Pop culture narratives can be viewed as the collective correlative to the individual’s dream. Consider the hero stories: Good vs. Evil; Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader; Human vs. The Vampire; David against Goliath; Super-powered Rock’n’Roll Transcendent Rangers vs. Big-bad Media Boss and his Magic Picture Death Ray. Even with billions of channels, our most popular stories are only slightly more nuanced than Cops against Robber, Cowboys against Indians, Tom against Jerry.
Our most popular film and television stories draw structure from the hero archetype and provide an ego’s perspective, relying on descriptions of moral and ethical imperatives. Furthermore, narratives that define the collective ego experience are not limited to blockbuster movies and primetime dramas. Nor are they only the fictional myths created by filmmakers and artists. Each celebrity or political scandal also holds our attention by reflecting non-integrated aspects of the collective unconscious.
And yet, within Jungian circles, some writers dismiss the majority of images that daily bombard us-the popular media-as aberrant drivel engineered to brainwash us into consumerist submission. But when we identify the mainstream media as ‘other’ are we simply defending against threatening non-ego images? Are we redirecting stage lights in order to sharpen the contrast between darkness and light? With our elitism, are we quarantining the collective shadow that screams for integration everyday on our TVs, movie screens, personal computers, and newsstands?
This elitist perspective seems to contradict the non-judgmental attitude that Jungians cultivate for the consultation room. After all, if I arrive at my analyst’s office with a dream that points to a violent relationship with the anima image, we talk about it. If the imagery of the dream is steeped in pornographic banality, we talk about it. If my dream life is saturated with blood and gore, weapons and violence, we talk about it. Taking C. G. Jung as our role model, we are not prejudiced toward dwarfs, old men, pagans, or blind girls. No, we understand that only the ego perspective is responsible for judgment-making and we therefore attempt to know the dream artifacts from other perspectives.
Using the thinking function, for example, we amplify dream imagery, analyzing it along side mythological material and cross-cultural symbolism. We gain an experiential understanding by exploring the feeling tone of imaginal scenarios. We embody each character through active imagination in order to sense into the somatic reality of the image. Our Jungian and Post-Jungian foundation is blaringly obvious because of our willingness to traverse odious terrain in order to illuminate the unconscious landscape of the dream. What happens if we apply that same dedication to pop culture?
Popular culture narratives meander according to archetypal structure. Like myth, they also can be approached as the collective correlative to the individual’s dream. The popular media, therefore, can be seen not simply as consumerist propaganda, but also as the autonomous creation of a collective psyche: compensatory imagery to be approached as symptom.
However, there may be a capitalist free market fantasy implicit in the assumption that media images have organic autonomy. There may be complexes associated with financial Darwinism tinting the lenses of archetypal and depth psychologies when Jung’s theories are applied to popular media in this way. Is this Jung filtered through the interpretive categories of capitalist economics? After all, the typical Jungian perspective argues that imagery retains the dividends of popularity as a result of the value (worth) of its psychic energy. Imagery in our dreams and our mythology is often described in the same way that Wall Street describes financial markets: a product’s sales are directly proportionate to its ability to fill a consumer need -symptoms are the result of a complex’s psychic market share. In other words, be it Harry Potter or Jesus, Jung’s theory of compensation assumes that the frequency of the image’s (or dream figure’s) appearance is proportionately related to a psychic need.
Following this theory of compensation to its logical end confuses things. Because individual wealth and fame are motivating factors involved in the way producers, directors, managers, and writers bring images to market, but the ubiquity of these images can also be seen as a psychic symptom. In other words, the autonomous collective psyche has an unconscious need for certain images. The entertainment industry unconsciously fulfills this psychic need.
From this viewpoint, however, the theory of compensation conflicts with the meek-shall-inherit-the-earth Abrahamic religious sensibilities that my Judaic upbringing instilled in me. Abrahamic religious sensibilities are mytho-historically evolved from slave uprisings. Surely, the rich can’t be acting in the best interest of the anima mundi. The poor are the pious. The Egyptians, the Romans, the Bourgeoisie: they’re all infidels.
Do we accept the conspiracy theory: that pop-media is the opium of the people — constructed by kings to keep peasants laboring quietly? Or do we prefer the free market narrative: that pop-media is a reflection of the people? Both choices offer particular ethical problems.
