Monday, June 18, 2012

June Singer - Five Ways of Misusing the Concept of Archetypes

"It is through focusing attention on the numinosity of the individual archetypes and the multiplicity of their imaginal expressions, and through losing sight of the context in which they are embedded, that the crucial concept of the archetype tends to be misused. The misuses are ubiquitous: analysts, analysands, and students of Jung are all vulnerable to the possibility of falling into some of the traps which this difficult concept lays out. In this paper I shall be content to explore five ways in which the archetype can be misused. These are (1) categorisation, (2) reduction, (3) reification, (4) pathologising, and (5) interpretation.

(1) Categorisation. To categorise in terms of archetypes is to divide the realm of the collective unconscious into convenient pigeonholes, placing everything relating to the feminine in man in the ‘anima’ compartment, everything having to do with masculine power and drive in woman in the ‘animus’ compartment, and everything to do with children into the category of ‘one's emerging potential’, or, if the child is especially precocious or in some other way unusual, making use of the ‘divine child’ category. There are also the ‘helpful animals’, and ‘the shadow’, which in its more virulent forms becomes ‘the Satanic’. And of course, there is the ‘self. While the ‘self’ is a representation of the archetype of wholeness, when misused it becomes, like any other of the archetypal concepts, one element of the psyche striving for its recognition among the other elements.

(2) Reduction. It is often said that Jungian psychology is not reductive. Perhaps, compared with orthodox psychoanalysis, it is not. But consider carefully: although Jungians may not regularly reduce psychic phenomena to their origins in infantile sexual traumas or to events in the individual's early life within the family, how often among Jungians is a particular mode of individual behaviour explained by ascribing it to the activation of a particular archetype? One might say, for example, that the Goddess Hera is ruling the individual when societal values are being defended, that Athena is in the ascendancy when a woman values her intellect over her sensibility, or that Aphrodite is operating when erotic passions rule. In this way, the psyche is reduced all too often to a pantheon of quarrelling gods and goddesses (the names we give to archetypal images) contending for possession and control of the human soul. In these circumstances the ego has about as much chance of autonomy as had Leda when Zeus swooped down from heaven in the form of a swan and raped her before she knew what was happening to her. Of course, she leaned back and enjoyed it. This Ledaesque abandoning of responsibility in the face of the god (read ‘archetype’) is one of the effects of what has been called ‘the new polytheism’. This ‘new polytheism’ is not to be mistaken for a development beyond the sense of that primordial oneness which held our forefathers in awe and which can still fill some people with cosmic wonder. Far from it. The ‘new polytheism’ seems to me to be, rather, evidence of the degeneration of a god concept that became institutionalised as the summum bonum, the highest good, in a world where evil is all too apparent.

(3) Reification: to make of something abstract a real, concrete, or literal thing. Not only have the gods and goddesses been turned into behaviour-pattern formations, but even their mythical abode has received the projections of the human psyche. In the process, an archaic view of the heavens has been concretised. Astrology provides an example. This pseudo-science was recently taken to task in a book review titled ‘The case against psychic rape’:

Almost a year has passed, thank God, since I have been asked: ‘What's your sign?’ The locution itself seems finally to have succumbed to the wearing effects of mindless repetition, and now it lies, junked with ‘rap session’ and ‘telling it like it is’, wherever rusty language lives its second halflife in mothballs, But the reflex that provokes someone to ask a stranger for his astrological sign has not, I'm afraid, been effaced. At its most benign, the impositions of a cosmological summary upon the character of a newly-met human being constitutes a denial of the person's singularity, a mindless reduction: ‘Oh, Scorpio, I get it, you’re selfish.’ At its worst, the intrusion constitutes simple theft of whatever a person wishes to reserve: irony, surprise, inconsistency. Not the least pleasure of life is to outfox predictability and inexorability, and so, to be construed as not more than a fulfilment of an inventory of characteristics assigned to one of twelve astrological rubrics is to be ruthlessly compacted (WOLFF 9).

I, too, feel that to assign the motivation for particular and individual behaviours to archetypal patterns is to risk losing the precious and unique qualities of the individual human spirit. I believe that the forming and shaping of human personality is integral to the process of individuation. This process is constantly moving in the only way it can—in patterns which reflect all that we, as individuals, bring with us into the world; in all that we encounter and that has impact upon us in the environment and in our own being—as an effect of the dynamics between the two. To place a fixed characterisation upon the mobile complexity that is the human organism is to attempt to freeze in time something that moves through a continuum of experience. The archetypal images may portray the psyche, but only as a photograph portrays a living, moving person.

(4) Pathologising. This is the fourth example of the misuse of the archetype, and it is related to the human propensity to categorise what we see and experience. It is generally asserted that Jungian psychology is based on a growth model of psychotherapy, rather than a pathology model. However, the practice of categorising behaviour in terms of archetypes may lead to the very thing Jungians criticise when rejecting the pathology model of psychotherapy on the basis that it focuses primarily upon the symptom, in that it groups a number of symptoms under the rubric of a psychiatric syndrome which is labelled, and for which it then proceeds to prescribe an appropriate method of treatment. In the pathology model, we ear often about how to treat depression, or schizophrenia, or manic depressive illness. We hear correspondingly rarely about how to treat people, suffering human beings, who are in a process of growth that is constantly changing—a process in which the person may be suffering from that disturbance of equilibrium which is a necessary accompaniment of the process of transformation. It is quite possible to lose sight of the uniqueness of the individual, and the special way in which this individual related to the environment, in our efforts to ‘diagnose’ a particular archetypal configuration. By describing a certain type of behaviour as puer aeternus, for example, we are classifying a person as immature and self-centred, as one who has never quite managed to accept adult responsibilities. Consequently, we have certain expectations of how such a person will react to situations. Our expectations cannot fail to be communicated in some way, either directly or through unconscious channels. The person so designated, so categorised, then says to himself, ‘Well, what can you expect of me, a puer aeternus?’ Thus the patient is almost encouraged to identify with the archetype. Little wonder that he becomes fixated there! So archetypal diagnosis, like any other type of diagnosis, has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(5) Interpretation is another activity which, when improperly offered, may occasion the misuse of the archetype. We know how it is to awaken from a dream having been deeply moved, feeling a sense of awe, or excitement, or intense longing. There is something left with us which completely mystifies us and shakes us to the very core. Then the analyst, or friend, or even the dreamer, feels called upon to fill the gap by amplifying the image with some related myth or fairy tale. When this is ill-timed it can have the effect of drawing the dreamer's energy away from the feeling-tone of the image, and transferring it to the source of the archetypal associations."
(p. 7-9)

June Singer (1979). The Use and Misuse of the Archetype. Journal of Analytical Psychology, Vol. 24, p. 3-17

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