This post is an attempt to come to term with some problems found in Jung’s analysis of the UFO phenomenon. As well, it seeks to integrate better his notion of archetype in parasociology. Jung’s last book, written in conjunction with some of his closest and most trusted followers, provides some key answers. In Man and His Symbols, Jung explains in plain terms his methodology and some of his key concepts such as the notion of archetype. The full notice is:
Jung, Carl (Ed.). (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell.
From the individual to the social analysis
Jung was a psychoanalyst, and unsurprisingly, he saw the universe from an individual’s point of view. Yet, Jung used his approach to study social realities, and other borrowed from him to do the same. Claude Lévy-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist, is probably the best known scholar who borrowed from Jung. Lévy-Strauss attempted to interpret social realities like social myths and cultural taboos using (implicitly) the notion of archetype. Although Lévy-Strauss is considered one of the pillars of modern anthropology, he was not able to show the universality of such method because archetypical myths vary very much from one society to the next. Hence, from a sociological and anthropological perspective, no social theory based on archetypes can be safely formulated. Many in these two disciplines attributed Lévy-Strauss’ problematic theorization of society to his implicit adherence to rigid structural Marxist theories, and that he failed to accept that social reality can be constructed in an almost unlimited number of ways. This may be true, but I think that at the core of Lévy-Strauss’ misuse of archetypical analysis is actually Jung’s own misunderstanding of the difference between social and individual realities. Furthermore, when Jung used his method at the sociological level, he did follow his own established methodology. This is particularly apparent in Flying Saucers (1958).
Jung, like Freud, considered that dreams are the “golden path” to the unconscious, and developed an extensive methodology to interpret dreams in order to understand what is going on with his patients. In Man and His Symbols, he wrote that the “two fundamental points in dealing with dreams are these: First, the dream should be treated as a fact, about which one must make no previous assumption except that somehow it makes sense, and second, the dream is a specific expression of the unconscious.” (p. 18). Clearly, societies do not dream as individuals do, and therefore some adaptations of the method are required. Although myths could be understood as expressions of a socially shared unconscious, they do not behave like dreams. Individual dreaming is an ongoing activity; it is about a multitude individual issue; and it uses a very wide array of symbols. On the other hand, foundational myths of a society tend to be relatively static; it is the same story repeated over time through conscious means. I think these fundamental differences are at the centre of Lévy-Strauss’ theoretical problems. Whatever is considered as collective dreaming it ought to be dynamic, and clearly it must be a product of the social unconscious rather than a conscious effort of repeating the same basic story. Social rumours are certainly fitting better the billet because they are dynamic and spontaneous. And it is exactly what Jung used in Flying Saucers: rumours. Social psi events are another good choice as they are both dynamic and spontaneous, and they can also be found in Flying Saucers (but only if one reads between the lines).
Social psi events, like UFO and alien sightings, are symbolic and similar to dreams in that there are made of “images and ideas that dreams contain cannot possibly be explained solely in terms of memory. They express new thoughts that have not yet reached the threshold of consciousness.” (p. 26). Not only individuals are oftentimes in a dream-like state (the Oz factor), but they often attribute a meaning of some sort to their experience. Furthermore, “symbols, I must point out, do not occur solely in dreams. They appear in all kinds of psychic manifestations. There are symbolic thoughts and feelings, symbolic acts and situations. It often seems that even inanimate objects cooperate with the unconscious in the arrangements of symbolic patterns. There are numerous well-authenticated stories of clocks stopping at the moment of their owner’ s death[...]” (p. 41). Once again, UFOs as symbolic manifestations are not solely subjective experiences, but involve also some “participation” from unanimated matter. Based on Jung’s approach, it is certainly meaningful to consider UFOs as akin to dreams, as they are both symbolic manifestations of the unconscious. The real issue, in fact, is not ontological; individual dreams and social psi events share enough fundamental characteristics to be analyzed with the same methodology. The problem is epistemological; Jung did not apply a key principle of his own methodology when dealing with flying saucers.
