Analysing culture through the lens of myth and archetype is often associated with those on the right. Looking at radical post-Jungian thinkers like James Hillman, LB argues that this doesn’t need to be the case.
The aggressive politicisation of the cultural sphere is exposing the left’s lack of equipment for cultural criticism. Whereas the right have always had easy access to the mythic imagery of religion, the materialism of Marx and the jargon of critical theory deprives the left of Soul. Not always, and not everywhere, of course. The black movements in America have often pulsated with Soul – see Questlove’s powerful Summer of Soul, or listen to James Hillman talk about Soul in black America after Hurricane Katrina.
Understandably, those of us who align with left-wing ideology may feel uneasy at the prospect of discussing Soul. It’s difficult to pin down, or debate, or even say what it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important to understand. Even if we cannot explain, we can still attempt to understand. To explain is to flatten (from the Latin ‘planus’, meaning ‘plain’ or ‘flat’) and to understand is to stand under. The former is propositional, the latter is participatory. You don’t explain MLKs ‘I have a dream’, you stand under it and marvel at its imagistic power – its Soul.
This problem is complicated, in our own times, by the appearance of avatars in the public sphere. Figures less and, somehow, more than mere celebrity now dominate mass culture. These avatars are difficult for the left to integrate into analysis.
The Edinburgh-based, ever-mercurial, cultural and political shaman Bonnie Prince Bob (BPB) recently published an insightful analysis of the brouhaha bubbling up in the UK around the TikTok trickster known as Mizzy. In case you missed it, Mizzy became the focal point of much condemnation from the British public and commentariat for his viral online pranks, ranging from innocuous wind-ups to over-the-line home invasions.
In his video, BPB ties a thread between the public pranks of the social media star and the notion of the dérive of the French school of radical artists, the Situationist International (a thread I’ll pull on below). He finishes with the accusation of racism levelled at many of Mizzy’s detractors – an angle that, whilst definitely true in some cases, lacks a depth of analysis that I’d like to set out here.
I think, to reach deeper into the controversies of our contemporary cultural sphere, we can re-appropriate the psychological theories of thinkers like Carl Jung and James Hillman, for our own times. These theories can help us craft a lens through which we can see archetypes consistently re-appearing in our culture, allowing us a deeper understanding of our collective thought-world and psychology.
Puer and Senex: Mizzy and Peterson
If those of us on the left feel uneasy discussing Soul, this unease may grow at the prospect of drawing on the work of someone like Jung. You don’t need to search very hard to find problematic attitudes on race and gender from the Swiss depth psychologist. However, it is for this reason that post-Jungian thinkers are so important in the process of separating the archetypal wheat from the chauvinistic chaff. Hillman, a student of Jung’s and the founder of Archetypal Psychology, takes a mythological perspective towards the study of psyche. He emphasizes the importance of archetypes in understanding human experience and behaviour.
Archetypes, in this context, are universal themes, symbols, or patterns that are present across all cultures and throughout history. Hillman argued that these archetypes live in Soul, or the imaginative and spiritual dimension of life. They are not just mental constructs, but living realities that shape our lives and culture in profound ways. Arguably, two of the most powerful archetypes are that of the Puer Aeternus and the Senex, and as Hillman points out in Senex and Puer, when one archetypal image appears, its opposite is never too far away.
In an article in Merion West Nick Opyrchal convincingly demonstrates how Jordan Peterson shows signs of having been possessed by the Senex archetype, explaining:
This archetype is the ‘Grey old man,’ the representative of established order. It is reminiscent of the image of Saturn devouring his children. While standing for repression, stasis and conservatism, he rails against the attempts of the young to gain power and overthrow order. The Senex is often seen as being within an archetypal “complex,” in which it is positioned in conflict with the archetype of the Puer (the eternal youth). We can see Peterson falling into this complex through his position as the “substitute dad” of estranged Western masculinity.
