, I have myself waffled between the extremes internet junkie and Luddite. I journey into cyberspace and then flee it, condemning it with every breath, for months at a time ... always returning. Ultimately, the tension has led me to the question of what I am resisting in my habitation of cyberspace, which I would like to define psychologically at the outset as a world of mechanically generated images.
In some ways, this paper represents the recanting of some of my own positions or at least an effort to situate myself with more clarity in cyberspace. It is also an effort to establish some kind of rapprochement between cyber - thinking and the archetypal imagination. This is important to me because among the archetypal Luddites seems to be James Hillman himself. I have heard him dismiss cyberspace in public talks.
The quality of images
The dismissal of cyberspace by so many archetypal psychologists intrigues me because, as I said, the medium is purely imagistic and, according to the Hillmanian view, images are the foundation of psyche. Of course, images have varying character. Images can be degraded in their representation and, certainly, the images in cyberspace vary wildly in that respect. But one does not dismiss all art on the basis of bad painting.
A little background in Hillman's orientation to images is necessary here before proceeding to anything like an archetypal overview of cyberspace.
For Hillman, a "good" image actually has nothing to do with formal aesthetics. It is one that temporarily arrests the movement of psychic process and, like an alchemical drawing, expresses in metaphorical language a personification that can be psychologized, "seen through" to its ideational or archetypal/mythological significance. It opens to the numinous.
"Stick to the image!" he repeatedly warns us, quoting the dictum of Rafael Lopez-Pedraza that has become central to Archetypal Psychology. Whether in dream, in fantasy or in gazing at art, he told us in class, we must not symbolize the image but respect its particularity.
The image, according to Hillman, is inhabited in its depths by a god and has telos. The image's movement expresses the telos, a kind of manifestation of the god within, and it is followed, not interpreted, with varying skill in the analytical process. Origins are beside the point, he told our class at Pacifica. He writes that the image, although it is a snapshot of a personally inflected archetypal process, is not static. He quotes Ezra Pound: "...the image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy....a vortex, from which and through which and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." ( 1989, p. 264)
Borrowing Freud's word "dreamwork," Hillman compares the creation of dream images to the work of a bricoleur ( 1979, p. 127), a cobbling together in the psyche of the images, expressions of archetypal process, that are actually the construction of soul. He extends this analogy to all images.
And while this process is one of the psyche, it is an interiorizing process, not a strictly interior one in the sense that it orginates and is contained there. The image or its seed is interiorized by the personal psyche (of the dreamer, the painter, the fantasizer) and worked (or played with) but its numen arises and reopens to the world. The numen belongs, in fact, to anima mundi, the soul of the world, according to Hillman, and thus, following Keats, we construct not just personal soul but world soul, which by the definition of its construction here is shifting and forever changing. (This is highly reminiscent of Jung's statements after his encounters at Taos.)
This latter observation about the shifting quality of world soul is important. It is a point of significant departure for Hillman from the Platonic point of view, which includes Henry Corbin's theorizing of the mundus imaginalis. In this view the telos of images is to recover their genesis in the realm of ideal imaginal forms. Hillman rejects that origins - preoccupied point of view but the nominalist one as well (1975, p. 8). For him, world soul is adverbial and verbal. The longing is more important than its object. Since the image, the picture of soul, is a vortex in its function, so must the soul be.
This is, of course, a postmodern view but one that oddly grounds itself linguistically in the Platonic tradition. The leap from the Platonic to the postmodern and back again is nothing he denies: "I have spent 30 years at dismemberment ... the pearls not the rope. Dionysos the Loosener. It's not logical, yet it's true." (1989, p. 61).
This self-contented leap from paradigm to paradigm, this Dionysian loosening without thought to the inconsistency and the chaos, nevertheless has resulted in volumes of revelations that really do open upon the numinous. And this process brings to mind the words of an earlier thinker, Marshall McLuhan: "The medium is the message." In other words, the image's arising is more important than its content. The "ah-ha" or the gasp on its viewing is what opens us to the numen, not a deciphering of symbolic meanings or even a fixed metaphorical referent. This in fact the gasp, the sournd of arrest is what signifies an authentic image.
Marshall McLuhan and the body
On the surface, everything that Hillman values seems to be true of cyberspace. There, through hyperlinks, images arise and morph. Some images, if not the majority, are certainly banal and do not arrest us for any longer than it takes to click on the next link. Still, one often clicks on an image that is like the vortex Pound describes: a center through which pours all manner of thoughts.