Jung is abundantly clear about the issue that each individual is unique, and each dream is unique. Therefore, “it is plain foolishness to believe in ready-made systematic guides to dream interpretation, as if one could simply buy a reference book and look up a particular symbol. No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it, and there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream. Each individual varies so much in the way that his unconscious complements or compensate his conscious mind that it is impossible to be sure how far dreams and their symbols can be classified at all” (p. 38). And one more, “the knowledge of human nature that I have accumulated in the course of 60 years of practical experience has taught me to consider each case as a new one in which, first of all, I have had to seek the individual approach. [...] Some cases demand one method and some another” (p. 55). And just to be sure, “the interpretation of dreams and symbols demands intelligence. It cannot be turned into a mechanical system and then cramped into unimaginative brains. It demands both an increasing knowledge of the dreamer’s individuality and an increasing self-awareness on the part of the interpreter”. (p. 81) I think Jung could not have been clearer: his methodology is fundamentally about a case-by-case approach.
In Flying Saucers, Jung simply did not do that. He actually did not use a case-by-case approach. If Jung had followed his own method, he would have put the American society (or a portion thereof) on the “couch”, and try to understand what was going on with this particular society, at this particular time. Concretely, he should have taken the time to look into the special symbolism unique to the 1947 UFO wave and then repeat for the 1952 one, and treat them as if they were two different dreams. Then, he should have taken a different approach with a different “patient” (i.e., France) and look into the particular symbolism of the 1954 wave, and treat as yet another “dream” to interpret. The same should have been done with the Brazilian UFO wave of the late 1950s. What Jung did, instead, is to seek directly the universal symbolism behind the flying saucer and try to develop a reference book for a particular symbol, contrary to his own prescription. Or to put it in the words of his collaborator Aniela Jaffé, “Jung has explained the UFOs as projection of a psychic content (of wholeness) that has at all times been symbolized by the circle. In other words, this ‘visionary rumor,’ as can also be seen in many dreams of our time, is an attempt by the unconscious collective psyche to heal the split in our apocalyptic age by means of the symbol of the circle”. (p. 285).
Jung should be celebrated for being the first one to understand that UFOs are directly linked to collective unconscious processes, but he should be fustigated for not following his own method. Like Lévy-Strauss, he produced a static and rigid interpretation of a manifestation of the socially shared unconscious, and in both cases it is (in my opinion) the main point of dissatisfaction found in the writings of these two great minds of the 20th century.
UFO and the concept of archetype
Jung rightfully claimed that his concept of archetype was often misunderstood (p. 57). Archetypes are unconscious emotional thought-patterns that have a “tendency to form such representations of a motif—representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern” (p. 58). Furthermore, according to Jung “like the instincts, the collective thought patterns of the human mind are innate and inherited. They function, when the occasion arises, in more or less the same way in all of us. Emotional manifestations, to which such thought patterns belong, are recognizably the same all over the earth” (p. 64).
What this means is that in spite the fact that each dreamer and each dream are unique, they all share in common the activation of archetypes, and that each archetype has representational commonalities. The activation of an archetype is in turn linked to an imbalance between the conscious life of an individual and his/her unconscious one. Such imbalance is produced by events in the environment of the individual, and these events can be in the future (Jung gave an example of an archetype activated by a rationally unpredictable death that occurred 3 years later) (p. 66). In other words, for Jung the unconscious is working outside the “normal” flow of time.
For Jung, archetypes also operate at the social level, “but while personal complexes never produce more than a personal bias, archetypes create myths, religions, and philosophies that influence and characterize whole nations and epochs of history”. (p.68). It is probably the most problematic component of the concept of archetype. Historians and sociologists have convincingly refuted such a deterministic view of social reality. If there is something impossible to predict is social change. Yet, if one agrees with Jung, social change could be predicted because it is essentially a socially shared and inherited response mechanism to our environment. I think, once again Jung has not followed his method in developing the concept of archetype. Like in the case of individuals, societies might activate the same archetype when facing similar emotional challenges, but each response to such archetypical activation is unique and its ultimate outcome unpredictable. The more substantive argument here, I think, is that there is a fundamental indeterminacy linked to multiple unconscious interacting in a society, which does not exist at the individual level. In other words, the socially shared unconscious is much more dynamic and volatile because it is “fed” by thousands and millions of dynamic individual unconscious. From that point of view, to see in UFOs an archetypical circle, which interpretation is applied indiscriminately to every case is simply contrary to what Jung advocated. Jung, in fact, simply “turned into a mechanical system” his interpretation, and was rather unimaginative about it.