If Peterson is possessed by the Senex archetype, then Mizzy is possessed by its opposite, the Puer Aeternus or ‘eternal youth’. Whereas the Senex stands for order, stasis and conservatism, the Puer holds independence and freedom above all else, despises boundaries and limits and tries to eschew all forms of restriction. The most well-known, modern example would be Peter Pan and it’s difficult to watch a video of Mizzy running through a store, jumping up on checkout counters and throwing merchandise in the air, all whilst trailed by a group of manic wild-eyed youths, and not be reminded of the leader of the Lost Boys.
The important caveat here, and one that those well versed in Jungian psychology will be aware of, is that the Puer Aeternus is normally used to describe an adult who has refused to grow up. It is perhaps fitting that Mizzy is now 18 and at that liminal age between youth and adulthood. However, this is slightly beside the point – I’m not focussed here on the clinical application of the Puer concept, but rather how it is showing up in our culture.
A culture that has forgotten its myths, that has severed its connection to the archetypal realm of images, that has no Soul, is bound to reenact those myths and images unconsciously, and indeed violently, often at the expense of the community. This is the result of a culture that places too much importance on the literal. Just like the schizophrenic who doesn’t know that the voices in his head do not belong to literal persons in the world, so too our overly-literalized culture is causing repressed archetypal images to bubble up and take possession of our cultural icons.
As Hillman states in Re-Visioning Psychology: “An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly, obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form.”
Situationist Spectacle and Archetypal Image
In BPB’s defence of Mizzy, he suggests that the antics of the prankster have similarities to the idea of ‘the dérive’ used by the Situationist International (SI). The SI was a radical leftist intellectual and artistic movement that emerged towards the end of the 1950s in Europe and aimed to critique capitalist society and culture through concepts like ‘the spectacle’ and activities like ‘the dérive’: “an unplanned tour through an urban landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings.”
Looking at videos of Mizzy cycling through job centres and shopping malls, BPB’s analysis that his disregard for the consumer environment could well be seen as an unintentional commentary on late stage capitalism is a thought-provoking notion. However, as we move on to that other main concept of the SI, that of ‘the spectacle’, the comparisons between Mizzy and the SI start to weaken.
‘The spectacle’, as theorized by Guy Debord of the SI, is often defined as the social relation between people mediated by images, where the passive acceptance of consumer capitalism turns life into a representation of itself. It’s obvious that Mizzy is not at all critical of ‘the spectacle’. Quite the contrary, his public stunts are driven entirely by the desire to increase views on his social media platforms. BPB is clearly aware of this and that his own off-the-cuff video analysis was not an attempt to label Mizzy as the next Guy Debord, but merely a prompting to look into the phenomenon in more depth.
Upon delving further into Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, two quotes are particularly striking in talking about archetypal images. The first is: “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour.” The reason we are left with simple images today is because we have failed to form relationships with more complex, archetypal images. Rather than attempting to understand Puer and Senex, we’re left with children vandalizing shops and old men telling us to clean our rooms.
Another quote that stands out: “The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.” Indeed, our society wants to sleep, because it wants to dream. For it is in our dreams that the soul speaks, and it speaks in images, not simple images, but living, archetypal images.
What’s left for Soul?
The idea that left-wing politics could benefit from a greater relationship to Soul is certainly not a novel concept. It’s also a notion that appears to be taking shape in some parts of the political landscape at present, at least as far as US presidential candidates are concerned. Marion Williamson, the spiritual leader turned politico, is running again and is the author of Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens. She is also incredibly popular with Mizzy’s TikTok generation, gaining millions of views across her social media channels. So too is the theologian Dr Cornel West, a man not afraid of talking about the plight of America in terms of Soul.
The reason the archetypal framing is powerful for the left is that both the manic eruptions of Mizzy and the stale stipulations of Peterson are symptomatic of a dying culture, a culture in dire need of change. Whilst accusations of racism may indeed be true, and should rightly be called out, because of their mix up with identity politics and cancel culture, such accusations lack the power or gravitas they once had. I believe that there is far more power in tapping into the archetypal realm of myth and image.
As someone on the left, I find it frustrating to see the discussion of archetypal and mythic ideas left to the likes of Jordan Peterson and other conservatives. Hillman offers those who want to see more Soul in left-wing politics a real beacon of hope. As Hillman says, if we want to save the world we need to fall in love with it, and for that we need Soul.