But more to the point, the lived experience of browsing is different from the penetration of its individual images just as the act of stepping into a dream as a total gestalt is different from the encounter with its individual images. (And the appearance of cartoon-like images in postmodern dreams is surely ubiquitous.) Multiplied over time, the viewing of images in a session of "browsing" the World Wide Web produces an experience of fascination that is like a virtual or digital poeisis. The imagination is seized and in browsing, the metamorphic movement through imaginal space (telos of the mouse), mood is altered, meanings are constellated, experience is affected. This can involve sinking into a world of visual, aural and written images. It is very much like Hillman's "seeing through."
The fact that these images are mechanically generated seems to be at the heart of many critics' objections as though soul is banished from technology. In Marshall McLuhan's seminal writing about electronic media, prior to the advent of the intemet as global phenomenon, we find some explicit statements about the differences in images that arise in dream or fantasy and in electronic media. They help explain the profusion of banality in cyberspace, constituting a kind of apologia, but may be an answer to the usual critique.
McLuhan wrote, with Wilfred Watson, a little known book, now out of print, called From Cliché to Archetype (partially excerpted in McLuhan 1995). It is a book of essays in which the media philosopher examines Jung and the cultural imagination. McLuhan observes, writing about the effect of television and other electronic media, two main effects. One is disembodiment. In this view, the cyber inhabitant has forsaken his body. He travels through space and time without a body. McLuhan generalized this to the culture:
As electric media proliferate, whole societies at a time become discarnate, detached from mere bodily or physical 'reality' and relieved of any allegiance to or a sense of responsibility for it ... The alteration of human identity by new service environments of information has left whole populations without personal or community values..." (McLuhan, p. 379).
The assumption here, obviously, is that values (and feelings!) arise in sensory experience of the real world. One experiences the ecology and thus has some sense of responsibility for it. To cut oneself off from that is, to his mind, to affect the sense of responsibility. However, McLuhan is operating without any kind of metaprocess other than media. For him, there is no soul to extend itself, even redemptively, into media. Interestingly, Robert Sardello, one of Hillman's early influences shares the same concerns and has written at length about them (1992, 1995). In Sardello's view, technology can be ensouled but he insists on the withdrawal of "salvational fantasies" for the same reason: that technology disembodies us. One suspects that Hillman himself shares this point of view, since, as indicated above, his revelations are nonrational. His recent writing and his participation in themythopoetic men's movement point to an increasing consideration of the sensory body and nonrational process.
My response to this is that it simply ignores what is. Technology, as McLuhan noted too, does not just disembody us. It extends (and accelerates) the body, even as it produces the experience of disembodiment. In pedestrian ways this is experienced as a lack of emotional inflection in the absence of vocal tone and physical gesture in cyber chatting. People often "misread" one another.
But the very suppression of these sensory cues, to say nothing of a very superficial anonymity, also heightens vulnerability and intimacy. Thus the constant storieslike the recent one of the sailor who disclosed his homosexuality in cyberspace which resulted in his discharge from the Navy. Eros drenches every comer of cyberspace. It is filled with millions of erotic selfportraits of ordinary people something that probably is unique in history. Romances, platonic and sexual, are conducted in cyberspace. "Cybersex" and "virtual sex" describe new styles of lovemaking. For the average person, this is what eyberspace concerns.
I find this fascinating in light of Hillman's repeated statements that Aphrodite brings the world forms, its images, into existence. It is Aphrodite's touch that ensouls . And so it is not the purely sexual that is significant in this consideration, but that the erotic, as image-production, is erupting and birthing itself in cyberspace. Thus it is not that cyberspace disembodies us. Instead, it gives rise to a new imaginal body: the cyberbody, as erotic as our physical bodies.
In the view of many ecologists, the planet has already passed the point where its health can be fully recovered. Thus, it occurs to me that the body that is birthing itself in cyberspace may in part represent destiny: a kind of cyborg that fuses machine with body. Although we demonize this notion in our nostalgia for a healthy planet, it may be our only chance of survival. Further, several scholars, including Pierre Levy (1997) and Jennifer Cobb (1998) wonder if a collective and self-reflective intelligence god or the anima mundi isn't embodying itself in cyberspace. Cobb imagines cyberspace as the evolution of Teilhard de Chardin's metasynthesis of mind and matter into a collective intelligence. Levy imagines something like the Islamic collective mind documented by Corbin, but with less fixed forms.
If archetypal psychology does not turn its lens upon the cyberbody, it may well be turning its back on the future. The numen hidden in the hollow of the cyber persona may be our collective daimon attempting incarnation.
