This paper actually reworks some of the ideas in an
earlier paper I wrote here called "Cyberspace: Shadow of the Cultural
Imagination?" It was inspired by a meeting between my class at
Pacifica Graduate Institute and James Hillman.
"The persons I engage with in dreams are neither representations
(simulacra) of their living selves nor parts of myself. They are shadow
images that fill archetypal roles; they are personae, masks, in the
hollow of which is a numen." -- James Hillman (1979, p. 60)
"Are the gods bytes?"
--A comment on the "ContraDiogenes"
site of the World Wide Web.
Do the gods occupy cyberspace?
Can soul be constructed in virtual reality?
In this paper my intention is to make a few observations about images
and cyberspace (or virtual reality) from the perspective of archetypal
psychology. My curiosity about this subject is personal and intellectual.
I have inhabited cyberspace over 10 years but have long been aware
of a kind of self-reproach for my participation in the medium - similar,
I think, to the kind of embarrassment people often bring to their television
viewing. At the same time, I have been irritated by what I've come to
call "archetypal Luddites," psychologists, particularly Jungians,
who dismiss the medium as another soul-destroying inflection of technology.
Over the years, I have myself waffled between the extremes - internet
junkie and Luddite. I journey into cyberspace and then flee it, condemning
it with every breath, for months at a time
always returning. Ultimately,
the tension has led me to the question of what I am resisting in my
habitation of cyberspace, which I would like to define psychologically
at the outset as a world of mechanically generated images.
In some ways, this paper represents recanting of some of my own positions
- or at least an effort to situate myself with more clarity in cyberspace.
It is also an effort to establish some kind of rapprochement between
cyber thinking and the archetypal imagination. This is important to
me because among the archetypal Luddites seems to be James Hillman himself.
I have heard him dismiss cyberspace in public talks.
The quality of images
The dismissal of cyberspace by so many archetypal psychologists intrigues
me because, as I said, the medium is purely imagistic and, according
to the Hillmanian view, images are the foundation of psyche. Of course,
images have varying character. Images can be degraded in their representation
and, certainly, the images in cyberspace vary wildly in that respect.
But one does not dismiss all art on the basis of bad painting.
A little background in Hillman's orientation to images is necessary
here before proceeding to anything like an archetypal overview of cyberspace.
For Hillman, a "good" image actually has nothing to do with
formal aesthetics. It is one that temporarily arrests the movement of
psychic process and, like an alchemical drawing, expresses in metaphorical
language a personification that can be psychologized, "seen through"
to its ideational or archetypal/mythological significance. It opens
to the numinous.
"Stick to the image!" he repeatedly warns us, quoting the
dictum of Rafael Lopez-Pedraza that has become central to Archetypal
Psychology. Whether in dream, in fantasy or in the gazing at art, he
told us in class, we must not symbolize the image but respect its particularity.
The image, according to Hillman, is inhabited in its depths by a god
and has telos. The image's movement expresses the telos, a kind of manifestation
of the god within, and it is followed, not interpreted, with varying
skill in the analytical process. Origins are beside the point, he told
our class at Pacifica. He writes that the image, although it is a snapshot
of a personally inflected archetypal process, is not static. He quotes
Ezra Pound: "
the image is more than an idea. It is a vortex
or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy
from which and through which and into which, ideas are constantly rushing."
( 1989, p. 264)
Borrowing Freud's word "dreamwork," Hillman compares the
creation of dream images to the work of a bricoleur (1979, p. 127),
a cobbling together in the psyche of the images, expressions of archetypal
process, that are actually the construction of soul. He extends this
analogy to all images.
And while this process is one of the psyche, it is an interiorizing
process, not a strictly interior one in the sense that it orginates
and is contained there. The image or its seed is interiorized by the
personal psyche (of the dreamer, the painter, the fantasizer) and worked
(or played with) but its numen arises and reopens to the world. The
numen belongs, in fact, to anima mundi, the soul of the world, according
to Hillman, and thus, following Keats, we construct not just personal
soul but world soul, which by the definition of its construction here
is shifting and forever changing. (This is highly reminiscent of Jung's
statements after his encounters at Taos.)
This latter observation about the shifting quality of world soul is
important. It is a point of significant departure for Hillman from the
Platonic point of view, which includes Henry Corbin's theorizing of
the mundus imaginalis. In this view the telos of images is to recover
their genesis in the realm of ideal imaginal forms. Hillman rejects
that origins-preoccupied point of view but the nominalist one as well
(1975, p. 8). For him, world soul is adverbial and verbal. The longing
is more important than its object. Since the image, the picture of soul,
is a vortex in its function, so must the soul be.
