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Jung on the Function of Symbols

Culture has changed in the last fifty years as in no comparable period in history. The religious perspective of the last century, indeed centuries, is quickly losing relevance for an increasingly material viewpoint. Media technology now serves and promotes a commercial thing-orientation as calculated and contrived as it is self-serving — and self-alienating.

Beneath the changing viewpoints lies a major shift in cultural values (in case you haven’t noticed). The social networking craze is only one small example of how unconscious effects turn conscious desires into their opposites. Though electronic devices bring the world to our fingertips, they alienate as much as they connect.

(I watched a young couple in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day spend most of the meal texting. Whether they ate or talked — maybe a quarter of the time — their phones were either in their hands or right next to their plates as ready as the silverware.)

The new technological reality is purely artificial: a commercial fantasy-world where relationships are secondary; emotions pre-packed, pictured, profiled, and projected. But, the partial focus required for its manipulation is an unconscious recipe for disaster. Few concede any personal contribution to it; but multiply it by several billion, and it’s easy to see how half the world’s animal species have disappeared since the 1970’s — of those still extant at that time.

The critical thinking which once threatened Church control need no longer be suppressed; merely diverted by subliminal ego-appeal — or simply ignored. A pre-arranged conformity curried to exploit mass consumers is the new norm. A compulsive herding process now begins to replace the values which have taken eons of human sacrifice to evolve. That’s not just personal judgment. The individual struggle for consciousness which has historically directed human evolution is quickly becoming the caricature of a manufactured individualism as collective as it is self-centered.

Jung showed empirically how human behavior is rooted in instinct — natural functions designed for a natural world. ‘Instinct’ and ‘compulsion’ are perceived only negatively — who accepts the idea of being subject to natural laws? Though conscious reality is no less real than its ‘objective’ counterpart, because the first is subject to the latter, conflicts and contradictions occur when they come into opposition.

Any intense interest has a compulsive (instinctual) character. Though its end-effects are as much creative as destructive, our ideas of compulsion are mostly negative descriptions of the mysteries of psychic life beyond our understanding. And if you don’t think our behavior is beyond our understanding, you don’t keep up with world events.

Jung explained compulsive behavior as psychic functions lacking the form and purpose for which nature intended them. When, for instance, the energy specific to symbolic understanding is too literally conceived, an unconscious opposition can give the loftiest ideal a destructive character. Only the symbol can direct the energy of opposed impulses toward a unified flow. Jung:

“… the symbol presupposes a function that creates symbols, and in addition a function that understands them. This latter function takes no part in the creation of the symbol, it is a function in its own right, which one could call symbolic thinking or symbolic understanding. The essence of the symbol consists in the fact that it represents in itself something that is not wholly understandable, and that it hints only intuitively at its possible meaning. The creation of the symbol is not a rational process, for a rational process could never produce an image that represents a content which is at bottom incomprehensible.”

This is the religious instinct: a vital function of  value and relationship specific to our natures. It’s the first clue of the symbolic side of our commercial, social obsessions. The collective over-valuation of literal fact and the aversion to symbolic needs is balanced by an increasing egotism: the exaggerated effects of a decline in inner value which only deepens unconscious opposition.  Jung:

“… to settle the conflict, it must be grounded on an intermediate state or process, which shall give it a content that is neither too near nor too far from either side… this must be a symbolic content, since the mediating position between the opposites can be reached only by the symbol. The reality presupposed by one instinct is different from the reality of the other… This dual character of real and unreal is inherent in the symbol. If it were only real, it would not be a symbol… Only that can be symbolic which embraces both.

“The rational functions are, by their very nature, incapable of creating symbols, since they produce only rationalities whose meaning is determined unilaterally and does not at the same time embrace its opposite. The sensuous functions are equally unfitted to create symbols, because their products too are determined unilaterally by the object and contain only themselves and not their opposites. To discover, therefore, that impartial basis for the will, we must appeal to another authority, where the opposites are not yet clearly separated but still preserve their original unity.

“It would… be pointless to call upon consciousness to decide the conflict between the instincts.  A conscious decision would be quite arbitrary, and could never supply the will with a symbolic content that alone can produce an irrational solution to a logical antithesis.

“… Thus, besides the will, which is entirely dependent on its content, man has a further auxiliary in the unconscious, that maternal womb of creative fantasy, which is able at any time to fashion symbols in the natural process of elementary psychic activity, symbols that can serve to determine the mediating will.”

For more on the analogical thinking which would re-establish a sense of inner value, continue reading or visit Amazon.

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