Archetypal Psychology, Aphrodite, and Sexual Pathology

Archetypal Psychology is one of the most influential strands in contemporary post-Jungian therapies. It’s also an important interlocutor for this project, since James Hillman, one of its founders, constantly returns to Greek and Roman polytheisms. In this he aims to “re-vision” psychology, which he believes has been distorted by Christian monotheism. Of course, Jung himself was critical of institutionalized Christianity; he memorably recalls his fantasies of a subterrenean phallic Jesus and G-d defecating on his own cathedral in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. But he still associates the integrative Self archetype with a supreme God. Hillman deposes the integrative Self, and in its place offers an indefinite plurality of archetypal powers. Each archetype contains a network of images, which finds expression in stories — the stories we tell in mythical fiction, but also the stories we enact in our behavior.

Recently I listened again to Hillman’s lecture “Pink Madness: Why Does Aphrodite Drive us Crazy with Pornography?” In it Hillman suggests that the ancient poetry concerning Aphrodite, Priapus, and gods related to them expresses a range of archetypal reactions to “hard” and “soft” porn. For instance, he relates political and other condemnations to Hera’s malicious intervention in Aphrodite’s pregnancy: in other words, these critics are enacting her insistence that sex be domesticated and concealed. But Hera’s intervention actually leads to the birth of the asinine, grotesquely phallic garden god Priapus. The implication seems to be that critics need to be aware of how the archetypal patterns they are enacting may actually undermine their conscious goals: they are themselves part of the problem, to whatever extent there is a problem. This same imaginal network is at play in clinical problems like exhibitionism and other manifestly sexual symptoms.

Hillman’s merits as a scholar, critic, and clinician are poorly represented by this bare summary. Another time I will return to the virtues of his dream book. There are also numerous criticisms we could level about the partiality of this approach, of which I want to select just one.

Archetypal image networks are not just “in the brain” or somewhere in transpersonal (un)consciousness; they are also exteriorized in our material, interpersonal, technological lived environments. It makes a big difference how they are externalized, because the lived environment has its own dynamisms. For example, compulsive viewing of pornography today often involves the coordination of mobile computing hardware, attention-capture software, and economic interests. These forces are not archetypal, but they affect the expression of archetypal forces. The mobile is a somatic prosthesis that attracts the kind of care proper to our body parts; the software employs “gamifying” algorithms to encourage repetitive behavior; and the economic interests ceaselessly and deliberately renew this apparatus. If Aphrodisian and Priapic imagination is released by watching porn on mobiles, this release is conditioned by these non-archetypal dynamisms. This means that porn addiction — however it is classified, about which the DSM-5 and ICD-11 disagree — has to confront the “ecology of the mind.” It also means that archetypal imagination in waking life (dreams are more complicated) is always inseparable from material conditions. Or to put it another way, “divine” power is mediated by those conditions.

In the next blog, I’ll look at a more explicitly deific aspect of this issue.

If you’re interested in James Hillman, you should start with Re-Visioning Psychology (1975). Andrew Samuels also discusses archetypal psychology sympathetically in Jung and the Post-Jungians (1985), as does Susan Rowland in Jung: A Feminist Revision (2002).

On the ecology of mind, the seminal work is Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). Hillman, it should be noted, was aware of Bateson’s work. For a more up-to-date view, see B. Stiegler, “Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon,” Culture Machine 13 (2012); D. Levitin, The Organized Mind (2015); G. Colombetti, “Psychopathology and the Enactive Mind,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry, ed. by K. Fulford et al. (2013).


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