One can agree with Jung that when an archetype is activated, there is a lot of psychic energy in action (what he called numinosity) (p. 87), and by extension it is reasonable to think that psi events, including social psi events, are produced when an archetype is activated. Jung, particularly, interpreted synchronistic events as a sign of an archetype being activated (pp. 226-227). However, it is important to remember than even when a high level of emotional energy activates a particular thought-pattern (i.e. an archetype) the symbolic representation used by the unconscious can vary widely. I would even say that the same symbol (like a round UFO) can be used to express the activation of different archetypes (and I think that’s why Jung was prescribing so much caution in interpreting dreams and demanded to have an extensive knowledge of each dreamer) . Within societies, the meaning attached to each symbol is actually socially negotiated. For instance, the swastika, which is an old and widespread symbol, in Western countries is associated with the evil of the Nazi regime (death and destruction), while in India it is a positive religious symbol (continuity), and among Native American it is a positive and traditional symbol used to re-assert the Native culture (re-birth). Of course, one could say that in all these three instances it is about the “cycle of life”, but then one needs to ask about which part of the cycle? Thus, what is the usefulness of such interpretation if you do not have the context? Clearly, it is unwise to think that the presence of the same symbol means that the same archetype has been activated.
To stay within Jung’s timeframe, it is quite possible to see the 1947 UFO wave as an activation of survival fears (in the context of the USSR about to have the bomb); the 1952 wave as being linked to feeling of abandonment by the mother or parents (federal civil servants at the mercy of Senator MacCarthy—more on this on a future post); the 1954 wave as a lost of status within the tribe of powerful nations (France was just about to cease to be a colonial power); and the Brazilian wave of the late 1950s as the father becoming tyrannical (the emergence of a really bad military dictatorship in Brazil). Once again, all these four waves could be generalized as fears linked to safety, but then it becomes meaningless. Other societies in the same situation had a werewolf wave (France, a few years before the 1789 Revolution), mermaids (Israel in 2009), etc., which have nothing to do with circles. I think that round UFOs became in the 1950s a convenient symbol to grab attention, and it was unconsciously adopted by many societies in a context where it would be meaningful (i.e. beginning of the space age).
The ultimate conclusion that must be drawn for parasociology is that Jungian analysis, when transposed to the sociological level, must be adapted: the social unconscious selection of symbols (such as UFOs) must be understood based on the contextual capacity of a symbol to influence the collective consciousness. A symbol’s potential strength within a specific society, at a specific time of its history, is the key to interpretation rather than its presumed universal and timeless meaning. When a symbol becomes “institutionalized” then it will tend to repeat itself (hence we see UFOs since the last 60 years), and can be effectively described through Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic fields (as discussed in a previous post). At the same time, I think symbolism in social psi events has also a declining effect because a symbol, when overused, loses its capacity to grab the attention of the collective consciousness. Such a declining effect at the individual level has been discovered a while ago by parapsychology (i.e. a same experiment produces lower psi results over time, as the individual unconscious gets bored and loses its focus).
Once again, Jung’s idea to look for activated archetypes to understand the emergence of UFO waves was simply brilliant. But Jung was no sociologist. At the social level, one symbol can reflect a vast array of archetypes. In other words, the symbolism directly linked to a psi event (like a round flying saucer) is not enough to understand the event. As Jung prescribed, there is nothing like developing “an increasing knowledge of the dreamer’s individuality and an increasing self-awareness on the part of the interpreter”.
Eric Ouellet © 2009