This is, of course, a postmodern view - but one that oddly grounds
itself linguistically in the Platonic tradition. The leap from the Platonic
to the postmodern and back again is nothing he denies: "I have
spent 30 years at dismemberment
the pearls not the rope. Dionysos
the Loosener. It's not logical, yet it's true." (1989, p. 61).
This self-contented leap from paradigm to paradigm, this Dionysian
loosening without thought to the inconsistency and the chaos, nevertheless
has resulted in volumes of revelations that really do open upon the
numinous. And this process brings to mind the words of an earlier thinker,
Marshall McLuhan: "The medium is the message." In other words,
the image's arising is more important than its content. The "ah-ha"
or the gasp on its viewing is what opens us to the numen, not a deciphering
of symbolic meanings or even a fixed metaphorical referent. This in
fact - the gasp, the sournd of arrest - is what signifies an authentic
Marshall McLuhan and the body
On the surface, everthing that Hillman values seems to be true of cyberspace.
There, through hyperlinks, images arise and morph. Some images, if not
the majority, are certainly banal and do not arrest us for any longer
than it takes to click on the next link. Still, one often clicks on
an image that is like the vortex Pound describes: a center through which
pours all manner of thoughts.
But more to the point, the lived experience of browsing is different
from the penetration of its individual images - just as the act of stepping
into a dream as a total gestalt is different from the encounter with
its individual images. (And the appearance of cartoonlike images in
postmodern dreams is surely ubiquitous.) Multiplied over time, the viewing
of images in a session of "browsing" the World Wide Web produces
an experience of fascination that is like a virtual or digital poeisis.
The imagination is seized and in browsing, the metamorphic movement
through imaginal space (telos of the mouse), mood is altered, meanings
are constellated, experience is affected. This can involve sinking into
a world of visual, aural and written images. It is very much like Hillman's
The fact that these images are mechanically generated seems to be at
the heart of many critics' objections - as though soul is banished from
technology. In Marshall McLuhan's seminal writing about electronic media,
prior to the advent of the internet as global phenomenon, we find some
explicit statements about the differences in images that arise in dream
or fantasy and in electronic media. They help explain the profusion
of banality in cyberspace, constituting a kind of apologia, but may
be an answer to the usual critique.
McLuhan wrote, with Wilfred Watson, a little known book, now out of
print, called From Cliché to Archetype (partially excerpted
in McLuhan 1995). It is a book of essays in which the media philosopher
examines Jung and the cultural imagination. McLuhan observes, writing
about the effect of television and other electronic media, two main
effects. One is disembodiment. In this view, the cyber inhabitant has
forsaken his body. He travels through space and time without a body.
McLuhan generalized this to the culture:
As electric media proliferate, whole societies at a time become discarnate,
detached from mere bodily or physical 'reality' and relieved of any
allegiance to or a sense of responsibility for it...The alteration
of human identity by new service environments of information has left
whole populations without personal or community values..." (McLuhan,
The assumption here, obviously, is that values (and feelings!) arise
in sensory experience of the real world. One experiences the ecology
and thus has some sense of responsibility for it. To cut oneself off
from that is, to his mind, to affect the sense of responsibility. However,
McLuhan is operating without any kind of meta-process other than media.
For him, there is no soul to extend itself, even redemptively, into
media. Interestingly, Robert Sardello, one of Hillman's early influences
shares the same concerns and has written at length about them (1992,
1995). In Sardello's view, technology can be ensouled but he insists
on the withdrawal of "salvational fantasies" for the same
reason: that technology disembodies us. One suspects that Hillman himself
shares this point of view, since, as indicated above, his revelations
are nonrational. His recent writing and his participation in the mythopoetic
men's movement point to an increasing consideration of the sensory body
and nonrational process.
My response to this is that it simply ignores what is. Technology,
as McLuhan noted too, does not just disembody us. It extends (and accelerates)
the body, even as it produces the experience of disembodiment. In pedestrian
ways this is experienced as a lack of emotional inflection in the absence
of vocal tone and physical gesture in cyber chatting. People often "misread"
But the very suppression of these sensory cues, to say nothing of a
very superficial anonymity, also heightens vulnerability and intimacy.
Thus the constant stories like the recent one of the sailor who disclosed
his homosexuality in cyberspace, resulting in his discharge from the
Navy. Eros drenches every corner of cyberspace. It is filled with millions
of erotic self-portraits of ordinary people - something that probably
is unique in history. Romances, platonic and sexual, are conducted in
cyberspace. "Cybersex" and "virtual sex" describe
new styles of lovemaking. For the average person, this is what cyberspace
I find this fascinating in light of Hillman's repeated statements that
Aphrodite brings the world forms, its images, into existence. It is
Aphrodite's touch that ensouls . And so it is not the purely sexual
that is significant in this consideration, but that the erotic, as image-production,
is erupting and birthing itself in cyberspace. Thus it is not that cyberspace
disembodies us. Instead, it gives rise to a new imaginal body: the cyberbody,
as erotic as our physical bodies.
In the view of many ecologists, the planet has already passed the point
when its health can be fully recovered. Thus, it occurs to me that the
body that is birthing itself in cyberspace may in part represent destiny:
a kind of cyborg that fuses machine with body. Although we demonize
this notion in our nostalgia for a healthy planet, it may be our only
chance of survival. Further, several scholars, including Pierre Levy
(1997) and Jennifer Cobb (1998) wonder if a collective and self-reflective
intelligence - god or the anima mundi? - isn't embodying itself in cyberspace.
Cobb imagines cyberspace as the evolution of Teilhard de Chardin's metasynthesis
of mind and matter into a collective intelligence. Levy imagines something
like the Islamic collective mind documented by Corbin, but with less
If archetypal psychology does not turn its lens upon the cyberbody,
it may well be turning its back on the future. The numen hidden in the
hollow of the cyber persona may be our collective daimon attempting
McLuhan and the archetypal imagination
Let us say that the cyberbody represents the future. Let us even agree
that the process of occupying cyberspace, browsing, may be more important
than the contents viewed because something "other" is constellated
in the imagination: a new form of the vortex. (And I stress that it
is the dialogic property of the experience - not the image itself -
that constellates the new form. Thus the argument that the images are
generated by another intelligence in the first place is irrelevant.
So are the images arising in the collective psyche and interiorized
by the dream ego.)
But we are still left with the nagging reality of cyberspace's actual
imagistic banality. This is a genuine concern. When you consider that
McLuhan was primarily writing about television and you look at its wasteland
of cliches, it is hard to reconcile oneself to the idea that the archetypal
is arising there, no matter how much you dwell on process instead of
content - the medium rather than the particular message.
McLuhan, alas, does little to relieve us of our anxieties in this respect
but he certainly prefigures the way popular culture and the fine arts
have been conflated in the postmodern critic's evaluation. (See Camille
Paglia, blazing a dubious trail to what one would have to call "Jungian
In McLuhan's reading of the archetypes, they actually are cliches.
He sees them, like Hillman as inhabited by gods. But he calls them imagistic
cliches of desacralized tribal gods. The archetypes, he writes, are
personifications understood in their own cultures to have valid moral
and spiritual exegeses. But over time they become desacralized, as they
were in Greece. Then they are retrieved by, say, the Romans, and later
still, by Renaissance-era scholars and artists.
In this process, he writes, these images become increasingly reductive,
until they become cliché-like in their content as well as their
appearance. This, he says, is the process of media. On the other hand,
he says, the image-as-cliché retains its archetypal ground.
In fact, he argues, an image cannot retain its archetypal ground unless
it becomes a cliché understandable to the culture to which it
has moved. (Obviously, media move images across cultures.) He writes:
"Is it not natural than, as any form becomes environmental
should select as 'content' the most common and vulgar
any form becomes environmental, it tends to be soporific. That is why
its content must also become innocuous in order to match the effects
of the medium." (p. 338).
In McLuhan's view, it is job of the artist - and we might say of the
depth psychologist - to reveal the dialect between old and emerging
forms, to keep the numinous meaning from sinking into cyberspace's unconscious.
(The medium has enormous shadow. Thus the Heaven's Gate cyber cult was
able to announce its suicide three weeks in advance and never be taken
Although this attention to banal images may offend the proponents of
classic formal aesthetics, it again seems to be the future of culture
- not just in cyberspace but wherever ideas are being discussed in deconstructive
ways. I count it as another of Hillman's odd paradigmatic leaps that
he seems on the one hand to insist on seeing through to the beauty of
soul's pathologizing nature in personal symptomology, even though most
symptoms now can be reduced to diagnosis (a kind of cliché).
But he is less willing to penetrate the oddity of cliches as pathology
in the culture.
Finally, I offer alchemy and Goethe's own image of what may be occurring
in cyberspace: the emergence of the homunculus, a personified manifestation
of the philosopher's stone, a union of the organic and the inorganic.
Is this so different from the cyborg of comtemporary imagining in virtual
Of that small creature constellated in the moment of Faust's brief coniunctio,
Edinger writes: "the homunculus signifes the birth of the conscious
realization of the autonomous psyche. In dreams it may appear as a doll
or statue which comes to life, representing the ego's dawning awareness
of a second psychic center, the Self" (p. 62).
Perhaps the Self is indeed demanding incarnation in cyberspace. How
can we not stick to its image, too?
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Cobb, Jennifer (1998). Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital
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Hillman, James (1979). The Dream and The Underworld. New York:
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Hillman, James (1989). "Responses." In David Ray Griffin
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Hillman, James (1975). Revisioning Psychology. New York: Harper
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