McLuhan and the archetypal imagination
Let us say that the cyberbody represents the future. Let us even agree that the process of occupying cyberspace, browsing, may be more important than the contents viewed because something "other" is constellated in the imagination: a new form of the vortex. (And I stress that it is the dialogic property of the experience not the image itself that constellates the new form. Thus the argument that the images are generated by another intelligence in the first place is irrelevant. So are the images arising in the collective psyche and interiorized by the dream ego.)
But we are still left with the nagging reality of cyberspace's actual imagistic banality. This is a genuine concern. When you consider that McLuhan was primarily writing about television and you look at its wasteland of clichés, it is hard to reconcile oneself to the idea that the archetypal is arising there, no matter how much you dwell on process instead of content the medium rather than the particular message.
McLuhan, alas, does little to relieve us of our anxieties in this respect but he certainly prefigures the way popular culture and the fine arts have been conflated in the postmodern critic's evaluation. (See Camille Paglia, blazing a dubious trail to what one would have to call "Jungian libertarianism.")
In McLuhan's reading of the archetypes, they actually are clichés. He sees them, like Hillman as inhabited by gods. But he calls them imagistic clichés of desacralized tribal gods. The archetypes, he writes, are personifications understood in their own cultures to have valid moral and spiritual exegeses. But over time they become desacralized, as they were in Greece. Then they are retrieved by, say, the Romans, and later still, by Renaissanceera scholars and artists.
In this process, he writes, these images become increasingly reductive, until they become cliché-like in their content as well as their appearance. This, he says, is the process of media. On the other hand, he says, the image-as- cliché retains its archetypal ground.
In fact, he argues, an image cannot retain its archetypal ground unless it becomes a cliché understandable to the culture to which it has moved. (Obviously, media move images across cultures.) He writes: "Is it not natural than, as any form becomes environmental ... it should select as 'content' the most common and vulgar ... of materials ... As any form becomes environmental, it tends to be soporific. That is why its content must also become innocuous in order to match the effects of the medium." (p. 338).
In McLuhan's view, it is job of the artist and we might say of the depth psychologist to reveal the dialectic between old and emerging forms, to keep the numinous meaning from sinking into cyberspace's unconscious. (The medium has enormous shadow. Thus the Heaven's Gate cyber cult was able to announce its suicide three weeks in advance and never be taken seriously.)
Although this attention to banal images may offend the proponents of classic formal. aesthetics, it again seems to be the future of culture not just in cyberspace but wherever ideas are being discussed in deconstructive ways. I count it as another of Hillman's odd paradigmatic leaps that he seems on the one hand to insist on seeing through to the beauty of soul's pathologizing nature in personal symptomology, even though most symptoms now can be reduced to diagnosis (a kind of cliché). But he is less willing to penetrate the oddity of cliches as pathology in the culture.
Finally, I offer alchemy and Goethe's own image of what may be occurring in cyberspace: the emergence of the homunculus, a personified manifestation of the philosopher's stone, a union of the organic and the inorganic. Is this so different from the cyborg of comtemporary imagining in virtual reality? Of that small creature, constellated in the moment of Faust's brief coniunctio, Edinger writes: "the homunculus signifes the birth of the conscious realization of the autonomous psyche. In dreams it may appear as a doll or statue which comes to life, representing the ego's dawning awareness of a second psychic center, the Self" (p. 62).
Perhaps the Self is indeed demanding incarnation in cyberspace. How can we not stick to its image, too?
Bostock, Cliff (1996) "Cyberspace: Shadow of the Cultural Imagination."
http://w ww. souIworks. net/wri tings/essays/site_0 I7.html
Cobb, Jennifer (1998). Cybergrace: The Searchf or God in the Digital World. New York: Crown.
Edginger, Edward (1990) Goethe's Faust: Notesfor a Jungian Commentary.Toronto: Inner City Books.
Hillman, James (1979). The Dream and The Underworld. New York: Harper and Row.
Hillman, James (1989). "Responses." In David Ray Griffin (ed.), Archetypal Process. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Hillman, James (1975). Revisioning Psychology. New York: Harper Collins.
Levy, Pierre ( 1995). L'intelligence collective: Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace. Paris: Editions La Decouverte.
McLuhan, Marshall (1995). Essential McLuhan. Erick McLuhan and Frank Zingrone,eds. New York: Harper Collins.
Sardello, Robert (1992). Facing the World with Soul: The Reimagination of Modern Life. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.
Sardello, Robert (1995). Love and the Soul: Creating a Future f or the Earth. New York: Harper Collins.
Cliff Bostock is a doctoral candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. This essay is a re-working of some of the ideas presented in an earlier paper "Cyberspace: Shadow of the Cultural Imagination?" which was inspired by a meeting between James Hillman and his class at Pacifica.
© Cliff Bostock 1999.