Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Jungian analogy

Carl Jung:

We have then to describe and to explain a building, the upper storey of which was erected in the nineteenth century, the ground floor dates from the sixteenth century, and a careful examination of the masonry discloses the fact that it was reconstructed from a dwelling-tower of the eleventh century. In the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and under the cellar a filled-in cave, in the floor of which stone tools are found, and remnants of glacial fauna in the layers below. That would be a sort of picture of our own mental structures. We live in the upper storey, and are only dimly aware that our lower storey is somewhat old-fashioned. As to what lies beneath the superficial crust of the earth we remain quite unconscious

So far so good. I can go along with this, it's a neat formulation. I'm not totally convinced, particularly when it comes to the glacial fauna which, it seems to me, is stretching the history of the 'building' to an extreme in order to create a link to the unknown, or unconscious. But okay, let's go on.

But the deeper we descend into the past the narrower the horizon becomes, and in the darkness we come upon the nearest and most intimate things, till finally we reach the naked rock floor, down to that early dawn of time when reindeer hunters fought for a bare and wretched existence against the elemental forms of wild nature. These men were still in the full possession of their animal instincts, without which their existence would have been impossible. The free sway of the instincts is not consistent with a powerful and comprehensive consciousness. The consciousness of primitives, as of the child, is of a spasmodic nature; his world too, like the child's, is very limited. Our childhood even rehearses, according to the phylogenetic principle, reminiscences of the pre-history of the race and of mankind in general. Phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically we have grown up out of the dark confines of the earth.

This is where, it seems to me, Jung descends into babbling. There is positively no proof that early man's consciousness was 'spasmodic', and his world is only limited to the extent that physically it was confined to where he could walk. The leap from that to the suggestion that his entire world - physical but also mental - is limited is unsustainable.

And thus the whole analogy begins to fall into discredit. I can certainly see that an individual's beliefs, ideals, memories can be seen as settling within him like some sort of archaeological layering, and it could then be theoretically possible to slice through it to see the genesis of those beliefs. I will even allow that some of this is undoubtedly subconscious or unconscious. But to go back to the naked rock floor, not only of my existence but of mankind itself, and try to extrapolate from this general mass something that is useful about my personal state, is a futile pastime.


Mark said...

I say 90% crock, start to finish, and I like your analysis.

Here's what I can buy: as you say, I can buy the idea of our thinking becoming more settled as we age. That's about it.

First, the idea of subconscious>conscious. As you say, I can buy that unconsciousness plays a role in the formation of our beliefs. I can buy that possibly the subconscious exists, but that if it does, it's beyond our knowledge and therefore meaningless--and so all theories about it are basically guesswork about something fundamentally unknowable.

Even more than that, the sort of German idea that anything under, deeper, "sub" must be more important and real than what is conscious seems utterly false. Our consciousness and thinking are what matter.

I'll also say he seems to imply a progressive view of history, of ever higher and more developed civilizations succeeding one another, a view that at best lacks nuance but is, I believe, quite false.

Tom Conoboy said...

I find this whole Jungian concentration on unconsciousness difficult. Just because something isn't fully understood doesn't make it important. Just because something is ancient doesn't make it right. Just because some of our mythology seems to derive from a form of group consciousness doesn't mean it has any greater import than conscious group belief. As you say, it's unknowable, but the Jungians still seem convinced that it is important

On the development of civilisation, well it's a question of meaning, I suppose. What do we mean by civilisation? On the simplistic level of technological advance, a progressive view is clearly appropriate - we become more and more technologically advanced all the time. But I would agree that this is a narrow definition. I wouldn't go as far as to say a progressive view of history is "quite false" because there is clearly some overall progression (albeit with hideous regressions along the way, such as Nazi Germany) but I think you have to look at these things over a longer time frame - centuries, not decades.

Mark said...

Some of the architectural and agricultural technology of Rome disappeared for a thousand years--and only the crudest understanding of history could wash over that thousand years as a regression in the midst of continual progress. It's really only the last few hundred years of dramatic technological advance that makes it seem like an ever-upward-and-onward progression.

When you study history, you can only maintain the progressive view (even with technology) through a willingness to subordinate whole centuries, civilizations, and continents to the periphery. You create a particular Progressive lens and whatever doesn't fit gets left out as an inconvenience.

There's just this unexamined assumption that there are set stages of human history: pre-historic caveman, hunger/gatherer, early agricultural, advanced agricultural and so on... And we assume that these denote set stages of predetermined advance. Most alien and space movies are predicated on this idea, where the question is what stage of advance are the aliens in? But does that really fit reality? Again, only if you're willing to relegate massive swaths of human existence to irrelevance while ruling out any possibility of losing technology permanently.

Aside from technology, you'll have a hard time convincing me that our current society is the highest point civilization has ever reached. I don't buy that today we're better or smarter or more civilized than ever before. Neither do I have some golden age in mind, a time when society was perfect. But if it wasn't better then (insert a typical "golden age"), it surely wasn't uniformly worse or less developed. Today impersonal bureaucracy literally dominates life--and I'm not talking about government so much as every interaction you have outside of friends and family. People eat, read, watch, and listen to shit. All this grand advance in technology has led us where? To a place where we have the largess to spend vast amounts of money on pointless movies, bad music, and awful books. This isn't to scorn the present so much as suggest that historical change is not progress.