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Mystique of Context

Symbolism of Popular Culture

Mystique of Context

“Our personal psychology is just a thin skin, a ripple on the ocean of collective psychology. The powerful factor, the factor which changes our whole life, which changes the surface of our known world, which makes history, is collective psychology, and collective psychology moves according to laws entirely different from those of our consciousness.”

Carl Jung
Analytical Psychology

“The real issue for future technology does not appear to be the production of information … Almost anybody can add information. The difficult question is how to reduce it.”

Eli Noam

Late in his life, when he was 83, Carl Jung wrote a remarkable book called Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. Published by the Bollingen Foundation, it is one of Jung's last works and represents a rare application of the Jungian method to modern phenomena. In this book Jung notes that the worldwide "rumor" about flying saucers presents a problem that challenges the psychologist for many reasons. For Jung, the primary question was whether the UFO phenomena was real or fantasy. If a product of fantasy, Jung asked "Why should the rumor exist?"

In Flying Saucers, Jung explored the fantasy aspect of flying saucers and speculated that there must be a desire in the general population to believe in them. This belief was helped along by the media and Jung observed from personal experience that "news affirming the existence of UFOs is welcome, but that skepticism seems to be undesirable...to believe that UFOs are real suits the general population, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged." Jung then asked his most incisive question: "Why should it be more desirable for saucers to exist than not?"

Jung then discussed the symbolism of flying saucers. But what interests us here is the symbolic perspective that Jung approached the phenomena with. This is the view that one gets closer to the truth of a situation by asking why rather than what or how. Jung was not concerned with what UFOs were or if they were real. The belief itself created the reality for Jung, not necessarily the phenomena the belief attached itself to. Rather he was concerned with why they were believed in.

And so it is with the concept of the zeitgeist and the elusive spirit of the times. Similar to the phenomena of UFOs, one sets out in a more fruitful and useful direction by asking why this belief has persisted and why it has been more desirable to believe in it than not to believe in.

Popularity for the idea was not simply manufactured by mystics through the centuries or mediums during the fin de siècle or Jung with his concept of collective unconscious. Nor has this popularity been created by the modern corporate mystics and trend trackers.

The persistence of the idea does not relate to conscious forces in culture relegating it to fad popularity and then abandoning it, but rather to unconscious forces bringing it back and out of culture like Jung's dry riverbed. It moves in and out of culture by its own will. It never comes running when summoned like an obedient puppy.

Jung saw the phenomena of UFOs as an expression of symbolism. And this is also the best way to see the persistence of ideas about context which form the symbolism opposite those of content relating to the segmentation of the American culture.

Belief In Context

The belief in flying saucers is part of a larger belief in what might be called belief in context. While symbols can be viewed from a contentual and contextual perspective, a similar perspective applies to the general way we understand the world: through belief and through knowledge. In this sense, belief in context can be considered a symbolic duality standing in opposition to information of content. Context and content oppose each other in the same way that belief opposes knowledge.

Throughout history, belief in context has appeared under various guises but it can be viewed as a belief that mankind and culture are influenced by forces and events outside the immediate content of culture. As we have shown throughout this investigation, context has many symbolic correspondences associated with it but the overriding archetype is the Mother archetype and the unity of unconsciousness.

The idea can be traced back to the beginning of civilization and Plato's concept of archetypal forms, invisible to the eye but patterning forces to the creation of the world. It flows through history defining ceretain periods such as the Romantic era or movements in culture such as trancendentalism. It encompasses subjects like the occult, astrology, metaphysics as well as words like zeitgeist, spirit, paradigm and worldview. And it has found a frequent home in particular groups of people in culture such as artists, psychotics, visionaries and mystics.

The modern concept of context was born with the Romantic movement finding final fruition in German Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Romanticism itself was a type of duality against the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution based around Copernicus. Richard Tarnas notes in The Passion of the Western Mind that the Romantic vision saw the world as a unitary organism rather than an atomistic machine, exalted the ineffability of inspiration rather than the enlightenment of reason, and affirmed the inexhaustible drama of human life rather than the calm predictability of static abstractions. The Romantic valued man rather for his imaginative and spiritual aspirations, his emotional depths, his artistic creativity and powers of expression.