Plato explored a similar conflict in The Republic. Thrasymachus asks Socrates if justice is simply the advantage of the stronger (Plato, 1997). In other words, is justice culturally constructed? Is justice simply the ethical opinion of the people with the power to enforce it?
In this essay, I’ve been asking similar questions about pop culture. Are pop culture images simply created by those in control of the entertainment industry? Or, are these images that emanate from some essential unconscious place? Thrasymachus might suggest that the collective moves in the direction of the powerful elite because they control the media content.
Thrasymachus’ is a moral relativist argument that resonates with our current predominant view. Each culture has its own moral system, codified and enforced by the powerful few. Thrasymachus mumbled the post-modern platitudes of the ancient world. But Socrates showed Thrasymachus that right and wrong are not simply the arbitrary categories of a particular culture’s ruling class. Socrates suggests that there is some deeper inner moral knowledge, something more universal, or essential than social trends.
Jung is like Socrates – or, like Plato and Kant. They are both what Marilyn Nagy calls: “epistemological idealists” (1991, p.45). In Philosophical Issues in the Psychology of C.G. Jung, she wrote:
Jung substitutes “inner experience” for Kant’s concept of a priori reason. Both men meant that there is something inside the individual which knows what to do and how to act . . . For Kant this was the experience of the categorical imperative. For Jung it was the experience of the self. (p. 37)
Jung counsels us to surrender to an inner moral authority-our innate universal knowledge. It is not might makes right. And it’s not right makes might-no, right and might are more complicated because ego-consciousness is not aware of unconscious motivations. Our depth psychological sensibility tells us that the ego rarely understands the Self’s intentions. In other words, the discovery of the unconscious makes everything suspect. The Self works in mysterious ways. We don’t always understand and we often don’t like the intentions of individuation.
From Jung’s viewpoint, we have an unconscious or inner authority that’s projected outward and reflected back. What is “out-there” is actually “in-here.” Therefore, it is our ethical imperative to take back the projections. And we’re expected to give special attention to those objects of shadow projections that we label “other.” Does this mean that the pop culture mainstream “other” represents projected shadow material that needs to be reintegrated? Does this mean that pop-culture is not just a manipulative sales pitch? Does this mean that media moguls deserve the same credit that we offer the personified dream maker? Does this mean that despite questionable ego, or professional, motivations, the TV producer’s work could be considered foreplay to collective individuation?
Like it or not, we are consumerists and the popular media landscape is part of the ambient reality of our collective unconscious. Many of us don’t like it and just like an individual, we adamantly deny the existence of our own shadows, calling them “other” and reinforcing our separatist illusions of elitism with divisions like mainstream and alternative, left and right, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, coastal and Middle America. However, if we buy into Jung’s theories, we might have to acknowledge pop culture as autonomous imagery from the collective unconscious. Therefore, a look at what types of stories the collective unconscious is creating seems in order.
In her 1982 book, Echo’s Subtle Body, Patricia Berry wrote that the ego “mode continuously makes divisions between good and bad, friends and enemies, positive and negative, in accord with how well these figures and events comply with our notions of progression” (p. 68). Like the individual psyche, the collective psyche’s hero narratives pit flamboyant over-indulgence violently against residual Calvinist guilt.
For example, although they masquerade as stories of rebellion, it is old-fashioned Puritan hard work and determination that prove victorious in underdog David and Goliath fables like The Pursuit of Happiness (2006) and Milk (2008). Homo- sexuals, African-Americans and other marginalized peoples need only “keep at it.” On the other hand, reckless nonconformity, lack of commitment and rogue individualism provide the warrior’s advantage as white male crayon-outside-the-lines protagonists conquer the establishment’s rigidity in Star Trek (2009) and Indiana Jones (1981-2008). These are just a few of the more prominent illustrations-and therefore manifestations-of the collective Western Consumerist ego.
However, narratives that define the collective ego experience are not only found in blockbuster movies and primetime dramas. Nor are they only present in the fictional myths created by filmmakers and artists. Non-fictional news media stories frame and define our collective experience by providing the illusion of objective adjudication
For example, media coverage transformed the image of Michael Jackson from self-indulgent “sicko” into a new protagonist. He was posthumously cast in that soap opera entitled “current events” in the role of the victim and martyr. The antagonist: pharmaceutical liability and medical recklessness. Gone was the alleged child molester whose self-hatred was manifested in an unhealthy addiction to cosmetic surgery. The new story described how doctors and pills killed an eccentric artist and spiritually superior humanitarian. In a quote that echoes the religious candor and idolatrous rhetoric that saturated the singer’s wake, one reviewer of Rabbi Schmuely Boteach’s book of interviews with Jackson cried that nobody helped “Jackson fight his addiction and heal his troubled soul” (Amazon, 2009). It should not surprise Jungians that the new Michael Jackson drama aired just as the national debate in the U.S. tackled the infrastructure of industrial health care on the House and Senate floors. After all, our archetypal faith holds that both our performers and our politicians are making mythology in accordance with the flow of collective psychic energy. Washington D.C. and Hollywood are like separate but parallel dream theaters, often personifying identical collective complexes with corresponding imagery.
We could approach the Jackson scenario from a depth psychological perspective, interpreting it like a dream. We would then take into consideration the fact that neither the media nor its audience forgot the old story; they just constructed a misshapen revision. This epilogue to the Jackson myth ran head to head with a national demonization of the health insurance industry that was tantamount to shaving just a bit more cartilage off an already mutilated appendage. Popping prescriptions wasn’t the problem. It was merely a symptom. Likewise, it doesn’t take a NASA engineer to see that the insurance industry is only one symptom of a much larger cultural failing.
When we read only from pop culture’s surface, we are guilty of the same literalism for which we ridicule fundamentalist believers of all religions. We become fundamentalist consumerists. We acknowledge only the perversity of the symptoms. We see self-indulgent celebrities guilty of sexual indecencies and marital infidelities. We navigate the tabloids, gossip shows, and nightly news programming as if they were moral allegories: mapping each superstar’s actions according to our individual and cultural subjective ethical compasses. We look for heroes and villains. We redirect light and cast shadows.
Or, we forgo pop culture altogether, taking a high-minded stand against the superficiality. We roll our eyes as we say, “I don’t watch TV. I don’t read People magazine.” But then we are living the ego myth: casting ourselves as the protagonist on a heroic quest to slay a multi-headed media monster. The view from our sanctimonious soapbox creates elitist dualisms. Furthermore, our self-righteous separatist dogma might simply be motivated in class division: the art-house erotica of the educated affluent is accompanied by champagne while the blockbuster pornography of the unsophisticated Philistines is served with malt liquor.
Worse, when we choose the pious anti-pop pulpit, we miss the metaphors of consumerist mythology. The ego has strengthened its grasp. We are brainwashed into submitting to the same position we rejected. We star in stories that tell us that the hero’s oppositionist ways are the only ways.
Mary Watkins reminds us, “Jungian psychology counsels us to distrust the ego and decenter ourselves to a more observant place within (the non-ego center)” (2009, pp.196-197). Looking at pop culture from a depth psychological perspective can be a “via regia” to a collective non-ego center.
Our popular culture is saturated with non-ego stories that do not necessarily follow rigid prerequisites for narrative structure. For example, while the rock star provides a persona that hooks and reflects projections of collective unconscious imagery, rarely can we make sense of him according to the linear narrative conventions (exposition, development, culmination, lysis) with which ego is so comfortable. Furthermore, to do so would be irresponsible.
Instead, I advocate a dialogue with imaginal rock stars. Seen as characters in our collective unconscious drama-or dream narrative-rock stars represent a familiar perspective with their own set of paradoxes and oppositions. For example, what does it mean to be both consumer and consumable? Or to be both icon and iconoclast? The mythical rock star always plays simultaneous and contradictory parts in our collective drama. The mythical rock star, whether media-darling or anti-establishment, is always both revolutionary and conformist. Consider Elvis’ hips: the undulating threatens to corrupt the youth, but it also pays the brokers that buy his mutual funds. Expected to bite the hand that feeds him, he must walk a thin line between maintaining his ostentatious appearance (designer clothing, jet-set privileges) and refusing to “sell-out” (by becoming too immersed in the capitalist economic foundation that creates and sustains him).
In the 1960s, boy bands like the Ramones moved a rock and roll ideology from the subtext of their musical performance to a conspicuous and non-apologetic center stage. They offered both a punk rock, “fuck everything” attitude, and the “so you say you want a revolution” parallel. While rock star’s self-indulgent puer narcissism is often mistaken for egotism, it actually has nothing to do with ego in the Jungian sense. It is a decidedly non-ego position that identifies cultural, political, social, and personal iniquities without actually caring enough to be bothered doing anything to change it.
Unlike the rock star, archetypal saviors or deliverers are constituents of an ego position that, as hero, hopes to return with a boon, a tonic, or wisdom that liberates and redeems the people. The ego image is goal oriented, product driven, a doer, a maker and a problem solver that functions according to “moralistic, scientific, and aesthetic oppositions-.good versus evil, true versus false, and beautiful versus ugly” (Vannoy Adams, p. 239). The rock star is unlike the hero/ego. The ego warrior slays and conquers in a missionary-like attempt at ethical and moral colonization. The rock star, on the other hand, has no ambition to redeem anything, only to throw temper tantrums and present lyrical indictments while enjoying the spoils of the system he condemns.
Rock and roll is like any other mythological system. When read literally, it appears convoluted. One reason is that the rock star is dependent on the system he eschews. To destroy all the icons, the rock and roll iconoclast would also need to turn the tantrum toward himself: the image of rock star is an iconic representation of the very attitudes he rebukes. For this reason, the flesh and blood rock performer sometimes seems hypocritical.
Consider U2’s Bono. He promotes humanitarian causes (through his Red and One organizations) while wearing Bvlgari sunglasses that cost enough money to feed one of the families he endeavors to help. Thus Bono is forced to perform an acrobatic spanning of a consumerist ravine. He is in the awkward position of being both consumer and consumable. And his value as a purchasable good rests in the impulsive extravagance in which he indulges while renouncing the system that enables it. Furthermore, his success is partly due to his privileged “first world” residence and the international envy it inspires and depends on. In other words, his popularity rests on the unequal distribution of wealth to which his song lyrics and philanthropic efforts object so strongly. The enviable distance over which his voice is able to carry his admirable intentions is unfortunately part of the problem.
I suggest we see Bono not as a hypocrite-for it is only when we approach him with the rigidity of literalism that contradictions become problematic. Rather, we should see Bono as a symbolic way to engage with the tensions of living in a world where lines are fuzzy. In the spirit of Jung’s transcendent function, we can see the image of the rock star as mediating the ethical tension inherently involved in participating in modern culture. The rock star sits in that ambiguous space which led me to ask, at the beginning of this essay: whether media images are the symptomatic products of an autonomous collective psyche, or the manipulative propaganda of people in power.
U2’s Bono provides the image of a transcendent third that materializes out of an irreconcilable tension of opposites. When seen as a symbol, the rock star is understood as an imaginal character whose voice is amplified at our collective psychic roundtable.
The rock star, then, does not take the stage just to entertain us. We cannot dismiss him as merely entertainment if we offer him the same respect that we would offer the characters in a dream. After all, if a long lost friend appears in our dreams, we know better than to assume it was only because we came across his photo on Facebook. Teachers in the Freudian, Jungian and Archetypal traditions all instruct us to look deeper at what appears to be merely an imaginal coincidence. The banality of the rock star’s ballads and anthems might be hiding hymns and a prayer to that divinity Jung calls the Self. If we engage with the images the rock star presents, the dialogue with pop art can be an illuminating way for each of us to fulfill our ethical and political responsibility to cultivate consciousness by withdrawing shadow projections.
The uncomfortable tension implicit in Jung’s epistemological idealism- the inner Self as monitor of the categorical moral imperative- is that the Self often challenges our most cherished moral presumptions. Our inner guru’s lecture topics might conflict with our ego’s ideal. We are left with a moral dilemma similar to the one that the Beatles encountered with Maharishi Mahesh. Is the ashram fraught with polygamous scandal or is it enlightened by tantric sexual liberty? Jung’s theories hold “that there is something inside the individual which knows what to do and how to act” (Nagy, 1991 p. 37). However, how does one reconcile a Kantian-style moral autonomy with a secular subjective moral relativism? The notion of an inner authority of universal morality like the guru Philemon is in conflict with our post-modern sensibilities. It marginalizes and pathologizes the shadows while offering personal revelation as justification.
Hillman deals with this problem by suggesting we conceive of a multiplicitous psyche with myriad ethical subjectivities. He calls for something that resembles a Quaker consensus of the intra-psychic population. We do not simply dismiss those subjectivities that make us uncomfortable, such as Snooki from the Jersey Shore reality program, Paris Hilton and her over-privileged princess porn, or Mel Gibson’s foul-mouthed anti-Semitism and misogynist rage. We do not dismiss the collective figures that we find abhorrent. Nor do we dismiss the inner elitist that prefers to bury his head in books and block out the popular periphery.
Instead, we can turn to the rock star. He helps us understand the importance of simultaneously resisting and accepting. He teaches us that conflict is grounded in connection. Like Heidegger, he shows us that difference and sameness both stem from a belonging together (Heidegger 2002, p.31). The rock star proves that rebelling and criticizing the personal and collective shadow of consumerism is, in fact, a vital piece of the polyphonic zeitgeist that creates and sustains our consumerist psychic love song.
As depth psychologists it is our responsibility to transcend the dichotomy between rebel-artist and pop-conformist, allowing a new cultural milieu to emerge. In Senex and Puer, James Hillman (2005) writes, “The spirit turned toward psyche, rather than deserting it for high places and cosmic love, finds even further possibilities of seeing through opacities and obfuscations in the valley. Sunlight enters the vale. The Word participates in gossip and chatter” (p. 86).
Of course, whenever we call for something new to replace the old, we are in the ego mode. When we condemn one way of knowing in favor of another, we act like the heroic champion of a higher cause. When we take an ethical stand against one and in favor of another, we are acting from the ego perspective. Likewise, when we vilify the ego perspective we are guilty of tyrannical oppositionalism.
How do we navigate a post-modern world where subjectivity makes all judgment fallible? Even the act of judgment should not be judged. Ethics are reversible. And morality is transient. What do we do?
We can turn to the image of the rock and roll iconoclast: that brooding, suffering, romantic troubadour. No matter how he styles his hair- and during whichever decade he appears- he lives the myth of deaf Ludwig van Beethoven banished to liminal space. He is cursed to create music he can never hear. To him everything is suspect. Nothing can be trusted, not even himself. The surface always lies and shadow is his dwelling. He cannot suspend disbelief because he is the illusion. He intuits the other side and seeks to unveil it, exposing himself in the process. What seems good is actually bad. What seems bad is actually good. This is the punk rock dissident’s gift. It allows, encourages and requires that he maintain an acute capacity for forgiveness and doubt. Because when nothing is firm, and everything bends- when black can be molded into white, yes into no, and right into wrong- judgment is necessarily suspended.
Surely someone has written a song about it.
Amazon.com (2009). The Michael Jackson Tape’s Customer reviews. Retrieved December 26, 2009, from http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Jackson-Tapes-Intimate-Conversation/dp/1593156022/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261840900&sr=8-1
Berry, P. (1982). Echo’s Subtle Body: Contributions to an Archetypal Psychology. Irving, Texas: Spring Publications.
Heidegger, M. (2002). Identity and Difference (New Ed ed.). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Hillman, J. (1975). Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.
Hillman, J., & Slater, G. (2005). Senex and Puer (James Hillman Uniform Edition, Vol. 3). Irving, Texas: Spring Publications.
Jung, C. G. (1999). The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nagy, M. (1991). Philosophical Issues in the Psychology of C.G. Jung. Albany: State Univ of New York Press.
Plato, Cooper, J. M., & Hutchinson, D. S. (1997).Complete works. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub.
Vannoy Adams, M. (2008). Imaginology: The Jungian Study of the Imagination. In Archetypal Psychologies: Reflections in honor of James Hillman. Stanton Marlon, ed. New Orleans, Louisiana: Spring Journal, Inc.
Watkins, M. (2009). Psyches and cities of hospitality in an era of forced migration: The shadows of slavery and conquest on the immigration debate. In: Politics and the American soul. Spring, Volume 78. (pp. 177-201)
Jordan Shapiro has worked professionally as, among other things, a chef, a bison salesman and a dealer in mid-Twentieth Century Fluxus Artwork. A songwriter and performer, he regularly plays open-mic nights. Currently, he is working towards his Ph.D. in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.