|Human Being Human: Subjectivity and the Individuation of Culture|
|Congresses - 2004 Barcelona|
|Written by Christopher Hauke|
(This essay forms part of the opening and later chapters of Human Being Human, the new book from Christopher Hauke, published by Brunner-Routledge.)
This talk is in two connected parts. I begin with a short introduction about human nature and human being which I then link to individuation as an expression of both our subjective and, especially, our cultural being. I illustrate this with the example of the cinematic experience of film as the juncture of the individual and collective experience in several ways. Three films with clips are used to illustrate the point.
Introduction: Defining a Human Being by “Human Nature”
Great philosophers and popular story tellers have all pondered the question of ‘What makes us human?’ Immanuel Kant reckoned ‘The greatest human quest is to know what one must do in order to be a human being’, while Descartes only had to think to know he existed as a human being. Similar to Plato years before, Descartes reckoned consciousness was the quality that distinguished humans from all other forms of being – the difference being that Plato realised we only had a dim, shadowy consciousness – a 1.1 version of the software, if you like.
Modern philosopher John Gray in his book Straw Dogs asserts ‘Being a person is not the essence of humanity, only – as the word’s history suggests – one of its masks’(Gray, 2003: 58). The idea of a person defined by one who ‘authors her own life through her choices’ is a relatively modern idea, he claims.
In the movie Bladerunner (Ridley Scott), Deckard – played by Harrison Ford – gladly rids his world of replicant humans – androids with ethical screws loose. But one day he encounters a higher grade replicant, Rachael, who he judges to be human enough to be allowed to survive and to become his lover by the end of the movie. In Deckard’s case, what makes a being human is the degree to which he can feel attached to her and care for her – and she for him. Indeed, in this story, one of the ‘tests’ to detect a ‘real’ human being (in a world of replicants created as ‘more human than human’) is a verbal test for empathic responses. The analyst Don Williams reckons the film reveals humanity – ourselves, post-Human Genome Project – as ‘we approach a transition to a post-human era where “human nature” is not “handed down” but continuously revised, extended, and refined in a process of ongoing creation’.
But this view flies in the face of what many believe when they refer to human nature. For thousands of years, the phrase and concept human nature has indicated something fundamental, something essential and basic about human beings. It implies that there are qualities, behaviours, emotional and cognitive attitudes universally found in every human being. It does not imply beliefs necessarily, these are allowed to vary, but it does imply ethical values – what a human being should or should not do. What are the implications of this idea of “human nature” (yes, here come the quote marks) which hovers behind all our ideas of what it is to be a human being?
First of all, why do we have a problem with what might be the defining characteristics of human nature? Or even, before that, why do we have to state what is human nature? Is it not as self-obvious as stating ‘The sky is blue’? Surely any organism born of a human mother is de facto a human being?
A key Western approach has been to define humans as distinct from animals. But if we then have to acknowledge that we are also a type of animal, the next task is to define what makes us so distinctive that all other animals (which may themselves be as different as a shrimp and an elephant) still have more in common with each other than any of them has in common with a human being.
So it appears that the discussion – or the need for any discussion – of what it is to be a human being takes place against a background of humans as differentiated from all other creatures. Using a typically dualistic paradigm, our thinking privileges one particular choice of opposition (i.e., “ human” equals “not animal”) as the means by which to define human itself. The parameters of such an opposition can vary. Humans differ in appearance from animals, for instance, but there are also many similarities in morphology when it comes to mammals and especially primates so that appearance alone does not suffice.
What about development? All creatures grow from birth to maturity, but human infants are dependent far longer than any other creature. Rarely are human beings primarily defined as ‘those organisms who are born insufficiently mature to ensure their survival without massive help from more mature organisms around them’. But this is indeed so. A new-born human baby will perish rapidly if there is no attention given to her need for nourishment, body-temperature regulation and protection from harm. A human baby is born in a state of extreme inability to get its needs met apart from its powerful cry. This, presumably innate, mechanism can as easily summon the attention of a predator as a care-giver – an observation which makes us think twice about the evolutionists’ reading of behaviours as persisting simply to ensure survival. In brief, then, a further definition of our essential human nature – but one that is rarely flagged up – which is how “Humans are those unique creatures born hopelessly unable to look after themselves without help”.
Taking the human/animal duality of similarities and differences further, now we are on the subject, what is human “behaviour” as distinct from animal “behaviour”? This is where the irony of defining what it is to be a human being really kicks in. On the one hand, humans are defined by behaviour that is distinctly human – that is, behaviour that other creatures do not express. Speech is the most important and apparently unarguable difference between us and animals. On the other hand, humans are also defined by their similarity to certain other animals as a way of valorizing certain behaviour “more human” than is found in other, different creatures. For instance, dogs appear to share a “human” behaviour in their tendency towards loyalty, but are otherwise quite animal-like in the way they will defecate, or copulate, in public. On the other hand, wolves, although similar in appearance to dogs, have qualities of predation regarded as “less than Human” and more animal-like.
Morphologically, ants could hardly appear more different from human beings and yet the Leaf-cutting ant reveals behaviour compellingly similar to farming practices and social co-operation and job allocation found in human communal behaviour but of a type seldom seen in other creatures.
One behaviour regarded as common to both humans and many animals such as primates, dogs and elephants, is the female adults’ nurturance of their young – most commonly undertaken by the birth-mother but seldom by males. The fact that these animals nurture their young in a way that has similarities to human nurturance – feeding, grooming, gazing (?), protection, attention to distress cries – apparently justifies the view that such behaviour found in humans must therefore be fundamental and qualify as “human nature”, with an implication that deviation from (or avoidance of) this is a perversion – that is, “against (human) nature”. How ironic is that? Here a comparison with the animal is employed in reverse of its usual function – not to clarify human uniqueness and difference but, in this case being used to establish the fundamental “nature” of humans by citing similarities in “nature” elsewhere: in the animals. This is the tactic employed by a conservative view that claims for human uniqueness the contradictory facts of both “free will” and “natural” instinctive behaviors: what is distinctly human about ourselves (free will) is found in no other creatures as they have behaviour driven by instinct. But at the same time it is being claimed that some human behaviours are distinctly human because they are instinctively driven as we see in animals. The summary goes like this
This reveals why we need the two-word phrase: human nature. There are clearly two concepts here. As the summary shows, they cannot be regarded separately from a certain perspective – hence I prefer side-stepping the thorny “nature” aspect of what it is to be human and instead focus on the phrase: human being.
In my view, this line of thinking moves rapidly away from biological emphases and into the field of how we value various human and animal social behaviours. However, such has been the attraction of biological knowledge for those seeking robust scientific confirmations of what it is to be a human being that the discussion frequently slips into using biological concepts to explain or describe behaviour. At best, this approach can be limited and at worst it is downright wrong. For example, creatures such as mice and rats are frequently used for experiments designed to tell us something about brain and neurological operations. In the study of addiction, rats and mice are subjected to conditions which show they will self-administer pleasurable substances like cocaine to the point at which they neglect food, sex and sleep. It is found that the reward offered by these substances overrides what are regarded as fundamental survival instincts, thus making the argument for an essentially biological basis to addictive power of such chemicals. The brains of these creatures are examined in vivo and after death to add to our knowledge of how such powerful behavioural effects are acting on the brain and neurological systems. Because of the assumption of anatomical and neurological similarity between human brains and rat and mouse brains, the results of these studies are regarded as informative about the way in which humans become addicted to substances and are compelled to enjoy cocaine and other drugs for proven biological reasons.
At the same time, culturally based studies of human drug addiction show a variety of psychological, social, and inter-personal factors that also contribute quite clearly to drug addiction – group pressures and availability of drugs, lower self-esteem, perceived lack of opportunity for achievement – factors that could never apply to rats and mice (especially those in the special circumstances of the laboratory cage. Though, come to think of it, this is probably the very reason they like the drugs so much: the boredom of imprisonment, curtailing of opportunity to lead a fulfilling life, cut-off from family and friends!).
Both these approaches to the study of human addiction are deemed valid, but only one area of study – the neurological – is viewed as applying in both cases: humans and rats have brains, but only humans have dealers to supply them Class A drugs. This then strengthens the biological arguments for this field to the extent that the social, collective factors become too vague or even trivial in comparison.
The irony of this position is that the least distinctively human aspect of ourselves (our brain neurology and the behaviour of neurotransmitters which is all rather similar in most mammals) – derived from information found in animals quite unlike human beings in general – becomes a powerful explanation of a human behavioural activity. But this says nothing about what makes a human being. At the level of brain neurobiology and addiction we are no longer distinctively human, we are clearly rat-like. This is known as biological reductionism – reducing humanness to its biological base-line which, in the end, results in a reduction of anything human to what is in common with the animal. At the brain-level, an approach to preventing or curing drug addiction may well be reasoned along parallel lines in rats and in humans. But at the level of the actual life of the organism, there are so many differences that this sole approach would be absurd. It is the differences – social, collective and cultural – and not the neurological similarities that are important when it comes to thinking about human being and human nature.
This brief introduction going from Bladerunner through human infant vulnerability to animal experiments suggests how any thinking about our Human Being must involve cultural implications over and above the biological. From this arises the idea that one distinctive quality of a human being human is expressed in our capacity for relationship. This aspect of human being has persisted since Aristotle’s emphasis on humans having their being in community – and hence our ‘political being’ – through to contemporary perspectives in psychology such as Winnicott’s ‘there is no such thing as a baby’ (because there always has to be a Mother). The latest observational studies of the human infant’s instinctive – archetypal – seeking of relationship – no longer permits us to regard such behaviour along reductive, biological lines simply as a function for survival. It now seems much more likely that relationship with others – for its own sake – is an embedded activity of humans through which they have their being. To that extent, Jung’s concept of individuation means not only the living out of each individual’s unique creative potential, but includes the parallel living out and expression of their communal, cultural selves. For human beings, being fully oneself means being fully human which means being fully engaged with others. Individual life and cultural life are two sides of the same coin.
Individuation of Culture: anima in Jungian Film Analysis
The individual – or ‘subject’ – and the cultural – or ‘social’ – are like other aspects of psyche, complementary and, in complex ways, compensatory. And although our era has been one to focus on individual self-development, Jungian psychology has never ignored the social and cultural aspects of our being. As Peter Homans and others have described, for Jung personally and for most of us in the developed world, events throughout the twentieth century led to disappointment with what could be achieved for humanity through the social order, with the consequence that subjects turned toward an inner and individual path to achieve general, creative human goals.
At the same time, human activities developed to form new bridges or forms for such an individual/cultural matrix. One of these has been cinema, which arose at the same time as psychoanalysis – in 1895 – and has grown to be a dominant medium of creativity and communication world-wide. Its genius lies on at least two levels. At the level of the viewer, watching movies is both a collective and an individual experience. Cinema can form a temenos rather like the consulting room where powerful emotions and events may be experienced in safety and enhanced by the presence and the sharing with others. As Jung himself said,
In addition, at the level of the film-makers themselves, there is also a collective and individual creativity going on. A movie may start as a screenplay written by a single author, but even if others do not contribute to re-writing, the screenplay can only become a movie through the skills of a vast range of people. The only comparable field is probably building and architecture.
At both the level of the viewer and the level of the maker, movies form a vehicle for – and expression of – individuation in our times. Therefore when talking about the subject and the individuation of culture I will use examples from movies which, in their stories and in their effect on us, and as projects for those involved in making them, speak of individuation and carry us further on that path collectively and as individual subjects. Thus they bring us closer to what it is to be a human being.
I intend to look at two themes that Jungian film writing has brought to light: the anima and the use of gender oppositions and conjunctions in movies. I wish to show how both these link closely with the Jungian concept of individuation – the path towards fulfilling one’s potential as a human being – and why this theme is so pertinent to contemporary society and the psyche of men and women in our postmodern era.
The idea of the unconscious having a compensatory function is linked with the Jungian view of psyche as consisting of oppositional elements. Although we may be skeptical about Jung’s biological emphasis when he says all of nature consists of oppositions, there is little doubt that human mental activity – across the majority of cultures and eras – displays a tendency to grasp and define reality in oppositional terms. Many of these oppositions – such as light and dark, night and day, sun and moon – seem self-evident, and yet on closer examination, constructing these pairs of opposites is very much a human ‘meaning- making’ activity of our psyches and not necessarily inherent in the phenomena themselves.
Many oppositions have been commonly analogised as male and female. Throughout the ages human beings have used gender difference to construct their world and to make psychological and emotional sense of it. As Jungian analyst Beverley Zabriskie puts it,
In patriarchal culture, consciousness became characterized for its masculine qualities of linearity, rationality and aggression so that, within a way of thinking about the psyche that regarded it in tension and balanced between pairs of opposites, the unconscious became characterised as feminine: as Zabriskie says of Jung,
In other words, anima and animus are not simply the genderised psychological Other in the psyches of men and women respectively; their appearance in dreams and other narratives such as the movies I will introduce signals an encounter with The Other – the Unconscious psyche which has been neglected over several centuries of hyper- rationalism for men and women alike.
The idea of the unconscious and the feminine coinciding and becoming linked due to their shared position as being Other to cultural dominants (of conscious scientific rationality especially) which are of a masculine, patriarchal mode of being is central to the post-Jungian view of analytical psychology as a radical response to modernity as much as a method of healing.
Therefore, it should not surprise us that cultural products which seek to address imbalance in the contemporary psyche and culture will tend to do so along lines that involve gender difference. The movies I am thinking of are narratives of individuation involving men and women who move from an initial awareness of lack or incompleteness towards a more developed – more fully human – sense of their own (human) being by the film’s end. Through the struggles which ensue, such encounters lead them to knowing themselves more fully and to the greater discovery of their collective human ‘being’. This is the path of individuation.
American Graffiti, Individuation and anima
Because films engage with the collective psyche, they both convey and bring forth archetypes. George Lucas’s 1972 movie, American Graffiti, was set in 1962 and engaged with the archetype of youth and maturity through a nostalgic lens. The opposites of the senex and the puer are often paired – just as anima and animus tend to be paired – because they represent a completeness but one which we most often experience only in a one-sided fashion. Wolfman Jack (the disc jockey whose voice you hear on the car radio in the first clip) is of an older generation, but it is he whose persona and radio show inspire the young characters throughout film and lead one of them, Kurt, played by Richard Dreyfuss, on his first steps to manhood. This is depicted through several scenes depicting Southern Californian versions of male initiation rites but also through his encounter with an anima projection. Kurt eventually searches out the Wolfman’s radio station to broadcast a message on the radio in order for him to contact a mysterious blonde anima figure he has glimpsed in a passing car. The girl, who like the anima in dreams never gives her name or real location, seems to act as a bridge between the end of youth and the start of maturity. This is the last night before Kurt flies off to college. Over the final credits we are told how two of the young men die soon after: one in a car crash and another in Vietnam. Their individuation is curtailed while Kurt has the chance to mature – this depiction of individuation has been a theme common to American films of the late twentieth century.
[Clip: American Grafitti: Girl in Car and Phone Call to Her]
In pointing out notional archetypes like the anima, there is no final meaning or interpretation implied as we sometimes find with the crassest “symbolic” – really “signifying” – styles of psychological interpretation. This is more a technique for stimulating a deeper response to movies – getting them to work in the realm of imagination. It is in the imagination where the movie begins and ends and it is there it does its work on us as long as we allow ourselves to engage at a feeling level so that psyche may release its own amplified train of fantasies. The Jungian approach to movies seeks to emphasise how it is not a new interpretation we need but a new attitude to our engagement with these images. At the same time, this suggests how the imagination itself could be considered one of our distinctly human qualities.
Anima function in movies – American Beauty
The San Francisco Jungian analyst John Beebe is well known for his analysis of movies and especially anima and animus as they appear in films. In his chapter in ‘Jung and Film’ he lists several functions and representations of the anima as she appears in movies. Many of these elements are evident in the movie American Beauty where Lester, a middle-aged man (played by Kevin Spacey) becomes inspired through both fantasy and real-life encounters with a young teenage girl (Angela) to restore and re-live aspects of himself which he has abandoned over the years. Angela is the 17-year-old high school friend of Lester’s daughter, Janey, and, in my view, her character fulfills several of Beebe’s list of anima functions.
The way in which ‘the character has some unusual capacity for life, in vivid contrast to other characters in the film’(ibid.) appears in the contrast between Angela and Lester’s wife and daughter who are both neurotically restricted while, more extremely, the wife of the family next door is shown as catatonic in her lifelessness.
Again in relation to her friend Janey and Lester, Angela fulfills another of John Beebe’s anima functions by offering a piece of advice, frequently couched in the form of an almost unacceptable rebuke, which has the effect of changing another character’s relation to a personal reality’ (ibid., p. 211) while also exerting ‘a protective and often therapeutic effect on someone else. (ibid.)
Lester, his wife and his daughter all address their ‘personal realities’ which arise out of their encounter with Angela. But it is Janey the daughter who seems the only one to benefit from any therapeutic effect as she works her way through her struggles with the masculine as she finds it in her father, her boyfriend next door, and his father. ‘Less positively, ’ John Beebe says, ‘the (anima) character leads another character (again I would suggest this ‘character’ is the father-daughter pair in American Beauty) to recognize a problem in personality that is insoluble’. (ibid.) Angela’s presence also has an indirect effect on the military bully father next door. This results in him revealing neglected aspects of his own being – his homosexuality – to Lester with disastrous results for both of them.
Lester’s individuation path ends in death, but not before this he has gained insight by curtailing his seduction of Angela when he realizes she is just a young, virgin, teenage girl. This is interesting in the light of John Beebe’s observation that the loss of the anima character ‘is associated with the loss of purposeful aliveness itself’. (Beebe, 2001:211)
[Clip: American Beauty]
The story of the search for a fuller sense of oneself is often played out along the lines of ‘masculine’ and feminine’ values and this is most clearly evident with male characters often portrayed as finding closer relationship with poetic and emotional parts of themselves. My last example today is from Field of Dreams which starred Kevin Costner; but many movies show women characters traveling individuation paths in a variety of forms ranging from political activism in Erin Brokovich, overcoming patriarchy in The Piano (Jane Campion) and Thelma and Louise (written by a woman: Calli Khouri), or new versions of the love story, as in Pretty Woman and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Jungian analyst Mary Dougherty writes of this theme in her chapter in “Jung and Film” called ‘Love-life: using films in the interpretation of gender within analysis’.
Field of Dreams – The Grail Legend Analysis
Especially in the case of the male individuation stories, such movies of individuation and self-knowledge take the form of a search which becomes clear at a certain stage of the narrative. The search for the lost or absent aspect of self made necessary by an awareness of desire and need is parallel to archetypal themes of incompleteness, sickness and dis-ease which move the individual towards healing and greater health. This is the theme of legends of the Grail, a quest which traditionally requires the transformation of a male hero. Success in the quest leads the individual towards maturity and also heals the keeper of the Grail, a father figure, while, in many versions, such healing also heals the whole land, which has become a wasteland as a result of the Grail-keeper’s distress.
For Jung and von Franz, the wound in the groin of the Grail King suggests ‘a lack of generativity, a state of psychological or spiritual impotence’. (Hollwitz, 2001, p. 91) This indicates how the legend acts as an archetypal story of the need for restoration through integration of unconscious elements. A narrative that is especially relevant to contemporary men and women suffering in a modern wasteland (as we may also see in the setting of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction).
It is easy to see why John Hollwitz, writing in “Jung and Film”, finds the Grail quest important for an amplificatory analysis of the film Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson) made in 1989. The film is a piece of magical realism in which Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, an Iowa corn farmer, “hears” a mysterious voice, much as we would in a dream, saying:
“If you build it, he will come”.
Kinsella has to build a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield. Several characters – all now dead – arrive to play, and all are men who have been wounded in significant ways through life. The story culminates in the arrival of Ray Kinsella’s father who returns to the field as a young man and meets Ray and his present day family.
Although each character heals something they had not accomplished in life, centrally, it is the alienation between father and son that is healed. The innocence and playfulness of baseball provide the context throughout, and in the last scene we see Kinsella no longer a child but playing catch on the diamond with his father where they meet as equals ‘connected by the game’. Each of the male figures Kinsella encounters through the film signifies a phase of his life, and an aspect of his stuck development. Hollwitz points out how, as in folk stories,
But Hollwitz reckons the movie is conveying elements that
[Clip: Field of Dreams: Meeting Father at End]
These have been just three movies of the dozens that express these themes of the individuation of our culture crafted in the form of a personal narrative.
In their different ways they each address the human need to question our existence, our identity – our human being. As human beings, we are distinguished by conscious minds which appear to make us unique on Earth, but our human being is equally distinguished by our being-in-community, our collective being. As populations grow, failure to pay attention to the collective cultural aspect of our unique subjectivity allows mass-mindedness to arise which forces conformity and generalities, stifles creative possibilities inherent in individual difference and distorts the human being human. Analytical psychology was developed by Jung in response to these new conditions of our civilization. He perceived a malaise in society – expressed by many as profound discontent and an ambivalence about the achievements gained through our favouring a purely rational consciousness approach to ourselves and the world.
Philosophical reflection on what humans are and what humans should do had proved insufficient; by the start of the twentieth century nothing less than an active engagement of the conscious mind with its unconscious contents was necessary. Moreover, this was to be done not through subscribing to yet another “faith”; for Jung, all “-isms” (from Judaism to Christianity to Marxism – let alone Freudianism!) were not up to the task. It was up to individuals to carve their own path through the potential inherent in every human being, the process of individuation which is nevertheless not automatic but requires our active, reflective attention and focus.
As these films suggest, what results from the path of individuation, whether tragedy or triumph, is of less concern than the requirement to undertake the journey itself. Individuation involves the reality of our engagement with the unconscious Other, an activity which, although undertaken as individual human beings, at the same time expresses our collective human being.
The task of individuation is the cultural action of individual subjects. Humans being human.