In Germany during the nineteenth century, there was growing a number of movements such as vitalism and mesmerism which were greatly influenced by the Romantic ideals. It was out of these that the twentieth century symbolism of context arose in the form of the unconsciousness. Many feel that one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century was the discovery of the unconscious. It was a discovery that both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung played a key role in. Freud is generally credited with discovery and exploration of the personal unconscious while Jung is credited with the discovery of the transpersonal or collective unconscious. And then from this the division into personal and transpersonal unconscious.

But as important and unique as the idea of the unconscious was, it is best seen as a new symbol of the age old idea of context than as something totally new. In fact, seeing the idea of the unconscious as something new would negate one of its basic concepts of repetition and duality. As Henri Ellenberger reminds us in his brilliant The Discovery of the Unconscious, Jung and Freud's contributions to the understanding of the unconscious are best viewed as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the idea itself as a modern symbol of the old idea of forms addressed by Plato.

Collective Unconscious: Modern Symbol of Context

Both Freud and Jung were interested in collective psychology and how the unconscious might manifest itself on a broad cultural scale. Their work in this area laid the foundation for a modern understanding of context.

Freud's concept of neurosis has been subject to numerous interpretations. But none of them have defined it as a dominance of contextual over contentual symbolism. In a large sense, it can be seen this way. Freud hypothesized that society as a whole might be collectively neurotic. One could say that society is collectively contextual. In Civilization and Its Discontents he writes:

"It can be asserted that the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds...The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual...If the development of civilization has such a far reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization-possibly the whole of mankind-have become 'neurotic'?"

Freud speculated that cultures might be studied like a patient on the therapist's couch and that an "analytic dissection of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest." He felt that one day it might be possible to "embark upon a pathology of cultural communities."

While Freud expanded the neurosis of individual unconsciousness into culture, Jung went beyond individual unconscious to collective unconscious. In Analytical Psychology:Its Theory and Practice (1935) Jung noted:

"Our personal psychology is just a thin skin, a ripple on the ocean of collective psychology. The powerful factor, the factor which changes our whole life, which changes the surface of our known world, which makes history, is collective psychology, and collective psychology moves according to laws entirely different from those of our consciousness."

Jung further defined this concept of collective unconscious in "The Concept of the Collective Unconscious" from his book The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, noting:

"The collective unconscious is part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity. Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes."

While Carl Jung is often thought of as the inventor of this, it is better seen as simply a modern manifestation of this ancient idea we are exploring. Jung placed the old idea in the new clothing of psychoanalysis and attempted to make it into more of a science. To do this he extended the personal unconsciousness of Freud to a transpersonal unconsciousness. He separated it from personal rather than extended Freud's view.

In doing this, Jung borrowed heavily from mystics and techniques of trance and seance. He made it into something that might be actively pursued rather than passively waited for in some type of visitation. Before, it was something that came and went like the wind but now it was a type of prey that might be hunted down and even captured. Dream interpretation became this conscious method for searching for the collective unconscious.

So, at the end of the twentieth century, the idea of context is dressed in the guise of the idea of the collective unconscious. The idea is popular not necessarily because of the genius of Jung but rather because of the mediumship of Jung. In effect, he was able to express the modern symbolism of context at the right time in history. Although it appeared in the work of one man, it was essentially an old collective expression given modern form. The fact Jung and his ideas appeared when they did was in itself an excellent example of Jung's concept of synchronicity.

But the idea of context is larger than that of the collective unconscious. In fact it extends and encompasses many other disciplines. One example is quantum physics and the theories of the great Albert Einstein. In a quote that is strikingly reminiscent of something from Jung, Einstein wrote in Evolution of Physics:

"Is light a wave or a shower of photons? Is a beam of electrons a shower of elementary particles or a wave? These fundamental questions are forced upon physics by experiment. In seeking an answer to them we have to abandon the description of atomic events as happenings in space and time, we have to retreat still further from the old mechanical view. Quantum physics formulates laws governing crowds and not individuals. Not properties but probabilities are described, not laws disclosing the future of systems is formulated, but laws governing the changes in time of the probabilities and relating to great congregations of individuals."

In effect, Einstein is writing about context from a scientific perspective. But in doing so, he makes a key use of an association to collective psychology in comparing the probablities in quantum physics to "crowds" and "great congregations of individuals."

In the next hundred years collective unconscious (and perhaps even quantum physics) will have new names and perhaps new champions like Jung and Einstein. It will not be something totally new, though, but rather another evolutionary step for that invisible spirit of context that has moved throughout history. Not merely the history of artists, or the occult or religion. Rather, the history of us all.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim