These are Strange Days
In 1980 the iconic American Jungian, founder of the so called Archetypal or Imaginal School, James Hillman made the following observation.
I find today that patients [coming to Hillman for analyses] for are more sensitive than the worlds they live in. Rather than patients not being able to perceive and adapt ‘realistically’ it is the reality of the world’s phenomena that seems to be unable to adapt to the sensitivity of the patients. I am astounded by the life and beauty of the patients vis-‘-vis the dead and ugly world they inhabit…
…When I say the patients complaints are real, I mean realistic, corresponding to the external world. I mean that the distortions of communication, the sense of harassment and alienation, the deprivation of intimacy with the immediate environment, the feelings of false values and inner worthlessness experienced relentlessly in the world of our common habitation are genuine realistic appraisals and not merely apperceptions of our intra-subjective selves. [I.e. they are closer to the objective and less subjective as traditionally conceived of]…
…Moreover it tells me that to place neurosis and psychopathology solely in the personal reality is a delusional repression of what actually, realistically is being experienced. (Abbreviated extract from James Hillman, 1982, ‘Anima Mundi: The Return of soul to the world’, Spring: Archetypal Journal of Jungian Thought, pp. 72)
Hillman’s insight, I suggest, was ahead of its time. Whatever Hillman was referring to 30 years ago is, I believe, far more evident today. To put it in the terms of psychoanalyses what may have started off as a mild sense of disquiet, has developed into a full blown neurosis and insanity (a psychosis) is not too far around the corner.
Naturally I am obliged to concede that this is a truth perceived by me and through my own very subjective paradigm. Nevertheless I would like to share with you why I not only concur with Hillman’s observations but believe the situation is far more serious today
Living in the End Times
One of the most prominent public intellectuals today Slavoj Zizek has been writing and talking on this topic for at least the last five years. The title of his latest book: Living in the End Times, speaks for itself. And I believe the vast global audience he has attracted, from the academics to everyman, suggests that he struck a chord in the collective zeitgeist.
His recent talk at the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York was not only sold out but had a queue of people around the block waiting admittance on the chance of any cancellations.
I cannot remember when last a public intellectual has had the kind of impact or generated the excitement that currently surrounds Zizek.
I have yet to read Zizek’s latest book and so cannot here offer a summary. However I will mention some of the issues raised by Zizek over the last few years, suggesting that the status quo cannot remain intact, and is rather disintegrating before our very eyes.
Including but not limited to:
9:11 and the subsequent, and possibly ill advised, ‘War on Terror’, which has not only seen the USA status as the invincible, untouchable superpower it was prior to 9:11, seriously damaged. But has seen: the loss of countless lives of both the allied forces and the nationals of Afghanistan and Iraqi.
The increased instability in the Middle East region. A severe tarnishing of both the American and British governments. In a real sense a public criminalising of the American and British states through their involvement in the Guant’namo Bay and the atrocities brought to light from Abu Ghraib prison.
The fallout of 9:11 has been far greater than anyone could have imagined, least of all, I imagine, the perpetrators. Whether it was the act itself or poorly though out policy responses by the Americans and British, it has brought a deluge of disaster in its wake. And I think I can say with a fair degree of certainty that we have not seen the end of this affair.
And as is the nature of these things it is impossible to view the subsequent events in both polotics and economics as not having been influenced by the events of that fateful day.
The global economic crash of 2008 and the effect this has had on the world, economically, socially and politically. The disastrous effects on the economies of fist world countries which seemed, prior to 2008, to exist in a state of grace, where what is currently happening seemed almost inconceivable. And how the globalisation of our economies and I think in particular the European Community with its converged currency and economic policy, has left virtually none insulated against what may have been a more localised problem fifty to a hundred years ago.
The ecological crisis and the obstinate view taken by those in power not to fully address this issue. An issue which truly has the potential to precipitate a true apocalyptic scenario. The lack of response by the superpowers no doubt exacerbated by the current economic meltdown finding them fighting rearguard actions for their political and economic lives.
Whilst the three issues above necessarily have our focused attention, there are many other underlying problems which no doubt are not helping:
The increasing tension between various fundamentalist orientations, religious and secular.
The exponential growth of technology and its implications which change quicker than we are able to psychically and culturally assimilate.
The assimilation of human attention and social interaction by the virtual world: television, the web, mobile phones and gamming.
And the list goes on.
Sexual deviance, perversion and transgression
On the weekend I attended a one day conference: Why the Mainstream Needs its Margins: The functions of the marginalised in psyche and society; organised by the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at Essex University, where I am currently studying.
The content of the conference was symptomatic of some of the current challenges we are facing, and reflects the point of this post.
As I understood it the idea of the conference was to examine from a psychoanalytic and social science perspective, why the mainstream needs its margins. And presumably what the margins have to say about the mainstream’s unconscious ideologies.
However what became increasing apparent throughout the various talks is that it is the mainstream itself that is marginalised today. At least in the majority of topics that were presented I couldn’t help forming that impression.
Two examples are illustrative:
Sexual deviance, perversion and transgression: who draws the line for whom and where? (By Dr. Aaron Balick, one of the directors at CPS, Essex.)
To very briefly distil what Dr. Balick was saying:
What was previously considered deviant can today by viewed as variant. The most classical example being homosexuality which was considered a form of sexual deviance up to the early 1970’s is now no longer considered deviant or aberrant, but is rather an accepted form of sexual variance.
Although Dr. Balick spoke about the historical and social context from which this change emerged it is too lengthy to go into there and there is only one or two points relevant in terms of this post.
Specifically that gay rights became a political force to be reckoned with. And this group naturally did not choose to view their behaviour as pathological requiring psychiatric intervention, but rather as a defining aspect of their unique individuality.
So today homosexuality along with many other forms of sexual variance is no longer marginalised at least not legally, psychiatrically or socially.
The lesson here is that any form of deviant sexuality can achieve legitimacy with a properly organised and representative body. And I think this is what we are seeing today vis-‘-vis the web, which allows organic clustering and expression of the most variant of variances .
This is of course nothing new. We are all aware of the fact that we live in a time where not only is every form of fetishism allowed it is in fact explicitly encouraged and implicitly expected. (This idea courtesy Zizek).
We live in a liberated age. Nevertheless there is an irony in this fact observed by Dr. Balick:
That is simply that there is a loss of individual expression in the politicisation of a movement such as homosexuality. Meaning this it is more fun to be deviant than to be variant . The moment previously deviant behaviour becomes the thrust (please forgive these sexual metaphors I assure you they are not intentional ) of a politicised group activity there is a diminishing of my individual expression in the act itself.
This I think is a very interesting point and bears on the entire strange situation we find ourselves in today. It seems that the margins are necessary for the continued sanity of both the mainstream and the marginalised. For without margins the degree of relativity and moral ambiguity becomes almost unbearable.
Or to put it another way (once again ala Zizek) it is not necessary that I believe but that at least someone believes. The problem is today no one believes. It is the very act of believing itself which has been undermined. The theory Essentialism has been replaced with the theory relativism or social constructionism.
Which from a liberal idealist point of view is wonderful, except that it is hell to live in. Most especially if you were previously part of the mainstream. But even, I would argue, a challenge for those previously marginalised who gained a certain sense of identity from their marginalisation.
Race and Immigration: Fantasies and Realities
Another talk at the conference was possibly even more telling in terms of out theme. A talk concerning the issue of race and immigration.
Now this talk was truly ironic, without I suspect intending to be. It naturally was heavily slanted towards the liberal left. And two of the case studies concerned the immigration controls in Arizona with its Mexican border and the other was to do with the perception of a disintegrating cultural English identity in small towns across England.
Naturally both speakers, Colin Samson and Simon Clarke, were implicit in their sympathy towards the immigrants. In the case of Arizona the Mexicans and in the case of England ‘ god knows, the whole world maybe.
Some of the figures given by Colin Samson indicated that essentially the degree of cohabitation in Arizona by the Hispanic community with the euro-Americans, the number of Spanish speakers in California, and language and cultural demographics projected within the states over the next thirty years clearly indicate one thing.
If by mainstream you mean euro-Americans then this is a fast dying culture. Because it is apparent both from the demographic figures given, not to mention the obvious fact of the states’ first African American president, that it is the mainstream itself which has now become the margin.
And the talk about the perceived racial insecurities of small town England, by Simon Clark, seemed to indicate pretty much the same trend.
Being at Essex it is something of an inside joke amongst the students. That is to say the traditional young English gentleman is conspicuous only by his absence. Essex is quite simply the most culturally diverse institution I have ever set foot in. In the space of a walk from the classroom to the local canteen it is possible to hear at least four or five different languages being spoken, and more often than not English is not amongst them.
So speaking for myself it is difficult not to look with some sympathy on a sense of national English identity which is being effectively assimilated by what were previously marginalised communities, or let’s face it simply ‘the colonies’.
Now don’t get me wrong I am no English sympathiser and maybe it’s an appropriate fate for the previously great colonial power. However when they invoke the great symbols of England as proof of their coherent sense of national identity one can’t help by hear a cry of desperation being choked down.
As a white South African the country I grew up in literally no longer exists, but for a few archaic vestiges which only go to show the absence of what once was. For better or worse what existed prior to 1994 simply evaporated. And for those of us who remained in South Africa whether through choice or necessity we had to relocate ourselves in a new cultural, political, social and economic reality.
Thinking about it now I suppose those who left had to do exactly the same. Nevertheless my point is this South African’s both black and white had to reinvent themselves after 1994. Everything that had previously defined us as a nation was gone. For the whites the little enclave of utopian social reality, called White South Africa, was sacrificed on the altar of peace and sanity.
But maybe less obvious is what the black people who fought so long and hard for against the oppression of the Boere lost. They lost their dream, for if we know anything about life it’s that reality never lives up to our idealised aspirations.
Before a joy proposed; behind a dream.
Just imagine a hundred years of struggle since the formation of the ANC in 1912; a thousand nights sleeping in a tin shanty home, with only a kerosene lamp for warmth on a bitterly cold winter night, having to rise before dawn to make the trip to the baas‘ (masters’) home and to be belittled by die missies (the madam of the house); imagine the deaths of ten thousand young African men, proud and beautiful, sacrificed on the altar of white men’s congeniality, in the mines, in the township riots and in detention; imagine a hundred thousand nights of sleeping alone on a cold stone floor in solitary confinement as a political prisoner carrying the soul, the dreams, the aspiration and the responsibility for redeeming a people, a whole race.
Imagine all of that riding on a single dream, the dream of a new political dispensation, that included black people, that wasn’t based on race, but suffered all, black white and coloured.
Imagine that and then imagine the realisation of that sustaining promise of redemption, that which allowed you to bear every conceivable indignity, in 1994. The realisation of the ultimate dream but without bathing in the blood of your oppressors first. And then waking up the next day in a little tin shanty hut, before dawn, to go and work for die baas en missies except now the master and madam may be black, white or coloured. But you are still poor, uneducated, live in a squatter camp, bereft of your dream, and are desperately trying to believe that something meaningful happened in 1994, that you whole life was not wasted.
Do you get my point? This is what I mean when I say even the marginalised take a certain comfort a certain sense of identity from their marginalisation.
Back to the Gods
I believe it was Heraclitus who said the only thing that stays the same is change. That was two thousand five hundred years ago. Were his words ever truer than today?
Carl Gustav Jung foresaw the spiritual and cultural crises we are currently facing and spoke and wrote about it fifty years ago. An apocalyptic time, which he only hoped we would survive without too great a loss of life.
Is it random that that the Mayan calendar ends in two years time, another sensationalist phantom of the not so new age movement? Or is it as Jung would say a meaningful synchronicity?
In South Africa the most hated term used to describe black people during apartheid was kaffir. The word derived from the Arab traders in Africa, an Arabic word kaffir meaning simply a non-believer, one who didn’t believe in the one and only God, Allah (in Arabic).
Today we are all kaffirs in a sense, most particularly if our belief is based on the values and cultural norms of the past. Because whether we want to accept it or not the past is not what it used to be. It is the phantasmagoria that has had us enraptured all these years, but is rapidly losing its numinousity.
And it is the apocalypse which is real if by apocalypse we mean an end to life as we knew it.
There is another line in Hillman’s essay in relation to the modern world, i would like to share with you:
Their suffering is written on their faces, with no epistrophe possible, no way back to the gods. (ibid: 83).
So how do we get back to the gods? Well I don’t know, and I would love to know your thoughts, so if the spirit moves you leave a comment and share them with me.
However I would suggest that the only gods we are likely to encounter at this point exist in some future state, torn from the fabric of the past. Gods which lay in wait for one brave enough to dream them into existence.
For truly as my friend Caroline Sillman says, these are strange days.
Until next time, Hamba kahle,